Where did I go: Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland
When did I go: January 2017
No trip to Northern Ireland is complete without a visit to the Giant’s Causeway. A World Heritage site, the Giant’s Causeway is about 1.5 hours drive away from Belfast. It comes in at number 103 on the Lonely Planet Ultimate Travelist.
We wanted to make a day trip to the Giant’s Causeway from Belfast during our visit there. After debating whether to hire a car and self drive or join a tour, we opted for the latter and joined a day trip to Giant’s Causeway with McComb’s Coach tours.
The coach picked us up from central Belfast near the bus and coach station around 9.30 a.m. The coach driver Patrick, also doubled up as our tour guide.
Our first stop was Carrickfegus, about 15-20 minutes outside Belfast. This is an anglo-saxon built castle, dating back to the 12th century. This was only a 15 minute stop, more as a bathroom break before we embarked on the 2 hour drive up the coastal causeway.
After the stop in Carrickfegus, we headed on to the Coastal Causeway. The Coastal Causeway is a scenic drive along the coast from Carrickfegus towards Belfast. It goes through the nine Glens of Antrim, winding between picturesque villages and scenic locations. On a clear day, you can also see the nearest point to Scotland – the island of mull 13 miles away. The route peaks at the Giant’s Causeway on the North Antrim coast, before continuing west toward the walled city of Derry/Londonderry.
Our guide, Patrick explained that the road was first built so that inhabitants along the North coast could head to Belfast and the South of Ireland. Apparently, the coastal inhabitants of northern Ireland didn’t like to go inland when heading South – they would instead take a boat and go by sea. So the coastal causeway was built so that they can come South, but still stay by the sea.
Overall, it was a 40 mile trip and took about 1 hour 45 minutes. We also got to see the location used to film castle black in the game of thrones.
Tip: Sit on the right hand side of the coach (or whatever vehicle you are in) for the best views. We didn’t, so the photos are a bit rubbish!
Carrick-a-rede rope bridge
After the coastal causeway drive, our next stop was the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge (locally pronounced carrick-a-reedy). This is a famous rope bridge near Ballintoy in County Antrim. The bridge links the mainland to the tiny island of Carrickarede. It was first built by fishermen who crossed over to Carrickarede island to catch salmon. The rock formations around the island meant that it was very fertile fishing ground. There is no longer any fishing here (mainly because there is no fish), but the bridge stayed on as tourist attraction.
From the car park, there is about 20 minute walk along the coastal clifftop to get to the bridge. The scenery is along the route is really beautiful.
The bridge is about 20 meters long, and hangs about 30 metres (98 ft) above the rocks below. The bridge is maintained by the National Trust. The walk upto the bridge is free, but if you want to cross the bridge, there is a £7.00 fee.
Our stop here was only 1 hour, which turned out to be really tight. It was 20 minutes to the bridge and 20 minutes back and if you are crossing the bridge, you need at least 30 minutes – primarily because you have to queue for about 10 minutes to cross the bridge on the either side.
Next, it was the lunch stop at Fullerton Arms. This is a mile or so from the rope bridge. The pub has a Game of Thrones connection. The nearby Ballintoy harbour played the fictional town of Lordsport in the Isle of Pyk Harbour. Fullerton Arms provided board and lodging for some of the crew. They even have an Iron Throne on which you can sit and take photos (and plot your world domination plans :))
The lunch was good, but nothing to write home about. It was well organised – we were given the menu on the coach during the coastal drive and gave our lunch order to the coach driver at the rope bridge. Lunch was all ready when we turned up at the pub an hour later. Lunch was a 50 minute stop. You don’t have to have lunch here, but there is no where else in the vicinity that you could have lunch, especially in the middle of winter. You can of course bring your own picnic.
After lunch, our next stop was at the Old Bushmills Distillery in Bushmills, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Dating back to 1608, it is reportedly the oldest distillery in Ireland. This was only a 30 minute stop, so there was no time for a tour, just a visit to the distillery shop. You could have a sampling experience with 3 whiskies, but we felt that 30 minutes wasn’t really enough to do justice to 3 whiskies, so we didn’t try this.
The distillery is also home to the special “Black Bush” label whisky, which is a limited edition whisky only sold at the distillery itself. It is not sold anywhere else in the world. Here you can also buy a whiskey with your own customised label.
