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Our Greatest Adventure Yet: Rathlin Island & Portrush, Northern Ireland
Today marked the start of one of our most adventurous days here onboard Silversea’s Silver Explorer, with an early-morning call on remote Rathlin Island before sailing over lunchtime to Portrush, Northern Ireland and two of County Antrim’s most spectacular sights: Dunluce Castle and the Giant’s Causeway.
At 6:30am, the shipwide wakeup call went over the public address system and into the staterooms notifying guests that in just one hours’ time, the first zodiac embarkations would begin. Room service was very popular but contrary to what you might think, the vast majority of passengers – including myself – were totally pumped for this morning of exploration on Rathlin Island.
The site of a number of infamous massacres in the 1500’s, Rathlin Island is just 4 kilometers from north to south, and 6 kilometers from east to west. Its current population hovers at between 75 and 100, depending on who you ask – meaning that our visit today more than doubled the population of the island! In its heyday, though, as many as 3,000 people resided here, which is evident from the stone structures, huts and houses that sit abandoned in many places.
After completing a dry landing ashore via zodiac, each zodiac group was whisked on two separate adventures: a trip to the local bird sanctuary and a walking tour of the harbour and surrounding areas.
We began with a trip to the bird sanctuary, which is perched high atop one of the island’s cliffs. Looking more like a maximum security facility, it nevertheless provides for some stunning views of thousands of different birds spanning over a dozen types nesting, flying, and generally doing what birds do. Through the use of a professional scope provided by our resident expedition birdwatcher Chris, I was even able to catch a close-up glimpse of several Puffins – squat little birds distinguished by their bright orange feet and almost tropical-looking beak.
Birders and professional photographers: bring your telephoto lenses!
Afterwards, it was back into town for a walking tour around the harbour to see seals basking themselves in the sun, which is again unusually pleasant for this time of year.
More cool facts about Rathlin: there are 7 children enrolled in the local school; there is no permanent, on-site police force; and nearly the entire population of the island can fit into the local pub, where an 18-year old girl celebrated her birthday yesterday. One guest on our tour took the words out of my mouth when he asked if we could pop in for a pint of Guinness, but sadly the birthday celebrations had ended just before we landed ashore and they’d locked up to get some sleep!
If I were a novelist, Rathlin Island is the kind of place I’d want to steal away to in the winter!
With everyone re-boarding Silver Explorer around 10:30am, we raised anchor and made our way to Portrush, Northern Ireland over lunchtime, sailing past the Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge on our port side.
It’s a special occasion for me today, because I visited these areas in August 2009 aboard another cruise that called in Belfast for the day and we had set out on a private tour of the area, stopping at Dunluce Castle, the Giant’s Causeway and even Carrick-a-Rede. I thought we were pretty lucky to get a warm, sunny day back then, and I feel grateful that everyone here onboard Silver Explorer has been blessed with the same fabulous weather.
Once again, I lunched out in the sunshine on the Aft Pool Deck on Deck 6. This casual venue has been immensely popular onboard our expedition, and I’d be inclined to throw a parka on and dine out here in Antarctica if they’d open the thing up – but that’s just me! There’s just one problem: dining here is so enjoyable, I keep forgetting to take a photograph.
After dropping anchor off Portrush, Northern Ireland, guests onboard the Silver Explorer made the quick zodiac trip ashore where the locals were out en-force, enjoying the spectacular sunshine. A few teenagers even thought the harbour made a perfect swimming pool; I’m not so sure about that.
We set out for Dunluce Castle, just five minutes up the road from Portrush. With an hour to explore here, guests from all of Silver Explorer’s tour groups had the chance to really get to know this one-of-a-kind structure.
Formerly a full working (and very imposing) castle, Dunluce is perched precariously on the side of the cliff face, and indeed part of the original castle has already fallen into the ocean many years ago. The remains of this medieval fortress are now missing walls, cielings, and other important structural elements, but recognizable details remain.
Doors and archways still stand, as do a number of windows and turrets. But for me, the sight of the remains of fireplaces really brought home that this was a working castle in the Medieval ages, and a thing that the locals likely feared until it fell into disrepair a few hundred years ago.
