Coast to the Right of Me, Towns to the Left, Here I Am
Belfast, the gateway to Northern Ireland, supports a third of the country's population within its ornately Victorian shell, a city largely created in the smoke-belching forge of the Industrial Revolution. If you plan on spending some time in the capital, make a detour to the Crown Liquor Saloon for a glimpse into the world of Victorian chintz. Its elaborate décor of stained and cut glass, marble, mosaics, molded ceilings, and Corinthian columns garnish an intriguing cathedral of bygone tastes.
For inland travel, the United Kingdom's largest freshwater lake, 153-square-mile Lough Neagh, is a quick ten miles west of Belfast (a canal actually runs directly from Belfast into the lake) and is circled by the Loughshore Trail, a 110-mile cycleway. This area incorporates many of the same geographical features found on the coastal trails, but the terrain is relatively flat. From here, you can pedal eastward to the sea, or continue inland via a northwest route that eventually leads to Northern Ireland's second largest city, Londonderry.
Directly east of Belfast, the 23-mile-long finger of the Ards Peninsula is bound on the west by the peaceful Strangford Lough and on the east by the restless Irish Sea. Be warned (as you'll no doubt realize after a few hours) that the notoriously fickle weather is as moody and complex as the region's historybut the terrain is easy and level. The peninsula's exposed rocky coastline gets more wind than the southern British Isles, but Scotland provides some protection. The highest winds occur from November through March when they reach an average of 15 miles per hour. From Newtownards to Portaferry on the A20, the lough side is crowded with spectacular views and historic ruins, including the National Trust treasure, Mount Stewart House (15 miles north of Portaferry).
Ireland's northeastern coast is speckled with friendly fishing villages that house hearty pubs and family-run bed and breakfasts (which run around $35 per night), where bikers can rest and literally drink in the scenery. Directly north of the Ards Peninsula and en route to Ballycastle, the walled town of Carrickfergus protects the most well-preserved Norman castle in Ireland, built in 1180 to protect Belfast Lough following the first Norman-led incursions into Ulster.
Ballycastle, meaning "Town of the Castle," resides 55 miles northeast of Belfast and just off the A2. Nearing Ballycastle, the road clings resolutely to the steep hillsides along the Atlantic shore and affords views from Torr Head that will stop any cyclist mid-pedal. The lookout is the closest spot to Scotland, and on clear days, the Mull of Kintyre's sloping features are visible to the naked eye.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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