Thursday, July 2, 2009

Pictured above: Victoria's Square in Belfast, Elmwood Stores in Derry,Benone Beach, Basalt Columns at Giant's Causeway, Derry Walls, Derry Cathedral, Mussenden Temple and Mussenden Castle(from top to bottom).


Why is it a big problem? Well, because you’ll freeze of course! Wiling to test your tolerance for cold? Then do what I did! Go to the island of Ireland, in the freezing North Atlantic Ocean, in the dead of winter. Hmm... the words “island” and “freezing” really don't belong in the same sentence together. When you hear the word “island” you think of mai tais and sunblock, not heavy winter coats and hot tea. But, this island gives all those tropical ones a run for their money anyway, even in the wintertime. Bonus: air fares are cheaper in the winter!

Homebase: Derry

With Derry, in the north, as my homebase, I can plan trips to just about anywhere in Ireland…and so can you.

Getting to Derry is no trouble. I recommend flying in to Dublin even though the Derry airport and Belfast airport are much closer. Flying in to Dublin will give you cheaper airfares and shorter travel times. There is still about a 2 and a half hour drive to Derry once you make it to Dublin, but its a pretty drive...of course it helps to have your own personal chaffeur and tour guide like I do. OK, OK, not everyone is lucky enough to have one of these and frankly neither am I. My personal tour guide and chauffeur is actually my boyfriend who lives in Ireland. BUT, even without a personal tour guide, getting around is not problem. Just remember, they drive on the opposite side of the road there.

Derry (Doire, in Irish) is the 4th largest city in Ireland and is known as the Walled City. Derry isn't just a great homebase, there are great things to do there as well. Walk on the walls (portion of walls pictured above) around the town center, take a stroll "out the line" as the locals say, visit the cemetery (nice views of the city from here as well), check out the Bogside murals depicting the troubles in the North, the Free Derry corner monument, and 2 beautiful cathedrals (pictured above),just to name a few.

Got your souvenirs?..or new shoes?...or new purse?…or new clothes?…

Come on, who doesn’t like to shop?! Don’t forget to take advantage of the shopping the area has to offer. In Derry, you’ll find the Foyleside Shopping Cente with shops like the Dunnes Store and Debenham’s, the Richmond Centre, shopping on the Waterside (where you'll find more American-type strip malls and of course Starbucks) and the Irish Craft Village, where you’ll find your more tourist-y items.

Also, the Victoria’s Square shopping center in Belfast is not to be missed. Belfast is only about an hour drive from Derry. This is really one of the coolest "malls" I've seen. It's outdoors, but it doesn't feel outdoors. Here, you can climb all the way to the top of the center on a spiral staircase surrounded by a glass dome to take in the views of Belfast. If you're afraid of heights and DO mind a little swaying while you're standing on the pedestal at the top...then do NOT do this. From the top, you can see almost all of Belfast, notably the location of where the doomed Titanic was built. And of course, don’t forget to eat!

The best dinner I had while I was there was in Derry at the Mandarin Palace. This is one of the best chinese restaurants around. And if you like a little Elvis with your Chinese (and who doesn't?), you're in luck. The owner is a huge Elvis fan, and sporadically dresses as “The King” and performs in all his Elvis glory for all the patrons.

Timber Quay on the River Foyle is a great modern restaurant with a good selection (its still great even though they took away their best menu item--the mexican chicken). For dessert, you absolutely MUST have the Banoffee Pie…so good!

Another great spot is the Exchange on the River Foyle which offers a nice intimate atmosphere with tasty menu items. The tables here are very close together, so your conversation may be overheard by fellow patrons. Keep the conversation light just in case.

In the mood for a more authentic meal? Just a quick drive from Derry, you’ll find Doherty’s CafĂ©, which offers classic fish and chips. Paired with some warm scone and hot tea and you’ll have a meal that can’t be beat.

Maybe you just need a quick snack or drink while you’re strolling through Derry? If so, stop in to Elmwood Stores on the Bogside,a quaint little corner shop. Grap a galaxy bar and a bottle of coke for a quick pick me up. Make sure to tell the owner hello, he can give you some good tips on where to go and what to see.

So, where’s the Guiness?

