Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

November 29, 2021
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Leprechauns & Emerald Greens

Dig your spikes into the mythical fairways of Northern Ireland's golf courses

Northern Ireland has been described as a 1000-hole golf course scattered with towns and villages. Indeed, in this tiny land measuring 137 kilometres wide by 177 long, you have 80 courses to choose from. The best part is that even in summer you'll have the verdant fairways pretty much to yourself, and the green fees are a bargain. A spectacular seaside course that would cost about $100 in Canada costs around $30 in Northern Ireland. Not only will the post-holiday descriptions of the scenery make your medical colleagues envious, but so will the bargain prices.

You'll find emerald golf gems all over, and what's especially pleasant about playing here is the relaxed attitude the Irish have about the game. You'll see golfers take their leashed dogs out for a round and pass couples just taking a stroll, many pushing a stroller. Even in summer, getting a tee time is a cinch. Power carts are available at some clubs, but most golfers walk the course or hire a "push trolley."

For posterity, you'll want to tackle the two famous links courses, the Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush with its rugged setting on the Causeway Coast, and the legendary Royal County Down, nestled in huge sand dunes beside the town of Newcastle where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea. Both are ranked among the world's top 25 courses.

When I think back to my dismal performance on these courses, I'm reminded of a non-golfing friend's summary of the game. "Surely there must be a cheaper and quicker way to humble yourself in public," she scoffed. Humbling it was. Between the wind, heather, bunkers and gorse shrubs, I may hold the course record for lost balls.

I should mention that my enthusiasm for the game exceeds my level of proficiency. If you also have a high handicap, you might find that the courses described as "undulating parkland" are better suited to your skill and temperament than the championship links. Keep in mind that Northern Ireland's got much more than great golf going for it. Leave plenty of time to see the sights, pub-crawl and mingle with hospitable locals.

The Dunluce Links Course at Royal Portrush, though generally considered easier than Royal County Down, is certainly no walk in the park. You won't likely forget the notorious par-three "Calamity Corner," with its green perched precariously at the edge of a cliff. After the round, the inviting smoky smell of a peat fire lures visitors into the Bushmills Inn, a snug place to stay and explore the northern Causeway Coast that winds from Limavady to Ballycastle.

The Strand Course at Portstewart Golf Club is just west of the Royal Portrush Golf Club and is a treat, with most of the holes played atop high sand hills above the Atlantic.

Switch your spikes to walking boots and fortify yourself with a famous Ulster fry breakfast -- eggs, potato farls, grilled Irish bacon, mushrooms, tomatoes and wheat-bread toast -- then head to The Giant's Causeway, a World Heritage Site and geological marvel. You can hike among the 40,000 six-sided basalt columns formed by cooling lava about 60 million years ago. Legend has it that Irish giant Finn MacCool built the Causeway as stepping stones to his sweetheart on Hebrides Island in Scotland.

Not for the faint of heart is the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge swinging high above the sea out to a tiny salmon fishery. After the trapeze act you'll be ready for a tour and some Irish medicine at Old Bushmills, the world's oldest licensed distillery, where they've been producing the "water of life" since 1608.

Heading east, the Ballycastle Golf Course, described as parkland and heathland, meanders along the banks of two rivers for the first five holes. The most famous hole is called "Leg of Mutton." The scenery here is spectacular, with panoramic views of Rathlin Island and a glimpse of the magnificent Antrim Coast with its rugged cliffs, white sandy beaches and the lush nine glens of Antrim. There's an unspoiled magic here where the mischievous locals offer rewards for every leprechaun caught, and a sign on a pub door offers "free beer tomorrow."

In the fishing village of Carnlough you'll find the Londonderry Arms. It was built in 1848 as a coaching inn and inherited by Sir Winston Churchill in 1921. It makes a fine headquarters for exploring the Antrim Coast. At the National Trust village of Cushendun, stop for tea and wander around the Cornish cottages. Glenariff Forest Park, where the waterfalls foam like Guinness, is a fine place for a picnic and a ramble along the well-marked trails.

Just north of Larne, Cairndu Golf Club is one of the most scenic undulating parkland courses in Northern Ireland. On the third tee, you stand 61 metres above the sea with a valley to your right and rocks below. It's the most challenging and the most stunning course.

Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, is a bustling, vibrant city blessed with some architectural gems, including the grand Edwardian City Hall and the ornate Grand Opera House. Down by the waterfront, Odyssey, Northern Ireland's millennium project, opens in November 2000. The multi-faceted leisure and recreation centre will house an arena for sports and live entertainment, a Warner Village Cinemas multiplex, an IMAX theatre and a science centre.

And of course, Belfast is dotted with lively pubs. Don't miss The Crown Liquor Saloon with its carved wood, gleaming brass fittings and gentle glow from the gas lamps. Settle into a cozy "snug" and order a pint of the local brew, Caffrey's Ale.

The Ardglass Golf Club is in the heart of a fishing village about 48 kilometres south of Belfast. It's an impressive sight. The fairways are impeccably maintained and the posh clubhouse was formerly a castle. On a clear day you can see the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea. Beware of the second hole: Your tee shot must carry a cliff and a canyon -- and that's the easy part.

At the northern end of the Ards Peninsula, you'll want to add your name to the list of notable visitors to The Old Inn in Crawfordsburn. Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia; highwayman Dick Turpin and writer Jonathan Swift have all lodged under the thatched roof of the oldest coaching inn in Ireland, which was built in 1614.

Not far away, on the east shore of the scenic Strangford Lough fjord, discover why the gardens at Mount Stewart have been billed as Ireland's finest. This was the country estate of the fabulously wealthy and politically prominent marquess of Londonderry. You'll want to stroll through the formal and informal gardens and the quirky stone menagerie of monkeys, dinosaurs, griffins and more on the Dodo Terrace.

Perhaps most striking, and unmistakably Irish, is the Shamrock Garden, enclosed by a yew hedge in the shape of a shamrock. Inside is a topiary Irish harp and a begonia bed planted in the shape of the Red Hand of Ulster. Further south is the lively seaside resort of Newcastle, surrounded by the heather-clad Mountains of Mourne.

By now you've had lots of practice and will be ready to take a swing at the famous links at Royal County Down Golf Club. For many, the ninth hole is golf ecstasy, requiring you to drive your ball over a high hill covered in gorse and down to the fairway 80 yards below. With five blind tee shots, you'd be wise to hire a caddie. Bring your handicap certificate, lots of balls, a camera and a "brolly." Royal County Down can be exhilarating or excruciating -- either way, you'll never forget it.


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