The other day, I had a whole bay to myself.
n our busy, ultra-connected world, I’m amazed when something like this happens. But on this gorgeous, gnarled island of ours, it still can.
Murlough Bay is on Torr Head, Co Antrim. It sits along Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast, accessed via an electrifyingly steep and squiggly descent.
Nosing down the bohareen, my ears popped. I prayed I wouldn’t meet another driver. Sheep stared, Fair Head and Rathlin Island loomed in the near distance, trees were sculpted into scratchy shapes by prevailing winds, and I corkscrewed down, down, down toward sea level.
A note of warning. There is very little parking at the end of the track, so anyone driving here at busier times should park in the space further uphill.
But I arrived on a Monday in February and found just one other car. By the time I set off walking, the bars of reception had fallen off my phone and there wasn’t another soul in this beautiful bay.
“It’s extraordinary this scenery is so overlooked,” says Eimear Flanagan of Away A Wee Walk, a company running walking tours along this epic coast.
But that’s often the case. Attractions like the Giant’s Causeway or Cliffs of Moher hoover up visitors, while magical moments can lie off-radar just a few twists and turns away.
This week, new CSO figures revealed a record number of trips were made by visitors from the Republic of Ireland to the North last year, with 809,000 travelling between January and September of 2022, a rise of 53pc on the same period in 2019 — the previous record year for Irish visitors, which was boosted by the British Open at Portrush. The trend appears to have been accelerated by the pandemic.
There’s lots of new stuff to look forward to this year, too, from a Derry Girls walking tour and the new Ebrington Hotel in the Maiden City to a reboot of Titanic Belfast’s galleries. Though clearly, most of our visits continue to be driven by headline attractions like Titanic Belfast, the Giant’s Causeway or Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge.
My moment of zen in Murlough Bay reminded me how rewarding it can be to steer clear of peak times and places.
Obviously, travelling the Causeway Coast at this time of year has its downsides — lots of cafes and restaurants were closed, and daylight was against me — but, for me, they were far outweighed by the sense of space and peace. I encountered no queues, no traffic issues, and accommodation can be a lot cheaper in the off-season, too.
Murlough Bay has been a filming location for Game of Thrones. I tried to recall the scenes as I walked. A cormorant fished by the rocks, there was barely a lick of wind, and I was absorbed by rock pools, moss patches, a little white bothy with a black half-door, and the greens, browns and bare greys of a winter coastline. The only sound was the water, soothing itself up against the stones.
On the drive back up, I pulled in at a wooden cross with a sign beneath. It included a letter from prison by Roger Casement, who wished to be buried here, recalling “the great panorama of island and hill and swirling waters that first made me realise what Ireland was to me”.
I drove away, back toward the busyness.
For more, see discovernorthernireland.com