Why choose a road trip Northern Ireland?
Not being on the obvious tourist trail, you may be wondering what lies in wait on a road trip Northern Ireland? For us there were 6 known draws:
1) The Giant’s causeway – a bucket list item for me since seeing a photo of the weird hexagonal rocks in a school text book.
2) Some of the best beaches in the UK are reputed to live on the North Coast.
3) The Game of Thrones producers chose Northern Ireland as a back drop for its craggy coasts, ruined castles and dark hedges.
4) The chance to climb the nation’s highest mountain, Slieve Donard. In an ongoing quest to scale all 4 of the UK highest summits, we had 2 mountains in the bag (Scafell and Snowdon). This would be our chance to go for number 3.
5) The island’s international reputation for pubs, music and general friendliness.
6) Taking an overnight ferry makes it feel like you are actually going abroad when you are not allowed to. It was the most exotic UK destination we could think of.
Road trip Northern Ireland Itinerary
A bit of research was required to come up with a route:
- Looking at the map I could see that Giant’s Causeway lies in the north.
- Obtaining the sage advice of a local, I discovered that the best beaches were to be found near Portrush and Portstewart also on the north coast.
- Sleive Donard mountain is parked practically on the beach in Newcastle on the south east coast.
- Belfast lives right in the middle of the east coast.
A kind of thin triangular route was going to be needed to make this into a circular trip.
Booking your road trip Northern Ireland
Travel to your road trip Northern Ireland start point
Ferry versus flight
Booking a ferry to Belfast enables you to bring your car and enormous quantities of luggage, but does mean travelling to Liverpool or Scotland for departure. The hassle factor depends where you live. Flights into Belfast and car hire might work better for you if you live in, say, Essex (but your body board won’t be vacationing with you).
Which ferry route?
In non-Covid times I would totally have extended the tour to the whole of Ireland and ferried it back from Dublin to Hollyhead for a Welsh finale, but Covid was something of a feature this year and I had, at the point of booking, no idea whether the rest of Europe was going to let us in.
So a return Liverpool to Belfast it was.
Overnight or day travel
We booked overnight travel because:
- you get a family room for 4 (with porthole) for £65, cheaper than most hotels
- you don’t waste your day times travelling – just wake up and you are magically there
- being on deck in the dark is quite exciting, watching the city lights dance in the water
- and there is a bar, so it’s like a bonus night out.
Road trip Northern Ireland Accommodation
Hotel versus self-catering
There is an eternal holiday trade off between self-catering accommodation (generally bigger and much cheaper on the food front) and hotels (smaller but more central and no cooking!). I like to mix it up for a win win.
Book early for the best choices
With the whole nation eyeing up staycations, about half the rooms in Northern Ireland had gone by the time we booked, 6 months before departure.
We had rolled over a 2020 US trip but, come January 2021, the international travel situation was looking precarious to say the least so we rustled up a fully cancellable staycation Northern Ireland plan b – just in case. I should have had this bright idea earlier.
Book fully cancellable – particularly in these troubled times.
It’s much easier to deal with a booking that is cancellable until check in day, than claiming back through insurance later if plans are scuppered.
It also means you can have a concurrent international plan a and domestic plan b to cover all bases. We nearly had a European plan c as well just in case Greece reopened. But actual Covid struck and we discovered that If you have Covid there is a chance of failing one of the many PCR tests required for international travel for up to 90 days after recovery. As 50% of the family were afflicted in June, plan c was shelved.
Booking a family room - harder than it sounds
Price comparison websites such as Expedia and Booking.com are not always on the same page as the hotels in terms of how many they can fit in a room and at what age you cease to be classified as a child. If booking.com says no, I often email the hotel direct for the real story.
Booking breakfast - should you bother?
Finding food for 4 can be expensive and tricky if you are in the wilds, so for out of the way stays I usually add this. In towns, unless it is particularly cheap, or kids eat for free, I tend to leave this off on the basis that more interesting and cheaper cafes or supermarkets will come to our rescue. This also makes for a more relaxing lie in opportunity for everyone than a scheduled hotel breakfast time.
Factor in parking costs
I like to add a column to my itinerary to show if we can park on site and the rates. This gives you the real cost of the room for price comparison purposes, and means I can set the satnav to a local car park if necessary to avoid panicking in busy traffic when we pull into town.
NCP discounts: Many city centre hotels don’t have their own car parks and parking can be steep, at around £20 a day in Belfast and Liverpool. The Novotel in Liverpool and Marriott in Belfast both offer big NCP parking discounts.
