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At Niall McKenna’s upscale James Street South, much of the produce comes from Helen’s Bay Organic Garden. The fact that the oldest organic garden in Northern Ireland just happens to be a few kilometres from McKenna’s downtown Belfast restaurant (he also owns the more casual bar and grill next door and a cooking school) is part of the draw.

When we meet the chef for lunch, he runs excitedly through the day’s menu, listing where each of his ingredients come from.

“The lamb is from the Mourne Mountains,” he says.  “When it first came in, my cooks thought there was something wrong with it.” The animals graze and rub up against the purple bell heather that covers the mountains, which gives their skin a similar hue, he explains. I’m intrigued and order the lamb loin. It’s not purple but the crispy cutlet, served with crunchy asparagus, is served slightly pink, tender and sweet, not gamey (we order ours with a side of champs, an Irish dish of mashed potatoes and spring onions with creamy butter).

Sheep along the countryside in Northern IrelandGrazing sheep along the Causeway Coastal Route

Over the next two days, as we travel along the 190-km Causeway Coastal Route from Belfast to Londonderry, it becomes clear that the region has much more to offer than its livestock: Unbroken lines of cliffs plunge into the North Atlantic, waves crash up against the shore and narrow roads undulate like a roller coaster. Emerald hills dotted with brilliant yellow mimosa flowers and ruins appear around every bend until we arrive in Bushmills, where in 1608, the Old Bushmills Distillery became the first of its kind in the world to receive a license to produce liquor.

Touring its facilities, we learn that unlike Scotch, their Irish whiskey is dried with hot air (rather than over peat fire), which explains its smoother finish. Our guide also points out St. Columb’s Rill, a tributary of the River Bush that runs alongside the distillery and supplies the water for making Bushmills whiskey.

Old Bushmills Distillery in IrelandThe Old Bushmills Distillery

In the tasting room, I opt for their 12-year-old single malt, a special edition only available at the distillery. The amber whiskey is matured mainly in Spanish sherry casks and tastes like toasted almonds with hints of currant and other fruit. 

Just a short drive down to the coast brings us to Northern Ireland’s most mythical site: Giant’s Causeway. According to legend, its 40,000 interlocking basalt columns were carved out of the rock by Irish giant Finn McCool, though science credits volcanic eruptions and cooling lava for this unique geological phenomenon. The smooth, hexagonal columns of the Grand Causeway are like stepping stones that take you out past the cliff foot into the ocean, while rock formations like the Wishing Chair are steeped in Irish lore (the ‘chair’ was made for Finn McCool when he was a child, and anyone that sits on it will have a wish come true).

Giants Causeway in Ireland geological siteGiant's Causeway

The sun is starting to dip when we pull into the Bushmills Inn, a boutique property with a picture-perfect stone courtyard and a carriage house that dates back to the early 17th century. After dinner, as we make for our cozy room, which includes a mezzanine sleeping quarter and clawfoot tub, we hear music coming from the hotel’s Gas Bar. Following the sound, we find a traditional wood-paneled country pub full of locals and visitors gathered to hear Irish ballads and regional songs by Dick Glasgow and Friends. We order a Bushmills Black Bush whiskey and pretend to fit in as singer Riley Piddington starts belting out Sam Hall, a folk song about an unrepentant criminal. As the bar chatter turns into a chorus, the atmosphere feels more like a gathering among friends than a performance. There must be something in the water, I think to myself, taking another sip.

Tags

DUBLIN     IRELAND     ONAIR     OUTDOOR TRAVEL     WEB EXCLUSIVES     WHISKY    

Getting There

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Comments… or add another

Agnes Kerins

Monday, August 12th 2013 12:40
Loved this. As it happens we already have a trip booked for Ireland and one of the stops along the wat is a trip to Derry. So your article was very i teresting as we plan on visiting quite a few of the places mentioned. Thanks for a great article

Jill mercier

Monday, August 12th 2013 13:37
Also heading to NI soon. Enjoyed the article very much

Carol Blevins

Monday, August 12th 2013 14:47
Been there....done it and what a GREAT reminder of how beautiful it was...tnankyou....I WILL be back.

Jacquie James

Monday, August 12th 2013 15:48
Loved your article. James St. restaurant is my favourite
place to eat when I go to Belfast which will be soon.
Familiar with the North as I grew up there!
Jacquie James

Eileen

Monday, August 12th 2013 18:00
Wonderful article! Went to Bushmills and Cuaseway. The latter is u believable to see. It is one of the wonders of the world. I couldn't believe it and we have seen some great geological sights. Enjoy!

Rhyl

Friday, August 16th 2013 09:40
I visited this beautiful region for the first time in May. In addition to the beatiful sites mentioned there are some spectacular golf courses that are a must for travelling golfers. Royal Portrush once hosted the British Open and nearby Portstewart's Strand Course is also breathtaking. Both are seaside links courses that will leave you dreaming of a return trip long after you return.
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