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I recently travelled to Ireland courtesy of Tourism Ireland and Etihad Airways to experience the Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland’s first long distance touring route stretching along the Atlantic coast from Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal to Kinsale in West Cork. At the Northern end, the route adjoins the Causeway Coast tourism route in Northern Ireland and after two nights in Belfast, this is where we started our journey.

To backtrack though, we joined Etihad Airways in Sydney and flew via Abu Dhabi to Dublin. Etihad Airways is the national airline of the United Arab Emirates and commenced commercial operations in November 2003. In just 10 years it has gone on to become the fastest growing airline in the history of commercial aviation. Unique to Etihad is the “Flying Nanny”. The specially trained Flying Nannies are approved by Norland, the UK’s renowned childcare training college for early years professionals. They are there to provide an extra pair of hands – whether it’s helping to settle the children, keeping them entertained or simply offering advice and support to parents. This service is available on all long haul flights.

On arrival in Dublin, we collect rental cars and drove to Belfast, a journey of around two hours. Mention must be made of three fantastic restaurants – Neill’s Hill in Upper Newtownards Road where we enjoyed a range of amazing seafood dishes, the Dirty Duck Alehouse at Holywood offering panoramic sea views and a great range of (mainly) fish dishes, all locally caught. One thing that struck me in Ireland is that many restaurants are members of Good Food Ireland, an organisation founded in 2006 who are passionately committed to using local food, supporting Irish farmers, food producers and fishermen and they list their suppliers on the menus.

One of the highlights of Belfast was Titanic Belfast, located in the heart of the city. Titanic Belfast is the world’s largest Titanic visitor experience, housed in an iconic, six floor building telling you the story of Titanic, from her conception in Belfast in the early 1900s through her construction, launch, her famous maiden voyage and subsequent place in history. It is an amazing experience. Next to the centre is the SS Nomadic, built in 1911 to be the tender ship for the Olympic Class Liners including Titanic. Constructed alongside her big sister, she is now restored to her original glory. She was the tender ship in 1912 carrying 172 first and second class passengers to Titanic at Cherbourg.

We drove from Belfast via Ballymoney in County Antrim to view the Dark Hedges (as seen in the Game of Thrones). This beautiful avenue of beech trees was planted by the Stuart family in the eighteenth century as a compelling landscape feature to impress visitors as they approached the entrance to their home. Two centuries later the trees are a magnificent sight and have become known as the Dark Hedges. This country lane was one of the most beautiful I saw in Northern Ireland.

On to the Causeway Coast where the road hugs the narrow strip of coastline between the sea and high cliffs to a phenomenon known as the Giants Causeway. A story about the legendary giant who built the Giant’s Causeway has been told for generations. The giant was 54 foot tall and he was called Finn McCool. Although he is part of the Causeway creation myth, Finn features as the leader of a band of warriors called the Fianna in Irish stories that may date as far back as the third Century A.D. The Causeway story tells us that Finn lived happily on the Antrim coast with his wife Oonagh until he discovered he had a rival in Scotland known as Benandonner. Finn was frequently taunted by Benandonner from afar and on one occasion Finn scooped up a clod of earth and hurled it across the sea at him but missed. The huge clod of earth landed in the middle of the Irish Sea making the Isle of Man and the depression formed from scooping up the earth filled up with water to become Lough Neagh.

Finn finally challenged Benandonner to a proper fight and decided to build a causeway of enormous stepping stones across the sea to Scotland, so that he could walk across without getting his feet wet. But as he approached and caught sight of the great bulk of Benandonner, Finn became afraid and fled back home, with Benandonner hot on his trail. In his haste as he ran, Finn lost one of his great boots and today it can be seen sitting on the foreshore in Port Noffer where it fell to the ground.

The story takes a humorous twist when Finn asks his wife Oonagh to help him hide. Clever Oonagh disguised Finn as a baby and pushed him into a huge cradle, so when Benandonner saw the size of the sleeping ‘child’, he assumed the father must be GIGANTIC. Benandonner fled home in terror, ripping up the Causeway as he went in case he was followed. The story concludes that this is the reason that the Giant’s Causeway exists in north Antrim, with similar columns at Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish island of Staffa. Local people believe that between the hexagons, the mythical features carved out in the rocks and the tumbling sea, there’s real magic. An outdoor audio tour around the Giant’s Causeway weaves the magic and gives clues of the existence of Finn McCool including Giant’s Boot, The Wishing Chair, The Camel, Giant’s Granny and The Organ.

More scientific, the Giant’s Causeway is an area of approximately 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, the result of ancient volcanic eruptions and geological activity, an epic 60 million year old legacy to the cooling and shrinking of successive lava flows. I think the legend is more convincing!

I’ll continue my journey in the coming weeks but please call me, Izzy or Louise for any Irish enquiries.

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