Exploring Northern Ireland in style - the ultimate road trip
Updated: Oct 26, 2019
For my 4th visit to Ireland in 2 years, after having visited the Cork region, Belfast and Dublin already, about which you can read more here: Belfast top 7, Colorful Cork and Top 5 South West Ireland, this time I had my mind set on a Northern Ireland road trip to explore more of the rugged coastlines.
You might have noticed that I love a good road trip, and the Causeway Coastal Route in Northern Ireland certainly meets that definition!
Also known as one of the most beautiful coastal routes in Europe, running almost 200 miles along the coast from Belfast to Londonderry, this rugged route has everything from castles, historic, Unesco and GOT Sites, to lots of scenic views, stunning landscapes and beaches. But also cute coastal towns, authentic whiskey distilleries, quaint inns and picturesque harbors.
Inspired by Game of Thrones and other historical series and movies filmed in these settings, I was excited to follow in the footsteps of these characters and couldn't wait to capture its beauty on camera. When you think of rugged cliffs, countryside views and moody weather the first wardrobe suggestion that comes to mind would probably be warm waterproof clothing and wind jackets! But not for me;)
As a fashion, photography and movie fanatic first thing that came to my mind in these settings were; colorful gowns, long flowy dresses and dramatic capes. And although not the warmest or comfortable options, they do make a pretty picture in contrast with the rugged and authentic scenery of Northern Ireland, and that is why I decided to explore this region in style, for a bit of classy fun.
No worries, I wasn't cold all the time and did not get a pneumonia;) I always layered up and although we experienced 4 seasons in just 5 days, we were lucky to catch some sunny dry spells at well, resulting in a big variation of pictures.
Find our exact route in this custom Google Map with all the sites we visited, which you can now follow as well (click on the letters to follow all the sights we visited from day to day).
And to give you an even better taste of the diversity of this route I made a 3 minute video to show you all the rugged beauty we have seen and experienced on our 5 day trip through Northern Ireland, including County Fermanagh and Newcastle (best viewed in mobile/vertical mode):
Next to that I will share more of my own pics of all the towns, sights and hotels we visited here below with some in depth info, as I can highly recommend all of it.
From Belfast Airport to our first hotel was just a 40 minutes’ drive and following the route along the east coast we immediately drove past our first Norman castle from the 17th century. It played an important role in the protection of this coastline for 800 years, and is quiet, rugged and beautiful as you can see here:
This 17th century castle hotel with 54 rooms is situated at the beginning of the Causeway Coastal Route, overlooking Ballygally Bay with views over the Irish Sea directly from our room!
The perfect base to start our 5 day adventure and coastal route from, and with its quiet location, private free parking, its unique historic building, with even a renowned ghost room, ancient walled garden, and gourmet restaurant, this hotel has everything we had in mind for a Northern Ireland castle hotel!
From here it was a short drive along the coast to the cute harbor town of:
Glenarm & Glenariff Forest
Driving from Ballygally past the Glens of Antrim, you can discover many small coastal towns with hidden gems and stunning views all around, like Carnlough, Cushendall and Cushendun.
We stopped by Glenarm, which looked very charming with its rocky rugged beach, the quaint village wrapped around it, and the hills behind it all green and yellow with those signature Irish landscapes and shrubs. One of the main attractions here is the Glenarm Castle with its big walled garden, which should be well worth a visit, even though the entrance is not cheap.
We decided to go on to the beautiful nature area of Glenariff Forest instead. Just a 10 minutes' drive off the Causeway Coastal Route, and well worth it if you love quiet nature walks and easy hiking trails that lead you past the occasional waterfall. This lush and colorful setting felt like an enchanted forest where pixies and leprechauns could appear anytime!
Torr Head & Murlough Bay
Driving on to the eastern tip of Northern Ireland we couldn’t resist taking a detour off the main Causeway Coastal Route to Murlough Bay.
Here we drove past a lookout point called Torr Head with a mystical 19th century ruin at the top, offering stunning views over Fair Head, Rathlin Island and the Antrim and Scottish coastlines on a clear day. As one of the closest locations in NI to Scotland, just 13 miles across the sea, this unique spot should not be missed in my opinion.
Carrick-a-Rede Rope bridge
More to the north there is another special site, perfect to truly experience the real heritage and unique landscapes of Northern Ireland. This historical rope bridge is one of the key attractions of the route, protected by the National Trust, connecting Northern Ireland to the tiny island of Carrickarede. Once built by local fishermen over 350 years ago for the good salmon fishing conditions around the island.
Spanning across a 20 metre gap, 30 meters above the sea, crossing this bridge is not for the faint at heart, and can only be done with a maximum of 15 people at a time. But it is quite steady and next to the photogenic bridge itself, the scenery and views upon the stunning white cliffs and surrounding islands are well worth the small entrance fee and 30 minutes’ hike.
