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Exploring Northern Ireland’s Magnificent Coastal Routes

avatar dylan.thomson
Posted on 6 Dec 2023

From the breath-taking Giants Causeway to the fascinating history of Derry and Hillsborough Castle, Rabbie’s own Dylan reviews the 3-Day Causeway Coast, Derry & Fermanagh Lakelands tour.

Northern Ireland. A land steeped in myth and majesty. It invites explorers to uncover its hidden gems and embrace the warmth of its people. Just the thought of this region conjures visions of dramatic landscapes, ancient castles, and a culinary scene that rivals the best. And let me tell you, the reality is just as enchanting.

When you explore Northern Ireland, you're not just traversing its stunning coastlines or wandering through its historic sites; you're immersing yourself in the essence of the place. The laid-back atmosphere envelops you like a familiar embrace, and the locals, with their infectious friendliness, make you feel like you've found a home away from home.

Picture it: endless vistas of rolling emerald hills and rugged cliffs that plunge into the roaring sea. There's a certain magic in the air, a tranquillity that comes from being surrounded by nature at its most awe-inspiring. It's as if time holds still, allowing you to savour each moment and appreciate the beauty that unfolds at every turn.

Now, I have been to the region before… but I was three years old. So this was as good as new to me. So many places that I have been longing to visit and explore now that I can fully appreciate it… and what a journey.

Day 1: Belfast to Portrush along the Coastway Coastal Route

We started our first day of the tour by leaving Belfast and taking the incredible causeway coastal route to the North, and let me tell you, this is one of world’s greatest drives. I’ve done the Icelandic ring road and the North Coast 500, which for me are pretty much perfect. This is another one to add to that list. Rugged, raw, beautiful. Every winding turn on the coast showed off amazing physical landscapes, and every stop along the way seemed to get better and better.

ireland tour

After stopping at charming coastal towns with beaches a plenty, we made our first major stop (for me) – the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge. Suspended 30 meters above the crashing waves, it connects the mainland to a small island and has a history that stretches back over 350 years. Initially crafted by intrepid fishermen, the bridge served as a means to accessing to fertile waters around the coast. What started as a practical necessity has now evolved into a symbol of Northern Ireland's rich maritime heritage.

Stopping at the viewpoint high above, you truly see the scale of it… kind of terrifying, if I’m honest. Those brave enough can make the crossing, which you sure don’t want to be doing on a windy day. It was quite a nice moment for me. One of my first ever memories was doing the crossing on a family holiday to region when I was very young. Oh, to be young and naïve.

ireland tour

Our final stop along the coast seen us arrive at the Giants Causeway. I’m still a geology nerd at heart…and when in the presence of one of the worlds greatest natural wonders, that comes out. The interlocking columns create an otherworldly landscape, like a jigsaw for the gods… it’s as fascinating as it is gorgeous.

Beyond its scientific wonder, the Giants Causeway is also a very mythical place. The most famous tale centers around the giant Finn McCool, who, according to folklore, built the causeway to reach his Scottish rival across the Irish sea on the Isle of Staffa. As you stand amidst the stones, it's easy to envision the giant's footsteps, adding a layer of magic to this already enchanting setting.

ireland tour

Our final stop of the day was spent in an area of quiet farmland. Now, who would have thought a small road with some trees would be one of Northern Ireland’s most notable sights. When you put it this way, it may not sound all that interesting, but I promise you, The Dark Hedges are so much more than that. The avenue of intertwined beech trees create a tunnel-like canopy that seems like a corridor leading to another realm. Sunlight filters through the dense foliage, creating a captivating interplay of light and shadow. To summarise, it’s basically a photographers dream – I was in my element.

ireland tour

Day 2: Derry/Londonderry & Enniskillen

The first stop of the day was the historic city of Derry (Londonderry) and what better way to get a view over the city than taking a stroll along its iconic city walls. Standing the test of time from the early 17th century, these fortifications not only encircle the city but also encapsulate the spirit of resilience that defines Derry.

Now, we can’t talk about Derry without also mentioning the Troubles. It’s hard to imagine this peaceful, quaint place thrust into chaos… but walking amongst the many murals dotted around the city, we are reminded of this recent bleak part of its history.

ireland tour

A walk through the Bogside neighborhood here is a must. This is where most of the murals are and is one of the most fascinating walks I’ve ever done in my life. I studied this area of Irish history in school and it was incredible to see for myself the stories of those who lived through it. The extraordinary outdoor gallery, transforms the neighborhood’s walls into canvases that vividly narrate the story of the Troubles. Each mural is a masterpiece of visual storytelling, capturing the raw emotions, aspirations, and challenges faced by the community. I honestly feel like explaining this can’t do it justice, it really has to be seen to be felt.

ireland tour

Although, for any Derry Girls fans out there (guilty)… the most fun part of Derry is stopping off at the multiple locations from the show around the city, and if you want, you can even get a cream horn in the name of Granda Joe.

ireland tour

The rest of our day was spent nestled amongst the lush Northern Irish countryside at Ulster American Folk Park. This unique open air museum is dedicated to learning about the experiences of Irish immigrants setting sail for America in the 18th and 19th centuries. The whole place is so engaging and informative. It really takes you through the entire journey and makes you feel like you are on the same voyage those would have done all those years ago. Authentic homesteads, complete with original furnishings and period-accurate artifacts, recreate the humble abodes of those who left their homeland for the promise of a better future.

The highlight of the park is undoubtedly the meticulously recreated ship, where you can step aboard and experience the cramped conditions and emotions that accompanied the transatlantic voyage. It is truly eye-opening. Being in the countryside and surrounded by farmland, there are lots of animals wandering around the park too… expect to see lots of chickens and donkeys. Mix this with the fresh air of the countryside and you get a glorious day out.

ireland tour

Day 3: County Armagh & Hillsborough

Our final day was the start of our journey back to Belfast… it’s always sad knowing a trip has to come to an end, but we still had more places to explore. Our first stop was the charming town of Armagh. Armagh wears its history proudly, evident in the architectural marvels that grace its streets. The twin cathedrals, St. Patrick's Church of Ireland and St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Cathedral, stand as iconic symbols of the city's heritage. The latter and its grounds were particularly impressive.

ireland tour

Onwards to our final stop of the tour to explore Hillsborough Castle and its magnificent gardens. Currently the royal residence in Northern Ireland, the castle has played host to many world leaders, and dignitaries, each leaving their mark on its storied halls. Learning of all those who have visited is seriously impressive. Unfortunately no pictures are allowed inside the castle (but that just means you’ll have to come see it for yourself).

For me however, the gardens stole the show. They are nothing short of a horticultural masterpiece. Lush greenery and vibrant blooms as far as you care to roam. My favourite spot was Lady Alice’s Temple… just as you thought it couldn’t get any more tranquil, this lovely shaded spot provides sweeping views over a good chunk of the gardens and is absolutely glorious. I could have stayed and photographed this area for hours on end, but it was time to finish up.

ireland tour

Like I mentioned earlier, the Causeway Coastal Route is one seriously gorgeous drive. Mix that with the gripping history of Derry and the lush gardens of Hillsborough Castle and you have, in my opinion, a perfect three day getaway. If this sounds up your street, check out the tour here.