America is beautiful, but there’s a big world out there beyond its borders. Having achieved our goal of seeing many of the national parks of the Colorado Plateau, visiting
desert-dwelling friends and family, and seeing cliff dwellings and petroglyphs, it was time for something new.
We’ve belonged for several years to a site called luxuryhousesitting.com. The concept is: you pay a small annual fee, they check you out, and travelers with luxury homes in vacation destinations post housesitting jobs. You get to stay in some of the most desirable tourist destinations for free, and they get a free housesitter (some of them pay a small amount, if there’s a lot of work involved; some require you to pay for your utility use). While we’ve been tempted by mountaintop retreats in Hawaii, out-island homes in the Bahamas, and luxury lofts and townhomes in cities like Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Vienna, they never seemed to co-ordinate with our plans. But when we saw one near Dublin, in Westmeath, Ireland, we decided to go for it!
Ireland is a complex and fascinating place. My ancestry is at least 2/3 Irish, maybe more, and I have visited many times, but mostly in the West. I’d never visited Northern Ireland, or spent any time in the UK at all. So, given that our airfare would be about half the price if we arrived a week before the housesit began, we decided to book an AirBnB in Belfast. We flew into Dublin and rented a car, then drove (manual transmission on the “wrong” side of the road, an adventure in itself) to Belfast. Our lovely hostess Una greeted us and settled us in to our truly fabulous room. The entire home was a restored and upgraded Victorian or Georgian townhome, gorgeous and luxurious. Our room had bay windows facing the garden, a comfortable bed, antique-looking furnishings, a kettle in the room, and a luxury bathroom. Una was friendly and helpful. Breakfast was generous and varied. We loved this AirBnB experience!
Belfast is a bustling city, and the optimism in the air is palpable now that a new generation is coming of age since 1998 who don’t remember the Troubles (violent riots, terrorism, and guerilla warfare between those who want the British out, and those loyal to Britain). The Peace Wall is covered with street art; it used to be shut down to segregate the two halves of the city when tensions were high, but now it stands open. Peace and prosperity!
The downtown area is walkable and full of shops and street musicians. The traditional pubs still stand, and architectural marvels old and new are side by side, including the Europa hotel, “the most bombed hotel in Europe” because it’s where journalists used to stay during the Troubles.
We bought tickets for a bus tour to the Giant’s Causeway; it had a Game of Thrones theme. Much of GOT was filmed in Northern Ireland, and over the years the series (the world-wide most-watched TV series ever, according to one tour guide) has become a major tourist attraction for the area. I am a GOT fan, so of course we had to check it out! Look at the beach where Melisandra gave birth and the King’s Road:
The Causeway itself is a UNESCO World Heritage site, just like the Grand Canyon. I’ve learned that some sites are asking to be taken off the UNESCO list, because they are so inundated with visitors the places are having a hard time accommodating all the international visitors and dealing with the crowding. This was certainly the case at the Causeway, but we got to walk around on the unique rock formations and savor the salt air.
My arthritis took a turn for the worse, so we didn’t go too far out, but the bus up and down from the entry and the sidewalks made it accessible. I napped on the bus instead of attempting the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge (we had seen lots of scary bridges in Ecuador, anyway).
The bus also stopped at a pub with a door carved in a Dothraki (Game of Thrones) theme and a fake Iron Throne to sit in.
We explored Belfast Castle next. The Castle is gorgeous and the grounds are spectacular. There are plaques inside that talk about the history, going back to the time before the Castle was built and Wolfe Tone met others on the hill to plot rebellion.
We had coffee and scones in the little shop inside while we waited for the rain (“Irish sunshine”) to abate, then we went out into the Cat Garden, where cat art adorns a classic formal garden.
Then it was on to the Belfast Zoo on foot. We had a bit of an adventure getting there; Google Maps shows an entrance right next to the Castle, but that entrance is chained off and looks like it has been for some time. We kept going, assuming there would be another entrance shortly, but there wasn’t. We wound up walking almost seven miles to get to the zoo. Fortunately, Una’s house was just a single bus ride back.
We decided to pass on Titanic Belfast, a city project which sounded to us like a very commercial and expensive development aimed at parting tourists from their money. The Titanic Memorial statue in the city center was beauty enough.
We walked to Crumlin Gaol, but entry was very expensive ($16 apiece), so we admired it from outside.
We took a walk by the Quay.
The time in Belfast passed too quickly, but soon it was time to bid our wonderful hostess goodbye and head south.