In the final instalment of our discover Ireland series, Geoff Hill completes the circuit with a three-day ride that takes in the great cities of Belfast and Dublin, along with one of Ireland’s highest passes.
Throughout 2018, we’ve brought you a series of two, three day rides around the island of Ireland which, when pieced together, form a great circumnavigation route. All good things must come to an end, and so this issue of ABR sees us complete the circuit, picking up where we left off in the last issue of the magazine.
So, gentlemen and ladies, start your livers for two great days of riding and nightlife in and between Belfast and Dublin, then blow the cobwebs away with a bracing ride along one of Ireland’s highest passes in the lovely Wicklow Mountains before heading home.
This route is slightly different to the others, as we fully recommend taking a day exploring Belfast and visiting some of the world-class attractions there, before heading off to ride the bulk of the route. For accommodation in Belfast, my favourite hotel is Tara Lodge in the leafy University Quarter: great value, friendly and helpful staff, perfect breakfasts, free WiFi, off-street parking and comfortable rooms.
After recharging your batteries (unless you already live in Belfast) our first stop is Titanic Belfast (www.titanicbelfast.com), the world’s biggest museum dedicated to the doomed ship which was built by Harland & Wolff when Belfast had the world’s biggest shipyards, linen mills, tobacco factories and ropeworks.
If you’ve had enough of museums, head out of town for a blast around the Ulster Grand Prix Circuit. If not, the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum eight miles from Belfast is one of the great small museums of Europe.
Staying in Belfast, in the evening, head for Hill Street. This cobbled street in the Cathedral Quarter has become the buzzing heart of the city’s nightlife, with eight pubs within three minutes’ walk, making it the perfect venue for a civilised pub crawl.
Start at one end with the Harp Bar, which has live music nightly, as does the permanently popular Duke of York, and if you have the stamina, end up at the National Grande Café in High Street.
For dinner, the best restaurant in the area is the Muddlers Club in Warehouse Lane, just off Hill Street. The waiting staff are young, impossibly good looking and have PhDs in food, wine and charm, and the food is so good that a Michelin star could be in the offing.
Elsewhere in the city, bars like The Crown, the only pub in the UK owned by the National Trust, are still a must.
On day two, the old road to Dublin’s not particularly interesting, so we take a bit of a diversion along the lovely A24 between Belfast and Dundrum, then along the coast to Newcastle and Annalong.
From here we cut inland to Newry before joining the motorway for the inevitable blast to Dublin, where it’s worth getting booked into a hotel and visiting the Guinness Storehouse for a tour telling the fascinating story of Ireland’s most famous brew, with tastings and a rooftop bar.
That’ll set you up nicely for an evening in Temple Bar, Dublin’s equivalent of Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter and constantly buzzing. Check out the motorbike-themed under Road Café while you’re there.
On day three, you have got a lovely ride through the Sally Gap, one of two east to west passes through the Wicklow Mountains south of Dublin, and one of the highest roads in Ireland, before exploring the beautiful Wicklow Mountains some more.
With your mind full of memories and your camera full of photos, finish your Irish Odyssey with a last ride to Dublin Port for the ferry to Holyhead.
This glittering edifice was designed by Chicago architect Eric Kuhne to emulate both ships’ bows and the emblem of Titanic owners, the White Star Line. Naturally, locals immediately christened it the Iceberg.
The world’s biggest Titanic museum, with 10 galleries over six floors covering both Belfast’s time as an industrial powerhouse and the story of the doomed ship, it was voted World’s Leading Tourist Attraction in the 2016 World Travel Awards.
It’s permanently popular, so book online to avoid queues, arrive early or late to avoid the crowds and leave at least two hours to appreciate it.
2. Guinness Storehouse
Ireland’s most popular tipple has been made at the St James’s Gate Brewery in Dublin since 1759.
The Guinness Storehouse visitor centre (www.guinness-storehouse.com/en) opened in 2000 and was voted Europe’s top tourist attraction in 2015.
It covers seven floors surrounding a glass atrium shaped like a pint of Guinness. The ground floor introduces the beer’s four ingredients, the roasting process which gives it its dark colour and nutty taste, and founder Arthur Guinness.
Other floors feature the history of the company’s inspired advertising, the fifth-floor Brewery Bar has very good nosh, and in the Gravity Bar on the top floor, you can pour your own pint, included in the €25 admission price, and enjoy panoramic views of the city.
1.Ulster Folk and Transport Museum
This has a transport section filled with planes, trains and automobiles linked with Northern Ireland’s history, from the early aircraft of tractor pioneer Harry Ferguson to the motorbikes of Isle of Man TT legend Joey Dunlop.
The folk section, meanwhile, brilliantly recreates rural and urban Northern Ireland life in the early 20th Century, with reconstructed buildings occupied by wise and witty guides in costume.
You could easily spend a full day here, so if time is short, pick either the folk or the transport section.
Glencree’s Visitor Centre, originally built to house soldiers guarding the Sally Gap pass, was used to house German prisoners of war during the First World War, when Ireland was still part of the UK, and downed Luftwaffe pilots in the Second, when Ireland was neutral. Several are buried in the village graveyard.
Another great spot in the area is the ancient monastic settlement at Glendalough (www.glendalough.ie). Monks arrived in this beautiful wooded river valley in the sixth century for a bit of peace and quiet. Unfortunately, they forgot to tell the Vikings, who raided the monastery four times, the Normans, who pillaged it once, and Henry VIII, who finished the job with the Reformation.
Also worth a visit are the magnificent formal gardens at Powerscourt, weavers Avoca and Avoca village itself, the setting for the Ballykissangel TV series. Top spots to get fed and watered are Bates in Rathdrum for excellent food at a decent price and the Cartoon Inn pub next door.
1.Ulster Grand Prix Dundrod Circuit
Held in August every year, this event (www.ulstergrandprix.net) was traditionally the world’s fastest road race until Peter Hickman’s 135.492mph blast around the Isle of Man TT circuit this summer.
Even so, Dean Harrison did the 7.4 miles of the Ulster GP circuit in 2017 in three minutes and 18 seconds at an average of 134.6mph, but you don’t necessarily have to try to beat that. The riders who took part in the first race in 1922 would probably be mildly gobsmacked by such speeds.
The start is seven miles from Belfast city centre. Follow the M1, A55 and B38 to 9 Rusheyhill Road, Lisburn BT28 3TD, stick that address in your phone or sat nav, or head to the website at www.ulstergrandprix.net/visitors/directions.
The road through Sally Gap, one of two east to west passes through the Wicklow Mountains south of Dublin, was built by the British Army to make it easier to flush rebels from the hills after the Irish rebellion of 1798.
These days, it provides spectacular views of the Glencree valley, the dark waters of Lough Tay, Kippure Mountain and Glenmacnass Waterfall. To get there, the road from Dublin is motorway and dual carriageway, then well-surfaced open sweeping single carriageway through the hills, sun-dappled woods, lakes and rivers of Wicklow, Dublin’s back garden.
In Laragh, follow the Sally Gap sign up over the high moors on a decent and twisty B-road. And stop halfway at Glenmacnass Waterfall for a great photo.