It’s been a very long time since my last blog post. But, after reaching new heights, I thought it was worth creating a post to share my latest adventure.
My friend Bronagh has compiled a 40 before 40 bucket list. One of her to dos was the Cuilcagh Boardwalk Trail – also nicknamed the Stairway to Heaven Walk – in Co. Fermanagh. I have seen this walk on social media and really was keen to give it a try so I jumped at Bronagh’s offer to accompany her on the trek. Hikes aren’t in my comfort zone and I usually opt for the sea over rugged terrain, but with a well established path, I felt this trail would be a good introduction to the mountains.
After close to two hours driving, we reached the car park and got our bearings. The route, which meanders through one of the largest expanses of blanket bog in Northern Ireland, started with a gravel trail which leads on to a boardwalk and finally a staircase.
The trail alternates from gentle inclines to a few steeper climbs. The scenery throughout is majestic with signage to highlight wildlife you might see on your hike and a view point to showcase the focal points of the stunning skyline.
The climax of the trek is a steep staircase which leads to the peak of Cuilcagh Mountain. It’s a steep climb – which resulted in lots of huffing and puffing from me – but it was worth it to reach the viewing platform at the top, which provides breath taking views of the surrounding vista.
Whilst we were absolutely knackered by the time we got back to the car, we both were extremely proud of reaching the peak. It was a truly memorable experience and one item of Bronagh’s bucket list well and truly ticked off.
On Monday night, my sister Gail and I headed to Belfast City Centre for a long overdue sisters’ night. What better way to catch up than over good food and drinks as Margot – a beautiful basement bar located beside City Hall – hosted a special evening with Boatyard Distillery.
When we arrived, we were shown to our table and presented with a tall and refreshing glass of Boatyard Gin with London Essence tonic and a wedge of pink grapefruit. It certainly hit the spot as we looked over the evening’s menu.
For the event, the Margot chefs created an exciting array of dishes. The food was matched with a selection of inventive Boatyard Distillery cocktails – all served with a Margot twist.
Before each course, we heard from Ciaran of the Boatyard Distillery, who gave a little bit of background on the Distillery, such as how it got its name, as well as the history of each of the signature serves used to make the cocktails. Ciaran was engaging whilst his charismatic style managed to retain the attention of a room full of tipsy people as he told the Boatyard story – very impressive.
The food menu offered a meat dish or vegetarian alternative. For starters I opted for the smoked salmon and Kilkeel crab whilst Gail chose the beetroot carpaccio. The dishes were beautifully presented and full of flavour. They were followed by the Babylon cocktail which had a base of the Boatyard sloe gin and an accompaniment of apricot brandy to create a warm, bold and tantalising mixture presented with a floating flower; I think this visually stunning concoction was my cocktail of the night.
Next up was a palate cleanser: locally made raspberry sorbet. This was a treat for the senses and provided a wonderful interlude to the meal.
The next cocktail was the BoatyardOld Tom. This highball combined Boatyard Old Tom with fino apple sherry, cinnamon honey and peach soda – it was like autumn in a chilled glass
For mains there was no competition for me, I opted for the meat dish when I saw braised short rib on the menu. Served with creamy orange and herb polenta, this creation was delicious. The meat was tender and soft yet powerful as the flavours enhanced each other.
I was excited for our next cocktail: the frothy Blueberry Hill. To create this masterpiece, Boatyard vodka, cointreau, citric acid, milk caramel, blueberries and an egg white were mixed to create a sweet yet sharp taste.
This was accompanied by dessert: a chocolate mousse laced with chantilly cream and served with smashed honeycomb and toasted hazelnuts. As someone with a sweet tooth, this ticked all the boxes for me and finished the meal off on a real high.
All that was left was a final cheers with an exquisite cocktail: the Martinez. This creation, which combines Boatyard Old Tom, vermouth and campari, may have been miniature but it packed a punch.
As we headed into the cold night air, there was a warm glow in my tummy and a smile on my face. Margot and Boatyard Distillery certainly proved to have all the right ingredients to serve up a memorable evening.
I am in no way a whiskey connoisseur, but I appreciate some of Ireland’s best known amber offerings: I would never refuse a wee Black Bush, or a Jameson. With water, ice, or neat, there’s something about a whiskey that is warming, comforting, and even medicinal (hot toddy anyone?!).
When I saw the new kid on the block, Hinch Distillery, was offering whiskey tours, I have to admit I was intrigued. As whiskey is something appreciated within my family, this seemed the perfect day out, especially after a period when get togethers have been seriously limited due to Covid-19.
