An Adventure in Northern Ireland

This story originally appeared in Fairways Magazine in May, 2013.

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It was a whirlwind adventure. But in late April, I had the privilege of attending a trip to Northern Ireland, and the experience was truly a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

The focus was golf – the North Coast of Ireland is rich with golf courses, hundreds are available for locals and tourists alike – but in reflecting, I’ve found that golf was merely the thread that tied together my trip of magical memories, inspiring landscapes, fascinating people, and delectable food.

Flying across the pond through New York City – Air Canada’s new airline Rouge has since announced that starting in 2014 it will offer direct flights from Toronto to Dublin year-round, all the more reason for me to return – I perused the movie selection on my flight and chose The Hobbit.

Perhaps it was symbolic.

Young Bilbo Baggins exclaims in the Tolkien classic: “I’m going on an adventure!” as he departs The Shire for the first time, just as I was departing Canada for the U.K. for the first time.

For me, it truly was an adventure – one that anyone, not just golfers, should try to go on in his or her lives.

I arrived sleepy in Dublin, but was soon energized by the seaside air. My travel companions for the drive up to the North Coast were two Americans: Dave Lucas, a real-life anchorman from Washington, D.C. and Art Stricklin, a typically southern writer from Dallas, Texas.

The beauty of this particular trip was that it was a worldwide event. Along with my North American colleagues – I did, however, make sure to announce that I was actually Canadian any chance I had – there were members of the golf media contingent from around the world. A photographer from Italy, four writers from the U.K., magazine editors from South Africa, China, and Germany, and columnist from Australia were among the group.

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En route to our final destination, we stopped in Holywood to visit the home club of Rory McIlroy. He joined the club at age three, and they have erected a shrine to his accomplishments at the club, including replicas of his two major trophies. Seeing as McIlroy is only 23, they might have to build a whole wing of the clubhouse before his career is finished. McIlroy’s father, Gerry, remains an active member and is a former club champion.

We also stopped in Belfast prior to completing our journey up north, which was highlighted with a stop by the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, and lunch with our hosts for the week, members of the Northern Ireland Tourism Board.

Belfast is an interesting town that seems to be caught between two places in time. It holds on to the legend of the Titanic – a new museum debuted in 2012 dedicated to the ship and it received more than 800,000 visitors in its first year alone – and evidence of “The Troubles” remain. But, there is also modern architecture and a palpable buzz in the city with respect to its athletics and its culture, especially given the recent success of the HBO television series Game of Thrones.

Upon arriving in Bushmills – home to the Bushmills whiskey distillery, the oldest in Northern Ireland – I did some freelance wandering, as a friend likes to call it, through the quaint town.

Most bistros and shops closed early, but they had wonderful paintings on their shutters of people and products, which made the street seem much more lively.

I was shocked to see in a local grocery store there was a kiosk for Tim Horton’s, complete with coffee (available to go, and in large tins), and donuts. I’ll admit, the donuts were terrible, but it was a valiant effort at expansion.

The Bushmills Inn was our home base for the next three nights. It was a homey place with large rooms built in sort of castle-manor. A fun tradition they have is that they fly the flag of one of its guest’s home country each day, and upon my arrival, the familiar red and white Canadian maple leaf was flying high.

Tim Horton’s and the Maple Leaf, did I really come to Northern Ireland?

That aside, each meal at the Bushmills Inn was an event in itself. Multiple, rich courses with immaculate presentation coupled with lively conversation made it difficult to leave the restaurant each evening (the fresh Guinness and various whiskeys likely played a role in why it was difficult too, but I digress).

The next day, it was time to golf.

Some of the travellers had played a round or two already, but for most of the group, including me, our first crack at the Northern Irish links was at Portstewart Golf Club.

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Portstewart presented a walkable challenge that allowed me to experience everything that links golf is about. It only rained for one hole, but the wind stayed down and the sun stayed out.

My caddie for the day – highly recommended for first-time links golfers like myself – was a 40-year member at Portstewart and a former journalist at the BBC, which made for great conversation.

