Monday, 17 June 2019

My Guide to the Causeway Coast, Northern Ireland


I'm very lucky that I get to call Ireland my second home because it really is one of my favourite places in the entire world, especially the north of Co. Antrim where my family have a house. Every time I visit I get to check out favourite locations from my childhood, as well as visiting something new.

It's also given me the unique perspective of experiencing how Game of Thrones has had a dramatic impact on tourist numbers, something I have very mixed emotions over. Once quiet and tranquil spots where I spent my summers running around are now overrun with coach tours. The surge in tourism has had an amazing impact on the country's economy but does it come at a price? Cities like Amsterdam and Dubrovnik have complained about the growing stress of tourism, and this uncomfortable mass of people is something I recently experienced in Lisbon. Northern Ireland has a limit as well and I really hope we don't reach a point where the magic of this country is spoilt by vast numbers of visitors.

That being said, Northern Ireland is still full of stunning scenery and I am forever encouraged to find new spots and hidden gems amongst the usual sights. One of my very favourite areas is the Causeway Coast, a 120 mile stretch of coast from Belfast to Derry. To me, this area of the country holds everything I love so dear about Ireland. Rolling green hills make the perfect backdrop to dramatic landscapes, lush coastlines, and a myriad of folklore and fantasy. The route can be easily driven in one day but that won't give you enough time to get out of the car and properly look at everything. Instead, give yourself two or three days as the real beauty of the coast is the landscape you see on foot.

For all the best things to see en route, enjoy my guide to Northern Ireland's Causeway Coast. And, if you're interested in snooping around my Irish home, Michelle has a brand new 'In The Kitchen With' post from our Dream Team Northern Ireland getaway last summer.



Belfast


With so many flights in and out of the two airports in Belfast, Northern Ireland is a very easy place to get to. Start in the capital and slowly make your way along the coast to Derry.

Despite calling Belfast home for the first couple years of my life, I haven't spent a great deal of time there since. Other than a day trip here and there, it's not a place I know incredibly well. When I go to Ireland my priority is the great outdoors, plus none of my family are actually based in the capital. That being said, Belfast is a fantastic place, steeped in history and tell tale signs from Northern Ireland's turbulent past. And now this historic city has become one of the UK's most exciting places to visit thanks to burgeoning food scene and an impressive selection of cultural activities. Whether you're visiting the incredible Titanic Belfast museum in the Titanic Quarter, or the lovely Ulster Museum and Botanic Gardens in the University Quarter, there's a lot to keep you busy for a day or two. For food and drink I like Home for comforting meals, Pablos for burgers, Oh Donuts for sweet treats, and Boundary Brewing for craft beer.

There's plenty more things to keep you busy in Belfast, but my advice is to get out of the city as quickly as you can and focus your time on the coast.




Belfast to Waterfoot


When you're ready to leave Belfast head to the coast via the A2. This part of your Causeway Coast journey isn't the most dramatic but it will give you some insight into Northern Ireland's past as you drive through a variety of Unionist and Republican towns. The first major stop is Carrickfergus Castle but despite dating back to 1177 it isn't the most impressive place to visit. Continue driving until you reach Ballygalley. From here you can take a little detour inland, via Cairncastle, to the Antrim Hills Way car park for a lovely view over the surrounding valley. Back to the coast let the A2 lead you to Glenarm where you can visit the beautiful Glenarm Castle and Walled Gardens. The castle has been home to the Earls of Antrim for 400 years, and whilst it's not usually open to the public, you can explore the beautiful walled gardens. As you continue along the coast you'll pass picturesque Carnlough Harbour before arriving at the beach side village of Waterfoot.






Glenarrif Forest Park


When you reach Waterfoot you absolutely have to take a diversion inland on the A43 to the glorious Glenarrif Forest Park. Known as the Queen of the Glens, Glenarrif is the largest, and most beautiful valley in Antrim. Driving from Waterfoot towards the park offers stunning scenery as the glen cuts dramatically through the countryside. Once you reach the park you'll be able to embark on a series of walks. The 1.5 mile Waterfall Walk, and 0.6 mile Rainbow Trail detour, begins with a very steep descent from the car park to the bottom of gorge. You'll pass spectacular waterfalls as you follow the boardwalk to the Manor Lodge, returning to the car park up a steep forestry track. The walk up and down the gorge are steep but the short hike is more than worth it.



Waterfoot to Cushendun


Once you've had your fill of waterfalls, head back to Waterfoot along the same road and follow the coast further north. Look out for the ruins of Red Bay Castle on top of the hill as you leave Waterfoot, pass through the cute village of Cushendal, and follow the directions for Cushendun. The scenery in this part of the country is stunning as you pass through the various glens of Antrim and the coast becomes more dramatic. Park up in Cushendun to spend an hour checking out the mysterious caves and traditional Irish pub, Mary McBrides.




Cushendun to Ballycastle


Instead of taking the A2 out of Cushendun, take Torr Road, signposted 'Scenic Route', a narrow road that tightly follows the coast. You'll ascend to the top of the glen, and whilst this cliff top route isn't for the faint of heart, the views are absolutely worth it. Smaller roads lead off to various points of interest.

The first side road will bring you to Torr Head, a rocky headland where you'll find the ruins of a 19th- century coastguard station and views over to the Mull of Kintyre.

The second side road will bring you to Murlough Bay, one of my favourite places along the coast. You will approach Murlough Bay via a narrow road that brings you to the top of the cliff, which you'll be able to drive down. The drive is steep, winding, and not for nervous drivers buts the views are spectacular. It's the sort of place that pictures don't do justice, especially if you only ever visit when the weather is crap (like me). As you descend to the coast you'll come across some ruined miners' cottages; coal and chalk were once mined in the cliffs above, and burned in a limekiln to make quicklime.

The third and final road will bring you to Fair Head where you can embark on a 5km return hike across the dramatic cliffs that make this part of the coast so spectacular. Back in the car continue along the Scenic Route until you reach the charming town of Ballycastle.








Ballycastle and Rathlin Island


If you were able to leave Belfast bright and early for the first day of your Causeway Coast adventure, you should be able to get most of these activities done therefore making Ballycastle a great place to spend your first night on the road. This charming little town has a lovely seafront and picturesque high street that'll keep you busy for a couple of hours. Brunch at sourdough specialists Ursa Minor is a real treat plus you'll find the best chips in Northern Ireland at Morton's and locally made ice cream at Mauds.

If you have time, a day trip to nearby Rathlin Island is great. The ferry leaves from Ballycatle Marina and only takes 40 minutes. Day trippers aren't allowed to bring cars onto the island but there is a local bus. Once on the island you'll be able to explore the main village around the harbour, discover the puffins at RSPB Rathlin West Light Seabird Centre, and hike to the east and south lighthouses. With a population of approximately 150 people, Rathlin is super secluded compared to the mainland, helped in part by the dramatic cliff that snake around the island. The views from the bus en route to the west lighthouse are really breathtaking.





Dark Hedges


Northern Ireland's famous tree lined avenue is only a ten minute drive inland from Ballycastle but thanks to Game of Thrones tourism it's usually heaving with tourists. Visit first thing in the morning, or just before sunset, if you want to avoid the crowds. The impact of Game of Thrones tourism is most prevalent at the Dark Hedges, of the 150 beech trees originally planted in the late 18th-century, less than 90 remain. A combination of bad weather, increased traffic causing pressure on the roots, and graffiti from visitors has caused many of the trees to fall. The road is now closed to cars but that doesn't stop vandalism from visitors. Despite the damage, the avenue is still extraordinarily atmospheric and it's worth spending some time walking the full length of the road. Most visitors congregate at the end by Gracehill House but if you spend a couple of minutes walking to the far end of the avenue (it's not very long) it's a lot quieter.









