When it comes to Northern Ireland, there is just nothing modest about its coast. From castle ruins to stunning beaches and perilous suspension bridges, this is probably the most interesting coastline I’ve ever laid my eyes on.
While my parents were visiting in late May, we decided to head to the East/Southern side of Ireland, then carried on up to Northern Ireland to see what all the fuss over Belfast and the Causeway Coast was about.
We began our drive to NI in a little village in the middle of nowhere, somewhere outside of Dublin, which put our arrival in the Titanic Quarter in Belfast (the birthplace of the Titanic) just after lunchtime. We wanted to go check out the Titanic Museum, so we parked nearby and ate at the Cast & Crew just outside of it. It wasn’t the quickest service, but we had pretty decent burgers and fries before heading into the museum.
We spent about two hours trying to take it all in at the museum – there’s a lot of reading involved with this place, with nine interactive galleries. It was quite busy there as well, with lots of people milling about and making it difficult at times to read the info boards. However, that’s about the only negative I have to say about this museum.
They have displays made up to show what the first-, second- and third-class rooms would have looked like. There’s even a “ride”, to show visitors just what it would’ve been like to build the Titanic in the shipyard – unbelievably loud, hot and dark. In one area, there’s a stage where you can stand and look down to see what how the Titanic looks on the seabed today.
We booked an Airbnb in Ballycastle, which is about 1-1.5 hours away from Belfast, the very North-Easterly tip of NI. Here you can hop on the ferry which takes people to Rathlin Island, which you can see off the coast of Ballycastle. This little seaside town is also the Eastern end of the Causeway Coast.
If I’m completely honest, there really isn’t much to Ballycastle. There are two main streets, one leading to the diamond with the Georgian Church, and the other to the coast and the marina. It has a calm, peaceful little harbour where we saw a splendid sunset over the boats. There’s plenty of locally owned shops to bob in and out of. But mostly, it’s just a quaint town, perfect for quiet, relaxing nights.
There’s also a beautiful sandy beach to stroll along.
The main reason we chose Ballycastle as our home for two nights was its location. The Causeway Coast, Rathlin Island, and Carrick-a-Rede are all within 10 miles of Ballycastle. So, the next morning we got up and headed to the Causeway Coast.
The Causeway Coast
The north coast of County Antrim, from Ballycastle in the east to Portrush in the west, is known as the Causeway Coast. It is an impressive piece of scenery, with many spots showcased as the backdrop for Game of Thrones.
Our first stop on the Causeway Coast of NI was the National Trust site, Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. There is a bit of a walk from the car park to the actual bridge and island, but the view along this coastal path is really quite something, spanning as far as Rathlin Island and the rolling coast of Scotland in the distance.
Close to Ballintoy, the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge links the mainland to the tiny little island, Carrickarede; home to just one tiny building – a fisherman’s cottage. Not for those afraid of heights, as the 20 metre span of bridge is 30 metres (about 100 feet) above the rocks and waves of the Atlantic Ocean below.
Like every National Trust site, there’s a history to Carrick-a-Rede. First built over 250 years ago, in 1755 by local salmon fisherman, its main purpose was to reduce reliance on boats to get to the island. Not surprisingly, the current bridge is not the original one – it’s been replaced several times over the past couple of centuries.
According to the National Trust site, the name Carrick-a-Rede comes from the Scottish Gaelic ‘Carraig-a-Rade’ meaning “The Rock in the Road”. You might wonder this precarious location on the coast of NI could ever be considered in the way… Well, it’s not. For humans. No, this area doesn’t inconvenience people, but rather, just the opposite. It provides an obstacle for the migrating salmon on their spawning route, which in turn becomes a perfect opportunity for fisherman.
Unfortunately for the local fisherman however, their daily catch began declining from some 300 salmon to 250, until eventually fishing on this island came to an end in 2002 with the change in migration pattern of the fish. Since 2004, this site has been a tourist attraction for those seeking the thrill of swaying in the wind with the bridge.
Just a stone’s throw away from Carrick-a-rede is the Giant’s Causeway, a spectacular formation of rocks, national nature reserve, and Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There are two route options: up the hill, or the down the hill. It’s an easy 10-15 minute walk from the car park, downhill on a tarmac road which is wheelchair accessible. There’s also a shuttle bus which will take you right to the Causeway.
