Northern Ireland Causeway Coast
Updated: Jan 13
Northern Ireland's Causeway Coastal Route has been referred to as one of the top drives in the world. And so, armed with a rental car, hiking boots and our cameras, we set off to discover the beauty that is Northern Ireland's coastal roads.
Note: We caught an evening flight into Belfast, collected our rental car and drove in the fading light to our AirBNB near Bushmills.
We had planned on catching the sunrise at the Giant's Causeway but the weather forecast was bleak and we didn't think there would be much point racing to see grey skies. So we took our time over breakfast and arrived at the Causeway at a normal hour. We parked in the nearby hotel carpark (it's a nice gesture to buy a drink from them. Otherwise, you need to pay the National Trust parking if you park in their spaces) and began the cliff walk overlooking the Causeway (trail starts to the left of the hotel, not by the visitor's centre). We chose to do the Red Trail, which is a clifftop walk which links with the Blue Trail, taking you down to the Giant's Causeway. There are great views all along this walk.
The Walk Down
The staircase leading down to the Causeway was closed off due to heavy rainfall, and we had to turn back and find the start of the Blue Trail in order to get to the Causeway. The Giant's Causeway is really cool - the basalt columns rising from the shore like massive steps. It was exceptionally slippery that morning and quite difficult to climb on. Nonetheless, we enjoyed our visit but kept it short as it wasn't easy walking on the wet rocks. Visiting at the beginning of March though, meant that there were no crowds and the Causeway was pretty much empty. Fun fact: The Giant's Causeway is the busiest National Trust site in the UK with over 700,000 annual visitors!
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
This bridge has a great little history! Before anything resembling a bridge safe for humans to walk across was built, salmon fishermen were walking across a feeble version of it to reach the tiny island of Carrick-a-Rede from mainland Northern Ireland. The fishermen would go across the precarious bridge balancing their fishing gear in their arms, and the bridge would have had missing slats and possibly no handrails. Various versions of the bridge were built in the last 250 years or so, and the current bridge was completed in 2008.
The Carrick-a-Rede bridge is now a tourist attraction managed by the National Trust. You can cross the bridge for £10 - pretty steep I know (pun-intended) but how often do you get the chance to walk along a bridge suspended 30 metres over the Atlantic Ocean with scary crashing rocks below? Tickets are timed entry and can be bought at the ticket booth near the parking lot (or online in advance). It's then roughly a 15 minute walk to the bridge itself, passing along beautiful coastline and photo-worthy spots. If you're not good with heights, you can walk to the bridge just to see it, without purchasing a ticket; the views along the way are certainly worth the trek.
Not for the Faint of Heart
This can definitely be a palm-sweating, leg-shaking, fear-inducing experience. Remember winter in the UK before Covid hit? There were constant storms in 2020 and people's biggest concern was Storm Dennis - imagine that! Back to the bridge though - I'm good with heights but when the wind started blowing as we walked across the bridge, I'll admit I had a moment of queasiness. Also remember that once you walk across the bridge, you will have to walk back over it 😉 I enjoyed the experience and the views were spectacular but if heights don't agree with you, I'd say give this a miss.
Next we decided to drive along the coast towards Larne, as we'd missed out on the views the day before because we'd been driving in the dark. We took a slight detour along the scenic route towards Torr Head; we passed by sheep and had the coast in our eyeline much of the drive. We couldn't get right up to Torr Head itself, as it was closed due to recent wind and rainfall. We stopped at a few other places along the way to take in the views and stretch our legs, finally stopping properly in Larne for a warm cuppa coffee.
We zipped back towards Bushmills and onto Dunluce Castle to see the sunset, which was pretty non-existent that day.
If you're a Game of Thrones fanatic, this is the avenue for you. These beautiful, ethereal beech trees along Bregagh Road in County Antrim will delight you, even if you (like me) have never seen Game of Thrones. You're not allowed to drive along the road itself and there is a designated parking area - where they've made a cute trail leading to the Dark Hedges. There were some silly people trying to drive down the road; this ruins the roots of the trees so please don't do this! Entrance to the road is completely free - it may just get a little crowded.
