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Driving Ireland's Northern Coast in a Vintage Mini

Matthieu Paley A road in Ireland.

Photo: Matthieu Paley

Once upon a time, the notion "small is beautiful" wafted upon the air, and idealistic young folk reveled in simple, affordable cars like the Volkswagen Bug. The cars were iconically hip, a lifestyle statement. Across the water, the British equivalent was the Mini. Peppy and cute, the boxy Minis buzzed down Carnaby Street piloted by Princess Margaret, Twiggy, and the Beatles. Onscreen, they starred in romps like The Italian Job. Austin Powers surely would have driven one.

Times change, fashions fade. But while youth is not eternal, the longing for it is, so last year BMW (Mini's current owner) unveiled a brand-new Mini—the first major redesign in the marque's 41-year history. The new version's a clever, zippy thing, almost a third bigger than the 1959 model and a lot more powerful (115 horsepower versus 35). Like VW's updated Beetle, the 21st-century Mini is really more an homage to the original than an update on it.

Die-hard Mini fans have mixed emotions. On one hand, the redesign will bring a new generation (and nationality) into the Mini-lovers fold when it debuts on U.S. shores in March 2002. On the other, its arrival marks the end of the original design's four-decade production run. While the new model may be a big leap forward in engineering terms, I can't help but feel that something historic has passed away. The original Mini factory was still running until last October, but its output was entirely of another age. The materials were wood and metal, not vinyl and resin. The dash had dials, not LED's, and the door handles resembled the metal latch on an old icebox. In a wave of anticipatory nostalgia, I decided to go for a farewell drive in one of the last cars off the production line.

Alas, original Minis are too exotic to be found at rental-car counters, so I had to borrow one from the manufacturer for a spin in Ireland. A small country of narrow lanes, Ireland seemed the perfect place to tear around in a wee car. And where better to explore than Ulster, the war-torn province that finally seems headed toward peace?

AFTER SOME SEARCHING I FOUND MY MINI in the Dublin airport parking lot, tucked between two big cars. It was smaller than I had expected, about the scale of a good-sized riding lawn mower. Once I got inside, the feeling of smallness intensified. My head scraped the roof, my knees grazed the dash, and my elbow groped for somewhere to rest. I seemed to be at eye level with the pavement.

According to Mini lore, the car's size and shape were determined by the smallest possible box that could reasonably accommodate four adult passengers. Of course, this was right after World War II, when most Britons hadn't had a square meal in years. At five feet nine inches, I'm hardly a giant, but I do know what a piece of steak looks like. I feared it was going to be a long trip.

Indeed, the distance from the seat to the pedals was so short that I was forced to drive with my legs scrunched, and I ached from the knees down. My ears hurt, too. On the motorway, I had to turn the radio up loud—really loud—to hear which song was playing. At speeds above 40 mph the Mini roared like a jet engine.

I had plenty of time to listen. Although the distance from Shannon airport to Belfast is only 85 miles, motorways in Ireland come in stretches of four miles or so, strung between interminable roundabouts and two-lane roads. As I drove along, everyone else seemed to loom above me, especially trucks, or what I took to be trucks—all I could make out were enormous wheels.

Belfast ranks right up there with Beirut and Teheran in the Q ratings, but it's billed as up-and-coming. Everyone in town insisted I check out the Crown Liquor Saloon, a preserved Victorian pub, but I was more interested in the Europa hotel across the street. Otherwise nondescript, it earned fame as the "most bombed hotel in Europe" during the Troubles, racking up 33 blasts. In a touch of irony, it underwent an expensive bombproofing just before the present cease-fire rendered such measures unnecessary. "Anyway, you don't need to worry about safety," advised a new drinking pal at Crown Liquor. "You're driving a British car with Republic plates. A terrorist would be too confused to do you harm."

Perhaps. Just the same, I stayed across town at the McCausland, a new hotel in a refurbished Victorian grain warehouse. The next morning I headed north. Thirty minutes out of Belfast the highway narrows to a lovely two-lane road that runs between stone walls and the green, rock-margined sea, through archways holding up overhanging headlands, and past the nine Glens of Antrim that stretch inland carpeted by forest and farm.