However, while the cliff-top path may look and sound daunting, it is not a difficult climb by any means, and offers a unique view from the sky of the hexagonal stones. My advice is to take the path uphill (on the right) on your way to the Giant’s Causeway, then take the Shepherd’s Steps down to the lower footpath and loop back around to the start, stopping to see the Causeway up close on the way back.
It may be a bit hard to believe that the causeway is a natural feature – the closely packed hexagonal stone columns certainly aren’t something you see every day. So you can forgive the ancients for believing that the causeway is the work of giants.
The old story goes that Irish giant Finn McCool wanted to cross the sea to fight Scottish giant Benandonner, and so he built the Causeway. Benandonner pursued Finn back across the causeway, but got scared off and decided to flee back to Scotland, tearing up the causeway on the way back. Therefore, all that remains today are the two ends – the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, and the island of Staffa in Scotland, where there are similar rock formations.
From a more scientific point of view (according to Lonely Planet’s Discover Ireland book), the causeway rocks were formed about 60 million years ago when a thick layer of molten lava flowed in, then cooled and hardened and contracted, creating a pattern of hexagonal cracks (similar to how mud contracts and crack as a lake bed dries out).
After marvelling at this geological wonder, the pub at the turnoff to the Giant’s Causeway is the perfect spot for some grub. The Nook is an 18th century former schoolhouse converted into a pub.
Perched precariously on the cliffs of the Causeway Coast is Dunluce Castle. Built sometime between 1400 and 1600, Dunluce Castle was the seat of the MacDonnell family in the 16th and 17th centuries. We didn’t make the stop to go right into the ruins, but admired it from the roadside.
White Park Bay
Just past the castle, heading west, is this impressive view, with White Park Bay’s wide, sandy beach pictured in the distance.
I mean, do coastlines get much better than this?
Game of Thrones Sites
Northern Ireland’s dramatic landscapes serve as the perfect backdrop for many places in the Game of Thrones universe. While my parents aren’t Game of Thrones fans, even they had to admit that they enjoyed me dragging them around to various random sites, as the areas are all quite picturesque. So, even if you don’t watch the show, don’t hesitate to check these places out.
- Dunluce Castle doubles as the reaver stronghold of Pyke on the Iron Islands, aka Pyke Castle, House of Greyjoy. Location: 87 Dunluce Rd, Bushmills, County Antrim, BT57 8UY
- Ballintoy Harbour is better known as the Iron Islands’ Lordsports Harbour.
- Larrybane is a former quarry, now used as an overflow car park at Carrick-a-Rede. This is where Renly set up camp in the Stormlands in Season 2, and where Brienne of Tarth made her entrance during a tournament. Location: 119a Whitepark Rd, Ballintoy, County Antrim BT54 6LS
- Located right on the eastern coast of Northern Ireland is the small town of Cushendun. The caves here are where Davos and Lady Melisandre landed ashore in Season 2, as well as where Melisandre gives birth to the shadow baby. Location: (not exact; you have to park and walk in behind here; you can find it by putting Cushendun Caves into Google Maps) The Bay Apartments, Cushendun, Ballymena BT44 0PE
- Arguably the most recognizable film location for Game of Thrones is the Dark Hedges as the Kingsroad. A bit spooky at night, but overrun with tourists during the day. Location: Bregagh Rd, Stranocum, Ballymoney BT53 8PX
Torr Head Scenic Road
If you head in the opposite direction of the Giant’s Causeway from Ballycastle, you’ll find the town of Cushendun. After visiting the caves here, we headed back to Ballycastle via the Torr Head Scenic Road. I must say, this route is not for faint-hearted drivers. The narrow road twists and turns along steep slopes, with hairpin turns and blind spots galore.
By narrow road, I mean… I think it’s the narrowest road I’ve ever driven on, where you just pray you don’t meet anyone. Your eyes are glued to the road, but the views really are incredible if you do ever peel your eyes away for a second.
Side note: if you’re renting a car in Ireland and you’re worried about driving on the left, ours had this little sticker on the dash which reflected onto the windshield as a constant reminder. Very handy!
Of course, Northern Ireland has much more to offer than just what we managed to see in a short period of time. But that just means I have a good excuse to return, right?