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. 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 Rent A Car 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.
Adults £5.90 to cross the bridge although it’s free to walk along the coastal path. 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 Rent A Car 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 Rent A Car. Thanks to the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council for hosting my stay on Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast.
Northern Ireland’s scenic Causeway Coast offers windswept golden beaches, ruined castles perched on rocky cliffs and of course what most visitors come to see, the Giant’s Causeway (or is it the Game of Thrones locations?) While I enjoyed all of these, what most impressed me most was the quality of the food. I found artisan producers creating new and interesting products and restaurants dedicated to using the best and freshest local ingredients. And the seafood, oh the seafood! So let me take you on a tour of some the restaurants and dishes I enjoyed in between visiting the Giant’s Causeway, Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge and Mussenden Temple. In Northern Ireland’s 2016 Year of Food and Drink there’s plenty here to make your mouth water.
1. The best of Irish cooking at The Bushmills Inn
I loved eating my way through the menu at the Bushmills Inn where I stayed while exploring Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast. If you want to feel the warmth of Irish hospitality, not to mention the peat fire that burns summer and winter at the entrance, this is the place for you.
The hotel started as a coaching inn and the oldest part of the building that fronts the main road now houses the Gas Bar. Lit by gas lamps the bar has a traditional feel, with red walls and subdued lighting casting a rosy glow. It’s especially atmospheric on a Saturday or Wednesday night when they have an Irish band sitting in the corner, playing all the folk favourites.
Breakfast was served in the oldest part of the restaurant where I sat in one of the wooden booths and enjoyed the thick, juicy slices of Irish smoked salmon with scrambled eggs served on crested china plates.
I was even more impressed when I had dinner in the newer part of the restaurant which is glazed on one side, creating a lighter feel. The hotel is committed to using local produce and the suppliers are listed at the end of the menu, right down to the farm that produces the herbs. Having heard that the beef here was outstanding I chose the Braised Belted Beef with a mustard crust with vegetables and champ, which was meltingly soft having been cooked very slowly ‘sous vide’.
My friend’s Kerry Hill Lamb was also getting oohs and ahs of approval. The dishes were at once sophisticated yet totally Irish and beautifully presented. They have an Innkeeper’s Choice section of the menu that changes regularly and a decent vegetarian selection too. This is the place to treat yourself for a special dinner and a taste of traditional Irish cooking at it’s best.
The Bushmills Inn, 9 Dunluce Road, Bushmills. I ate: Braised Belted Galloway Beef £18.50 and Forest Berry creme brûlée £5.95
2. Seafood on the beach at Harry’s Shack
I’d heard so many great things about Harry’s Shack at Portstewart that I was determined to have lunch there and managed to fit it in between a visit to Mussenden temple and Dunluce castle. (I was on an excellent day tour run by Glenara Elite Travel) This is the sort of beach cafe you find on every other beach in Cornwall although a surprising rarity in Northern Ireland considering the number of unspoiled, golden beaches. I half expected to find Jamie Oliver popping in for lunch with the family.
The ‘Shack’ is an overgrown garden shed set just above the beach, with space to eat outside on picnic tables and plenty of light flooding in. I’d heard that the fish here was outstanding so was surprised that there were so many meaty crowd-pleasers: Beach burger and chips, chicken terrine, Irish chicken and mushroom pie. I certainly wasn’t complaining when my pan fried fish arrived with capers and cockles in a pool of buttery sauce with a bowl of mash to soak it up.
My friend’s fish and chips also looked very good, with the chips in the obligatory metal pail and mushy peas on the side. I was tempted by the cakes on the counter but settled on a single salted caramel macaron to have with my coffee. Harry’s shack is definitely a place I’d head back to. It manages to be both family friendly and please serious food lovers of all ages. Rustic beach style with simple food done very well. Why aren’t all restaurants like this?
Harry’s Shack, 118 Strand Road, Portstewart. We ate: Pan fried fish £15, Fish & Chips £11.
