Northern Ireland is a place that is on the island of Ireland but is a part of the United Kingdom. It’s an island where some of the most popular tours at the moment are related to the filming locations of the Game of Thrones. The coastal road of Northern Ireland is also considered to be one of the most scenic roads in Europe and you can find numerous places that start with “Bally”-something. Ballycastle, Ballyman, Ballymoney, Ballygally, Ballintoy and many others. In Gaelic “baile” means “a place”. So we were headed to all of those small “places” in Northern Ireland!
I started checking the weather forecast exactly two weeks before our trip, and the closer it was to the day of departure, the worst it got. Finally, a day before leaving the forecast was 8-10°C, cloudy and even heavy rain. So, I guess no summer dresses this time around? Packed some hiking boots, several layers of jackets and a hat. No bad weather will stop me from exploring! Hat, by the way, came in handy.
Our journey begins in Dublin, which is not Northern Ireland and also not the final destination of our trip. We leave Dublin and Belfast for some other time. Hearing the name “Belfast”, I remember seeing photos from a demonstration and a story our British friend told us about not having enough garbage cans there for the scare of having bombs placed. Of course, if the bad weather forecast wouldn’t be enough, two weeks before the trip I read that Great Britain has increased the level of possible terrorist attacks to the second highest, for the first time in fifteen years. Doesn’t worry too much me either, as I am only seeing Belfast passing through on M2, heading to the first small town on the coast.
We wait for our transfer bus in the airport to take us to the rental and the guy who picks us up is called… Ainars! A Latvian guy who lives here for the past twelve years and his Latvian is slightly accented, he sounds a bit like those Latvians who were born outside of Latvia and came visiting in the nineties when the country regained freedom. When we want to sit at the back of the bus with the rest of the passengers, he urges us to come sit in front with him.
So we are there, right next to the driver, and see a box of Laima sweets (famous Latvian sweet producer) in the front of us. Ainars is happy to see Latvians and asks us what is it that we would like to see and why did he came here, truly just for sightseeing and not visiting anyone? He smiles and says that usually people don’t ask him if he is from Latvia, as they think he is Polish. Sometimes Germans ask him if he is from the Baltics. He says there are many Latvians working in the airport, same as everywhere else in Ireland. But we don’t meet anyone else during our brief visit, maybe there aren’t so many in Northern Ireland.
When exiting the bus, Ainars tells us how to avoid toll road when returning and be careful driving on the left side of the road! He also warns us of the Irish licence plate on the car, which supposedly “causes trouble there”.
We booked a car in advance online, one of the prerequisites was that we should be able to take it out to Northern Ireland, as, apparently, it’s not a given. We also choose an automatic car this time, as driving on the wrong side of the road, thinking about one more thing can be just a bit too much. First unpleasant surprise is that the rental does want a 2200 eur deposit. If you pay 30 eur more per day, you can get away with smaller deposit, but this would mean paying almost as much as we already paid for the car! The rental also doesn’t care about our additional insurance we have bought online. It’s no US, where you can get something for 20 bucks and drive all you want! When we finally agree to reserve the deposit on the credit card, we go see the car. It’s scratched all over, in some places there is rust. The paperwork doesn’t nearly show all of the scratches, so I head back and makes sure all are there. Seems the deposit might be more than the actual value of the car!
When we leave Dublin, it’s bright sunshine and raining at the same time. It’s also quite warm, and we discover the third unpleasant surprise. The car doesn’t have AC, although it should have had it according to what we booked! It’s also not driving as well as it should, as when we drive 120 km/h on the highway, it’s shaking in a weird way. Driving on the highway isn’t that tricky, but you have to be mindful about staying in your own lane, as the left side of the car doesn’t feel as usual. Also the windshield cleaners stick is on the same side!
The closer we get to Northern Ireland, the more picturesque it gets – meadows all shades of green, separated by bright yellow bushes, dark clouds above our heads and some sunshine. The drive from Belfast to the other side of the coast is about 150 km, but it’s quite narrow and twisty. When we reach the first city, Carrickfergus, where we wanted to see the medieval castle, it’s pouring cats and dogs, so we decide to head on in the hopes of the weather maybe changing. And it does! In fifteen minutes it’s bright blue skies again with a few white clouds, few degrees warmer and a brighter mood. We decide to stop where we feel like it, and if we see a sign. The first such place is the Islandmagee, where there are Gobbins cliffs. It’s a system of bridges and tunnels, created in the 20th century. It has been closed for nearly fifty years, but now is open to all wanting to see the bridges and the cliffs. We decide to drive around the peninsula first and then come back. The roads become narrower with every turn, and the green just sparkles around us! The fields are full of sheep, you see the occasional cow, but there is no stopping here, as it’s is extremely narrow! After a while we see the beautiful Brown’s Bay beach, where there is a place for pick-nicks and to walk the dogs. It has been the most popular visitors area until now, but surely Gobbins is going to take away the honors now. Smells like seaweed and agriculture. Afterwards we see more and more of similar beaches. When we finally get back to Gobbins, it’s pouring again. Seems the clouds are moving in the same direction as we are…
Continuing along the coast, we see many small villages, cities and towns, cliffs and beaches. It’s a Saturday morning, there are families walking, couples, some ducks in the canal. Look just like the ones we have in Latvia, green head and all, just twice as big! When they understand we don’t have any bread with us, they leave. But we are headed to the yacht dock, where the water is so clear and so calm we can see every colorful sea plant growing underwater!
