Emerald Escape: 7 Unforgettable Experiences In Northern Ireland

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All photos by Mike Crisolago

We revisit seven memorable sights and experiences from Northern Ireland.

I lay in the dark hotel room. It was 2 p.m. Belfast time but my body, still running on a Canadian clock, thought it was 9 a.m. I hadn’t slept on the overnight trans-Atlantic flight and, by the time I’d landed in Dublin, took a pre-arranged cab to the Northern Ireland capital, closed the hotel room curtains and fell into the plush king-size bed, I’d been awake for 24 hours straight. I closed my eyes and, when my alarm buzzed a few hours later, I dragged my groggy self to the window to part the curtains. The photo below, snapped from that same  window, is what I saw at that exact moment.

I stood at the window, the sensation of immense warmth passing over me. All leprechaun and “Lucky Charms” jokes aside, this magnificent and unexpected Belfast salutation immediately vanquished any remaining sleepiness and offered something of a reassurance that, in Northern Ireland, it’s only good times ahead. Rainbows don’t lie.

Over the next four days, as a guest of Tourism Ireland and guided by Northern Irish playwright and historian Ken McElroy, I explored natural landscapes unlike any I’d ever imagined, visited historical sights so immersive I felt as though I’d entered a time warp and traversed a rope bridge from one cliff to another that proved a highlight of the entire weekend.

Click through the slide show for seven of my most memorable sights and experiences from Northern Ireland.

Umbrella Alley 

Belfast, as I discovered, is a haven for street art, and while it contains countless striking images emblazoned on the sides of buildings and around various corners, the installation that struck me the most was this alley off of Commercial Court in the city’s Cathedral Quarter. The suspended umbrellas catch your eye first, but soon you’re drawn to the murals on the walls of both sides of the alley, featuring some of the country’s most famous singers, athletes and political figures. It’s a beautiful sight – so much so that it distracted me from the multiple crowded pubs that were bustling all along the street behind me.

Merchant Hotel Bar and Vault

Speaking of bars, the Merchant Hotel, also in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, was built in the mid-19th century as the headquarters for the Ulster bank. It wasn’t the dazzling chandelier that dangles above the hotel’s appropriately-named Great Room Restaurant or the overall grandeur of this 5-star Victorian treasure that first piqued my interest but, rather, the fact that it sold what is allegedly the world’s most expensive cocktail — a Mai Tai concoction made with what the BBC calls, “an extremely rare bottle of 17-year-old Wray and Nephew Rum.” It cost £750 so you’re not exactly going to order a round of it for your pals. However, our guide Ken did note that actor Bill Murray reportedly ordered the cocktail once and did a very “Bill Murray-ish” thing by offering a sip to a random patron, knowing the guy could probably never afford to buy one himself.

The Merchant Hotel is home to a few bars, including the award-winning Cocktail Bar, pictured above, Bert’s Jazz Bar, the only place in Belfast to enjoy live jazz, as well as the Champagne Lounge and the Cloth Ear Pub. But perhaps most interesting is the pool table, located in the old bank vault (pictured below). Ken said that the table was already in there when the current owners bought the place  and that no one knows how it got in there or how to get it out. Talk about a secure deposit.

Ulster American Folk Park

The name itself – Ulster American Folk Park – doesn’t sound too exciting, but believe me when I say that it was one of the most incredible living museums I’ve ever seen. Here’s the gist – in the 18th and early 19th centuries a huge wave of immigrants left Northern Ireland for America. So, what the folks at Ulster American Folk Park have done is created an authentic, outdoor, immersive and living museum that demonstrates the way of life in Northern Ireland at the time of the mass emigration, as well as in America when the immigrants arrived. My experience started when Ken led me onto a path that looks like a nature walk through the forest. Except, at various intervals we stopped at an authentic, true-to-history old Irish schoolhouse, a blacksmith’s forge, a meeting house, and an entire street of stores and shops ranging from a pub to a grocery store to a drapery shop, a doctor’s surgery and a chemist (see image below). These are real buildings that look like a Hollywood film set, except the storefronts are authentic, from 18th and 19th century Ulster, brought here and placed to create a living exhibit. And best of all, you can go into the stores (see photo above), into the schoolhouse, into the homes and businesses and they are all fully-furnished with items from the time period, as well as performers in period costume who greet and explain the history of each locale.

After passing through the Northern Irish portion of this park, we walked into a building that contains a replica of an entire dock, along with the sort of ship that would have taken the immigrants to America. On the ship we went onto the deck and then below deck to sample the squalid living quarters the passengers were forced to endure.

After passing through the ship we emerged on the American side, with more authentic buildings, homes and businesses to visit and people to speak with about the history of each place.

I cannot stress enough how much fun this park is. You walk through completely at your own leisure and can explore or pass on any building, home or store you wish. You can take your time, talk to the immensely knowledgeable staff and, quite literally, enjoy the most immersive and authentic historical experience possible outside of actually travelling back in time in your DeLorean. The photo below is the interior of one of the historic Irish country homes and, aside from the historic aspect, each September you can also sample some authentic local music on the Folk Park grounds when they host the renowned annual Appalachian & Bluegrass Music Festival. It turns out the Irish brought bluegrass music with them to America too.

