On a tour of the wild Antrim coast, Fergus Shiel braces himself with legend and whiskey.
To travel along the north Antrim coast in winter and not mention the wind and rain would be like skiing across the Arctic and omitting to mention the snow. And yet, I feel I am ready for it as I set off from Belfast past a great snake of commuter traffic heading into the city. The sky is clear, the air is crisp and I am confident I shall defy the rain gods. Poor fool me.
A magnet for tourists, Led Zeppelin fans and lovers of hexagonal geology, this ruggedly beautiful Causeway route wends for 2½ hours through a string of seaside towns, pretty villages, past two world-class golf courses and along a narrow strip between the wide and wild Irish Sea and sloping limestone and basalt mountains.
Here, observed the fine Belfast poet, John Hewitt, "Kelt, Briton, Roman, Saxon, Dane and Scot,/time and this island tied the crazy knot". This fine winter morning, there are few tourists on this jagged coastline and the sea is strangely calm, allowing cormorants to congregate on the same rocky outcrops that once holed the pride of the Spanish Armada.
Forty kilometres from Belfast, I pay a quick visit to the ghost room at Ballygally Castle Hotel. Facing the soft, sandy beaches of Ballygally Bay, the castle dates to the early 17th century. Legend has it that Lady Isabella Shaw haunts the tower room after falling to her death moments after her husband, James, smothered their infant daughter. He wanted a son.
Above the entrance to the castle leading to the tower it reads "1625 - GOD. IS. PROVIDENS. IS. MY. INHERITANS". In a world of sensory impoverishment, religion stuck fast in Antrim. Up a winding staircase to the austere tower room, a dour portrait of an old woman looks down on an iron bed covered in a patchwork quilt.
I wipe my glasses and snuggle into the big blue sack of a coat that is struggling to keep me dry. This is not rain and wind in the conventional sense; it's as if some evil nanotechnologist has resized the elements to the precise molecular scale to invade the very core of my being with a deep, damp chill reminiscent of Dracula's crypt. No wonder Bram Stoker was Irish. Great God! This is a cold place.
I am at Northern Ireland's edge, or so it seems as I stand shivering on a cliff overlooking the Giant's Causeway feeling like Scott of the Antarctic on a bad-hair day. With the wind swallowing my breath quicker than I exhale, I wonder if the local school kids are armed with anchors to prevent them from being blown over to the Mull of Kintyre, which is clearly visible across the strait.
Once I meander down the hill, the wind dies and the rain stops as if by magic. Below is an expanse of geometrically perfect hexagonal rocks that dissolves into a liquid charcoal sea. This is arguably the most famous natural sight in Northern Ireland and also one of rock music's iconic images: the cover of Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy, featuring golden-haired children crawling across an apocalyptic landscape. (The little boy snapped in the nude upon this geological oddity is now hosting a cooking show on the BBC.)
There are two competing versions of how the Giant's Causeway was created. In the scientific version, a pool of lava cooled slowly into 40,000 basalt columns 60 million years ago. The folklore version has Scottish giant Benandonner tearing up the causeway while fleeing the much smaller Irish giant named Finn McCool, who had disguised himself as his own baby. Legend has it that when Benandonner saw the size of the "infant", he assumed Finn would defeat him so he hot-footed it back to Scotland with his wailing bagpipes, more than likely for a comforting bowl of whisky porridge.
Science and myth are not as unreconcilable here as they first appear. For it is likely that stone-age men and women did paddle, or canoe at least, from Scotland to Ireland. The oldest Irish stone-age settlement, near the mouth of the River Bann at Mount Sandel in nearby County Derry, dates from almost 6000BC. And in the late 6th and early 7th century, the Gaelic kingdom of Dalriada encompassed Antrim and the western seaboard of Scotland.
A few miles from the Giant's Causeway, west of the town of Ballycastle, people test their courage on the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge connecting the mainland with a large rock jutting out of Rathlin Sound in the North Channel. On a wet and windy day like today, with the bridge shaking and rocking, we decide not to try - it would take the nerves of a giant to keep down a hearty Ulster fry of sausages, bacon, eggs and soda farls.
In the absence of tourists, the coastline's natural rhythm has returned. The sea birds circle and there is little traffic as we move on to blustery Bushmills. Once a grim-faced town where Union Jacks appeared at every turn and kerbstones were painted red, white and blue in a bewildering and intimidating demonstration of loyalty to Britain, Bushmills has been transformed into a relaxed seaside holiday spot with barely a flag to be seen.
I'm here to soak up something other than the refreshing atmosphere, however, because Bushmills is the site of Ireland's oldest licensed distillery. Folk here on the banks of St Columb's Rill, a tributary of the River Bush, have been making whiskey, or uisce beatha (literally the water of life), for more than 400 years. They say it is made under one roof - from the grain to the glass - using pure spring water, rich local malt and timeless ingenuity.
