Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast must be one of the most scenic drives in the world, with a rugged, unspoiled coastline and a coastal road that runs within sight of the sea.
I reckon that you need at least three days to tour this lovely coastline. One day to see the Giant’s Causeway and the other attractions of the northern coastline. Another to taste a drop of whiskey at the famous Bushmills distillery and sleep it off at the Bushmills Inn (no driving required). On the final day you can drive down the stunning Glens coast between Ballycastle and Belfast. A perfect long weekend you might say!
The star of the coast – The Giant’s Causeway
So here’s the star of Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast; the Giant’s Causeway. Since the 1830s tourists have been coming here to see this wonder of nature, with hexagonal basalt columns, formed 66 million years ago when a lava flow cooled and cracked. Over time, the sea and weather eroded the columns into the iconic rock formations you see today.
Well that’s what the geologists will tell you! But of course the locals know that the Causeway was created by the giant Finn McCool, when he threw rocks into the sea to pick a fight with the Scottish giant who was taunting him from across the water. If you stand on the causeway you’ll see the chimneys of Finn McCool’s house rising from the cliff.
To tell me the stories of the causeway, I had an excellent local guide in Mark Rodgers who is part of the Purdy family that can trace their ancestry back to the survivors of the ship Girona, part of the Spanish Armada wrecked on the Causeway in 1588.
We passed the stone that marks when the Causeway became Ireland’s first World Heritage Site in 1986, while down the path we passed through the windy gap where a sudden gust of wind can easily blow your hat off. Mark pointed out the small harbour where local fisherman would pull up their boats during the summer salmon fishing season, but once tourists started arriving would row them around the headland to see the Great Sea Cave.
Before the 1960s when the National Trust took over the management of the Causeway, a few local families ran souvenir and tea shops for visitors alongside this path. Now all that has gone and the Causeway has been restored to its natural state, with a new National Trust Visitor Centre much further up the hill.
We passed what I would have taken for a puddle in the rock, which Mark explained was a well, fed by a natural spring. In the past ladies would stop to take a drink from the well, then would go and sit on the Causeway in the wishing chair, a natural seat in the rock, and wish for a husband. Of course for fun I took a seat but luckily I already have a wonderful husband so I didn’t need to wish for any other.
The pony and traps that once transported visitors down to the Causeway have been replaced by a mini bus (£1 each way) and we took it back up to the visitor centre again. It’s worth being aware that there is no charge to walk down to the Giant’s Causeway on the public right of way that leads through the arch by the car park. However, if you want to use the National Trust car park, see the exhibition in the visitor centre and use their facilities, the charge is £9 per adult, £4.50 per child, or £22 per family. As an alternative you can arrive by public transport or park in the car park by the small train that runs from Bushmills for £6.
So now we have visited the star attraction of Northern Ireland’s north coast, what else is there to see? Well a surprising amount as it turns out, especially if you have a car to get around. (Check out Alamo Car hire if you need a rental car)
So lets start at…..
Mussenden temple on the edge of the clifftop
You may have seen photos of Mussenden Temple, an elegant Palladian building perched on the edge of the cliff, which you can spot from Downhill beach below. It was actually a library and summer house for the great house of Downhill Demesne which is now only a shell, as it burnt down in 1851 and was subsequently dismantled in the 1940s.
The temple was built by the Earl Bishop Frederick Hervey in honour of his favourite niece, Frideswide Mussenden, and there was originally space to drive a horse and carriage around it. As it’s now perched precariously on the cliff edge, perhaps you should visit while you can, although it’s only open for special events like weddings.
The property is managed by the National Trust and from the car park you can walk through the walled garden and see the ice house and dovecote before exploring the ruins of the mansion and walking to the clifftop to photograph the temple.
A little further down the road is Hezlett House, which you can visit with the same ticket. This thatched 17th century cottage is furnished as it would have been a century ago, with store rooms under the roof beams and tiny bedrooms set behind the cosy parlour furnished in Victorian style.
