Saturday 24 February 2018

The Causeway Coast in 12 Giant Steps: Our ultimate driving guide

World's No.1 travel region

Northern treasure: Giants Causeway
Northern treasure: Giants Causeway
Standing on Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
The Dark Hedges
Hake with chorizo stew at Harry's Shack. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Ballintoy Harbour in Co Antrim featured as the Iron Islands in Game of Thrones
Dark Hedges at dusk. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
A love memento tacked to a post at Ballintoy Harbour, on the Causeway Coast. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
The Gobbins Cliff path
Bushmills Inn, Co. Antrim
Harry's Shack. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Titanic Belfast
Ballygally Castle - At night. Photo: Tourism Northern Ireland
The Glens of Antrim, Runestone. Photo: DiscoverNorthernIreland.com
Game of Thrones_ Door 9 - Ballygally Castle
Gin Library, Galgorm Resort and Spa
Dunluce Castle
Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

Northern Ireland's Causeway Coast has been named the world's No.1 travel region. Our travel editor builds a bespoke driving tour.

1. Belfast Begins

Lonely Planet has spoken. Belfast and the Causeway Coast are the world's No.1 region to visit for 2018, the travel bible says - beating the likes of Alaska and Italy's Aeolian Islands to claim the top spot. It's a timely nod for Northern Ireland, an ever-improving city and a coastline that can rival (and at times, whisper it, even beat) sections of the Wild Atlantic Way.

The journey outlined here is roughly a 260km round-trip from Belfast, so start with an overnight and bite in the city (where swanky new digs include Titanic and Bullitt themed hotels). Better still, slake your appetite and explore an electric food and craft drinks scene with one of Caroline Wilson's Belfast Bites tours (tasteandtour.co.uk; £55/€62pp for 3.5 hours with tastings).

You'll soon see what all the foodie fuss is about...

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Titanic Belfast

Pit-Stop: If you can, nab a meal at the Muddlers Club (muddlersclubbelfast.com), do. Garreth McCaughey's brilliantly balanced dishes draw from the best Northern produce in a zinger of a room at the heart of the Cathedral Quarter.

Details: visitbelfast.com; titanichotel belfast.com; bullitthotel.com.

Distance: Belfast is roughly two hours from Dublin on the M1.

2. The Gobbins

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The Gobbins Cliff path

It sounds like a character from Game of Thrones, but The Gobbins is in fact a 2.5-hour guided cliff path on the Islandmagee peninsula. Passing through 'Wise's Eye', a gap in the rocks named for the Victorian gent who envisioned and engineered the thing, visitors continue along a coast-hugging adventure involving hidden tunnels, carved staircases and surprising bridges on a rollercoaster intro to the Causeway Coast. Secure GoPro to safety helmet, and off you go!

Pit-Stop: There's a café and picnic facilities at the visitor centre.

Details: gobbinscliffpath.com (£10/€11.30pp; seasonal).

Distance: The Gobbins is about 32km from Belfast (allow 45 minutes driving time).

3. Ghost by the Coast

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Ballygally Castle - At night. Photo: Tourism Northern Ireland

A ghost room! I found it by chance en route for a bathroom break. Climbing the spiral staircase at Ballygally Castle Hotel (it dates from 1625) takes you to a chilly room in which a black cloak is draped over a chair overlooking the ocean.

Outside, the Mull of Kintyre can be seen on clear days, and panels tell the tragic story of a lady named Isabella, who leapt from these heights and occasionally returns to haunt visitors with rising temperatures and... the smell of vanilla.

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Game of Thrones_ Door 9 - Ballygally Castle

Oh, and don't forget to snap a selfie by a Game of Thrones door (above) depicting the Battle of the Bastards. Who knew getaways could be so brilliantly gory?

Pit-Stop: Game of Thrones-themed afternoon tea (£24/€27pp; 24 hours notice required) with Jon Snow cakes and Dothraki trifle, anyone?

Details: hasting shotels.com/ballygally-castle

Distance: Ballygally is 24km from The Gobbins (allow 30 mins).

4. The Glens of Antrim

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The Glens of Antrim, Runestone. Photo: DiscoverNorthernIreland.com

It's not just about the coast, you know. Antrim's deep green glens slice down towards the sea at regular intervals north of Ballygally, bringing with them a genuine danger of driving into the scenery. Diversions range from Slemish Mountain, where St Patrick is said to have tended sheep, to Glenarm Castle and Steenson's jewellery shop and workshop (thesteensons.com). You'll pinch yourself when you realise the land masses visible to your right are, in fact, Scotland. Continue to Ballycastle, where you can overnight or take the A44 southwest for our next suggested stop.

Did you know? Ballycastle has its own food tour (irishfeast.com). The two-hour outing costs from £30/€34pp.