William Anderson, our guide on the whiskey-making tour, greets us at the distillery door with an apology for the weather. The sky is consumptive grey and the rain is falling in drops the size of pillows. Perfect conditions, in other words, for a wee dram of the fiery golden spirit that has put hairs on a man's chest since evolution robbed us of our winter pelts.
Distilling begins with malting the barley with a dry heat in closed kilns. Hence, unlike Scotch whisky, there is no smoky taste. "OK, now would anyone like to take a wee sniff of the hog's head?" We have moved from the malting room to the fermentation area and Anderson is inviting us to stick our noses into one of the recently emptied sherry barrels in which whiskey has been maturing. Proboscis-first, I dive into the cork hole. The 10-year-old malt fumes cast a spell on me like an enchanted Christmas pudding. The perfume of dark chocolate, madeira, vanilla and toffee is so intoxicating I have to prise my hooter from the hole.
How can such an enchanting drop be produced from whiff and wort and wash? My tour of the still house, where the liquid is distilled three times (not twice like most Scotch, apparently giving it a smoother taste), leaves me only slightly the wiser. What really excites me is the aroma of evaporating spirit that wafts from the 190,000 oak barrels where the distilled liquid is stored for at least three years, a vital step in creating its distinctive flavour and colour before it officially becomes whiskey. Locals call it "angels' share" and there's no doubt it is heavenly.
Since Bushmills was taken over in 2005 by the drinks giant Diageo, which also owns Guinness, Johnnie Walker, Gordon's gin and Smirnoff vodka, the house has achieved unprecedented growth. In this tiny town on the north-eastern edge of this tiny island, I find it remarkable to think the sweet waters of the River Bush swirl across the globe as malt whiskey. The 1608 blend, commemorating the 400th anniversary of Bushmills' distilling licence, is the only one made from special crystal-malted barley. I have no idea what that means but it tastes like a bar of toffee that has returned from the afterlife as an elixir for all my troubles.
In my favourite television show of recent times, The Wire, when Detective Jimmy McNulty is offered a tumbler of Bushmills at a fund-raiser, he replies: "What? A Protestant whiskey?" He asks, instead, for a Jameson. To correct the record, Dublin's Jameson family, like the town of Bushmills, was staunchly Protestant. And McNulty would be astonished to learn that Jameson, too, is today bottled by its northern rival.
As the tour draws to a close and I study a tumbler of whiskey wreathed in golden light, I have a fresh appreciation for what the poet Seamus Heaney meant when he said: "There is no such thing as a large whiskey." Protestant whiskey. Catholic whiskey. Buddhist whiskey. Jewish whiskey. Any old whiskey.
Fergus Shiel travelled courtesy of Etihad Airways and Tourism Ireland.
Etihad flies to Dublin from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1510 return, with an aircraft change in Abu Dhabi. From Dublin it's about two hours to Belfast by car or bus. Or for about $1550, Etihad flies to London via Abu Dhabi, then change to a British Midlands flight to Belfast. (Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax.)
Carrickfergus, County Antrim's oldest town, is named after the sixth king of Dál Riata, Fergus Mor (translation: Big Ferg), and is the subject of a famous folk song.
Glenarm, is home to Glenarm Castle and the Walled Garden, one of Ireland's oldest walled gardens. The garden is open to the public between May and September.
Set in a U-shaped valley, Glenariff Forest Park has a number of walks. Three waterfalls make pretty backdrops for happy snaps. Or be brave and risk hypothermia with a nude dip.
Two of the prettiest villages in Ireland, Cushendall and Cushendun are renowned for the locals' prowess in the "pure mad" sport of hurling. Coincidentally, Liam Neeson holidays here.
If, like me, you are more scared of heights than a whack on the head with a hurling stick, you might wish to avoid stepping foot on Carrick-a-Rede, a spectacularly scary rope bridge suspended over a 30-metre drop to a famed salmon run.
The Giant's Causeway, with 40,000 basalt columns, was declared Ireland's first UNESCO World Heritage site in 1986.
The Bushmills Inn, with spacious rooms overlooking the River Bush, is a four-star hotel built around a restored coach inn cleverly mixing modern and historic features. In the old kitchen, still lit by gas light, you can sip a Bushmills malt in a rocking chair by a turf fire. Bed and breakfast in low season (October-March) from £69 ($124) a person. See www.bushmillsinn.com.
Once owned by Winston Churchill's family, the Londonderry Arms Hotel overlooks a pretty harbour. It has 35 bedrooms, two restaurants, a small bar and open fireplaces. See glensofantrim.com.
The small seaside town of Portrush has two windswept golf courses and several good places to eat, including Coast Italiano, a family-friendly pizza, steak and pasta place on the harbour. Phone +44 (0)28 7082 3311. Closed Monday and Tuesday in low season. Or try 55 Degrees North, where it's the ocean view, rather than the food, that is distinctive. At 1 Causeway Street, Portrush. See 55-north.com