Tuesday 23 October 2018

Looking for a Game of Thrones fix? I did the immersive tour in Northern Ireland - and it's so worth it

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS FROM SEASON 7

Caitlin McBride at the Game of Thrones tour
Castleward, aka Winterfell
The Dark Hedges in Antrim
Cushenden Caves
Caitlin McBride with direwolves Odin and Thor for the Game of Thrones tour
Caitlin McBride walks Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
Caitlin McBride doing archery during the Game of Thrones tour
Caitlin McBride

Caitlin McBride

It’s over. Finito.

After more than a year of waiting and just eight weeks of watching and over-analysing, the penultimate season of Game of Thrones is officially done.

If, like me, you are mourning the loss of our favourite tv show and there’s an empty void in the place previously occupied by Littefinger (RIP) and his scheming; you’re looking for the next place to get your GOT fix.

I’ve spent more time than I care to admit on Reddit threads dissecting every scene on a fresh episode, wrapped up hours of time in my conspiracy of Tyrion’s heritage (I’m a Targaryen truther), which has sparked my new off-season passion - researching Game of Thrones’ unique alignment to our own fair isle in the north, with 26 filming locations across its six counties.

Game of Thrones has filmed in Northern Ireland since its pilot in 2011; as local legend has it, Scotland turned down the opportunity and Northern Ireland’s pitch was too good to turn down. It matched the landscape for Winterfell and in winter months, the weather was a perfect backdrop that really did make you believe winter was coming.

While the sunnier location shoots take place in Seville and Croatia, Northern Ireland is home to all the cast, since Titanic Studios was extended in 2014, a property which GOT has free reign of and a decision which has brought in more than €200m since 2010.

“If you meet a man with a beard and you’re in Northern Ireland, there’s a 50/50 chance he’s been in Game of Thrones,” our tour guide Jimmy tell us en route to Castle Ward, adding that he has, unsurprisingly, also appeared in the show.

One of the benefits of shooting a show of such magnitude in such close proximity is the gossip. Locals knew Jon Snow had arisen from the dead after seeing him around town for several weeks;  the Battle of The Bastards was shot on a local farmer’s land for two weeks after producers simply asked to "borrow" it and Kit Harrington is a lot friendlier than you’d think.

An hour from Belfast, we arrive at Caste Ward in Co Down, which was home to Winterfell and its residents of the North for three seasons. Jimmy, who is already dressed in GOT-themed regalia, shows us our new uniforms, but not before a pop quiz (which I embarrassingly fail).

You walk the grounds in full costume and a quick two-minute video shows how the premises was transformed with CGI and exemplary vision of the show’s production team.

 

After a brief exploration of the historical property, run by the National Trust, is a lesson in archery, a sport which I realise I have absolutely no future in, but thoroughly enjoyed. After a quick fire round comes a race and whoever loses gets Ned Stark’d by their competitor.

The tour might be tailored for diehard fans, but there’s enough for new viewers, especially as the day is peppered with pop quizzes on show trivia, planting the seed that maybe you should start re-watching from the beginning to catch everything you missed the first time around.

But what would any kind of studio tour be without a meet and greet with some of the show’s stars?

I was granted a private introduction with Odin and Thor, who played direwolves Summer and Grey Wind. Their owners, the Mulhall family, have an equally rich association with the show and have each featured in a number of episodes over the years and they have an impressive family scrapbook to boot.

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Caitlin McBride with direwolves Odin and Thor for the Game of Thrones tour

The dogs are delightful, exceptionally trained by celebrity wrangler Caroline Benoist, are adept at selfie taking and one of the biggest draws of the tour (note: it needs to be booked separately).

There’s one final activity on the agenda before we wrap up this tour: a walk around the grounds, where we are first greeted by Audley’s Field, the exterior set for House Frey, which lends itself as the ideal setting for a number of cheesy photos, some of which I’m not happy to live forever on the internet.

So, instead, here I am doing some archery...

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Caitlin McBride doing archery during the Game of Thrones tour

The tour lasts from approximately 9am (including transport from our Belfast hotel) to 1pm, which will quench your appetite for a Game of Thrones themed day before an afternoon of exploring Belfast.

I had two days of jam-packed GOT-themed tours ahead of me and it gave enough time to explore Belfast on Saturday afternoon during a bustling pride weekend before an early morning start on Sunday - a 9am-7pm bus tour exploring some of the most popular locations of Westeros by McComb’s.

