Where: Northern Ireland Coastal Areas
When: May 2017
Hotel: Carnside Guest House by Giant’s Causeway
Why the Northern Ireland Coastal Areas: While Belfast was kind of a last-minute add, the whole reason of going to Northern Ireland was to see the Giant’s Causeway. I thought the pictures were beautiful and the more I saw, the more I wanted to see it in person. As I researched how to get from Belfast to the Giant’s Causeway, there were two options – cut straight through the mainland for a quicker route, or take the longer route along the coast. There was no question – give me pretty views all day. We had one full day left to drive along the coast and see Causeway before flying out the next day.
The Trip: We could not have been luckier when it came to weather. It was slightly cool in Belfast, but the sun was shining the entire coastal drive, which really made the entire trip that much better. I knew from our 2013 trip to Ireland that the water was a crazy pretty color blue, and it was no different on the Northern end of the island. The difference is – Northern Ireland is still off the beaten path, so while the roads were packed along popular coastal roads in the south, many times, we had the roads to ourselves, which was just so enjoyable.
I had a couple of stops highlighted on the 89-mile trip, but the best part of driving is you can really make your own itinerary, which we ended up doing. We stopped when it looked pretty – and drove on when we could have stopped. Our first definite stop was the famed Carrick-A-Rede bridge. This stop was almost derailed two weeks earlier, when some maniac tried to cut the bridge down and closed it for about a week. Thankfully, it was fixed just in time for our trip.
The Carrick-A-Rede is a rope bridge that connects the mainland to Carrick-A-Rede Island almost 100 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. It is believed to have been put in place over 350 years ago by salmon fisherman but is now just used for tourism. (Game of Thrones fans will be treated to a filming site as well – one of the parking lots was used for the episode that introduce Brianne of Tarth).
You can – and should – book your tickets in advance, but figuring it wouldn’t be too easy, I didn’t. It surprisingly meant a little bit of a wait for an open time slot, but there are gorgeous walks along the cliffs while you wait. It’s also a bit of a walk from the car park to bridge (about 1 km), so add that in to your time as well. The path can be steep in parts and there are stairs leading down to the bridge itself. Once at the bridge, you go across only a couple of people at a time. I didn’t find it scary at all – it was just so pretty all around.
One of my favorite memories was not crossing the bridge but taking a seat on the island itself and enjoying the gorgeous views and the nice weather. Do not make this a rushed stop, or you really won’t enjoy it.
Once you cross back over the bridge to head back to the car park, you can take a different path – which you should definitely do. There’s a viewpoint where you can get a great view of the bridge.
We got back in the car to continue on to the Causeway (which we were staying right outside of in Bushmills)– and were going to stop at Bushmills Distillery or one of the castles along the way, but both were closing before we would get there with any kind of time to walk around. Instead, we went to the guesthouse to relax a bit before hitting Giant’s Causeway.
A good friend of mine had previously visited Giant’s Causeway with a tour group and told me to go after the Visitor’s Center closed because that’s when all the tour busses left. Best. Advice. Ever. Our hotel had a clear view to the Visitor’s Center parking lot, and when the last bus had left, we headed over that way.
The Giant’s Causeway is accessible all the time and is free to visit – it’s only if you want to go to the Visitor’s Center that there are set hours. The parking lot also closes, so we found a spot along the road and walked through the closed, empty parking lot to the paved pathway that takes you down to the pillars in about 10-15 minutes.
I wish I could convey to you accurately the size of the cliffs as you walk down or the sight of the approximate 40,000 columns raising up from the sea like natural, uneven stairways. Science says it was formed by volcanic activity more than 40 millions years ago, but I like the local legend that a giant built the causeway to go fight another giant in Scotland but the other giant fled and destroyed the causeway in the process.
We spent our time walking along the stones, but the park is huge and for the hiking lovers, you can easily spend a day there walking around the cliffs. It met and exceeded all my expectations. We spent a long while there walking, sitting and admiring. Both John and I agree we would go back – but only at sunrise or dusk before the masses descend. It’s just that magical.
We made one more stop – the next morning – before we headed back to Dublin to fly home. Another Game of Thrones site, the Dark Hedges, was on our way back to the airport, so we made a quick stop. We picked the right time (thanks to our flight time), because it was just us and one other couple there – meaning nice empty pictures!
Final impressions: Our Northern Ireland trip was, and remains, one of my favorites. We had a blast the entire time, and not only were there no letdowns – everything met or exceeded our expectations. Going back is definitely a must-do for us…especially now that my new favorite show is Derry Girls on Netflix (if you haven’t watched it – you really, really should). I loved Northern Ireland, and highly suggest a visit before it becomes the mainstream travel destination that it should be.