Regarded as one of the most beautiful drives in the world, Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coastal Route is the kind of rugged coastline you don’t really find anywhere else in the UK.
On a spring road trip around Ireland, I drove with friends from Dublin to the south, and finally west to Galway. From there, I flew back to London and my friends continued north to Sligo and then Northern Ireland before ending in Belfast.
Part of the reason I didn’t join them further north was because I’d already planned on visiting Belfast in August when I had plans to return to Dublin for a race, and as part of that trip, was going to spend two days in Belfast prior.
My first day in Belfast was spent exploring the city. On the second day, I knew I wanted to drive along the coast. Travelling with one other person we looked at the cost of renting a car, but ultimately decided it would be more affordable (and easier) for us to join one of the guided Causeway tours.
Normally not one for guided tours, I was a bit hesitant about signing up for a mass group experience. But, when found a Game of Thrones tour with Irish Tour Tickets that had great reviews and stopped at every place both of us were interested in seeing, we decided to go for it.
Turned out to be a great decision. Even though we were on a huge coach, our driver kept us on a tight schedule- at most stops, we arrived ahead of other buses, which meant no where we went was too crowded.
If you’d rather rent a car, there are several dealers in Belfast. Coming from Dublin is also do-able, but remember to let your dealership know you’ll be crossing the border- most charge a small fee, but better to let the know where you’re headed than chance it if something happens.
Back to the tour. I’ve never seen an episode of Game of Thrones, but still enjoyed the tour. The reason we decided to do the GoT tour over the other Causeway options was because of the stop at the Dark Hedges.
Excited for a day of visiting UNESCO heritage sites and hiking cliffs, we walked to city centre from our Airbnb, stopping at Root & Branch for flat whites before hopping on the tour bus.
First stop: Carnlough, a quaint Irish coastal village. We were only stopped here for 20 minutes, but it was just enough time to walk around the harbour and snap a few pictures.
Next, we drove to the Cushenden Caves. After perusing the caves for a bit, we walked through town, popping into a cosy cafe for raspberry scones to bring back to the bus for an afternoon snack.
Heading further north, we drove through beautiful valleys- so much greenery and endless rolling hillsides.
On the way to the Giant’s Causeway, we stopped for pictures at Dunluce Castle. Roofless castle ruins on the edge of a cliff? Breathtaking. The medieval castle is also said to be inspiration for many fantasy writers.
We also drove through Bushmills, but didn’t stop at the distillery. The absence of that stop, and addition of the Dark Hedges is the main difference between our tour and other Causeway tours.
Early afternoon, we arrived at the Giant’s Causeway, a definite highlight of the afternoon. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the causeway’s unique look was formed by volcanic activity 60 million years ago.
Although, local legend would have you believe otherwise. Legend says a giant by the name of Finn McCool was having trouble with someone across the water. The Scottish giant Benandonner was thought to be threatening Ireland. An enraged Finn grabbed chunks of the Antrim coast and threw them into the sea, forming a path for Finn to follow to teach Benandonner a lesson.
Folklore aside, the causeway is spectacular, so unique in appearance, it’s hard to believe it’s real. Some of the columns are appear symmetrical, it seems only logical they’d be human crafted but that’s not the case.
When we visited, it was crowded, but still enjoyable. We had two and a half hours here, and spent the entire time walking along the columns and hiking the coast. There’s also a visitor’s centre with a cafe, toilets and educational materials. The price of entering the visitor’s centre was included in our tour ticket, but I believe it’s 11.50 for adults.
Ready for the next adventure, we hopped on the coach and drove to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. Before heading to the bridge, we stopped at Larrybane, a limestone quarry with gorgeous views where scenes from GoT were shot.
Ready to challenge my fear of heights, we picked up our bridge tickets and hiked 20 minutes to the start of the bridge. We couldn’t have been more lucky with the weather- 60 degrees F, sunny and a light breeze keeping us cool from the water.
The rope bridge played a big role in Northern Ireland’s history, with salmon fisherman crossing the bridge daily during fishing season with their daily catch. Since the bridge opened to the public, they’ve ensured safety features, like two side handles for crossers to grip while walking across.
A few years ago, crossing the rope bridge wouldn’t have been laughable for me- I had such a paralysing fear of heights, I couldn’t even look at the window of high office buildings. Since then, I’ve made major progress in becoming more comfortable off the ground, even skydiving once. That said, while the bridge is high (but not unbelievably high), I did find myself taking deep breaths across the bridge each time I crossed it.
Even if you don’t want to cross the bridge, seeing it and walking along the adjacent cliffs is reason enough to visit.
At last our final stop of the day, the Dark Hedges. The hedges are almost surreal- towering hedges shading part of a country road, surrounded by farm side.
Exhausted from a full day of exploring, we eagerly climbed back aboard the coach and began to discuss where we wanted to head once we we back in the city. While we were looking up pubs and restaurants for dinner, other tour patrons were playing a GoT trivia game for the chance to win hop on/hop off bus tickets.
Back in the city, we headed to Kelly’s, one of the oldest pubs in Belfast for a few pints with the after-work Friday crowd. Next up: A stop at another pub, Bitter’s, before heading to Bootleggers for burgers, fries and a couple craft cocktails.
All in all, an unforgettable day adventuring Northern Ireland’s natural wonders.
Have you ever been to Northern Ireland? Did you drive along the Causeway Coast?