Nestled in amongst the plaid-like patchwork fields carpeting the rolling hills of Northern Ireland sits the quaint town of Bushmills. Yes, not just a delicious whiskey like I once thought as well. Only a stone’s throw from the dramatic and rugged Causeway Coast and the famed natural wonder of basalt columns forming the Giants Causeway and with it, a legend of giants. To truly explore the countryside of Bushmills and the Causeway Coast, you need to go at a countryside pace over a few days at least. Skip the day trips from Belfast. Walk the wind battered coast, place yourself in centuries past among castle ruins and of course, drink whiskey.
To get here from Belfast is a simple endeavour. Board the bus to Coleraine and once there, switch it up to the Rambler Bus Service which goes along the coastal route. This bus service is convenient as it stops in all the small towns on the way as well as the highlights of the Causeway Coast.
Now you’re here, the smell of whiskey in the air or maybe that was just me. Leaving Belfast in the wee hours of the morning is ideal, especially if the infamous Irish weather is on your side. The Giant’s Causeway awaits, but first, it’s probably about lunchtime.
Dropped almost directly in front of the Bushmills Inn and Restaurant, the choice should be easy. A boutique hotel that I only wish I could have afforded to stay in. It’s a beautiful building with décor of the old world and dim lighting creating a warm comforting ambience. Luckily, I had the pence to eat as I make sure it is the one indulgence I allow myself regularly… good food. Barely able to decide as usual, I opted for the Dalriada Cullen Skink. Their rendition of the thick Scottish soup. Poached smoked Haddock, crushed potatoes with buttered leeks, poached hen’s egg and a smoked fish cream. Simply divine. I’d seen this combination twice now in my short time on the Emerald Isle and with good reason.
Back on the bus a couple more stops is where I’d be staying. Finn McCool’s, named after the famed giant of the area. A small hostel with basic accommodation, a comfy lounge and simple breakfast included with a sun porch to enjoy it on overlooking the fields with Donegal in the distance of a clear day. Also, it is a mere 5 minute walk from the Giant’s Causeway.
By now it was mid-afternoon. The bus tours dwindling, I made my way to Dunseverick Castle, another of the bus stops and about half way on the coastal path. Don’t be fooled, I’m sure it was a castle. With very little remains left, I headed west into the slowly declining sun along the battered cliff face. Overgrown with lush, windswept grasses flowing like waves from the well-tempered breeze, the natural beauty was captivating. One of age and rough perfection. Hugging the cliffs looking over the dark, sometimes violent waters below, behind me sheep and cows grazed in the sewn together pastures rolling toward the horizon like a towel hanging to dry, flapping in the wind.
3 hours of a peaceful casual stroll, I descended a large staircase to where giants once tread. The Giant’s Causeway, Northern Irelands only Unesco site extended out into the North Atlantic. The intricate symmetry of the basalt columns formed by ancient volcanic activity was a magical act of nature. Few people remained as the sun began to set adding a serene majesty to the area. I climbed across the columns to where it disappeared under the surface appreciating every step. One day I’m sure this will be roped off as all things start this way until enough damage is inevitably done.
Blessed with another day of sun, I caught the bus to Carrick-A-Rede. The rope bridge itself was a bit anti-climactic for me, but I think my imagination just got the best of me. I conjured up some rickety bridge, swaying unsafely getting the adrenaline going as you tiptoed 100 feet looking down at the rocks below. Not the case. About thirty feet of rather sturdy reinforcement to support the droves of tourists daily, the views were still amazing nonetheless and I just kept picturing what I’m sure it once was when used by the salmon fishermen years ago.
Continuing along the coast, it brought me past Ballintoy harbour and to White Park Bay where I headed up to the road to catch the bus back to town. It was time to get a little tipsy as I made my way to the Bushmills distillery. Tours of the distillery run every half hour or so, but myself I arrived just in time for the Premier Tasting that takes place once a day at 3pm. Well, I took that as a sign. I’d be doing a proper Bushmills experience. I would just have to return the following day for the tour as they are not insured to have half liquored people walking around their factory. Understandably so, but with better timing they can be done together.
I highly recommend both if you are even slightly interested in whiskeys, their production, different aromas and flavour accents. The tour takes you through the distillery showing and explaining the process from grain to bottle. Then the premier tasting brings you to a private tasting room, where 7 samples are neatly organized. 5 types of Bushmills: Original, Black Bush, 10, 16 and 21 year old alongside a Johnnie Walker as a scotch comparison and Jack Daniels as their ‘bourbon’ comparison (I know, it’s technically sour mash whiskey). Inhaling the perfume, sipping, holding it on your tongue, the experience is almost ritualistic. Finished with a glow around my head, it wasn’t done yet. Everyone is granted another dram of the 12 year old, the distillery reserve. Of course I had to pick up a bottle unique to the distillery on my way out.
With a bit of a skip in my step, I made my way back to Bushmills Inn and Restaurant for round two. This time ordering the Seafood Chowder with Brown Bread and a Guinness to level out my head full of whiskey. I had to get a classic dessert this visit as I knew it would be my last. Bread and Butter Pudding soaked in Crème Anglais. If only I had time to test the whole menu, I wouldn’t hesitate.
The next morning was dreary with scattered bouts of misting rain. Back on the bus, I went to explore the ruins of Dunluce castle as I felt the weather was somewhat fitting. Fascinated with medieval history, I took my time exploring the remains. Dunluce was a castle on the edge. So much so, there was stories of how the kitchen along with dinner fell into the ocean one evening. Reasonably well preserved despite the battering winds and rains, my imagination ran envisioning life centuries ago.
Back into Bushmills as the rain grew stronger slowly saturating me and discouraging me from wandering the streets of Portballintrae or Portrush, I went for a comforting classic for lunch. Down to a local chippy, Flash in the Pan was seemingly the most popular one in town and it was everything I expected and wanted at that moment. Fresh tasting fish, thick cut, crispy chips and grease.
I called it an early day, as I watched the rain from the lounge of Finn McCool’s and readied myself to move on the following day. All good things must come to an end they say and my time here was drawing to a close. I could have easily spent a week here in Bushmills, cheery and lackadaisically discovering what else I knew this amazing part of the island held. The day I come back, it will be so.
*As always, you can never see it all. There is always a few other things to do in the area that you just don’t have time for. Here’s a few that I missed. I would have loved to catch the boat to Rathlin Island to view puffins as I’ve become a sucker for wildlife photography. Now, I’m not die hard Game of Thrones like many which is why I never took the overpriced tours, but the ‘Kings Road’ is not a far ride from Bushmills. Lastly, a surfing lesson in Portrush would have made for an exciting, albeit, cold day.
For those budget travelers like myself, Finn McCools is a great option in the area. Check them out by clicking here.
Have you been to Bushmills or the Causeway Coast?! Let me know how your experience was below!