Downhill Demesne and Hezlett House, near Castlerock. Open 10-5, every day in summer and some days in spring/ autumn. Adults £4.50 or free to National Trust members
A stop for the view over Whiterocks Beach
As you drive along the coast road there’s a viewpoint where you can stop overlooking Whiterocks beach with a sign that tells you about the coastal park. From here, enjoy the views towards the seaside town of Portrush, the rocky islands known as the Skerries and the limestone cliffs where kittiwakes and guillemots nest. I love the wide, windswept beaches and dramatic seascapes on this part of Northern Ireland’s coast and a little further on you’ll arrive at ….
Dunluce Castle perched on the cliff
Dunluce Castle looks as if it might just topple off the edge of the cliff and into the sea to the pounding waves below. But wait… apparently a bit of the manor house did fall off the the cliff in the 18th century and you can now see the hole with iron bars across it. Even if you don’t want to live life on the edge, the castle does make a great photograph, the ultimate picturesque ruin.
At the ticket office there’s an interesting display about the castle’s history and a video playing in the exhibition room opposite. The castle was the stronghold of the MacDonnells who were the leading family along the Antrim and Glens coast and it was the base for their power struggles with other Irish clans as well as the English crown. The splendid Jacobean manor house which you can see the shell of was built by Randall McDonnell in 1620 and was the lavish seat of the Earls of Antrim.
The curious part of the story is that on this windswept cliff top was a town which has been partly excavated. It was established in 1608 with the support of King James I to house Scottish settlers who were encouraged to come to establish greater support for the English crown. But by the 1680s the town had been abandoned. I can imagine how the clifftop location, might have been a little too exposed even for the hardy Scotts and Irish.
Where to stay – Bushmills Inn
If you want a base to explore Northern Ireland’s Causeway coast by car, I highly recommend the charming Bushmills Inn, where you can guarantee that a warm Irish welcome will await you. If you are coming from afar, they may even fly your country’s flag from the tower to greet you, as they have a flag room which contains the flags of every nation in the world.
Even if you don’t stay at Bushmills Inn, be sure to stop by in the evening for a drink in their Gas Bar which is lit by the soft glow of gas lamps and has live music on Saturdays and Wednesdays. There’s a peat fire burning every day at the reception where all the guests (including me) love to be photographed since it just embodies all that is warm and welcoming about an Irish bar.
The hotel started life in the 18th century as a coaching inn (that’s the part where you’ll find the Gas Bar) but they’ve since built an extension at the back, and now have 41 rooms. It’s difficult to tell where the old ends and the new begins, since the stonework and whitewashed walls run throughout. I had a luxurious four poster bed and a huge bathroom with roll-top bath overlooking the River Bush flowing behind the hotel, with the same pure water that’s used to make the Bushmills Whisky at the distillery just down the road. The restaurant is excellent too – the kind of place where you’d come for a special treat, and specialises in modern Irish dishes that use the best produce from farms and fisherman of the North Antrim coast.
The Bushmills Inn, 9 Dunluce Road, Bushmills.
Dark Hedges – a location for Games of Thrones
If you’re driving up through the area around Bushmills, you might want to take a detour to see one of the best known Game of Thrones filming locations in the area, known as Dark Hedges. The avenue of beech trees have an eery, twisted look and were used in Season 2 when Arya Stark travels down the King’s Road to escape from Kings Landing, dressed as a boy.
The trees were planted as the driveway for the Georgian Mansion of Georgehill House, which is now a hotel where you can stop for a coffee. Although it looks like a quiet country lane, it was difficult to get a decent photograph of the trees, for all the cars driving up and down and the people walking through – pesky tourists!
Fishing boats in Ballintoy harbour
Let’s continue our drive along the coastal road, but before you get to the Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge, take a detour down the narrow, winding road that leads to Ballintoy Harbour, another Game of Thrones location. I caught it in the late afternoon when it was looking very pretty with a small boathouse at the harbour entrance and rugged rocks with the sea spray breaking over them. On the other side of the car park are some sea caves that are fun to explore and a small beach. Enjoy a wander then stop for a cake or an ice cream at the small cafe, before driving on to…
Carrick-A-Rede Rope bridge
Yikes, from all the photos I’d seen this looked like one scary rope bridge. I worried about whether I’d even be able to a take any photos at all – one false move and my iphone might be knocked from my hand and plunge into the sea below.
