Destination: Northern Ireland

House Sitting in N. Ireland – Week 1

We are currently house sitting in Northern Ireland and from the first day of arrival, I began to fall in love with this beautiful area.

She Who Must Be Obeyed

The home is a renovated farmhouse and the pet is “She Who Must Be Obeyed”, a gorgeous black cat with wonderfully white whiskers. (say that five times fast!)

Even though we arrived early, the owners made us feel immediately welcome, and showed us around their lovely home.  They made a delightful meal for us before retiring to get their final preparations made.  They were leaving at 4am!   The owners were very clear that we were free to roam the countryside and that She Who Must Be Obeyed was very independent and they had often left her on her own for days at a time.  We weren’t going to do days at a time, but it was nice to know we could go out and explore daily.

The home is situated about 6 miles from Ballycastle on the Northern Irish coast.  It is surrounded by fields, farms, cows, sheep and horses.  The resident swallows were busy building nests and preparing for their young.  It is a very busy place from that point of view.  The back garden is wild and the clover had just come out, so we were aware of the low hum of dozens of bees collecting the first pollen.

Northern Ireland, by its location, is cooler and therefore behind the rest of Britain when it comes to the birds and the bees (not what you think).  The Hawthorne is just beginning to come out in the first week of June.  The lushness of the land it amazing.

Our first order of business was to decide what we were going to see.  There is so much to choose from and so many places to visit, and if you are a Game of Thrones fan, there are tours designed specifically for that! 

Day 1

The Coastal Causeway Route

Because the house is situated so close to the coast, we decided to start with the Coastal Causeway Route.  It is a must-see if you are coming to Northern Ireland and it runs from Belfast to Londonderry or Derry as it is now known.  You can do it in a day, be we decided to do bits of it at a time to ensure we fully explored and experienced it.

Our first foray was to the Giant’s Causeway.  The first mistake was to try to do it on a Sunday, AND the last day of the half-term break!  It was so busy that we decided to come back and do it later in the week.  We ended up driving the Causeway and stopped at White Park Bay and Balintoy Harbour.

White Park Bay

White Park Bay is said to be one of the first settlements of Ireland and there has been evidence found of Neolithic settlers and a stone axe and arrowhead industry.  It is a sweeping bay of tall, craggy cliffs and sandy beaches that are home to a diverse collection of birds and sea creatures.  It is said that on Midsummer’s Eve, you can come to the layby (from where this picture is taken) at the top of the cliffs and see a sunset of uncommon beauty.  The Sun sends a pathway of golden light across the sea to the land.

White Park Bay gives way to Ballintoy Harbour

Ballintoy Harbour

Ballintoy Harbour is a small community of fishermen that was used for the setting of Theon Greyjoy’s homeland in the Game of Thrones series.  It is a craggy bay fully of rocks and outcroppings and one is said to resemble a sleeping dragon, when the light hits it right in the evenings.

The biggest draw is Roark’s Kitchen, which sits at the edge of the bay and it boasts the most amazing array of cakes, scones, fudge, bars, and pies you can imagine.  It is a popular (well, of course) stop in the Causeway Coastal Route for a cuppa and a cake.  I will tell you, the cakes were delicious..  yes, I said cakes. 

There was the largest selection of cakes I have ever seen in one place.. We will have to go back to try some different ones!

Day 2

The Dark Hedges

Another stop you must make is to the Dark Hedges.  The Dark Hedges are an ancient stand of beeches that were planted in the 18th century by the Stuart family, along the roadway leading to their manor house, Gracehill.  They have grown to meet above the road and create the iconic avenue.  Most famously, this was used as the road to Kings Landing in the Game of Thrones.

When you arrive, you are directed to the car park – there is also a hotel and café there along with a golf course and clubhouse.  You can sign up for a guided tour of the property (about 40mins long) or carry on by yourself.  There is a wee fairy forest at the beginning of the walk with many fairy doors.

Once beyond that you can cross the road (look before crossing!) and you are in the avenue.  It is usually quite busy but you can go off season or around sunset to beat the crowds.  Beware the Grey Lady!

The Birches are wonderfully old and creaky and did you know you can live on the Beech nuts if you are starving?  There are many medicinal properties of the Beech Tree.

The next day we went back to the Giant’s Causeway.

Day 3

The Giant’s Causeway

The Giant’s Causeway is one of the most famous features of Northern Ireland.  The story goes an Irish giant named Finn McCool (I am not making this up!) was defending Ireland from a Scottish giant, named Benandonner, and they threw down clods of the land to form a bridge between Ireland and Scotland, for Finn to teach Benandonner a lesson. 

Once Finn McCool caught sight of Benandonner – he knew he was beaten because the Scottish giant was HUGE.  He ran home and begged his wife to hide him and she told him to get into the bed and made him up to be a baby.  When Benandonner arrived looking for Finn, Finn’s wife told him that Finn was not home. 