Next on our list was a hike up Binevenagh Mountain, near Limavady. We'd found some vague directions online and drove towards Binevenagh to Gortmore Viewpoint first, to see the sculpture of Manannan Mac Air and take in the views. This can be found on Bishop's Road and there is free parking right by the statue (a small staircase leads up to a higher viewpoint).
We hopped back into the car and drove to find the starting part for the Binevenagh hike. This is nowhere near the statue mentioned above, so don't attempt to walk to the starting point of the hike from here as you'll likely be walking for days 😁
Binevenagh Mountain Hike
This 3 mile hike starts on Leighery Road; there is no clear signage but you need to find a gate and walk through said gate to begin the hike. We found a few gates on this road 🤦🏻♀️ so I've provided photos of the exact gate and also a blue sculpture which you should be able to see easily as well. We managed to park the car a bit further up the road.
The hike is about an hour each way (there are other longer routes available) and it is mostly up gravel paths and in forestry areas. There are steep sections of the hike and you might have to stop a few times to catch your breath. There is literally no view the whole way, until you reach the summit - and then it is breathtaking! On a clear day you'll have panoramic views over Lough Foyle, the Roe Valley, Inishowen and even the west of Scotland! 🤗
Giant's Causeway Sunset
We revisited Giant's Causeway that evening for sunset. Conditions were dry this time but super windy. It was beautiful watching the sun set over this magnificent piece of land but we couldn't stay too long because of the harsh winds. If you can, do try and nab a sunset at the Causeway; it's quite magnificent and a completely different experience to seeing it during the day. If you're staying in Belfast, it's just over an hour's drive away - so this makes for an easy day trip. Alternatively, you could drive to it along the coast and this takes just over two hours (excluding any stops that you'll want to make along the way - believe me, there will be numerous, as the scenery is spectacular throughout).
The oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world definitely deserves a visit - even if you're not a whiskey fan! It's a great tour and really interesting. We were lucky enough to see the bottling process as well, which happened to be taking place when we were on the tour, and this was a cool factory experience! It's £9 for a tour (which includes one glass of whiskey at the tasting at the end). Tickets can't be bought in advance - just turn up and there are daily tours every half hour or so, subject to availability. Check their website for summer and winter opening hours.
We'd driven the coast a few times and we wanted to see something more inland and a bit different, so we decided to venture to Lough Neagh - the biggest lake (by area) in the British Isles. As it's so massive, there are lots of places you can stop at - we headed to Ballyronan for no particular reason and happened upon a sweet little spot with boats and a teeny harbour.
Sunset at Whitepark Bay Beach
Are you sensing a theme here? 😉 With so much coastline and so many beaches around, we headed back to the coast for sunset - to a beach in Ballycastle, and close to where we were staying.
We stopped at this small strip of beach on our way back to Belfast the next day. It was completely empty, as we were the only nutters bracing the cold wind! Other nice beaches along the Coastal Route are Portstewart Strand, Portush Whiterock, Castlerock Beach - and I'm sure some others as well.
Titanic Museum, Belfast
This is one of the best and most moving museums I've ever visited. It begins with a long history of Belfast, showing how it became the shipbuilding centre of the world and why the Titanic was built here. The experience is done tastefully and sensitively - and they've thought of everything, from the 360 degree video of Titanic's interior, to the beautiful architecture of the museum's building. We also took a stroll around Belfast before heading to the airport for our flight home.
When Should You Visit Northern Ireland?
Although my photos look like summer, we went at the beginning of March and there were blue skies every day. I understand this to be a bit of a freak occurrence though and, like much of the UK, anything can happen weather-wise! The ideal time to visit is June-September for best weather (obviously July and August are more crowded). It was amazingly quiet and empty of tourists as it was off-peak - but if you do go at this time of year, be prepared for very cold temperatures and icy winds.
Good luck planning your trip and let me know any questions/comments in the space below.