As many of you know, David and I love to travel. So whenever we can find an excuse to head out, we’ve got bags packed and Fraggle booked into his favorite kennel. And what better excuse than a birthday? These past two birthdays have had us celebrating in two different countries. First in Switzerland for David’s birthday and then in N. Ireland for my birthday. And although we didn’t travel around Switzerland like we did in N. Ireland, I wanted to make sure to blog about both experiences – as they were both wonderful!
When I was looking for a place to go to celebrate David’s birthday I thought of Switzerland because he mentioned he’d never been and would like to check it out. I’ve been to Geneva, Berne and Zürich, but never beyond to explore any of the cute little villages. And after talking to my dear friend and fellow NerdGirl, Gabriella D., I thought Zermatt sounded like the perfect little village to head off to. It involved a train ride, a miniature bus and boasted a strict no-cars allowed town centre – it sounded perfect! We booked in at The Omnia and couldn’t have been more pleased – it was perfectly positioned to enjoy the views of the village.
The village itself is relatively small and quaint – we made sure to book outside of the high tourist/ski season, to make our village experience more enjoyable. We weren’t fighting crowds, bumping into people or having to queue for drinks or food. I’d recommend packing your hiking boots, as there are some really great walking trails near by – check out Zermatt’s Tourism Center for hiking maps and information.
And if you don’t feel like hiking up for a view, not to worry you can always take the Gornergrat Bahn. The train provides for some breath taking views as you make your way up through the mountains. Make sure to enjoy a cup of hot chocolate at the top!
Like many little villages, there are various souvenir shops dotted around the village where you can purchase trinkets, post cards and keepsakes to remember your visit. Whenever we visit a new place, I always try to purchase a few Christmas ornaments specific to the area and culture, it’s a great way to remember the places we’ve traveled to over the years.
Overall, I couldn’t recommend Zermatt enough – but I’d have to add this caveat, there’s loads of construction going on around the village. And I’m guessing in a couple of years time it’s not going to be the same pretty-little village experience. So if you are interested, I’d plan on going in the next year, year and a half.
N. Ireland was my birthday choice. It has been on my list for a while, ever since I went up to Belfast for a conference. I found the city as well as the people very welcoming and laid back, which made me want to explore beyond Belfast. So when my husband asked me to choose, I jumped at the chance to spend an extended weekend visiting N. Ireland. And really, an extended weekend is all you need to explore.
Like many of our trips, we decided to make N. Ireland a driving holiday. We landed in Belfast but decided to save it for last, we figured after a few days on the road we’d be in the mood for a bit of a break before jumping back on a plane for our trip home. Generally, before we take off on any driving holiday we spend time mapping out where we want to go, the roads we need to take and where we plan on spending the night. But N. Ireland was different, since we only had 2 main points of interest we figured we’d play it by ear and let the roads carry us along. And so the Irish adventure began!
We knew there were two places we definitely wanted to visit, The Gaint’s Causeway (for me) and Bushmills Whiskey Distillery for David. For the rest, we figured we’d pick places to stop because of their beauty or they were specifically mentioned in our travel book. And I have to say, N. Ireland has some of the most beautiful scenery, between the gorgeous sea views and the beautiful rolling green hills of the Irish countryside. It really was a beautiful country to drive through. Here are just a few recommended places to see –
Ballycastle is a beautiful little town on the Causeway Coast. Dotted with cute shoppes, small cafes and B&Bs, it makes a great little stop over for lunch or just to take in the beautiful sea coast scenery. And on a clear day, you can see the Scottish coastline.
Carrick–A–Rede Rope Bridge
It’s one of those tourist spots that everyone heads to, so you need to make sure you are either there first thing in the morning or last thing in the afternoon. Having too many people around you when you are trying to cross the bridge can be a bit nerve wrecking, especially if you have a problem with heights. You will be expected to pay an entrance fee and do a bit of walking before you even get to the bridge – be warned there are steep steps leading up and down to the bridge. Go prepared with a comfortable pair of shoes! And outside of taking some really nice pictures, make sure to stop by the entrance booth on the way out to pick up your very own Carrick-a-Rede crossing certificate (great little cheesy keepsake).
The Dark Hedges
Now I didn’t know about The Dark Hedges before we went to N. Ireland. I picked up a tourist book at our B&B and thought the cover picture was beautiful. After a bit of page flipping and some internet surfing, I found reference to The Dark Hedges and some beautiful pictures. So of course, we had to find it. It is in the middle of nowhere and I’d definitely would suggest using both map and GPS to find it, we drove around for an extra 10 minutes before finding it. But when we did, wow. It was a beautiful pathway and very much true to the pictures. It was as if you were being swallowed up by the trees as you drove through. The one downside would be all the tourists. You had people parking their cars down the center of the pathway, folks getting out of their cars in the middle of the road and people just walking up and down. So trying to get that picture with just The Dark Hedges was very difficult. We ended up waiting off the pathway for about 30-45 minutes, letting folks clear off and the pathway empty out before making our way down it again and taking pictures. This really was the beast way to to see it. You could get the full impact of the trees, without worrying you’d hit someone or run into another car.
