You’ll wake up today in another country when you arrive in Portrush, in County Antrim, one of the six counties that form Ulster, or Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom. Portrush has been a pleasant and popular resort town since the 19th century, with its three wide sandy beaches and many seaside hotels and teashops. It’s also close to one of Ireland’s most famous sites, the Giant’s Causeway, an hour by car to the northeast of town. While according to legend, the causeway was built by the giant Fionn mac Cumhaill so that he could cross the North Channel to fight the Scottish giant Benandonner, geologists now agree that the 40,000 or so interlocking basalt columns were the result of volcanic activity. The natural wonder has been on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites since 1986.
If you are a fan of Irish whiskey, the causeway is just a few miles from Bushmills, home of the Old Bushmills Distillery known for both its blends and single malts. Halfway between Bushmills and Portrush, Duncle Castle was, at different points, the seat of both the MacDonnell and the MacDonald clans. It has been abandoned since the 17th century, and its atmospheric ruins overlooking the sea offer a postcard-perfect photo opportunity.
You stop later in the day at the southernmost island of the Hebrides, Islay—the Queen of the Hebrides. You’ll have time to explore the island, known for its distilleries—there are eight of them, on an island with a year-round population of only around 3,200. Connoisseurs praise Islay’s whiskies for their distinct smoky notes and peat flavor, said to be the result of the water and particular barley used to create them. Even if you aren’t a drinker, the island offers opportunities to explore on foot or bike, perhaps spotting some of the many birds that stop here. Exploring is made even more pleasant given Islay’s unusually mild climate due to the warming effects of the Gulf Stream which are all the more pronounced in the summer when the Ponant expedition cruise calls there.
For travelers captivated by the saga of Scotland’s history, Islay was long the center of power in western Scotland as the seat of the Lords of the Isles. From the 12th to the 16th centuries, the Lord of the Isles rivaled the kings of England and Scotland, and while James IV of Scotland eventually seized all their lands, Prince Charles, the current heir to the British throne, still counts Lord of the Isles among his titles. A number of abandoned castles and other sites on Islay recall this fascinating period of Scottish history.