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Northern Ireland's North Coast - More than a Game of Thrones
Created By Mark Laiosa
Game of Thrones is wrapping up its sixth season and with a less expensive Pound Sterling, more people are planning trips to its filming sites. However, there is much more to see of the dramatic coast. The Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage site, is celebrating its 30th anniversary, and the breathtaking views and life stories of local people beckon.
Start with a day or two to explore Belfast, and don’t forget to make time for the Titanic Belfast experience, a recent addition to the cityscape. The town is an orgy of Georgian and Victorian styles and is best seen on foot. Don’t miss the Queen’s Botanical Gardens and historic Palm House. In the evening, try “Ox” or “Eipic,” both Michelin Star restaurants serving Irish cuisine using locally sourced foods. Cap off your night at one of the local pubs around the city.
You can reach the Giant’s Causeway with a gas, hybrid or electric vehicle rental. Northern Ireland drives on the “wrong side of the road,” from an American perspective, and gas is approximately $1.50 a quart, so you may want to take Ulsterbus instead (part of the Translink network). Ulsterbus’ online trip planner offers discounted fares to specific destinations. By taking the bus, you’ll see more and have less stress. Biking or motorcycling is possible as well, though the weather can change abruptly, so bring all-weather gear.
Signs of sustainability can be found along the Giant’s Causeway, such as electric car charging stations, solar compactors and recycling. Some signs are harder to see, like the underwater tidal generators installed along the shore, which convert the energy of the ocean into electricity. The area is rural with spotty cell service and internet connectivity. Prepare to get unplugged.
Once in awhile you’ll see signs that say, “Dulse for Sale,” which mean that you are getting closer to the shore line. Generations ago, dulse seaweed was eaten or burned for its minerals. On my journey, I met Jack Brown, a university student studying programming in Belfast, who spends his spare time gathering dulse and sun-drying it. He sells dulse to local shops for “pocket money.”
Further down the road is the modernized rope bridge, Carrick-a-Rede, originally built for fisherman to bring their catch to shore. It’s about 90 feet above water and spans 60 feet to a craggy island that gives crossers a bird’s eye view of outcroppings adorned with red campion, spring squill, and eye-popping yellow gorse bushes.
You might not notice the Giant’s Causeway Visitor’s Centre, but for its parking lot. The basalt stone facade that encases the building was locally quarried and mimics the surrounding landscape. The rooftop is planted with local seeds and has unobstructed views. Natural sunlight filters in through the glass roof top and lights the exhibition space within. The centre opened in 2007 and was built with 80% recoverable resources. Local architects designed the award-winning building to meet the British version of LEED standards, which included 70% recycled concrete, local materials, a ground-sourced heat system, and an earth pipe cooling system. “It is exciting to work in a building that is environmentally efficient!” said Eleanor, a Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre staff member.
Fact and legend are intertwined inside the The Giant's Causeway Visitor Centre. An animation loop of the legendary Finn McCool avoiding a fight with the bigger Scottish giant Benandonner (who built a road across the sea to fight the Irish giant), plays for visitors. McCool saw him coming and had his wife disguise him as a baby. Benandonner came in and saw the size of “baby McCool” and thought that if the child was huge then father McCool must have been much bigger than himself, so he fled to Scotland, ripping up the Causeway to keep McCool from following him.
In reality ancient lava slowly cooled, forming multi-sided basalt columns topped with shallow scoops. These formations are explained in detail at the centre, as well as the variety of flora and fauna found in the area. Even stories and biographies of workers from earlier generations were showcased at the centre; John McKay for one, tells of his life as a flag man for the Causeway tram. His grandson is now directing traffic, maintaining the familial link to the Giant’s Causeway.
The gift shop is refreshingly free of gimcrack. Locally made products with a sense of place fill the shelves. Many of the products feature their creator’s name on their labels, like Katy Honey. Kathryn McWhirter, the creator of Katy Honey, is a young beekeeper who enjoys blending sycamore, chestnut and briar flavored honeys to create unique flavors.
Once outside the centre, a short shuttle bus ride for £1.30 will take you to the trailhead. I can also walk to the trailhead and take in the 360 view of the hills and coastline. Well-groomed paths of rounded stones, worn smooth from glaciers and millennia of tides, squeak underfoot. Strewn over gray gravel along the shore are varieties of seaweed in all shades of green. The steep slopes are garnished with flowers, and you may even see a stonechat bird with his black head and white collar roosting on a strikingly yellow gorse bush.
The hexagonal shaped basalt pillars of the Causeway stretch into the ocean. Wind-blown seeds take root in the sockets and blossom on lichen-draped pillars. On a calm sunny day, surf filters through the hexagonal stones. You might even see an Atlantic grey seal people-watching from the shore. Safety Officer Andrew, in his bright red shirt and whistle was ready to warn people off slippery areas, “You don’t want people to fall in, do ya?” With firm tread of hiking boots, you can scramble from pillar top to pillar top.
Near the Giant’s Causeway is the 18th century Bushmills Distillery offering tours and whiskey tastings. Silent season, a time of maintenance and limited access to tours, is July 4th - August 5th.
Sourcing local foods and conserving the environment is a way of life in Northern Ireland. Nigel and Joann McGarrity, along with their children and “Granny,” Joann’s mother, run the Red Door Tea Room and Bistro in Ballintoy. It is off the main road, (follow signs to a traditional Irish cottage with a red door). Their provisions are sourced from nearby and they highly recommend their traditional Irish stew and their home grown rhubarb pie for dessert. Vegetarian and special dietary needs can be accommodated. If it’s a wee bit nippy, a turf fire can be lit in the stone fireplace. On weekends, daughter Emma will even play traditional music on Irish Harp, flute or fiddle.
If you go:
- Tourist information: www.discovernorthernireland.com
- Transportation information: www.translink.co.uk/
- Bicycling accommodations: http://www.discovernorthernireland.com/cycling/
- Giant’s Causeway and nearby National Trust sites: www.ntni.org.uk
- Bushmills Distillery: http://www.bushmills.com/Distillery/