British Isles 2015:
Day 8 - Belfast, Northern Ireland


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British Isles 2015: [Day 1 - London] [Day 2 - Dover/Calais] [Day 3 - Southampton] [Day 4 - Guernsey] [Day 5 - Cork] [Day 6 - Dublin] [Day 7 - Liverpool] [Day 8 - Belfast] [Day 9 - Glasgow] [Day 10 - At Sea] [Day 11 - Invergordon] [Day 12 - Edinburgh] [Day 13 - At Sea] [Day 14 - Versailles] [Day 15 - London] [Day 16 - London]

Saturday, July 25, 2015: Northern Ireland welcomed us with bright sunshine and some Maersk containers.

Breakfast in our room consisted of our new cheeses served with Guernsey gâche and delicious Diet Coke.
Our guide, Colin C., met us right at 8:30 at the dock. We booked him through Tours by Locals specifically to avoid the crowds. Colin has given tours to Kate Mara, James Cameron, and Rose Leslie (Igritte from Game of Thrones), so we figured he was good enough for us.
Northern Ireland is a much more peaceful country than it was 20 years ago, but the tension is still there. Some neighborhoods fly the Union flag and some fly the Ulster Banner with the Red Hand of Ulster in the center as shown here.
A little over an hour after leaving Belfast, we were on the main street of Bushmills, on the way to Giant's Causeway.
A few minutes later we were at the Causeway Hotel, next to the Giant's Causeway visitor's center.
We had prepurchased tickets to the visitor's center, which meant that our driver could park in the adjacent parking lot.
The famous Giant's Causeway hexagon stones were mimicked in the parking lot materials. Nice.
In the visitor's center (next to the gift shop shown here), we exchanged our vouchers for entrance tickets for us, and a ticket for a tea and scone for Colin, then we were off.
It's an easy downhill 1 kilometer walk to the stones from the visitor's center, but a bus is available if preferred.
We'd seen a picture of this stone in the Princess shore excursion expert's recorded talk, in which she slowly read every single word to the audience with lots of pauses in between: Giant's Causeway, designated a World Heritage Site, 1986.
So we're walking, ...
... and we're walking, ...
... and 10 minutes later, we were there.
At this point, very few people were there so the bus to go back up stood empty. When we left 20 minutes later, there was a line for the shuttle buses which were arriving filled with people and this area was getting crowded.
But for now, the tour groups weren't here yet, so we shared the stones with 30 - 40 other people. Let's look around!
Debbie had wanted to visit this place for years. It's hard to picture the place from the limited pictures shown in tour books so it was nice to be able to look around.
The stones varied in color from black to very pale.
Some got submerged by the sea at high tide, some just got splashed, and others stayed relatively dry.
Tiny tidepools are tucked in between stones. They contain primarily limpets.
Here's the view looking back toward the cliffs.
People stood here waiting for their chance to be photographed standing on the stones. We don't feel the need to be photographed in front of places, unless our tour guide insists or it involves an ocean behind us.
The stones aren't perfectly hexagonal, but they're pretty darn close.
More views of the stones, ...
... and more ...
... and still more.
We were ready to go when the crowds started to show up, ...
... so we got in line and waited for the next shuttle.
A small rainbow haze was visible on the horizon.
Twenty minutes later, we had returned to the visitor's center, picked out the perfect souvenir (hexagonal wooden salt & pepper shakers), found Colin, and gotten back on the road.
We drove back to Bushmills. All through the town, there are banners featuring famous people. This blurry photo is of Neil Armstrong, presumably because he had Irish relatives in County Fermanagh and County Tyrone.
Other banners around town included Johnny Cash (because he sang "40 Shades of Green") and Dolly Parton (because she sang "Ireland's in my Smokey Mountain DNA").
The Old Bushmills Distillery, granted a license to distill in 1608, claims to be the oldest licensed distillery in the world.
Let's go there.
In the interest of time (and of interest, because we've been on lots of distillery tours), we just made a quick beeline to the tasting room.
Free whiskey to the right.
Colin offered to take our photo in front of the casks outside the tasting room.
Colin has an arrangement with the distillery to allow tastings without having to do the tour beforehand.
We had the tasting room all to ourselves and enjoyed a quick drink each.
This old ad pictured Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge where we were headed next.
At the gift shop, we picked up some mini bottles of regular and honey whiskey, plus some whiskey fudge, and a rocky road fudge bar.
We discovered later that rocky road is not chocolate, nuts, and marshmallow like it is in the US. Instead, this was a beige fudge with raisins in it. Ewww.
We headed back into Bushmills, passing the Clock Tower, built in 1874.
Here's Portballintrae, a popular vacation destination featuring hundreds of mobile homes for rent.
We made a photo stop to look at Dunluce Castle, dating from the 17th century.