When Benandonner queried about the figure in the bed, Finn’s wife told him it was their baby.  Benandonner exclaimed “If yer bairn is that big, then Finn must be bigger…” and ran away in fear.  As he left, he broke up the Causeway to protect him from the Irish giants.

The Causeway is protected and run by the National Trust and it is totally worth getting a membership if you are going to be in the UK for a couple of months (or six).  It gets you free parking and access to many of the old Manor Homes and protected areas in the UK.  The other one to join is the British Heritage Society that allows you to pay monthly for a membership.  This will get you into many of the monuments and castles in the UK.

Day 4

We had a wet and rainy day next, so we took a day off… built a fire in the stove and spent the day puttering about and reading.  It was a gloriously wet and windy day and we were toasty warm inside. The peace and solitude of this location made it a lovely “sit by the fire day and relax all toasty and warm”.

Day 5

Londonderry, or Derry as it is now known

The following day we took a road-trip to Londonderry, or Derry as it is known now.  It was a grey day and hit pockets of torrential rain all the way along.  It was just over an hour’s drive to get us there, but so worth it.  One of the places we visited was St. Colomb’s Cathedral.  This Cathedral has played a significant role in the formation of N. Ireland.

St. Coloumb's

There is a cannon ball (huge) in the atrium that is the very same that was shot into the walled city by the Jacobites during the Seige of Derry.  It contained the surrender terms for the city.  The people did not take kindly to it and locked the city gates is massive locks and the Seige began.  It is an interesting story and sets the stage for future conflicts.

Our week ended on a glorious day of sunshine and a drive back to the coast to visit the Glenarm Castle grounds. 

Glenarm Castle

As Google will do, we were sent on the fastest route – overland – to the small seaside town of Glenarm.  We made our way to the Glenarm Castle (a manor really) and the walled garden.  You can visit the gardens daily, but the Castle is still inhabited, so tours are infrequent and delivered by the Butler.  There is a lovely tea house that serves breakfast, lunch, and tea. 

We left there and decided to throw Google to the wind and follow the coastal route back. The sky was blue, the wind a minimum and boats dotted the sea.  We wound our over mountains speckled with sheep farms, around the ragged coast, and inland through drier and gorse-covered hills.  It was a lovely drive and highly recommended.

That ends week one of our sit in N. Ireland.  Can’t wait to see what discoveries week two will hold. 

Destination Banff and Banff National Park, Alberta Canada

Boy, Did We Luck Out

Banff, Alberta is located 1.5 hour’s drive from Calgary, Alberta and nestled in the Canadian Rockies.  It is an easy day trip to drive into Banff from Calgary.  Let’s be honest, since house sits in Banff don’t turn up very often, and we were chuffed that we found one and were successful in getting it.  But, if you get a house sitting gig in Calgary…. ROAD TRIP!!

Banff house sitting
Banff is nestled in a valley surrounded by the Rocky Mountains

Banff is a outdoors persons’ dream location.  In the summer months, you can enjoy activities such as canoeing, kayaking, hiking, camping, exploring, cycling, back country hiking and camping, while enjoying the fabulous weather and gorgeous vistas that are abundant in Banff.  When considering camping anywhere in Banff National Park (or any National Park) you will need to plan and book early.  The campsites fill up fast and you need to book ahead of time.  More detailed information can be found here.

Banff has the added bonus of winter sports as well, considering it is surrounded by mountains, and the three main ski areas are Sunshine Village, Lake Louise, and Norquay.   Here you can ski, snowshoe, back country winter hike, take dog sled tours, and other festivities that the tourism board puts on.

Banff National Park was the first named National Park in Canada’s history.  Now, there are 39 (and growing) National Parks.  These are areas that have been designated as major natural reserves and representations of Canada’s natural environment.  The parks form a network (and at times contiguous) system of reserve and areas that are protected by the federal government.  Be aware of driving speed limits in all the parks – fines are huge if you are stopped.

To stay overnight in the parks, you must purchase a park pass.  The cost is prorated over how many days you are staying.  If you are staying beyond seven days, it is cheaper to buy an annual pass for $136.  This gives you access to all of Canada’s National Parks for a one year period, with no restrictions on how long you stay.  Did I mention ROAD TRIP!

Banff – The Town/Village

Banff Town
Banff Town

Banff Village was initially founded by the railroad workers in 1883 when they discovered the hot springs and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The ‘village’ itself is full of quaint stores, heritage buildings, restaurants, hotels, Airbnb, historical museums and is the home of the Banff Centre for Arts which is a world-famous venue for artists and performers.  Accommodation is not cheap in Banff, and you might have to look around to plan your trip on the ‘shoulder season’ to get a decent room rate.  They do, however, have lots of specials during the ski season so you just have to plan ahead.