You will delighted to hear that outside of Belfast pretty much all parking in Northern Ireland is free, even in town centres. If there is a charge it is from the 1970’s (30p an hour at Whiterocks beach).
Road trip Northern Ireland Activities
Check cancellation terms
Book fully cancellable activities where possible. Attractions are generally a lot kinder on this front than pre-Covid, but not always.
If not, keep an eye on availability and book as late as possible in case catastrophe strikes and you can’t go. (Check your insurance to see if activities are covered – you can be a bit more booking gung ho if they are).
As my main focus was on the US plan a, I had not been very vigilant here. As soon as the US was cancelled in June I went a bit mad with the activity booking for the new front runner Northern Ireland July trip, throwing caution to the wind in terms of cancellation policies and booking up everything that was left. I booked us in for:
– Beatles Story Museum, Liverpool (whilst waiting for the boat)
– Gobbins Cliff walk, 30 mins North of Belfast
– Marble Arch Caves tour, Country Fermanagh in SW N Ireland
– Titanic Museum, Belfast
Road Trip Northern Ireland tip #1
For attractions not offering refunds, keep an eye on availability and book as close as you can to your travel date.
Diving trips and Covid
I tried to book a surprise birthday diving trip in Portstewart but Covid was once again not my friend.
Diving trips require a doctor’s certificate if you have had Covid. This costs money (£30) and takes time (up to 30 days – we had 12). Our doctor interpreted the many international regulations referred to in the terms and conditions on the booking form as requiring chest x rays and some kind of body scan. Seemed a bit excessive for a relatively symptom-light case. The Dive centre then added that approval can only be given 3 months after recovery.
Diving was assigned to the “next time” list. The waters are crystal clear so it would have been prefect. Go for it if you can.
Other activities limited by Covid
Diving in the bin, we tried for a basking shark trip (£70) – but none were scheduled this summer.
I considered pre-booking the ferry to Rathlin Island where the sharks live, but there seemed to be very little to do on island itself, what if it was a bad weather day? There was lots of availability so I decided to risk it and wing it on the day.
The following were also hit by Covid:
- Carrick-a Rede rope bridge to an island– closed.
- Bushmills whiskey distillery – closed.
- Boat trip into Marble Arch Caves – the boat was out of water for Covid (I booked the caves anyway as it was only £25 for a family ticket and a walk along an underground river sounded pretty cool).
My pre-trip activity booking frenzy complete, I hopefully had enough rainy day activities so we wouldn’t just be room or pub bound if the weather turned.
Final plan for road trip Northern Ireland
I spent an evening booking 2 or 3 nights in each location – mixing it up between self-catering accommodation and hotels. The final plan looked a bit like this:
Day 1 - Liverpool
Stay: Novotel in Liverpool
Activity: Beatles Story
Day 2 - Ferry cabin
Stay: On board
Activity: Gobbins cliff walk (am)
Giant’s Causeway (pm)
Day 3-5 Causeway
Stay: Giant’s Causeway cottages
Marble Arch caves
Boat trip (either basking shark/or Rathlin Ferry/ Kayak or wildlife spotting tour)
Day 5 -7 Portrush/Portstewart
Stay: Atlantic Hotel
Rainy day: Derry city walls OR sunny day – Castle beach
Day 8 - 9 Newcastle
1) Sleive Donard Resort
2) Donard Inn
Climb Sleive Donard
Day 9 - 10 Belfast
Stay: AC Marriott
I added itinerary columns for:
Hotel address, cost, latest cancellation date, parking, drive distance to next venue and whether breakfast was included, as there was no way I was going to remember any of this stuff and I’d probably need it at my finger tips for check in.
(If you would like to see the revised with hindsight ideal itinerary, including drive time as well as distance, you will find a link on my subscriber welcome page.)
Road Trip Northern Ireland tip #2
Print out your itinerary so you don’t have to remember it.
As with any UK trip, I was going to have to cater for all the weathers:
- Mountain: There was a mountain to climb with all associated kit/boots/water bottles/ thermal layers – I could see highs of 13 degrees C were predicted for most days even at ground level.
- Beach: We would also be by the beach – so threw in all wetsuits and one optimistic body board. Suntan lotion, hats and shorts might as well go in too just in case.
- Snax: Packed an enormous snack bag to see 4 people though potentially shop-free countryside.
