Take a road trip along Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coastal Route and you’ll find a wealth of legend, beauty and culture.
Blink and you might miss the sign. I nearly did. As I turned the car north and left behind a weekend of cultural attractions and arts events in vibrant Belfast, I almost didn’t notice the stone marker by the roadside at Larne indicating the start of the 120-mile Causeway Coastal Route.
It is, after all, an unassuming little stone but it promises a lot: this way for one of the world’s greatest road trips.
Over the next couple of days I followed the arc of the coast, passing through Antrim’s Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, from Belfast via the Giant’s Causeway to Derry-Londonderry.
This is great driving country, with plenty of wave-crashing vistas beyond the windscreen and a slew of interesting pit stops
The old County Antrim coast road leads through the rural heart of Northern Ireland, with lighthouses winking on the horizon and lobster pots bobbing in the swells below.
This is great driving country, with plenty of wave-crashing vistas beyond the windscreen and a slew of interesting pit stops along the way to explore.
It’s also a landscape shrouded in fable and folklore. The emerald glens, fishing boat-filled harbours and ancient limestone-carved roads are all alive with old tales of cunning giants and mythical warriors.
When I notice gnarled hawthorn trees standing stoically alone by the roadside, it is, I later learn, because the locals are reluctant to cut them down for fear of disturbing the little people.
Tracing the route via the walled garden at Glenarm Castle and the waterfalls at Glenariff Forest Park, my first stop is at the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. Fishermen originally erected the bridge to Carrick-a-Rede Island over a 70ft-wide chasm off the limestone headland to check their salmon nets.
[Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge on the Causeway Coastal Route]
Spectacular: Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge on the Causeway Coastal Route Credit: Nigel Carse
I’ve not got a great head for heights but it’s worth the heart-pumping experience of crossing the twin-handrail bridge, managed these days by the National Trust, for the views from Carrick Island across to Rathlin Island and Scotland beyond. Fulmars, kittiwakes and guillemots soar above me as I venture forth.
After that, it’s time for a lunch break in the village of Bushmills. The main street, complete with pub-façade mural of Finn McCool, the mythical Irish hunter-warrior, leads to the Bushmills Distillery – the oldest operating distillery in the world.
I join a behind-the-scenes tour of 400 years of distilling history before catching up with master distiller Colum Egan in the vast tasting room-cum-café.
The Giant’s Causeway has a mysterious, otherworldly feel about it
The distillery is just a few miles from the Giant’s Causeway and Colum likes showing off Northern Ireland’s greatest natural wonder with a glass in his hand.
“I love to take people down the causeway to have a whiskey at dawn,” he says. “Standing at the water’s edge, the mist swirling around, it could still be 1608, when we started making whiskey at Bushmills.”
After lunch at a local pub, it’s just a short drive, doubling back on myself slightly, to the Giant’s Causeway Unesco World Heritage Site. Comprising thousands of hexagonal, lava-flow-forged rocks extending into the Atlantic Ocean, the site has a mysterious, otherworldly feel about it with spotlights of sun-dappled light picking out details in the stones as I arrive amid clearing storm clouds.
This spectacular natural attraction was joined in 2012 by the grass-roofed and glass-fronted Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre. It is designed with columns of locally quarried basalt to reflect the legend of the giant Finn McCool – who legend has it plucked columns out of the ground – and tells the story of the causeway, its legend and the natural world around it, bringing to life the local history unique to this region.
Four recently upgraded and signposted walking trails around the causeway, graded for various ability levels, lead from outside the visitor centre towards the causeway and beyond.
Northern Ireland’s best-known folk legend tells how Finn built the rock causeway to Scotland to fight his arch-rival, Scottish giant Benandonner.
After Finn tricked him, the Scottish giant tore up the causeway – forged and contracted by eons of cooling lava – in his wake. Even today, the thin strip of land points an accusatory finger towards Benandonner’s Scottish domain.
The Causeway Coastal Route winds onwards from here, twisting through the coast-hugging curves to the mist-looming stronghold of Dunluce Castle, which clings dramatically to the cliff top just east of Portrush. The castle, built between the 14th and 17th centuries, was abandoned hundreds of years ago when part of it collapsed into the sea, which all adds to its intrigue and mystique.
Standing at the water’s edge, the mist swirling around, it could still be 1608
Mussenden Temple, the 18th-century folly near Castlerock – another monument looming high above the sea – marks my last stop before the final leg of the drive. I end my journey, by way of contrast to the rural charms of the coast, in the walled city of Derry – the only remaining completely intact walled city in Ireland – which is still basking in the glow of becoming the UK’s inaugural City of Culture in 2013.
The walls were built between 1613 and 1618, are still intact and form a walkway around the inner city. You won’t regret taking a walking tour to view the layout of the original town which preserves its Renaissance-style street plan to this day.
For me, my drive along one of the world’s greatest coastal routes had come to an end – but it’s one you can try with your own car as Northern Ireland is so easy to reach, or you could take a short flight and pick up a rental car.
I had loved every second: the open road between thriving cities via tranquil coastal towns rich with history and folklore; the good food and friendly locals; and soaking up the spectacular coastal scenery. And I hadn’t even taken one wrong turn – the Causeway Coast Route is easy to follow with lots of scenic stops along the way.
But most of all, the road trip had made me realise that, while Northern Ireland has evolved dramatically in recent years as a must-see destination and compelling place to visit, the traditional stories and legends that have shaped its cultural identity are also still very much part of life today. It feels alive.
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