3. A honeycomb ice cream at Ballantoy Harbour
I’d probably have missed Ballantoy harbour, had I not visited as part of my tour with Glenara Elite Travel. It’s as picturesque a place as they come and was used as a Game of Thrones setting for the port of Pyke in the Iron Islands (OK, I admit I had to look that up). Because the road down to the harbour is steep and narrow you won’t find any larger coach parties down there, although I suspect it’s still packed in summer.
As we arrived in the late afternoon, the small tea room on the harbour was closing but we just managed to buy a locally made ice cream to eat at the golden hour. I chose honeycomb flavour which is a local favourite although not much to do with honey, but studded with the kind of burnt sugar honeycomb you find in a Crunchie bar. If you ever get to the Ballycastle Auld Lammas Fair this kind of honeycomb is a local speciality and sold along with Dulse seaweed (but not eaten together!)
4. A lively Saturday night at Ramore in Portrush
Ramore in Portrush is the foodie spot on the Causeway coast where you head for good food and good times at the weekend, a place to put on your high heels and have a laugh. The tall white building overlooks the harbour with the Coast Pizzaria on the ground floor and The Mermaid on the top floor with a sophisticated driftwood and deckchair stripe theme. Ramore has spread sideways to the Harbour Bar next door while the Neptune and Prawn serving Asian inspired dishes is just across the road. None of them is bookable except the Mermaid, which is where I found myself sitting at the cocktail bar for dinner on a Saturday night feeling like a fish out of water amidst the perfectly groomed hair and fashionably bright lipstick.
Things looked up once my Hendricks Southside cocktail with gin, cucumber, mint and elderflower arrived. At least I was in a great spot for people-watching as the cocktails were mixed and shaken before my eyes, expresso martinis decorated with a carefully placed coffee bean, mint and ice being crushed for the Mojitos.
By the time my starter of roast scallops with black pudding and curry cream arrived I was definitely converted. This could possibly be the prettiest dish I’d seen in a long while, with the richness of the scallops and sauce being offset by the sweet sharpness of the redcurrents scattered across the plate.
The roast hake was perfectly cooked, balanced on top of a broth with vegetables and new potatoes but I should have known better than to order the floating brandy snap for desert. Here I had to admit defeat and could only nibble bits of the plate size brandy snap, scrape off a taste of the four different ice creams beneath and try a little of each of the three sauces that came with it. The clatter of glasses and chatter of friends was overwhelming but perfect if you want to party on a Saturday night and probably a little calmer at other times.
Ramore Restaurants, The Harbour, Portrush. I ate in The Mermaid: my cocktail £6.95, starter £5.95, fish £14.95, desert £4.95
5. A drop of Bushmills Whiskey
Of course on the Causeway Coast it’s difficult to get by without a drop of whiskey from the famous Bushmills Whiskey Distillery in Bushmills where I was staying. I’d recommend doing the tour which gives an excellent insight into how the whiskey is made, even though you are walking through a not-particularly-attractive commercial production plant. The fun bit comes at the end when you get to taste a generous slug of the Bushmills whiskey which is included in your ticket. You can take your time sipping it in the cosy cafe area and buy your favourite in the shop, including a personalised bottle of the 12 year old which they sell exclusively at the distillery.
If you are interested in trying a few different whiskeys, you can have a mini tasting of 3 of the whiskeys (£7.50) and chat to the bar staff about the different flavours, or better still book for the tutored tasting which takes place every day at 3pm. You can book for this on its own (£15) or combine with a 2pm distillery tour (£20) and you get to sit at the table in the cafe next to the old copper still and taste your way through 5 of the finest whiskeys, (including the 21 year old which sells for over £100 per bottle).
One of the distillery staff will tell you about each whiskey which are different ages, but also matured in different oak casks that have contained bourbon whiskey, port or madeira, each taking a different flavour from the casks. My favourite was the Bushmills 16 year old with flavours of honey, almonds and vanilla matured on port casks (I looked that up from the tasting sheet but it was delicious). Be sure to arrange someone to drive you back to your hotel after the tasting or better still book in just down the road at the Bushmills Inn so you can walk (stagger?) back and spend the rest of the afternoon snoozing in front of the peat fire.
