Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Great Walks: Giants Causeway Coast Way

Though tour buses from Belfast descend upon the Giant's Causeway in County Antrim, Northern Ireland every day, the causeway coast is best explored at a slower pace over the course of at least an overnight or two. Some of the best vignettes of the causeway coast can be seen from along the 16.5 kilometer (10+ mile) walk between the Giant's Causeway and the infamous Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. Beyond the volcanic columns that sink into the cerulean sea there are miles of dramatic cliffs, white sand beaches, over-saturated fields of grazing sheep, and quiet fishing harbors to behold.

After landing in a bitter cold and rainy Dublin only 48 hours earlier (which had me reevaluating my decision to bring only two sweaters on my "summer" vacation), I woke up to flawless weather in County Antrim. When the sun shines in Ireland, the color palate is unbelievable; you feel as if you may have mistakenly wandered into a Photoshopped version of the world, one in which someone has cranked up the saturation beyond credibility.

But it is real life. For reals.

Lacing up the hiking boots that had carried me through the Himalayas last fall, I set off on my walk. Having visited the Giants Causeway the previous night to watch the sunset and had the place almost entirely to myself, I was a bit overwhelmed by the multitudes gathered by daylight at Northern Ireland's only UNESCO World Heritage site. I challenged my glutes to the stairs that led me up the causeway cliffs and moved beyond the masses. From there, I passed the occasional couple or small guided tour group, but was left mostly alone to contemplate the views, my thoughts, and my hangover with the ocean to my left and rolling hills of sheep pastures to my right. Hugging the cliffs for the first half of the walk, the path eventually winds down to reveal several kilometers of sand and dunes known as White Park Bay Beach. While no stranger to the strange, I was not expecting to share the beach with more cows than humans. Apparently this is just a day "down the shore" in Northern Ireland. Feeling like a beached cow?

Only kilometers from the finish, I passed through Ballintoy Harbour and was wooed by the Harbour Cafe's afternoon tea special, a ritual that I wouldn't mind adopting in my regular life. As soon as I sat with my pot of tea and warm fruit scone, I became cognizant of my heavy legs and worn-out feet. I could have easily sat in view of the harbor for an hour reading the collection of Colum McCann short stories that I had brought along for the journey, but something told me I should keep walking. Female intuition? I finished my walk just in time to catch the last bus and headed back to a much appreciated hot shower at my hostel.

Though a five hour walk is not an inconsequential undertaking, the coastal walk is not terribly strenuous; save for a few short uphill climbs (the highest cliffs are about 100 meters), the walk is almost flat. In windy or rainy weather, I can imagine it to be rather treacherous, but with mild temperatures and sunlight it is pleasant and refreshing-- especially after a long night involving copious amounts of Irish spirits! Pack plenty of water (there are a couple places to refill along the way), a snack, and lots of layers, as the weather on the Emerald Isle has a tendency of changing every five minutes.

Tip: If you are staying close to one of the end points of this stretch of the causeway, get a ride or take a bus to the opposite end and work your way back. Staying up past sunrise the previous night (slash that morning?), I got off to a late start and didn't begin my walk until almost noon. Though not limited by daylight when the sun sets at 10:30 pm, the local buses stop running fairly early. I reached Carrick-a-Rede in time for the last admission for the rope bridge, only to realize that the last bus back to the Giants Causeway/Bushmills was leaving in 10 minutes-- not enough time to walk another kilometer to the bridge, wander around the tiny island, and walk back. Had I taken the bus in the morning, I would have explored Carrick-a-Rede and had plenty of time left to set a leisurely pace for the way back. You live, you learn.

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