Where's the happiest place in the UK? According to a report released this spring by the Office of National Statistics, it isn't in culturally vibrant London or the rural home counties where people feel most content, but in Northern Ireland — a region historically associated with more troubled times.
From the Giant's Causeway to small fishing villages, there are prized locations along Northern Ireland's 400-mile coastline. This summer, Portrush Golf Course plays host to the Irish Open, a rare moment for the North to steal the golfing thunder from the better-known courses in the Republic.
Ballycastle is full of seaside charm
Times are undoubtedly hard in Northern Ireland. Scarred by the financial crash, the region has the highest percentage of vacant properties in the UK and unemployment is steep as manufacturing and construction industries suffer.
But for areas more associated with tourism and agriculture the story is less bleak, and the good news is that one man's loss is another man's bargain property.
On the north coast in County Antrim, between Northern Ireland's two most visited sites of the Giant's Causeway and the Glens of Antrim, is the small and charming seaside resort of Ballycastle. From the town's sweeping sandy beach there are views to the Mull of Kintyre, 15 miles away and, on a clear day, seven of Scotland's Western Isles.
Local shops include several butchers, bakers, book and antique stores, and are a large part of Ballycastle's appeal, says Sean McIlroy, of PJ McIlroy & Son estate agents. "Around 90 per cent of shops are small family-owned businesses, and people here make a real effort to shop locally," he says. "So even in the worst times over the last four or five years most managed to stay open, playing an important role in the community."
Affordable holiday homes
In this long-established holiday market, house prices have fallen hugely — some by 50 per cent since 2007. Today a new three-bedroom semi starts from £95,000 while an older detached four-bedroom house outside the centre, with two acres of land, costs from £200,000. A pretty three-bedroom townhouse an easy walk from the centre is £120,000 while a substantial six-bedroom house in one of the north Antrim coast's best settings, with excellent views to Rathlin Island and Scotland, is £450,000, both through McAfee.
McIlroy is selling newly completed homes at Park Manor, Ballycastle, beside the sea and harbour. Four-bedroom courtyard houses are £135,000, with off-plan apartments facing the sea to follow later this year.
* PJ McIlroy & Son: 028 2076 2353; pjmcilroy.co.uk
* McAfee Properties: 028 2076 9404; mcafeepropertiesandmortgages.com
* Northern Ireland Tourist Board: 028 9044 1651; discovernorthern ireland.com
FOUR TOP REASONS TO VISIT THE NORTH COAST
1 The Giant's Causeway
More than 750,000 people visit the Giant's Causeway each year, a natural pavement of volcanic rocks reaching out into the Atlantic Ocean, and Northern Ireland's only Unesco World Heritage Site.
A new £18.5 million visitor centre is due to open this summer in a striking building with dark basalt columns that echo the hexagonal lava stones. Visit nationaltrust.org.uk/giantscauseway (028 2073 1855).
2 Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge
Every summer a rope bridge is hung over a dramatic 30 metre-deep, 20 metre-wide chasm between two rocks at Ballintoy. Originally used 250 years ago by fishermen catching migrating salmon, it is now a popular National Trust destination for visitors with a head for heights. Visit nationaltrust.org.uk/carrickarede (028 2076 8523).
3 The Beaches
Five of Northern Ireland's eight Blue Flag beaches are on the rugged and strikingly beautiful north coast. There's something for surfers, families, sailors, windsurfers and kite surfers, and sea kayakers. Visit northcoastni.com
4 The Golf
"Northern Ireland is the golf capital of the world," said Graeme McDowell, the US Open Champion in 2010, who was born and bred in Portrush. With fellow top golfers Rory McIlroy and Darren Clark also from Northern Ireland, he might be right. There are more than 90 courses in the region, including parkland and links courses.
Permission was granted in February for a golf and holiday resort at Runkerry beside the Giant's Causeway. The £100 million scheme will create a 120-bedroom hotel, a golf academy with clubhouse and 75 self-catering lodges, plus shops. It has been sharply criticised by Friends of the Earth for its location on a Unesco World Heritage Site close to an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Visit northcoastni.com for more information on the region.
Friendly, beautiful and easy to get to
Robin and Michelle Crothers have owned a second home in Ballycastle for 12 years, holidaying there with their children Patrick, 19, and Marie-Claire, 16. In 2000 they paid £38,000 for the 100-year-old, four-bedroom stone cottage three miles from the harbour.
"It was always a dream to have a home on this coast after spending childhood holidays there," says Michelle, 49. "It works so well. Robin loves golf and plays on Ballycastle's own course or one of around 40 courses within an hour's drive. He also keeps a small boat in the harbour."
The friendliness of the community, the slow pace of life and the outstanding natural beauty of cliffs, coast and fields are what Michelle loves about the area. Belfast airport is 50 minutes away, and the northern coast's top sites are on the doorstep.