Back in July, from a short-list of day trips to places we hadn't been before, we chose to visit Rathlin Island. Rathlin is a small island shaped like a reflected letter 'L' that is located 6 miles out to sea from Ballycastle on the North Antrim Coast. The lure of taking this day trip was the chance to see somewhere new, enjoy the scenery and take a ride on a ferry. Personally I also liked the prospect of having something interesting to take a photo of.
The trip for us that day was an Ulsterbus tour and so we boarded the coach bright and early from the Europa bus centre in Belfast. It was all down to chance but taking the tour bus was our one big mistake of the day - the coach itself was actually very nice, very comfortable and modern and the travel itinerary (apart from maybe being a little short in time on the island itself) was fine, as was the price - you see the mistake wasn't the coach itself, it was the people sat behind us when we got on it.
It's hard to phrase this in any nice way but the issue was simply that these two people just would not stop talking inanely. The thing being they weren't talking that loudly and there was no bad language so we felt like we couldn't complain, it was just a persistent and mundane running commentary of anything they saw or thought, and I mean anything that went through their heads. These were people seemingly missing some barrier or internal filter, I'd have understood had they been drunk but they were sober and they just went on, and on and on and on and on and and on and on and on and...
Apart from driving us temporarily insane, the absurdity of it all did give us a few laughs later, I think it's fair to say that if we didn't laugh, we'd have cried because it was unrelenting all the way to Ballycastle and all the way back later in the day.
As I've probably mentioned before, one of the big downsides with going on a coach tour tends to be the random stops where very little choice is provided and I get the feeling I'm being herded like a sheep into a consumer-like pen for a set period of time. On this one we all had to get off the bus at a bridal/boutique shop with a cafe at a place called Logans which is half way between Ballymena and Coleraine. We didn't really mind this stop as it gave us a respite from the onslaught of jabbering we were being subjected to on the coach. Thankfully we did make it to Ballycastle without having to resort to confront the these clueless folks on their destruction of bus etiquette and possible infringement of international treaties of psychological torture - though reaching out to the European Court of Human Rights was getting close to being a viable option.
From here on in I really enjoyed our day trip. We waited for a short time until the Rathlin Express - a small catamaran passenger ferry launched in 2009 - was ready and then we boarded. It was still overcast at that point in the day but it was still warm enough to sit upstairs in the open air. The journey across on the ferry was great fun and relaxing, like being on an adult version of one of those children's rides outside amusement arcades that gently rock you back and forth. From the side of the boat we could see diving sea birds and the odd jellyfish going about their business, on the horizon we could make out the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge.
It felt like we were on holiday, which is strange given we were on a passenger ferry in the middle of a section of the North Channel.
After the short but pleasant ride we arrived in Church Bay, the main port of the island, disembarked and waited for the next 'Puffin bus' to visit the Rathlin Island RSPB nature reserve.
At first glance, looking over at the rest of the bay, there was very little in this small port, a couple of B&B's - one of which is an old Manor House, a few shops, a few houses and a bar. We were aiming to visit said bar later but first we were going to see the sea birds. Looking back from near the bus stop we could see the North Antrim Coast in the distance.
With so many people getting off the ferry at once all with the same plan, we didn't all fit onto the first of Bert's Puffin Buses. But a guy who we believe to have been Bert himself came along with another bus to collect us stragglers.
The bus bumped it's way along like postman pats van up the hill and around the tight bends. The only road to the west of the island is very narrow, like a small country lane. But the scenery was brilliant. On one side, purples of heather, wild flowers and grasses, to the other houses, gardens and fields broken by brilliant views looking out to sea and over towards the North Antrim Coast.
The bus dropped us off at the destination of the nature reserve that holds the RSPB sanctuary and we paid our bus fare (if I remember correctly it was five pounds for an adult return) and were given our return ticket.
It's a short walk down some stairs and a long ramp to get to where you can see the bird colonies on the cliffs and a few flights of stairs to get to the main viewing platform which is seemingly part of the lighthouse structure.
The sight and sounds were quite something. Big cliffs, vast expanse of sea, the Scottish and Northern Irish coasts, the usual sights of the coast as well as the beauty of this location plus lots of different varieties of sea birds perching precariously.
Here is a medley of photos of those sights:
Many of the birds had chicks which they were protecting feeding, seemingly very happy in this little corner of the world away from their predators - like this Kittiwake.
The rest of the birds were flying around and heading out to sea to feed, such as these sea birds flying off from the nesting sites in formation.
Getting some sunbathing time on rocks at the base of the cliffs were a seal or two, probably waiting for a snack to come to them.
We were there about an hour but it was soon time to leave as we had a ferry to catch and still wanted to grab some food back at the harbour.
Getting the next Puffin bus back we were taken down a little way from the harbour first to see a small section of low rocky outcrops that slid into the sea like ramps. This area is apparently a seal favourite and it certainly was, at least 7 just loitering on the rocks. Here are a few of them:
I'd love to go back and spend more time down at that beach watching the seals but we had food to get and so headed to the big bar via a quick stop at the visitor's centre.
We very much enjoyed our pint of Guinness and sandwich whilst chatting and watching the world go by from the window looking out to the harbour. There were also some picnic tables outside by the beach that looked to be a nice spot if you planned ahead with a packed lunch or bought a take out.
Soon we were back in the queue and re-boarding the ferry.
Back on the boat, Norngirl decided we were going to sit on the seats downstairs, outside, along the side. After thinking out loud that it was probably a prime place to get wet if we hit a wave, we both ignored the chance, it didn't happen on the way to the island and it looked calm and the sun was out.
The first part of the journey was bliss, swaying through the water gently with the sun on our faces looking back towards the island.
Then, out of the ocean greyish-blue, we encountered a bit of a choppy swell. It was still lovely and sunny but then we came face to face with the water. After a few waves worth of being soaked we were dripping wet and clambering towards shelter at the back of the boat and looked back laughing at the choppy water we'd passed through.
Though cold and salty it was still awesome, we laughed manically and dripped all the way back to Ballycastle. Thankfully we'd stopped dripping by the time we'd walked back to the bus. People must have thought we were nuts as we were still laughing at ourselves as we took our seats and waited for everyone else to make it back.
Part of the coach trip included a short stop in Ballycastle itself, we used this time wisely to find a bar where we took in some liquid refreshment to prepare ourselves for a potential repeat performance of the crazy inane chatting people. Sadly for us, the repeat performance was as torturous as the first time around, this time the highlight was, amongst other things, a second by second account of the blossoming relationship with fellow travellers that had filled their day, sweet mercy came when I managed to fall asleep for a while. Belfast couldn't be upon us soon enough, I've never been happier to get off a very comfortable coach.
If there is good weather, I'd really recommend a visit to Rathlin island and I do hope to go back there before too long to see more as we ran out of time to see all the island has to offer. I think next time I'd have to prepare better with ear cancelling earphones and a well charged phone/radio (just in case) or head to Ballycastle another way. One thing for sure is that Rathlin is a very picturesque island, especially when the sun comes out. So much of the natural world to see in one small place, and a real sense of being somewhere remote whilst only taking a day trip. Obviously tourism to a place like this is a double edged sword, the more people go, the less people get to see and the more environmental damage might be done but hopefully it's future development will go hand in hand with conservation. It's quite the uncut gem of a place to visit, especially if you like to see wildlife wild and enjoy your journey as well as the destination.