Life

Staycation: Kayaking and walking offer a fresh perspective on the Causeway Coast

John Manley discovers plenty of outdoor endeavours on the picturesque Causeway Coast...

John Manley kayaking on the River Bann

THE Causeway Coast – or what you may previously have known as the north coast – isn’t somewhere I’ve spent a lot of time. This is down to a combination of what’s best termed socio-political prejudice and the perception that the things I like to do weren’t immediately available in the area. Plenty of golf, motorbikes and tourist traps but what is there for us normal people?

Among those helping Tourism NI redress this apparent imbalance are Far and Wild and Away for a Wee Walk, two micro-businesses catering for those who like an active outdoor experience.

The former’s director Lorcan McBride has been enlisted to take us sea kayaking on a bright September afternoon, with unique views of the Giant’s Causeway promised. First, however, there’s a lunchtime appointment at the French Rooms in Bushmills.

A charmingly labyrinthine establishment with strong hints of ye olde world and a variety of private yet not pokey seated areas, the French Rooms’ fayre gives a nod to Gallic flavours. The brunch menu is guaranteed to get any Francophile salivating, offering a range of croissants, tarte flambeé and croques.

With an afternoon ahead on the ocean waves, I opt for the gourmet platter, a substantial selection of cheeses, meats and pa?te? washed down with Jocelyn soup. Along with a cheeky lunchtime glass of Merlot, I’d happily eat this every lunchtime for the rest of my life.

As lunch is polished off, a text comes through from Lorcan to say there’s been a change of plan. Blustery weather and big waves means that for safety reasons we’ll go inshore instead and explore the last few miles of the Bann, entering the water in Coleraine.

First stop is just across the river on the eastern bank at Mountsandel, Ireland’s earliest known settlement, dating from between 7,600 and 7,900 BC. Close to the tidal limit, it’s the perfect elevated site from which to get a sense of the river’s geographic and historic significance.

The four-star Bayview Hotel in Port Ballintrae

From here on a route of around four miles we canoe beneath road and rail bridges, passing riverside developments and docks where rather incongruously a ship is moored and loaded with scrap metal. Moving seawards with the tide, we pass two marinas before the river opens up and the air gets saltier.

The farmland is replaced by dunes on one side and reed beds on the other as we get close to the Atlantic. Our rather exhausting but exhilarating afternoon adventure concludes close to the National Trust’s bird hide at Barmouth, where we leave Lorcan and the kayaks and head for the Bayview Hotel in Portballintrae.

That night there’s more great food at the Mermaid in Portrush, part of the Ramore complex. We’re driven to the restaurant by Sammy, a local taxi driver whose wit and obliging demeanour could potentially outsell Bushmills Whiskey if bottled.

After a restful night’s sleep and the obligatory hearty breakfast, we make our way to the Giant’s Causeway visitors’ centre for a rendezvous with Eimear Flanagan, the one-woman dynamo behind Away a Wee Walk. We board the bus with Eimear and head a few miles eastwards to Dunseverick to begin our clifftop walk, which will bring us back to the visitors’ centre.

Demanding a degree of fitness and fortitude, this guided five-mile trek atop the towering coastal cliffs is run in partnership with the National Trust and is a fascinating combination of geology, history and folklore.

The clifftop Mussenden Temple in Co Derry

With commanding views of Rathlin and further north to the Mull of Kintyre and the islands of Jura and Islay, the mostly flat route zigzags out onto the blustery headlands then into more sheltered areas. With every mile the basalt formations in the cliffs become more regular before eventually we get a glimpse of those famed hexagonal rocks below.

Having visited the landmark that gives this coastline its name and spent 40 minutes in the visitors’ centre, there’s not a lot of energy left in our legs, nevertheless, it seems a shame to come all this way and not visit the National Trust’s Downhill Demense and Mussenden Temple, a 30-minute drive away.

This time it’s the clifftop views westwards across Benone beach and Magilligan Strand to the Inishowen peninsula that prove superlative, while the Black Glen ravine is an unexpected surprise.

TRAVEL FACTS

John Manley and family stayed at the four-star Bayview Hotel in Portballintrae.

Prices for two nights B&B for two adults and one child up to 15 years old are from £278 with an additional £20pp for dinner at the Porthole Bar & Restaurant (bayviewhotelni.com)

Away A Wee Walk’s Giant’s Causeway Cliff Top Experience is run partnership with the National Trust and costs £39pp for a a five-mile (8k) guided hike with Eimear Flanagan lasting four hours (awayaweewalk.com)

Giant’s Causeway Coast Kayaking with Far and Wild costs £40-£180pp depending on the size of the party. It lasts four hours and participants are escorted by a qualified instructor in a stable double sea kayak (farandwild.org)

See also The French Rooms, Bushmills (thefrenchrooms.com) and Ramore, Portrush (ramorerestaurant.com)

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