Here be giants. Fancy a weekend on the wild side without having to leave the United Kingdom? Come along on my three-day road trip around Northern Ireland in search of causeways, castles and great craic.
It’s been a tough year for travel lovers and independent businesses alike – Love Great Britain‘s new #EscapeTheEveryday campaign is all about finding inspiration closer to home and choosing to explore Great Britain and Northern Ireland when you come to book your next adventure. I’d never been to Northern Ireland before, and I couldn’t believe the amazing landscapes I found there – as well as the warm welcome I had from everyone from mountain and kayaking guides to whisky distillers and farmhouse cooking instructors, all of whom can welcome visitors safely and according to government guidance. Northern Ireland is proof that there’s no need to travel far this year in order to have a giant adventure.
Northern Ireland road trip weekender
I can’t think of a better introduction to Northern Ireland than taking a trip along the Causeway Coastal route. Stretching for 195 miles and hugging the Atlantic Ocean all the way from Belfast to Londonderry, this coast road winds past pastel-hued fishing villages, medieval castles, white sand beaches and the jewel in Northern Ireland’s crown, the Giant’s Causeway. You can drive the coast in just a day or over two – either way, this road trip makes the perfect weekend staycation when combined with a night or two in buzzy Belfast or Derry.
The main problem with driving the Causeway coast? There are so many tempting places to stop that it can take rather a long time to finish it. I resisted a few temptingly cosy pubs before I stopped at the village of Cushendun for a walk by the harbour and the chance to warm up by the fire at Mary McBride’s pub. Next I followed a tiny side road for a windswept walk by the dramatic rocks of Ballintoy Harbour (used as a filming location for Game of Thrones. There are so many of them in NI that you can do a road trip dedicated just to dramatic GoT filming landscapes) and a restorative coffee at the charming Bothy Cafe.
Storied Northern Ireland has more than its fair share of castles, but the most dramatic has to be Dunluce, which has perched precariously on the cliffs since the 1500s and is now crumbling gently (or not so gently – one stormy night the entire kitchen fell into the ocean, or so the legend goes). The sun was finally shining brightly when I arrived at Dunluce, and the guide gave me a big smile. ‘Welcome to Ireland. It’ll rain in a minute’.
The Causeway coastline is also home to a string of beautiful beaches of which Whiterocks Beach was a favourite. A huge sweep of peachy sand lined with dunes looks back to the ruins of Dunluce castle. Towering white rocks stud the shore and give the beach its name – head to the right and you’ll find a huge limestone arch you can walk under. Whiterocks is a lovely place to spend a lazy day, but I couldn’t stay too long there – I still had a pretty giant landmark to seek out.
Where giants tread
The Giant’s Causeway needs no introduction – it’s been sought out by visitors to Northern Ireland for centuries. Was this crazy jumble of ballast columns rising from the ocean caused by cooling lava 60 million years ago – or by angry giant Fionn mac Cumhaill? The jury is out, but whether geology or folklore gets your vote for its creation, the Giant’s Causeway is a humbling sight. It’s free to walk down to – and onto – the stones, but the sustainably-built visitor centre is well worth popping into for interactive exhibitions offering a better understanding of how the rocks were formed. What surprised me the most about the Causeway is how much of it you can walk – there’s a five-mile circuit you can hike that takes you in and around the famous stones and then up onto the lush green cliffs, letting you look back down on them. Bring your camera – at dawn and dusk the stones are beautifully illuminated.
Into the Mourne Mountains
Come inland from Northern Ireland’s coast and you’ll find the countryside crowned by the tall peaks of the Mourne Mountains. The Mourne range is home to a whopping 93 mountains and hills – including NI’s tallest, Slieve Donard at 850 metres. The perfect person to hike any and all of them with is mountain guide Peter Rafferty of Walk the Mournes, a font of knowledge on this rugged range. We hiked through woods and theather and up to the summit of 485 metre-high Slieve Martin, which is well loved locally for its easy accessibility and sweeping views – there are even those who hike it every day in January to shake off the winter blues. Prefer to explore on two wheels? Life Adventure, based at Castlewellan Forest Park, organise mountain bike and E-mountain bike rental and guiding in and around the Mourne Mountains.
Post hike, I headed to another local gem in the foothills of the Mournes. Killowen Distillery is officially the smallest (and unofficially, the friendliest) distillery in Northern Ireland. It may be tiny, but there’s still room for a bar, where you can sample Killowen’s whisky, rum and poitin (pronounced potcheen, this heady Irish spirit was banned until the 1980s.)
Cooking and kayaking on the east coast
You get a proper home-from-home welcome from Tracey, who runs breadmaking and cooking sessions from Tracey’s Farmhouse Kitchen, by the shores of Strangford Lough, County Down, back in the south east of Nothern Ireland. Her breadmaking sessions are the perfect introduction to using traditional Irish ingredients, and under her expert tutelage I was soon making soda bread and my favourite, potato bread, which was seriously delicious when eaten with salted Irish butter. Tracey even sent me away with a bag of the bread we made together, as well as a sheaf of Tracey’s Farmhouse Kitchen recipes so I could try them at home.
Just down the road from Tracey’s farmhouse, John Hubbucks of Mobile Team Adventure launches kayaks and canoes to explore the salt waters of Strangford Lough. We paddled against the wind and the tide as we headed out of Whiterock Bay, spotting inquisitive seals lolling on the rocks, before turning and gliding back at an easier pace with the pull of the tide. Back on shore I barely had time left to drive back to Belfast Airport – but I couldn’t resist a quick swim in the cold but refreshing waters of the lough, the perfect way to say goodbye to Northern Ireland’s magical coast.
Where to stay
The Bushmills Inn
‘Cosy’ doesn’t even begin to describe the vibe at this welcoming inn – think peat fires, four poster beds and a gas-lit bar. Bushmills is the perfect base for visiting the nearby Giant’s Causeway, and even if you don’t stay here you should pop in for an Irish coffee in the snug Gas Bar. I loved the mezzanine bedrooms.
Stay there from £120 per night
A 19th century lodge given a very modern makeover, Killeavy is also home to a smart restaurant – the tasting menu is a great way to sample local fare. Cycling and waking routes in the Slieve of Gullion start straight from the castle door, and you can borrow bikes.
Stay there from £160 per night