The Antrim Coast Drive
One of the most memorable routes in Ireland, the 60-mile (96km) drive along the Antrim coast offers sweeping views of midnight-blue seas against gray unforgiving cliffs and deep green hillsides. Starting from Carrickfergus, just north of Belfast, it runs to Portrush, a few miles past the spectacular Giant’s Causeway. You could do the whole journey in a couple of hours, but allow much longer if you can—it’s the sort of drive you want to savor.
Once you join the coast road (A2), about 16 miles (26km) north of Carrickfergus, the first town is Glenarm, decked out with castle walls and a barbican gate. In the picturesque seaside village of Carnlough, you can take a pleasant hike to a waterfall. On up the coast, you’ll find the National Trust village of Cushendun, known for its teashops and whitewashed cottages.
For the most spectacular views, detour off the main A2 road at Cushendun onto the Torr Head Scenic Road. Just note that this narrow, rugged, cliffside road can induce vertigo as it climbs in seemingly perilous fashion to the tops of hills that are bigger than you might think. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Scotland.
In the late spring and summer, you can take a ferry from the bustling beach town of Ballycastle to Rathlin Island, where seals and nesting birds make their homes at the Kebble National Reserve. Or take a 15-minute detour south on the A22 from Ballycastle to see the picturesque Dark Hedges, a beautiful avenue of 200-year-old beech trees that intertwine overhead. (It’s just past the Gracehill Golf Club on Bregah Road.)
Farther west, the heart-stopping Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge allows the brave to cross on foot over to a small island just off the coast. Others may prefer to press straight on to the postcard-perfect little town of Ballintoy, filled with charming stone cottages and flowery gardens. Ballintoy is stretched out at the edge of Whitepark Bay, a wide, crystalline curve of sandy beach at the foot of rocky hills surrounded by green farms. On a sunny day, you might find it hard to go farther.
The last major stop is the eerily lunar Giant’s Causeway, one of the world’s true natural wonders. And after all that adventure, don’t you think you’ve earned yourself a tipple—to enjoy later, if you’re the one driving—at the Old Bushmills Distillery?
Going to the birds: a Trip to Rathlin Island
Want to get close to nature? Plan a trip to Rathlin Island, 6 miles (10km) off the coast north of Ballycastle. The tiny island is 3 3/4 miles (6km) long, less than 1 mile (1.5km) wide, and almost completely treeless, with rugged coastal cliffs, a small beach, and crowds of seals and seabirds in spring and summer. Once you get there, you’ll realize that it’s not quite as isolated as it seems—there’s a resident population of about 100 people, plus a pub, a fish-and-chip shop, and a couple of guesthouses, should you miss the last boat to shore.
Start with a visit to the Boat House Museum and Visitor Centre, near the ferry landing at Church Bay (028/2076-2024). The center contains an exhibit on the history of the islands, as well as plenty of handy visitor information. It’s open April to September daily 10am to 5pm (call to check if you’re visiting in April or September—opening and closing dates vary). Admission is free.
Rathlin is a favorite bird-watching spot, especially in spring and early summer when the birds are nesting. Given that there’s little else to do here, it’s no surprise that the island’s biggest draw is bird-watching at the Kebble National Nature Reserve (028/7035-9963) on the western side of the island, and the RSPB Rathlin Seabird Centre (028/2076-0062), located in an old lighthouse. There’s no charge for entry, but you have to be let in by the warden; call in advance to arrange a time. From here you can watch colorful puffins, guillemots, kittiwakes, fulmars, razorbills, and other birds. It’s open April and the first half of September daily from 11am to 4pm, and May to August daily 10am to 5pm.
Boat trips operate daily from Ballycastle pier; the crossing takes 50 minutes. Boat schedules vary and are always subject to weather conditions, but there are usually several crossings a day. (Do check for cancellations in bad weather, though.) To check times and book tickets call Rathlin Island Ferry (www.rathlinballycastleferry.com; 028/2076-9299). Round-trip tickets cost £12 adults, £6 children, and £32 families; it’s advisable to book in advance.
If you find yourself wanting to stay a little longer, Coolnagrock B&B (www.rathlin-island.co.uk; 028/2076-3983), which has distant views of the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland, costs from £70 for a double. It’s open April to October.
For more information about Rathlin visit www.rathlin-island.co.uk.
The Giant’s Causeway: A Poet’s Eye View
With what tremendous force, aerial powers,
Once did ye rage in subterraneous bowers.
When roused by torturing fires from all your cayes.
Ye swept the glowing lava's sulphurous wayes;
Ye then beheld the thundering waters pass
Through wide rent gulfs, and changed to instant gas;
Struggling for vent again they upward roll.
And burst their narrow bounds from pole to pole.
'Twas nature's throe, and from the labouring frame
The solid strata, midst encircling flame
Severed and torn, their serried peaks upreared
And o'er the foamy surge the new-formed land appeared.
−From “The Giant’s Causeway” by William Hamilton Drummond (1778–1865)
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.