The original bridge was made by salmon fishermen, who used it to get across the gap between the headland and the small island so that they could get better access to the salmon that swam past here each summer to the rivers on the north coast. On the island you can see the shed of their small fishery which is open on certain days. Judging by the old photographs, the rope bridge was a lot more perilous in those days, with just a rope on one side to steady yourself. Those daring tightrope-walking fisherman thought nothing of balancing themselves and all their gear to cross over the bridge.
Well, back to these days and it’s really not that bad. You may need to queue to take your turn to cross the bridge with a warden monitoring progress and telling you when to go. “Don’t worry”, he quipped, “we haven’t lost anyone yet … this month”. When it’s your turn, you descend the wooden steps and then cross over, just don’t look down and in a couple of minutes you are across. Even though it was quite windy, the bridge was surprisingly stable. I had a little look around on the other side and then turned around to come back. The best views are to be had if you walk a bit further beyond the bridge and look back towards it where you can see people crossing.
Despite the National Trust ticket booth that blocks your path, you don’t need to pay to walk along the coastal path to the Carrick-A-Rede bridge. You only need to buy a ticket if you want to cross the bridge itself, so if it’s just the view you are after, walk boldly on through past the kiosk. Adults £5.90 to cross the bridge. Just a little further along the coast you’ll find…
Boats in Ballycastle harbour
Ballycastle is one of the larger towns on the Antrim coast, a market town with a harbour and proper high street with lots of shops, restaurants and bars. It’s also become something of a foodie hub for this part of the coast, with many great food producers based nearby and regular Farmer’s markets at the weekend. You can even do a walking food tour of Ballycastle with Caroline Redmond of North Coast Walking Tours. For more information on all the great foodie places check out my article: 10 fab Foodie stops on Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast. If you have a bit more time to spare it’s worth taking a day to…..
Catch the ferry to Rathlin Island
From Ballycastle harbour, the ferry runs around every hour across the Sea of Moyle to Rathlin Island, which takes 25-45 mins depending on which ferry you catch. I was only on the island for half a day so unfortunately wasn’t able to take the RSPB bus to the western tip of the island to see the seabird centre and puffin nesting sites. I did spend an hour or so walking around the harbour where seals were basking in the sunshine outside the Breakwater studio which sold artwork and gifts. I wandered around the bay to take a look at the old Kelp store where seaweed was once burnt to make fertiliser, and if I’d had more time I’d have walked to see one of the lighthouses.
Rathlin Ferry from Ballycastle Harbour: Runs hourly, Adult £12 return, Child £6 return. Booking advisable in high season – can be booked online.
Driving to Torr Head on the Causeway Coast
From Ballycastle I spent my final day driving back to Belfast on what must be one of the most stunning coastal routes in the world, past the Glens of Antrim. The coastal route is well signposted but just outside Ballycastle you can take a detour off the main route along the cliffs by Torr Head. The road passed through open fields where sheep graze with the land dropping steeply down to the sea.
The views were so spectacular that I couldn’t resist stopping at every possible viewpoint to take photos, attracting the attention of a few friendly sheep. After a while I had to start lecturing myself; “this is the very last place I’ll stop” as I was in danger of running out of time to see anything else on the coast. Still I pressed on until I reached…
Cushenden on the Glens Coast
The pretty village of Cushenden, managed by the National Trust, has a perfectly placed carpark beside the old stone bridge, directly overlooking the beach. On a sunny day, this would be a wonderful place to have a walk on the beach with a picnic from the village shop or a stop for lunch at Mary McBride’s bar where they have a restaurant upstairs. There are two sad stories that you might hear associated with Cushenden, one involving a sailor who never came home and his sweetheart who died of a broken heart, the other involving a goat who is commemorated in a statue … but I’ll leave you to find out more when you visit. From here I drove on south towards….
Where Cushenden is a picture postcard kind of place, Cushendell is more of a real, working town, with shops and restaurants on the main street that you’ll drive through. The beach is another 10 minutes down the road with a separate parking area next to the golf club which is a good starting point for walks along the coast. There wasn’t too much to keep me here so I continued on the coastal road….