After this very active sightseeing day we were happy to check into a real Irish boutique hotel with its own award-winning restaurant, bar and even a cinema.
This charming 4 star hotel is perfectly located along the Causeway Coast near several historic, Unesco and Game of Thrones filming sites, in the center of the small village of Bushmills, home to the world’s oldest Whiskey Distillery, dating back to 1608.
A very atmospheric place, with beautiful rooms, great food and most importantly the perfect location, just a 10 minutes’ drive from the main attraction of our road trip:
The Giant’s Causeway
This Unesco World Heritage Site is the only one of its kind in Northern Ireland and where the coastal route got its name from. Obviously makes it a must visit, but the stunning scenery of huge cliffs along the coast and the site’s unique geological feature of 40,000 hexagonal basalt columns that form a staircase-like pathway to the sea, make it even more so!
Whether this place was created by an Irish giant as legend has it, or lava pouring into the sea fifty million years ago still beg to differ, but it does make an iconic and very interesting site that will certainly impress and is fun to explore.
I recommend to come early (before 10 am) when it’s still quiet and walk to the site with a guide from the visitor center, to learn more about its history, enjoy the gorgeous views along the way and look out for the distinctive formations of the Camel, the Wishing Chair and the Harp.
Make sure to check out the innovative award winning £18 million sustainable Visitor Centre as well, for more interesting information, lots of fun facts, myths and legends about this iconic site.
From here we drove on to several historic sites along the Northern coast which I found stunning, but see for yourself if you agree:
Mussenden Temple & Downhill beach
We decided to cut off our northern route here to explore more of the rural countryside and center of Northern Ireland, recommended to me by a local Irish friend. We drove south through the scenic setting of the Sperrin Mountains and onto County Fermanagh during a 2,5 hour drive to:
Ireland’s only island town, located in between the twin lakes of Lough Erne, covering one-third of Fermanagh. These watery surroundings provide endless photo opportunities and a wide range of water based activities, such as island-hopping, water skiing and boat tours.
Of course we explored the lakes by boat, and we were happy to stay at one of the finest 5 star hotels of this region, located between the Lower Lough and Castle Hume Lough:
Lough Erne Resort
Situated on a 600 acre peninsula with scenic views of the Fermanagh Lakelands, the multi-award winning Lough Erne Resort provides something for everyone.
It was the host venue for the G8 Summit in 2013, features 120 rooms and suites, serves excellent food in several restaurants, offers a complimentary Thai Spa with stunning views over the lake, and extensive 36-hole Golf Course.
If you’re not into golfing you can take a boat tour from the resort or explore the scenic hotel grounds on foot, like we did. And the nearby Unesco recognized Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark and Cuilcagh Mountain Park, just outside Enniskillen, boast unique geology and stunning landscapes, forming the only Unesco Geopark in Northern Ireland.
The wooden walkway at Cuilcagh Mountain, nicknamed the Stairway to Heaven, should be gorgeous as well, offering a scenic, yet easy hike through the wilderness of the mountain. After staying here for 1,5 days we drove 2 more hours east to:
This small seaside town in County Down, below Belfast, is very quiet, yet scenic, looking out upon the impressive Mourne Mountains behind it. Best known for its extensive sandy beach and renowned Golf Club, there’s not much to do in the town itself.
But it’s perfectly located near many beautiful historic and nature sites and just a 1 hour drive from Belfast’s city airport.
Slieve Donard Hotel
The village is also known for the impressive Slieve Donard Hotel and Spa, winner of ‘Irish Hotel of the Year’ award in 2017, located right at the beach on 6 acres of private grounds next to the Royal County Down Golf Club.
This impressive Victorian hotel has everything you need to fully relax, including an extensive Spa, several restaurants, and spacious luxurious rooms with direct views upon the Irish sea and sunsets behind the Mourne mountains. We loved the Irish old world charm here and were able to fully unwind before our flight home.
On our last day we would have loved to do an extensive hike in the mountains or visit Tollymore Forest Park, which was used as a filming location for Game of Thrones. But we decided to take it easy for our last hours, and visited the nearby Murlough nature reserve and town of Dundrum. Here lies an impressive ruin called:
The entrance is free and the castle ruin itself, the surroundings and views are impressive. Moreover we had this beautiful site all to ourselves, which truly makes it a hidden gem and the perfect spot to end a magical trip!
Did I convince you of the beauty and diversity of Northern Ireland, and would you consider exploring it as well on a road trip?
If so, and you need more tips or itinerary inspiration, you can also check the site of the tourism board for all info: DiscoverNorthernIreland.com, or ask me anything here, or on social media via the buttons at the bottom of this page.