It’s all too easy to get caught up dreaming about far flung destinations around the globe; planning long weekend city breaks in Italy, a beach holiday in the Bahamas or saving up for a trip to New York. I sometimes forget about the amazing locations on my own doorstep, and Northern Ireland, just short journey across the Irish Sea, is a place I’d definitely neglected to explore.
So why now? I could feign Game of Thrones hype and a desire to tick off Northern Irelands Game of Throne filming locations, but I’m in the minority that haven’t got around to watching it yet. But fan of Game of Thrones or not, Northern Ireland is reaping the benefits of a serious tourism boom thanks to this popular fantasy saga, and I was taken in by those countless Buzz Feed articles peppered with photos of glorious jagged coastlines and majestic castles. Why was I only just discovering how scenic Northern Ireland was?
Visiting Northern Ireland from England was easy and super affordable; boarding the Stenaline ferry route from Liverpool to Belfast. Sure, flights would have been ten times quicker and maybe only slightly more expensive, but a major plus for us was the Stenaline ferry was dog-friendly, so Pablo our miniature dachshund was able to come along for the weekend adventure!
Without the luxury of time, we only had one full day to play with. So how much of Northern Ireland can you see in a day?
Driving to Bregagh Road for the ‘Dark Hedges’
After arriving into Belfast the previous evening, we collected our hire car in the morning, and headed out of the city to Bregagh Road. This iconic tree lined path is instantly recognisable to most as the ‘Kings Road’ or ‘Dark Hedges’ from Game of Thrones. In what was apparently sheer fluke and huge dollop of luck, we arrived to find we had the place all to ourselves. Deserted, and with a light early morning drizzle, the tangled knots of branches tunnelled off over the horizon to the soundtrack of eerie silence. There’s no doubt these ancient beech trees were a spectacular sight.
Ice Cream at Ballycastle, Hiking to the Carrick A Rede Rope Bridge & Hearty Pub Lunch
With the clouds clearing we reached the coast to join the Causeway Coastal Route; starting with the picturesque Ballycastle harbour – a really sweet little seaside town with pastel coloured houses. It was still early and a bit chilly, so we only stopped for a short walk across the beach after picking up an optimistic ice cream cone (you won’t see me turning down a scoop of Salted Caramel with sprinkles) from one of the adorable cafes along the sea front.
A further ten minutes drive took us to the next location; Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge in Ballintoy which I think may have been my favourite stop of the journey. The whole area was ridiculously impressive; all craggy, dramatic coastline views with startlingly bright blue waters below. The path took us right along cliff and ended at the crossing where you could brave the rope bridge leading to Carrick-a-Rede island. Historically, the area was used as a prime salmon fishing spot, and local fisherman hand crafted rope crossings to reach the island – back in the 1970’s we know that there used to be bridge with just a single handrail. Nowadays it’s thankfully less ‘death-defying’ (!) as a newer rope bridge was constructed for us tourists to use. We chose not to pay to cross, but only because dogs aren’t permitted to use the rope bridge, which is understandable; watching some of the tourists tentatively shift themselves across to the other side – it still looks fairly wobbly and I wouldn’t have taken kindly to pooch tumbling into the sea! 🙂
A further two minute drive down the road we were tempted in by the typically-welcoming Irish hospitality of the Fullerton Arms; a cosy dog-friendly pub with hearty pub grub and a slightly gimmicky but definitely worth-a-peek Game of Thrones room with a mock Iron Throne (selfie worthy!). Knowing we didn’t have time to stop off at the famous Bushmills whiskey distillery further along the coast, I compromised with a generous bowl of locally-caught fresh Strangford rope mussels seeped in a whiskey, tomato sauce, paired with a Guinness, naturally (The perks of not being the one at the wheel!). 🙂
Exploring the Giants Causeway
Well if this ain’t a bucket list location, huh?
Sure, the Giant Causeway was brimming with tourists just like us, choosing to spend the sunny Bank Holiday Monday at one of Northern Irelands most popular attractions, but it didn’t deter from the beauty of the place. This geological wonder is made up of tens of thousands of interlocking basalt columns, making for a bizarre and dramatic landscape. Legend has it that this area was created by a giant called Finn McCool (what a name, right?), but if we must believe the actual science, it was formed naturally from a volcanic eruption, which is still pretty amazing, no?