Then we drove beyond Bushmills and Giant's Causeway to see Whitepark Bay further along the coast to the east.
Here's the view looking to the east.
Here's a closeup of the cows enjoying the world's best view from a pasture.
Colin helpfully pointed out that pretty much every island we saw offshore at this point was going to be part of Scotland. We were located at the northern tip of Northern Ireland.
We sped past Ballintoy Harbour, with plans to return there for lunch.
Our next stop was Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge. Carrick-a-Rede means "rock in the road."
We bought our tickets and set out on another 1 kilometer walk, but this one was both up and down hill so it took a little more out of us than the Giant's Causeway stroll did, but it still only took about 12 minutes.
The scenery along the way was nice.
The thistle is the national flower of Scotland, but the best photo we got of one was here in Northern Ireland.
So we're walking ...
... and we're walking ...
... and we're still walking. That steep path ahead of us was much easier to deal with when going downhill.
The view on that downhill walk was stunning. Doesn't that water look inviting? We hear that it is very, very cold.
It didn't take much time standing in line to realize that we'd be standing here all day. You have to wait in line to cross, then wait in line to cross back. It was a very slow process and we decided it wasn't worth it so we took the exit path around where we got a nice view of the bridge and the island it connects with.
When the next group of people was released to cross the bridge, we saw that Every Single One of them was posing for multiple photos on the bridge before crossing. We definitely made the right call on not waiting.
Once again, the hexagon theme was used -- this time to reinforce the path on the steep trail leading back up.
Here's the view looking back on the line from the exit trail.
Oh, yeah, the exit is within eyeshot.
We met Colin back at the lovely Weighbridge Tea Room ...
... then went to Larrybane Quarry, currently being used as a carpark for Carrick-a-Rede. Larrybane means "ancient white place."
We were here because this was used as a filming location for a Game of Thrones episode in Season 2.  This car park stands in for a camp near Storm's End, the ancestral seat of House Baratheon, on the south coast of Westeros.
Scene from the episode featuring the wedding of Margaery Tyrell and Renly Baratheon.  Look at the distinctive stone just to the left of Renly. 
Can you find the same stone in this picture?  It is located almost in the center of the picture.
Next, we returned to Ballintoy Harbour.
The harbour was used as a stand-in for Pyke Harbour in the Iron Islands when Theon Greyjoy returned home in Season 2.
We were happy to get outdoor seating at Roark's Kitchen.
Famous for their desserts, it's easy to see why after peeking inside at the dessert table.
Debbie had a ham pie with veggies and champ (potatoes and green onions) and Tom had Irish stew. We are now completely sold on adding green onions to mashed potatoes because they were delicious.
After lunch, we got a few more photos of our beautiful surroundings.
We drove to a small park at Portaneevey Cliffs. Carrick-A-Rede was visible to our left (just not in this photo), ...
... and Rathlin Island was offshore.
What's this funny little flower? We never did find out.
We drove through the Northern Ireland countryside past lots of lovely farms and scenery.
We arrived at the Dark Hedges, used in Game of Thrones as part of the Kingsroad, ...
... used by Arya, Gendry, and Hot Pie in their escape from Kings Landing.
The wavy tree branches form a cool canopy overhead.
It was a little crowded with cars when we got there, but with time and patience, we were able to get this photo of about half the length of the lane without anyone in it.
Now it was time to head back to Belfast.
We had moved quickly in the morning so we had time for a city tour, which was an unexpected treat.
Here's the "Beacon of Hope" sculpture in Thanksgiving Square, also known as "The Thing with the Ring," "Belle on the Ball," and "Nuala with the Hula."
This is Albert Memorial Clock in Queen's Square.
T.J. Maxx operates in the UK, Ireland, Poland, and Austria as T.K. Maxx to avoid confusion with the British retail chain TJ Hughes.
More Belfast city scenery.
This street featured flags for the RMS Titanic, RMS Olympic, and RMS Britannic, all built in Belfast by the White Star Line. Here's the one for Titanic.
This is Belfast City Hall, featuring a statue of ...
... Queen Victoria, of course.  Well, she did grant them city status in 1888.
This is McHugh's Bar: Dating back to 1711, it is the oldest surviving building in Belfast.
The Big Fish ceramic mosaic sculpture, built in 1999, is 10 meters long.  Of course, there's a Titanic Boat Tour ad in front of it.
This old building is currently being used as a tattoo shop.
Here's the Grand Opera House, opened in 1895.
This is the fancy Europa Hotel.  Known as the "most bombed hotel in the world" after having suffered 28 bomb attacks during the Troubles, it hasn't been bombed for several decades and regularly hosts high-end clientele.
The Crown Liquor Saloon is an outstanding example of a Victorian Gin Palace, and is one of Northern Ireland's best-known pubs.  It has a mosaic of a Crown on the floor of the entrance.