As we had 4 bags of clothes (including 17 x underwear per person) – I decided on a day pack system where each person takes only 3 days’ worth of clothes in a small back pack into the hotel/ferry. Clean clothes could be decanted into the day packs from the back of the car every few days thus avoiding mass luggage transportation. I didn’t really have a plan for drying out wet wetsuits on the move in the rain.
How it actually happened
Day 1 – Liverpool and ferry
We chose the Novotel as we still had some loyalty scheme reward points to use up from pre-Covid travel and you also get a bit of a discount as a member. Kids get a free breakfast so we were treated to a bottomless buffet.
With a nod to local industry, the hotel had a rope theme in the bar but the best bit, the official “you have started your holiday” indicator, was the pool.
Beatles Story Museum
I am firm believer in extending any holiday at either end to eke it out just that little bit further (too far, some family members may suggest). Having ferried across the Mersey on a previous visit, I’d booked tickets for the Beatles Story in Liverpool for a family day out before we boarded our evening boat.
Having an indoor plan meant we managed to avoid the 24 hour lightning going on outside, which was a little bit kung fu fighting frightening.
I would say the tour is very narrative based with a dearth of actual contemporaneous exhibits. You do get a lot of recreations though – a yellow submarine, the side of a magical mystery tour bus, Sergeant Pepper’s costumes and full sized recreations of the Cavern and John Lennon’s White Room.
Road Trip Northern Ireland tip #3
The audio tour is a must – otherwise you would have to read everything written all over the walls. Challenge enough for an adult let alone a teen’s attention span.
Seeking more Beatles based experiences, we walked down the street of the original Cavern. It’s a bit of a Cavern theme park as all the bars seem to have commandeered the name. It’s still very popular with the lunchtime drinking crowds, mind.
We toyed with the idea of a bus tour (either plain or Beatles focused), but in Covid you are not allowed to hop on and off the bus so it seemed a bit pointless. Next time.
A holiday staple McDonalds’ tea later, it was time for the ferry. We arrived on the dot at 7.30pm. Check in closed a 9.30 so it was frustrating to still be on land (in the car rather than the bar) at this point but it meant we were in pole position holding back the thousand vehicles raring to embark behind us.
Our turn arrived, night/snack bags were thrown in the cabin and we headed outside to watch the lights of Liverpool dance on the dark waters. The boat lights illuminated the deck in a very decorative way.
Arrival time was 6.30am and ship tannoys are known for shrill and (excessively?) early wake up calls. Having been stung by burning the boat candle at both ends in the past, we reined in our excitement and after only 1 wine headed to the room to have a chance of maximising the remaining 6 hours’ sleep potential.
As it was, we were all awake anyway when the disembodied ship voice floated into our cabin at a fairly reasonable 5.30am, as the aircon had seemingly run out of air and so had the room.
It may be time to reconsider day crossings.
Day 2 - Gobbins and Giants
Accommodation:- Ballylinny Cottages (3 nights)
For our first stop, I’d gone for a self-catering converted farm house in the middle of a field and right next to the Giant’s Causeway. Each house had its own coloured windows, like in a kid’s TV programme. Cute. Was a bit worried 3 nights would be too long if it rained.
In fact, having a mini 2 storey house and sofa for evening lounging was great and we should have booked for 5 days – maybe at one of the cottages with large ground floor windows.
Road Trip Northern Ireland tip #4
For families, self catering accommodation I think has the edge for a more relaxing holiday – more room to swing that cat.
On the basis that the ferry was getting in at dawn and check in at our cottages (a 2 hour drive north) was not until mid-afternoon, I thought we needed an intervening plan. We could have gone straight to the causeway but would this provide 5 hours of entertainment? Unlikely.
Just north of Belfast I’d found the brilliantly named “Gobbins“, a reconstructed Edwardian walkway, the novelty factor being that the “path” is half way down the cliff face. Sounded intriguing. When the sun is out, the water and views of Scotland were supposed to be remarkable. Wildlife spotting opportunities abounded.
I fully was aware that we would be walking this in the manner of sleep deprived zombies, but went ahead anyway, buying a family ticket for the 3 hour experience for £42.
We pulled in to the Gobbins car park at 7.30 and tried a bit of unsuccessful vertical sleeping in the car whilst we waited for the office to open.
8.30 arrived at what now felt like midday, bringing with it hunger, the need for the loo and the opening of the check in building. Popping in to use the facilities, I encountered my first Northern Irish stranger in the corridor, who promptly enquired how I was. Turns out absolutely everyone we met would do this – loved it.
