We left Northern Ireland in the wee hours on Sunday, September 25.
Today was our last day.
By the time the sun came down, we would have done a loop of the whole country and ended up back where we started in Belfast. As is usually the case, we were too busy thinking about what still lay ahead to reminisce. No time for nostalgia just yet.
Today's short ride and fair weather got us to Portaferry with enough time left in the day to visit the Exploris Aquarium. Whilst that might sound like some sort of 80s disco rave with cheesy pop and bad cocaine, it's actually home to almost 75% of all marine species found in Northern Ireland, living in careful facsimiles of their natural habitat.
Continuing our trend of easy last rides, today was no exception. We woke up to a calm sea and the sun shining its rays into our window. The storm had finally passed and it looked like today's journey would be smooth sailing. Or so we hoped.
They say that it never rains, but it pours. In Northern Ireland, this isn't quite true: it always rains. In Newcastle, however, it pours.
Another easy day awaited us when we woke up in the morning. It was 40-odd kilometres again from here until Newcastle, so we got up a bit later, ate a bit later, and set off a bit later than usual. These final stages are more laid back, so we've settled into a relaxed rhythm which allows us to languish longer over our bacon and beans, reading the morning papers aloud to each other like a pair of wrinklies.
Warrenpoint is a small seaside town located at the very tip of Carlingford Lough. It is separated from the Republic of Ireland by a narrow strait, and is charmingly picturesque with its promenade and waterfront hotels. It was in one such bed and breakfast that we would stay for the night, and as we cycled to The Lough and Quay (a fantastic pun if you pronounce it correctly, which obviously Jess the American did not), we felt like we were somewhere in the French riviera, minus the warmth.
Today was our last inland ride, as we were finally headed back to the coast where the Irish Sea awaited us. We timed our departure from Armagh for just after lunchtime, so as to avoid the worst of this small but busy city's traffic. It didn't really work out that way.
The first thing we thought when we rode into Armagh was, "Oh no. Not again."
This was the longest stretch in the saddle so far and one we originally anticipated as being the worst. Not because it went on all day, but because it was through a good chunk of the country. With bugger all between here and Armagh to break up the journey, that, along with the inevitable accursed drumlins, meant it looked like another chore of a ride, with nothing much to look at besides the usual fields of cows.
For once in all our bike touring days, we didn't have a plan for what we would do today. In fact, after our later than usual breakfast at 9 AM, we went back upstairs and straight to bed. Neil was deep in the throes of his cold and was soon fast asleep, and Jess took the advantage of the free time to read a book and catch up on some trip notes.
Who wakes up early on a Saturday morning filled with excitement to visit a porcelain factory??
Well, Jess does, anyway.
We didn't think that finding accommodation in a touristy town such as Enniskillen would be so difficult, but it turns out that everyone else had had the same idea as us.
We were up bright and early, making sure to leave enough time to enjoy our full Ulster fry, which by this point had become a mandatory start to the day. Compared to yesterday's iffy weather, this was looking pretty good – the sun was shining, the sky was clear, and we were delighted at the prospect of a cloudless day's ride. Toasting to our good fortune, we clinked our tea cups and tucked into our potato farls.
The Ulster American Folk Park is an open-air museum which focuses on the history of Ulster migration to America in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Out of all immigration occurring in the United States during that time, it was this particular breed of Irish that adapted most quickly and prominently into society, as seen by the three first-generation U.S. presidents (who were all of Ulster origin) and 13 overall who could trace their roots back to here.
Leaving Derry was pleasant enough, as all we had to do was go down the hill that we had struggled up two days prior. From there, we were on the main A5 road for several relatively flat kilometres, and were already moving along nicely.
It is a proven fact that both of us will fall sick at least once throughout the course of a cycling trip.
For Jess, her time was now. As she woke up to the sound of rain, she was painfully aware that everything in her body hurt and she needed some medication, fast. But what we both craved more than anything was sleep. So after a lovely breakfast by Pat, we crawled back upstairs and hung out for a bit, relaxing and talking about how we wanted to spend our first rest day.
We were absolutely destroyed when we arrived at the doorstep of the Phoenix Bed and Breakfast.
It was 5:30 PM and the sun was on the wane. Having crossed the Foyle and ascended the other side of its valley, our final climb of the day was done. We were starting to snap at each other over mundane things like "breathing too loudly" and "not braking hard enough". As in Burma, that's when we knew that we needed to get off the bike and rest.
It appears that we've reached some sort of truce with Mother Nature. In exchange for several days of straight pish, grinding through the blustering winds and rain, the weather gods smile upon us and bestow we cycling mortals with a single charitable day of sunshine.
"Welcome to Portrush", the sign proclaimed ahead of us.
With a huge sigh of relief, we trundled into town. Finally, this wet, cold, Northern Irish day was done. All we had to do now was find our B&B, which appeared to be very straightforward, as all we needed to do was stay on the main road and then turn off onto a side street near the beach.
May we present Exhibit A: The Reality: