For our second free weekend while WWOOFing at Huntley B&B, we packed a bag, hopped a train, and headed up to the beautiful yet rugged North Irish coastline. Giant’s Causeway is perhaps the most well known site in the area, but that’s just a drop in the bucket of what there is to experience up against the North Sea.
The train took us to Coleraine, where we switched to a bus. Several buses travel along the coastline all day, conveniently stopping at every attraction, making it relatively simple for carless tourists like us to get around. We purchased transport cards that allowed for unlimited travel in a day on trains and buses, making it incredibly easy to catch whatever transport we needed. We decided to start East and make our way West, so our first stop was Carrick-a-Rede bridge just west of Ballycastle. The bus followed the twists and turns of the two-lane road with ease, and we passed rocky cliffs, small coastal towns, and several golf courses. We counted two castles in ruins perched precariously on the cliffs, Dunluce and Dunsverick, one of which we would visit later. We passed countless sheep, some positively punk as they were covered in colorful identification markings.
The bus dropped us off at the roadside and we followed signs down to the coast. Carrick-a-Rede is a rope bridge connecting the main land with a small island 60 meters off the coast that was once used for salmon fishing. Although it used to be just wooden planks and a single rope as a railing, it now sports a railing on both sides and wire supports in addition to rope. How soothing! Those assurances don’t register as forcefully when you are in the middle of the bridge, buffeted by the wind and watching the cold waves of the North Sea bash into rocks far below. Fisherman used to cross the historic bridge carrying heavy containers of fish with one arm, leaving only one hand for the railing. The strength and tenacity those fishermen had impress me to no end, and I highly doubt I could easily get used to such a precarious task.
Rather than head back to the main road and catch another bus, we asked a local if there was a trail leading to the closest village, hoping for a place to get some lunch. And happily we did – the employee pointed us in the direction of the Coastal Causeway, a trail connecting the major sites of the Northern Irish coastline. We soon left cars and other tourists behind and found ourselves on a pleasant grass path leading us through some sheep pastures. We took a quick detour down to a cove, and to Clayton’s delight, it’s where they filmed a tourney scene in season one of Game of Thrones. Climbing back up the cliff, we continued on towards the village and found ourselves near the Red Door Cafe, the roof of which I’d remembered from our bus ride past since it sported its name in giant letters. That’s good advertising. The cafe itself was a perfectly quaint Irish tea room, with tea-themed decor and a friendly, personable staff. Evidently the crew of Game of Thrones would frequent the cafe as well, and after a hearty beef stew to warm our bones, Clayton and I shared a slice of “Game of Thrones” cake. I’m not exactly sure why it was called that, but given the amount of chocolate, cream, honeycomb, and peanut butter, I wasn’t about to complain.
Our server pointed us in the direction of Ballintoy Harbor to continue our coastline walk. As we bravely walked the narrow road which could barely fit a car without us, we rounded the final corner and found ourselves at the second stop of our accidental Game of Thrones tour. Ballintoy Harbor is also known as the “Iron Isles” in the Game of Thrones universe, and the frothy waves crashing into and sucking out of the jagged rocks is fantastical whether or not you are a fan of the series. We poked our head in a cliffside cave and stood at the foot of possibly the largest lime kiln I’ve ever seen in person – leftovers from mining days long past.
The Coastal Causeway continued on past the harbor to a series of grassy cliffs. Avoiding cow pats and clambering over stiles between pastures, we marveled at the massive rock formations on the coastline and even climbed up one or two. Perhaps just as impressive to me were the shocking number of rabbits – I was initially chuffed to see one, but then as we continued past the rough shrubbery, I realized that the movement I was seeing wasn’t from the wind. There must have been hundreds of rabbits in the area, and soon we were also watching our feet so we didn’t trip into their tunnels. We’d see even more as we continued down the harbor – I’ve never seen so many in one place. It’s almost like they’re infamous for reproducing. Or something.