The café however, was not due to serve until 9am, our tour start time. Coffee and food were non-negotiable at this point. With seconds to spare we grabbed armfuls of supplies and headed to our briefing, hoping they’d let us in (no bags were going to be allowed on the walk, which was of the hard-hat variety, so a latte to go was highly optimistic).
We snacked surreptitiously in the corner of the briefing room where participants were told what they were letting themselves in for – slippy rocks and what appeared to be a bit of caving. All dodgy hips, knees and asthma were to be declared up front. A helmet was to be worn and cameras were only permitted if worn around the neck. No backpacks and nothing in your hands. I snuck my phone camera into my coat pocket and hoped not to be told off.
The briefing had bought us time to sink the coffee. The only problem now was going to be no access to a loo for the next 3 hours.
We set off in a minibus and arrived at the start of the cliff path. A fairly steep walk down took us past some tiny Scottish islands that were the inspiration for the Gulliver’s floating lands, and their real life counterparts really did appear to be levitating in the mists.
The guide unlocked the gate to the Gobbins walkway and we ducked through a hole in the rock on to a metallic gangway and began our stroll past flocks of seagulls, a small seal and bobbing puffin. Having failed to bring binoculars, the wildlife presented itself in the form of a black amorphous blobs until someone with a better zoom showed them to us through his camera.
The sun was not present to illuminate the waters, but on the other hand, bad weather had not closed the facility, which is not an irregular occurrence in these parts. The last part of the path had actually and swept away in a landslide 4 months previously and was awaiting repair.
We enjoyed the tales of warring local tearooms and Victorian ladies smuggling children past the toll collector under their oversized skirts, and wondered how many of them made it round the cliffs without falling in.
The path, in its metallic form is easy to navigate, and is only punctuated sporadically with slidy cliff face stones. The 3 hours passed in a pleasant haze, the lack of zeds evident in the glassy eyed photos.
The trip over, we headed back to the Gobbins centre. Time no longer had its usual meaning. It felt like tea time but it was still only 12. What kind of meal should we order? The guide wisely advised us to go for the soda bread breakfast at the Gobbins café as you get an extra slice of this Irish wonder food, so a kind of evening brunch it was. The soda bread was amazing, a cross between a scone and fried bread. I was going to enjoy dinners on this holiday.
Road Trip Northern Ireland tip #5
Bring binoculars on your road trip Northern Ireland – seals, puffins and maybe even sharks await
Coastal Causeway Drive
We were very, very tired. But we could now head to our cottage without fear of not being let in or allowed to go to bed.
Driving out of Belfast, a noticeable feature was the number of Irish/Palestinian/Union Jack flags hung from every lamppost. It had recently been the centenary of the birth of the current NI borders and some villages were happier than others about this.
We were following The Causeway Coastal route, which turns out to be an attraction in its own right. The road ran right next to the sea, through rock arches, past increasingly craggy cliffs and over misty glens.
Practicalities - food and check in
Only one of us could be persuaded to get out of the car for the essential en route supermarket stop. Standing in the queue in Lidl, trolley loaded with soda bread, my eyes started to close and I did wonder if staycations really counted as a holiday.
But arriving at our little white cottages reminded me that the answer is yes. The kids had their own room and bathroom on the ground floor and we had a whole living room and kitchen upstairs with sea views. Result. And then bed.
But I was now too excited to sleep. The Giant’s Causeway was literally a 15 minute walk away and it was only 4pm (even though it felt like midnight). If we slept now we’d be in danger of jetlag on a staycation. Just wrong.
Did anyone fancy a quick walk, I ventured? Not really, but somehow I got away with it.
The walk was along a hedged country lane with no pavement and speedy cars, so was a bit edgy for those already just about holding it together. The road delivers you to a surprisingly modern National Trust visitor centre – like a a wedge of shiny black cheese. I don’t know why but I’d been expecting Northern Ireland’s premier tourist attraction to just be sitting on the side of the road like a normal beach.
It is not – there is a large car park and concrete tunnel to navigate before following the tarmacked path along a non-giants bay, which eventually leads you to the rocky celebrity itself. (The whole walk was more like 45 minutes – oops.)
Road Trip Northern Ireland tip #6
You do not need to pay to go to the Causeway itself. But if you want to park you need to pre-book a time slot, even if you are National Trust members. There is an overspill private car park nearby, but it may be full.
I was blown away by the geometric weirdness of its 40,000 basalt columns. We spent time stepping stoning over them, as if in a giant board game. The boys rested on ledges that probably didn’t look as high or backless on the way up. I couldn’t watch.
