Visiting Portstewart – Gulls & Ghosts, Crabs & Chips
Portstewart is a quintessentially coastal town. You can hear the gulls call and caterwaul from everywhere in the town, because wherever you are, you’ll be walking distance to the sea. Small and friendly, Portstewart started as a fishing village and most of the town still faces the seafront where the views of the Atlantic Ocean are breathtaking all year round.
Many of our international visitors come to golf at the magnificent Portstewart Golf Club, which is a challenging championship links course with stunning 360 views over the sand dunes and across the River Bann. Most of Portstewart can be covered by foot, so leave the clubs down for a day and join us on foot to discover the rest of Portstewart.
Start with lunch at Amici’s, situated on the waters’ edge on the road to Portrush, and on the Old Golf Course if you want to squeeze in an extra round of golf! Amici’s has a superb menu, with pizza cooked in a charcoal oven, steaks, pasta and daily fish specials. Booking is essential – even for lunch – as it’s a firm favourite with locals and visitors. Personal recommendation: a chilled glass of Pinot Grigio and the Spaghetti Alfredo (served with truffle oil) – simple and superb. If you have never had Affogato make room for dessert. Tell yourself you deserve it while watching the waves crash below you.
Leaving Amici’s, follow the ocean path, taking you past the Herring Pond where locals take a dip all year round – apparently it doesn’t get “really cold” until March! The walk will take you around and above the harbor, where you can see and feel the waves pummel the wall that protects it.
Walk along the lovely Promenade and make a stop at Sheila’s Shop, a local landmark for generations. Stepping into Sheila’s feels like stepping back in time, for sweets (served by weight), sticks of rocks in ungodly flavours and gifts. But you can also buy what you will need to catch crabs. You’ll need a crabbing line and a crabbing bucket, which together will cost less than £5.
Head up the steps of the Cliff Path, sometimes called the Convent Walk, which takes you above the cliffs and into the shadow of the imposing Dominican College Convent. The Convent is a magnificent landmark in Portstewart, originally called O’Hara’s castle, it was owned by the original families of the town, and purchased by the Dominican nuns in 1917 as a day and boarding school. Those first students were invited to a school with a “lofty eminence overlooking the Atlantic”, and it remains a school to this day. From the path you can see the glorious stretch of the Portstewart Strand, and a horizon that stretches to eternity. You can count a huge number and species of seabirds as they soar and dive around you – seagulls, cormorants and oyster catchers are the most common.
Near the end of the Cliff path keep an eye out for a cross that has been etched into the wall, just at about eye level. Legend has it that there was once a young woman who had taken her Holy Orders in the Convent – but fell in love with a young man, and knowing that she could never be with him, threw herself from the Cliff path to the unforgiving sea below – and the cross was etched on the wall by her lover. Boarders from the College swear that they saw her ghostly form roaming the dormitories, and heard her heartbroken crying in the dark hallways … Or as we say here: why ruin a good story with the truth?
Once you descend from the Cliff path, you are close to the Berne – or the Berrins as it was originally known when it was built, sometime in the 1600 as a salmon fishery. A sheltered, shallow little inlet, the Berne is the perfect location for beginners to catch crabs. Your first decision when crabbing is bait: crabs are meat lovers, and they are not fussy, so you can use raw bacon, leftover chicken or even cooked lunchmeat.
However, if you are feeling a bit braver you can source your own bait with limpets. Limpets are a vastly common sea mollusk and you’ll see their conical shells clinging to rocks everywhere. Use a relatively slender stone to chip them off their rock face. Be aware, they are very good at hanging on, so best to take aim and surprise them in one strike, otherwise they will cling even more firmly, and you’ll end up bashing them to a bloody mush. Once you have removed the shell from the rock shuck them out of their shell using your thumb nail, to extract their soft body which the crabs find delicious.
Put your limpet – or your meat – into the crabbing net and lower your line to the watery ocean floor, then sit back and wait for your crab to grab it with their front nippers and lift your crab line out! Put some sea water into your crabbing bucket and use it to hold your catch. When lifting your crab, be sure to firmly grasp the shell with your index finger and thumb, across the broadest points of its back. Stay away from its eyes and most definitely stay away from the front claws – a nip even from a small crab can break skin! Once you have a firm hold, turn it over and have a look at the triangle on its undercarriage – a relatively narrow triangle is a male, but a wider triangle will tell you it’s a female.
On a good day, you can easily catch a dozen crabs – and when you’re done gently throw them all back into the water. Make sure you take your crab line and bucket home with you to leave no trace.
Continue your walk along the path to the strand head. At the headland, you get the full vista of the Portstewart Strand, a two mile stretch of golden beach and sand dunes, managed by the National Trust. If you want to walk off more of your lunch (before a crisp cold pint), a walk along the two-mile strand is ideal. Take off your shoes and socks and do the whole walk in your bare feet in the water – you’ll acclimatise to the temperature! At the end of the Strand is the Barmouth, a wall of concrete and boulders separating the beach from the River Bann. If you’re feeling very adventurous, clamber up onto the walkway and walk out to the tiny lighthouse at the end. From there you’ll have a fantastic view of Castlerock and Mussenden temple. Be very careful and don’t be fooled by the serenity of the surface of the River Bann – strong, fast currents flow beneath.
Having worked up an excellent thirst, reward yourself at the end of your walk with a cold beer sitting on the covered deck of the infamous Harry’s Shack, owned by the National Trust, and tucked into a low bluff at the edge of the dunes, with spectacular views of the ocean, and – on a summers evening – chilled vibes by the resident DJ. Enjoy a great range of local beers while listening to the sound of the surf constantly crashing on the shore. Perfect views for Instagram – or ignore the urge to share and enjoy the moment to yourself.
Harry’s Shack www.facebook.com/HarrysShack/ has a relaxed casual dining style, and a great menu.
Personal recommendation: Kinnegar Limeburner Pale Ale (from Donegal) and fish and chips. They have blankets for outdoors if it gets chilly.
Eighteen Ninety Four www.facebook.com/eighteenninetyfour/ – located in the Portstewart Golf Club (but open to the public), Eighteen Ninety Four is the latest gastronomic creation of Chef Ian Orr and his award winning team, with a mouth-watering menu and spectacular views overlooking the Strand.
Personal recommendation: get a seat by the window – everything on the menu is superb, but you will want to fill your evening looking at the view.