A few weeks ago (it’s taken me a while to sit down and write this because, well, life…) we masked up and hopped on a Newcastle-bound bus at the Europa bus station. Hinch Distillery has ample car parking but it seemed a waste for someone to drive and not get to try the tasting at the end of the tour. As there’s a bus stop within walking distance of the Distillery’s entrance, this was a great alternative.
Hinch Distillery, the brain child of DrTerry Cross OBE, is located in the beautiful grounds of Killaney Estate, between Temple and Ballynahinch. Officially opened in March 2021, the custom built 30,000sq ft premises are impressive. The stone facade is complemented with stunning glasswork, intricate lighting and a rich navy and copper colour scheme.
There were five adults and a child in our party and everyone was made to feel part of the experience, right from the warm welcome we received on arrival. Initially when booking I wasn’t sure if under 18’s could take part, but I was impressed that you can book a child’s ticket. Priced at a discounted rate of £10, younger visitors can participate in all aspects of the tour, and when it comes to the tasting at the end, they can enjoy the soft drink of their choice.
We were a few minutes early for our tour so once we checked in we were invited to look around the visitor centre as we waited for the rest of the tour group to arrive. The offering on display included bottles of the award-winning Hinch Irish Whiskey as well as the equally celebrated Ninth Wave Irish Gin, which is also produced on the premises. Also for sale were a selection of high quality clothing, accessories, glasses, decanters and gift sets.
Our tour guide for the day was Claire. From the offset, it was apparent that Claire is a natural born storyteller and so the tale of Hinch Distillery has been entrusted to very capable hands. Not only is she knowledgeable about the products, the processes and the history of the company, she is hilarious to boot. There are several interactive parts of the tour and she made sure that everyone, especially the child in our group, felt included. From explaining the raw ingredients used to the mashing and distilling process, Claire was engaging and made the experience thoroughly entertaining throughout.
Hinch Irish Whiskey is made using water from the Mourne Mountains. As a Mourne woman, I have to say I was excited at the end of the tour to get to try some of the batches for myself in the beautiful surroundings of the Hinch Brasserie. This space marries dark wood with Hinch’s signature navy colour palette to wonderful effect. When seated, Claire presented us with our flights containing four samples of Hinch’s flagship whiskeys (this was part of the Premium Whiskey Tour. The Classic Whiskey Tour finishes with a sample of two of the flagship whiskeys). We started off with the Small Batch. At this point Claire pointed out something I had never been told in any of the tastings I have done in the past – when you smell the whiskey prior to tasting, you’ll notice one of your nostrils is more powerful than the other. For me, it was my right nostril. A fact I was amazed to uncover!
The Small Batch was instantly warming and a good introduction to the brand. Next was the 5 Year Old Double Wood, which was smooth and refined, then the Ten Year Sherry Finish, an instant classic and a firm favourite of the group, and then, to finish the line up, the discernable Peated Single Malt whiskey.
To complete our Distillery experience we decided to have a drink in the outside courtyard before getting the bus back to Belfast. There’s an extensive drinks offering available, from whiskey, gin, wine (including a selection from Dr Terry Cross’s vineyard, Château de La Ligne), to beers and ciders. I tried the Hinch Bordeaux Sour, which introduces Bordeaux Château de La Ligne to completely reimagine the classic whiskey sour. Whilst a cocktail in the stunning courtyard was a tranquil way to end our visit, I have to say it was slightly marred: one of the staff’s derisive response to our query whether we could order crisps as a small snack for the child in our group, was that we weren’t in a bar. Obviously a small thing, but after receiving such warmth and professionalism from the rest of the staff, it was slightly jarring and the attitude felt a bit unnecessary when she simply could have said that they don’t sell crisps.
As a whole, Hinch Distillery is absolutely worth a visit. If the whiskey tour doesn’t take your fancy, the Distillery also offers a fabulous sounding gin tour (you make your own gin to take home), and an excellent food menu. The premises can also be hired for private functions (can you imagine how amazing wedding photos would be here?). It was a fantastic overall experience, and Claire in particular is a remarkable asset to the Distillery. I would definitely be keen to visit again but in the meantime, I’ll happily make do with a glass of the Hinch Irish Whiskey Ten Year Sherry Finish. Cheers!
Nestled in the heart of the Mourne Mountains are picture perfect fairytale cottages. Fairy River, situated at the base of Slieve Muck mountain, features two underground cottages, one of which was my home recently during a girls’ getaway.
We travelled from Belfast and made a pitstop in Newcastle for lunch before finishing our journey. Total travelling time was a mere hour and a half. When we arrived our first impression came from the wonderful viewing farm located beside the car park. There were wonderful pigs whose houses were inspired by the fairytale about the three little pigs. There were also goats, bunnies and horses.
