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Northern Ireland has many stunning locations that are growing in popularity every year – there is so much natural beauty here that it can be tricky to decide where to begin.
So here are a few suggestions for those visiting our diverse little country. In no particular order…
We’ll start with the “must-see” Giant’s Causeway: it’s the only entirely Northern Irish UNESCO World Heritage site. Locals will claim, with a twinkle in their eye, that the 40,000 basalt columns resulted from an argument between a Scottish giant and an Irish one. The scientific explanation involves molten lava being forced up from the Earth’s core. To avoid crowds, try to visit as early or as late as possible in the day – it gets extremely busy year round, despite the unpredictable weather. Once you’ve seen the Causeway, aim for the Nook Inn at the top of the cliffs, then turn left for a windswept walk on the wild side.
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If you’ve a head for heights, and a yen for a little adventure, head for the wonderfully wobbly Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. There’s been a bridge over the ocean here since 1755, when salmon fishermen first braved the wind and the waves to install it. Tickets are timed – only a certain number of people can stand on the bridge at once.
North of the Causeway, the Antrim coastline is gloriously dramatic. Game of Thrones fans will recognise Ballintoy Harbour and the soft sands of Portstewart Strand, while golfers will know the name Portrush. There are also dozens of less well-known beaches in Northern Ireland that are ideal for outdoor activities, from walking to photography. Whiterocks, for instance, is a stunning Blue Flag beach that all the family can enjoy, while Cushendun and Cushendall are exceptionally charming. We wouldn’t suggest swimming in the sea though – quite apart from the bracing temperatures, the currents can be terrifyingly strong, although some beaches are very popular with surfers.
Speaking of family fun, you owe it to yourself to try some of the delicious local ice cream – try both Mauds and Morelli’s as a minimum, to choose your personal favourite.
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Wildlife enthusiasts are spoiled for choice in Northern Ireland, and we’d recommend a trip to Rathlin Island if you can get up early enough. Take the ferry from Ballycastle; once on the island, take your pick of activities. See Atlantic puffins, guillemots, kittiwakes and razorbills in their natural habitat, hire a bike, take a guided bus or walking tour, or explore the Upside-Down Lighthouse.
Meanwhile, if you’d rather not cross the water, head for the north and west of the province for more astonishing geology and actual fairy glens (no, really). In the Fermanagh Lakelands you can enjoy angling, canoeing, kayaking, caving, potholing, cruising, cycling, golfing, walking, or a trip to the Marble Arch Caves UNESCO Global Geopark. In the right weather conditions, you can take seasonal boat trips into the caves themselves, but do check in advance. Alternatively, simply wander through the stunning woodlands, checking out the crystal clear waters of the River Cladagh and the delightful atmosphere of the fairy glen. If you prefer open water pursuits, hire a cruiser or a barge and set sail on the tranquil waters of Lough Erne.
If you’re staying in Antrim, there are nine glens to visit in total, each with a unique character. In “Queen of the Glens” Glenariff dazzling waterfalls and stunning scenery lurk around every corner, while for live music and “craic”, head to Glens capital Cushendall. Nearby Cushendun is home to some stunning preserved Cornish cottages (yes, we did say Cornish). Along with Glenarm and Carnlough, Cushendun has a lively summer festival each year.
If, on the other hand, you head south down the coast from Belfast you will see for yourself that the “Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea”, as the traditional song suggests. This area is so magical it was part of the inspiration for C.S. Lewis’ land of Narnia. This area is perfect for horse-riding and strenuous hiking, while creative types will find unique opportunities like moonlit photography walks led by expert guides.
The natural features of Northern Ireland are stunning, and mostly gloriously uncrowded, but don’t rule out the unique man-made activities and locations entirely.
Depending on where you are, you’ll find human dramas galore. Ruined Dunluce Castle, for instance, right on the Antrim cliff tops, stands witness to a centuries-old tragedy. One dark and stormy night, part of the castle kitchens fell into the sea. Dozens of servants drowned. Legend has it the cries can still be heard on the wildest nights.
If spooky stories are up your street, then Belfast ghost tours will enthrall you. That’s without mentioning any of the pub or historical tours, the HOHO bus or the Black Taxi Tours. Belfast is a great destination in its own right, with plenty to see, do and experience. Food is plentiful, often locally caught, or grown, or reared, as in much of Northern Ireland. Just about all the local produce from dairy to freshly caught seafood and locally grown vegetables is excellent. Typical portions are very generous, and the craic is legendary. The “Visit Belfast Welcome Centre” will be able to offer great suggestions on where to eat.
Speaking of legends, if you enjoy towns and cities, you’ll probably get a great deal out of a trip to (London)Derry, or Armagh, or Downpatrick, or Bushmills, or Omagh, or many other locations. Wherever you go, as a visitor, complete strangers will probably talk to you, fascinated to hear what brought you to this part of the island of Ireland. Welcomes here are usually full of warmth and wit (or at least black humour). One slight word of warning though, especially if your itinerary mainly involves outdoor pursuits – the weather in this part of the world is notoriously changeable, even by British Isles standards, so layer up, and have a fleece and waterproof or two handy or at least a sturdy umbrella. After all, there are very good reasons that landscape is so verdant and those cliffs so dramatic…
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