It was a drizzly morning in Belfast when I hopped in a van with blue badge guide Billy Scott. As we zoomed onto the highway I was reminded of my last Emerald Isle road trip, an unforgettable adventure which had me Exploring Ireland’s Rugged West Coast. I’d be spending the next two days zooming along Northern Ireland’s famed Causeway Coastal Route rated as one of the World’s Great Road Journeys. Its 120 miles of stunning coastline offers twists and turns which reveal rugged windswept cliffs, spectacular scenery, ancient cathedrals, crumbling castles, quaint farms, petite villages and fabulous unspoilt beaches.
During my visit the Causeway Coast was glowing in the international spotlight as it played host to the Giro d’Italia’s Big Start. The Giro is one of the world’s most celebrated cycle races (only second to the Tour de France) and watched by over 775 million around the world. While driving through the rural countryside Irish humour was a perfectly pronounced Ode to Giro Pink; the exterior of pubs had been repainted, trees were adorned with streamers and balloons, bicycles had been sprayed and hoisted on rooftops and coy farmers dunked their sheep herds in fuchsia.
I stayed at two historic luxury hotel properties during my Causeway Coast adventure. Arriving at The Bushmills Inn I was tickled pink to see a Canadian flag waving over the rooftop. At check-in I was advised that each day the hotel raises the national flag for the guest who has traveled the farthest and on that particular evening I was that certain someone. The Inn of course shares a strong history with Bushmills Whiskey Distillery, dating back to 1608 when the distillery was granted the world’s first ever license to distill whiskey. It was in the 1820’s when the main hotel was built as part of a major redevelopment of the town and quickly became a haven for saddle-sore visitors on their way to the Giant’s Causeway. The Inn features 41 sumptuous guest rooms and suites, many with views extending over the River Bush. Amenities include a treatment room, private 30 seat cinema, heli-pad and patio for al fresco dining. Poking around the property one finds peat fires, nooks and crannies and a secret library perfect for curling up with a hot pot of tea. The Inn’s cutesy bar is still lit by gas light and a perfect place to enjoy a pre-dinner pint. Find a comfy seat in the dining room and you’ll enjoy a top notch Irish feast featuring Onion and Guinness soup, Donegal smoked salmon and saddle of rabbit.
Ballygally Castle was first built in 1625 by James Shaw and his wife Isabella Brisbane. Over the years the castle has served as a place of refuge for the Protestants during the Civil Wars, a coastguard station, personal residence and hotel. Fans of the spooky will be delighted to know a ghost has been haunting the castle for over 400 years. The popular theory: Lord Shaw wanted a son, and when his wife delivered his heir, he snatched the baby from his wife and locked her in a room at the top of the castle. While trying to escape to search for her beloved child, Lady Isabella fell to her death from the tower window. The hotel is so fiercely proud of their permanent resident that they have even dedicated a room to her, “The Ghost Room” in one of the towers in the oldest part of the castle. For those more interested in the land of the living, the castle features 54 rooms, many of which boast stunning views over Ballygally Bay or the properties beautiful landscaped gardens. If you’re looking to relax, snuggle up to a booming fireplace at the bar and enjoy a lux Afternoon Tea. For dinner satiate your hunger at The Garden Restaurant which showcases a menu that celebrates what’s in season via wild mushroom veloute with truffle chantilly, confit of pork belly with spiced lentils and addictive toffee pudding.
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge: the 20m-long, 1m-wide bridge of wire rope spans the chasm between the sea cliffs and the island of Carrick-a-Rede, swaying gently 30m above rock-strewn water. The island has sustained a salmon fishery for centuries; fishermen stretch their nets out from the tip of the island to intercept the passage of salmon migrating along the coast to their home rivers. Crossing the bridge is perfectly safe, but it can be frightening if you don’t have a head for heights, especially if it’s breezy (or raining) so watch your step!
Giant’s Causeway: When you first see it you’ll understand why the ancients believed the causeway was not a natural feature. The vast expanse of closely packed, hexagonal stone columns dipping gently beneath the waves looks like the handiwork of giants. This spectacular rock formation – a national nature reserve and Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site – is one of Ireland’s most impressive and atmospheric landscape features.
Dunluce Castle: Views along the Causeway Coast between Portrush and Portballintrae are dominated by the ruins of Dunluce Castle, perched atop a dramatic basalt crag. Surrounded by jaw dropping coastal scenery, this medieval castle stands where an early Irish fort was once built and its history can by traced back to early Christians and Vikings. In the 16th and 17th centuries it was the seat of the MacDonnell family (the earls of Antrim from 1620), who built a Renaissance-style manor house within the walls. Part of the castle, including the kitchen, collapsed onto the sea in 1639, taking seven servants and the night’s dinner with it.
Bushmills Whiskey Distillery: The small town of Bushmills has long been a place of pilgrimage for connoisseurs of Irish whiskey. And for good reason, the Old Bushmills Distillery is the world’s oldest, having been granted a license by King James I in 1608. Tours of the distillery offer guests an in depth look into the history of Bushmills and production of its world renowned whiskey. Friendly guides whisk guests through the property making stops at the production facility, barrel aging hanger, whimsical bottling plant and tasting room. Aficionado’s can sign up for a private tasting following the hallmark tour which offers a unique opportunity to sample through some of Bushmills most sought after sippers.
My visit to Northern Ireland was a press trip coordinated by Tourism Ireland. Flights, accommodation, restaurant visits and activities featured in this destination guide were complimentary.