We stayed in cottage 2. Although both cottages are located beside each other, they are very private from each other. Each cottage has its own private garden with seating and a BBQ. The cottage itself was stunning. The brick work and design integrates into the landscape. The charming exterior is something reminiscent of the homes in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. As you make your way up the path you are greeted by a small fairy house at the front door which perfectly sets the tone for a stay.
Inside the cottage was a kitchen /dining area, living area with a gorgeous log burning fire, and two ensuite bedrooms which sleep up to 5 people. We quickly settled in and then the two 6 year olds in our group quickly discovered the Fairy River play park which boasts swings, slides and a zipline. Whilst the younger visitors can enjoy the facilities the older ones can appreciate the unrivalled views which include the stunning Mourne Mountains and sweep all the way down to the sea.
To dine you can bring your own food and use the fully equipped kitchen, avail of the on site BBQ or order a food delivery or click and collect takeaway (details of all can be found on the Fairy River website).
After a relaxed first day, we woke up ready to try something a little more adventurous: walking alpacas. Cranfield Alapacas is located 10 minutes away by car. Run by Peter and Pamela, I can’t recommend this superb centre enough. During our visit one of the alpacas took a turn and the local vet had to be called. Although this was bound to have been distressing, Peter and Pamela remained professional and attentive throughout. We had the pleasure of walking two of the alpacas: Sisqo and Pablo. The younger members of the group were able to take the lead on walking the alpacas and were positively beaming with pride by the time we returned the alpacas to their field. The day was topped off with the opportunity to feed the alpacas before mini versions of Sisqo and Pablo were purchased from the gift shop.
After the excitement we went back to the cottage to relax. There’s a smart tv you can use to log into Netflix and a blue tooth speaker for streaming music. There’s also the tranquil river that runs by the cottages making the garden a very tranquil spot to enjoy a glass of wine at the end of the day.
The Fairy River cottages, though a mere 12 minutes from where I grew up, are a new experience to me. But one I would love to repeat. This hidden gem has it all. Nature trails through the Mournes which can be accessed from the cottage for the outdoor lovers. Or an intimate and inviting interior for those just wanting to completely switch off and relax. The attention to detail is remarkable, with fairies hidden throughout the grounds making exploring fun for all ages. So, if you fancy a break from the hustle and bustle, then this is the ultimate spot for a fairytale getaway.
With ever evolving lockdowns, I spent a lot of 2020 house bound. And so I didn’t have much to blog about. However, I decided during this time to learn a new skill: graphic illustration through software.
I’ve always had an interest in sketching with paper and pencil but I have always had a fascination for artwork created with software. However, I had no idea where to start. And so, after much googling, I purchased a cheap graphic tablet and started tinkering away trying to draw illustrations onscreen.
After I got a feel for it, I decided to set myself a goal, to write and illustrate a children’s book for my niece for Christmas.
After many drafts, I created a character based on my niece, drawn in the style of the LOL dolls she loves so much. The story came next, based on a family trip we took to Portrush in January 2020.
After lots of drawing hours, and proofing, Boo Bear and the Bug Go On An Adventure was finally ready for print. I got a small print run commissioned with Belfast-based Kaizen Print.
I have to admit I was so excited when I picked up the hard copy books from the printer in November. They looked better than expected and I have to say this was undoubtedly one of my proudest moments of 2020.
Anyway, here are a few snaps of the book. And who knows, maybe the Boo Bear books will become a series.
This Halloween, the Lyric Theatre has the perfect online treat for those looking for a fright: ‘Listen at The Lyric: Ulster After Dark’, a series of especially commissioned audio plays inspired by Ulster folk tales and unexplained real-life experiences.
Directed by Emma Jordan and performed by three of Northern Ireland’s acting greats, Ulster After Dark is comprised of three eerie tales.
First up and setting the tone perfectly is Outside Her. Written by KarisHalsall and performed by the superb Stella McCusker, Outside Her is based on true stories, recounted by Karis’ family from Co. Down. The play opens with Iris telling a terrifying tale from her youth. After the traumatic death of her mother, Iris and her father move to a remote farmhouse, which legend has it was built on a fairy road. Iris, not believing in things that can’t be seen, chalks this up to being nonsense. However when the unexplained phonecalls and strange noises begin, she is forced to re-evaluate if it’s her mother attempting to contact her or something more serious.
Heightening tensions even further is The Familial Binds of Cheiromancy by Kat Woods, performed by the compelling Frankie McCafferty. The play recounts the story of Mark. Following in the family tradition as a psychic and palm reader, Mark decides to abandon his ‘gift’ after a terrible experience, much to his mother’s dismay. However, when Mark tries to make peace with his mother, everything is not as it seems.