Something I didn’t realise before I visited was that visitors were free to explore the whole causeway – which meant everyone could clamber up and over all of the columns – essentially a gigantic, grown-up, nature-made assault course!
Relaxing at Whiterocks Beach
Moving onwards, continuing to follow the coastal route we made a tiny pit-stop at Dunluce Castle (another Game of Thrones filming location) and it was from this peak we noticed an expansive stretch of beach to the West; Whiterocks beach in Portrush. The perfect sandy beach sheltered by steep white limestone cliffs looked way too good to miss. Sun, clear sea and a beach that tricked me into thinking I was holidaying in the South of France or the Algarve – it was so hard to believe that such stunning coastlines exist in the UK. It was fantastic, and Pablo being Pablo was living his best life; throwing himself in the waves and digging holes in sand!
Discovering the City of Derry: The Peoples Gallery & Free Derry Corner
Powering onto our final location, we took the main road all the way to the City of Derry. This Northern Irish walled-city is drenched in history and is well-known for its complex and turbulent past. Honestly though? I felt a little ignorant to the full details of ‘The Troubles’, and had relied a little on the recent ‘Derry Girls’ comedy that had helped throw a spotlight on this era, and given me the nudge to read-up on the conflicts. Nowadays, Derry is a really fascinating city and I genuinely wish we’d been able to spend more time discovering all the things to see. So, with only an hour to explore we took a wander through the city centre – stopping for selfies at the ‘Derry Girls’ mural, and then headed outside of the walls to the Bogside neighbourhood to witness the iconic Free Derry Corner and the Peoples Gallery murals; twelve large scale murals that have been painted on the gable ends of houses, honouring the struggles that Derry faced during the times of ‘The Troubles’.
Embracing Belfast’s Pubs and Ending The Day with A Guinness…
If there was one regret from this whirlwind trip, it was not spending enough time in Belfast. One thing to be said for the people of Belfast is that they know how to extend a proper and fully genuine, warm welcome to this tourist. In our short few hours, which were, naturally, spent bar-hopping in the Cathedral Quarter we must have engaged in countless Guinness-fuelled conversations with locals, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt more at home in a city I barely know, in my life. Belfast’s The Dirty Onion, which was an interesting venue in it’s own right; Belfast’s oldest building – with it’s exposed brick and wooden frames overhead, was packed to the rafters with energetic crowd, elbow to elbow in the courtyard, making the most of the Bank Holiday Weekend and the live music. Down the street, we slipped into the super cosy Spaniard bar and poached a table in the corner for cocktails. Before heading back to our hotel, we detoured via the Half Bap area for a pint of Guinness at the traditional Duke of York pub. It was definitely worth the stop; the narrow cobbled alleyway of Commercial Court is one of the most charming in Belfast with benches, hanging baskets and fairy lights. Take me back!
The Nitty Gritty: How Much Did This Cost?
Getting to Northern Ireland was easy, if a little long-winded. We caught the Stenaline ferry as foot passengers, which was our dog-friendly method of travel. It was absolute steal at £10 per person, per way, with Pablo, our dog working out a little more expensive at £15 per way in a booked kennel. The ferry was seriously good value, however it was a long eight hour trip from Liverpool to Belfast, so we had to factor in ‘losing’ a day either side of our trip. It was cheaper to hire a car for a day when we reached Belfast than to take our own car, so we booked a small manual through Hertz for £31 to take to the coastal roads. Our dog friendly accommodation was the ibis, or Etap Belfast, where we booked a three person room for two nights, with breakfast for £158.
Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge and the Giants Causeway are both atrractions that are managed by the National Trust, and therefore have a small fee attached to go and see them. You can walk up to Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge for free, and it then costs £9 to cross it (no dogs allowed on the bridge, so we opted out of this one), the Giants Causeway cost £12.50 per person.
So, how much does it cost for a weekend in Northern Ireland? With all travel, accommodation, car hire and National Trust entrance fees its comes to £328.50 for three people (and a dog!), or £109.50 per person. Factor in some spending money for some Guinness!
Now I know how easy it is to visit Northern Ireland from England, I won’t think twice about taking a return trip in the future. For such a compact country, I found Northern Ireland constantly surprising and so diverse; full of wonderfully interesting cities, great nightlife, fascinating history, and absolutely stunning nature.
Have you been to Northern Ireland? Are you tempted to take a tour of the Causeway Coastal Route?