Driving past the Glens of Antrim
The drive between Cushendell and Glenarm and beyond was truly stunning, passing by the Glens of Antrim, with plenty of opportunities to detour off for woodland walks and waterfalls. The Glens are the deep valleys carved by glaciers millions of years ago, making for a spectacular drive with the sea on one side of the road and the slopes of the Glens rising steeply up on the other. Sadly, as my flight home was calling me, I didn’t have time for any waterfalls photos, but just enjoyed the drive and the scenery with a stop at …..
Glenarm Castle for afternoon tea
The tearoom at Glenarm castle was a perfect place to stop before heading back to Belfast Airport to drop off my hire car and fly home to Bristol. The castle is home to the Earls of Antrim and only occasionally open to the public, but there’s a lovely walled garden and a tea-room where you can go even if you’re not visiting the garden. Much as I’d have liked to explore the walled gardens, I just had time for a cup of tea and slice of home-made cake in the pretty tea room with a glimpse of the garden through the archway. From here it was on to Larne and the fast road back to Belfast International Airport.
It had been a most spectacular weekend driving along Northern Ireland’s Causeway and Glens coastline, and having my hire car enabled me to make the most of my long weekend to see as much as possible.
If you are planning a trip to Northern Ireland, check out Alamo Car Hire for a car rental that you can pick up at the airport and take the scenic route around Northern Ireland’s beautiful coastline.
More things to enjoy in Ireland
Visitor Information for visiting Ireland’s Causeway Coast
Heather stayed at The Bushmills Inn in Bushmills which is a luxury 4 star hotel that is close to all the major things to see such as The Giant’s Causeway and the Bushmills Whiskey Distillery.
My extremely knowledgeable guide for the Giant’s Causeway and other local attractions was Mark Rodgers of Dalriada Kingdom Tours who fed me with local tales of fishing families and mythical giants.
If you prefer to have a break from the driving, I recommend Glenara Elite Travel who operate tours in a comfortable mini-bus that enables you to easily see all the attractions of the Causeway Coast in one day. They run regular day tours that cost £35 per person.
This article was brought to you in partnership with Alamo Car Hire. Thanks to the Causeway and Glens Tourism Board for hosting my stay on Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast.
Ah, Costa Brava – fresh green wheat fields, yellow rapeseed edged with poppies and views over the olive trees to the snow capped Pyrenees in the distance. These are the memories that we brought home from our recent short break, staying in a rustic luxury villa with our hire car to explore a new place each day.
Visiting pretty, painted Girona
Our first day was spent in Girona, the regional capital of Costa Brava. I’d visited a couple of times before and was looking forward to showing it to the family. (Read about my last visit to Lloret de Mar) Girona has a similar feel to its big sister Barcelona, but without the crowds of tourists and dare I say a more authentic Catalan flavour (we don’t talk about Spain here). There’s modern shopping if you want it, but I prefer to just wander around the old streets that surround the cathedral, stopping here and there for some people-watching on a café terrace. If you want the postcard shot of Girona, cross the bridge and walk along for a view of the coloured houses that overlook the river.
Lunch on the terrace at Konig
Our lunchtime spot was Konig (Carrer dels Calderers, 16), a well placed café below the Basilica de Sant Feliu with a large terrace overlooking the river where we could bask in the sunshine. They serve good quality local dishes, salads and pasta – nothing too gourmet, but tasty and not too expensive if you are feeding a large group of hungry offspring.
Is this the best gelato in the world?
For desert we fancied an ice cream so I led the troops across the river (admiring pretty painted houses), through the Plaça de la Independència and down the small street to find Rocambolesc (Carrer de Santa Clara, 50). Of course, I knew the gelato would be great, since it is run by the Roca brothers of El Celler de Can Roca fame, a.k.a The best restaurant in the world if you believe these highly prized lists.
