Architects Architecture Country Houses Hotels Luxury People Restaurants

Antrim + Down Coasts

Dockers and Carters

Whitehead County Antrim Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Once a place to leave, not to live, never mind visit, least of all for a luxury travel experience, how times have changed. The east coast of Northern Ireland (Counties Antrim and Down with Belfast sitting over their boundary) not only has Game of Thrones backdrops like the Dark Hedges and Ballintoy Harbour – it now offers thriving upmarket hospitality for the discerning visitor. County Antrim’s coastline is rugged; County Down’s is greener. There are plenty of scenic moments from the candy coloured Victorian villas of Whitehead to the crashing waves of Whitepark Bay.

Giant's Causeway County Antrim Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

As old as the island itself, Northern Ireland’s original God given tourist attraction has received a manmade upgrade. The Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim is a spear’s throw from Ballintoy Harbour. It’s a geological wonder of around 40,000 polygonal basalt columns rising from the splashed edge of the Atlantic. A visitor centre designed by award winning architects Heneghan Peng is formed of rectangular basalt columns propping up a grass roof. Architecture as land art. Nearby, Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge is a popular walk (not for the fainthearted) over a 30 metre deep oceanic chasm.

AB @ Giant's Causeway © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“Welcome to the Emerald Isle!” beams Hammy Lowe, founder of Spectrum Cars, a family owned executive chauffeur service based in the historic walled town of Carrickfergus north of Belfast. “Spectrum Cars was formed in 1997 to meet demand from visiting business executives for reliable and security conscious transfers for corporate clients,” explains Hammy, “including big hitters like the Bank of England. We swiftly adapted to the burgeoning tourism market and added driver guided tours of the 50 kilometre long Causeway Coast. Recently we added Game of Thrones tours. The jewel in our crown is that we are the approved transport provider for the five star Merchant Hotel in Belfast.”

Causeway Coast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

County Antrim Coast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Giant's Causeway Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge Causeway Coast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge Country Antrim Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Galgorm Hotel Ballymena Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Galgorm Resort Ballymena Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Ballygally Bay Causeway Coast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Ballygally Castle Hotel Causeway Coast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Titanic Museum Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

AB © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Titanic Museum Belfast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

SS Nomadic Titanic Museum Belfast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

White Star Line Tableware Titanic Museum Belfast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Titanic Museum Interior Belfast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Titanic Bedroom Titanic Museum Belfast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belfast City Hall View from Grand Central Hotel Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Anne's Cathedral Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Spectrum Cars’ new collaboration is the Toast The Coast tour led by World Host Food Ambassador Portia Woods stopping off for culinary delicacies in County Antrim seaside resorts. It starts with brunch in The Bank House, Whitehead. All the brunch courses are local produce from traditional soda bread (given a sharp twist with chili and pepper) to Irish black butter (darkened with brandy and liquorice). Tapas and gin tasting follow at Ballygally Castle Hotel, a haunted building dating back to 1625. Several of the world’s biggest music and film stars have travelled in Spectrum Cars but Hammy is the soul of discretion. When pushed, he confides, “A clue to our most famous client is she is the female lead role in the movie Mamma Mia!”

Belfast Cathedral Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Hammy notes, “The development of the Titanic Museum in Belfast at a cost of almost £100 million has been a tremendous boost to the Northern Ireland tourist economy.” Next to the museum, the shipyard drawing office, the birthplace of many a ‘floating hotel’, is now a hotel itself. Belfast boasts three restaurants with a Michelin star – no mean feat for a smallish city with a rocky past. It’s become something of a foodie destination. Local chef Michael Deane has no fewer than six eateries including the Michelin starred Eipic, named after the Greek philosopher Epicurus who rated pleasure highly. True to form, the hef declares, “Fish, to taste right, must swim three times: in water, in olive oil and in Champagne!”

Grand Central Hotel Cocktail © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

CNN Travel Reporter Maureen O’Hare who hails from Northern Ireland reckons “the food scene is really good in Belfast”. Michelin starred Ox overlooks the River Lagan. “Ox is my favourite restaurant,” Maureen shares. “It’s pure quality and class on every level.” The interior has a reclaimed industrial aesthetic. Art is reserved for the plates, not the walls. Oscar + Oscar designed the interior of Ox as well as Ox Cave, the bar next door. Architect Orla Maguire says, “We’re very proud of both – we have been lucky to work with some extremely talented clients. Ox Cave is one my favourite places to go in the city… its Comté with honey truffle is amazing.” Oscar + Oscar were also responsible for the interior of Il Pirata, a rustic Italian restaurant in east Belfast’s most fashionable urban village, Ballyhackamore.

The Merchant Hotel Belfast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The best view of Belfast can be captured from the Observatory, a lounge and bar on the 23rd floor of Grand Central Hotel. St Anne’s Cathedral (which has been gradually constructed over the last 100 years) and City Hall (an Edwardian architectural masterpiece) are two of the landmarks visible far below. The owners of the luxurious Galgorm Spa and Golf Resort in Ballymena, County Antrim, have opened Café Parisien opposite the City Hall. History buffs will recognise the name: Café Parisien on the Titanic was its inspiration. Oranmore House is an elegant country house with just 10 guest bedrooms on the outskirts of Ballymena. Montalto House is one of the grandest country houses in County Down set in 160 hectares of rolling parkland. Distinguished Irish architect John O’Connell and his team have restored the 18th century mansion and designed new neoclassical buildings. The gardens are open to the public and Montalto House is available for parties and weddings.