Ballycastle to the Giant's Causeway


Once you're ready to hit the road again, leave Ballycastle via Whitepark Road, signposted 'Causeway Coastal Route' and follow the coast. This is when the coastal attractions really start to amp up as there is so many wonderful things to see.

First stop is the ruins of 16th-Century Kinbane Castle. A long staircase will take you from the car park right down to the water's edge where you'll discover these incredibly located ruins. There's even a lovely waterfall which took me by complete surprise on my first visit. The climb back to the car park takes a little effort but it's honestly worth it for tranquilly this location offers.

As you continue along the coast pull in for a quick photo stop at Portaneevy car park for views over Rathlin Island and nearby Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. When the sun is shining the rolling green hills and beautiful blue sea and sky make this a really beautiful photo stop. Around the corner you'll soon come to the actual entrance for Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge and one of Northern Ireland's most popular attractions. Back when I was a kid we used to visit the bridge all the time. My sisters and I would stand in the middle of the bridge and give it a good swing to the annoyance of our family. These days the bridge's popularity has grown exponentially so be prepared to queue at peak times.

The next stop along the coast is another favourite of mine, Ballintoy Harbour. Despite this tiny harbour becoming a major stop on Game of Thrones coach tours, my heart always jumps for joy when I visit. Whether it's the 'been-there-since-my-childhood' cafe with the most incredible selection of home made cakes, or the sound and smell of salty waves crashing into the rocks, Ballintoy Harbour is my summer holidays summed up in one location. These days I like to visit at dusk, once the tourists have gone and the sun starts to set; there's something incredibly eerie but incredibly peaceful about this little place.

Continue along the coast and you'll soon reach a little lay-by that overlooks White Park Bay. The views of the gorgeous, golden sanded beach are my absolutely favourite in Northern Ireland and I can't help but stop for a quick photo every time we drive pass. The turning off to get down to the beach is a little further down the road but I prefer to look across it from the top of the cliffs.

As you follow the signs towards the Giant's Causeway you see the turning off point for Portbradden, a teeny-tiny seaside hamlet, the ruins of Dunseverick Castle, and the old Victorian school house which is now sadly closed to the public.










Giant's Causeway


The world famous Giant's Causeway is an area consisting of approximately 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, formed as a result of a volcanic eruption 50 to 60 million years ago. My parents house is located a short walk away and as a result we spent many a summer's day scrambling all over these rocks. Tourists numbers have grown since then but this is still a fascinating place to visit, if only to hear about the stories of Irish folklore. Don't be fooled by the expensive Visitor Centre as the Causeway is actually free to visit.

Irish giant Finn MacCool was challenged to a fight by the Scottish giant Benandonner. Finn accepted the challenge and built the causeway across the North Channel so that the two giants could meet. When Finn realises that Benandonner is much bigger than he is, Finn's wife, disguises Finn as a baby. When Benandonner sees the size of the 'baby', he reckons that its father, Finn, must be a giant among giants. He flees back to Scotland in fright, destroying the causeway behind him so that Finn would be unable to chase him (across the sea, there are identical basalt columns).

You'll find Maegden, a food truck selling incredibly delicious cheese toasties, a short walk from the Causeway. I visit every single time I'm in the area as these toasties are too good to pass up on.




Bushmills to Portrush


Don't be put off as the A2 takes you inland because the town of Bushmills is one of the highlights along the Causeway Coastal route. From the world famous Bushmills Distillery, to the perfectly quaint Copper Kettle where you can grab a mighty fine Ulster fry, and the picturesque heritage railway that takes you on a scenic journey along the coast back to the Giant's Causeway. If you're looking for somewhere special to rest your head then the Bushmills Inn is the nicest hotel in this part of the country.

The road out of Bushmills will soon take you back to the coast and before long you'll come across the foreboding ruins of medieval Dunluce Castle, precariously placed on a cliff edge. The castle is an icon along this stretch of coast and that's even before you delve into the mythology that surrounds it. Tales of stormy nights, tantrums, and a kitchen falling into the sea makes the castle, and a cake shop next door, a wonderful place to stop for an hour or two.