We stop at the road to see sheep, cliffs, observe the clouds in the distance (where it is raining again), but most of the time it’s sunny. The very tip of Northern Ireland is famous for Glenns of Atrim, which are considered to be some of the most beautiful locations on the island. There are nine valleys from the plato to the coast. So far it seems that everything is beautiful in Northern Ireland!
The weather continues to be wonderful and we plan of driving to the Giant’s Causeway in the evening, the main reason we decided to come to Northern Ireland from Dublin. But plans are there to be changed.
At one point the road moves deeper inland and we notice a change right away, mostly in the nature. Some twines around the few trees and ferns make up for a certain ancient feeling. Til the middle ages the island was covered in thick forests, but nowadays they make up for only 11% of the island, when the average in Europe is 35%.
After a few kilometers the scenery changes completely. In the place of soft, green hills there are yellowish-brown field covered in something that looks like grass in winter. There are still sheep nibbling at it, but if feels like it’s October now, in addition it starts to rain and now it’s really cold. We notice a bridge over a brown field, where something is making a bubbling noise. Turns out, this is the Vanishing lake or Loughareema! It’s a lake on a limestone base, which has one only one drainage spot to the ground, sometimes it clogs up and during heavy rain the water level increases here to six meters and even more! The road is right over the lake, and it used to be lower than it is now. There is a story that a colonel and his carriage drove here in 1898, heading to a train and colonel made the horses run over flooded road and the carriage turned over. The legend has it that you can still see the carriage and it’s riders as ghosts. The road is significantly higher up now and there are stone walls around it so noone meets the same end as the colonel did.
The closer we get to the guesthouse, the more weather turns to the worse. No sunset at the Ginat’s Causeway, it seems sure now. So we decide to drive straight to the guesthouse. We are staying at a really nice local place, Causeway Lodge, which is not far from Bushmills. It’s a nice two story house which has everything except the internet (doesn’t work on that day), so I don’t get a chance to check my messages and find that recommended dinner place. Just a few days before the journey I learned that someone I met at a course many years ago, is from this area, and recommended me a place for dinner. I remember it has to do with Mermaids, but I am not even sure which town it is in! I am also surprised to learn that she will have her wedding in Bushmills, in a hotel that I wanted to book for my stay, but there were no rooms left! The world is small after all!
The guesthouse that we are staying in is truly lovely – nice room, it has a teapot and a cookie jar next to it, nice bathrobe, slippers, all seems new, clean and it’s really pleasant to be here. It’s not your regular large hotel chain! The owners granddaughter lets us in, and she also recommends us to go to Portrush, as everything is booked in Bushmills on a Saturday evening. She also says that we shouldn’t worry too much about the weather as this is Northern Ireland and it can change any moment! So we decide to follow her advice and head to Portrush. On the way there are quite a few viewpoints, we even stop in a few, but don’t get out, as it’s pouring as heavily as before.
Finally we are in Portrush, driving around and looking for places when I see the restaurant I was told about – Mermaid! What a coincidence, just to drive in that particular city and accidentally see it! We drive around the block looking for parking spots, but all is completely full. Finally we find a spot nearly 2 kilometers away from the restaurant. It’s at the ocean, and we notice that the weather is finally improving. Maybe we do have a chance for some sunset pictures? We quickly run to a supermarket to grab a few sandwiches and when we exit just five minutes later, it’s still raining but sun is shining too. There must be a rainbow somewhere! We quickly drive to the viewpoints along the road and we see it – the brightest one I have ever seen and another one right next to it! I immediately remember the stories about leprechauns and buried pots with gold under the rainbows!
We see cliffs, bright blue sea and sun-rays piercing through the cloud cover. Where to run, what to take pictures of? Sunset isn’t that long away, so we drive to Ballycastle and through to the highest point in the area. We see sun disappearing behind the sea, bright pink clouds and islands in the distance, behind those is Scotland. As we weren’t planning to do a photo-expedition this evening, I don’t have any of my warm clothes with me, so soon I am very cold and my feet are wet, it’s only +9°C and doesn’t feel so good. But we saw an amazing sunset with green fields full of sheep, small, big, brown and white! Wet and cold we are very happy about our drive around the coast. As always, the best camera is the one you have with you, and of course, we didn’t leave ours behind in the guesthouse!
Giant’s Causeway is one of the most well known places in Northern Ireland, part of the UNESCO world heritage list since 1986. Why is this place so special? Approximately 60 million years ago this was a very active volcano spot, and when it erupted, the liquid basalt went through the layer of chalk and formed a plato. When lava cooled down, cracks formed and unusual hexagon columns formed. This is the main reason why thousands of people visit this place every day. The Irish legend is almost as interesting as the historic one. Over the sea, at Scottish Staffa island there are similar columns, formed from the same path of lava, so one of the legends says that this was a causeway for giant’s destroyed by Bennandonder, when he run away from Fion. And the story also says that Fion actually scared his oponent by pretending to be a child, so Bennandonder thought that if Fions child is so large, how huge is Fion!