The six flavours of ice cream change with the season and come out of the machine in a piped swirl, Mr Whippy style. If you think that six choices may not be enough, even if they include coconut and violet, just look at the endless selection of toppings! The lady who served us reeled off her topping recommendations in just the same way as they recite the dishes when they serve you in Michelin star restaurants. I knew then that we were on to a good thing.
Pastries that ooze with cream at Casa Moner
Right across the street we were tempted into Casa Moner (Carrer de Santa Clara, 45), a local bakery chain that serves artizan breads and pastries. I bought one of their Xuixo signature pastries, a rolly-polly doughnut filled with custard cream, the kind that oozes out the sides and drips down your chin when you take a bite. Beyond the narrow shopfront there was a sizeable cafe area at the back where you could sit to enjoy all the cakes, but sadly that would have to wait for another day.
A trendy cycle cafe at Fabrica
Crossing over the red metal lattice of the Eiffel bridge (made by Gustave Eiffel a few years before he even thought of that tower in Paris) we headed back into the old town, having spotted on the map the old walls that encircle half of Girona. We hoped to find some steps to get up onto the path that leads along the top, but it took a coffee stop at the trendy cycle café, La Fábrica (Carrer de la Llebre, 3) to get directions to the start of the wall.
Walking the walls of Girona
Once up at the top, the path was an easy walk giving us views over the rooftops. We could effortlessly peep into windows below us and snoop on gardens and terraces. The path ran from one end of the old town to the other, with towers along the way where you could climb up for even more expansive views. We walked around 30 minutes to get from one end of the wall to the other and ended up behind the cathedral so I popped in to have a look around.
Majestic Girona Catheral
The cathedral was majestic and tranquil, with towering stone pillars and stained glass lit up by the sun. Photographs were not allowed inside and although many people had their mobile phones out I decided to respect that. Instead I’ll give you a shot of the cathedral cloister which I visited on my way out.
Staying at Mas Gorral with Charming Villas
I think it’s time to tell you something about our villa which was kindly provided by Charming Villas Catalonia. Set in the countryside a short drive from Figures, we were blown away by Mas Gorral. It’s an old farmhouse that has obviously been added to over the years although all in such authentic style that it’s difficult to tell what is centuries old and what is new.
The villa was set on the hillside so we had views over the countryside towards the snow capped Pyrenees and over the nearby village of Pontos, all terracotta roofs and narrow streets that you could just about get a car through.
Inside we had 5 spacious bedrooms with 3 bathrooms between us and a huge dining room and living room that featured natural stonework, colourful walls and antique furnishings. Local painted pottery mixed with Asian pieces, perhaps inspired by the owner’s travels. With quirky artworks, well kept gardens and a (bracingly fresh) pool this was the perfect place for our two families to share.
The Dali Theatre-Museum at Figueres
When in Costa Brava there’s no escaping that giant of 20th Century art, Salvador Dalí who was born just down the road from our villa at Figures. As we drove the hire car into town and circled to find parking I have to admit that Figueres looked unremarkable. We walked towards the red towers topped with white eggs of the museum and luckily got inside just before waves of French school children began to arrive.
The museum was created over 10 years in the old municipal theatre and was Dali’s personal project. He called in his artworks from all over the world and added art installations specially for the museum.
Entering the first couryard that would have been the theatre auditorium we found the Rainy Cadillac topped with a huge breasted and bellied goddess figure. Gold statues like Oscar awards looked down from the walls and a fishing boat was stranded at the top of a column of Michelin tyres – I saw those again at Dali’s house in Port Lligat. On the stage was another artwork the size of a cinema screen and in the niche to one side a nude figure of Dali’s wife Gala with her back turned – except when you cross your eyes or look at it through your camera you realise that it’s a portrait of Abraham Lincoln.
The whole museum was packed full of artworks with that feeling of ‘it’s not quite what it seems’. I did buy the guidebook but didn’t read it until afterwards so it was an enjoyable game to just wander through the rooms, absorbing the impression without overthinking the meaning. At the end of the day it seems to be a projection of Dali’s rich subconsciousness and dreamworld.
Once you have left the main museum, there is the jewellery collection which is included in the same entrance ticket, full of most gorgeous bling. I coveted the ruby lips with pearl teeth and the red ruby heart brooch that has a mechanism inside so it literally beats.
