From the rugged cliffs of the Causeway coast to the Mourne Mountains that sweep down to the sea, Northern Ireland’s stunning coastal scenery is not only breath-taking but unrivalled.
What to do in Northern Ireland
Starting our long weekend, we touched down at Belfast City Airport, now named after arguably Northern Ireland’s most famous son, George Best. Picking up our rental car we drove away from the city and northwards towards Ballymena, a once bustling farming town, famous for its historic seven towers and serving as an ideal stop-off for a bite of lunch at the Adair Arms hotel.
Stomachs full of prime locally sourced Irish beef stew and a side of wheaten bread we trundled along the quiet and winding country roads, through the stunning valleys of the famous Antrim Glens and down to Cushendall. A stop at Glenariff Forest Park is a must if you really want to experience the glens and follow the trails that lead past the waterfalls, delicate ferns, wild flowers and an array of forest wildlife. There are several campsites near Glenariff which make for a budget friendly option.
We skirted the coast from Cushendall towards Cushendun and then clung to the Torr Road until we arrived at Ballycastle. Renowned for its ‘Ould Lammas Fair’ which takes place on the last Monday and Tuesday of August, this traditional fair dates back to the 17th century and began as a celebration of the beginning of Harvest and end of summer. Although we visited during the early summer, we easily found shops selling ‘dulse’ (red, edible seaweed) as well as yellowman (sweet honeycomb).
Driving northwards along the White Park Road, windows fully down so we could really appreciate the freshness of the salty-sea air and sounds of the crashing waves against the jet black basalt rocks, circled by crying seagulls, this really is coastal Ireland at it’s very best.
Pulling up at the ruins of Kinbane castle, you immediately feel a sense of isolation and a haunting eeriness. Built in 1547 on a limestone headland with a sea cave passing through, the Kinbane ruins are seeping history and offer a stunning photographic opportunity as the skies flicker from hues of grey to blue to pink.
A little further along the coast is the picturesque fishing village of Ballintoy and the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. We carefully, one at a time, traversed the 30 metres deep and 20 wide chasm from the mainland to the rocky island. The rope bridge was traditionally constructed by salmon fishermen and now forms one of the province’s greatest attractions. So many of these places form location sets for the Game of Thrones series. Exceptional walking experiences await here and indeed we couldn’t resist exploring the quaint little harbour with its brightly coloured fishing boards. http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/carrick-a-rede/
The Giants Causeway and beyond
Continuing along the Causeway Road we arrived late afternoon at our ‘must do’ destination, the Giant’s Causeway. http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/giants-causeway/
World famous and inspirational basalt columns make this UNESCO World Heritage Site a not to be missed experience. We took turns to have our photographs taken in the Wishing Chair and posing on the toe of the Giant’s Boot. Summer skies and longer hours of daylight provided an opportunity to walk amongst the Grand Causeway rocks and feeling a little guilty after such a hearty lunch followed by several lumps of yellowman, we climbed back up the path to the visitors centre. There is a shuttle bus however if you’re eager to experience the fresh sea air and energetic enough to make your way back up the steep path, a little out-of-breathness is rewarded by the stunning panorama at the top.
We drove the short distance from the Giant’s Causeway to Bushmills where we stayed the night at the Bushmills Inn. Comfortable rooms, fresh, locally sourced food and a few whiskies of the local nectar from the distillery a short walk along the main street, as we chatted late into the evening, in front of the open and smoking peat fire. http://www.bushmillsinn.com/
A comfortable and deep sleep was followed by the ultimate breakfast – an Ulster fry and a huge mug of tea. We walked the short distance along the main street to the Bushmills distillery where we had booked in for a tour. The distillery dates back to 1608, when King James I granted Sir Thomas Phillips a licence to distil. The tour guides you through the process from mashing to distillation to bottling and ends with the opportunity to sample the great whiskey, although the pungent and over-powering scent that filled the mashing room had already made us feel a little light headed.
