I’ve lived in Northern Ireland for more than 20 years and yet I’m still in awe of the incredible beauty of my adopted country.
It can be, and often is, truly breathtaking. So it was really no sacrifice to forgo my annual holiday abroad this summer in favour of a series of day trips to some of our own home-grown attractions.
Northern Ireland Tourist Board is clearly hoping that plenty of others will have the same idea too, as they’ve just spent £1million on an extensive campaign to promote the notion of the ‘Staycation’, ie holidaying at home instead of abroad.
As much as I’d have loved to spend two weeks basking in glorious sunshine on a golden beach in the Mediterranean, I decided to take them at their word and instead to plan a series of day trips with my motley crew of sons and their assorted chums, doing the kind of things that boys of that age love to do.
Also, with one son preparing to leave home for university and the other an image-conscious teenager, I’m now painfully aware that our days of family holidays may soon be coming to an end.
Sure, the three of us have a camaraderie that’s second to none, yet sooner or later they just won’t want to be seen hanging out with their mum, will they? It’s so not cool.
With that in mind, if this was going to be our last summer together as a close but truncated family unit I was sure as hell going to make it a good ’un that they’d remember forever.
So as soon as they’d hung up their blazers and thrown out their dog-eared exercise books at the end of June, we sat down and planned a season of summertime adventures, all within a short drive’s distance.
First up, a trip to the famous Todd’s Leap outdoor activity centre in Ballygawley. This place opened in the same year as I moved to Norn Iron and I’ve been meaning to try it out ever since, so this year seemed like as good a time as any. Here we stayed overnight in a proper traditional log cabin, nestled in the wild wooded countryside and with a spectacular vista that took in three neighbouring counties: Fermamagh, Tyrone and Monaghan over the border.
Of course the boys were in their element, leaping off bunk beds and mountains of freshly cut logs until the sun sank behind the pine forest and the sky filled with an entire galaxy of bright stars, unspoilt by any light pollution.
But then the following morning, the real fun began. Off-road driving in one of their fleet of battered jeeps was quite literally a white-knuckle ride — two of the drivers (my younger son and his best buddy) had never sat behind the wheel of a car before, let alone taken charge of the wheel. We proceeded to career around the forest-side track which incorporated steep climbs, a stretch directly through a muddy stream and along the edge of a steep valley drop. Granted, they were only going at 10 miles per hour, and with a qualified instructor controlling the brakes, but still I felt like I’d survived the Gumball Rally with a blind man at the helm by the time it was over.
Next up, a zip-wire plunge across a 500-foot cavernous drop. It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted or anyone with vertigo — yet, exhilarating fun if you dare — which I did, amazing myself and my sons in the process. I still can’t believe I did it.
Other activities we took part in included driving and operating a massive heavy-plant digger, a lesson in archery and half-an-hour’s rough and tumble with the zorb-balls (huge beach-ball style bodysuits which you climb into and then literally bounce around, into and over your fellow zorbers without any fear of injury).
By the time we’d finished our first day out of the holidays, the boys were thoroughly worn out but they had ticked so many things off their to-do list of boyhood fantasies that they really didn't care.
Another fantastic summertime experience tailor-made for teenage boys (and their mums) was something I came across purely by accident while waiting for the Strangford ferry after a scenic drive down the Ards Peninsula.
The Strangford Sea Safari takes groups of 12 at a time on a mini tour of the islands, inlets, rocks and lighthouses around the mouth of the lough and out into the Irish Sea. As the trip takes place on a high-speed Rib (rigid inflatable boat — those bright orange speed boats used by coastguards) you travel at an incredible speed, jumping the waves and whirlpools like a stone skimming the surface. On our day out we were lucky enough to be followed by a pod of porpoise outriders, much to the delight of everyone on board. Seals and their pups, cormorants, terns, guillemots and gannets also joined in the entourage as we zoomed out into the bay and saw the lough from a whole new and enlightening perspective.
Next up, this month we’re going on a sea fishing day trip from Bangor harbour on board the old but characterful Blue Aquarius. Apparently August is herring season and they usually reel them in by the bucket load. Sounds like more exhausting ‘boy’s-own’ fun. It’s just a pity none of us like herring.
I’m going to need a holiday after this summer...