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North Antrim: Following in the footsteps of giants

From Carrick-a-Rede to Bushmills and Ballintoy Harbour, Aine O'Connor enjoys a tour of Northern Ireland's Causeway Coast

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The Giant’s Causeway in Co Antrim

The Giant’s Causeway in Co Antrim

The clifftop walk to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge is a sight in itself

The clifftop walk to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge is a sight in itself

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The Giant’s Causeway in Co Antrim

They close Carrick-a-Rede rope Bridge when the wind reaches 35 miles per hour. It's at a mere 20 miles per hour when we get to it so off we wobble, taking turns to pose for the obligatory photo. The rough seas around us make the already spectacular views all the more dramatic.

The rope bridge is the only attraction on this sightseeing friendly North Antrim coast that is weather dependent, and as we have seen, it takes more than a breeze to shut it down.

Thanks in part to Game of Thrones, some of which was filmed in the area, tourism in North Antrim has increased dramatically in the last decade. Locations get busy so there is a lot to be said for weather proofing and making the trip out of season.

The clifftop walk from the car park to Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge is lovely in itself, the bridge access times are staggered to avoid queuing in peak times and it is best to book online before you get there (Adults £9, children £4.50 www.nationaltrust.org.uk/carrick-a-rede).

Crossing the bridge doesn't take long, there are steep enough steps down to it and although you register the churning sea on either side, and below, only the very height-phobic would find it disturbing.

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The clifftop walk to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge is a sight in itself

The clifftop walk to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge is a sight in itself

The clifftop walk to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge is a sight in itself

There's a cafe and gift shop - The Weighbridge - right in the car park should you need sustenance or shopping afterwards. The cafe gets its name from the disused quarry on the other side of the bay from the rope bridge. Larrybane was the setting for a GOT duel scene but the walk along the base of the cliffs and the islands nearby, Sheep Island and Rathlin, are nature lovers' paradises in terms of bird watching, plant life and geological idiosyncrasies.

On the 18-minute drive west towards the area's most famous destination, it is nice to take the little detour into Ballintoy Harbour, a gorgeous surprise at the end of a short windy road. It's just particularly pretty and well worth investigating before heading on to the Giant's Causeway.

Like Carrick-a-Rede, it is managed by the National Trust, Northern Ireland's largest conservation charity. It does remarkable work with no government funding and is currently engaged in a rather unique study to work out how to best manage tourism to minimise impact on the landscape.

The Giant's Causeway is Northern Ireland's only UNESCO World Heritage Site and was visited by more than one million people in 2019. Its 40,000 hexagonal basalt columns stretch out into the sea and look like a prehistoric pavement.

The mythology that named it is that local giant Fionn Mac Cumhaill laid down the causeway to get to Scotland to meet his great rival Benandonner. But spying the Scot and realising he was too big to beat, Fionn ran home, losing his boot along the road, and he asked his wife Oonagh for help. She dressed Fionn as their baby Oisin and put him in his cot, when Brenandonner saw the size of the "baby" he decided the father must be enormous so he turned tail back to Scotland, ripping up the causeway as he went and leaving only what remains today.

I quite like that story, of feminine brains trumping macho posturing.

The story was first written down in the 1840s just when tourism to the Giant's Causeway was becoming popular. No Victorian tourist visiting Ireland could miss out on it - and unfortunately some were allowed to bring home souvenirs in the form of pieces of the Causeway. To this day there is a pile of discarded pieces, ones that were ripped up and deemed 'imperfect'.

The Middle Causeway is where the famous Wishing Chair sits and perhaps visiting men should make a special point of sitting in it, making their modest wish and wiggling their bum three times as per the rules, because for many years men were not allowed to sit in it. And to the far side of the Grand Causeway is the stone called Fionn's boot, estimated to be a size 94.

Access to the Giant's Causeway is via the Causeway Visitor Centre (£12/£6 https://giantscausewaytickets.com/buy-tickets) where there is a cafe and a retail zone of which 80pc of the products are produced locally. There are audio guides which give a full account of all of the local mythology, a history of the site and a good insight into the geological background, the interactive version with a real human which is great when you want to ask questions.

Our midwinter weather is mixed, a brisk wind carrying what varies from heavy enough rain to drizzle to bursts of sunshine. The light is changeable and beautiful and the sea brisk and rousing. But you don't holiday in Ireland in the winter, arguably in the summer either, banking on good weather and sometimes the elements can be part of the fun.

Along the way you can take shelter in the guided tour of Bushmills', Ireland's oldest working distillery which is enjoying a time of enormous growth. For £9 you get a very informative tour and glass to taste. Or, if you're the sad driver, your companion gets two glasses. Distilleries aside, being out in the elements makes the walks bracing, you feel all awash in outdoorsy virtue and afterwards most deserving of the tipple in the hotel bar, a hot bubbly bath and a movie in bed after dinner.

We were staying in the Causeway Hotel, the name of which could not be more literal, it is right beside the Causeway and visitor centre.

Built in 1836 to accommodate the new brisk tourist trade in the area it has been modernised but very much maintains a historic feel. The breakfast room especially felt Victorian and the views out over the sea are spectacular. We had a really nice room with sea views and a side terrace. One of the nights was so cold and clear, the view of the stars was quite breathtaking. Knowing it was chilly and brisk outside made horsing into the very good breakfast feel not only excusable but positively wise. Dinner too was great and the staff in the hotel were beyond-the-call-of -duty nice in that way Irish people can just sometimes be.

There is a lot to be said for trips that don't involve airports and there are some real gems within driving, or indeed bus distance, so don't let the weather get in the way.

Get there

Enjoy two nights bed & breakfast, and one evening meal at the Causeway Hotel with its Spring Getaway package — including free access to the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Experience.

Prices start from £145 (€167) midweek and £160 (€185) for weekend based on two adults sharing — excluding bank holidays and Easter week. Valid until May 31. thecausewayhotel.com

NB: This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.

Sunday Independent