The recommendation here would be to either go first thing in the morning or around sunset. Hopefully you’d be able to miss the majority of folks driving through. But really, tourists or not, I’d recommend at the very least driving down the pathway.
The Giant’s Causeway
Every tourist heading to N. Ireland has heard about Giant’s Causeway and no doubt have it on their “must see” list. There are tons of pictures on the internet and I’m sure most know what to expected. But there are a couple of things we found out, that we didn’t realize. First off it’s a National Trust site and in most instances you’d need to pay to get access to National Trust sites, their fees go towards supporting all the services associated with maintaining the site. However, because the Causeway has public coastal access there’s general public access (no fee), as well. Meaning, if you don’t want to got through the National Trust Museum or attend as part of a tour, you can walk straight down to the Causeway. You can access to the Causeway directly via some steps behind the National Trust Museum (which are somewhat hidden and had to be pointed out to us). From the steps, it’s a fair old walk down to the Causeway, although David and I figured out (after the fact) that if someone headed down before say 7AM they could probably drive all the way down to the Causeway. But you’d have to be careful and make sure you were making your way back up well before 7:30AM, if not you’d run the risk of running into one of the tightly scheduled tour buses. Which is probably the best reason to head down before 7:30AM. There’s a better chance that you’d have the Causeway all to yourself, without people crawling all over, getting into your photos or just the fact of having so many people there. On our way up, from our early morning visit, we saw 3 bus loads of folks going down – so you can expect it to be pretty busy throughout the day. Especially when good weather is expected.
So I’d recommend a couple of things, go early, drive down if you can and make sure you head out no later than 7:30AM.
Portstewart is a really cute coastal town. With a beautiful promenade and views of the sea. Although we didn’t spend much time here, it was great for a lunch stop and a wander along the town streets.
Londonderry is the second-largest city in N. Ireland, so as you can imagine it can be quite busy. Something that kinda put David and I off was the high street, it seemed to be all jumbled up with big chains, chip shops and fast food restaurants and all the smaller, boutique type businesses were closed. A bit of a disappointed, as the reason I was keen to do a stop over was because it boosted a city center within the original city walls. I guess it depends on what you are looking for and the type of city vibe that interests you. For us it was a “no stop” and we adjusted our journey to travel inland to visit the Stone Circles of Beaghmore.
Beaghmore Stone Circles
A mystery much like Stonehenge, the stone circles of Beaghmore are said to be the focal point of religious or social gatherings. The site dates back to the Bronze Age and does have a bit of an eerie feel to it. Although that could just be down to the fact that we were the only ones there on an overcast, windy day. That strangely, completely cleared up the minute we stepped foot on the site and when we were done, started pouring down as soon as we shut the car door on our way out – very strange!
So, if you are into the Stonehenge type of setup, then the circles are definitely something you need to see.
Cookstown, Armagh and Ballygawley
Along our journey we stopped off at a number of little villages, if they looked as though they offered a pleasant stop, interesting scenery or specific local fare then we made time and stopped. The Irish country side is dotted with many pretty little villages, which I would recommend over the larger cities, when it comes to finding a B&B, breakfast, lunch or even an afternoon tea break.
Marble Arch Caves
I love taking cave tours, especially those that have interesting stalactites and other natural occurring formations that don’t look quite natural. The cave itself was fairly small and the tour wasn’t as extensive as I hoped. Unfortunately due to the rainy weekend and the increasingly rising water table, the tour was cut even shorter. I think in total, walking from the visitor’s center down to the cave and back, was about 10-15mins. And most of that was spent waiting for other tours to go back or people turning around and go a different way. In defense of the site, they were very clear in recommending people call ahead and be aware of the weather before paying and venturing into the caves. Of course, this didn’t stop a number of people complaining about the duration or lack there of, of the tour. So recommendation would be, call in advance to know what the local weather is like and the duration of the tour.
We wanted Belfast to be our last city because we wanted to make sure to spend time enjoying and relaxing in the city. Like most big cities you have loads to chose from when it comes to places to stay and things to do – Belfast is no different. We decided to stay close to one of the universities so we wouldn’t have a problem driving in and out. The area wasn’t too bad, not too much noise or traffic going in and out. From our hotel, we were able to explore the city center as well as some of the local bars. Nothing really stood out, it was basically what we would have seen or gotten in London and would recommend visiting the city to all.
All-in-all it was a wonderful trip and would recommend N. Ireland to all interested in beautiful scenery, welcoming folks and light rain :). For those interested you can find reviews on all the places we visited on TripAdvisor.
And what do we have plan for the next round of birthdays? We are thinking South America, where we hope to enjoy a few cooking classes in Oaxaca, Mexico before we make are way down to Peru and the Galápagos Islands.
Let the packing begin! (Or at least the visa process :))