“Enjoy the trip of a short brutish lifetime.”
“Views to die horribly for.”
These witty travel posters invite you to experience some of Northern Ireland’s most spectacular landscapes where, since 2010, much of the TV blockbuster Game of Thrones has been filmed. I climbed up the steep hill to Castle Ward (Winterfell), clambered over stepping stones in the river at Tollymore Forest Park (The Haunted Forest), ambled round tiny Ballintoy Harbour (Pyke) and was nearly blown off my feet on Portstewart Strand (Dorne). And, of course, sat on the Iron Throne in the centre of the Seven Kingdoms at the Official GOT Touring Exhibition in Belfast – the only place in the UK to host the exhibition.
But Northern Ireland and Ulster are much more than vividly beautiful television locations. Take your own pick of ancient castles, atmospheric abbeys, caves, crags, cliffs, forests and fens. Drive along the Causeway Coastal Route through the Glens of Antrim with its spectacular sea and cliff views up the east coast from Belfast to Portrush where the 148th Open Golf Championship tees off at the legendary windswept links of the Royal Portrush Golf Club in July.
A riot of attractions
Nearby is another famous destination, the Unesco World Heritage Site of the Giant’s Causeway with its hundreds of basalt columns sticking up out of the seashore like so many colossal Lego bricks. This awesome natural phenomenon was formed geologically more than 60 million years ago although local legend has it that the Irish giant Finn McCool was responsible when he exchanged stones in a fight with a rival giant just across the sea in Scotland. Sit in the stone Wishing Chair to make your dreams come true, or scramble over the Giant’s Boot, the Harp or the Organ. Hike one of four colour-coded trails graded from challenging to easy with breathtaking views of jagged cliffs and windswept bays and take time to linger in the award-winning glass and basalt Visitor Centre that blends into the remarkable landscape. Treat yourself to an Irish coffee or home-baked goodies in the café, shop for souvenirs, unique arts and crafts before going up to the grass roof with its 360-degree views of the Causeway coastline.
Also on the Causeway Route is the dramatically sited 1 500-year-old Dunluce Castle, perilously perched on high cliffs overhanging the sea. Once home to hundreds of people, it was a pawn in the battles between The English Crown and the local chieftains. (The chiefs finally won.)
If you’ve a head for heights then venture across the famous Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge that links the mainland to the tiny island of Carrickarede. It spans 20m and sways 30m above the rocks below.
You then might need to drop in to the Bushmills Distillery close by and sample some iconic Irish whiskey. The world’s oldest whiskey distillery, it’s been brewing 80% proof liquor since 1608. Its home-made Irish stew, soda and potato bread are well worth tasting too.
Spring in Northern Ireland is a riot of fresh greenery, wild flowers lining the roads, hedgerows alive with blossom and birds, and woolly white lambs frolicking in fields. Northern Ireland is part of the UK, a separate country from its neighbour the Republic of Ireland, although you can drive seamlessly from one country to another or simply step over a stream or a ditch in most parts to get to the other side.
The Titanic recreated
Belfast, its capital city, is full of stately Victorian buildings such as its massive City Hall, but thousands of visitors flock here for the interactive, immersive Titanic Experience, a global award-winning attraction that showcases the building, fit-out, maiden voyage and sinking of the doomed ship that hit an iceberg in the mid-Atlantic on April 14 1912 and sank with 1 503 passengers perishing in the icy waters. Only 703 survived. She had been advertised as “unsinkable” and it would have cost you the equivalent of $50 000 in today’s money to have travelled first class. It took 3 000 men two years to build her 17 storeys but only took me three hours to explore the ship from boiler room to bridge. You’ll follow a route that takes you from the site where she was built, to a ride that carries you through the racket of rivets as she was welded together, allows you to look inside the first-, second- and third-class cabins, to walk on deck and grip the rail, to listen to the band as the passengers would have enjoyed it, and finally to be plunged into darkness and listen to real-life accounts of survivors and hear the terror when people realised there were not enough lifeboats. Finally in the deepest part of the award-winning building – appropriately a cross between the prow of a ship and an iceberg – you can stand on a glass floor and observe the wreck as it is today. I took control of a remotely operated underwater vehicle and explored the wreck for myself where it lies nearly 4 000m on the floor of the ocean.
About 20km southeast of Belfast I spent an afternoon at Castle Espie Wetland Centre, one of the UK’s top global wetland sites that conserves Ireland’s largest collection of indigenous and exotic waterbirds.
It attracts 90% of the world’s population of light-bellied Brent geese that breed in Canada’s Arctic Circle and then spend the Irish summer on the shores of Strangford Lough. South American cob ducks were waddling happily along accompanied by a pair of our own white-faced whistling ducks. The breeding colony of black-headed gulls on more than 600 nests was deafening.
I enjoyed the hottest Easter weekend on record in Northern Ireland this year but for any season bring warm clothes and a rain jacket. However, you don’t come for the weather. You come for the history, the stunning scenery, the friendly people, the scrumptious local food.
Play golf; hike; go fishing, horse riding or cycling; visit museums, exhibitions and attractions. Whatever you choose to do you’ll enjoy the craic or “crack” – the Gaelic word for simply having a good time.