Monday, November 20, 2017
   
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Fly your kite on North Coast!

JOHN TREW enjoys freedom and fun in famous surroundings

SERENDIPITY is a lovely word. It means “Unplanned or chance events leading to unexpectedly happy or beneficial outcomes.” Well, that’s how Trew’s Dictionary of the Queen’s English defines it anyway.

We experienced serendipity during that recent sunny – and almost HOT -- spell which caused an amazingly early rush on BBQ fuel and bronzing oil. So, instead of spending a dull weekend traipsing around our local malls in a half-hearted search for £10 Dine-In Deals and 3 for 2 Geranium Offers, Karen and I both chorussed “Let’s go away” and spent Thursday night googling on our laptops for the best holiday-at-home deals. So that’s how we chose two hotels on the North Coast to enjoy what turned out to be our best spring weekend break in Ulster for ages, split between stays in Limavady and Coleraine while exploring the Causeway Coastal Route by car.

Driving from our Bangor home to the Limavady hotel through verdant countryside in crisp spring sunshine was a pleasure, punctuated by the sight of so many new-born lambs leaping around. Even the Glenshane Pass – notorious for our worst weather every winter – looked fresh and green, dotted with blackface ewes and their cute little offspring.

As it happens, fresh spring outfits were also the order of the day soon after Glenshane, because our arrival at the Roe Park Resort coincided with an avalanche of guests for a wedding reception. It was a posh affair, judging by the large number of ushers in smart grey morning dress accompanied by well-tanned young ladies tottering around in eight-inch heels. Their mothers were also well-heeled – in a more courtly fashion – and clad in the type of auntie-of-the-bride pastel-pink garments that I usually only see when we make the occasional emergency stop at Cloughmills for Karen to explore what’s left on Logan’s Sale Rail.

RESORT WITH MUCH MORE THAN GOLF

TO BE honest, my heart originally sank when I saw the size of the wedding party. Even in a hotel as spacious as the Roe Park Resort, guests often take over the bars and lounge areas, but they were soon ‘kettled’ in their exclusive Wedding Reception area and that’s the last I heard of them apart from some noises off at 1.30am when a Boy Racer made his exit.

The Resort is still best known for its classy golf facilities; I was one of the first local travel journalists to try out its 18 hole parkland course. I have conveniently forgotten the total on my score-card! It remains a popular course, running alongside the River Roe, between brooding Binevenagh Mountain on one side and brilliant Benone Strand on the other. The course is now complemented by a high-tech Golf Academy.

We were warmly welcomed by Deirdre on the Front Desk with the good news that we had been upgraded to the Rose Suite (surely the best room in the house). Deirdre is a true travel professional; she ensured two cups of coffee, home-made shortbread and a selection of literature was delivered to us in the lounge while our suite was checked. Every time we passed Reception in the next three days, Deirdre and her colleagues enquired after our welfare and helped with our plans.

This was my third stay at the Resort; last time we were with our grandson Simon (then 11), so we used the pool and putting green a lot. You could have heard Simon’s laughter a mile away in Limavady when he switched Grandma Karen’s golfball for a trick ball that went in every direction except the one she aimed for. It was happy memories like this – and the quality of facilities such as the well-appointed Spa for golf widows and discerning guests - that helped us decide to stick with Roe Park.

The choice of eateries was another factor. Diners have the option to enjoy grills, pizzas and pasta dishes in the casual, sporty atmosphere of the Coach House Brasserie overlooking the Resort’s golf course, or to sample fine dining in the elegant ambiance of Green’s Restaurant in the heart of the original Country Manor around which the hotel has developed. I recommend you go for the Dinner, B&B Special Offer which is a real money-saver. If you do that, then also opt for the contemporary fusion cuisine of Green’s which is comparable to some restaurants I know which would charge twice the price! A typical main dish is the fillet of lamb on a bed of curried chickpeas and spiced cous-cous with delicious dauphoise potatoes on the side.

The desserts are simply divine – especially the honeycomb ice-cream with chef’s special sauce which was recommended by Ilona, the highly-professional Polish waitress with the Ulster accent. Thanks to the Nespresso machine in our suite, we could treat ourselves to an after-dinner de-caf coffee while watching either of our two suite TVs or using the free WiFi on our iPad.

COUNTRY PARK IS A HIDDEN GEM

ANOTHER great advantage of the Resort is its proximity to the Roe Valley Country Park which is literally next door. This delightful three-mile linear Park is a hidden gem which deserves more visitors (although locals and coach parties keep its café going). The Park shares lots of history with the Ritter family, former owners of the ‘big house’ which was converted to become of the Resort hotel.

Local genius J.E.Ritter was a bright spark; by harnessing the water power of the fast-flowing Roe, he was able to install the first direct electricity to a private home anywhere in Ireland. He extended the power supply to the adjacent linen mills and later to the whole of Limavady and surroundings.

Much of this history is graphically displayed in Green Lane Museum near the Visitor Centre and café marked by a modern statue of the mythic Leaping Dog which gives Limavady its Irish name. I was fascinated by the museum’s exhibits on Limavady’s great contribution to the U-Boat Battle of the Atlantic in WWII.

Two local aerodromes were outstanding, the famous Ballykelly base and the lesser-known Aghaloo. While we were driving towards the coast road after our museum visit, I took photos of a near-derelict WWII building on the perimeter of what turned out to be the Aghaloo air-base - which I had never heard of before that very morning. Serendipity!