Click here for a full list and details about all the buildings available to explore at the Ulster American Folk Park


Derry Wall and Gates

We made our day trip to Ulster American Folk Park historic from the Northern Irish city of Derry, which Ken said is dubbed the “Maiden City” because its defensive walls were never breached. It’s the only completely walled city left in Ireland and many believe the word “catwalk” originated here, as centuries ago poor locals used to sit in the streets and watch the rich folks walk along the top of the wall in their fine clothes. Ken notes that, at one time, the wall was said to fit the city like a noose, as it was needed for protection during sieges. But now, in peacetime, it’s said to fit like a necklace.

The wall, which allows for a long, elevated and uninterrupted walk around the entire city also allows for gorgeous views of both the sights within, such as the immaculate 17th century St. Columb’s Cathedral (pictured above), and views of the “bogside” community on the outside of the fortifications (pictured below). Equally as captivating are the multiple archway gates that, to this day, remain the only way in and out of the walled city.

Another interesting fact about Derry concerns the war memorial at the centre of the old city, which is dedicated to the lives lost in both the First and Second World Wars. Featuring figures armed with swords and bayonets, the memorial was originally built for a city in England but, deeming it too aggressive, they declined ownership. As such Derry offered to take it, making it possibly the only second-hand war memorial in the world.


The Emerald Irish Hills 

We’ve all heard about Ireland’s emerald hills but when you’re actually standing atop a spot like Binevenagh Mountain, looking down across the green slopes and rural patchwork while the sun peaks through the clouds above and the ocean brings the tide softly to shore below, you are absolutely, singularly, in that moment. Devoid of noise but for the wind for and the sound of a few grazing sheep in their pasture nearby, the spot felt to me like the sort of place where one might come to take in the momentous beauty of Earth before the sky opens and you ascend into the heavens.

Okay, so that’s a bit heavy, but if this is the spot where the gates to Heaven open, it seems appropriate (if not slightly blasphemous) that the mountain comes equipped with its own god. The Irish sea god Manannán Mac Lir, pictured below standing aboard his boat “the Wave Sweeper,” is, according to myth, “seen as the guardian of the Otherworld and one who ferries souls to the afterlife.” He also has an invincibility cloak, which didn’t quite help him when vandals trashed the original statue in 2015. It was replaced, however, the next year by its original artist – Game of Thrones set designer John Sutton.

Old Bushmills Distillery

When driving down the road in our coach I turned to tour guide Ken and said, “It’s strange – I’ve been in Northern Ireland for three days now and I still haven’t had a sip of traditional Irish whiskey.” So what did Ken do? He had the driver take us straight to Old Bushmills Distillery – founded in 1608, the oldest licenced whiskey distillery in the world. Ken called upon his pal Niall, a kind fellow who works at the distillery, to give us a tour of the facilities that concluded in the bar, where we clinked glasses over a tipple of the 12-year-old batch. The view wasn’t as breathtaking as Binevenagh Mountain and the tour not nearly as exciting as Ulster American Folk Park, but the taste of that 12-year-old whiskey sipped inside the world’s oldest distillery where it was produced couldn’t possibly have been smoother — an especially incredible feat given it was 10 a.m.

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge

“Here’s an idea,” some Northern Irish guy presumably said once, “lets take a rickety old rope bridge with missing slats that straddles the edges of two cliffs and let the public pay to walk across it.” And so Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, one of Northern Ireland’s most popular tourist attractions, was born. Granted, today the rickety old bridge with missing slats has been replaced by a sturdier, but still prone to swaying, new bridge (though Ken recalls traversing the old bridge as a kid), but the experience is hardly less exhilarating.

Don’t get me wrong – heights don’t bother me. It’s the idea of traversing a rope bridge that blows and sways with the wind high above what could easily amount to a watery grave that irks me. Still, Ken and I made the trek from the road down a dirt path to the famed bridge and, when it came our turn, we walked across. My attempt to film the walk on my phone was foiled by the fact that the rocking bridge required me to have at least one hand on the rope, which meant I risked dropping my phone into the water below.

On the other side of the rope bridge is the picturesque island of Carrickarede, which boasts green grass, rocky hills and a huge drop off into the ocean below. The scenery, both on the island and on the visible coastline, is exquisite, not to mention the fact that on a clear day you can see Scotland across the water. On the walk back over the bridge I wisely decided to give up on the idea of filming it and instead shot a few photos from the bridge itself (one of which is pictured below).

In reality, the bridge is completely safe and, aside from a bit of rocking back and forth, there is nothing to worry about. Ken noted that, when fishermen used the bridge to catch salmon in the waters below for centuries, they only had a rope on one side to hang onto while they cast their nets, unobstructed, off the other, rope-less side. They survived, and so will you.

For more information on travelling to Northern Ireland, visit Tourism Northern Ireland and Ireland.com.