Finally, we were at the main attraction – the Giant’s Causeway. It had taken us all day to finally get there (we started at 9.30 a.m. and now it was 3 p.m.) but it was worth the wait. Made up of over 40,000 basalt columns, all hexagonally shaped Giant’s Causeway was truly a nature’s marvel.
The legend is that Fin McCool, the Irish giant built this to cross over to Scotland. It is possible to believe that there was a causeway here at some point, as similar basalt columns can be seen in Northern Scotland around Fingal’s cave. Also, all of the basalt column as so uniform, you can’t help but wonder if there is any truth too the legend.
The main part of the causeway is spread over a relatively small area, but there are many path and walkways to explore. You could easily spend half a day here.
The causeway is quite slipper and wet, so good shoes are a must. The sea comes up right to the end of the causeway and there are no safety barriers around, so you really need to take care when taking that selfie.
The causeway is about 20 minute downhill walk from the car park. You will of course have to go back uphill on the return. If you don’t want to walk this, there are shuttle buses running that will take you to and from the causeway to the car park. There is a £1 charge per ride.
Next to the car park, there is also a visitor centre, managed by the National Trust. There is an entry fee to the visitor centre. Visiting the causeway itself was free.
We had a 2 hour stop here from 3 p.m to 5 p.m. This was the last stop on the tour and we headed back to Belfast. We were back in for 6.30 p.m. and the coach dropped us at the same place as the pick up.
First, the not so good bits.
- Given that the Giant’s Causeway was the raison d’etre for the tour, we didn’t get to spend a lot of time there. Since we got there around 3 p.m. (in mid-winter), we only really had 1 hour of daylight to see it. I felt that the tour could have either given a miss to the distillery or the rope bridge and spent the extra time at the Giant’s Causeway. This wouldn’t be a problem from summer tours, given the long daylight hours, but perhaps a cut-down tour for the winter may be a better option.
- The itinerary for the day was slightly different to what was advertised – the itinerary said lunch at Bushmills distillery, but instead the lunch was at the Fullerton’s arms. If the lunch stop had been at the distillery, we would have time time for a distillery tour, and also saved more time for the Giant’s Causeway.
- The coach company offers a guided walking tour at the Giant’s Causeway for an additional £5, which we went on. The tour starts at the car park and the guide will walk you down to the causeway, stopping at several points along the way to tell you about the history of the cause way and its geology. Although very informative, going on this tour does mean that your arrival at the Giant’s Causeway will be delayed even more. What is usually a 20 minutes walk from the car park to the causeway, becomes 45 minutes – if you’ve been waiting all day to see the causeway, the extra 25 minutes will seem like a lifetime! It also means that your time at the Giant’s Causeway will be even more limited. Again, I think it is a good idea for the summer when there is plenty of sunshine and long days , but not for the dead of winter, when days are short and the nights come early.
- The 1 hour stop for the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge was far too tight – it takes 20 minutes to walk there and back and 30 minutes to cross the bridge and back. Also I would only recommend doing it can if you are reasonably fit and can walk briskly.
Now, the good points:
- The trip was good value for money. We bought the two giant’s ticket option, which provided a combined giants causeway day trip and a entry to the Titanic Belfast museum for £30.00, saving £12.50.
- Our driver/guide, Patrick was really good. He was very friendly, knowledgeable and kept the tour well organised and together for the whole day. He had plenty of jokes too, and only a few of them were bad. 🙂
- Going on the coach tour meant that it was hassle free, and we didn’t have to worry about SatNavs, maps, driving or parking. The ride was comfortable and we could relax and watch the scenery go by.
The giant’s causeway is definitely worth a visit. It is a natural wonder unlike any I have ever seen. The Coastal Causeway drive was great as well, and definitely the most scenic (although not the shortest) way from Belfast to the Giant’s Causeway. The rope bridge and the distillery are interesting, but I didn’t feel they were worth going out of the way to visit.
Whether I would choose to go by coach again, I’m not so sure. It is great value for money if there is only one (or may be two) of you. If there are 3 or 4 of you, hiring a car for a day would be more cost effective, and it also gives you the flexibility to decide your own itinerary.