As an east coast Canadian, there is something about Co Antrim that has always made me feel at home. As a result, I’ve been travelling to this beautiful county ever since I first stepped foot in Ireland. It doesn’t hurt that the Causeway Coastal Route, which runs from Belfast to Derry, is one of my favourite road trips not just in Ireland, but the world. Its combination of quaint villages, blue-green water and stunning scenery along the winding coast always leaves me speechless.
The Giant’s Causeway
Comprised of around 40,000 ancient, volcanic basalt pillars, the legend says Fionn Mac Cumhaill built this causeway, which is located near the town of Bushmills, after accepting a challenge to fight the Scottish giant Benandonner. Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO world heritage site, the Giant’s Causeway is a National Trust property.
There is a park at the entrance which offers a visitor’s experience. This includes use of their car park and a guided tour. During peak periods (July to September or all bank holidays in the UK or ROI), adults are charged £15 and children £7.50. You can pre-book the Giant’s Causeway visitor experience online.
You do not have to purchase a visitor’s experience (you can walk along the coast free of charge), but if you plan on using any of the facilities the charges will apply, and pre-booking is recommended. Overall, I think it’s worth the cost, though we tend to avoid the main visitor area and just head straight for the rocks.
There are four hiking trails in the vicinity of varying levels of difficulties and all offer spectacular views.
The coastal route is stunning, but Co Antrim is also home to Belfast – a vibrant city full of great food and cultural events. One of its most iconic visitor experiences is at Titanic Belfast, a museum located where the doomed ship was designed and built all those many years ago.
The Titanic Experience is educational, sad and fascinating all at once. It will hold the attention of adults and children alike, making it an ideal family activity. The self-guided tour starts in Belfast, where the ship was built, before taking you through its first and last journey, its sinking, its discovery at the bottom of the Atlantic and all of the subsequent aftermath.
General admission for adults is £24.95, for children aged five to 15 it is £11 and children under the age of five can go in for free. A family ticket for two adults and two children can be purchased for £62. From April to October, it is open each day from 9am until 6pm (7pm from June to August). Pre-booking can be done online and is recommended.
Game of Fandom
Did you watch the HBO series Game of Thrones? I did, and I loved visiting places in Co Antrim where filming took place (Ballintoy, Portstewart Strand, Dark Hedges and Cushendun Caves to name just a few). You can explore on your own – as I did – or you can fully immerse yourself in the experience and book a Game of Thrones bus tour (gameofthronestours.com).
You can opt for a smaller guided tour if the bus isn’t your thing, or if money is no object, you can go via helicopter, with prices starting at £225 per person.
Alternately, you might be interested in some off-the-beaten-track activities, like the Game of Thrones afternoon tea experience at Ballygally Castle (which is also a lovely hotel) near Larne; £32 per person. You can also go “hunting” for some of the famous hand-carved doors dedicated to the series. These doors were made after a storm swept through the Dark Hedges (the Kingsroad, for those in the know) felling several trees.
There are 10 doors in total, but only five are found in Co Antrim (I found two on my journey – see one of them above).
Ursa Minor Bakehouse
In the coastal village of Ballycastle, you’ll find the Ursa Minor Bakehouse, which specialises in coffee, soups, sandwiches and beautifully hand-crafted pastries.
Owners Ciara and Dara O’hArtghaile aim to make their space as community-focused as possible. They often host evening dining events and work with other chefs and producers within the region. Their food is delicious and the café is well worth a visit.
Find a chipper
Chippers in Northern Ireland are a bit different from those in the republic. This Canadian was particularly delighted to be able to indulge in cheesy chips with gravy (it’s almost poutine), which were enjoyed on the side of the road while watching the sun set over the sea. You don’t need to eat fancy food – especially when on holidays with the kids – and what better way to eat than as the locals do. We visited Jeno’s Place in Portrush. Another recommended chipper is Rolo’s fish and chip shop in Antrim town.
Dine in style in Belfast
There are so many great spots for eating out in the city of Belfast. If you’re really into your food, Ox Belfast offers Michelin-star dining, with a menu heavily focused on local suppliers and seasonality. For traditional pub fare, I always enjoy visiting The Crown Liquor Saloon. If you want something a bit more worldly, try the Cuban sandwiches at The Cuban Sandwich Factory, Canadian poutine (I had to) at Oui Poutine or grab some Indian snacks (hello, samosas as big as your head) at St George’s Market.