We sign up for the Giant’s Causeway and Game of Thrones combination tour, a dichotomy of Northern Ireland’s tourist offerings from both its past and future. 

And let me say, business is booming: our 50-seater coach is at capacity, filled with fans of all ages and nationalities and our tour guide Derek, who adds that je ne sais quoi to a genuinely delightful day, works seven days a week.

Cushendun is our first stop, the cave where Melisandre gave birth to the shadow demon that killed Renly Baratheon in front a gobsmacked Liam Cunningham (Sir Davos). Our guide tells us a number of people recreate the scene (with clothes) if anyone is interested.

Antrim’s Ballintoy Harbour is up next, which is the setting for the Iron Islands, as well as some of Dragonstone (the setting as we know it now is The Cliffs of Fair Head in Antrim). It seemed only fitting that we were met with pelting rain and hail for this leg of the tour, but it proved so captivating; it was hard to get caught up in the weather.

It’s not every day, even on a tv show tour, you get to say you visited the scene of a character’s death, but Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, a 262-year-old structure was the spot where Balon Greyjoy is pushed over by his brother, the truly terrible Euron, back before he developed equal passions for black eyeliner and Cersei.

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It’s an opportunity to not only face your fears, but enjoy a view so splendid, it borders on magical. The clear blue waters below are jaw-dropping and worth it for the trip alone. Adjacent to the bridge is Larrybane Quarry, where Margaery and Renly watch Brienne of Tarth fight Ser Loras Tyrell. As mentioned, the tour also includes a trip to the Giant’s Causeway, but I’m focused on the Westeros-themed part of the day (it also includes a hearty lunch).

We wrap in the mystical seeming Dark Hedges, where Arya fled King’s Landing and most recently, appeared in Transformers: The Dark Knight, ensuring its future as tourist destination after Game of Thrones wraps in 2018.

With a string of spin-off shows expected (here’s to the start of my official campaign for a Tyrion-Bronn bromance dramedy), the opportunity for countless visitors, who might otherwise visit Northern Ireland, continue to keep business booming for years to come. 

What to do and where to find it

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The Dark Hedges in Antrim
 

Game of Thrones Tapestry at Ulster Museum: An impressive 77-metre Bayeux style tapestry exclusively created for display at the Ulster Museum, depicting seasons one to six in mesmerising detail. For more, see www.ireland.com/tapestry

Castle Ward Demense: A private tour starts at £395 for up to 4 people. For more, see http://www.gameofthrones-winterfelltours.com/
*The direwolves are not available for every tour and need to be booked in advance.

McCombs Bus Tour: £35 per person. For more, see https://www.mccombscoaches.com/tours/game-of-thrones-tours

Cutting Edge Helicopters: Enjoy a raven’s eye view above Dragonhill Beach (Dragonstone), Portstewart Strand (the Coast of Dorne) and Binevenagh (the Dothraki Grasslands). For more, see http://www.cuttingedgehelicopters.com/

 Aquaholics Sea Safari: Explore the GOT world by boat and visit Ballintoy Harbour (Lordsport Harbour), Murlough Bay and Fair Head (Slaver's Bay). For more, see https://aquaholics.co.uk/pages/sea-safari-boat-trips

For more on Game of Thrones tours available in NI, visit the Northern Ireland tourist board website https://discovernorthernireland.com/

Where to stay

Ten Square Hotel (four star): This city centre spot hosts 23 bespoke guestrooms with modern accoutrements and an impressive view of the city and just five minutes walk from the bustling Cathedral Quarter. Prices start at €115 per room.

Where to eat

Belfast is reaping the benefits of its food renaissance over the last five years and makes for a spectacular experience for your taste buds. 

The Muddler’s Club, 1 Warehouse Lane, Belfast

Recommendation: Try the five course tasting menu, paired with matching wines, for a truly special meal at a venue which I predict will soon be adding a Michelin star to its name.

Coppi, Cathedral Quarter, Belfast

Recommendation: Italian food with a contemporary twist. The Venetian-inspiring cichetti dishes are a treat; as is the Calabrese Sausage Risotto with radicchio and hazelnut. Not to mention it’s a popular venue among the Game of Thrones cast, including Brienne herself Gwendoline Christie.

Jospers Steakhouse

Ten Square Hotel, Beflast

Comfort food in even more comfortable surrounds.

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