Bushmills Distillery Tour, 2 Distillery Road, Bushmills. Tour: Adults £7.50 including a taste of one whiskey |Tasting 3 whiskeys after the tour £7.50 | Tutored tasting of 5 whiskeys £15 or £20 including the tour (takes place daily at 3pm and must be booked in advance)
6. A fine Sunday lunch at The French Rooms in Bushmills
While visitors will enjoy the Irish charm of Bushmills Inn, it’s also fun to have a change from oak panelling and peat fires. Practically next door and in complete contrast is the light and airy French Rooms in Bushmills which I tried for Sunday lunch. With a gift shop and deli at the front and a cafe at the back it feels like you’ve stepped into a market for deceptively expensive brocante and vintage finds in Aix-en-Provence.
From the Sunday lunch menu I chose the roll of pork stuffed with apples and raisins, with prettily presented side dishes of carrots, peas with lettuce and both mashed and roast potatoes (always a choice of potatoes in Ireland). In between courses I discovered that there was a lovely, light conservatory room at the back, giving out to a charming courtyard garden.
There is a French connection to the area in the French Hugonots who settled here in the 17th century in search of religious freedom and brought with them their skills in the manufacture of linen, using locally grown flax. This is definitely a place I’d love to return to linger over a coffee with cakes or have a light lunch with a friend.
The French Rooms, 45 Main Street, Bushmills. Open Wednesday to Sunday We ate: Sunday lunch 2 courses £13.65 3 courses £16.65
7. Italian inspiration at Bartali Wine Bar at Portballintrae
On a quiet Sunday evening I ate at Bartali Wine bar overlooking the bay at Portballintrae which was just a short drive from Bushmills. The long whitewashed building with a slate roof looked as if it had been converted from an ancient barn or fisherman’s boathouse, but in fact was only built around 10 years ago. Inside the wooden booths, brick arches and Victorian fireplace might have been from an old pub, but there was also a young, trendy feel to the place, with an emphasis on local produce and craft ales.
The staff were friendly and knowledgeable and told me that this restaurant and its sister restaurants in Belfast are named after Italian champion cyclists, this being the namesake of Gino Bartali, the others being Coppi (named after Fausto Coppi) and il Pirata (named after Marco Pantani) which serve cichetti bar snacks and rustic Italian cuisine. I enjoyed my market fish; sea bream with cabbage, pancetta and gnocchi which had just the right blend of Irish and Italian. I’d recommend Bartalis for lunch after a walk on Portballintrae beach as well as a relaxed dinner and it has a family friendly conservatory too.
Bartali wine bar, 6B Seaport Avenue, Portballintrae. I ate: Market fish £13.50, Passionfruit Panacotta with white chocolate £4.50. They do a set menu 3 courses or 2 courses + glass of wine for £15
8. Meeting the goats at Broughgammon Farm
As I left Bushmills for my drive past the Glens of Antrim I stopped at Broughgammon Farm near Ballycastle. The family that runs the farm are friends and I was meeting up with Becky Cole, who with her husband Charlie has started a business to rear billy goats for meat which they sell at farmer’s markets around Ireland. They run butchery and cookery courses on the farm, have a small farm shop selling their meat and other local products and Becky also has a blog about seasonal living on the farm at Terriers and Tweeds.
Becky told me how they had found their niche after realising that most goats are reared for their milk and the billy goats are slaughtered at birth. For a sustainable approach they buy the male kids and rear them to make cabrito goat meat cuts and sell the famous ‘billyburgers’ at farmer’s markets and country shows, recently branching out into free range rose veal and wild game.
Becky took me to see the goats in their barn where they were full of fun and mischief, nibbling my hand and checking me out with an inquisitive gaze. There’s a whole scene of artisan food producers like Becky and Charlie in Northern Ireland which you can look out for at local markets and in farm shops and delis.