Details: visitcausewaycoastandglens.com; discovernorthernireland.com.

Distance: Ballycastle is 58km from Ballygally (allow an hour and 15 minutes, and go easy along this winding stretch of coastal road).

5. A Gin Library

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Gin Library, Galgorm Resort and Spa
 

There are plenty of hotels and B&Bs along the Causeway Coast, but two words justify a 40-minute detour to Galgorm Resort & Spa: Gin Library. Yup, this little haven, secreted away off the hotel's conservatory, recently added the 300th bottle to its collection - with northern brands ranging from Jawbox to Boatyard and Shortcross.

Galgorm itself has all the feel and facilities of a five-star, from the cosy fireplaces, seductive lighting and parkland setting by the River Maine to the adult playground that is its thermal village and spa garden (changing room walkways are cobbled with creamy stones to get the circulation in your feet going). It's an elegant place in which staff feel at their ease, and I really think we should be shouting more about it.

The only areas I saw for improvement were an underwhelming meal at Gillies (a prawn cocktail drowned in sickly-sweet sauce, for example, or strangely little mention of The North's rapidly improving food produce) and an 11am checkout for standard rooms, which is far too uncivilised for a weekend!

Pit-stop: Like Italian? Try the wood-fired pizzas at Fratelli's.

Details: galgorm.com; B&B with dinner from £210/€238 for two on special.

Distance: Galgorm is 42km from Ballycastle via the A44 and A22.

6. Carrick-A-Rede

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Standing on Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

The first rope bridge linking the tiny islands off Carrick-a-Rede was erected by salmon fishermen in the 1700s. Streams of fish have long since been replaced by tourists, walking a kilometre along the cliffs before queuing up to cross the surprisingly short, but satisfyingly steep, structure. The earlier you arrive (tickets are timed at peak periods), the more time and space you'll have, so start the day here. Seeing the emerald green Atlantic sloshing about 30m below your feet is a buzz, as are the views of chalky cliffs from the island at the other side.

Pit-Stop: There's a small gift shop and Weighbridge Café at the National Trust car park.

Details: nationaltrust.org.uk/carrickarede; £7/€8pp.

Distance: Carrick-a-Rede is about 47km (allow 45 mins) from Galgorm, or just 10 minutes from Ballycastle.

7. Beautiful Ballintoy

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Ballintoy Harbour in Co Antrim featured as the Iron Islands in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones fans will find another excuse to get the Seven Kingdoms selfies going at Ballintoy, a tiny fishing harbour set at the end of a short, corkscrew road just a few minutes west of Carrick-A-Rede.

A glossy sign outlines scenes in which the harbour appears (it doubles as Pyke and the Iron Islands in the HBO series), but TV star power soon fades before the enduring charm of the setting itself... especially since access is too tight to allow coaches.

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A love memento tacked to a post at Ballintoy Harbour, on the Causeway Coast. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

Look around - there's a dramatic sea cave once used to repair boats, black volcanic rock contrasting with creamy-white limestone, a raised beach, and a wooden stake bearing little mementoes, both tragic and romantic. It's a perfect little Facebook post.

Pit-stop: Roark's Kitchen (+44 28 2076 3632) is a cosy little tearoom in the harbour. Get there early in season during summer; call ahead in winter, as hours can be weather-dependent.

Distance: Ballintoy is just five minutes from Carrick-A-Rede, but go slowly on the winding road - oncoming traffic can quickly appear without notice.

8. An inglenook at Bushmills

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Bushmills Inn, Co. Antrim

Bushmills Distillery was doing small batch whiskey centuries before the current craft drinks renaissance, as kindred spirits learn on a tour. Don't forget to stop into the Bushmills Inn, a Blue Book bolthole with its origins in a 17th-century coaching inn. There are some ridiculously cosy spaces here, including a bar with original gas lamps and an irresistable inglenook (a 'chimney corner') by the fireplace next to reception. Nab the rocking chair here, and you might never get up. The Inn has 41 rooms if you fancy spending the night, or time your stay for a movie in the small but perfectly formed Still Room cinema.

Details: bushmills.com/distillery (£8/€9); B&B at Bushmills Inn (bushmillsinn.com) starts from €148 per room midweek. See ireland-blue-book.com.

Distance: Bushmills Inn is 14.5km (20 minutes) from Ballintoy Harbour.

9. Giant's Causeway

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Giants Causeway, Co. Antrim. Photo: Getty

Yes, the 'stones', as locals call them, are small. But there are 40,000 of them, and the hexagonal basalt columns still feel like something out of Ripley's Believe It or Not!.

The causeway has been a tourist attraction since Victorian times, and today's visitors are greeted by a slick grass-roofed visitor centre slotted into the landscape with minimal impact. You don't have to pass through it (access to the rocks is technically free), but paying the fee helps to maintain the National Trust and Unesco World Heritage site, and entitles you to an audio guide and some context in the interactive exhibitions.

