If you’ve been to Ireland and not visited the north-eastern counties, you have missed something special. Politically part of the United Kingdom and with a chequered history to match, Northern Ireland today is a peaceful place with much to see and do. And top of that list is the beautiful Causeway Coast.
A rugged coastline beginning near Belfast, the Causeway Coast stretches north and then west as far as Derry/Londonderry. It is easily possible to drive it in a day, following the Causeway Coastal Route which is well-marked along good, but largely quiet, roads.
Along the way there are many sights to take in, all of them worth a visit. Pick a few for a day trip, or stay overnight on the way and see it all: the choice is up to you!
In this post I am going to focus on the portion of the coast from Glenarm in the east to the Giant’s Causeway in the north.
A pretty village some 13 miles north of Larne, Glenarm boasts an attractive church and river at its heart, along with the beautiful Glenarm Castle Estate which is open to visitors. It is a good jumping-off point for the 9 Glens of Antrim, a spectacular region of wild moorland which stretches in from the coast towards Ballymena and the centre of the county.
Carnlough’s highlight is its picturesque harbour. Stop awhile to admire the fishing boats and limestone harbour wall, then pick up supplies from the nearby convenience store before pushing north.
Heading north out of Carnlough past wild moorland on one side and the frequently wilder Irish Sea on the other, don’t forget to look northeast where the coast of Scotland is clearly visible in the right weather conditions. Continuing on and slightly inland, Cushendall is an attractive small town with several dining opportunities. Stop for lunch at Harry’s Restaurant: the food is delicious and locally sourced.
Perched on the northeast corner of Northern Ireland, Ballycastle is a seaside town which is more of a jumping-off point than an attraction in itself. However, this stretch of the coast is a good place to look for accommodation; traditional bed and breakfast properties abound, offering what is often a quirky local experience, and caravan and campsites are particularly popular with local Northern Irish visitors who will often head north to the coast on weekends. Ballycastle is also the start of the Glens of Antrim cycle route, as well as the ferry departure point for Rathlin Island.
As you drive along the coast from Ballycastle to Ballintoy, you can’t miss Rathlin Island out in the sea to the north. A day trip in itself, regular ferries carry visitors to the L-shaped island in summer to admire the abundant bird life, including colonies of puffins in season (spring and early summer – check before you go if puffins are a must-see).
One of the most popular destinations on the coast, the Carrick-a-Rede Bridge is a death-defying rope bridge connecting the mainland to tiny Carrick-a-Rede Island from which fishermen once launched their boats. In recent years the bridge has been replaced with a sturdier version which removes some of the fear factor (along with most of the danger), but those with a fear of heights will still find it a challenge. From the car park there is a 2km walk to the bridge and back, including a number of steps and uneven paths. There is a fee to enter and cross the bridge, but if you arrive after the bridge has closed for the evening you can access the remainder of the site for free.
Another pretty fishing village, Ballintoy is approached down a side road until you reach the harbour at the bottom. Quiet and picturesque, it is a lovely stop to stretch your legs and scramble along the rocky beach while admiring the traditional homes and fishing boats that line the harbour.
Game of Thrones fans may recognise Ballintoy harbour as the location used for the Iron Islands in the popular series.
The white sand beach at Whitepark Bay runs for three miles just west of Ballintoy. Backed by dunes which are a haven for birds and animals alike, it is a beautiful spot for a walk along the sands.
Northern Ireland’s best-known whiskey, Bushmills, hails from the pretty town of the same name close to the Giant’s Causeway. Tours are available at the Old Bushmills Distillery, including a free glass of whiskey or a soft drink. Well worth a visit if you like a drop of the hard stuff, or even just to see the process by which it is made. The town of Bushmills is also a good spot to find a restaurant or two.
Undoubtedly the highlight of a drive along the Causeway Coast is the world-renowned Giant’s Causeway. A modern visitor’s centre explains the geology of the area; admission includes parking, and is free for National Trust members. Visit Giantscausewaytickets.com to buy your tickets online in advance and save money. Alternatively, you can park at the Railway car park close to the Causeway for less than the cost of one adult ticket, and walk to the Causeway for free.
The Causeway itself is approached via a well-paved footpath around 1km (0.6 miles) in length. A shuttle is available at a small extra cost for those who prefer not to walk. Once on the Causeway, expect to be scrambling over hexagonal rocks which can be slippery, so take care; don’t stray too near the edge, and keep away from the waves which can be unpredictable. Those with limited mobility will still get a good view of the Causeway without leaving the footpath.
The site is wheelchair-accessible (apart from the rocks themselves), but due to the gradient of the footpath it is best to use the shuttle to get to and from the bottom of the cliff. It is possible to walk down with pushchairs.
When visiting the Giant’s Causeway, wear good footwear and plan for some cold and windy weather. This is Ireland, after all!
The total distance of the drive from Glenarm to Portrush is 42 miles and would take a little under 1.5 hours to drive without stopping – but there is so much to see and do that it will take much longer! Have you visited the Causeway Coast? Have I missed any of your personal highlights? Let me know in the comments!