Broughgammon Farm, 50 Straid Road, Ballycastle, BT546NP. The farm shop is open Weds-Sun 10am-5pm closed 1-2 for lunch. Check out the meat boxes that can be delivered anywhere in the UK and the events calendar will tell you at which markets you can find the billy-burgers.
9. The Central Bar in Ballycastle
I’d already visited Ballycastle when I took the ferry across to Rathlin Island but decided to stop there again for lunch before driving down the Glens coast back to Belfast Airport. On a Monday lunchtime many of the shops and restaurants were closed but I settled into a table in front of the fire at The Central Bar, an attractive stone building on the main road through town.
Without looking at the menu I knew I had to order the seafood chowder which had been recommended by Caroline Redmond who runs food tours in Ballycastle. It was a delicious creamy soup with chunks of vegetables, fish and prawns from Mortons fishmonger down at the harbour. On the side were three different breads which are cooked on the premises; a treacle and fennel seed, Guiness wheaten bread and a tomato focaccia. The lunch was a real treat and all I needed to set me up for the drive along the Glens coastal route. The Central Bar uses fresh local ingredients cooked to order and there was something to please everyone from Italian pizza, local seafood, steaks, curry and chicken dishes.
Central Wine Bar, 12 Ann Street, Ballycastle. I ate: Seafood Chowder £9.95.
While you’re in Ballycastle
Ballycastle is one of the main towns on the Causeway Coast and there’s a thriving food scene going on here. I had plenty of recommendations although unfortunately when I visited on a Monday many were closed. Check out the following and let me know what you think;
Morton’s Fish and Chips – Look out for the kiosk beside the Ballycastle harbour which is renowned for the best fish and chips in the area. The family own their own fishing boats and also have a fishmonger selling the fresh fish next door so you can be sure that the fish is ultra-fresh and cooked to order. The locals travel miles to buy their fish and chips here and sit eating it with a view of the harbour. Open weekdays 3pm-8pm, weekends 12-9pm Freshly battered cod from £4.00
Ballycastle Food Markets – There’s a regular food market in Ballycastle where you’ll find plenty of different local artizan food producers. Check out the Naturally North Coast and Glens website for more details.
Caroline Redmond offers food tours in Ballycastle which visit many of the foodie stops mentioned. She also does walking tours of the Causeway coast so check out her Facebook page or contact her by email: [email protected] The Ballycastle walking food tours cost £25
Thyme and Co, 5 Quay Road, Ballycastle – a pretty and airy cafe that uses a lot of local produce. Perfect for breakfast, brunch or a light lunch of Mediterranean tarts and aromatic soups served with crusty breads. Open daily 8.30-4.30 Closed Sunday and Monday
Ursa Minor Bakehouse, 56 Castle Street, Ballycastle, is the place that everyone mentioned to me for bread and cakes and they have a small café too. They make their bread with organic ingredients using traditional methods and supply many local cafes such as Thyme and Co and Harry’s Shack.
The North Coast Smokehouse isn’t open to the public but look out for their smoked fish at markets and local cafes like Thyme and Co and their smoked sea salt at delis and food shops – I also saw it on sale at Belfast airport. Their website has details of stockists.
Causeway Coast Foodie Tours are run by Wendy Gallagher – you can take one of her 6 hour Coast and Country tours by coach to visit a range of different food producers along the Causeway Coast for tastings and food demonstrations. The tours start and end in Colraine and cost £55. Email: [email protected]
Cushendun and Cushendell as you drive down the Glens coast
On my drive south from Ballycastle I passed through the coastal villages of Cushendun and Cushendell. Unfortunately most places were closed on the Monday but I was recommended the following for a place to eat;
Cushendun is a pretty village is managed by the National Trust and has a long beach, picturesque old stone bridge and a shop where you could easily buy a picnic if the weather is fine. Mary McBrides (2 Main Street) is a tiny whitewashed bar right by the bridge and serves good lunches with a fish restaurant upstairs.
