If you thought road trips were all about long straight roads through the American Wild West, then think again. Northern Ireland's Causeway Coastal Route has been voted one of the top five road trips in the world and with its breathtaking scenery, local legends and historic buildings it's easy to see why
The Causeway Coastal Route from Belfast to Londonderry is one of the most dramatic drives in the world. It’s a kaleidoscope of natural wonders, majestic buildings and outstanding beauty. Some 120 miles of stunning coastline will transport you past rugged, windswept cliffs, lush green rolling hills and glens and wide, pristine sandy beaches. The coastline is punctuated with historic castles, churches and forts, many of which are just ruins, but all hold memories of a mysterious and majestic past.
The journey along the Causeway Coastal Route is not one to be rushed. Every twist and turn in the road will reveal unexpected new sights. The road winds over bridges, through arches, past bays and beaches and unusual rock formations. Venture inland on one of the nine loops into the glens and you’ll experience verdant green hills and valleys, dramatic scenery and historic sites that are steeped in myth and legend. The autumn and winter months are a great time to take this drive, as out of season you’ll find you have the road to yourself and you can take your time to breathe in the sea air and fall into step with the slower pace of life in this relaxed part of the world.
Begin your journey in Belfast, Northern Ireland’s vibrant capital city, and follow the easy-to-spot brown Causeway Coastal Route signs that take you towards Whiteabbey. Striking lough and coastal views at the start of your journey will set the scene for what’s to come. If you can, make time to stop off for a bite to eat at the Bureau By The Lough in Whiteabbey, where they pride themselves on serving locally sourced food. This modern Taste of Ulster-accredited restaurant has unsurpassed views over the lough, the food is excellent and the staff are so welcoming, it’s perfect for getting you in the right relaxed mood for your trip.
Follow the road along the coast to Carrickfergus where you’ll be met by the imposing sight of Carrickfergus Castle towering majestically over the harbour. Fergus Mor, the first Scottish king of Dalriada (which included parts of the North Antrim coast) was drowned when his boat foundered on the rocks near the castle, which became known as Krag Fergus and eventually Carrickfergus. The castle itself is one of Ireland’s most striking monuments whether you approach it by road, sea or air. It’s the first building of its kind in the north of Ireland and the oldest Anglo-Norman castle. Besieged in turn by the Scots, Irish, English and French, the castle saw action right up to World War II. 800 years on it is a fascinating place to visit with plenty to see and enjoy from educational videos to replica weaponry and models recreating scenes from the castle’s history. The excellent tour guides really bring the place alive and explain the castle’s transformation over the years from family home to centre of royal power, army barracks to fascinating modern day visitor experience.
Back behind the wheel drive past Whitehead towards Larne, the gateway to the Nine Glens of Antrim: Glenarm, Glencoy, Glenariff, Glenballyemon, Glencorp, Glenaan, Glendun, Glenshesk and Glentaisie. Here you can take the loop around Islandmagee to Portmuck Harbour and the Gobbins Cliffs to see the wide variety of seabirds that nest there. Back on the Causeway Coastal Route after your detour, the road hugs a narrow strip of coastline between the high cliffs and the emerald sea. Around 60 million years ago, three great lava flows were laid down here, cooling the basaltic plateau of North Antrim. You can still see the different layers in the cliff face. At the end of the last Ice Age, ten thousand years ago, massive glaciers scoured the deep valleys that form the glens. Time, weather and man have created the stunning natural landscape that we see today.
Continue north on the coast road and stop off at Carnfunnock Country Park with its 191 hectares of mixed woodland, colourful gardens, walking trails, coastline and impressive maze. There is even an outdoor keep fit trail for those that fancy a bit of exercise to stretch your legs after driving.
Head back on the road and drive through the picturesque village of Ballygally, with its haunted Castle Hotel, towards Glenarm. Here at the foot of Glenarm Glen sits Glenarm Castle, one of Ireland’s oldest estates, with its walled garden that dates back to the 18th century. Although the castle is a private family home, the beautifully designed gardens are open to visitors between May and September and are definitely worth seeing. Don't forget to try one of their tasty treats from the tea room too.
As you drive along this road flanked on the right hand side by the water where the Irish Sea begins to merge with the Atlantic make sure you open your car windows and breathe in the bracing sea air. On the passenger side your view changes as you drive along from rolling hills and grazing sheep to towering, imposing cliff faces. Take time to pull over in one of the many parking spots along the route to take in the majestic views across the sapphire blue sea.
From Glenarm take a detour inland to see the flower-filled village of Broughshane, winner of Ulster in Bloom, Britain in Bloom and Europe in Bloom, and to nearby Slemish Mountain which is all that’s left of an ancient volcano. Saint Patrick (Ireland’s Patron Saint) is said to have spent six years there in the 5th century as a slave herding sheep, and visitors can still climb to the top of it today to enjoy amazing views across North Antrim.
Returning to the Causeway Coastal Route you’ll pass through the picturesque fishing village of Carnlough with its pretty harbour overlooking Carnlough Bay. The harbour was built by the owners of the quarries west of the village whose excavation sites were linked to the harbour by a tramway network and bridge which still remain today.
To find out more on visiting Northern Ireland visit www.discovernorthernireland.comRead the rest of this feature on p.116 of the January/February 2013 issue...By Anna-Lisa De'Ath