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Queen of the North

Isabel Conway sets sail to catch her breakfast from the Atlantic waters of the Causeway Coast and experiences the very best that the stunning coastline has to offer — in scenery and in flavour

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Stranded: Ballycastle Hotel and the famous haunted tower

Stranded: Ballycastle Hotel and the famous haunted tower

Stranded: Ballycastle Hotel and the famous haunted tower

A small orange and white fishing boat, straight off the pages of a kid’s story book, merrily bobs up and down inside Portstewart sheltered Causeway Coast harbour, Co Antrim. We’re like excited children ourselves embarking on this maiden fishing expedition to land our lunch.

Our Skipper Peter Boston is more accustomed to leaving Killybegs, Co Donegal for six months at a stretch to chase the North Sea’s scaly harvest off an impressive sized trawler than showing fishing newbies how to land a mackerel or two.

Before we chug out along Portstewart Strand into the bay, enjoying views of local landmarks, he has provided basic instruction on how to avoid a line twist, cast out properly and then pray for luck.

“Most important thing is remembering to keep your thumb firmly on the reel to control the amount of nylon you want to use and engage your clutch to stop it running away”, he cautions.

Kittiwakes and other Gulls are shrieking above, pursuing the boat and plotting a robbery when fish are dangling off the newbies lines. Half a mile from shore we stop to cast our lines out, reaching a depth of around 40m — according to Peter the perfect spot to entice mackerel, sea bass and Pollock among other species. He mentions Tuna, quite prevalent now in the north Atlantic due to global warming, but says our chance of catching any are very slim. The small boat rocks in the swell on this fresh windy July morning while we wait for our rods to tantalizingly bend. I am staggering like a fella that’s sunk too many pints (before lockdown!) trying to keep my balance and the rod steady.

I don’t expect to catch anything except a deep resigned sigh from Peter who has already been hard at work repairing the tangled line of my reel after I forgot to use my thumb as a brake to stop its escape.

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Isabel fishing at Port Stewart

Isabel fishing at Port Stewart

Isabel fishing at Port Stewart

I’ve caught a couple of undersized mackerel within minutes and happily am instructed to throw them back in the sea to freedom. Wendy Gallagher of Causeway Coast Foodie Tours —powerhouse for showcasing top local organic produce and food related hidden gems of the area — has landed a fine Pollack. Another aspiring sea fisherman excitedly reels in more mackerel. Just as he’s removing one off the hook a gull dive bombs and grabs it, a worthy winner, we decide.

Today our fabulous ‘Catch and Sea’ boat experience does not include a familiar sighting of a Minke Whales nor a pod of dolphins either.

But, still we are well satisfied with our morning’s work, afterwards enjoying a delicious lunch at Warkes Deli of the fish we’ve proudly caught, served with a selection of fantastic artisanal produce from Causeway Coast and Glens Food Network.

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The Giant’s Causeway is a big attraction

The Giant’s Causeway is a big attraction

The Giant’s Causeway is a big attraction

The 50- mile stretch of enchanting, award winning Causeway Coast encompasses spectacular UNESCO Giant’s Causeway. Must visit stop offs also include — Ballintoy Harbour, popular with coasteering adrenaline junkies who jump from rocks and even cliffs for thrills and famous Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, shut during my recent visit because social distancing is nigh impossible here. Cliff top Dunluce Castle and White Park Bay along the coast are full of history and breath taking scenery at locations instantly familiar to ‘Game of Thrones’ fans from all over the world who flocked to the region.

My base historic comfortable Ballygally Castle hotel oozes history and atmosphere overlooking a quiet safe beach and has views across the Irish Sea to Mull of Kintyre in Scotland. Legend tells us a ghost, named Isabella, leapt from the 17th century tower after her newly born baby (a girl) was killed because she had failed to produce a male heir.

The hotel’s entertaining general manager, Norman McBride can spin chilling ghost stories for visitors embroidered with legend and reports from guests of strange ghostly happenings. “I’m a kind of seeing is believing person and I haven’t seen either of the two ghosts here yet myself” Norman jokes.

The hotel has one door of ten listed in a ‘Journey of Doors Game of Thrones’ passport issued by Northern Ireland Tourism, carved out of fallen trees at the Dark Hedges. Each unique door represents an episode from the sixth season of the hit show. Ballygally is also the spot for a special ‘Game of Thrones’ inspired afternoon tea that includes Dothraki trifle, Lannister egg rolls, Ayra’s Madelines and other tempting treats.

Flanked by the wild North Atlantic Ocean and a landscape of dramatic cliffs, the Giant’s Causeway is a geological wonder of 40,000 basalt stone columns left behind 60 million years ago during volcanic eruptions. At the award winning visitor centre Alastair Walker the site manager says: “There is no better time to visit than now; normally we would have up to 5,000 visitors a day here, today we are down to just over 900, our capacity within the two metre social distancing rules here due to coronavirus; it used to get a bit uncomfortable inside the visitor centre because of the crowds; now people are telling me they feel they have the whole experience to themselves!”