For the full folk law and geological story head to the visitor centre. If out of hours, you can still find little plaques around the bay pointing out the various giant-based aspects of the landscape – heads, chimneys and chairs.
We sought the perfect hexagon (surprisingly difficult) and climbed the Wishing Chair, a group of columns forming a natural throne fit for a giant
The Giant’s Causeway Story: Local giant Finn McCool, on hearing that a neighbouring Scottish giant had laid claim to Ireland, decided to challenge him to a duel. To this end he threw rocks in the sea and created a (giant’s) causeway to Scotland. Having done this, he discovered that the Scottish giant was a bit bigger than he had bargained for and, taking the obvious way out, disguised himself as a baby. The con worked. the Scot, contemplating the proportions of this monstrous baby’s dad, skedaddled back home, tearing up the causeway as he went to avoid being chased by the imaginary oversized Dad-giant. Fact.
The skies were steely, but not rainy and we were here for 3 days so would be able to pop by in the evenings to see the Causeway in different lights. Acknowledging that everyone’s legs had now turned to lead we wound our way back up the hill, along the scary road to the cottage of beds.
Day 3 - Rope Bridges, Ballycastle and Dark Hedges
Caves in the bin
Crazily I had booked some caves for this day in case it rained. An 80 mile journey and an 11am start time did not seem so bonkers in the land of motorways where I had booked it. Googlemaps told me that my Marble Arch caves excursion would entail a 5 hour round trip with a 7am start – there was just no way. I had messed up and resigned to the fact that the £25 ticket could just go in the bin. I emailed the caves to let them know we wouldn’t be making it after all and hoped that they would be able to resell our tickets.
Road Trip Northern Ireland tip #7
Add drive TIMES as well as distances to your itinerary to avoid ridiculous plans and hard stares
Carrick-a Rede - rope bridge walk
A free day then, to lie in and not overexert anyone stretched before us. Carrick-a-Rede (just love the names), a National Trust rope bridge to an island was a more acceptable 13 minute drive away. Although the bridge was closed for Covid, it might be worth a look?
And so it was! We got to park for free with our National Trust badge. The seas were as emerald as you would expect from the Emerald Isle and the lack of tourists meant we could get right up to the, albeit chained off, bridge. A beautiful circular coastal walk of about 1km was exactly what was needed.
Road Trip Northern Ireland tip #8
There are loads of National Trust properties and car parks in Northern Ireland – consider joining before you go.
Looking out to sea, we saw some kayakers edge around the cliffs below and wanted to be them. Maybe later in the trip? Then a small motor boat joined the scene, appearing to levitate above the transparent seas. Maybe we could do this too? We decided to head to the boat trip departure point, Ballycastle, to investigate.
Ballycastle - pubs and boat trips
Ballycastle harbour was hung with posters advertising boat trips but our first stop was the Ferry office. Rathlin Island, the most northerly point of Northern Ireland, was where the sharks lived. There were no ferry tickets available online for the next few days but the site indicated that more tickets were kept in the office. The lady opened the very closed looking office window (even the lights were off) to say there were none left. We could try back the next day at 8am. Sounded both early and risky as a plan.
Fish, chips and fancy lobster scampi were ordered on the harbour. Waiting for the seaside fare, I picked a poster and promptly booked the last remaining seal boat trip to the rope bridge for 2 days’ time.
The food arrived. Hoods kept the wind off and the seagulls were less ferocious than at home. What next?
The Bushmills distillery being Covid closed we took the opportunity to pop into town, past some very colourful Northern Irish pubs, to the Co-op to purchase some local whiskey for Irish coffees later
Road Trip Northern Ireland tip #8
Book your boat trip in advance and you guarantee a space but at this point you have with no access to a weather forecast. Either way it’s a gamble.
Researching Northern Ireland you will see multiple references to Game of Thrones sets. The Dark Hedges, an iconic photo associated with the show, happened to be a 16 minute drive away.
We turned into the hedge lane itself before noticing the sign telling us no traffic is allowed, presumably to prevent collisions with all the Games of Thrones fans marvelling at the trees.
There were about 60 people milling around recapturing the film on film. Storm damage had taken away a few branches but at their densest the beeches still deliver a dramatic punch. It takes about 5 minute to walk up and down the lane. No over-exertion goal achieved.
Road Trip Northern Ireland tip #10
Look out for the car park by the Dark Hedges. No cars allowed in the lane.