ROUTE WITH BIGGEST WOW! FACTOR

THE CAUSEWAY Coastal Route from BENONE to BUSHMILLS is on a par (golf pun unintended but apt) with other globally renowned sightseeing roads I have been lucky enough to travel with Karen at the wheel, such as California’s Pacific Highway (LA to San Diego via La Jolla); Queensland’s Gold Coast in west Australia; and the so-called Cotes Sauvages of Brittany and Poitou-Charente which are about as ‘sauvage’ as Portrush paddling pool on a wet Wednesday. No wonder the most beautiful sections of the Causeway route were chosen by our tourism authorities as the scenic highlight of the Giro d’Italia Cycle Race,Day 2, potentially watched by 800million viewers worldwide. Pity about the rain… However, being a sunny Sunday when we visited a couple of weeks earlier, Benone Strand was hosting kids on group holidays, making the most of Limavady Council’s great facilities there. We drove the extra miles to Portstewart Strand before I flew the pack-in-a-pocket kite I have taken with me all over the world.

As we are among Ulster’s 60,000 members of the National Trust - the main custodian of our coastline - we didn’t have to pay to park securely and safely on the beach at Portstewart. The Trust does a brilliant job conserving our bountiful natural resources there and all over Northern Ireland where sea meets shore; it does an equally great job another few kilometres east, making the most of Ireland’s one and only UNESCO World Heritage Site and its most popular natural tourist attraction – our cherished Causeway.

WOW! Some critics have admonished the Trust because its new GIANT’S CAUSEWAY VISITOR EXPERIENCE building lacks that so-called Wow! Factor that all signature projects are supposed to have these days. I support the Trust’s view that the interpretative facilities and visitor utilities should not be in visual competition to what Seamus Heaney called “those astonishing stones” which are the reason why tourists have been attracted to north Antrim for hundreds of years.

Too many tourism new-builds aim for the ‘Bilbao Effect’ – namely, tourist-pleasing buildings that look like a badly-opened giant sardine can, encased in high-tech shiny cladding (one per country is enough and we already have Titanic Belfast.OK?) The £18.5million Experience building is still adding to its early awards, now mostly in recognition of its sustainability rather than its architectural merit. Going indoors, we enjoyed the exhibition areas and audio-guide, but were too late for a guided tour or cup of tea. We liked the vast shop selling weird souvenirs, ranging from hexagonal jewellery to stone-shaped sweeties – more often than not made by local crafts people, thank goodness.

However, as the author of more than one hundred tourism brochures and guides – plus innumerable articles about National Trust properties and events - I was disappointed to discover that the National Trust’s main interpretative booklet on sale at the entrance - ‘Explore the Giant’s Causeway’ (Price:£4) was published in 2002! That’s why no mention is made of the excellent visitor facilities opened in mid-2012, although free leaflets do this. As a great fan of the Trust, I look forward to a proper souvenir guide soon.

After I stopped whingeing about this to Karen, we clambered over a few of the 40,000 stones and took a couple of pix as the sun was going down over the Giant’s Organ (no giggling, please). Thanks to the punctuality of the Causeway Coaster bus service, we unparked our own car and headed for Coleraine, arriving at the Lodge Hotel just before Chef was about to clear away the very popular Sunday Evening Carvery that ended at 7pm.

SUNDAY SLEEPOVER IS A BARGAIN

THE LODGE HOTEL has established itself as one of Coleraine’s pivotal places since it opened almost exactly 20 years ago. It’s where wise men meet, families celebrate and visitors get a particularly good-value sleep on a Sunday night (£30B&B pps, about half the week-day rate). If you also join the hundreds of happy locals who indulge in the £12 Sunday Carvery for lunch or dinner, that makes a total of just £42 each – a real bargain provided that you actually want to wake up well-nourished in Coleraine on a Monday.

As it happens, my driver/photographer/wife, Dr Karen Trew, had genuinely important academic business on the Coleraine campus of the University of Ulster that particular Monday morning. As for me, I had a vital research mission to complete in the town on behalf of my readers, namely to find what is offered by way of tourist attractions when the last bloom has faded in the Guy Wilson Daffodil Garden or Anderson Park and the show at the Riverside Theatre doesn’t start until 7.30pm. Not much, it seems, apart from a couple of family fun-style entertainment centres geared at the local market.

That’s what happens to the likes of Coleraine which are surrounded by world-class tourist traps; there’s no incentive to maintain a really good museum, gallery or cultural centre in the town itself when there’s so much within 10 miles inside and outside the borough - the Flowerfield Arts Centre in Portstewart, the Distillery at Bushmills,all the golf and activities in Portrush, as well as the Giant’s Causeway plus lots more. No problem if you have a car, but not much help to visitors who don’t like waiting around for public transport.

So that’s why I spent the morning wandering around stores like Tweedie Acheson and Moore’s, plus a few cafés to sample their different styles of espresso until the caffeine overdose made my hands shake so much I couldn’t read the What’s On columns in the Coleraine Chronicle I found in the town’s big circular Library. This splendid facility is No.6 in Trip Advisor’s Top Coleraine Attractions, just one ranking below the very highly regarded local Tourist Information Centre and two ahead of a couple of pubs. Heading the rankings are the Jet Centre (cinema/bowling etc) and an adventure play place. Not really a lot of tourist attractions for the ‘Capital of the Causeway Coast’ which is claimed to have two million visitors a year.

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