Listen at The Lyric: Ulster After Dark concludes with Bad Ground, written by Gary Crossan and performed by the captivating Sean Kearns. This audio play introduces Frank Devine, who has returned to his dilapidated family home in Co.Derry to renovate the building and start a new chapter. Upon the suggestion of his daughter Sarah, Frank keeps an audio diary of his progress. However, after a prolonged of isolation, Frank seems to be chipping away at his sanity as much as he is at the rot of his old family home.
The Listen at the Lyric: Ulster After Dark series, although featuring rehearsed readings which are an evolving work in progress, is a genuinely spooky and captivating showcase. The wonderful direction, high caliber writing bursting with local colloquiums and the natural performances of all of the actors transport the listener to a place where the impossible seems very plausible.
As well as genuinely causing goosebumps, the Listen at the Lyric:Ulster After Dark reaffirms the theatre’s dedication to nurturing creative talent and providing a platform to showcase new work whilst the Lyric remains closed due to the ongoing pandemic.
Listen at the Lyric: Ulster After Dark is an authentically spooky selection of ghost stories which will provide the ultimate treat this Halloween. Prices start at a very reasonable £6, so if you like being scared, you won’t wamt to be tricked into missing it.
‘Listen at the Lyric: Ulster After Dark’ will be available to listen until 2rd November. Tickets are on sale at a standard price of £6 with optional donation tickets available at £12 and £20 to support the Lyric in continuing to produce great theatre during the pandemic.
I recently went back to school when I registered to attend The University of Wonder and Imagination. Created and directed by Paul BoscoMcEneaney, this fun and interactive hour-long theatre experience uses the magic of technology to deliver an ambitious theatre experience for all ages.
Staged by Cahoots NI as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival, this unique production puts the audience in the director’s chair as the choices you make during the live event, hosted via Zoom, will shape your individual experience.
Orientation comes from the mysterious Professor Bamberg (SeanKearns) who explains the steps of your educational quest. As the audience solves puzzles they are introduced to a range of engaging lecturers in specially themed rooms; as you follow each quest, you could find yourself anywhere across space and time.
Our jam packed semester at The University of Wonder and Imagination saw us take lectures from the intriguing Professor Sharma (LataSharma), magical Professor Danny Carmo (CaolanMcBride), the creative Professor Lola Hurst (PhilippaO’Hara) and the imaginative Professor Wilbert Hoffman (Hugh W. Brown). The result was a mind boggling experience of wonder and illusion.
The University of Wonder and Imagination is unlike anything I have experienced before. Completely immersive, the experience is unconditionally engaging, educational and exciting. The purpose-built set and superb staging combined with the inventive incorporation of technology is revolutionary, showcasing that there is wealth of ingenious opportunities to be explored in the new era of theatre we have found ourselves in.
Theatre has not been the same since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. New approaches have needed to be employed to bring new works to an eager assembly of spectators. To continue to connect with its audiences, the Lyric Theatre has a launched a creative programme of audio plays. Listen at the Lyric offers an exclusive ‘first listen’ of brand-new work from emerging, established and new Northern Ireland writers.
I caught Burnt Out by Gary Mitchell, the second in the series of audio plays. Burnt Out is a dark psychological thriller which follows a couple as their perfect life unravels into a disorientating nightmare of suspicion, paranoia, and intimidation when they unwittingly move to a new home opposite a bonfire site.
Michael (Michael Patrick) and Cheryl (Roisin Gallagher) seemingly have it all: a posh house, good jobs (primary school teacher and salon owner), and 2.4 pets (Lancer the Alsatian and Scamper the cat). But the every day bickers of a married couple turns to something more sinister when they become the focus of attention of Loyalist youths who are guarding the bonfire opposite their house. When their claims that they weren’t responsible for lodging a complaint about the bonfire to the police falls on deaf ears, they soon find themselves the victims of a hate campaign comprising of missing pets, explosions and graffiti.
The couple are torn between seeking help from the police, such as the inane Constable McGoldrick (played superbly by the wonderful Tara LynnO’Neill), and Michael’s brother, Loyalist stalwart Danny (played with ferocity by Packy Lee) and the conniving Leslie (Shannen McNeice). However, as words and actions are twisted, Michael and Cheryl find themselves in a waking nightmare, where their lives unravel faster than you can say ‘get ‘er lit’.
