Loaded with myths, legends and folklore, Nothern Ireland is hauntingly beautiful. We go roadtripping on the Causeway Coastal Route and leave enamoured of the region’s unrivalled history and natural beauty
They say, it’s supposed to be about the journey, not the destination, and when I take a roadtrip with my friend on the spectacular Causeway Coastal Route, I can exactly see why.
We begin our drive from Belfast, via the Antrim Coast Road, all the way to the UNESCO World Heritage Site from which it takes its name. We are going at a leisurely pace, taking frequent stops to appreciate the rugged and unspoilt Irish scenery.
Deep-blue skies, manicured green lawns peppered with bright yellow whin bushes, dramatic cliff edges, stunning coastline, magnificent beaches, sleepy seaside hamlets, stunning archeological feats; all come together to soothe our souls. Northern Ireland seems like a world away from the frantic bustle of modern life.
I turn on some old-fashioned Irish music, roll down the windows and rest my arms on the door frame to let the fresh breeze blow on my face. Roadtrips are perfect for a laidback soul; someone who hates going by the timetable and wants to avoid all the unnecessary stress that comes with strict departure timings. When you’re in your own car, there is the freedom to halt whenever and wherever you want to, linger at places you love and hop back in, to continue driving.
We make a quick stop at Glenarm Castle Walled Garden, a horticultural spectacle that boasts of an incomparable setting by the sea. The castle is home to the McDonnells for nearly 600 years and displays antique Irish furniture as well as portraits of family members from the early 17th Century through to the present day. From the mount at the top of the garden, one can enjoy a breathtaking view of the castle, sea and the estate beyond. For those wanting to take a longer break and recharge, the 19th century mushroom house offers light lunch options and delicious homemade cream teas.
We are on our way to Ballintoy, one of the locations used to film the infamous Game of Thrones television series. Home to merely 200 people, the small fishing harbour and the surrounding village has hardly changed in hundreds of years which makes it the perfect setting for the medieval saga. For those looking to capture a true sense of Irish rural life, this one’s a not-to-miss stopover whilst touring the coastal route.
Just down the road is Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge that dangles 100 feet above the sea, connecting the tiny Carrick Island and the County Antrim mainland for around 350 years. We are brave enough to cross the bridge swayed by the winds only to be rewarded by fantastic views across to Rathlin island as well as amazing flora, fauna and bird life. As we dare to look down while crossing the bridge, we see numerous mysterious caves and caverns being lashed by the ocean waves below. Generations of fishermen once relied on this bridge as the best spot for catching salmon. Today, their legacy is an isolated, whitewashed cottage perched on the cliff edge. One can visit the cottage to know what it was like trying to make a living from the tumultuous seas!
There are stories everywhere in Northern Ireland and these tales never fail to kindle child-like curiosity and imagination. When touring the region, we get to know of giants, goddesses, kings, leprechauns and banshees that have very much become a part of Ireland‘s history and culture.
We are impressed by the first sight of Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO Heritage Site and geological phenomenon of 40,000 basalt stone columns formed by volcanic eruptions over 60 million years ago. The hexagonal, tube-like rock formations are stacked next to each other like puzzle pieces and appear completely surreal. We look out for rocks and boulders named after their unique shapes – the Organ, Harp, Chimney Stacks, Giant’s Boot, Ladies Fan, Camel’s Hump and Giant’s Eye before posing at the Wishing Chair among others. Locals believe this place is an ancient home of mythological warrior and giant, Finn Mac Cool and his wife Oonagh. The story talks about how Finn once challenged Benandonner, a giant who lived across the water in Scotland, to a fight.
He built a causeway of enormous stepping stones across the sea to Scotland, so that he could walk across without getting his feet wet. However, on realising Benandonner was a much bigger giant, he hurried back home and asked his wife for help. Oonagh disguised Finn as a baby and put him in a huge cradle. Hence, when Benandonner saw the size of the sleeping ‘baby’, he assumed the father must be enormous in comparison. Benandonner ran away for fear of his life and ripped up the Causeway steps on his way back!
Next, we halt at the turreted ruins of Dunluce Castle sitting on a basalt outcrop, high above the waves. Game of Thrones fans may know it as House of Greyjoy! The castle that has many inspired artists and writers down through the centuries was originally built in 1500 by the McQuillans, who came from Scotland in the 1200s as hired mercenaries, and built the castle around 200 years later. One of the most picturesque and romantic of Irish castles, Dunluce has an air of eeriness and melancholy that only adds to its charm. A defended site from at least 500 AD, the present castle ruins keep many secrets and ghost stories. There is a tale about the ghost of a sad and troubled woman sweeping the prison tower, lamenting her lost love. Another one speaks of how a large part of the castle kitchen collapsed into the sea during a storm, killing all servants but for one boy. During World War Two, the site was occasionally used as a lookout to monitor shipping.
To seal the day with a tipple, we head to Ireland‘s oldest working licensed distillery, dating from 1608. At Bushmills, it’s interesting to see how the unique triple-distilled Irish whiskey is produced. We experience all the sights, smells and noises as the smooth and rich malt spirit is made right in front of us. Have a keen interest in whiskey? Go for one of the tutored whiskey tasting sessions.
Driving up through the area around Bushmills? Consider taking a detour to witness Dark Hedges, one of the best known Game of Thrones filming locations in the area. The avenue of beech trees have an other-worldly, twisted look and were used in Season 2 when Arya Stark travels down the King’s Road to escape from King’s Landing, disguised as a boy. The iconic trees were earlier planted by the Stuart family in the 18th century as the striking landscape feature to impress guests as they approached the entrance to their Georgian mansion, Gracehill House. Although it looks like a quiet country lane, it’s often tough to get a decent photograph of the trees, courtesy mad tourist rush! The locals say this road is reputedly haunted by a spectral ‘Grey Lady’ who appears at dusk among the trees.
Causeway Coastal Route in Northern Ireland is regarded as “One of the World’s Greatest Road Journeys” . The 190 km designated Causeway Coastal Route is waymarked around the coast of Northern Ireland between Belfast and Londonderry, with nine shorter scenic drives for you to explore. It merges with the Wild Atlantic Way at Londonderry and The Mourne Scenic Route at Belfast.