Beyond Belfast - Driving the Causeway Coast
Driving the Causeway Coast
One of the greatest drives on earth, the Causeway Route stretches from Belfast to Londonderry. Following the arc of the Atlantic coast, this famous road snakes through the rural heart of Northern Ireland, passing winking lighthouses and proud castles, ancient monuments and whisky distilleries. It is a drive into a world of history, folklore and extraordinary natural beauty. And yet, by the roadside at Larne, the very humblest of stone signs marks its beginning.
The road winds for about 120km—slightly longer if you begin from Belfast rather than Larne—but the reasons to stop are many, so if you hire a car in Belfast, give yourself plenty of time: this drive isn’t one to be rushed.
Before reaching LarneThere is an opportunity to stop at The Gobbins, a path that hugs sheer cliffs at Islandmagee. The walk includes a tubular bridge that runs over the sea, and winds past caves and through a long tunnel. There is abundant wildlife and spectacular views. Look closely, and you might see Northern Ireland’s only mainland puffin colony, which nests high up on the cliffs. For something a little closer to the ground, continue on into the heart of the Glens. Glenarm Castle has been a home to the McDonnell family since the 17th century, and adorning its walls and filling its spacious rooms are portraits and furniture dating back to that era. The castle looks as if it were conjured from a fable, and its gardens are among the very oldest in the country.
The unbroken stretch of road from Glenarm to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge on the northern coast is a delight for any driver.
In fact, the landscape seems to have been made specifically with drivers in mind: waves crash against cliffsides; emerald glens stretch as far as the horizon. There are gnarled and ancient trees standing alone by the roadside, and—so the story goes—the local residents refuse to strike them down for fear of disturbing the magical creatures which may inhabit them. This is a land that seems alive with folklore and fairy tales.
Drive on, northwards and then westwards to Carrick-a-Rede, where a rope bridge connects the mainland to an island over a 70ft-wide chasm. Such a bridge was not designed with sufferers of vertigo in mind, but those who choose to cross it will find it rewarding to step into the shoes of the fishermen who first erected it. Here are some of the best views of the Causeway Coastal Route, and it is the only place to see the many caves and caverns partially obscured by the waves which swirl around them.
Few places have taken hold in the collective imagination like the Giant’s Causeway, due west of Carrick-a-Rede.According to one branch of Gaelic mythology, the Irish giant Finn MacCool built the causeway across the North Channel so he could fight Benandonner, a Scottish giant who challenged him to fight. There are two versions of the story: in one, Finn vanquishes Benandonner; in another, Finn, seeing Benandonner’s size, has his wife disguise him as a baby, so that Benandonner, seeing the size of Finn’s ‘infant son’, comes to believe that the father must be a giant even among giants and flees, destroying the causeway so that Finn cannot follow him. Whatever you choose to believe, the Giant’s Causeway is a spectacular sight to behold. More than 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, most of which are hexagonal, rise out of the foam and froth of the Atlantic. There are other geographical curiosities, such as the Shepherd’s Steps, the Chimney Stacks and the Camel’s Hump.
The Old Bushmills Distillery offers something different. But in its way it is no less impressive: this is the island’s oldest working distillery. Since 1608, the local residents have worked tirelessly to produce a fine single-malt whisky, and that same whisky is still produced today. The distillery offers guided tours and lessons in how to make the tipple at home using traditional methods. There’s also an excellent restaurant serving local food—with a Bushmills twist, of course.
Drive on to Dunluce CastleThe ruins of this 14th-century fortress sits impossibly high on a cliff, and is the site of countless local tales of banshees, smugglers and ill-fated romance. Three hundred years after its construction, a storm of epic proportions tore the outer part of the castle from its foundations and dragged it into the sea. Only ruins, therefore, remain, but so too does the castle’s original magnificence and splendour.
The route from Dunluce to Londonderry represents the final stretch of the Causeway Road. Along the way there are gorgeous seaside villages to explore before heading on. And if there’s one more sight to see before you reach your destination, it’s the circular Mussenden Temple at Downhill Demesne, which looks as if it were transported from Ancient Rome. Such an impression is not a coincidence, however. The temple—a folly—was designed to look like the Roman Temple of Vesta, the ruins of which still stand today in the Roman Forum near the Regia. The vistas from Mussenden is perhaps the best of anywhere along the Causeway Route—especially when you catch it at sunset.