Is it a huge beehive somehow turned to stone?
A construction project carried out by interplanetary stonemasons?
Or the remains of a bridge built centuries ago by an Irish giant to enable a Scottish giant to visit?
Or could it be, as one visitor poetically described it in 1869, "the peculiar finger work of God"?
There is some story going around about lava and quick cooling that crystallized the rocks into interlocking columns millions of years ago. But that seems the unlikeliest explanation for the astonishing natural formation of 40,000 six-sided columns of basalt forming a hauntingly beautiful mosaic of steps and pillars of the rugged Giant's Causeway, on the north coast of County Antrim, Northern Ireland.
The Causeway was officially discovered in 1692, and ever since then has drawn visitors from all over the globe.
Not me, though.
It seemed so remote (it's not) and so, well, weird (it is, although not weird in a bad way). But after many trips to Ireland, we finally penciled in a two-day sweep of the far North, including the city of Derry, Bushmills (the town and the distillery) and the Giant's Causeway.
Any one of the three stops would have been worth the trip. Together, the three were a two-day delight.
First, the distance: My husband and I left the center of Dublin in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. Once we escaped the maddening traffic of Dublin (even the cabbies complain about it in humorous and colorful ways), the 175-mile drive to Bushmills was leisurely and trouble-free.
The Good Friday peace agreement and the subsequent IRA ceasefire meant that we were no longer questioned at the border by a twitchy teen-age British soldier leaning the muzzle of his automatic rifle into the driver's window.
I can understand how being stopped at the border by this sort of Welcome Wagon put many people off a trip to the north at all. But this spring, there was only a foot-and-mouth disease checkpoint where fellows in plastic suits gave us big smiles and jaunty waves as they sprayed the tires of our rental car with disinfectant. "No sheep in the boot? On your way!"
No more cases of the highly contagious livestock disease have been found in Ireland, so the summer's travelers will sail right across the border, with only the occasional bit of graffiti to remind them that they have entered what some call "the wee statelet."
I took a wistful look as we passed Belfast, but to experience new places, one must sometimes overlook the old ones. We hopscotched from Ballyclare to Ballymena, on to Ballymoney, turned left at Dervock, passed through Derrykeighan and Castlecat, and pulled into Bushmills (the town, not the distillery) for the night at about 8 p.m.
Our lodging for the next two nights, the Bushmills Inn hotel and restaurant, was easy to miss driving in, so we did. We made a U-turn and saw it immediately, a sparkling whitewashed facade on the main street. As we made the turn into the arched entryway that brought us back into the parking lot and the main entrance, we realized why we had missed it the first time down the street. We had been nervously eyeing the painted board affixed to a telephone pole that featured the logos of two Protestant paramilitary groups, looming over the red, white and blue painted curb that conveyed the area's pro-British orientation. The display of paramilitary power gave us a moment of pause.
The uneasiness was swept away by the warm welcome we received at the front desk, just feet from a glowing turf fire surrounded by chairs. Our room, one of the larger ones at the hotel, was located in the Mill House. To get to it, we walked upstairs, passed a small parlor in the loft area that was also blazing with a bright turf fire (I estimated the temperature in the parlor to be about 200 degrees, or hot enough to smoke a salmon), then down another flight to our room in a quiet corridor. A door to the parking lot accessible by key card meant that we could be in the dining room in 30 seconds if we simply strolled outside and entered again by the front door.
Washed and refreshed, we were in the dining room soon enough, where we had the first of several excellent meals, featuring wild-caught smoked or fresh salmon and other super-fresh seafood. (The sight of lambs frolicking in the pasture behind the inn and the foot-and-mouth news put me off red meat for this trip, at least).
Included in the room price is a traditional Ulster fry. The Bushmills breakfast features orange juice, eggs cooked to order, rashers (bacon), sausage, tomato, mushrooms, toast, tea, a fried soda farl (bread), a slice of potato bread, and a choice of cereal, yogurt or fruit salad. They will also cook ham or kippers if you'd like. No need to think about lunch after that set-up.
The Giant's Causeway
The next morning, thus fortified, we set out for the Causeway, a mere two miles from the hotel. Our first stop was the visitors' center, a modern wood complex with a gift shop and small theater where a show is presented about the fact and fiction of the Causeway. Being so close to the real deal on a gorgeous sunny day, we picked up a few guidebooks and climbed on to the small bus (which charged a small fee) that would take us directly to the Middle Causeway.