Gala’s Castle at Pubol
After the Dali museum we decided there wasn’t an awful lot more to see in Figueres so we drove back to the villa where the rest of the crew decided to have a relaxing afternoon. Guy and I (OK it was mainly me) wanted a bit more of the Dali fix and so we drove south towards Girona to visit the Castle at Púbol that Dali gave to his wife Gala. It really was a beautiful drive on country roads with little traffic and only the occasional mishap when we inadvertantly drove through one of those old villages where the houses close in and the lanes became so narrow that you worry for your wing mirrors.
This fortified country house or castel was a gift that Dali had promised Gala years before, a place that she could come on her own and relax, where even her husband would have to request written permission to visit her (or so the story goes). Once the museum at Figures was nearly complete the couple were able to start work on the renovations for their new project which was designed to suit Gala’s taste with some of Dali’s surreal art such as the cupboard painted with radiators to disguise the real radiators.
The decoration here was luxurious but the overall effect simpler than the house we would see the next day at Port Lligat where the same amount of furniture was squashed into half the space. This was much more Gala’s retreat where she would come for a few weeks at a time to relax away from all the showmanshop that surrounded her husband.
Gala was an clearly an elegant woman, her hair swept back into a girlish style, which was pinned with a large black velvet bow. Since I used to work in fashion, I loved looking at Gala’s dresses on display upstairs from the 50s and 60s, purchased from designers such as Pierre Cardin and Elsa Schiaparelli. Her dresses show her loved colour, luxurious fabrics and the subtle sparkle of lurex.
Driving tips for Costa Brava with Auto Europe
If you are staying in a villa as we were and want to see something of Costa Brava, you really need a hire car and ours was kindly provided by Auto Europe. The pickup and drop off at Girona airport was painless and we found that the roads easy to navigate, with much less traffic than we are used to in the overcrowded UK. It really made the driving a pleasure to pass fields full of wildflowers and yellow rapeseed edged with poppies. Of course in the high summer by the coast it might get a bit crazy, but away from the coast I suspect that even in high season these country roads are an easy drive.
The only thing I would advise with a hire car is to avoid the centre of older towns and village centres that were not really made for cars. In Girona or Cadaques, we found that when you get close to the centre it’s best to park in the first public car park you see and walk into the old centre. Beware also of the small country villages which normally have a route that goes around them as well as a road that goes through them. The streets can be incredibly narrow, as we found out accidentally on a couple of occasions, so drive around if you can. You can check out my driving tips for Costa Brava in the video below.
The wild Costa Brava at Cadaques
Our final day was blessed with glorious sunshine at Cadaques, an old fishing town that’s now quite a tourist hotspot on the wild and rocky Cap de Creus. You drive on a winding road that snakes up through the unspoiled natural park, and brings you down the other side to Cadaques.
Parking the hire car in the first main car park we saw as we came into town was the right decision as there was little space to pass in the smaller roads close to the beach. We walked around the seafront away from the busiest terrace restaurants and cafes and found a smaller place that had been recommended to me called Enoteca MF. It’s the wine bar and tapas restaurant that’s run by the same family that has a vineyard and winery set above Cadaques called Sa Perafita which you pass on the way into town.
They serve fabulous tapas with the seafood being especially fresh and delicious. We tried a bit of everything including a bottle or two of their Cava and a glass of the local Vermouth which is the fashionable drink of the moment in Catalunya. There was the pan tomat rubbed with tomato and garlic, a plate of local cheeses, red tuna sashimi and a salmon tartare topped with guacamole. We were impressed to see the staff peeling a huge bowl of pink shrimps which were then pulverised to make a shrimp carpaccio. It was enough to melt the heart of the most avid opponent of raw fish.
After lunch we walked up the lane beside the wine bar and in 10 minutes were overlooking the next bay at Port Lligat, a small fishing bay where Dali spent most of the time with his wife Gala. The house was created by knocking together a number of fishing huts and then extending them over the years. Because the individual rooms are so small you need to book timed tickets in advance (in April we were able to get them the day before).
