The Emerald Isle: Exploring Northern Ireland

Postcard from the Giant's Causeway

Whenever Ash and I sit down to plan our travels to Europe, we always talk excitedly about colourful coastline villages like the ones in Cinque Terre or a cultured, classy city break in somewhere like Paris. For some reason, the idyllic coasts and lush green landscapes of Ireland never feature in these fantasies - probably because it's an English speaking country, so it doesn't scream "exotic" to us (as compared to Barcelona or Nice for example).

But when Ash got a Dublin trip with a long layover from Friday - Monday in his July roster, he immediately told me to come along. Never one to turn down an opportunity to travel (plus HELLO, long weekend!), I decided it was meant to be.

With just two days planned in Ireland (I ended up staying for five, but that's a whole other story) and a rental car, we had two options. We could go south to Killarney, Kerry and the Cliffs of Moher. We chose the other option, which was to drive north along the Antrim Coast Road and see the Giant's Causeway. Both of us are big Game of Thrones fans (books and TV show, thanks very much), so we decided to visit a few of the shoot locations from the series since they were en route to County Antrim.

Ireland and Northern Ireland are two separate countries entirely - Ireland is in Europe and Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom (UK). We were aware of this but didn't think too much of the implications until we were on the road. Soon after Ravensdale on the M1, we crossed the unmarked border into Northern Ireland which is in UK territory. In the blink of an eye:

  • All our euro immediately became useless.
  • All the speed limit signs that were previously in kilometres were now in miles.

We'd rented our car from Dublin so the speedometer was in kilometres. Having spent most of our lives in New Zealand and currently living in Hong Kong, we aren't in the habit of converting kms to miles. We were able to cope by using patchy mobile data and Ash's quick mental math (I'm mathematically challenged)...but otherwise we'd have been in a bit of a fix.

We thought we'd need to do a currency exchange run to solve the euro problem but as it turns out most places in Ireland and Northern Ireland let you use ApplePay. Sorted!

Our first stop was Tollymore Forest Park, a sprawling forested area with a smattering of pretty little bridges and follies, all winding alongside the Shimna River. As we'd only planned an hour's stop here, we decided to just amble along aimlessly, tourist fashion. I got some major Riverrun/Rivendell vibes from Tollymore. No scenes from either of these locations were filmed here, but if you're a diehard fan of the books I'd highly recommend a visit. My favourite part of the park was the Hermitage, which is a beautiful little stone shelter on the riverbank covered in foliage. It's a wonderful spot to gaze down at the river.

The Hermitage, Tollymore Forest Park

The Hermitage, Tollymore Forest Park

After Tollymore, we drove on to Castle Ward. Winterfell is lovely at this time of year...

Winterfell.jpg

Can I just say that communicating with Irish people can feel like an out-of-body experience? I spent a lot of time nodding and smiling while not having the slightest clue what my well-intentioned conversation partner was saying, even though we were both speaking in plain old English. At one point one of the lovely girls at Castle Ward ticket desk asked if we wanted a "horse tour". I'd been looking at the part of the sign where it said "Horses permitted at an additional fee" or something to that effect, so I responded with, "Err, I'm not sure...Ash, would you be keen on a horse tour?" The girl laughed nervously and repeated herself, so I - equally nervously - repeated myself. This went on several times when she finally said, "Let me get my colleague to speak to you" (we think). Her colleague appeared and took over and we were far too embarrassed to admit we'd no idea what she was saying either. I simply handed over my credit card and hoped it would settle matters. Thankfully it did, and we triumphantly made our way into Castle Ward.

After this slightly harrowing but hilarious experience, we drove on to Portrush to drop our bags off at our Airbnb, have a quick bite to eat and a pint of Guinness each (because you have to drink Guinness in Ireland, it's practically the law) and head to the grand finale - easily the part of the trip I'd been looking forward to the most.

There is no way to describe the Giant's Causeway adequately. It was just too incredible. We parked by the visitor's centre around 8.30pm and walked the Blue Trail to the causeway. It took about half an hour to get there and it was surreal. Ireland has all of the rugged beauty of New Zealand, but with a fairytale charm that belongs to the Emerald Isle alone. It's one of those places that makes you want to stop to contemplate nature, a lot. There were a few times during our little trek down that we just stopped in silence to take it all in.

The Blue Trail, Giant's Causeway

The Blue Trail, Giant's Causeway

The Giant's Causeway is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the result of a volcanic eruption around 60 million years ago. It consists of more than 40,000 interlocking hexagonal-faced columns at varying heights, suggesting the beginnings of a bridge of gigantic stepping stones. It conjures up images of giant silhouettes striding across the sea. On our walk down to the Causeway, I half-expected to see gargantuan footprints along the beach - I contented myself with imagining that rock pools we passed here and there were indentations left by giant feet. 

Local lore tells us Irish giant Finn McCool built the causeway to meet his Scottish counterpart Benandonner in battle. An identical basalt column site at Fingal Cave in Scotland corroborates this story. Seems legit...

After wandering around the site, awestruck, for I'm not sure how long, we were content to just sit and watch the North Channel pound relentlessly against the rocks for a while before we began the slow trudge back up.

It was around 10pm and still light out, so we were game to do a little more sightseeing. On the drive back to Portrush we saw a little space off to the side marked Magheracross Viewpoint. We'e so glad we spotted this little gem of a pit stop, it treated us to some truly spectacular views - Whiterock Cliffs on the left, with the eerie ruins of Dunluce Castle to the right.

Whiterock Cliffs from Magheracross Viewpoint

Whiterock Cliffs from Magheracross Viewpoint

Dunluce Castle, from Magheracross Viewpoint

Dunluce Castle, from Magheracross Viewpoint

Oddly enough, we'd been talking about the castles on the drive up from Dublin - the castellans back in the day must have had quite a job of it trying to fix up their perilously perched cliffside homes every time a storm hit. How did they cope? A visit to Dunluce Castle proved the answer was quite a simple one - they left! We were amused to learn that this once-proud structure was abandoned by its clan soon after some treacherous weather toppled part of the castle into the sea one stormy night. With the scarcity of local hardware stores back in the 17th century, I'm sure I'd have done the same.

Travelling through Ireland has definitely renewed my appreciation for New Zealand - I feel like I took the stunning scenery for granted while I lived there. But Ireland is steeped in ancient history too, which gives it a very different atmosphere and a certain tang that can't be experienced anywhere else. Standing amidst the crumbling ruins of a castle hundreds of years old, I was struck by the awareness that I was probably tracing the footsteps of its old inhabitants. What were their lives like? Did they joke around with their friends at the breakfast table? Did they bid their castle a silent goodbye every time they left to do battle, wondering if they would ever see it again? How did they feel about leaving their home when it was ravaged by that storm?