We reached what I thought was the end of the Coastal Causeway, but signs and maps told us otherwise. In theory, the trail should lead around a part of the cliff that jutted out a bit into the sea and bring us to White Park Bay, a large beach area. However, we found ourselves at the end of the trail facing a cliff wall, with waves crashing up against it. I surmised that perhaps we were just out of luck, and it was only passable when the tide was out. Clayton begged to differ, and said although it was indeed a matter of timing, it was timing on a much smaller scale. He waited until the moment in between waves and dashed off around the cliff, leaving a very hesitant me back on the other side. It seemed as if there would never be an opening between waves again, though finally one appeared and I made a break for it, running right into Clayton, who was in fact returning to see if I was finally coming. It was a dangerous comedy of errors, though luckily one without soaking boots (or worse) as a memento.
Being this late in the season, we had White Park Bay to ourselves, and walked across the length of the beach skipping rocks over the sand and avoiding the riptide waves. After a full day of rambling, walking through sand made our leg muscles protest, but on the other side we found ourselves racing to catch the last bus of the day that would take us westward to Portstewart, our place of rest for the evening.
Portstewart is a small coastal town that looks as if it is trying to be a boardwalk town for surfers and beach-goers in the summer. In late October, however, it’s a bit sleepy. We stayed in a little hostel with an ocean view, and walked to the boardwalk for a pub dinner, thoroughly missing our lunchtime fare at the Red Door Cafe. We did snag some ice cream for dessert, and the flavors of the Italian ice cream we found on the North Coast were rich, creamy, and divine. I don’t know how it differs from other ice cream, but after enjoying Honeycomb and Clotted Cream, I was left thinking the Wisconsin ice creams I’ve touted so strongly now had a fierce rival.
After a full Irish breakfast the next morning, we headed towards the Giant’s Causeway. The Causeway itself is actually free, although many are tricked into buying tickets to the visitor’s center. We bypassed the whole affair and headed to the site itself. The basalt columns were formed from rapidly cooling lava over 50 million years ago. After hearing so much about the Causeway, I am sad to say I was a bit underwhelmed. It looked so big and grand in all the pictures I’d seen, and deliciously void of people. The basalt columns were indeed fascinating, but the amount of coastline it took up wasn’t as large as I thought. Perhaps that’s the curse of it’s name – anything with “giant” in it makes you think big. We left the majority of crowds behind and hiked up to the top of the cliffs, where it was a constant struggle to continue against the chill wind.
Our next stop down the bus route was Dunluce Castle, one of the ruins we’d seen from the bus ride. The castle was built between the 15th and 17th centuries, and was considered one of the finest castles in the region. It was in the hands of the Scottish clan MacQuillan and fell under siege numerous times before eventually becoming abandoned, along with the surrounding town.
We walked through the crumbling walls and gazed out the windows to the sea, imagining what it must of been like in its heyday as a fortress, and to live there with the knowledge that at any point hostile sails could poke out over the horizon.
Before heading back down South, we stopped Portrush for lunch. Most restaurants were closed, a side effect of touring in the low season (something we’d find to be even more evident in Cornwall). After sighing over many “Closed” signs, we found a small family cafe and fell into our American stereotypes of ordering cheeseburgers with a side of no shame. After succumbing to the call of more Italian ice cream, we caught our southbound train back to Belfast. A chatty elderly woman struck up a conversation with us on the train, asking us our opinion on American politics (horror) and on Northern Ireland (delight). She told us that every Sunday she took the train to Coleraine for lunch with friends, without fail. To my utter delight, we’d see her from afar the next Sunday as we took a train in Belfast, and we knew she was headed to her lunch in Coleraine. It was a beautiful window into a character of Northern Ireland – someone Irish born and bred, and fiercely proud of that fact.
The North Coast is rugged, wild, and beautiful. If I was to visit again, I would definitely follow as much of the Coastal Causeway as I possibly could. Walking along the trail, away from people with nothing but the waves, wind, and the occasional bleating of sheep to listen to, it’s a wild Ireland experience I won’t soon forget.