Stunning coastal roads and charming country lanes make Northern Ireland a perfect location for a road trip. Just a short journey from Belfast, there are darling villages, rolling hills, lush forests, geological wonders, towering cliffs and mythical landscapes to be explored.
If you only have a weekend (like I did), I'd recommend sticking to the Causeway Coastal Route, which stretches 120 miles from Belfast to Derry~Londonderry and is awash with epic scenery.
My first stop off was the coastal village of Cushendun. At this designated Conservation Area I saw the Caves of Cushendun (one of the many locations used in the filming of HBO’s Game of Thrones) and a goat sculpture (called ‘Johann’). If you're lucky, you might just get to see a real live goat glaring at its statue, with a faint rainbow in the background.
After Cushendun, it was on to Ballintoy Harbour, to use the facilities, warm the hands up with a cup of tea and take a few snaps.
High winds resulted in closure of the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, and altered our itinerary. We, instead, drove to The Hedges Hotel, parked and followed the footpath to the Dark Hedges. Contrary to the name, the Dark Hedges are actually comprised of beech trees. In 1775, James Stuart planted 150 of these trees (~90 of which still stand today) to frame an avenue to his home, in an attempt to impress arriving visitors. I'd say it worked. The stunning tree tunnel, made famous by Game of Thrones & Transformers: The Last Knight., has become a global tourist magnet.
One mile down the road from the Dark Hedges is where we laid our heads. The 18th-century manor house, known as Gardenvale Bed & Breakfast, had so much potential and the man who ran the place was lovely (although his wife was a bit of a cow), but it was creepy, dingy and freezing cold.
After a pretty poor night's sleep in a very soft bed, we drove about 30-minutes to The Giant's Causeway. This UNESCO World Heritage Site/natural wonder is comprised of 40,000 interlocking basalt columns that fit together like puzzle pieces, which satisfied my OCD!
There are two schools of thought on how Giant's Causeway came to be. Local legend has it that a giant, called Finn McCool, threw chunks of the coast into the sea, to form a path allowing him to confront his Scottish rival, across the water. However, scientists maintain that The Giant's Causeway formed 60 million years ago, as the result of volcanic activity. Successive flows of lava inched toward the coast and cooled as they contacted the sea, forming basalt columns sculpted in polygonal shapes. I'll leave it to you to decide - giant or science?
After climbing around the Giant's steps, we traveled about nine miles, in a second attempt to gain entry to Carrick-a-Rede. This time we had more success. This iconic rope bridge, constructed of planks and wires, suspended 100ft above the sea, crossed a 66ft chasm between mainland Northern Ireland and the small fishing island of Carrick. On a clear day, from Carrick, Rathlin Island and Scotland can be seen. The bridge wobbled and swayed in the wind, but it was an exciting way to appreciate the landscape.
On Sunday morning, we checked out of the haunted B&B, packed up the car and headed to Glenariff Forest Park. There, we embarked on the 3km hike, following the Waterfalls Walk trail. Halfway through, we came across Laragh Lodge. We ducked in to avoid the sideways rain that came out of nowhere, but I highly recommend stopping there on purpose, for a home-baked scone, before finishing off the final 1.5kms (which is entirely uphill).
If you're looking for an outdoorsy adventure with spectacular scenery and legendary tales, then the Emerald Isle is the destination for you. Maybe you'll be luckier than me and actually find a pot of gold at the end of one of the many rainbows you're likely to behold.
Known Before You Go:
The weather changed dramatically from minute-to-minute. It could be sunny one moment, then torrential downpours with harsh winds and then cloudless again. Best to bring waterproof gear, hiking boots and lots of layers.
Entrance to Giant's Causeway is free if you do not enter via the Visitor's Center. Otherwise, it's £11.50 per person.
The Dark Hedges is a pedestrian road, but apparently people don't strictly abide by that rule.
Go very early in the morning or late at night, to avoid the crowds. It's open 24-hours a day.
Bring a tripod for the best photos opportunities.
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge:
It's a fair walk from the car park to the actual bridge. It's not particularly difficult, but there are some inclines and the pathway isn't paved.
Tickets are not available online, only on site.
As of 2017, tickets are sold on a timed basis, for hour time slots, beginning at 9:30am. Although, we had no issues, I'd recommend planning your trip accordingly.
Tickets are £8 if you're not a National Trust member