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Saturday 19 April 2014

Northern Ireland: A drive to golfing paradise

The Giant's Causeway

When the news broke that the Irish Open was coming to Portrush, Darren Clarke made the comment that he would be delighted to be able to sleep in his own bed. I couldn't help but think that there was a time when I would have been very happy to join him there. But I've moved on and now my schoolgirl/cougar crush in the golfing world is Paul McGinley. Sad I know, but true.

The Northern Ireland Tourist Board slogan for 2012 is 'Our time Our place'. For Paul I'd be changing that to 'Any time My Place', so I couldn't wait to see my hero in the flesh at the Irish Open. I think it's that beaming white- toothed smile that gets me every time.

I hadn't been up north for more than 20 years, and was looking forward to seeing how things have changed since my camping-while-pregnant trip all those years ago. The first thing I noticed was that while I was still on the island of Ireland, there were subtle differences, like Sainsbury's, red post boxes and jubilee bunting. But the welcome and general bonhomie were definitely pure Irish. Everybody around the north Antrim coast was in good humour and there was very much a 'can do' attitude.

All the stops had been pulled out for the event. Record numbers attended and no tickets were to be got well before the tournament. Traffic ran smoothly and despite the inclement weather, everyone took out their umbrellas, grabbed their pints and got on with it. White-haired ladies in Cutter & Buck golf gear and pints in their hand. Great. And then, on the final day, the sun shone and myself and the 30,361 other golf lovers got up close and personal with the champions. The tented village was buzzing and steaks, burgers and beer were the order of the day and, of course, the golf. Plenty of it.

The Causeway coast boasts four fine golf courses -- Royal Portrush, Castlerock, Portstewart and Ballycastle. It's a perfect place a golfing and sightseeing holiday where you have your own car and you don't have to incur the cost of travelling abroad with golf clubs. There's also plenty to see around this rugged coastline. We stayed at the Causeway Hotel, which, as its name would imply, is a hop, skip and a jump from the famous Giant's Causeway. The amazing basalt columns, believed to have been formed by volcanic eruptions 60 million years ago, are the stuff of legends. It is said that Finn MacCool built them to travel across to Scotland to fight his rival Benandonner. There are distinctive rock formations known by wonderful names such as Harp, Organ, the Wishing Chair and the Camel. A new interpretive centre built into the cliff has just opened beside the hotel and it really adds to the Causeway experience.

The newly refurbished Causeway Hotel is a friendly seaside hideaway with views of the beach, the cliffs, Portrush and the nearby village of Bushmills. There's an extensive menu of steaks, fish, the wonderfully old-fashioned mixed grill and much more. Breakfast is made to order and again the 'can do' attitude is evident and I even had a little patio outside my bedroom to indulge my nicotine addiction.

Nearby Bushmills is a sleepy quaint little village with 80 listed buildings, and a visit to the world renowned Distillery is a must. In 2008, the distillery celebrated 400 years in existence and is said to be the oldest distillery in the world. There are daily tours, with tasting at the end of the visit. It would appear that Irish whiskey is distilled three times, a fact I never knew. I never did any research on alcohol. I prefer to just drink it.

On the road from Bushmills to Portrush is Dunluce Castle, once home to the MacDonnell clan and now in ruins. It's perched at the edge of a cliff with little or no protection from the frothy frenzy below. It's open daily, with an audiovisual presentation before the tour.

Portrush itself is a seaside town to which many families flock in the summer months. It was buzzing with golf aficionados. There are three gorgeous beaches, West strand, East strand and White rocks, and then there's the aqua park Waterworld, an ideal spot for kids. Tall terraced houses abound. Shades of old decency. The Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge is in nearby Ballintoy and was originally built by salmon fishermen. It's made of planks of wood and wire and hangs 80 feet above the sea. Reminiscent of I'm A Celebrity reality TV, I didn't cross for fear of bringing it down, but I'll be back when I've lost at least two stone.

The whole coastline is rugged and majestic and we passed a hostelry every day called the Smugglers Inn, which conjured up all sorts of imagery of bygone days around the area.

Portstewart is only a few kilometres away and is also home to one of the best golf clubs in Ireland, Portstewart, and also to one of the most beautiful beaches, two miles long and protected by the National Trust. Portstewart was founded in 1792 by John Cromie, who named it after his ancestors, the Stewarts of Ballylesse, and it started off as little more than a fishing village. It rapidly expanded to a fairly big seaside resort in the mid-1800s and house prices here are among the highest in Northern Ireland.

This is a great year for Northern Ireland, the ongoing Titanic commemorations and the Irish Open are just two of the big events, but there's plenty more to come. For instance, the Portrush Regatta takes place in the third week of July, there's the Ulster Grand Prix in early August, the Ulster rally in mid-August and the Appalachian and Bluegrass Music Festival at the end of August. This time I had a reason for travelling North from my native Cork, but the next time I'll just go for the jocular good humour, the scenery and good food. And of course I'll bring the golf clubs. The heartbreaking part is that I didn't get to see Paul McGinley, but he knows where to find me...

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