Parades are an important part of Northern Irish culture. Although the majority of parades are held by Protestant, unionist or Ulster loyalist groups, nationalist, republican and non-political groups also parade. Many parades happen on Saturday, so that participants and spectators do not have to take off work.
Band parades are more regular than loyal order parades, with numerous parades every weekend from early April until the end of September.
We pulled over to watch the bands go by. The Craigavon Protestant Boys Flute Band was the second band.
After a third band went by, it was over.
This is the Queen's University Belfast, chartered in 1845.
The sign reads: 250 years of Guinness Time. This is the first time we saw the Guinness Toucan outside of the Guinness Storehouse, because we've certainly never seen it in the US.
Proof that bad puns are everywhere: This Thai restaurant is named "Thai tanic."
Here's some barbed wire atop the fences separating Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, ...
... and more here.
This structure is called "Rise," but has been nicknamed "Balls by the Falls" or "Westicles."
Our last stop of the day was a visit to the Titanic Quarter, formerly known as Queen's Island.
This cool sculpture is called "Kit."  It's 13.5 meters tall and cast in bronze, and designed to look like a model ship kit.
SS Nomadic, a steamship of the White Star Line, was originally built as a tender for the RMS Olympic and RMS Titanic.  She is the only surviving White Star Line steamship in the world.
This impressive structure is the Titanic Belfast building. Each of the five points of the building are meant to represent a ship.
Titanic.  No way.
Titanic House now houses office space, but used to be the original offices of the Harland & Wolff shipyard ...
... builder of the Titanic and her sister ships.
Colin pointed out a vintage photo of the Harland and Wolff drawing office when Titanic was being drafted, ...
... then took us inside to see the real thing. This area is not accessible to the general public, but Colin is heavily involved in the Titanic Quarter community and includes this as part of his tour. Eventually, this room will be restored and current plans are to turn it into a hotel. We'll see what happens.
This place is called the Cast and Crew Restaurant because it is right across the street from ...
... Titanic Studios. Since 2010, it has been used as the main studio for filming Game of Thrones.  The Iron Throne is in there.
Visible on the backlot through the fence are a couple of Wildlings' tents. You can see some fake boulders along the fence in the previous photo.
This is HMS Caroline in Alexandra Dock.  She is the last remaining survivor of the Battle of Jutland.
Colin is the operator of the Titanic's Dock and Pump-House, so it was our final stop of the day.
After having some tea and a short break, we entered the pump-house.
Huge pumps are used to pump out the sea water from the dry dock.
The pumps sit 30 feet below ground level to allow gravity to help with evacuating the water from the dry dock.
Just outside is the Thompson Graving Dock.  Built in 1911, it was the largest dry dock in the world.
Keel blocks where Titanic rested while she was being fitted out.  The two brown grates lead to the pumps in the pump house. Colin told us earlier in the day that Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth) trained in the dry dock.
Here we are.
Colin showed us a vintage photo of the dry dock, with either Titanic or Olympic in the background.
As our tour ended, we could see our ship just across the water. Note that this is not the Titanic.  Much, much larger, and definitely not it.
Ten minutes later, Colin dropped us off at our ship.
We didn't want to fight the crowds to get in an elevator, nor did we want to climb the 10 flights to our cabin, so we decided to just kill some time before dinner. The atrium was set up for the 50th anniversary balloon drop that would be happening later.
We found an abandoned spot at the back of the ship to relax.
From here, we could see Titanic Studios, the Titanic museum, and the rest of the Titanic Quarter.
We also watched this guy for a while, trying to figure out how he was doing what he was doing. He appeared to be doing some sort of surfing or waterskiing, ...
... but he ended up in the water a lot. Closer examination of these photos showed that the long pole he was carrying was attached to some cables close to shore.
We had a wonderful view of sail out during dinner.
We got another glimpse of quaint countryside and our first IKEA sighting of the trip.
Later in the evening, we spotted this pretty lighthouse from our balcony, ...

... before retiring to do our homework for the next day: rewatching the film, "Dear Frankie," filmed in the Greenock and Glasgow area.

Day 9 >


British Isles 2015: [Day 1 - London] [Day 2 - Dover/Calais] [Day 3 - Southampton] [Day 4 - Guernsey] [Day 5 - Cork] [Day 6 - Dublin] [Day 7 - Liverpool] [Day 8 - Belfast] [Day 9 - Glasgow] [Day 10 - At Sea] [Day 11 - Invergordon] [Day 12 - Edinburgh] [Day 13 - At Sea] [Day 14 - Versailles] [Day 15 - London] [Day 16 - London]

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