The Antrim and Causeway Coastal Route is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and is billed as one of the Worlds greatest coastal drives. With the UNESCO world heritage site of the Giants Causeway as its prime destination, we visited on a Northern Ireland road trip from Dublin. This is our suggestion on a Causeway Coastal Route and Northern Ireland driving itinerary.
It’s a two-hour drive to Belfast before you turn out towards the Antrim Coast. Be sure to pay heed to the change in speed limit from kilometre to miles as you enter Northern Ireland, which is to all intents part of the United Kingdom. Other than that there are no significant changes. Except of course you’ll need some Sterling in your pocket. From here it’s an uneventful drive through industrial lands, Belfast is known for its shipbuilding and other industries.
Carrickfergus- The first stop on our Northern Ireland road trip
Leaving all this behind the first town we reached was Carrickfergus. The town has some pretty streets so we took a breather from driving. Dominating the town from its coastal position is the colossal Carrickfergus Castle.
The castle was constructed by John de Courcy in 1177 as his headquarters after his conquest of eastern Ulster. At the time three-quarters of the castle was surrounded by water. Curtain walls have been added over the centuries to give it its robust appearance now, and an arsenal of cannons further bolsters this. It is one of the most intact Norman structures on the island of Ireland. Like all castles it seems, it has served as a prison, garrison and armoury over time. Hours are 9 to 5 and admission is £6.00. The castle is presently closed due to covid 19 restrictions.
Antrim Coast Road- An unmissable drive in Northern Ireland
The coastal route by no coincidence hugs the coast and is a beautifully scenic drive. It’s earned its reputation as a route not to be missed and is an essential part of any Northern Ireland road trip. From the narrow Black Arch, it meanders through open countryside of County Antrim often with steep hills on the inland side. Sweeping views of the Irish Sea abound on the coastal side. We made a few inevitable stops along the way to take in the sea vistas but didn’t venture off the route.
With time there are many more distractions along the route. It’s a road deserving of a day in itself, and will be one of our road trips in the future. Attractions along the route include:
- The Gobbins cliff walk, a dramatic suspended walk along the cliff face which has existed for around 100 years. It has been rebuilt and modernised in 2011. Tickets at the website cost £15;
- Glenarm Castle, a 600 year old castle set in stunning grounds;
- Cushenden Caves (for the GOT fans, I’m one) where Melisandre gave birth in one of the shows disturbing scenes;
- Great hiking in the Glenariff Forest Park, where gorges and waterfalls await;
- The remarkable views at Fair Head and Torr Head.
- Rathlin Island- the town of Ballycastle runs a ferry to this island, where shipwrecks and puffins await
Carrick-a-Rede Rope bridge- the perfect introduction to the Causeway Coast
We continued on to the Causeway Coast on our Northern Ireland road trip. The weather turned a little unsettled as we approached the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. This unusual sight is one of the most distinctive images of this part of Ireland. It was first built-in 1755 for a much different purpose, to help salmon fisherman access the small island. The islands sole structure is a small fisherman’s cottage with its crane used to lower boats onto the water. The ticket office sells time slots to visit the bridge, priced at £10 per adult. The location is open until 8 pm during the summer months.
There is a quite easy walk from the ticket office. However, it is unsuitable for those with mobility issues. The full looped walk is only about 1.5km. The sea views add to the anticipation. Waves bash up on weathered rocks below. Reaching the bridge there is a descent down some steel steps, and then… a significant wait as people take their time crossing the carrick a rede rope bridge. Some pose for photos and others try to summon the courage to cross it. When you finally make it to the first berth, it is certainly more beautiful than scary. There is a drop of about 30 metres to the sea below, but the bridge is sturdy with only a small sway. It’s a great place to strike that pose, or indulge in a selfie moment. Beata is not the biggest fan of heights, but this didn’t bother her.
The island of Carrick-a- Rede itself is quite small. The fisherman’s house only opens to the public on certain weekends. So we walked around and listened to the caws of birds overhead and the roar of waves below. There is a large population of sea-faring birds such as kittihawks, guillemots, and oystercatchers on the island, and of course, the associated smells that come with this. The cliffs below have unusually coloured caves, with strong green tones in the rock. The bridge itself is the main attraction but its location helps make it a must-see.
One of the finest beaches on the island of Ireland lies just beyond the rope bridge. White Park Bay is the perfect contrast of surf, golden sands and green headlands. I know I’m alone in saying this, but i was content to merely gasp at it from far above.
It’s only another fifteen minutes drive to the main event. The Giant’s Causeway has been recognised by UNESCO since 1986, for its unique geological attributes. It was formed some 50-60 million years ago by volcanic activities. There are some 40000 individual basalt columns located over the whole site and all at varying heights. Irish legend has it that Finn MacCool built the phenomenon as a bridge to cross the sea to fight a Scottish giant, but destroyed most of it as the Scottish giant was too huge. But of course, we know this isn’t true, as an Irishman would never back out of a fight.
There is a recently constructed visitor centre on the site with a cafe. So that was our first priority before our tour, sandwiches and coffee being the offering accepted. The opening hours are from 9 am usually till about sunset and admission is £12.50 (£11 online) into the causeway. If you arrive after hours admission isn’t charged.
