Travel | May 30, 2023 6:26 am

Northern Irish Spirit Is Alive and Well Along the Causeway Coast

Home to the Kingsroad and Bushmills whiskey

Rocky coastline with Dunluce Castle
Dunluce Castle

Occupying just six counties in Ireland and with a history fraught with political strife, Northern Ireland can get lost in the shuffle when it comes to spending time in the United Kingdom. But between Belfast and Derry lies the stunning and wild Causeway Coast in County Antrim. The coastal route is approximately 130 miles to drive; and while my journey took me through the heart of the Causeway Coastal Route, there are dozens of places to stop — from Carrickfergus Castle all the way to Magilligan Point. The important point is to get there…by the end of my trip, I was sorry it had taken me so long to do so. 

Giant's Causeway is the country's only UNESCO World Heritage Site
Giant’s Causeway is the country’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Road Paved by Giants

There are few images more iconic to Northern Ireland than the tens of thousands of basalt columns stacked across the shore and into the sea. The Giant’s Causeway is the country’s only UNESCO World Heritage site and home to some 40,000 of these interlocking columns that slowly step down into the water. Scientifically, the stones are remains of volcanic fissure eruptions from millions of years ago, but according to Irish folklore, they are a reminder of the legend of Finn McCool. 

Stepping gingerly down the rain-splattered road that winds down to the hexagonal stones below, I listened as our guide recounted the age-old story between McCool and Scottish giant, Benandonner. The tale of trickery and defense of the Emerald Isle is as warming as the glass of Bushmills whiskey our guide hands us at the end, which I sipped while watching visitors scramble around the rocks for photos amongst the columns. A new partnership with Northern Ireland’s signature whiskey maker allows guests to buy a tour that includes a tasting and toast amongst the stones. Alcohol aside, there’s plenty to explore at the National Trust site, including a large Visitor’s Centre that provides interactive information on the geological, as well as legendary, creation of the Causeway. 

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Bushmills Inn
Bushmills Inn

Lifting a Glass to Irish Whiskey

Speaking of whiskey, if the tasting at the Giant’s Causeway leaves you wanting more, the next crucial stop along the Causeway Coast should be at the iconic Bushmills distillery. The world’s oldest licensed distillery has been operating since 1608 but reinventing itself over the last couple of years, opening a second distillery on the property and releasing new Rare Cask, 25 year, and 30 year single malts. 

You can feel pride throughout the town of Bushmills about the company and there are few in the area that aren’t somehow connected to the distillery. That hospitable warmth is carried through into touring the grounds, with employees who are passionate about the spirit they craft. We sniffed the pungent odors of whiskey-in-progress, examined the distillation process and, of course, sipped some offerings in an old barrel storeroom used for tours and lined with dusty casks. 

After a whiskey-infused day, I appropriately spent the evening at The Bushmills Inn, which is just as charming as the name suggests. The property is full of intimate snugs and fireplaces, with accents of dark wood and cozy chairs. My lowkey room provided a comfy respite from the angry rain lashing at the windows and a proper full Irish breakfast the next morning at the onsite restaurant fueled me up to continue my trip on the coast. 

Dunluce Castle
Dunluce Castle
Asonta Benetti

A Castle on the Cliff

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, then a shot of Dunluce Castle is worth a textbook of Irish history. The medieval structure was the past home of Clan McDonnell, a seat of power that has seen earls, towns and rebellions come and go. Still the weathered stones stand, a reminder of Northern Irish resilience. 

Mid-morning, I stood there in my warmest boots and thickest sweater, hoping any sprinkles of rain would refrain from growing stronger as the powerful winds rendered any umbrella pointless. While the winds never really did let up, the rain did and it was good enough for our cheerful guide to take us to the crumbling edifice against the sea. 

There’s enough of the structure left intact to get a sense of how previous occupants lived in this cliffside castle. Peering through a square opening in the wall, I stared at the violent waves assailing the jutting rocks, green and jagged cliffs looming above them against a gray sky. It’s the same scene people have gazed upon for half a millenia through that opening and it is easy in the moment to feel that the whole of Northern Irish history is sitting at your feet. 

The Kingsroad…or the Dark Hedges

Into the Dark

Without the powerhouse influence of Game of Thrones — which used Northern Ireland as a significant shooting location throughout the series — it is possible The Dark Hedges, located just a 15 minute drive out of Ballycastle on the Causeway Coast, would have remained one of those delightful locations to discover during your travels. But the iconic avenue of beech trees was used as the set for The Kingsroad, becoming a must-see destination for fans of the show. 

I was simply curious to see what the name “Dark Hedges” implied and my first look at the lane explained it. The 150 trees planted by the Stuart family in the 18th century were originally designed to provide a beautiful entrance to their home, Gracehill House. Centuries later, the trees have grown up sideways, gnarled, with tangled limbs, providing a beautifully mysterious tunnel and a photographer’s dream. 

There are reports of a ghost that roams through the trees but on that blustery and sunny evening, I saw no unnatural figures. Instead, the sun’s rich, golden light filtered through the trees, set against green fields and peaceful cows. Walking down the road, I soaked in the raw, natural beauty of twisted branches above our heads; the wind snapped against my face, leaving my cheeks red and my hair a tumbled mess. I loved every moment of it.