06/14/2012 07:04 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Northern Ireland: Exploring Beyond Belfast (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

This is the fourth in a five-part series about Northern Ireland. Read the first, second and third installments before reading on...

In the sweet liquid light of morning, my friend Virginia schemes a journey up the shoreline, beyond the shadow of Titanic, she says, up the Causeway Coastal Route, 120 miles to the walled city with two names, Derry (as Catholics sound it) or Londonderry (as Protestants claim).

We're joined by friends Cynthia and Didrik Johnck, she being an overachieving second child who has trekked to some of the most remote nooks on the planet, is a super mom, and a talent wrangler in the design world; he the exception that proves the rule, a first son who has climbed Everest and won awards as a photographer/filmmaker, always in search of the perfect Irish Coffee.

Under a watery sun we spool up the road, with gale-blown salt grass and a vaguely crinkled blue Atlantic on one side, green hills dotted with plump lambs and little Dexter cows on the other. Everywhere spread fields of heather, furze-covered pitches and barren bogs, sloping upwards to ice-gouged valleys.

About half-way up the Antrim coast we stop for a bio-break at the chocolate-box village of Carnlough, on the edge of an uncongenial harbor bobbing with blue and white boats. We are in the middlemost of the rainy season, but the weather doesn't know it. The sun is beaming, so I sprawl on a picnic table for a few minutes, close my eyes and sail away. Virginia brings me back to reality with a nudge, and a minute later we are back in the car, pointing up shore. As we pull away Virginia points out the Londonderry Arms Hotel, an old coaching inn where Winston Churchill slept -- because he inherited it in 1921 from his great grandmother, Lady Londonderry. But Churchill was a first-born, of aristocratic descent, born in a palace in Oxfordshire, England. An inn in Northern Ireland wasn't a vital piece of his portfolio. He sold it off in 1934.

The road now seems less a motorway than a feature of fantasy and we abandon ourselves to the journey. On our left there is a blending of lines and folds in the cliffs and valleys, and the color saffron fills the space between earth and sky; on our right the sea shimmers as a pane to the Scottish coast, creating an illusion of both proximity and depth, as if the shore could be reached in a moment, or never at all.

Then mid-afternoon, beyond a swatch of scotch pines, we stop at Cushendun, where it is refreshing to find something that is not the biggest in the world. Mary McBrides, where the leprechauns and Lilliputians hang, is a bar claiming to be the smallest in Ireland, where we fuel up on wee Irish Coffees, to which I have now developed an unhealthy attachment.

Not long after we pull into a parking lot, the smell of the sea margin everywhere, the dialogue between wind and water almost clear. We step down to Carrick-A-Rede, a gossamer basket of a bridge, connecting the mainland to Carrick Island, where local fishermen for 300 years pulled in salmon. The salmon stock has diminished, but the numbers, and income, are more than made up with tourists, over a quarter million a year, who thrill with the swaying ropes 100 feet above the rocks and filigrees of spindrift.

Then, as if to prove we are still in an oversized land, our final stop for the day is the Giant's Causeway, a place that looks like Hell with the fire put out.

It claws into a dark tranche of sea towards Scotland like an unfinished bridge, a honeycomb stretch of oversized basalt columns organized like stepping stones. How did this happen? Well, doyens of the region say rival giants, Irish Fin McCool and the Scottish Benandonner, once taunted one another from their respective shores. Finn's resourceful wife is said to have disguised her husband as a baby and hid him in a crib. When Benandonner saw the "giant baby," he hightailed it back to Scotland, not wanting to encounter the dad, and in the process, tore up the causeway so that Fin McCool could not follow. Lesser minds suggest it is all the result of a pool of bubbling lava slowly cooling into 40,000 columns 60 million years ago. Whatever the origins, it is a dark reach totally subordinated to Nature.

The wane of the afternoon is boisterous, the winds sitting sore against the shoreline, though the low sun burns clear. I find a sheltered throne of hexagonal pilasters of basalt, and stretch out, skin bathed in the sun, the horizon in my view finely curved with distance. Seagulls swoop and skirl and keen. With the warmth against my face, and the soothing sounds of the sea, I close my eyes and fall into the sleep of a giant baby. When I awake, the sun is making its last skids along the seam of water and sky. I pick up, race up the hill to the car where Virginia meets me with a face of dismay: "Oh my. You're sunburned! In Northern Ireland!"

For the night we make our way to the Bushmills Inn, on the River Bush, near the oldest licensed distillery in the world. It was 1608 when King James I granted the original warrant to express "Acqua Vitae," and the same year the inn opened as a coach house and stables. It reeks of antiquity, with open peat fires, gas lights, walls of stripped pine, and good craic in the bar. Of course, there is no choice but to order for dinner the fillet of beef flamed in Bushmills whiskey. It is a night to remember.

The morning next, after a light plate of rashers and potato bread, we trek to the city that with the elisions of politics is more often called Derry than its official name, Londonderry. It was earlier known as the Maiden City, by virtue of the fact that its walls were never breached during the Siege of Derry in the late 17th century. Almost a mile in circumference, the walkway on top provides a promenade, and spawned the word "catwalk." For a time the wealthy would parade the perimeter in their finery, and the less fortunate would hiss and make cat calls.

Derry is the second city of Northern Ireland, after Belfast, but is glazed with no less the ambition in its history. It is the little legend that could. It claims the world's oldest independent department store, Austins. And Virginia contends it holds title as having fired the first email -- in a cannon.

Virginia's friend, Michael Cooper, a local blue badge guide, wants to offer proof, so he leads us to St. Columb's Cathedral, and there points to an iron 270 lb. mortar cannonball, on a stand, with a hollowed out shaft, like the thumbhole in a bowling ball, where James the II (the converted Roman Catholic monarch who abdicated the throne to his Protestant son-in-law) inserted his message containing terms of surrender, which he shot across the river and over the walls. "No surrender" was the legendary reply, and the phrase has been the Protestant slogan ever since.

And, it spawned a suggestion for a compromise coinage for the divided city, in use today by
progressive locals: "Legenderry."

Continue to part five of this series.

Exploring Northern Ireland