The Causeway Experience
The walk down to the causeway is paved and about 1km. However, this is where it becomes more difficult as it’s necessary to clamber and climb over the stones to see it all. The stones are very intriguing and it’s difficult to envisage how it all formed so perfectly. If being incredibly random is perfect.
After spending time walking around the stones, we decided to take a different marked route back for a different point of view. This route passes by the organ, an organ-shaped formation on the rock face. It’s an invigorating ascent up the Shepherd’s steps to the cliff walk above but the obvious reward is the elevated aspect. The views both below to the causeway and down along the coastline are exhilarating. It’s a further 2km to return this way and honestly would have been better to come this way without the climb and return via the lower route.
A possible near escape
We had spoken to each other before the trip and decided to try to save money on accommodation in Bushmills. So we booked a very modestly priced B&B. But if something is cheap there is usually a reason. So we drove to where the GPS indicated which turned out to be a farmhouse. We then drove to the end of the road, and back and no sign of a B&B. From there we returned to the farmhouse and asked for directions. Thankfully they sent us in the right direction, and with the aid of good old Irish directions, we landed outside a house with no sign or anything to indicate what it might be.
We parked and knocked on the door. Opening the door a quite unsure long-haired man allowed us to enter. He looked out-of-place. A lady was sitting inside and to be honest we weren’t sure who anyone was and if we were even in the right place. The guy showed us to a barren room, with bed linen that seemed to have seen too many quests. They were grey and faded. Now we started to feel uneasy.
When he took us to the kitchen and told us breakfast was self-service and consisted of the cheapest bread and ham that money can buy, we took that look at each other. Thankfully no credit card was asked for at the booking stage, so we politely said it wasn’t what we expected, left, and tore off in the car. Looking back we both had that feeling that we had just escaped a scene from a horror movie, where the protagonists stay and are the victims of a midnight bloodbath.
To the safety of Portrush on our Northern Ireland road trip
Bushmills was short on online availability so we knocked on the doors of a few guesthouses (as my parents used to do in the days before the internet) but to no avail, so we gave up on the town and drove to Portrush instead. Spotting the Golf Links Hotel we chanced our arm, and luckily they had a room. It was double the price of the B&B, but I would happily have paid quadruple. The room was clean if small, and the bistro in the hotel had some good fare.
After a good rest we ventured downstairs to said bistro, and it proved excellent, we shared some wings, before mains of lasagne and ribs, and our must have item if it appears on a menu, chocolate fudge cake. With the extra five kilos that we had consumed, we sought advice on the town on where to walk and find live music. The walk into the town helped and as dusk fell around us, we strolled along the east strand. It was beautiful and peaceful there. When we finally made it to the pubs the thought of some drinks didn’t entice us. The stretch of amusement arcades did though and to be honest, we probably had more fun there than we would have had in the pub. Beata is a seasoned Fusball player and she always hammered me at it.
After a good sleep where no one tried to murder us, we had our breakfast in the hotel. The weather wasn’t with us on this second day, it started out quite rainy, and the coastal attractions by their nature are best enjoyed in dry weather. We waited for a break and when the rain dissipated we drove the full 2.5 miles to Dunluce Castle.
Continuing our Northern Ireland road trip – Dunluce Castle
Dunluce Castle is a 16th century castle built on a dramatic outcrop on the coast. It is renowned as one of the most romantic ruins in the country. The castle has a history that adds to its story, legend has it a banshee haunts it, and some time ago the old kitchens gave way with the earth beneath it and were lost to the sea. The attraction is open till 5 daily and admission is £6.00.
Access is across a bridge to what remains of the castle, the roof long since having disappeared. There is partial reconstruction and placards help you learn about how the building once looked, but its best enjoyed by simply wandering and soaking in the location. It rained a little again and that was soaked in too. The drops from the north side are sheer. Actual drops not raindrops. There is walk down below the castle, and to the west, in the direction of Portrush, there are a number of sea arches. The castle has been the location of some notable movies, and more recently that of the castle of Pyke in Game of Thrones.
It’s a 13 miles (20 kilometres) drive south from Dunluce Castle to find the Dark Hedges. This landmark found fame in (you guessed it) Game of Thrones. It is an avenue of Beech trees that were grown to provide a beautiful entrance into the Georgian mansion, Gracehill House. A lot of its current visitors only know it from the phenomenon that is the adapted books. Myself included. We parked up the car and took a stroll down along it. Its usually swarming with people and has probably lost some of its mysticism due to its popularity. It would certainly be better late in the evening or early morning. And it’s surely better in black and white. Admission is of course free.
The weather was only intermittently dry so we set our sights back on Dublin, stopping only in Ballymena en route for a pizza lunch at Milano’s, to break up the travel.
With some major powerhouse attractions, and a world heritage site, this is an area that should be included on any Ireland and Northern Ireland road trip. It can easily be visited on a day trip from Belfast, and if driving is a concern, there are many tours available on Get Your Guide.
More road trips in Ireland
I firmly believe Ireland is a country to be road tripped and its a running theme on this website. Here are some suggestions for excellent Irish breaks.