The bus passed small groups and couples who chose the free stroll down to the Middle Causeway. We passed vigorous-looking hikers with sticks and canteens and family groups with tiny tots, and felt a bit guilty that we had chosen the quick and easy way to the rocks -- kind of like eating dessert first. Within a few minutes, the bus dropped us directly in the shadow of some of the most amazing columns and rocks.
Directly in front of us, the sea pounded and frothed against the geometric stacked rocks. To the right, a set of angled columns started at ground level and rose in increments, like stair steps. The shorter columns resembled a very uneven tile floor, while the tallest were about seven stories high.
Many of the tops of the columns were concave and held tiny pools of water, in which algae undulated. Although many of the columns are six-sided (the most efficient way to interlock, like a beehive's cells, according to scientists) many of them have eight, five or four sides. There are reported to be some triangular columns, with three sides, but they are as rare as four-leaf clovers -- we didn't see any.
While we stood there, marveling, the bus arrived again, this time packed with French teen-agers who burst from its doors en masse and scrambled up the pillars to the top. They hopped from stone to stone as high as they could get and stepped out on the portion of the columns that protrudes into the sea, and generally frolicked like nimble young mountain goats. They were accompanied by one loud, imperious teacher, whom they unanimously ignored as he bellowed in an operatic voice: "Attendez! Attendez!"
Meanwhile, we wandered through a small gap where a portal of stone columns flanks a winding path down to another bay. Here, the vista includes a phalanx of fallen columns pointing toward the sea dubbed "The Giant's Cannons," a large boot-shaped rock on the water's edge called (what else?) "The Giant's Boot," and an area of more weathered columns that resembles the pipes of a massive organ.
We'd picked up a free brochure at the visitors center, but found it contained mostly ominous warnings ("Do not approach cliff edges. Tell friends where you are going. Avoid black rocky areas. If sea is rough, keep well back. Keep dogs under control at all times"). A larger book we bought provided the exact details we needed to find the boot (which, from most angles, looks like just another rock) and the eye-shaped formations called ... can you guess? Yes, "The Giant's Eyes."
Because we skipped the orientation in the visitors' center, we didn't learn until later that the much-mentioned giant is Finn MacCool. The story goes that Finn, who lived on the far north coast of Ireland, could hear the mocking challenges of an annoying giant on the southern shore of Scotland.
The story goes that Finn wrote a challenge to the Scottish giant, wrapped it around a stone and tossed it across the North Channel, inviting him to come for a test of strength. The Scottish giant answered the same way, saying that he could not swim, so Finn would be spared a beating. Finn, enraged by his rival's arrogance, hacked huge columns from the cliffs and plunged them into the sea, making a sturdy bridge to Scotland.
When the Scottish giant reluctantly crossed the causeway and arrived at Finn's house, the story takes a typically Irish twist. Finn has fallen asleep after his week's labor in building the causeway, and his wife has dressed him as a hulking baby. "If this is the baby, how large is the father?" the Scottish giant asks himself, and he flees back home, destroying the causeway as he goes.
Thus refreshed by a morning's immersion in nature's majesty and mythology, we traveled back to Bushmills, where, five minutes from our hotel, we entered the grounds of the historic Old Bushmills Distillery.
This has been the site of a licensed distiller of whiskey for an astonishing 393 years. In fact, the word whiskey, spelled with an "e" here, was derived from the Irish words "uisce beatha," or water of life.
The orientation video at the distillery explained what we would see on the tour. We were warned that camera flashes (and of course, smoking) were strictly prohibited in the buildings because of the fear of explosion from the volatile alcohol fumes in the air. This seemed unlikely, but the first room we entered, where the grain was soaked and cooked, was so filled with the yeasty smell of fermentation (as well as large signs saying 'No naked lights!') that we were convinced.
The scents of the tour became more whiskey-like along each step in the process, from the distilling room to the warehouse (one of many) filled with thousands of barrels of whiskey peacefully aging. By the time an elevated catwalk took our group past the packing room, where we watched seals being carefully applied to the bottle caps, our minds were on the final stop of the tour, the 1608 Bar, where those of legal age are served a sample of Bushmills' finest.
While the others on the tour anjoyed their drinks, four tasting volunteers (myself included, of course) were presented with medicine-cup-sized samples of several types of whiskeys, including bourbon and Scotch, blended and single-malt. I was astonished to be able to taste the wood flavor in bourbon once the aging process -- in raw new-wood barrels -- was described.
