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The rolling hills of the Emerald Isle become more pronounced as you reach the Antrim Coast of Northern Ireland. The hills push up to the sea creating jaw dropping green cliffs. Carved into the cliffs and perched on the hills, the Antrim Coast Road links castles, caves, sandy beaches, small towns, and amazing geological formations. The Causeway Coastal Route is one of the most beautiful drives anywhere in the world.
For many visitors, the Giant’s Causeway coast has another association: The Game of Thrones. Northern Ireland is more commonly known as Westeros, the Iron Islands, and generally the north. Traveling the Antrim County coast, you can’t help but stumble on one of the popular Game of Thrones tours, which is one of the most popular outings from Belfast. However, this region is much more than a movie set. It is truly beautiful and inspiring!
Highlights of the Causeway Coast and the Causeway Coastal Route
The Dark Hedges
While not on the main Antrim Coast Road, the Dark Hedges may be one Northern Ireland’s hottest attractions right now. Used in the Game of Thrones (Season 2), this lonely stretch of road wasn’t the easiest to find, but was well worth the effort. Here, beech trees dating from the mid-1700s form a tunnel-like canopy over the roadway as the branches entwine.
The Dark Hedges is like traveling back in time. We approached from the hills to the south, but the more iconic view is taken from the north end and looking back to the southeast through the trees. The cows in the field took interest in our activities, but other than their curious gazes, we didn’t see or hear a living creature. Not quite the bustling activity of the Game of Thrones, but well worth the visit before starting the Causeway Coastal Route.
The Giant’s Causeway
The mythic Giant’s Causeway is the reason for most visitors coming to this remote stretch of Northern Ireland. The Causeway Coastal Route takes its name from the strange geological formations that occur here. Over 40,000 basalt columns bear witness to 60-million year old lava flows. As the lava masses cooled, it fractured into the pillar structures seen today. While striking and iconic, this kind of formation is seen in several places in the world including Svartifoss in Iceland, Fingal’s Cave in Scotland, and the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.
Of course, the Irish and their gift of gab came up with another explanation. In Gaelic mythology, a giant named Finn MacCool lived in these parts. Finn quarreled with another giant, Benandonner, from Scotland. Finn MacCool one day built the Giant’s Causeway from Ireland to Scotland to challenge Benandonner.
According to lore, Finn defeats Benandonner and destroys his Causeway so others can’t find him. Of course, like all good mythology, there are many different versions. In the version from Scotland, Benandonner is the victor and destroys the Causeway. This myth explains why the basalt columns can also be seen on the Scottish side of the channel.
We had been looking forward to visiting the Giant’s Causeway for many years. So, we were disappointed that our visit was clouded by rain and wind – driving rain. It was kind of a miserable experience actually, but we made best of it. We hiked down to the Causeway, but utilized the shuttle bus to bring us back up.
The Giant’s Causeway itself was much smaller than we anticipated, but also more beautiful. When we finally got down to the hexagonal features, we were blessed with a few brief moments without rain and a rainbow out over the Port Ganny.
Located between the Carrick-a-Rede bridge and the Giant’s Causeway is the tiny town of Ballintoy and the Ballintoy Harbour. Located at the bottom of long and largely unimproved road, the harbor of Ballintoy is like stepping back in town. It’s incredibly small, but accommodates a small fleet of fishing boats that head out (occasionally) to score a catch. It’s quaint and all, but didn’t really impress us.
Ballintoy Harbour is perhaps best known the harbor of Pyke in the Iron Islands in the Game of Thrones series. Here Theon Greyjoy meets his sister Yara, and lots of other action. If you aren’t a huge Game of Thrones fan, there’s not much here for you beyond just seeing the quaint harbor.
The Antrim Coast rope bridge, called Carrick-a-Rede, swings between the mainland and Carrick Island. Originally built by fisherman over 350 years ago to catch fish that swim this channel at high tide, the rope bridge now takes visitors across the chasm for views of Scotland and Ireland’s Antrim coastline. While not particularly high (just 100 feet), the bridge can instill a fear of heights for those who are pre-disposed. For many, this is a highlight of the Causeway Coastal Route.
Dunluce Castle with Mermaid’s Cave
Right at a dramatic turn on the Antrim Coast Road between Portrush and the Giant’s Causeway, the majestic ruins of the medieval Dunluce Castle hang on the cliffs of a small island just offshore. Connected by a narrow bridge to the mainland, Dunluce Castle is an imposing structure. Erected in the 13th century by the Earl of Ulster, the castle (and the surrounding Antrim Coast) was ruled by the McQuillan and MacDonald clans for centuries. Today, the ruins of Dunluce Castle are a popular picnic spot on the Causeway Coastal Route. We confess to enjoying our lunch here and looking out on the crumbling old structure.
