SINCE the lockdown, I have been scouring bookshelves for fresh finds and old favourites. One book caught my eye. A world away from the confinement of my four walls was the not-so-cheerily titled 1,000 Places To See Before You Die.
My foreign trips read like an encyclopaedia of calamities in culture, cuisine and company, including even managing to watch my car roll of a pier. As current restrictions and quarantine measures make international travel highly unlikely, my travel expectations are closer to home.
Bizarrely, my voluminous international travel guide advises that only three places are worth visiting in Northern Ireland; the Giant’s Causeway, Mourne Mountains and Royal Portrush. Imagine, the Buddhas of Borobudur and Macha Picchu are recommended places to see, alongside Royal Portrush.
Perhaps the American writer Henry Miller was right – “One’s destination is never a new place, but a new way of seeing things”.
With this in mind, today and in the coming weeks I want to share some Irish travel experiences because the new 2020 catchword is staycation. Or, as we’d say in Newry, stay put!
Inter-county matches (and prejudices) aside, Tyrone is well worth a visit. It is underrated from a tourism perspective, yet has some of the most picturesque villages in the north. One is the beautiful Caledon on the banks of the Blackwater.
Domicile of an earl, Caledon was once the seat of famed Irish chieftain Felim O’Neill. A walk through the village is like a step back in time, with fine limestone-clad houses, a courthouse and an array of former mill homes. Nearby, former estate workers’ dwellings have been transformed into beautiful holiday cottages. The cathedral city of Armagh is less than 10 miles away.
Allen’s of Caledon is an Aladdin’s cave spread over three interconnected houses, bursting with antiques, paintings, oddities and furniture. Their homemade scones are fit for an earl.
Stopping at the Mellon Country Inn for a hearty lunch, I visited the Ulster American Folk Park. My last visit had been 1979. How times have changed; staff in character were hugely informative, historically in context and fun. This is an amazing educational space for kids and adults alike. Social distancing should not be a problem as visitors may picnic if the cafe doesn’t appeal.
The bypass at Newtownstewart is welcome but an upgrade to the A5 would make the entire journey much more pleasurable. That said, the bypass is an opportunity to appreciate the beauty of the River Strule and the lavender sheen atop of the Sperrins.
Against the backdrop of lush green pastures, experienced anglers can cast for salmon or brown trout.
Arriving at picturesque Sion Mills, it’s time for a rest. The Sion Mills were once known as the Rolls Royce of the linen world. The village was designed by mill owners, James, George and John Herdman. Its tree-lined avenue is quintessentially English, the mock-Tudor buildings decidedly quaint.
My final stop on this leg is Strabane. Equidistant from the walled city of Derry and Tyrone’s county town, Omagh – not to mention, one can throw a stone across to Donegal – location is its best asset.
I knew Strabane was birthplace to Irish writer Brian O’Nolan, aka Myles na gCopaleen. Despite wasting few words on his native town, locals erected an impressive statue in his honour. Accommodation in Strabane is limited. The sole hotel is the Fir Trees. I chose to lay over in MK’s, a pub with bed and breakfast.
It didn’t disappoint, either with its Guinness or the quality of its accommodations. What it lacks in scale the owners make up for in hospitality.
Apart from being a springboard for nearby attractions including the homestead of a former US president, Strabane has a few surprises of its own – Oysters, for one; this restaurant could compete with the best eateries in Ireland and has awards to prove it.
Oysters excels in fine dining, with an atmosphere to match. Much of their produce is locally sourced, including game from nearby Baronscourt, home to the Duke of Abercorn.
Another gem is the Railway Bar, co-owned by former Eurovision singer Ryan Dolan and Daniel McCrossan. It’s a relaxing lounge-bar by day, lively hotspot by night.
Both Oysters and the Railway benefit from their proximity to Strabane’s theatre. The late AA Gill wrote, “Breakfast is everything. The beginning, the first thing. It is the mouthful that is the commitment to a new day, a continuing life.”
That’s just how I felt savouring the ‘full Irish’ at MK’s while contemplating my journey onwards to Donegal.