Next destination on our Northern Ireland coastal tour were the impressive ruins of Dunluce Castle and the seaside resort of Portrush, jutting out into the north Atlantic and framed by the pristine sands of the White Rocks beach on one side and harbour on the west strand. Coming around a bend in the road, we were greeted by the spectacle of Dunluce Castle. Sitting majestically on a promontory the medieval ruins hang precariously to the cliff. Home to the MacDonnell clan, the castle eventually succumbed to the corrosive tide below as part of the kitchen quarters plummeted into the sea. These ruins and their surrounding panorama are amongst the most photographed, painted and admired scenes in Northern Ireland. It is easy to see why C.S. Lewis is likely to have based Cair Paravel in the Chronicles of Narnia on Dunluce Castle.
Mid-afternoon and we made our way past the beautiful golden sands, dunes and cliffs of the White Rocks beach. A warm, summer day and this sweeping stretch of beach is vibrant with families lazing around sun breakers, surfers challenging the raging tide and stunt kites twisting in the breeze. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to chill out on the beach or even test our ability to balance on a surfboard as the delights of Portrush were calling.
Northern Ireland’s premier seaside resort, Portrush has been given a very recent face-lift, a few nips and tucks returning the town to its former glory, and with a year round calendar of events such as the Irish Open at Royal Portrush golf course, the Northern Ireland International air show and the North West 200 motorbike races that take place every May. Walking from the black arch, along the west strand, passing the famous Barry’s amusements (a must for big and little kids), we made our way to the Ramore wine bar and restaurant for a late lunch. http://www.barrysamusements.com/ http://www.ramorerestaurant.com/
An hour’s drive south and we arrived in Belfast to spend the night before making our way to the South East coast, loomed over by the splendour of the Mourne mountains. Belfast is an awesome city – small enough to navigate easily with great shopping, restaurants to please all tastes and accommodation to suit all budgets. Our trip on this occasion was however to experience and enjoy the coastal scenery of Northern Ireland.
Third morning, we made the hour long drive southwards, through County Down, to the foot of the Mourne Mountains. Here we arrived at Tollymore Forest Park which is 5 or so miles outside of Newcastle with its long stretch of beach, Slieve Donard hotel and golf course and the gateway to the Mournes.
Tollymore is an amazing forest part with a range of long and short distance walks, treks into the Mourne Mountains and a great camp site for those who really want to dedicate a justifiable time to explore this beautiful part of the country. Highlights of the park are just too numerous but we loved bathing in the Shimna river as it babbled over the stepping stones that lead from one bankside to the other. Trails that meander past the hermit’s cave, wildlife enclosure and lake, waterfalls as well as quaint little stone bridges that look like they fell right out of Middle Earth. Making our way back after a full day in the forest we paused to look from the top of the steps that lead back to the arboretum and Clanbrassil barn. What a vista- monkey puzzle trees, flanked by pines, giant redwoods stretching as far as we could see into the mountains. This was topped off by the cinematic scene of a full moon shining high over the mountains and suspended by a layer of mist.
We spent the night at the Slieve Donard Hotel which truly was a luxurious experience, topped off by several hours relaxing in the spa. Still, something also beckoned about the budget option of camping in Tollymore Forest, to spend the night amongst such beautiful nature.
Our final morning took us from the resort of Newcastle, which was shrouded in mist. The tide was so far out from the shore that the waves were hardly visible. We drove a short distance in-land to Castlewellan Forest Park. Walking, cycling, horse riding and a mile long lake make this a truly memorable outdoor activity destination. I’m not sure quite how long it took us to find our way through the Peace Maze, to reach the Peace Bell in the middle. The dramatic setting for Castlewellan Park, between mountains and sea is only added to by a collection of some of the most incredible, oldest and rarest trees or shrubs in Europe.
Making our way back to the airport it was easy to appreciate a long weekend which was not only memorable but really refreshing, inspiring and a visit that anyone would be eager to repeat.