Cushendall is a larger village with several cafes and restaurants with the beach a short drive from the centre. I was recommended the fish restaurant above Jonny Joe’s bar – Upstairs @ Joes (23 Mill Street) where they also run a cookery school and Harry’s Restaurant (10-12 Mill Street) which is just across the road, both of which serve local fish and seafood.
10. Afternoon tea at the Glenarm Castle Tea Rooms
My final stop before I reluctantly returned to Belfast airport was the tea room at Glenarm castle which is just off the coastal road and makes a great refreshment stop. You can visit the tearooms even if you don’t want to visit the walled garden and they serve brunch, sandwiches and soup for lunch and tea and cakes. I just had time for a slice of Lady Grey and orange tea loaf washed down with raspberry fruit tea.
The tearoom looks as if it was once a garden building and is all painted wood and pine tables with pretty garden flowers on each table. I wish I’d had time to visit the walled garden which I could glimpse through the archway and just popped out to take a photo before continuing my drive, with the majestic glens and glacial valleys on one side and the sea on the other.
Glenarm Castle: Garden admission £5. I tried herbal tea £1.85 and cake £2.65. They serve a traditional afternoon tea for £10.95 per person.
A golden bonus from Broighter Gold
Everywhere I went I kept spotting bottles of Broighter Gold who produce cold pressed golden rapeseed oil on their farm at Limavady. They also sell a range of salad oils infused with flavours like basil, lemon and chilli and to celebrate Northern Ireland’s 2016 Year of Food and Drink have created a special edition that contains 23 carat flakes of gold for a bit of extra sparkle.
It’s fashionable to use olive oil with abandon in our cooking but this rapeseed oil made me stop and wonder why, when there are delicious and healthy local products like this that are part of our own farming landscape.
I loved my foodie tour of Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast exploring local artisan products, fabulous seafood and outstanding quality meat, all served up in huge portions with a healthy dollop of friendly Irish charm. I hope your mouth is watering too!
Have you any favourite foodie spots from Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast? Do leave me your recommendations in the comments
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. The hotel has a traditional Irish warmth with excellent food and friendly service and the peat fire is always burning to welcome you. If you’re lucky you may find your own country’s flag flying from the tower to greet you!
For guided tours 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.
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.
Caroline Redmond offers food tours in Ballycastle at North Coast Walking Tours and Wendy Gallagher runs Coast and Country food tours at Causeway Coast Foodie Tours. Thanks to both for their food recommendations.
Thanks to the Causeway and Glens Tourism Board for hosting my stay on Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast.
Dublin in December is the place to party! The Guinness is flowing, the drinkers are spilling out of the Temple Bar pub and there’s music on every cobbled street-corner. But we weren’t in Dublin to party. Oh no! Ours was a terribly serious visit to check out Trinity College Dublin and see if it met the approval of our youngest son, a prospective student who’s university bound next year. Still, in between the talks about History, Philosophy and life at Trinity, we managed to have our little bit of fun. Here’s how our weekend in Dublin went;
1. Check in at Generator hostel
Now normally, you’ll find me in my preferred habitat of a boutique hotel, but this was a flying visit, so in the interest of keeping costs under control and in making my 17 year old son feel at home, we checked into the next best thing – a boutique hostel.
Our family room on the third floor of Generator Hostel was everything we needed the stay in comfort en famille. A comfy double and single bed, a modern en suite and a few funky features like the street-scape mural, tree-trunk for a footstool and plentiful powerpoints.
Downstairs in the bar, dimly lit by a Jameson whisky bottle chandelier, the music was throbbing and we were well fed on fish and chips and meaty burgers. I did feel a bit of carb-overload and craving for a fresh salad, but the cheap cocktails and craft beer (Sunburned from 8 Degrees Brewing, since you ask) more than made up for it.
You’ll find Generator Hostel in the Smithfield area, which to use estate-agent-speak felt rather ‘up and coming’ and was just round the corner from the Old Jameson Whisky Distillery. A brisk 20 minute walk along the Liffey and you can be at Temple Bar, Trinity College or Grafton Street in the heart of the action. All in all a great choice for stylish and well-priced accommodation and I’d happily stay there again with my son.