Banff vista and gondola
View of Banff Town from Sulphur Mountain

Another cool plus is the gondola up Sulpher Mountain which gives you amazing views from the top.  Also, it hosts the Sulpher Mountain mineral pools which are natural hot springs.  Open all year round, they can be a welcome respite after a long day of hiking or skiing.  It truly is breathtaking and well worth the trip up the mountain.  This shot shows the gondola and the village below nestled amongst the Canadian Rockies.

The iconic Banff Springs Hotel

One cannot talk about Banff without mentioning the iconic Banff Springs Hotel.  Originally constructed in 1887 by the General Manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway.  It has had a storied past and is well worth the visit.   The views are amazing, the architecture from another era, and has a grandeur left over from the early years of the 20th century.  One quirky fun thing to do is to find all the public washrooms… sounds funny, but each one is different.  Great thing to do on a rainy day! (free)

The Locals

Banff has a variety of wildlife to experience

The wildlife.  You cannot talk about Canadian national parks without considering the wildlife.  Banff is rich in that sense.  Elk and deer walk the town freely and are treated with the greatest respect.  There are also black bears, brown bears, and grizzly bears to be aware of when you are hiking.  Best to carry bear spray and make noise when in the bush.  Moose are also frequent visitors and should also be viewed with respect and do not approach them!  They are big as or bigger than most horses and have a bad attitude.  This is thought to be due to their poor eyesight and inability to distinguish friend from foe.  They will attack dogs, as it is thought they resemble wolves.

Speaking of wolves, yep, they got ‘em too!  Wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, oh my!  Yes there is a lot that can and will hunt you in Banff, but you just need to be aware and always on alert.  Keep looking around and scanning the bush, listening for sounds out of the ordinary and most of all.. the smell.  If you smell something gnarly, it could be a wild animal near you.

There are also gorgeous raptors in the park – Eagles, Hawks, Vultures, and may other birds of prey or other species.  There is an active bird watching opportunity here.  On our first day here, we saw a Woodland Blue Bird for the first time.. it was beautiful!  We didn’t know what it was at the time, but ran into a couple of bird watchers and described it to them.  They assured us that was what we saw. Oh, and the local humans are generally friendly, open, and nice.

Dog Walking

Canmore Dog Park
Canmore Dog Park

Because of local wildlife, dogs must be walked on leashes at all times in and around the village – it is best for the dogs and best for the wildlife.  There is a fabulous off-leash park in neighbouring Canmore.  It is a 15 min drive from Banff and is a large area of open fields and wooded areas.

You can walk dogs on many different pathways and trails in Banff and the use of long lines is widespread to allow the dogs to be able to hunt and have a good walk.

There is another great place called the Fenlands just outside the town by the BANFF sign.  It is a lovely woodland walk with bridges, boardwalks, and trails to walk on.  Dogs must be leashed here too.

The Food

The cool thing about Banff is they serve a lot of wild game.  You can even get alligator at Tooloulous! (good food and great value). That, and ditch chicken – the colloquial term for frogs legs. 

Not to mention Elk, Bison, fresh fish, and if you aren’t adventurous, even beef and chicken. 😊  It is a great way to try out new proteins!

There are so many restaurants here.  They cater to all palates from Western to Asian to Eastern to Italian and Greek.  You can find just about anything.  Oh, and you MUST try Beaver Tails. They are a local treat and, depending on which part of the country you are in, they can be known as Whales Tails too.

Our favs for having a great beer (lots of craft beer available) and a snack are The Elk and the Oarsman, The Banff Ave. Brewing Company, and Tommy’s.  All are pubs and are fav hangouts for the locals.  They are moderately priced and serve good burgers.  (The best veggie burger of the three is the Elk and the Oarsman)

Most of the restaurants have vegetarian or vegan options and there are a couple of vegan restaurants to be found. Nourish Bistro is probably the top vegan restaurant as it is only veggie and vegan.  Another popular one is the Rocky Mountain Flatbread Company

Things to do for Free or Inexpensively

Hiking the trails = free

Whyte Museum ==  $10

Banff Springs Hotel == free to roam – lots to see and enjoy

Art Galleries == free to roam

Take the gondola ride up Mt. Norquay = free

Visit Canmore = free

Visit the many lakes in the area = free

Banff Mountain Market = Every Wednesday starting in May

Catch a movie at the Lux Theatre

Cascade Gardens = free

Cave and Basin Historical Site

Wildlife viewing = free if you have a car but also they have wildlife evening tours $56/person (fyi, you will see wildlife in town and on the trails too)

Banff Park Museum = $4 admission

Hop on the bus = day pass $5 plus lots of alternatives

Sit on a patio and people watch = free

If you have a car and the ability to do other day trips = Lake Louise, Columbia Icefields, Icefields Parkway, Kananaskis (we do not advocate walking on the glaciers as they have become extremely fragile. They are melting fast!)

Check out the local calendar of events = lots of info and free stuff

Here is a great resource on wildlife safety and awareness and what to do when you do encounter wildlife in the parks.