Burnt Out, another shockingly captivating play from Gary Mitchell and directed with aplomb by Dan Gordon, uses dark humour, creative language and excellent performances from all the cast, to tell an enthralling tale which scratches beneath the surface of Northern Ireland in peace times. Much like Michael and Cheryl, the façade looks good, but tension is lurking close to the surface. Fast paced, edgy and perfectly translated for radio, this innovative play will have you ready to close your curtains and hide under the bed. Or that’s maybe just Covid talking. Either way, this is an exquisite piece of theatre, with an ending that will have you completely gripped.
I am a massive fan of the North Coast. After a fun-fuelled weekend with all the family in January, and the pandemic making travel more difficult, I decided a return trip was the perfect location for a staycation this summer.
My sister, brother-in-law and niece were booked in for a week-long stay, and so I decided to gate crash for a few days days.
I got the train from Belfast to the North Coast, my first time on public transport post-covid and so it was the ideal opportunity to see if glasses washed in warm soapy water fog up less when wearing a face covering (the answer is a surprising yes!).
Once I arrived and dumped my bag, the gang and I headed to my favourite place: Harry’s Shack at Portstewart Strand. After building sandcastles and races along the beach, it was time for a breather and a well earned drink. To adhere to the new social distancing guidelines, Harry’s Shack has added more tables onto the beach. Each has a unique QR code, which when scanned allows you to order food and drink online. Once ready, it will be brought to your table. This eradicates cramming round the bar trying to get served and is something that I hope stays as it makes for a really relaxing and pleasant customer experience.
Dinner that evening was to another favourite of mine: The Tides Restaurant. Located just outside Portrush, this family friendly restaurant has impressive views and an equally impressive menu. Offering three courses for the price of a main (or the option to swap one course for a glass of wine or a bottle of beer), it is excellent value for money.
I opted for the Spanish meatballs as a starter followed by the honey glazed duck breast. Both dishes were bursting with flavour and perfectly cooked. The Tides Restaurant does not scrimp on portion size and so I opted to swap my third course for a glass of wine. If visiting, and not driving, don’t forget to check out the cocktail list – in my opinion, the Porn Star Martini was the perfect night cap.
The following day we headed to the West Strand of Portrush. After building sand volcanoes, and a picnic on the beach, I decided it was time for a – very brief – dip in the Atlantic. It was totally baltic, but there is no better way to blow away all your inner cobwebs.
After a warm shower, we headed in to Portrush. My sister Gail and I looked around a few shops (if you are in the area, visit Memento for a quirky selection of gifts or treats for yourself, as well as brilliant customer service), whilst Alan and Rachel hit up the arcades. Once it was time to regroup, we headed to the outside playground located beside The Arcadia beach cafe. It was the perfect spot to enjoy the sun and work up an appetite.
After failing to get through to the Ramore, we booked a table for dinner at 55 Degrees North. I hadn’t been before and wasn’t sure what to expect but from the minute we entered, I fell in love. The staff are professional and friendly and the implementation of a one-way system helps maintain social distancing. We were very lucky to secure a front table, overlooking the ocean, and so I was in my element.
Again there was an excellent variety on the menu. After toying with the idea of the 55 Burger, served with onions and pepper sauce, I instead opted for the hearty and very delicious Sicillian chicken pasta, served with peppers, pancetta and sun blushed tomatoes. It really hit the spot. The cocktail menu at 55 Degrees North was also extremely reasonable and so it seemed rude not to sample what was on offer. The delicious whiskey sour I ordered was wonderful and acted as the perfect accompaniment for the scenic views; this is definitely somewhere I will return to.
The evening ended with a spin on the Portrush ferris wheel. With stunning panoramic views, this is an amazing way to see Portrush, regardless of your age.
My final day saw the rain roll in and so we retreated to the arcades once again, where Alan and Rachel cleaned up after scoring a Dumbo plush toy and a unicorn from the claw machines. Before we ended up barred from winning too much, we headed to Urban for lunch.
This modern restaurant exudes a classic yet industrial feel. A sister restaurant of The Tides Restaurant, I was not surprised by the mouth-watering dishes listed on the menu. I was immediately sold by the slow braised beef pappardelle, and it really did not disappoint. During August Urban is a participant of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, and so we were very impressed when we were presented with the bill to see the savings we received.
With a full tummy, and a smile on my face, hidden below my face mask, it was time to board the train back to Belfast.
With exceptional scenery and a bustling food scene, the North Coast is an idyllic spot for a staycation. However, that has meant certain restaurants may be busier than normal, so avoid disappointment by booking your tables in advance. Apart from that, this is one part of the world I am happy to keep escaping to; if anything, the global pandemic has made me appreciate what we have on our doorstep all the more.