If you go: Generator Hostel, Smithfield Square, Dublin 7. They also have hostels in seven other European destinations. Our family room cost £64 per room per night on a Friday/Saturday stay in December – prices vary depending on the season.
2. Being student for a day at Trinity College Dublin
On Saturday morning, after our Irish cooked breakfast in the hostel, we were off for that brisk walk along the Liffey, which was looking particularly atmospheric in the chill winter air, with the sun lighting up the front of the Four Courts and creating reflections on the water.
Now to the main purpose of us being in Dublin, the Trinity College open day. Trinity is the Irish equivalent of Oxford or Cambridge, where you can tread in the footsteps of illustrious former students like Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde and Samual Beckett. We walked through the classical Georgian front as if we owned the place to check out what was on offer for our prospective student.
The morning passed in a succession of talks in the different faculties; History, Philosophy, English. There were intense discussions with admissions staff (my husband) while remaining nonchalant and non-committal (my son). After sitting through four talks in succession I was wilting and had to leave them and hide away in the student cafe for a plate of sweet and sour chicken.
I would have loved to see the Old Library although unconvinced that the Book of Kells ( an ancient illustrated book of the gospels) was worth the hype. At that point we were feeling too tired and too tightwad to shell out the €10 for a quick peep, so left it for the next day.
3. A pint or two of Guinness at the Stag’s Head
By 2pm we had done all the university stuff and met up with our Irish friend Tony, an old mate of my husband, known to us as “wee Tone”. Being an old boy at Trinity College, his first words of greeting as we met him under the campanile were “Lets go for a Guinness at the Stag’s Head”.
Down Dame Street, we squeezed into the pub where wee Tone had whiled away many a happy hour as a student, tucking into his bacon and cabbage in the back room. The main bar was long and narrow, all dark wood pannelling and nicotine stained paintwork, just as an Irish pub should be.
Above the bar, the Stag’s Head that gave the pub its name was wearing a jaunty Christmas hat, as were many of the drinkers. We ordered a Guinness for wee Tone, O’Hara’s for Guy while the prospective student and I were on the coke and bitter lemon. As the boys settled down to discuss old times, I saw my chance for a swift look around the shops and crafty bit of Christmas shopping.
If you go: The Stag’s Head, 1 Dame Court, Dublin 2
4. Shopping on Grafton Street
First stop was the lovely Avoca (pronounced A-vo-ca) on Suffolk Street which I had fallen on love with on my previous visit when we stopped in their visitor centre on the Wild Wicklow Tour. Known for its pretty checked wool throws and scarves, the store was packed with all sorts of goodies for those who aspire to stylish country living.
Next on Grafton street I braved the crowds under the sparkly Christmas lights and dived into the swanky Brown Thomas to buy some cosmetics as Christmas presents for my nieces. The place I really wanted to see was the Powerscourt Centre, with independent designer shops within an elegant Georgian Townhouse and a cafe in the covered central courtyard.
Up on the top floor I got the best view of the twinkly Christmas light displays and then did the round of the designer shops with plenty of choice for that elegant evening gown or society wedding outfit that I so rarely seem to need these days, although I also discovered a vintage shop which was more my style.
5. Dinner at Fallon and Byrne
I timed it just right to return to The Stag’s Head after an hour and a half of shopping, to find the boys had just drained their glasses. We turned out onto the street, looking for a place to eat and settled on the downstairs wine cellar of Fallon and Byrne.
The wine bar is in the basement below the gastronomic food hall with dim lights and old movie posters, an antique gramophone sitting on the bar. The back wall behind our table was floor-to-ceiling with wine bottles and there were several groups of girlies enjoying a post-christmas-shopping glass or two.
Guy pounced on the Chateau Mussar – I met the winemakers when I was in Lebanon and always look out for it. I ordered an Alsace Gewurtztraminer, inspired by the wine tasting we did on our Rhine river cruise, but only realised they’d brought me the Sancerre by mistake after I’d drunk half the glass. Oops! call myself a foodie?
