We first visited Ireland in the month of April. It was Easter weekend and our journey up the Wild Atlantic Way began on what turned out to be one of the sunniest spells Ireland had seen in quite some time. We spent two glorious weeks exploring the winding roads and giant sea cliffs of the world’s longest coastal route while falling in love with the beauty of its untamed coast and friendly people.
Two weeks wasn’t nearly enough to see everything we wanted, and we knew that one day we’d be back to the Emerald Isle. It turns out we didn’t have to wait long. A few months later we found ourselves boarding a flight from Toronto, Canada to Northern Ireland: Home to the Giant’s Causeway. After picking up our rental car, we set out to explore this 120-mile drive that is rated as one of the world’s great road journeys, and we couldn’t wait to see this place of legend.
When laying eyes on the Giant’s Causeway, it’s easy to understand why local folklore tells the tale of ancient giants building a stone bridge between Scotland and Ireland.
Legend has it that Scottish giant Bennandoner challenged Irish giant Finn McCool to a fight. Finn accepted the challenge and built a causeway across the sea. When he arrived in Scotland he saw that Bennandoner was much bigger than he, so he ran back to his wife and hid in the closet. She disguised him as a baby and when the Scottish giant saw the size of Finn McCool’s son, he was scared away thinking that its father must be huge! He ran back to Scotland, destroying the causeway along the way. There are identical columns at Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish Isle of Staffa, so the legend could be true!
The science tells us that the causeway was created as a result of intense volcanic activity 60 million years ago creating a lava plateau. As the lava cooled it fractured, leaving 40,000 identical, pillar-like structures stacked on the coast.
Whether you believe in legends or science, the Giant’s Causeway is a fascinating visit. The hexagon basalt columns stand side-by-side, stacking perfectly along the coast and reaching out to the sea. It looks more like a giant patio made of interlocking bricks than something created by nature.
We stayed at the Causeway Hotel, giving us access to the causeway at sunrise and sunset. It’s the quietest time to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site and we had complete freedom to explore in peace and quite. Plus, we had the rest of the day to explore the other attractions of the Causeway Coastal Route.
Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge
If you have a fear of heights, the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge will get your blood pumping. Linking the island of Carrickarede to the mainland, this 20-meter long bridge dangles 30 meters above the rocks and water below. It’s a short jaunt across the bridge, but the walk is worth it, as once you’re out on the island, you have a clear view of the coast.
It’s easy to spend a couple of hours hiking the trails on the island and around the bridge to take in the sights of the high, jagged cliffs and thundering waves crashing on huge rocks below. We sat on a perch overlooking the ocean taking in the view and spied an enormous basking shark feed off the coast. They are the second largest fish in the sea, but they only eat plankton so you’re completely safe to swim with them.
Having the luxury of driving ourselves through Northern Ireland, we could take our time and wait for the tour buses to come and go. Carrick-A-Rede has turned into one of the most popular places to visit in the country, so it’s important to visit either earlier in the morning or late afternoon when most other tourists are on the road.
A twenty-minute drive from the Giant’s Causeway takes you to a public road lined with beech trees. We arrived just after sunrise, long before the tour buses turned up for their obligatory stops. The Dark Hedges are one of the most photographed sights in Northern Ireland and it’s easy to see why. The twisting branches create an ominous canopy over the deserted road, and as the sun seeps through the hedges, it ignites the tree trunks making for a perfect photo opportunity. We had it all to ourselves for the morning, setting up our tripod at different angles and driving up and down the road for the best view as we waited patiently for the sun to pass through the moving clouds.
A visit to Ireland wouldn’t be complete without a visit to a Castle, and just a few minutes from the Giant’s Causeway you will find Dunluce Castle. Perched atop dramatic sea cliffs, this medieval castle is one of the most picturesque castles in all of Ireland, Northern or the Republic. You can visit the castle and take a tour of its grounds, but make sure to stop at the bend on the highway, where you can capture the legendary photograph that is seen in all the magazines.
Our final stop on the Causeway Coastal Route took us out to Downhill Demense and Mussenden Temple. Taking a leisurely drive out to the town of Downhill, we parked in a quiet lot and walked through the secluded gardens and cliff walks through the grounds of the 18th century mansion of the Bishop of Derry and Earl of Bristol. In other words, the Earl Bishop. Standing on the edge of a 120-foot-high cliff, it’s a wonderful spot to take an afternoon stroll and enjoy the spectacular views down Ireland’s north coast.
The Causeway Coastal Route may not be the longest coastal route in the world, but it’s definitely one of the most interesting and strikingly beautiful. There are many stops along the drive that constantly grab your attention and make you pull over after every turn. Many people pass through this drive in one short day, but to truly enjoy the coast, you’ll need several days to delve into the myths and legends, romance and beauty of Northern Ireland’s remarkable coastal route.