Giant’s Causeway is just one of the magical and unique spots to explore along the rugged Causeway Coast when visiting Northern Ireland.
Words and photos
By CINDA CHAVICH
I wonder what the ancient Irish people imagined when first they came upon the natural wonder of the Giant’s Causeway.
We’re here at the end of the day, after the big bus tours have thankfully left, and the sight of these incredible basalt columns — some 40,000 hexagonal stepping stones and pillars — is magical and mysterious.
It’s no surprise that the early Celts invented tales of a frightening giant to explain the dramatic geometric forms, perfectly repeated like wildly oversized quartz crystals scattered across the shoreline, and forming a massive rocky stairway reaching into the sea.
We’ve wandered down the rugged road beyond the blocky concrete visitor’s centre, with its impressive museum and gift shop, where the explanations for this geological phenom include an early “creationist” view of the earth’s origins, alongside the modern scientific facts, describing how molten lava, released as continents shifted and separated 60 million years ago, cooled, cracked and eroded into this rare rock formation over millennia.
It’s the geometry of those dark hexagonal columns that makes the sight so spectacular, rising above the tide line as the sun dips low. But the legend also reminds me of the innate storytelling talent of the Irish — whether it’s the yarn about Irish giant Finn MacCool who built this bridge across the Irish Sea to confront Benandonner, his monstrous Scottish rival; or the more tragically romantic story of Finn’s struggle to reach his beloved on the other side of the narrow channel.
This is Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of a handful of places in the world you can see this kind of cool geometric formation. The land and site is administered by the National Trust, and there's a historic Causeway Hotel nearby, a charming whitewashed property that has been hosting tourists traveling here to see the spectacular Giant's Causeway since 1836.
Start your tour in the visitor’s centre and pick up an audio guide, then get out on the walking trails to explore the site. A guided Clifftop Experience is a way to see the Giant’s Causeway from above, or you can approach the site on foot on a rugged five-mile coastal hike along the cliffs from Dunseverick Castle to this, the most northerly point of Northern Ireland.
BEYOND THE ROCKS
The Giant’s Causeway is found along the rugged north coast of Northern Ireland.
It’s a destination along the Causeway Coastal Route, from Belfast to Derry-Londonderry, where you can also stop to tour the historic Bushmill’s Irish Whiskey distillery, then enjoy a feast of seafood along a windswept beach.
For the latter, we walked along the dunes at Portstewart Strand to reach Harry’s Shack, a casual seaside spot and arguably the finest place to enjoy a feed of fresh fish in the countryside.
Or dine at the Bushmills Inn, a historic spot to stay while you’re exploring this coastal region. Get a snug booth in the old pub to enjoy the locally-sourced Irish fare and a complete selection of the namesake whiskey.
And if you’re enthralled by Game of Thrones, plan your tour to see some of the spectacular natural settings featured in the original series. The Dark Hedges is also found in the County Antrim in Northern Island and the alley of gnarly beech trees, standing along a rural road, is definitely something to see.
Long before its television debut, the Dark Hedges were legendary, 150 trees planted in 1775 by James Stuart, leading to his Gracehill House estate, and apparently haunted by a mysterious Grey Lady. Storms have toppled many of the aging trees in recent years (now fewer than 90 are standing) and tourist traffic has also damaged their shallow roots, leading to a ban on vehicle traffic through the verdant tunnel. Sadly, experts expect the impressive grove to be mostly gone within the next few decades.
Fans can plan instead to take a tour of Dark Hedges doors, intricately carved by Irish artists from felled trees, and featured in several pubs in Belfast and environs. Each door references “key scenes” in the popular tale, and you can take a selfie and get your Journey of the Doors passport stamped at each location, or discover more in a GOT Studio Tour.
There are also several companies offering GOT tours, to take you to some of the offbeat locations where the epic series was filmed.
For a chance to see wildlife and to experience the great outdoors, with remains of historic castles, wild beaches, and views out across the blue Atlantic, drive the spectacular Causeway Coastal Route.
One easy and impressive little adventure along the way is a day trip out to Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, another Northern Ireland site cared for by the National Trust.
A winding walk along the cliffs leads you to a stairway down to the narrow rope bridge, suspended 30 metres above the water. It's connected to tiny Carrick-a-Rede island and a 400-year-old fisherman's cottage facing out to the Atlantic.
First erected by salmon fishers some 350 years ago, the bridge attracts thousands of tourists today, so pre-booking a tour time is essential.
It's the perfect place to gaze across the sea to the Scottish isles, and dream of giants.
IF YOU GO:
National Trust site and visitor's centre
40 Causeway Rd
Restaurant, rooms and suites
9 Dunluce Road
Co Antrim, Northern Ireland
118 Strand Road
Tours and tastings
2 Distillery Road
Bushmills, County Antrim
119a White Park Road,
Ballintoy, County Antrim