The absolute highlight of the afternoon, though, was our visit to the Giant’s Causeway.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Giant’s Causeway is comprised of hundreds of hexagonal basalt columns, the tallest (and most frequently-photographed) of which rises to a height of 12 metres.
Interestingly, the Causeway isn’t visible from the car park, which is perched on the top of a hill. A new interpretive centre has been added since my last visit in 2009, and while it’s still under construction, it’s very modern for my liking. Still, the same basic concept remained: you can choose to walk down to the Causeway, or take the shuttlebus.
I preferred the walk, as it’s beautiful and only takes 18 minutes or so from start to finish.
After arriving, you’re welcome to scrabble all over the basalt columns for a first-hand look at this natural marvel that has inspired travellers and writers for centuries. It’s awfully cool to stand at the tip of the causeway and look out over the ocean at Scotland in the distance. Even Rathlin Island, where we called this morning, was faintly visible.
A word of caution if you do visit the causeway: be careful on the dark-colored basalt columns, particularly around tidal changes, as they can be quite slippery. My visit today, though, was drier than in 2009, and I was able to walk all the way to the edge of the ocean.
After taking an obscene amount of photographs of County Antrim’s most popular attraction, it was time to make the trek back up the gently-winding road and back to the visitor’s centre.
But after all that walking, it was only appropriate to finally fulfill my goal whilst in Ireland: to have a pint of Guinness.
So, up we went to the cozy looking pub that made my mouth water three years ago where I ordered a full pint of Guinness and spent the next 45 minutes or so enjoying myself thoroughly. A great way to cap off an excellent day of exploration!
In all, we had two hours to explore the causeway, which worked out perfectly. Coordinating these excursions cannot be easy for the onboard expedition team, but they make it look like it’s the simplest thing in the world, and that’s very much to their credit.
Once guests returned to the pier, there was a bit of time available to explore Portrush. Can I be honest, though? After a full day of active touring, I was ready to return to the Silver Explorer and kick my feet up a bit!
Tonight, a cocktail party was held in The Theatre for Silversea’s past guests. Known as the Venetian Society, this program aims to recognize Silversea’s valuable repeat passengers with a private reception and some fascinating perks. There were a few guests onboard with between three and five hundred days onboard Silversea, and one couple with 150 days onboard Silver Explorer alone! And here I was feeling pretty good about my 11 days…
After an adventure-filled day ashore, dinner is in full swing here onboard the Silver Explorer, and cocktails will be served to the soothing sounds of Lou on the piano in the Panorama Lounge shortly. The sun, which continues to set later and later at this northern latitude, is shining brilliantly outside, inviting guests to take a pre-dinner stroll around the promenade deck on Deck 6.
And me? I’m watching the northernmost coast of Northern Ireland pass slowly by my window, the golden waves reflecting softly off of the hull of the Silver Explorer. It’s a fitting end to our journeys in Ireland, which have taken us to some of the most scenic and breathtaking ports I’ve ever been to. We’ve seen gardens, Abbeys, mansions, and spectacular scenery and warm Irish hospitality.
I now know why there are so many poems, stories and songs written about Ireland. It has a way of getting under your skin and into your soul, grabbing hold and never letting go.
The entire time I have been in Ireland, I’ve been quietly humming one of my favorite songs to myself: She Moved Through the Fair, as sung by Sinead O’Connor on the soundtrack to the movie, Michael Collins. Take a listen to it on Youtube and compare it with some of the breathtaking images here; I think you’ll find that it has the power to make your hairs stand on end.
Almost incredibly, from my talks with the expedition team, the best is still to come as we sail to the small Scottish islands of Staffa and Iona tomorrow for another day of adventure and exploration. What it must be like to sail onboard here for one, two, even three expedition segments as some passengers are doing…
Some ships are designed to instantly impress. Others are designed to grow on you over time. As another day draws to a close here, it is apparent to me that Silver Explorer is designed to do the latter. She may not wow you immediately, but the onboard experience most certainly will.
Our Live Voyage Report from aboard Silversea’s adventurous Silver Explorer returns tomorrow as we trade Ireland for Scotland and go exploring on Staffa and Iona!
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