Monday, July 07, 2008

NI, day 2

Time and a decent breakfast make up for most, if not all, injustices perpetrated in the night, so after some grumbling and in-room tea, we descended the stairs for the morning's repast. The cheery husband served as waiter, and seemed befuddled when we came down, as he had apparently not been informed by the missus that we'd be dining at that hour. The buffet consisted of the usual B&B stuff (cereal, OJ, yogurt (including rhubarb!), caffeinated beverages), and then the guy brought out the Ulster fry: fried soda bread, fried eggs, bacon, really good sausage, fried tomato, and fried potato bread. Every bit of it delicious, and not a bit of it going to waste in spite of its immense proportions. Wikipedia informs me that it is traditionally all fried in lard. Loverly.

With that under our belts we hit the road back to Portstewart, having already told our hosts the day before what we would like to see. We all crammed into their Continental style van that they rented in France (with the steering wheel on the wrong wrong side) and made our way to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, a tourist attraction that connects some scenic cliffs with a tiny island. It was mighty windy on the narrow trail leading to the bridge, which was protected from the cliff's edge by a thick, thorny hedge of vigorously blooming whin (gorse). Once we started out it began to rain lightly. H. managed to make it across the scarily-jouncy bridge in spite of her fear of heights. The views were beautiful and the sea a lovely deep greeny-blue, but it was not an ideal day for hanging out. We lingered on the island a bit and then made our way back to the car, once again damp.

Our next stop was the Bushmill's distillery for the whiskey tour, paying a dear price for the privilege. We waited about a half hour for the tour to start, discovering in the meantime that the bathrooms had won an annual prize for nicest facilities in NI (although our hosts told us that nearly everyone has won it). We then had to trudge through the rain again to get to a connecting building. It was not all that interesting of a tour, primarily because there wasn't much to see aside from the giant copper distilling vessels and oak maturing barrels. And the bottling facility wasn't operating because it was a weekend, so we got shown a video instead. But our tour guide was nice and endlessly patient while answering all the questions she had answered a million times before, such as the fact that the water they use comes directly out of the stream outside the complex, but the triple-distillation process removes all the impurities and then the high-proof liquor is diluted to the proper strength with tap water. She informed us that Bushmill's had created a new whiskey for the distillery's 400th anniversary that was made with crystallized malts, giving it a distinctly different flavor than the others in their line. Once the tour was over we received one sample each of the whiskey of our choosing, although the new whiskey wasn't among the choices. The tour guide came around and chatted us up and I asked her about it, and she said she could give us a wee dram due to our specialness. I wasn't crazy about my first sample, but this one was very pleasant. I resolved to ask strangers more questions from then on, thinking that at least some of the time it would result in interesting things happening. That lasted about a week before I annoyed myself out of it.

When we concluded the tour after a look around the gift shop, the sun was peeking out and we ate lunch vagabond-style in the back of the van. We were well-provisioned with cheeses, crackers, strawberries, watermelon, and other delights. I had some special ANZAC biscuits that I had made at home and was carrying around in the unlikely event that I needed a snack, so I shared those as well. It was a nice light meal after such a heavy breakfast. Our next stop on the grand tour was to the Giant's Causeway, an unusual geologic formation made up of hexagonally-shaped stone columns rising out of the water. At £5 per car, it was a relative bargain when compared with Bushmill's. It is a UNESCO world heritage site, and in contrast to the reverential air of most such places, people were scrambling all over the rocks and having a good ol' time. Young couples were testing their bravery by getting their pictures taken while the water sprayed up behind them after hitting the rocks. Once we got our fill, we took the long way back past an organ pipe rock formation and up the hillside, gamely crawling under the "trail closed" barrier and scrambling over the not-at-all dangerous miniature landslide blocking the path, to enjoy the scenic views from on high.

Later we stopped off in the town of Bushmills for a pint while we waited for the dinner hour to arrive. We learned that the room we were in, which had space for about 8 people, was too big to be considered a "snug". We learned that we were pronouncing "Smithwick's" properly. We learned that C. was well on his way to becoming Irishified, with all his talk of "sweets" (candy) and "football pitches" (soccer fields) and "chips" (fries) and "crisps" (chips).

After a reasonable amount of time, we headed over to Portrush, Portstewart's tourist-trappy next-door neighbor. The arcades and rides gave it an Ocean City vibe, but this was March, when all the OC stuff would still be shuttered. In Ireland, though, the first day of spring is on February 1, so they were well into the season by the time we showed up. In spite of the hokiness, they did have some decent dining options there, and on this day everyone and their mother was trying to get into the Harbour Bistro, just like us. We put our names in the queue and then went to wait upstairs in their ample lounge. An hour later they called our names and we went down.

The system was similar to the one we encountered in London, where you peruse the menu at the table and then order up front. I got a nice piece of salmon with caramelized fennel and cep (porcini) foam. Jack got an amazing dish of mac & cheese with a side of garlic fries. Everything was well worth the wait, and if you forgot to convert the currency it even seemed to be reasonably priced.

Knowing we'd have a drive ahead of us the next day and given the previous night's lack of quality sleep, we headed back to the B&B after taking in Portstewart's nightlife of people eating ice cream in their cars, taxis waiting outside of the nightclub, and teens who wanted to be hooligans but weren't brave enough to act out in front of the cops cruising slowly down the strip. (All the police stations in NI look like prisons--high chain-link fences topped with barbed wire.) We were sad to have to leave after such a short visit, but it was time to head south.

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