Although there were not many large scale artworks here, Dali’s vision was felt everywhere although the dried yellow ‘everlasting’ flowers were in almost every room, a favourite of Gala’s. Dali’s art studio was one of the largest spaces with light flooding in and an easel that could be moved up and down so that Dali could always paint sitting down on his chair.
We moved from room to room, up a few steps each time since the different cottages were on different levels and emerged on a lovely terrace, with whitewashed stonework, pots of flowering plants and olive trees providing shade. The surprise was that they’d cleverly fitted in a swimming pool on the terrace with a round section and narrow channel for swimming up and down.
Since not all of our group had visited the Dali house, we joined the rest enjoying a drink at the Es Raco d’en Dani Xiringuito at the other end of the beach – another offshoot of the Sa Perafita winery. There was plenty of seafood on the menu and although we stuck to the beers and coffee the waft of grilled octopus was mouthwatering.
Rather reluctantly we walked back over the headland to Cadaques and wandered around the artisan market where we bought olive bread and pastries from the Cas Mona stand that we had seen in Girona.
What a fabulous break we’d had but the next day it was time to return to Girona airport for our flight home. Still we managed a quick trip to the Sunday market at nearby Bascara to buy some salad and rotisserie chicken for lunch on the terrace.
As we basked in the warm sun I think we were all trying to soak it up and take a little piece of Costa Brava sunshine home with us.
Have you been to Costa Brava or Catalunya and if so, what did you enjoy?
Read more about Costa Brava
Visitor Information for Costa Brava
Thanks to Charming Villas Catalonia for providing our villa Mas Gorral near Figueres. Charming Villas specialise in luxury and character villas in Catalonia from rustic villas in the countryside to modern coastal villas. They have over 80 villas to choose from and as Richard and his wife who run the company are based locally they are able to help with planning your holiday and on hand to sort out any issues.
Thanks to Auto Europe for providing our hire car for exploring Costa Brava. Auto Europe work with 20,000 car rental locations in 180 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, as well as North and South America.
Bordering the United Arab Emirates and sporting luxury hotels to rival Dubai, Oman remains an enigma content to bask quietly in the shadow of its more showy neighbours. Muscat, the capital, is the springboard to Oman’s natural wonders – its desert landscapes, and the mountain ranges that rise above them – and the Bedu people, desert dwellers who have adapted to the arid conditions.
Most visitors to the Sultanate of Oman touch down in Muscat. Oman’s capital city doesn’t attempt to mimic the high-rise sheen of neighbouring Dubai or the other Gulf cities. It’s more a collection of old fishing villages and ports edging the Gulf of Oman coastline. Among the more modern edifices, traces of Portuguese and Asian influences still remain in the older buildings – architecture that harks back to a time when the city was fought over for foreign rule.
The green orchards of the Jebel Akhdar mountains
Jebel Akhdar translates to Green Mountains, and this imposing inland range is a cooling respite from the desert heat at its feet. The climate up in this elevated position – which rises to 3,075 metres at its tallest peak, Jebel Shams – is akin to the Mediterranean. Terraces are farmed to grow fruits, such as peaches, which wouldn’t withstand the conditions below.
Jebel Akhdar breaks the farmland that runs down to the coast and Muscat from Oman’s Empty Quarter, and thousand-year-old forts and other UNESCO World Heritage sites were built on this strategic vantage point. You can now visit many of these sites after an initiative to restore and reopen them by Oman’s current ruler Sultan Qaboos. We particularly recommend the well-known fort at Bahla, and Jabrin Fort with its brightly painted and decoratively carved cedar wood ceiling.
Walking trails dissect the mountains, and one of the most rewarding is the trek to the abandoned village of Wadi Ghul, which sits below the rim of Oman’s Grand Canyon.
The rose gardens of the Saiq Plateau
The Saiq Plateau is the central formation of the mountains. You can explore the terraces that step the hillsides, where orchards grow fruit and almonds and rose gardens bloom in summer. The petals are pressed and filtered into rose water by the local farmers, and there is the opportunity to visit a local distillery to watch (and smell) this production.