Day 4 - Castles and beaches
Just down the road from us was Dunluce castle, famed for its wild beauty and is reputed to be the inspiration for C.S Lewis’s capital of Narnia. The castle teeters over the ocean on a rock which appears to be attached to the mainland by its stone bridge. It certainly has a fairy-tale quality to it.
The history was complicated, as is often the way in Northern Ireland. Ownership alternated between warring Scottish clans, and at one point the castle was inherited by Winston Churchill. Canons salvaged from the shipwrecked Spanish Armada graced the gate house. The rest of the booty funded a fancy 16th century refurb. It has a resident ghost, the daughter of a former Lord of Dunluce, who was claimed by the sea trying to escape the castle dungeons.
Someone has thoughtfully resurrected the skeleton of a window frame so you can get a sense of the views enjoyed by successive lords of the manor over the immensely scenic coastal rocks.
Whiterocks town beach
This was the one forecast sunny day. Our afternoon plan involved the fabled North coast beaches.
Having parked the car in Portrush (for an exorbitant 30p/hour) we settled in for an afternoon of surfing the crystal waters of Whiterocks beach.
The sand disappears mysteriously round the corner, looking for all the world like the edge of a desert island and I was driven to explore. About a mile down the beach, I discovered the white cliffs, chalky columns and arches after which the beach is named. This was both a town beach and a wild beach. Brilliant. I mentally added the wild end to our next sunny day itinerary.
As a final bonus for the day, driving back from the beach to home, we stopped off at a gob smackingly gorgeous view point – castle one way, white cliffs rising out of clear green waters the other. Bookmark it – Maghercross. It has only been open since 28/7/21 and there is a van selling coffee and icecream. A slice of holiday heaven.
Road Trip Northern Ireland tip #11
Do not drive past the Maghercross view point
Day 5 - Seal trips, Vegas signs and off roading
Accommodation: Atlantic Portrush
This was check out day. I’d enjoyed the extra space, washing machine (boring but important) and own fridge but not the rubbish meals I’d half heartedly cooked. An early start bundling up the linen, clearing the fridge and sweeping out was not the most celebratory of starts to our 21st anniversary but it was set to improve.
A sea front hotel in a holiday town would be a fun change. I’d taken a gamble here. Booking. com had said the family room could only take 3, but the hotel website clearly showed 2 double beds and said it took up to 4. Booking direct was more expensive and wasn’t as readily cancellable – so I’d booked for 3 people through booking.com.
The hotel did let all 4 of us in for an extra £15 but check in was a bit tense. Note to self – run the final number of guests through the hotel even if not booking through them to avoid check in stress or the risk of being holiday homeless.
Ballycastle Boat trip
This was boat trip day. 8.50am was a bit early for an activity but was the only time left and better than no boat. (I hadn’t bothered phone investigating kayak tours as it was cold and my lobster scampi was ready.)
Again, we were lucky in that the rain held off for the trip, but it was hoods up against the wind again and the sky kept is metallic hues. Even so, the water shone greener than grass.
The trip out is fairly speedy and quite far away from the coast, presumably so they don’t use up all the good bits in the first half. The tour really starts at the end of the journey where you bob around the beautiful waters under the rope bridge, before hugging the caves and coast on the way back, past a ruined castle and lounging seals. No anniversary dolphin or porpoises (or basking sharks which did get a mention in the tour leaflet) today. Although there was a man with a jellyfish chart – and a lion versions drifted around the hull for a while.
Road Trip Northern Ireland tip #10
The £70 family ticket would be better value on a sunny day with A list wildlife appearances. On balance I would take the time to investigate and pre-book the kayak option next time (and cross fingers for the weather).
Portstewart - Bringing Vegas to Ireland
Our next hotel was in Portstewart. Or this is what I had written on the itinerary. Looking for the hotel name on Google maps as we drove around the town I could see that it was only showing up in neighbouring Portrush. Oops. Good job they were close.
We parked up in Portstewart anyway in search of an anniversary lunch, having been tipped the nod that all day breakfast providers Bob and Bert’s was the place to eat.
Today we should have been in Las Vegas, revisiting the site of our wedding, so it was fortuitous that Bert and Bob had thought to erect their own version of the Vegas sign in our lunch spot.
Portstewart beach - inadvertent off roading
Checking out the local beach we ended up doing a spot of unintentional off-roading. The road simply turns into Portstewart beach and cars are parked in rows along the sand, somewhat ruining the look of an otherwise fab beach. We continued to the end and engaged “cactus” mode for a bit of Fraser Island style fun.