It was all French brasserie style with pine tables and bentwood chairs, all that was missing were the candles stuck into wine bottles dripping wax which were replaced by fairy lights in a bottle instead. Wee Tone and our prospective student ordered the confit of duck with cabbage, bacon and lentils which was the best choice of main I think, but my cod in a tomato cassoulet with chick peas and chorizo came a close second.
If you go: Fallon and Byrne, 11 Exchequer Street, Dublin 2
Wee Tone had a 2 hour drive to get home so we parted ways and walked back through the cobbled streets of Temple Bar area with every pub spilling drinkers out onto the pavement – feeling very festive.
6. Brunch at Bewley’s Oriental Cafe
A bit of a lie in on Sunday morning and then it was time to check out of Generator Hostel, leaving our bags in the secure lockers for the day. We followed a recommendation from wee Tone and walked back to Grafton Street to try the brunch at Bewley’s Oriental Cafe.
Our path took us past the well known and well endowed Molly-Malone statue outside the tourist information centre on Suffolk Street, a favourite Dublin photo opportunity and of course we took our photos there too.
Bewley’s was looking very festive with Christmas tree in the centre of the room and we requested one of the red velour benches which luckily was free and enclosed us in a kind of booth. This Dublin institution was full of local families treating their children to brunch and had an old fashioned air with with chinoisserie painted walls and stained glass, very much an art nouveau, Libertys-of-London feel about it.
We ate our Irish breakfast among the poinsettias, sparkling chandeliers and full length oil paintings feeling rather pleased that we’d bagged our red velour and tapestry bench, an excellent spot for people-watching on all sides of the cafe. By the time we left a long queue was forming but we were heading down Grafton Street for our next apointment at 11 o’clock.
If you go: Bewley’s Oriental Cafe, 78 Grafton Street, Dublin 2
7. The tour through the history of Dublin at the Little Museum of Dublin
Every hour, on the hour there’s a free guided tour of The Little Museum of Dublin which we found at the end of Grafton Street, facing St Stephen’s Park. Taking the tour was definitely worthwhile, since our guide, John the archaeologist, really brought to life the collection of pictures and memorabilia in this Georgian townhouse, packed with the history of Dublin.
Our tour focused on the two first floor rooms where each section was arranged to tell stories from a particular decade of the last century. The tales and annecdotes took us from the visit of Queen Victoria to Dublin (where her party were reported in a misprint to have pissed over Patrick’s bridge), through the Easter Rising of 1916 where the rebels had holed up in the Jacobs factory and lived off biscuits (plain and fancy). We heard how during the rebellion the shooting on St Stephen’s Green would stop each afternoon to allow the groundsman to feed his ducks and how one of the leaders, Éamon de Valera escaped execution because of his American birth.
The tour continued on through the First World War, which is euphamistically known in Ireland as The Emergency (don’t mention the war) and on to more recent times when local girl and silver screen actress Maureen O’Hara was every Dubliner’s sweetheart and John Lennon ate at the exclusive Jammet’s French Restaurant and wrote in the visitor’s book that the other three Beatles “were saving up to come here”.
I could go on to tell you how Nelson’s Pillar was blown up in 1966 by the IRA, the job being finished off by the Irish Army in a “controlled” explosion which took out every window in the street. It’s now replaced by a tall knitting needle named The Spire which we passed later on O’Connell Street.
8. The Dubliners at the James Joyce Centre
Our appetite for Dublin stories whetted, our prospective student was keen to discover more about James Joyce so we headed up O’Connell Street on the north side of the Liffey, past the knitting needle Spire to the James Joyce Centre in another Georgian townhouse on North Great George’s Street.
We started on the 2nd floor with a video about James Joyce and various writers and scholars discussing aspects of his life and work, including a lot about the library scene of Ulysses set in the Dublin Library. Throughout his married life Joyce moved around, living in different apartments and places in Europe which perhaps explains the lack of memorabilia that you might have expected in a museum about his life, although there was a small bedroom area set up to show his domestic life and the kind of busy family rooms where he wrote his books.