Old Bushmills Distillery
Lovers of that Liquid Gold will enjoy the Old Bushmills Distillery tour. The smell the sweet mash in the air hits you long before you see the large barn. While not whiskey drinkers before the tour, this was one of the best tours we’ve ever had and was a highlight of our visit to Ireland’s distilleries. Full of independent charm and attitude, Old Bushmills feels absolutely perfect. And nothing beats the wonderful hot toddy in the sample room! We’re whiskey drinkers now.
Portrush, Northern Ireland
The city of Portrush is the kind of regional hub of Northern Ireland’s North Coast. The trains coming into the Antrim Coast from Belfast and Derry arrive in Portrush. Today, the town is a bustling seaside resort in summer filled with small hotels and B&Bs catering to the beach goers. But in the off-season, Portrush is a sleepy fishing village that makes a great base to explore do an Antrim coastal drive on the Causeway Road.
Like many seaside resorts around the world, Portrush has a number of indoor amusement arcades and a small amusement park. I dropped more than a few Pounds in one of the open arcades playing a basketball hoop game.
The city of Derry is the second largest city in Northern Ireland and marks the end of the Antrim Coast Road. Derry (the name was officially changed to Londonderry by King James I for political reasons) is the largest completely intact walled city on the island of Ireland.
For many years, Derry played host to some of the worst of The Troubles and became a highly militarized city after the Bloody Sunday – a massacre where 26 unarmed protesters were shot by British soldier’s. We spent our time in the city visiting the Bogside neighborhood to see the Troubles Murals of Derry and understanding the complicated political events that transpired in this city. These days, the city along the River Foyle is better known for the modern Peace Bridge spanning the river. The bridge has become a symbol for the city – the troubled past, and the bright future.
Visiting the Antrim Coast and driving the Causeway Coastal Route was the highlight of our Northern Ireland trip.
Causeway Coastal Route Itinerary and Antrim Coast Visitor Information
The Dark Hedges in Northern Ireland
Located outside the town of Armoy on Bregagh Road near the intersection with Ballinlea Road. There are two pull-offs at the southeast end of the Hedges to park your car.
Northern Ireland Giant’s Causeway
The Giant’s Causeway is located 2 miles north of the village of Bushmills on the B147 Causeway/Antrim Coast Road. Admission: £10.00. Hours: The Causeway is open dawn to dusk. The visitor center is open 09:00-17:00, longer hours in the summer. There is parking on site, but can be limited at peak times. Website: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/giants-causeway
The Ballintoy Harbour is located off the B15 coastal road west of the town of Ballycastle and east of Bushmills. The harbor is located at the end of Harbour Road north of town.
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
The Antrim Coast rope bridge is located 7 miles east of the Giant’s Causeway and the village of Bushmills along the B15 road. Follow the signs off the roadway and up the private drive to the parking lot. Admission: £5.90. Hours: The bridge is open 9:30-15:30 in the winter and 09:30-19:00 in the summer. Website: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/carrick-a-rede
Dunluce Castle and the Mermaid’s Cave
Located between the villages of Portrush and Bushmills on the A2 Antrim Coast Road. Parking available. Admission: £5.00. Hours: Open from 10:00-16:00 in the winter and 10:00-18:00 in the summer.
The Old Bushmills Distillery
Located in the village of Bushmills at 2 Distillery Road, Bushmills, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland. Ample parking is available. Admission: £7.00. Hours: Summer: Mon.-Sat. 9:15am-4:45pm, Sun. 12:00-4:45pm. Winter hours: Mon.-Sat. 10:00-4:45pm, Sun. 12:00-4:45pm. Please note: No photography allowed inside the distillery and no open toed shoes on the tour. Website: Visit Old Bushmills
Where to Stay on the Antrim Coast
There are a number of small towns with hotels and B&Bs along the Causeway Coast. Check here for the latest hotel prices in Antrim County.
Day Trips from Belfast
The easiest way to get to Giant’s Causeway from Belfast (or anywhere else in Ireland) is to drive yourself. However, if you don’t want to rent a car and drive yourself, there are a number of day trips that cover the main sites on the Antrim Coast, including the Giants Causeway, and the Northern Ireland Game of Thrones locations.