Nightlife in Derry is very much alive. Start with drinks at the River Inn, the oldest bar in Derry, although their modern decor wouldn't suggest it's age. Finish with some dancing at the Metro. The Metro gets very crowded, but it’s the place to see and be seen. Other great places would be Peader's or the Dungloe bar where you’ll likely get to hear some Irish music. Or, if you prefer a more quiet drink, head to the Argyle Bar where you’ll find an intimate, cozy setting. If it had a fire place, it would be absolutely perfect.
Time for a road trip!

With this trip, given the time of year (December/January) it was a little more difficult to plan many sightseeing adventures given that the hours of daylight are limited there this time of year. The sun doesn't come up until about 9am, which is FANTASTIC for sleeping in, and sets pretty early about 4:30pm. But, even with some time wasted sleeping in, there is still plenty of time for sightseeing.

One day trip from Derry that is a must do is to travel the Causeway Coastal Route to Giant’s Causeway. After sleeping in (give me a break, I was on vacation), my personal tour guide/chauffeur and I ventured on a nice drive on the Causeway Coastal route. When taking this route, I wouldn't expect to get anywhere in record time since it is a small, sometimes windy road. BUT, what you should expect is some really nice scenic views, including an unexpected waterfall around the Benone Beach area. And, of course, sheep (do not try to pet them, they do not like this, TRUST ME). Expect to see lots and lots of sheep while in Ireland.

The first stop along the coastal route is Benone Beach (pictured above). We were expecting to find an empty long stretch of beach, but were surprised to see several people out walking their dogs. We weren't so brave however, it was a quick "run out for photos and run back to the car" trip out on the beach. Did I mention, it was cold? I’m sure its really a nice sight in the summertime.

The ultimate destination was to make it to Giant's Causeway before it got dark and given my love for sleeping in, we had a challenge before us. On the way to Giant's Causeway, along the Causeway Coastal Route, you come to the Mussenden Temple (pictured above) and gardens. This is definitely a must see. Mussenden Temple sits on THE EDGE of a very high sea cliff. While inside, you can actually peer out the window and see the only thing keeping you from plummeting over the edge is this thin pane of glass. It literally is on the edge of this cliff, I can't describe it any better. But, the views are stunning from here. Walking to the temple does require some time, although, its not a hilly walk, just a long one ( I recommend a coat this time of year). But, you're walking across some of the greenest grass in all of Ireland. It definitely is a nice scene. To get out to the temple, you have to pass through the gardens, which, even in the dead of winter were beautiful. I'm sure in the summer they're even better. After visiting the temple, make the long walk back to the old castle (pictured above). Don't forget your camera, it really is a great photo. Quintessential Ireland really. Looking across to the hill from here, you'll see a ton of evergreen trees which will remind you of Middle Earth from the Lord of the Rings movies.

Finally, Giant's Causeway, we made it...but, it was almost dark then. We're here, so we have to see it! Walking down to Giant's Causeway shouldn't take long right? Uh, WRONG? Just when you think you're there, you turn the corner and you have about another 20 minute walk to go. All together it takes about 45 minutes to walk down the hill to Giant's Causeway (we won't talk about the walk back UP that hill) . But, once we were there, it was worth it. Again, I recommend a coat. Giant's Causeway is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight and also described as the Eighth Wonder of the World. It consists of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns (pictured above) resulting from an ancient volcanic eruption. However, is that really how it was formed? Or was it formed as the legend states? That the Irish warrior Fionn McCool built the causeway to walk to Scotland to fight his Scottish counterpart Benandonner. One version of the legend tells that Fionn fell asleep before he got to Scotland. When he did not arrive, the much larger Benandonner crossed the bridge looking for him. To protect Fionn, his wife Oonagh laid a blanket over him so he could pretend that he was actually their baby son. In a variation, Fionn fled after seeing Benandonner's great bulk, and asked his wife to disguise him as the baby. In both versions, when Benandonner saw the size of the 'infant', he assumed the alleged father, Fionn, must be gigantic indeed. Therefore, Benandonner fled home in terror, ripping up the Causeway in case he was followed by Fionn. I don't know, you decide, Volcanoes or Giants...who built the causeway?

Helpful Hint:

A few quick pointers about Derry. Derry is close to the border of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and is technically considered part of the U.K. So, to travel around Derry and Northern Ireland you will need to use the British pound for currency. Travel through the Republic of Ireland, which includes Dublin, will require the Euro. This can be confusing especially since there really are no marked borders between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

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