Just outside of Dunclue Castle you'll come across Magheracross car park which offers lovely views across Whiterocks Beach. I spent many summers running up and down sand dunes, and diving into the brisk waters of the North Sea. It's a really lovely beach, and whilst it does get a lot of visitors, it's absolutely worth a visit for the luscious white sand, and views over The Skerries.











Portrush to Derry


The next seaside town you'll come across is Portrush, i.e. everyone's favourite Northern Irish summer holiday destination. People flock to the Ramore restaurant complex at the harbour, and Barry's Amusements down the road for some cheesy seaside rides. I'm not a huge fan of Ramore, I think the food is expensive and extremely average, but I love Barry's for a slice of silliness. With an array of different rides, and slot machines, it's a fun place to waste an hour, and the contents of your wallet. Portrush isn't a must stop during your Causeway Coast road trip, but for many people growing up in Northern Ireland, it's a town steeped in nostalgia.

Heading out of town will bring you to Portstewart and your entry point into Co. Londonderry. Portstewart is a busy seaside town with a lovely promenade made up of quaint cafes, ice cream parlours, and crappy shops that you only ever find by the seaside. Honestly, it's charming. On the westerly side of town you'll find Portstewart Strand, and whilst it isn't the most beautiful beach in the area it is home to Harry's Shack, a wonderful seafood restaurant. Order the langoustines, followed by the fish and chips, and you'll be in for a delicious meal. If you're not stopping in Bushmills then Portstewart makes a good place to base yourself for the night.

The A2 will take you inland again towards Coleraine. Whilst not the most scenic of towns along the Causeway Coast, it's worth stopping at Lost and Found, a delightful cafe that servers wonderful brunches. I highly recommend the breakfast brioche.

As you pass the turning for Castlerock it won't be long until to reach Downhill Strand, the last of beautiful beaches that stretch across this part of the country. Downhill is a quiet spot but the view from the beach, up to Mussenden Temple, with is situated in Downhill Demesne and Hezlett House, is iconic. The beach makes a lovely photo stop, but if you have time, it's really worth exploring the National Trust property, especially as the views from the top of the cliff are so dramatic.

From Downhill there are two routes to drive as you tackle the last stretch of the Causeway Coast.

Downhill to Derry via Benone Beach


Continue along the A2 from Downhill Strand, passing the lovely Benone Beach, and making a detour to Magilligan Point. The scenic peninsula looks across to Co. Donegal in the Republic of Ireland. Ignore the prison, but do look out for the 1812 Martello Tower.

Downhill to Derry via Binevenagh


Alternatively, take Bishops Road as it ascends Binevenagh mountain. The views from the very top, across the coast towards Co. Donegal are incredible. Look out for the statue of Irish sea god, Manannán Mac Lir, at the Gortmore view point. I prefer this route because it makes a nice change of scene being so high above the coast.









Derry


Before you know it, you'll be arriving into Derry. Northern Ireland's second city has come on a long way since I spent my childhood summers there at my Granny's house. Exciting new eateries and drinking holes have popped up over the city, and coupled with the historic city walls and an array of great museums (Museum of Free Derry and the Tower Museum to name a few) it's a great place to spend a day. Whilst the city isn't actually situated on the coast it's the perfect place to end your Causeway Coast journey. However, and I said the same about Belfast, it's the coast in this part of the world that's so charming, not the cities, so if you don't have a lot of time, a couple of hours will suffice.

For food and drink check out Walled City Brewery, Nonnas Wood Fired Pizzas, Pike n Pommes, Cowbog, and Brickwork. The drive back to Belfast will take less than two hours as you can cut across the middle of the country. It's not nearly as scenic as the coast so if you have the time you could take the coastal road all over again...

And that's your Causeway Coastal drive done. If you every get a chance to visit I hope you fall in love with this part of the world as much as me. Of course there is plenty more to Northern Ireland but this is the part I know and love the best.

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