The epic rocks at the Giant’s Causeway are arguably the star attraction along the Causeway Coastal Route – there’s a clue in the name – but there’s plenty more to see and do beyond this vast expanse of closely packed, hexagonal stone columns fabled to be the handiwork of giants.
Beyond the grandeur and myth there’s whiskey to be drunk, dizzying bridges to be crossed, castles to be explored, birds to be spotted, golf to be enjoyed and cities to be discovered – which is why it was chosen as our top region to visit in 2018.
Raise a glass
If you’ve a taste for whiskey, then your exploration of the coast should include a visit to the distillery at Bushmills, only 4km southwest of the causeway. It’s been distilling whiskey since 1608, making it the world’s oldest (legal) distillery. Along the way, you’ll discover that it’s made with Irish barley and water from the local river before being matured in oak barrels. All very interesting, sure, but the reward for the crash-course in distilling is a sip of the blessed stuff. The nearby Bushmills Inn is one of the best places to stay in Northern Ireland, with a superb restaurant and lovely rooms.
A spectacular ‘fore!’
Even the casual hacker will know that Royal Portrush is regularly featured on any list of the world’s best courses. It will play host to the Open Championship in 2019, but in the meantime, you can challenge yourself on its most famous holes, including the waters-edge White Rock (5th) and Calamity (14th), one of the hardest par-threes in Ireland. The lesser-known but equally beautiful Portstewart Golf Club is only a few kilometers away; its Strand championship course hosted the 2017 Irish Open. And, if you’re looking for a memorable bite, the local strand is home to Harry’s Shack, a fabulous restaurant in an old shack managed by the National Trust.
Test your balance and nerve
You’ll need sea legs and a steady gaze to cross the 20m-long, 1m-wide rope bridge that links the mainland to the tiny island of Carrick-a-Rede. The bridge sways and lilts 30m above the swirling sea below, but don’t worry: it’s closed if the winds get too hairy. Once you’ve reached the island, there are gorgeous views of the rugged coastline and Rathlin Island. It’s incredibly popular so be sure to turn up early to secure a ticket in high season.
Gourmet tour in Ballycastle
It’s not often that a classic bucket-and-spade beach town emerges as a gourmet hotspot, but that’s exactly what’s happened to Ballycastle, at the eastern end of the Causeway Coast. Highly recommended is Caroline Redmond’s Ballycastle Food Tour, a three-hour exploration of the very best of local producers, including the seafood chowder at the Central Wine Bar and the friands – sweet almond cakes – from the Ursa Minor Bakery. In between you’ll try locally made black puddings and cheeses – and keep an eye out for smoked fish from North Coast Smokehouse (www.northcoastsmokehouse.com) and beer from Glens of Antrim Craft Ales & Beers (glensofantrimcraftaleandbeers.com). Also worth checking out is Thyme & Co and, of course, Morton’s – maybe the best fish and chip shop on the whole island.
Walk along the King’s Road
When James Stuart built Gracehill House in 1775 and then planted an avenue of 150 beech trees to impress visitors, he couldn’t have guessed that two centuries later his eerily beautiful road would be an eye-catching feature in the hit series Game of Thrones. The Dark Hedges is now one of the most photographed sights in Northern Ireland. Park your car at the nearby Hedges Estate Hotel and make your way on foot to this stunning bit of green-fingered artistry. If you’re looking for more Game of Thrones locations, Ballintoy Harbour, Cushendun Caves, Downhill Beach and Murlough Bay also appear in the show.
Pause for nature
From Ballycastle, you can take a ferry to Rathlin Island, 6km offshore. This rugged spot, only 6.5km by 4km, is a natural wonderland, especially in late spring and summer when it is home to thousands of nesting birds and hundreds of seals. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds runs a fascinating centre on the island, above which are viewing platforms so you can look out onto the sea stacks where thousands of guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, fulmars, and of course, the island’s most popular visitor – the puffin – gather to breed.
Belfast is a city very much on trend, with world-class restaurants and some fabulous bars. Recommended is George’s of the Market (in a gorgeous Victorian market hall) for the first, and the Crown Liquor Saloon for the second. Highlights of a visit also include Titanic Belfast, a high-tech museum about the world’s most famous shipwreck; and an exploration of Belfast’s fascinating history via a black taxi tour, with sightings of the infamous Peace Wall and the colourful murals. Just as compelling is the once-notorious prison, Crumlin Road Gaol, where you can tour the underground tunnel linking the jail with the courthouse.