One of the most interesting parts of Port Stewart is the beach off of 12th green. There, my caddie said, was where the allied troops practiced for the invasion of the beach at Normandy. It was quite a piece of history.

The sun was still out as the entire group made its way to Bushfoot Golf Club, adjacent to The Giant’s Causeway (more on that later), and the Dunluce Castle, another piece of Northern Irish lore, after our round.

At Bushfoot we received a presentation on what will become the new Bushmills Dunes Golf Resort before walking the property where the golf course will be completed. Bushmills Dunes has been the focus of much chagrin in Northern Ireland, a 20-year project hampered by environmentalist politicking.

It’s tough not to see the club becoming one of the best in Europe, if not the world, simply because of its location. Architect David Kidd, he of Bandon Dunes fame, has said that it is “the most beautiful piece of land for a golf course” he’s ever seen. High praise.

The 125-room hotel and world class golf course seems to be on track now, with an estimated completion date of 2015.

The next day we ventured out to the crown jewel of golf courses along the North Coast, Royal Portrush. Portrush is the home to Darren Clarke, the 2011 British Open champion, who actually was out on the practice green when our group arrived.

While I was almost disappointed the day before at the lack of true Irish golf weather, the day at Portrush made up for it as we experienced 35 MPH winds, rain, hail, and a beast of a golf course. Even the locals said that they wouldn’t have played golf the day we went out. And, although we thought we were crazy, one of said locals mentioned we must have been “passionate” about golf. We were indeed.

After the round, members of our group either had a soup or a whiskey, depending on what your preferred method of warming up was, and back to the hotel for our final meal at the Bushmills Inn.

The next morning was time for some quick tourist exploration. The Giant’s Causeway is a must-see attraction in Northern Ireland, an area of basalt columns that is a result of an ancient volcanic eruption. You could believe that, or, you could believe the legendary Northern Irish tale of the giant, Finn MacCool – but that’s another story.

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I went at sunrise, and it was a magical sight. I was able to walk down to the bottom of the Causeway, almost right into the ocean if I so chose, and there were no security guards to be seen. This is unlike any tourist destination in North America. The full experience took only 45 minutes, so I was able to get back to the Bushmills distillery for its first tour of the day – which began at 9:15 a.m. Now, it was 4:15 a.m. Toronto-time, so instead of considering the glass of 12-year-old Distillery Reserve whiskey that was handed to me as “breakfast,” I deemed it a “night-cap” and felt better about my decision.

Departing Bushmills was bittersweet, but a German colleague and I needed to hit the road for a two-hour drive back down south with a final destination of Newcastle, home to our bed & breakfast for the evening.

On our way we stopped at the beautiful Royal Belfast Golf Club for lunch and a tour. It’s the oldest golf club in all of Ireland, and it’s a true hidden gem. It’s relatively inexpensive when compared to other clubs in the area, and is on my list of courses I’d like to play when returning to Northern Ireland.

We also stopped at Ardglass Golf Club just outside of Newcastle for a quick nine holes.

The beauty of Ardglass is that the practically the entire front nine is along the sea. The clubhouse also has the distinction of being the oldest in the world, an old castle built in the 1400s that they have converted.

The round at Ardglass was emotional and fulfilling at the same time. Looking out onto the sun-soaked sea, alone with just my thoughts and my golf clubs, it was hard not to be both sentimental and inspired.

After one more three-course meal – that finally included a salad (but I did have cheesecake for dessert. With two kinds of chocolate.) – it was time to tuck in before a 6:00 a.m. wake-up call the next day to start the trip back to Toronto, despite the fact that there was so much more to see and do (and golf to play) still on the agenda.

As I waited for my flight home, I thought of another Tolkien quote from one of his other tales of adventure from middle-earth. “Not all those who wander are lost,” he says, and I thought about my own wandering in Northern Ireland.

I played, drank, and I found myself along the Irish Sea. It truly was an adventure.

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