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Me on the Giant's Causeway

 

 

Wild comes in all kinds of forms. Earlier this year I visited the tropics of wild Sarawak Borneo to explore its deepest jungles, most winding rivers. Far flung and foreign, it was undeniably wild. However, such wilderness can be found much closer to home too, as I discovered recently on a trip to Northern Ireland. Here, within a mere £40 return flight from London, can prehistoric landscapes and majesty be found to rival those anywhere in the world. My blog below describes my visit there, and how to best explore it comfortably and, of course, well fed._
Although I’ve been to Ireland before, this was my first trip to Northern Ireland and its capital, Belfast. It’s the perfect distance for a mini break, merely a 40 minute flight hop over into Belfast airport from London, and the flights are usually between £40-50 for a return.
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.

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The next day it was up bright and early for a stonking breakfast, and off to begin our tour of the Northern Irish countryside via the famous Causeway Coast and Glens road trip, rated one of the top 5 in the world for its striking countryside and ocean views. The landscape is so wild and un-ruined that it was chosen as the filming location for the hit TV show Game of Thrones and indeed, fans can see the sets for many of the show’s iconic scenes along the way.
How to do the route:
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).

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Views from the route

 

 

The Route:
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.

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We passed by Carnlough Harbour and paused to take in its cute little fishing boats, before passing on to the Caves of Cushendun. These have been carved out of the coastline cliffs by eons of wind and waves, forming a series of dark, meandering caves. Here was where the Game of Thrones scene was filmed in which the Red Priestess gives birth to the shadow creature.

 

 
 
Carnlough Harbour

Caves of Cushendun

 
On we passed to Carrick a Rede and its famous rope bridge. For the brave only, this rope bridge traverses an 80 foot chasm, the stormy sea below, between the mainland and a tiny island. It was originally constructed as a precarious access point to a prime salmon fishing spot, and now stands as a key tourist attraction (open when high winds allow it!). Carrick Island itself offers bird watching and     fantastic views over neighbouring Rathlin Island and, on a clear day, Scotland!

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Rathlin Island from the quarry

 

 

On past Ballintoy Harbour, well worth a photo stop, we stopped by at the old Limestone Quarry at Larrybane where several of the fighting scenes of Game of Thrones were filmed, before pressing on to see Dunluce Castle. This craggy ruins frames a cliff top above Mermaids Cave, where accordingly to local myth a soldier was once lured by a beautiful mermaid, and is one of the Causeway’s iconic views. I’m told that you can occasionally even see the Northern Lights from here which would be very special indeed.

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Next, past the white sand beaches of Portrush (excellent for surfing, I’m told) and to our lunch destination at Portstewart, Harry’s Shack. This is exactly what it says on the tin: a shack, and one perched on the white sands of Portstewart Beach. As fabulous a view as this offers, it’s open to the elements and is often closed due to storms. Indeed, a more unlikely spot for such a monumental feed, you’d be hard pressed to find.
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.

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Bolstered by some of the best food I’ve eaten in a while, it was on to our main attraction and the most popular tourist destination for the road trip: The Giant’s Causeway.
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.

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Unsurprisingly, local legend has sprung up around this site and stories tell of an ancient battle between 2 Irish and Scottish giants, who constructed (then broke up) a bridge between the two mainlands to get at each other!
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.

 

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Where to stay:
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.

 

 
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View from one of many spa rooms, perched over the river!

 
Where to eat:

Belfast
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.

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Ox Belfast

 

 

 

 

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James St Bar and Grill

 

 

 

 

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Coppi

 

 

 

 

 

 

Portstewart
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.

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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).

 

 

 
 
 
Now that I’m back in London and my emerald green glow is slowing dimming, I think back about my trip to this Causeway road trip with great fondness and not a little longing. This really is a special piece of wild Mother Earth, as spectacular and fickle as you like; savage green and iron grey sea by Winter, soft olive glens and cobalt ocean by Summer yet indeed, beautiful by every season. It makes me feel ever more adventurous just by being a mere 40 minutes hop from it. Take the leap and try it out.

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