Cafe Parisien Belfast Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Northern Ireland may be the least populated of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom, but that hasn’t hindered the rise of some 100 golf courses. Hammy believes, “Northern Ireland is like paradise for golfers. Many of them are keen to visit Holywood Golf Club where US Open champion Rory McIlroy honed his skills.Royal Portrush is a must for a round on a links course and was the 2019 venue for the British Open. Equally attractive is Royal County Down with a most unique setting between sea and mountains. Try it on a windy day! A lesser known but recommended course is Royal Belfast with its 19th century clubhouse.” From golf to gastrotourism, urban culture to country estates, Northern Ireland’s east coast is finally a luxury travel destination.

Royal Belfast Golf Club Northern Ireland © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Architecture Country Houses

Rockport Lodge + Mount Druid Causeway Coast Antrim

A Penchant for the Peculiar

Ballintoy Beach Causeway Coast © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

There are two distinguished Georgian houses along the Causeway Coast with unusual fenestration. Rockport Lodge just beyond Cushendun appears to have missing windows on the canted flanks of its outer bay windows on the south elevation. Mount Druid high above Ballintoy appears to have the middle windows missing in its two bay windows on the north elevation. Forget the wild weather resistance of yore: a modern sensibility would be to capture from all angles such a view sweeping down to the incredibly untouched Ballintoy Harbour. Mount Druid’s mildly idiosyncratic face to the world (the entrance front is actually the more regular five bay south elevation looking into the hill) is austere – an attribute noted by writers as being highly suitable to this bare landscape. White painted walls against the dark hill add to the stark grandeur of Mount Druid. Waves lap up to the white painted walls of Rockport Lodge. It too has a more conventional entrance front, four bays facing westwards inland.

Ballintoy County Antrim © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Sir Charles Brett includes both houses in Buildings of County Antrim. On Rockport Lodge, the once Belfast based full time solicitor part time architectural writer records, “According to Boyle, in 1835, the house ‘the summer residence of Major General O’Neill is a modern two storey edifice, and very commodious’. It was valued on 9 August 1834 at £20.13.0 of which £2 was added ‘for vicinity to sea, being a good situation for sea bathing’… soon after the name of General O’Neill was struck out, and that of Matilda Kearns substituted. Her name in turn was struck out in 1868, when Nicholas Crommelin moved here from The Caves, the house being valued then at £38.”

Ballintoy Harbour © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Ballintoy Harbour Causeway Coast © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Rockport Lodge Cushendun © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Five Big Houses of Cushendun is a smaller book written by Sir Charles Brett. It includes Rockport Lodge: “The handsome white painted house, hugging the shoreline, can be dated with some accuracy to 1813. It does not appear on William Martin’s conscientiously detailed map of 1811 to 1812; but Ann Plumptre, who was here in the summer of 1814, wrote that Cushendun ‘is an excellent part of the country for game; on which account Lord O’Neill, the proprietor of Shane’s Castle’ [in fact, his younger brother] ‘has built a little shooting box very near the shore, whither in the season he often comes to shoot’. It stands between Castle Carra and the sea. The south front facing across the broad curve to the village, consists of three canted bays, set in a zigzag under the wide eaves, leaving triangular recesses in between: five 16 pane windows on the ground floor; three more, and two oculi, in the upper floor. The entrance front, of four bays, has wide Georgian glazed windows and a pleasing and unusual geometrical glazing pattern in the recessed porch.”

Rockport Lodge Cushendun Entrance © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The entry for Mount Druid in Buildings of County Antrim reads, “A remarkable house, on an extraordinarily prominent (and exposed) hillside, looking out due north across the North Channel to the cliffs of Oa on Islay. The house is of two storeys, on a generous basement, with tiny attic windows in the gables; in principle, seven bays wide, with generous canted bays facing north – but the central face of each bay is blank – as Girvan says, ‘giving a very bleak effect, not inappropriate to the inhospitable position.’ Between the bays, a tall round headed window lights the upper part of the staircase, an oculus above and below. The remaining windows are 15 pane Georgian glazed. There are six chimneypots on each stack; the doorcase in the square porch in the entrance front facing south is modern.”

Mount Druid Ballintoy © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

There’s more: “The vestry minute book for the parish contains the following uncommonly useful entry: ‘There was 40 acres granted by Alexander Thomas Stewart Esq of Acton to Reverend Robert Traill and his successors, Rectors of Ballintoy, in perpetuity, for a glebe, in the townland of Magherabuy on the ninth of August 1788. Rent £25.5.0. In May 1789 Mr Traill began to build a Glebe House and got possession of it on the 14th November 1791 – changing the name of the place from Magherabuy to Mount Druid, on account of the Druid’s Temple now standing on the Glebe.’ Unfortunately, despite this wealth of documentation, there is nothing to say what builder, mason, carpenter or architect was involved: no payments appear in the vestry book since Mr Traill evidently paid for the house out of his own pocket.” The similarities between the two houses may not be entirely coincidental. Charlie wondered if  Rockport Lodge could be the work of the same architect or skilled builder as Mount Druid?

Mount Druid Ballintoy Entrance © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley