A little over two hours by train from Dublin, you arrive in Belfast, Northern Ireland. During Northern Ireland’s Troubles Giant’s Causeway was rarely visited, but it is now one of Ireland’s most visited attractions and Ireland’s only World Heritage Site.
We opted for McCombs Tours, which travels via mini bus instead of giant tour operator bus and picked us up from central Belfast. We hopped on, enjoyed front row seats and immediately headed for the coast.
The tour operator travels the opposite direction of most other tour operators, allowing our group to hit the sights first and without hoards of tourists. We didn’t mind.
Our tour guide chatted the entire ride, explaining Northern Ireland’s Troubles, how it is still very much a part of everyday life, and explained the local areas we were driving through.
Did we mention that the Irish are the nicest people ever? Yes, our tour guide was awesome.
Our first stop was to see the Dunluce Castle. Dunluce Castle is surrounded by extremely steep cliffs on all sides, located in County Antrim, near the city of Portrush, a harbor town that will be hosting the British Open in several years.
Continuing on, we stopped at the oldest licensed distillery in the world, Bushmills Distillery, open since 1608. King James I granted Sir Thomas Phillips – landowner and Governor of Co. Antrim Ireland – a license to distil. We immediately smelled the whiskey in the air. We had 45 minutes to explore and sample whiskey. We tried a 21-year old whiskey, had another, felt pretty rosey, warm and were ready to move on.
A short drive later, through small harbor side towns (remember to stay at least one night in a harbor town while here), we arrived at the Giant’s Causeway. Our guide made it a point to clarify we have 2.5 hours to spend here. Don’t be late or you’ll be left behind.
You can’t tell you are anywhere special upon arrival. A giant (overpriced) gift shop and information center greets you first. It was free admission day and free tour day – saving us both 10 pounds each or so – these budget travelers were quite happy. The visitor center has an informative tour room, explaining the history of the area and creation of Giant’s Causeway. There is also a cafeteria to grab a quick bite to eat if you wish.
For us, we were headed to the water. After a quick but steep walk down the road, we arrived. There are shuttle buses available to lazy tourists that run every 5 minutes or so.
Finn McCool, a friendly giant built a causeway from Ireland to Scotland after accepting a challenge to fight the Scottish giant, Benandonner. Finn became reluctant once he noticed the size of his opponent, so his clever wife decided to disguise Finn as a baby when Benandonners came to challenge him. Upon Benandonner’s arrival and after seeing the baby giant, he realized that if this is the baby of Finn, Finn must be HUGE, and so the Scottish giant fled back to Scotland, destroying the causeway behind him so that Finn wouldn’t be able to follow.
What really caused Giant’s Causeway to form:
Millions of years ago as tectonic plates began to separate, volcanic activity caused lava to rise in fissures to the surface. The movement created a massive lava plateau. As it cooled, causing horizontal contractions that resulted in basalt columns of various sizes.
We explored the area, amazed at the size of the basalt columns and how perfectly they fit together like puzzle pieces. On a clear day, and it was for us, you can spot Scotland in the distance – which we did.
One could easily spend five hours at Giant’s Causeway. There are trails taking you up to the tops of hillsides for areal views but for us, 2.5 hours was just right. There is a great little restaurant back at the top of the hill, an 1850’s old school house called The Causeway Nook. We enjoyed warm soup, pints and their fireplace before joining our tour group to continue on.
We headed to Carrick-a-Rede Bridge. Originally built by fisherman, the Carrick-a-Rede Bridge allowed fisherman to access their salmon nets on the island.
Not crossing the bridge was the best decision ever. Our guide, who was also a Game of Thrones tour guide, mentioned that there was an old rock quarry about 5 minutes walking where they filmed a few episodes. We explored this area isolated from the crowds and thought to ourselves how cool it was to be on the literal edge of Ireland.
We then re-board our luxury mini coach, and make our way to along the coast. We were treated to a rainbow and had we been in a rental car, we would have surely stopped and taking a better photo!
With half our tour group needing some sugar, our guide stopped off at a town along the Antrim Coast, and we all indulged in some ice cream. The sleepy town itself is beautiful and has a small harbor right across the road from the ice cream shop.
Our guide mentioned a couple of his favorite pubs in Belfast and dropped the group back in the center of town. We are not “tour-people” and would much rather be on our own, but this tour was awesome and we recommend it to anyone traveling to Giant’s Causeway who may be too nervous to rent a car and drive on the opposite side of the road.