Portrush - seafront snax and fizz
We then drove back along the coast to Portrush to check in and do some prosecco drinking on the seafront a l fresco Bar 55. We were really looking for a band, ideally with fiddles, but live music was still Covid off the cards.
For dinner I can totally pass on the recommendation made to us of Ramones, a 3 storey venue overlooking the harbour. These being Covid times, securing a table was harder to achieve than normal. You can’t book. Instead you collect a ticket from the front desk and wait in the street with the rest of the crowds for a call out (waiting time about 45 minutes). Fortunately there is a pub next door where you can drink on the street whilst keeping an ear out.
Best buzzing atmosphere and seafood supper of the holiday.
Day 6 - Dune running at Whiterocks wild end
Finding a source of affordable food on a road trip is key to not breaking the bank. (We do carry an eternal emergency snack bag but it is rarely appetising enough to dip into after a day or so in the car. In a bag of nuts versus a bag of chips contest there is a clear winner.)
With breakfast we like to go late and large for a double win of lying in and not having to bother with lunch. Turns out Bob and Bert had set up shop in Portrush too, providing another hearty brunch.
Walk on the wild side of Whiterocks
We should have ventured to Castle Rock beach which is the all time favourite of a local friend but we were too taken with Whiterocks and had yet to spend a day at its wild end where the chalky cliffs tumbled into the sea.
Parking right behind the dunes (for free!), a unforecast second day of sun was spent surfing and dune running on this most scenic stretch of sand. As an added beach bonus we spotted Dunluce castle perching prettily on the coast next door.
Although out of town, the beach car park still has loos and an icecream stand. This was now officially my UK number 1 best beach.
Day 7 - Caves and spa
Marble Arch Caves
So the lovely people at Marble Arch Caves had replied to my email cancelling our non-cancellable booking to ask if we wanted to change our dates. Our next destination was due to be Newcastle – 2 hours south east. Should we do a 2 hour detour to the south west by way of the caves, and put that £25 back in our pocket? This would delay our arrival at the fanciest hotel of the holiday, but we would see a whole extra corner of the country. We went for it. This was Northern Ireland road trip after all.
A two hour drive in Northern Ireland somehow feels a lot longer than at home. The roads are small and windy and often won’t fit a car going both ways. The scenery was great but not really taken in by the driver. And it was raining, a lot.
Because of Covid , instead of entering the cave by boat on the cave river (how cool would that be?), you enter by foot at the point where the tour usually ends. You are then marched quickly past all the (unlit) highlights, before retracing you steps at a more sedate pace accompanied by stories and illumination. It was pretty walking along side an underground river and seeing the stalactites reflected in dark pools. But I couldn’t help thinking about that boat. It should be back in 2022. Enjoy!
There are clearly many gorgeous walks to be done in the Cuilcagh Mountain area in County Fermanagh but we neither had the time nor the weather. We were anxious to check out our anniversary treat..
Road Trip Northern Ireland tip #11
Check the boat is running into Marble Arch Caves before you visit
Accommodation: Sleive Donard resort - Hogwarts on sea
This was our holiday feature wall. Pay back for cancelling Las Vegas for our 20th and 21st anniversaries was one night only in a hotel resembling Hogwarts, with Spa facilities and ocean views. Excited is an understatement.
The price comparison sites had no family rooms listed but I contacted the hotel and they did. Hoorah. We bit the financial bullet, with the words of the original Newcastle diva Cheryl Cole whispering in our ears, because we were worth it.
Resort check in
Another 2 hours in the hammering rain from Marble Arch brought us to the base of Slieve Donard, our mountain. It brooded darkly over the town of Newcastle, its summit partially shrouded in mist.
We could not have been happier to check in to the Resort Spa with the view to spending the rest of the afternoon making use of the spa facilities. Tragically all child slots had gone for the day but we could book 9-10am the next morning, and the squeeze in breakfast before check out? Tried not to be too disappointed and to make the most of our Hogwarts stay in other ways.
We dabbled with an ornate game of chess, sitting in the velvet chairs of the drawing room, read up about the hotel in its own mini-museum room and watched tv in robes on our enormous beds.
A resort dinner being likely to be a bit formal and out of budget range, we struck out down the high street to see what this alternative version of my home town had to offer. And to make a mountain assessment.
Road Trip Northern Ireland tip #12
Pre book your hotel pool slot before check in (pool popularity increases proportionately with fanciness)
Newcastle (without the Tyne)
Unsurprisingly, following the day’s deluge, the high street was pretty deserted. There was evidence of sea side town fun in the form of amusement arcades but these were generally empty and not looking their best through the sheets of water obscuring them. The outdoor café seats dripped.