On the first floor were two large rooms with an exhibition of black and white photos of post-war Dublin by Lee Miller, a photojournalist better known for her war photography, which were commissioned by Vogue magazine in 1946. On the ground floor was a timeline of Joyce’s life and another room with a video playing the film of Ulysses. In the yard at the back we enjoyed the murals showing stories from Joyce’s books which reminded me of the Dylan Thomas murals I’d seen in Swansea.
I had not read any James Joyce before I visited Dublin and left the centre feeling I didn’t really know much more about the man himself. We’d have liked to try the James Joyce Dubliners walking tour, which starts at the museum every Saturday at 11am and more frequently in summer. Perhaps I’ll be asking Father Christmas for a copy of the Dubliners to fill in the gaps.
If you go: The James Joyce Centre, 35 North Great George’s Street, Dublin 1
9. Lunch at The Winding Stair
By 2 o’clock I felt we’d probably done enough culture for one morning and we walked back down O’Connell Street and along the river for lunch at The Winding Stair, a restaurant that I had seen recommended as serving excellent Irish food. On the ground floor was a book shop of the same name but we climbed the winding stair after which the restaurant is named to the first floor and settled into a table in the small upstairs room.
I had the sole, nicely browned in butter with tiny pink Dublin bay prawns, balanced on a pile of mashed potatoes with cabbage and doussed in a lovely caper and butter sauce. Despite the casual wooden table and bentwood chairs, this felt like a proper restaurant with stiff white napkins and an excellent choice of wine by the glass, written on the board on the wall.
The boys had the fish chowder, a soup that was heavy with mussels and fish and for desert we shared a large slice of spicy pear tart with brown bread ice cream. After lunch we had a browse around the bookshop downstairs, which had once taken up four floors, but in these days of online media had shrunk to only the ground floor.
It still managed to pack in plenty of interesting books, a couple of tables in the window and a red leather wing chair at the back where you could sit and read from the shelves of second hand books. They even served herbal teas and wine with some slices of flapjack. For those that don’t want the proper lunch, next door was the eating house called The Woollen Mills that served cakes, coffee and light snacks and also looked lovely, run by the same people as the Winding Stair.
If you go: The Winding Stair, 40 Lower Ormond Quay, Dublin 1 and next door The Woollen Mills. Our seafood chowder was €9.95, Sole with shrimps, capers and butter sauce was €23.95 and pear and ginger tart with ice cream €6.95.
10. Our weekend ends at Trinity College for the Book of Kells and the Old Library
Fortified by our lunch we decided to make a final pass by Trinity College at around 4pm to visit The Old Library and the Book of Kells, feeling that we wouldn’t have quite seen Dublin properly without paying a visit. Unfortunately no photos were allowed in the exhibition area of the Book of Kells but there were plenty of colourful displays about this medieval decorated manuscript of the four Gospels. As it was close to closing time we had to hurry through and the two books on display in a glass cabinet that were the Book of Kells were something of an anticlimax.
I did enjoy walking through the Old Library, a long, tall room with two tiers of antiquated oak bookcases and a lofty barrelled ceiling. The library at Trinity College Dublin is a copyright library, entitled to a copy of every book in print, although the books in the Old Library were all leatherbound tomes. Along the sides of the library were 18th century marble busts of of writers and literary figures, adding to the feeling of ancient learning in this venerable centre of education.
But we couldn’t linger too long as it was closing, so we were hurried out through the gift shop and back into the quad of Trinity College Dublin where we had started the weekend. It remains to be seen whether our prospective student will apply to Trinity but even if he doesn’t we got a fantastic flavour of the history and literature of Dublin. For my next trip I’m looking forward more of that great Irish food, fashion and design – I feel a girl’s shopping trip coming on!
If you go: The Book of Kells and The Old Library of Trinity College Dublin, Adults €10, Family ticket €20
More things to see in Ireland
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