Did you say breakfast?
An Ulster fry is similar to a fry-up in the rest of Ireland, but the addition of potato farls – for me – sets it apart from its peers. Co Antrim really *gets* how to do a hearty breakfast, whether you’re staying at a larger hotel, a smaller inn or you’ve just stopped by a cafe. There’s this general feeling of warm hospitality – like you’re having breakfast at your auntie’s house. I enjoyed many breakfasts on my trip, but Ciara from Ursa Minor Bakehouse – who I would consider an expert – recommends the following spots: Middletown (Ballymena), Thyme and Co (Ballycastle), Babushka (Portrush), Stereo or General Merchants (both in Belfast) or Maggie Mays (Belfast) for a classic fry.
The Fullerton Arms
Drive too quickly and you might miss the village of Ballintoy – and this cosy pub and inn – and that would be a shame on both counts. Ballintoy is considered the jumping off point (not literally) for the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, which is another fun experience along the Co Antrim coast.
The Fullerton Arms seems traditional when you first walk in, but the rooms here are modern and comfortable, with all the amenities you’d expect from a larger hotel.
Operated by local chef Sean McLaughlin, the downstairs pub makes a great dinner and serves delicious, hearty breakfasts in the morning. During my stay, I indulged in local mussels in white wine and tomato broth with crispy chips, along with a cold pint (heaven). This is a dog-friendly hotel if you’re looking for a place to stay with your pooch. The Fullerton Arms is home to one of those Game of Thrones doors, too.
B&B prices start at £130 for two sharing.
Premier Inn, Carrickfergus
If you’re planning on driving the Causeway Coastal Route and don’t want to stay in the hustle and bustle of Belfast, Carrickfergus is a short drive out of the city and will keep you on the right track. The Premier Inn there is located right on the water, opposite Carrickfergus Castle.
It isn’t fancy, but it’s reasonably priced, well located and ideal if you’re travelling with one or two kids. I would avoid the hotel breakfast and instead stop in one of the villages along the coast for a hearty fry.
Prices starts at £155 per night for two adults and two children.
Grand Central Hotel Belfast
Comfortable rooms, good food and a best-of-both-worlds location make this hotel an easy favourite when I’m visiting Belfast. If you’re coming from the Dublin direction, you barely have to drive into the city to find parking (something I appreciate). The hotel is found in Belfast’s Linen Quarter and is a modern, chic take on a traditional Victorian-style building.
Their cocktail bar, Observatory, is located on the hotel’s top floor and is Ireland’s tallest cocktail lounge, offering beautiful views of the city (and great drinks). The breakfast buffet is one of the better hotel breakfasts I’ve had. The Grand Central is considered a luxury hotel but if you want to treat yourself, it is worth the money.
Prices start at £237 a night for two sharing.
Wilma Young is an Antrim town local who enjoys travelling and getting out into nature. She spoke with Irish Country Living about some of her favourite places to visit when out-of-county friends are visiting.
“We had a friend come from Australia last summer, so we took her to Rathlin Island [Northern Ireland’s northernmost point] for the day,” she says. “It’s off Ballycastle.There’s a ferry and once you go across we took the bus to the RSPB [Royal Society for the Protection of Birds] bird sanctuary at the western lighthouse.
“I would take people to the Glens of Antrim, too,” she continues. “At the bottom of Glenariff [one of the nine Antrim glens], there’s a lovely pub and there’s a walk that goes up past the waterfalls and back down through the forest.”
There are several great beaches along the Antrim coast.
“Our favourite beach is Whitepark Bay and it’s a National Trust beach,” Wilma tells Irish Country Living. “You can’t drive to it – you have to walk down to it. Near Whitepark Bay there are the best potatoes in all of Ireland. It’s a farm called McCurdy’s and you can just drive in and buy your potatoes – you will never find a better potato. Then you have Ballintoy Harbour, which is very pleasant, and there are boat trips there if you want and they go by Carrick-a-Rede.”