The mountain which usually overshadows the town was gradually disappearing beneath the increasingly intense downpour but we’d keep an open mind about its climbing potential in the morning (the forecast was NOT looking good).
A Northern Irish sports bar serving what seemed like the the whole town Guinness and chips saved the day.
Day 8 - A Spa, a wilderness tea room and a broken car
Our 9am booking with the spa arrived and lived up to the exceedingly high expectations. Sauna and steam room ceilings glowed with sparkling lights, eternally changing colour in the warm mists.
A huge frothy jacuzzi ran the length of the pool and fronted a glass wall looking out to sea. One wall of the pool appeared to be made out of pure copper.
The small time we were allowed went by in a splash and it was time for the equally magnificent breakfast. The huge breakfast bar, heavily laden with freshly baked Irish goodies was out of bounds but instead brought to your table by tartan clad waiters. Tea pots were silver and the fireplace stretched to the ceiling. The wild and windy sea and departing guest hairdo’s could be viewed safely from behind large windows.
Now this was more like the anniversary scenario I’d had in mind.
Mourne Mountain tea room
But all too soon it was check out time and we were back on the watery streets of Newcastle. Drenched to the skin within minutes, we popped into the tourist info wondering if they could help with a mountain alternative activity (the mountain could no longer be seen at this point).
There was a go-karting / animal experience which had spaces for the afternoon, or a stone cottage tearoom in the foothills of the Mourne Mountains with an open fire. The kids chose option a, but we were in charge of the car keys and went for b.
Carrick-a-Glass is reached by way of a stony mountain pass and lays on tea and cake in the cutest of cottages with the friendliest of service. It felt like we had climbed a mountain, turning up in sodden clothes which steamed by the open fire. Huge lemon meringues were produced taking the sting of the fact we had trashed our tail light trying to park in the mists.
Accomodation: Donnard Inn
It was time to check in to our new, budget quarters in Newcastle.
If we scaled a mountain, it would be wrong to go back to fancy spa land all muddied up, was how the thinking went at the time of booking. Better all round to book a more budget room for night 2.
Although not as fabulous as night 1, it was in an historic inn with a turret and etched glass windows. The bunk and double beds were spread out of over 2 connected rooms so there was plenty of space to dry our clothes. But like spoiled children we noticed the distinct lack of a jacuzzi. And in the end the mountain remained unclimbed, so a second day of sparring and night of luxury would have been possible. If your budget allows, 2 nights at Sleive Resort Spa is totally the way to go.
Mountain souvenir shopping
The day ended with a final bit of shopping. I bought a thick woollen scarf to guard against the Northern Irish summer. Husband found a new version of the mountain t-shirt, which was the original inspiration for the 4 peak quest. The actual mountain was never seen again.
Day 9 - Belfast bound
Had the weather picked up a bit we could have embarked on a scenic drive around the Mourne mountains before heading off to Belfast. But the cloud still hung low. And we’d found a man selling taillights on Gumtree an hour away, so this was to be our pre-Belfast detour instead.
Arriving at lunchtime in Belfast we had 3 days before catching our ferry home. Our Belfast itinerary with kids is a whole other story and coming to a blog near you soon. Sooo many lessons learned!
If you get there before I write the next instalment, just be aware not to follow Googlemaps to Crumlin Gaol, as it will quite happily send you through the Shanklin Estate. Stick to the Titanic Museum and amazing Crown and Duke of York pubs.
Road trip Northern Ireland Tips lessons learned
- Holiday wins:
- Finding Carribean-esque waters at my new favourite wild Whiterocks beach
- Driving literally through rocks on the dramatic Coastal Causeway route
- Seeing places not by their original artists (Newcastle, Marble Arch and the Vegas sign)
- Ticking off bucket list entries a) Giant’s causeway and b) visiting all the Newcastles in the world (so many to go).
Holiday lessons learned:
- Try the day ferry to Belfast to combat holiday exhaustion
- Proof read your itinerary
- Make sure the hotel knows how many people to expect
- A road trip with so many check in/check outs was never going to be the most relaxing of holidays. Maybe stay a bit longer at each place with a few more self catering options.
- A Northern Ireland itinerary is very weather dependant. Always have a sunny and a rainy day plan ready.
Enjoy your explorations. I wish you sunshine and/or a road trip story!
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