Welcome to Northern Ireland! This year Cassandra and I visited the stunning Antrim Coast of Northern Ireland. During our research we discovered that Ireland and Northern Ireland are two completely different countries – and they haven’t been on the friendliest of terms the past few decades. Northern Ireland is part of the UK, is mainly Protestant and is loyal to England. The Republic of Ireland is Catholic and rejected England’s influence and sovereignty. The Easter Rebellion of 1916 was the beginning of a long struggle for independence from England. In 1948 an Irish Republic was formed in the south. Northern Ireland remained under British control. 1968 marked the beginning of “the Troubles” – a religious conflict that claimed nearly 4,000 lives. A peace wall was built to divide the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. Tourism opportunities finally brought stability. The Titanic interactive museum opened in Belfast in 2006 and has entertained more than 3 million visitors. When Game of Thrones began filming in 2009 the country reached new levels of fame and prosperity.
We reached Belfast via a one-hour flight from London. We hired McCombs travel to take us on a three-day private tour. McCombs is the same company used by the cast of Game of Thrones. Our driver Steven fought in the Troubles and was a bastion of knowledge. We drove 75 minutes to the Giant’s Causeway, a Unesco World Heritage site on the north coast. Scientists will have you believe the amazing rock formations were caused by a volcanic eruption. The locals know the Causeway was created by dueling giants Finn McCool and his Scottish rival Benandonner. We stayed at the Causeway Hotel, the only hotel inside the park. It’s only a two-minute walk to the impressive visitors center. We hiked an hour round trip on a wintry afternoon and enjoyed the amazing views. The next morning we were blessed with sunshine and took a brilliant walk along the cliffs.
That afternoon we drove along the coast and visited Game of Thrones filming locations. We explored the Dark Hedges (the Kings highway where Arya made her escape from King’s Landing), Ballintoy Harbour (locale for Pyke and the Iron Islands), the Carrick-a-Rede Bridge (where Balon Greyjoy was tossed off by his son Euron) and the Cushendun Caves (where Melisandre gave birth to the shadow baby that slew Renly). We also saw the Bushmills whiskey distillery. They love their whiskey in the north – some locals even put it on their porridge in the morning. We spent the night at the Ballygally Hotel overlooking the Irish Sea. Ballygally had an amazing courtyard with a stream running into the sea and is home to resident ghost Lady Isabella.
The next morning we enjoyed a Bushmills infused Brekkie buffet before driving further south to Strangford Lough. We checked into the Cuan, a delightful family-run bed and breakfast used by the cast of Game of Thrones. We stayed in the Queen Cersei room (actually used by actress Lena Headey). A few minutes later we were greeted by Castle Ward’s Master at Arms Ser William. He was fully dressed in Game of Thrones attire and beckoned with his sword for us to follow him to the GOT bus. Castle Ward is the original filming site for Winterfell Castle. It was also used for the Twins (Walder Frey’s abode – site of the “Red Wedding”) and Robb Stark’s camp. Ser William was entertaining and informative. His special talent is archery and he taught the Game of Thrones cast how to use a long bow. We dressed up in costume for swordplay and archery lessons that afternoon. We tried on White Walker masks and the original helmet donned by the Hound! The grounds were absolutely beautiful and looked out across the narrows. It was brutally cold that day, but like they say, “Winter is Coming”. We celebrated at the Cuan that evening with an authentic Game of Thrones inspired banquet in costumes provide by the hotel – we even had a locally brewed Winterfell Ale!
We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Northern Ireland. It was a bit chilly in November, so bring warm clothes if you visit in the offseason. Hopefully we will make it back again someday!