The epic rocks at the Giant’s Causeway might be the Causeway Coast’s star attraction – there’s a clue in the name – but there’s plenty more to see and do beyond this vast expanse of regular, closely packed, hexagonal stone columns that the ancients thought was the handiwork of giants. Beyond the grandeur and myth there’s whiskey to be drunk, dizzying bridges to be crossed, castles to be climbed, birds to be spotted, golf to be played and cities to be explored.
A Drop of the Cratur
If you’ve a taste for whiskey, then your exploration of the coast should include a visit to the distillery at Bushmill’s, only 4km southwest of the causeway. It’s been distilling whiskey since 1608, making it the world’s oldest (legal) distillery. Along the way, you’ll discover that it’s made with Irish barley and water from the local river before being matured in oak barrels. All very interesting, sure, but the reward for the crash-course in distilling is a drink of the blessed stuff or, as they say in Ireland, ‘a drop of the cratur’ (from ‘creature,’ the Irish nickname for whiskey). The adjacent Bushmills Inn is one of the best hostelries in Northern Ireland, with a superb restaurant and lovely rooms – just in case you’re too ‘emotional’ from your visit to the distillery to drive on.
A Spectacular ‘Fore!’
Even the casual hacker will know that the links at Royal Portrush is justifiably famous and a regular presence on any list of the world’s very best courses. It hosted the Open Championship in 2019, and you can challenge yourself on its most famous holes, including the waters-edge White Rock (5th) and Calamity (14th), one of the hardest par-threes in the country. The less famous but equally beautiful Portstewart Golf Club is only a few kilometers away; its Strand championship course hosted the 2017 Irish Open. And, if you’re looking for a memorable bite, the local strand is home to Harry’s Shack, a fabulous restaurant in an old NT-managed shack.
Test Your Balance & Nerve
You’ll need sea legs and a steady gaze to cross the 20m-long, 1m-wide rope bridge that links the mainland to the tiny island of Carrick-a-Rede. The bridge sways and lilts above the swirling sea below depending on the wind, but don’t worry: it’s perfectly safe to cross and it’s closed if the winds get too hairy. It’s incredibly popular so the National Trust (who manage it) has introduced ticketed one-hour slots in summer to handle the crowds. Once you’ve reached the island, there are gorgeous views of the rugged coastline and Rathlin Island. It’s 13km east of the Giant’s Causeway.
Gourmet Tour in Ballycastle
It’s not often that a classic bucket-and-spade beach town emerges as a gourmet hotspot, but that’s exactly what’s happened to Ballycastle, at the eastern end of the causeway coast. Highly recommended is Caroline Redmond’s Ballycastle Food Tour, a three-hour exploration of the very best of local producers, including the seafood chowder at the Central Wine Bar and the friands – sweet almond cakes – from the Ursa Minor Bakehouse. In between you’ll try locally made black puddings and cheeses – and keep an eye out for smoked fish from North Coast Smokehouse (www.northcoastsmokehouse.com) and beer from Glens of Antrim Craft Ales & Beers (glensofantrimcraftaleandbeers.com). If you don’t get to on the tour, also worth checking out is Thyme Out Food Co and, of course, Morton’s – maybe the best fish and chip shop on the whole island.
Get on the Road to King’s Landing
The Dark Hedges is Northern Ireland’s most photographed road, despite being less than 500m long – but that’s the power of television and excellent landscaping. When James Stuart built Gracehill House in 1775 and then planted an avenue of 150 beech trees so as to impress visitors, he couldn’t have guessed that two centuries later his eerily beautiful road would be one of the most eye-catching features in the Game of Thrones, the intertwining trees standing in as the road to King’s Landing. To best appreciate this stunning bit of green-fingered artistry, do yourself (and everyone else) a favour and don’t park along the road – leave the car at either end and walk up. Then all you’ll have to deal with are the crowds, but even they’re pretty sparse early in the morning. And, if you’re looking for more Game of Thrones locations, Ballintoy Harbour, near Carrick-a-Rede, appears in the show as the Iron Islands’ Lordsports Harbour.
Watch the Birds Go By
From Ballycastle, you can get the boat to Rathlin Island, 6km offshore. This rugged spot, only 6.5km by 4km, is a natural wonderland, especially in late spring and summer when it is home to thousands of nesting birds and hundreds of seals. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds runs a fascinating centre on the island, by the lighthouse, above which are viewing platforms so you can look out onto the sea stacks where thousands of guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and fulmars gather to breed. The island’s most popular visitor, however, is the puffin, who, along with thousands of her buddies, arrive in mid-May, hatch around mid-June and get ready to take off again in late July. It’s a pretty spectacular scene, if you don’t know much about birds (the centre will soon put that to rights!).
Belfast is back, and better than ever. Courtesy of its dynamic young population, this is now a city very much on trend, with super restaurants, fabulous bars and some world-class hotels to satisfy even the most discerning visitor. Highlights of a visit include Titanic Belfast, a high-tech museum about the world’s most famous shipwreck; a saunter around the Ulster Folk Museum and the Ulster Museum (the first is about life in Northern Ireland, the second is an enviable collection of treasures from all over); and, inevitably, an exploration of Belfast’s troubled past. Best way to do it is via a black taxi tour, which takes you up the once no-go flashpoints of the Falls and Shankill roads, with a potted history lesson to go with sightings of the infamous Peace Wall and the colourful murals. But just as compelling is the Crumlin Road Gaol museum, once a notorious prison with a tunnel under the road linking the jail with the courthouse: the expression ‘take him (or her) down’ relates to judges ordering convicted felons back down into the tunnel to the jail. And, when you’re done visiting, do some fine eating and drinking: recommended is George’s of the Market (in a gorgeous Victorian market hall) for the first, and the NT-protected Crown Liquor Saloon for the second.