For urbane hustle and a thriving bar and food scene stay in Belfast – see my next post for a spotlight on this city! This city is the perfect base to explore the neighbouring countryside from or at least to begin a journey from. We stayed in the lovely Malmaison hotel. This is a cool chain hotel, part of the same group as Hotel du Vin, and is reliably good, usually with a decent bistro and cocktail bar attached.
If you’d like to manage your trip yourself, hire a car or a mini van and plan your route. You can stretch this out over 5 days, exploring the glens and coastal routes in depth, or condense it down into a day trip like we did. The Northern Ireland Tourism Board website has a number of itineraries to suit every trip (link here).
Alternatively, you can relax into a guided tour. We used the lovely Dee Morgan of Dee Tours of Ireland (link here), insanely knowledgeable and friendly. Specific Game of Thrones tours are also available for those hardcore “Thronies” (link here).
Driving along the general countryside alone is spectacular. The road hugs the coast line, displaying the North Atlantic Ocean and rugged cliffs beautifully as you drive. The trip would be fabulous in the summer, yet is just as awesome in the winter with the sea wild, grey and foreboding. We went in November and it was very atmospheric. Occasionally the road winds inwards, passing through quaint villages and fording picturesque rivers, such as Glenarm River, and glens, such as by the village of Waterfoot.
Nevertheless, the food here is great. Its chef served at the passes of both Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck, and Chez Bruce and brings all this michelin skill to cooking homely, utterly delicious local seafood. For me, this little spot is as much an attraction as parts of the Causeway itself and should be a lunch spot on every itinerary.
This is a stretch of coastline tiled with a tens of thousands strong mosaic of basalt, hexagonal columns formed by an ancient volcanic eruption. Each is identical and together they look almost otherworldly, juxtaposed against the surrounding cliffy landscape and Atlantic sea. The area is so beautiful that it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.
Stories aside, it’s an extraordinary place and makes for a spectacular walk. Watch yourselves in winter – the winds can get very high and although this is tremendously atmospheric, with sea foam flying around like confetti, it can almost push even adults over! They reached a whopping 60 miles an hour when I visited! Luckily the site has a swanky new tourist centre where they’ll advise about weather conditions and tell the legend of the causeway in full, interactive glory. Entrance to the centre, an audio guide and a shuttle bus to the causeway (although the walk is lovely) comes to £8.50.
If exploring from Belfast, the Malmaison is a solid choice. Room start at £85 for a double per night.
Along the causeway at Ballymena is the very swanky Galgorm Resort and Spa. This ultra luxurious resort, set on 163 acres of green parkland with the River Maine winding through it, is a steal at rooms from £95. The spa is wonderful with 10+ different temperature thermal rooms, including a caldarium and a snow cave, decked out with real snow.
Fine Dining: Ox Belfast – this one michelin star restaurant was voted the ‘Hottest Restaurant to visit in Western Europe’ 2015 in the World’s Best 50 Restaurant awards. My next post goes into more detail on this star studded eatery – but trust me…it’s fabulous.
Pub Grub: The Garrick is a quintessential old man’s pub near St George’s Market serving up good pub grub, including the best champ in Belfast! For those who haven’t tried champ – it’s essentially buttery mashed potato with spring onion. Simple but fabulous.
Italian: Coppi restaurant is a wonderful and chic Italian bistro near the Cathedral. Try the feta fritters with truffle honey – to die for.
Meat Meat Meat: James Street Bar and Grill -this is a sleek bistro serves up an awesome selection of local Northern Irish beef, including the famous Peter Hannan’s Himalayan Salt Aged Beef (winner of multiple awards and truly spectacular).
Grandeur: The Merchant Hotel is a grand old Victorian 5* hotel in central Belfast with a bar and restaurant, plus afternoon tea in its ornate Great Room Restaurant.
Harry’s Shack – this restaurant is truly insane. I’d detour from Belfast to eat here for lunch. The most delicious seafood and seasonal cooking. It currently doesn’t hold a liquor license so BYOB and make sure you check out the weather forecast (or call ahead) as due to its placement literally ON the beach it closes during high storms.
River Room at the Galgorm Estate -this is a 3 AA Rosette lauded restaurant (one of only 4 in Northern Ireland) serving up modern Irish cuisine in an elegant setting. The menus are refined and include 2 tasting menu options (5 or 7 courses).