Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Portballintrae Weekend

What a popular little resort Portballintrae is. It lies between Portrush and Bushmills in County Antrim. Incidentally, we are particularly fond of Bushmills. For a small village, it boasts a good number of restaurants, small supermarkets, a hardware store, bakery, butchery, chip shops and much more besides.

We dined on Sunday evening at probably my favourite hotel in Northern Ireland: the Bushmills Inn. Whilst it may not technically be a five-star hotel, it exudes that aura of old-fashioned service, charm, opulence, character and style which comes with decades of experience. This excellence is reflected in its patrons, many of them tourists and golfers from North America and further afield. This hotel is attuned to its patrons and caters for their needs and demands. Since there was a large number of Canadian guests staying there, the Canadian flag was being flown. The hotel has been tastefully extended recently.

We had an aperitif in the lounge-bar. The range of spirits and liquors in general is impressive; so I ordered a Tanqueray gin and tonic. At seven forty-five we made our way into the dining-room, where I enjoyed a prime Ulster fillet steak with garlic fried potatoes and sliced mushrooms. My pudding was sticky toffee pudding with whipped cream. The steak was thick and quite rare. I'd requested it to be served medium; however, I still enjoyed it. The Dowager had a starter of prawns and crab served in a ramekin.

We shared a glass of port at the end of our meal. I noticed an expensive Cognac costing £75 a glass! One minor quibble I have with restaurants in general is that many no longer serve a garnish with meals; even a token garnish of lettuce and tomato would suffice. Main courses seem bare without this. The Bushmills Inn is not the most economical of establishments; however, their service, standards, stylishness, ambiance and character more than compensate for this extra expenditure.

I'm afraid I am unable to extend the same compliment to the Causeway Hotel. It is, and always has been, popular. The occasional coach-load is testament to that. Whereas the Bushmills Inn aspires to five-star standards, the Causeway Hotel makes no pretensions to attain this level of service and cuisine. Portions are exceptionally generous. I was disappointed that my favourite battered scampi was omitted from the menus - although there was breaded scampi. I had the chilli beef in pitta bread with an Oriental sauce and stir-fried vegetables. Whilst it was tasty, it was rather unappealingly served on the plate.

Many of the staff seem to be young students with limited experience of catering for discerning guests. Nevertheless, I do like the old-fashioned, traditional atmosphere of the Causeway Hotel and we shall doubtless revisit in due course. It is considerably less expensive than the Bushmills Inn and the lounge-bar is particularly popular for meals.

To return to the village of Portballintrae: after breakfast every morning I strolled above the cliff to Seaport Lodge and harbour. I revelled in watching the gorgeous little sand martens flying swiftly over the calm sea and perching on an old cable. Seaport Lodge is currently undergoing major renovations.

Seaport is quite a modest, two-storey bow-fronted house built around 1770 for James Leslie as a marine residence and bathing lodge. I had an amble round the surrounding field and noticed a curious structure built into the hill, now roofless. Could it have been an ice-house? The lodge itself has a round-headed entrance door in bow; ground-floor windows are round-headed. There are single-storey bows in the end elevations, with similar windows; and a conspicuous balustraded roof parapet. The interior oval hall has a Classical plasterwork ceiling. Seaport is presently white; though it is believed that grey was the original colour.

Seaport Lodge has the most commanding prospect of Portballintrae. Sweeney's bar was formerly the gate lodge to the House.

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