Small is beautiful when it comes to roads, too, so I turned onto an even more insignificant route and followed it around a hilly headland. The road, about three feet wide, seemed custom-tailored to the Mini. I chugged up steep hills and swooped down into green valleys, the wind-roiled sea cresting far below to the right, lambs gamboling in paddocks to the left.

THE CAR WAS GROWING ON ME. It got me attention, but not the kind I would have received in, say, a Porsche. It was as if I were walking a genial but infirm old sheepdog. The unsleek lines, the tininess, the dated familiarity seemed to bring out the good side in everyone.

That afternoon I stopped at the entrance to the Giant's Causeway, a famous coastal outcropping of hexagonal basalt columns. Alas, it had started to rain, hard, and the rock formations were a mile's walk from the parking lot. With a wink the cheerful attendant said: "You don't want to pay three pounds admission just to get soaked, do you?" No, I supposed I did not.

The weather steadily worsened, flakes of slush mixing in with the downpour, so I retired for the evening to the Bushmills Inn, near the distillery of the same name. Huddled near the open-grate coal fire with a snifter of "Bush," I didn't care if we got snowed in for good.

The following day I crossed over to Donegal in the Republic, and checked into Rathmullan House, a country estate turned inn. In the Irish fashion, I sat in front of a fireplace before dinner and sipped whiskey, waiting to be escorted into the dining room. Portraits of someone's ancestors looked down politely. I made a mental note to start living like this permanently.

I should have stayed a few days, but I had become possessed by the notion that even more magnificent vistas might be around the bend. So onward I went, rounding the flank of the Fanad Head peninsula just in time to run smack into a flurry. Two inches of snow soon covered the road. The plucky Mini had conquered some nasty weather so far, but this was pushing my luck.

On my way back to Belfast I stopped at a pub. No one else was around, so the publican sat down for a chat. Strangers in Northern Ireland don't talk politics, but after a while he let slip a few guarded comments—enough to indicate that he was Protestant, and not altogether sure of the prospects for peace. "Eighty percent of Northern Ireland voted for peace," he said. "That means one hundred percent of Catholics, but only forty percent of Protestants." He went on to elaborate, in his elliptical way: "Not long ago a bloke walked up to two men and shot them dead, just down the street from here. Personally, I don't know if it would be so easy to forgive and forget. I haven't lost any family, myself. But friends . . ." He stared into space.

I felt a metaphor coming on. Namely: For the people of Northern Ireland, negotiating the future is a lot like driving the Antrim coast in a Mini. The path is narrow, there is danger on either side, and you're never sure if you're going to get up the next steep part. But you haven't got a lot of room, so you might as well make the best of it.

THE ITINERARY

DAY 1
Start in Dublin, heading north on the N1 to Dundalk, then take the A1 to Belfast. Dinner—sausage and champ with a pint of Guinness—is at Crown Liquor Saloon (46 Great Victoria St., Belfast; 44-2890/249-476; dinner for two $45). Check into the McCausland Hotel (34—38 Victoria St., Belfast; in the U.S. call 800/525-4800 otherwise call 44-2890/220-200, fax 44-2890/220-220; doubles from $225).

DAY 2
Follow the stunning Antrim Coast Road—stopping at the Giant's Causeway—to Bushmills, where you should stay at the Bushmills Inn (9 Dunluce Rd., Bushmills, County Antrim; 44-2820/732-339, fax 44-2820/732-048; www.bushmillsin.com; doubles from $180).

DAY 3
From Bushmills, go back into the Republic and explore Inishowen, ending up at Rathmullan House (Rathmullan, County Donegal; 353-74-9158188, fax 353-74-9158200; www.rathmullanhouse.com; doubles from $144).

DAY 4
Venture back to Belfast. Reserve a table at Deanes (34—40 Howard St.; 44-2890/560-000; dinner for two $109), where Michael Deane serves his take on fusion Irish cooking.

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