The Alila Jabal Akhdar Resort has a dramatic location overlooking a gorge and makes for an elegant mountaintop retreat as well as a good base for exploring local trails. All rooms have panoramic views, but the outdoor infinity pool is possibly the best place of all for admiring the vistas.
Visit the Nizwa Livestock Market
Each Friday, farmers and their goats, sheep and cattle travel down from their villages in the Jebel Akhdar mountains to barter and trade at the Nizwa Livestock Market. Wandering among the throngs in Nizwa’s main square, you can watch this platform of daily life for the Bedu, traditionally the nomadic peoples who inhabit Arabia’s deserts. Both sexes get stuck in with the haggling, wearing the contrasting attire of long cooling white robes (the dishdash) for the men and bright clothes and intricate face veils for the women.
The historic city of Nizwa
The city of Nizwa, a two-hour drive southwest of Muscat, was Oman’s capital for a brief spell in the 6th and 7th centuries. Its deep-seated Islamic traditions are evident in its many mosques, but perhaps its most obvious feature is the 40-metre-tower of the 17th-century Nizwa Fort.
Nizwa is a much wider trading hub than just a place to swap livestock. In the souq, antiques, spices and crafts fill the stalls and you can buy wares from silversmiths, potters, jewellers and other craftspeople.
Close to central Nizwa, The Falaj Daris has two swimming pools set in landscaped gardens and an outdoor barbecue area. This is the only hotel in town, but we also recommend The Golden Tulip. It’s a 15-20 minute drive away from Nizwa, but in the mountains with a fantastic view. A tasteful property built in the traditional Omani architectural style, all rooms overlook the swimming pool, with the Hajar mountain range in the background.
Camp in the desert in the Wahiba Sands
If you crave solitude, the stretching golden sands of the Wahiba desert, not far from Nizwa and a four-hour drive out of Muscat, are untouched by inhabitants save the scatterings of Bedouin tribes who have made permanent homes around its southern perimeter.
Sunset is, perhaps, the most magical time to be in the midst of these shifting sands, watching the dunes graduate through an extravagant mixture of honey-coloured hues into a deepening crimson before darkness falls.
Camel rides and quad biking in the desert
It’s possible to camp out under the desert sky and sample Bedouin hospitality. The Desert Nights Camp even offers the chance to sleep under canvas without compromising on comfort. Its air-conditioned tents have private bathrooms, bedrooms and lounges. Activities include camel rides and quad biking. We also like its location, nestled between two high sand dunes but easily accessible from the main road.
Believed to be about 6,000 years old, the Sands’ dunes measure up to 80 metres high. The fine-grained sand is ever moving, teased by the wind, and the tracks made by your 4×4 will soon disappear. They make a surprisingly lively habitat for some 150 species of plants and 200 species of animals, including desert foxes and the white-tailed mongoose.
Watch nesting turtles at Ras Al Jinz
Back on Oman’s coast, the Ras Al Jinz Scientific and Visitors’ Centre offers a neat stopping place between the Wahiba Sands and Muscat. The Arabian Peninsula’s most easterly point, the small cove is a hotbed for nesting green turtles which clamber out of the water year round to lay their eggs in dugouts in the golden sand. The most prolific time for egg-laying is between July and September, although this coincides with Oman’s hottest weather.
Green turtles are the largest of all hard-shelled turtles. You’ll be able to watch the females as they each lay somewhere between 100 and 200 eggs, and the resultant hatchlings’ struggle to reach the ocean.
The emphasis of the centre is on conserving the population, and this means any handling is discouraged. When you learn that only 0.01% of all the green turtle babies will survive into adulthood, you start to understand why.
You’ll stay at the only accommodation option, Carapace Lodge, which is part of the centre. As such, it is pretty basic with the choice of rooms or tents. Look at it as a practical option for being close to the turtles, and being able to walk down to the beach to watch them in the early mornings.
With all year round sunshine, Oman offers renowned Arabian hospitality, a traditional culture and unspoiled natural beauty. From the spectacular coastline at Muscat to the imposing rugged interior mountain ranges, Oman is just waiting to be explored.
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