If you want to see the Giant’s Causeway, you have to pay the entrance fee which is 9 pounds. It’s actually the entrance fee to the visitors center and not the park itself! You have parking included in the ticket, as well as there is a cafe on the grounds, souvenir shop and restrooms.
It’s quite quiet here in the morning, but the closer it gets to midday, the more people show up. The mile long pathway can either be walked or you can take a bus which costs 3 pounds. We see the changing weather here as well. At times skies are grey and covered in clouds, it’s raining a bit, then it clears out and columns are shining in the sun. Hat, hoodie and many coats do come in handy here. This really is a place to come back to at sunset! An employee tells us that we can park the car in the parking lot further up, that noone pays any attention to it this late, and we also have a ticket valid for 24 hours. We meet some of the local photographers later in the evening who drive to the very end of the Causeway, and not the 20 min walk parking lot where we left the car! Actually, if you come during the day, it’s enough for one person to park the car, the tickets are checked at the exit from the parking lot, so you don’t pay per person.
The evening is chilly and we see many bunnies in the fields, the grass sparkling in the evening sun and skies clearing up. There aren’t too many visitors here in the evening, mostly professional photographers and some Japanese tourists, who are dressed in hotel bath robes in layers, trying to snap a quick picture.
The coast of Northern Ireland is a very popular destination for the fans of Games of Thrones, as we see many signs indicating that some of the places have been in the series. Since we don’t watch it yet, we only compare our pictures to the ones online, and truly, most of the memorable places have made it to the series! They have filmed at Dunluce and Dunsaverick ruins, exactly where we saw the double rainbow!
Also Dark Hedges has made and appearance, with 18th century beech trees. The alley is really impressive, but most visitors don’t think twice about parking right in the middle of it, ruining the sight for everyone on the opposite side, and the waiting on each other to leave at last to make a picture with no people in the alley. There is a parking spot nearby, so visitors really should use that one.
Another famous location is Carrick-a-Rede rope-way bridge. From 1755 til 2002 this bridge was set up every spring by local fishermen from the cliffs to the nearby island, this helping to catch 300 salmon a day. Unfortunately, in 2002 only 300 salmon were caught during the whole season, so this bridge is no longer used for fishing. The reason for the good fishing spot was the deeper water at the island than at the shore, and migrating salmon would choose that spot.
The name of the bridge comes from Carraig a’ Ráid or “the stone in the way”. The bridge used to have only one side of handles and large gaps between boards, but it’s very safe today. Still, a few people each year have to be taken away by boat from here, as they are not able to make the way back on the 20 m long bridge suspended at 30 m height. This definitely is not the spot to find out you are scared of heights! But crossing the bridge definitely is worth it, there are seagull nests in the cliffs and other birds, beautiful blue, transparent water, and if you get lucky, you can see dolphins and sharks here!
Finally, if TV series are not your thing, another place to visit is the Bushmills town, the place of Bushmills Whiskey Distillery. Bushmills is the oldest distillery in the Ireland. Although the brand is in use since 1784, the first licence to a local producer was granted in 1608. The water for whiskey is taken from the local Saint Column Rill river. The distillery is very strictly enforcing no filming, no pictures and no smoking rule on its property. Although modern camera’s aren’t known to spark, the owners don’t want to take any chances. The tours to the distillery are quite popular, so you might end up waiting a few hours til it’s your turn, so you can eat some lunch in cafeteria meanwhile. You can learn about angels share (the part of whiskey slowly evaporating from the barrel), you can smell a barrel that has been empty for dozens of years, but still smells like whiskey, you will be introduced to several types of whiskey and get to try one as well.
Interestingly, the barkeep at the distillery didn’t know what is the legal limit alcohol in Northern Ireland. One said that the small glass they give you for trying is enough, another one said that it’s safer not to finish it. I checked, and the limit is 35 micrograms to 100ml expired. Also, an interesting fact is that Bushmills still bottles Jameson too, as these used to be part of the same company.
A few days later I meet a British guy I know, and he says I must be the first person that he has ever heard of visiting Northern Ireland for holiday. But we weren’t nearly the only tourists there. Despite the changing weather, we saw a lot of French students, and, of course, Japanese. We also saw a lot of Irish licence plates and noone gave us any trouble for ours. We saw the Latvian guy Ainars on the way back as well, so he was working again, but this time we took a different bus on the way to the airport, as he had just arrived.
I will always remember the small tiny towns of Northern Ireland, picturesque cliffs, the wide green fields with sheep and bunnies, bright yellow bushes and beautiful sea. Seems Northern Ireland doesn’t have a large variety of color, but the ones it has a much brighter than anywhere else in the world!
As always, all pictures by Jekabs Andrushaitis.