After that, it's a 1km walk (or cheating bus ride) down to the money shot, where visitors swarm like ants over stones ranging from sandy to inky black.

In many ways, the surrounding landscape is just as jaw-dropping... verdant greens and army browns slashed by streaks of oxidised red, or folklore-friendly features like the Giant's Boot and Fionn MacCumhaill's chimneys. Because we all know the Causeway wasn't some freak of geology, but a giant's personal bridge to Scotland, right?

Did you know? A guided Giant's Causeway clifftop hike is available (awayaweewalk.com; 3.5-hours; £30/€34).

Details: Pre-purchase tickets on giantscausewaytickets.com (£9/€10.20)

Distance: Ballycastle is 58km from Ballygally (allow 1hr 15mins).

10. Rock n' roll at Dunluce Castle

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Dunluce Castle
 

This 16th-century ruin sits like a spectre atop of the cliffs, and it's a dead ringer for the spooky House of Greyjoy in Game of Thrones.

After parking up, you can pay to cross the bridge and stroll around the castle itself, or simply admire it from a height - complete with views stretching to Donegal and Scotland.

Legends surrounding the place include the story of a castle kitchen that collapsed into the sea one stormy night (taking several cooks with it). It may also have been an inspiration for CS Lewis's Cair Paravel in the Chronicles of Narnia (Lewis was born in East Belfast).

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If your own imagination takes flight here, take a detour to Mussenden Temple, an Italian-style folly overlooking the coast at the National Trust's Downhill Demesne (above).

Details: £5/€5.70.

Did you know? The Giant's Causeway famously appears on the cover of Led Zeppelin's 1973 album, Houses of the Holy... Dunluce castle features on the inner sleeve.

Distance: Dunluce is just over 7km (allow 10 minutes driving) from the Giant's Causeway.

11. Hit Harry's Shack

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Harry's Shack. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

Donal Doherty points across the wide strip of sand at Portstewart towards Greencastle, on the Inishowen Peninsula. "That's where the fish comes from," he tells me.

Ocean and farm to fork is the philosophy here, but that's just the beginning. Harry's is one of those ideas that seems simple in retrospect, but takes real drive and vision to bring to life - a glorified wooden hut with big picture windows and a covered deck overlooking the sea; a simple menu zeroing in on local seafood (don't worry carnivores, there's a good burger too) and a healthy list of local craft beers.

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Hake with chorizo stew at Harry's Shack. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

Summer is mad busy (book ahead), but it's open in winter too, complete with a bone-warming, wood-burning stove. Hits on my visit include a lovely, crispy-skinned piece of hake atop of a chorizo and tomato stew with homemade aioli, mussels in wine and pearl barley, potatoes gently seasoned with dulse, and the most popular order - a crackin' fish 'n' chips (gluten-free batter is available).

Details: facebook.com/harrysshack

Did you know? The Royal Portrush (royalportrush.com) Golf Club hosts the British Open in 2019, the first time for the Masters in Northern Ireland since 1951.

Distance: Harry's is around 13km from Dunluce. Allow 20 minutes driving the coast road.

12. Do the Dark Hedges

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A man walks along the Dark Hedges. Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
 

They may be Northern Ireland's most iconic Game of Thrones location, but the Dark Hedges appear only fleetingly in the show - when a cart carrying Arya Stark and friends trundles down the King's Road in Series 2.

The atmospheric avenue of beech trees was planted by the Stuart family of Gracehill House in the 18th century, but they could scarcely have imagined how dramatically those branches would twist and turn in the ensuing centuries. The tunnel of beech is particularly spooky at sunset, appearing to draw you down the avenue, but the trees can be beautiful in early morning sunlight or mist, too.

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Dark Hedges at dusk. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

Storm Gertrude brought several of them crashing down in 2016, and these have been brilliantly recast as Game of Thrones doors like the one in BallyGally Castle Hotel (see above).

Is there a ghost story here, too? But, of course. The Dark Hedges are believed to be haunted by a 'Grey Lady', the spirit of a servant girl said to have disappeared 150 years ago.

Pit-Stop: Parking on Bregagh Road itself is a bad idea - the verges are tight, it's a nightmare to turn and you'll ruin everyone's photos. Save yourself the hassle by parking at the nearby Hedges Estate Hotel (thehedge shotel.com) and grabbing a bite there afterwards.

Details: ccght.org/darkhedges

Distance: Bregagh Road is at Stranocum, Co Antrim - about 28km (35 mins) from Harry's Shack.

NB: Prices subject to availability; exchange rates correct at time of publication. For more, see discovernorthernire land.com and visitcausewaycoastandglens.com.

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