At the end of the test, all four of us were presented with handsome certificates proclaiming us qualified Irish whiskey tasters.
Off to Derry
The next day, after another delicious and bountiful breakfast and a final few moments roasting near the lobby turf fire, it was on to Derry, 45 miles away.
Derry's name originated from the Irish word "Daire," meaning "oak grove," but it was Anglicized to Londonderry in 1613 after the region was "planted" with immigrants from England. In 1984, the overwhelmingly Catholic City Council changed its name to Derry City Council, leaving the amusingly Irish situation in which the City of Londonderry is run by the Derry City Council.
In fact, I picked up two sets of identical postcards, each produced in two versions, one a souvenir of "Derry," the other from "Londonderry." I found the cards next to each other on the rack of a downtown newsagent. Times have changed in Derry, or Londonderry, whichever you prefer.
We stayed at the Trinity Hotel, a new hotel downtown, and found ourselves happily in the thick of the shopping, entertainment and historic district of the city. From the hotel, it was an easy walk to the old walled city, and we spent one lovely sunny afternoon walking the city walls, which were finished in 1618 and are the only surviving complete city walls in Ireland. From the wide, smooth top of the walls, complete with cannons, we looked down on neighborhoods, bustling streets and historic buildings.
We spent the most time lingering over the view of the Bogside, where on Jan. 30, 1972, soldiers of the British Army's Parachute Regiment fired into a crowd of unarmed civil rights demonstrators, killing 14, including six 17-year-olds. Although the high-rise public housing flats that were the backdrop for most of the killings have been razed and even the streets have been reconfigured, the wall painted "You are Now Entering Free Derry" still stands. A tall monument engraved with the names of the dead stands where one man fell, and three 35-foot-tall murals show scenes from the civil rights struggle and from Bloody Sunday, including Bernadette Devlin speaking to the crowd through a bullhorn.
History still lives and breathes in Derry. An official British inquiry right after the Bloody Sunday massacre exonerated the paratroopers, but the victims, their families and supporters pressed for a second inquiry, which is now taking place in the historic Guildhall building downtown.
We spent a day in the public gallery observing the latest proceedings, called the Saville Inquiry. The testimony, for the most part, was chilling. But there were smiles all around when one witness, Joseph McColgan, was asked by a lawyer representing some British paratroopers, "Did you come across any IRA gunmen (that day)?" McColgan snapped back, "Not unless they were wearing British Army uniforms."
The inquiry has been hearing witnesses since March 2000 and is expected to continue for some time, although it is not in session every day. Its Web site is www.bloody-sunday-inquiry.org.uk/index.htm. In the Bloody Sunday museum, a few steps from the Guildhall, a large display of photos and several videos provide an overview of the event and its impact.
We were delighted to find a modern, bustling Internet cafe in Derry, on the Diamond, the historic town square of the old walled city. At the bean-there.com Internet cafe, we sent e-mail postcards (no picture of a green vista or a sheep, but immediate delivery) and kept up on the news from home. And in a shoe repair shop just off the Diamond, when the shoemaker had no change for a 10-pound note for our small luggage-strap repair, he urged us, "Put it in the poor box" in a distinctive, musical Derry accent. Then he told us of his trip to visit cousins in Western New York.
It's a small world, certainly. And Northern Ireland is a delightful, less-visited corner of it.
On your first trip to the Emerald Isle, see the Ring of Kerry and the Cliffs of Moher. But after that, make some time to swing north. And have a shot of Bushmills for me.
Double rooms in the Bushmills Inn, on the main road through the town of Bushmills on the north Antrim coast, cost between 98 pounds and 128 pounds per night and include breakfast. (A pound cost about $1.40 when we were there in the spring.) Go to www.bushmillsinn.com or phone 011 44 28 207 32339.
Bushmills Distillery tours operate daily year-round, with fewer tours during the off-season, from November to March. Brochures for the tour are available everywhere in the area; for more information, go to www.irish-whiskey-trail.com.
Rates at the Trinity Hotel, 22-24 Strand Road, Derry, are listed at 90 pounds per night, but we picked up a flier for a special weekend rate of two nights, with breakfast both mornings and two dinners for just 79 pounds per person. The hotel was new, clean and convenient, and we'd stay there again, even without the special weekend rate. For details, go to www.thetrinityhotel.com.
For information as well as specific phone numbers and maps, contact the Northern Ireland Tourist Board's New York office, 551 Fifth Ave., Suite 701, New York, N.Y., 10176 or call (800) 326 0036.