But, sometimes, I can’t resist doing the popular stuff too – and going on the Giant’s Causeway day tour from Belfast is as touristy as you can get.
The reason for my temptation was simple: I had wanted to visit the Giant’s Causeway for as long as I could remember. While I’ve never had a tangible bucket list, if I did, this destination would be at the top of it.
My boyfriend, Chris, and I had decided to go to Belfast at the last minute. He had some annual leave left over and, well, I just use any old excuse to travel. Because of this, we put together an itinerary in a hurry and Chris managed to track down an affordable day tour to the Giant’s Causeway.
As you walk through Belfast, you’ll see countless tour operators offering these tours, and you’ll have to snoop around to get the best price. In the end, we decided to go with Finn McCools tours, as they offered the tour for just £18 per person.
The name is slightly deceptive, as none of these tours only go to the Giant’s Causeway. Instead, you’ll see some other coastal spots along the way. It’s a full day of exploring, much of which will be spent on the bus, but I hope I can convince you, like us, to join the tourist trail when in Belfast.
We were picked up for the day trip outside our hotel and, after gathering up some other people, our packed bus set off for the day.
Our day tour was topped and tailed with visits to castles.
The first, Carrickfergus Castle. We didn’t get to go inside, but we were given plenty of time to take some photos. It may not have looked terribly important from the outside, but a castle has been standing on this site since the 12th Century. Having survived numerous sieges in its long history, Carrickfergus Castle is considered to be one of the best-preserved medieval buildings in Northern Ireland.
I thought that Carrickfergus Castle was impressive, but the last stop – and our last castle – almost made me forget that we had seen anything else that day.
Set upon a rocky outcrop are the ruins of Dunluce Castle. With only the skeleton of the fortifications remaining, this is an atmospheric spot. I imagine the scene becomes even more dramatic when the weather takes a turn for the worst.
|Dunluce Castle in the distance…|
|And a closer look.|
I noticed a trend on both of my visits to Ireland; there is, more often than not, a blur where the solid line between myth and history should be. At Dunluce, we heard how the family that once lived here, the MacDonnells, simply deserted the entire castle when the kitchens completely collapsed into the sea.
Whether it was an immediate desertion or other contributing factors, the castle then deteriorated over time. Its spectacular ruined form has had a far-reaching influence, and CS Lewis is said to have used Dunluce as the inspiration for The Chronicles of Narnia’s Cair Paravel.
While the Giant’s Causeway tours can differ slightly when it comes to their itineraries, Carrick-a-Rede is one of the staples.
This is for good reason too. A short coastal walk past some gorgeous views and plantlife brings visitors to the Carrick-a-Rede bridge – and it’s an experience not for the faint of heart.
|Chris rejoices after surviving Carrick-a-Rede bridge.|
A 20-metre bridge connects the mainland to a small island, from which you can take in more views or admire the birdlife that calls this place home. Originally, this was just a simple rope bridge, created so that fishermen could check their nets. Since we went to Carrick-a-Rede on an extremely windy day, I can say that even the steel version shook alarmingly as we crossed. I can’t imagine making the same crossing with just some rope to hold on to!
The path to the bridge is truly stunning, as it hugs the coast and allows walkers to look out over the surprisingly clear water. To the one side, we could see the flat-topped Sheep Island. Another Irish place, another legend; local tribes were said to have left sheep on this tiny island to discourage Vikings of landing their ships to raid the lands for food. Consider that the fast food of yesteryear.
|The coastal path, with Sheep Island on the right.|
The Game of Thrones TV series has filmed extensively in Northern Ireland, and this coastline will be featured in the upcoming season.
Note: The admission fee for Carrick-a-Rede wasn’t included in our tour, so we had to pay separately for this. If you’re a National Trust member, you can cross the bridge for free. You’ll also have to pay for your own lunch.
|One final glimpse of Carrick-a-Rede bridge (and some brave souls making the crossing).|
After experiencing patches of rain all day, we were all extremely glad to see this bad weather clear up just as we arrived at the highlight of our day tour.
Managed by the National Trust and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Giant’s Causeway is one of Northern Ireland’s most popular tourist attractions. With even the visitor centre resembling what we would soon see, I couldn’t wait to get to the causeway.
|The visually appropriate entrance.|
|On the path to the Giant’s Causeway.|
To get there, you can either catch a shuttle or take the 15-20-minute walk down. We chose the latter, which resulted in a hair disaster thanks to the wind that followed us all the way.
After strolling along steadily, we followed a bend in the road and glimpsed some rocky formations in the distance. These were dotted with minuscule figures adorned in bright colours, thanks to a tour group’s matching jackets. It took a while before this landscape appeared to get any closer, and I realised that I had never truly tried to grasp the scale of this site before getting here.
|My first sighting of the causeway.|
In reality, the Giant’s Causeway is made up of over 40 000 basalt columns. Science tells us that these formed due to volcanic activity in the area millions of years ago. This may appear to be the more logical explanation, but Irish mythology provides a different reason. According to myth, an Irish giant called Finn McCool built the causeway in order to fight his foe – the giant, Benandonner – over in Scotland.
Whatever you choose to believe, the Giant’s Causeway exceeded my expectations in every way possible. The sheer number of regularly shaped columns before us made me confused about what to photograph first. Even though there were many people there, this fact didn’t diminish our ability to enjoy the sight around us.
Waves crash over the rocks and the columns can be slippery, so we slowly made our way over for our photo opportunity at one of the causeway’s highest points. Be prepared to queue for this!
I wish we could have spent hours at this spot, but I don’t believe bucket list destinations have to be a one-off visit; I know that I’ll return here some day soon.
Since the weather had been on the dreary side all day, the stop at the Old Bushmills Distillery was a welcomed opportunity to get warm again. In truth, this warming-up process was accelerated by the shot of whiskey presented to us as we walked into the distillery.
The distillery claims to be oldest licensed version of its kind in the entire world and, accordingly, the centre draws in over 100 000 visitors every year.
If, like me, whiskey is not your thing, rest assured that the day tour holds other surprises. My favourite of these was a quick stop at Northern Ireland’s smallest church. St Gobbans Church measures only 3 by 1.4 metres, yet it has a dedicated minister and weekly services!
|The teeny-tiny church of St Gobbans.|
From castles to bridges to a Giant’s Causeway, the day trip allowed us to see so many places that we wouldn’t otherwise have gotten to visit. If you don’t have access to your own car, then a day tour is the easiest way to see some of Northern Ireland’s most beautiful coastal spots.
The only negative about the day tour is that you may feel a bit rushed as you go from one sight to the next, but, for the amount of places we got to see for £18, that’s a ‘flaw’ that I can easily forgive.
If you find yourself in Belfast, don’t immediately dismiss this day tour as being too touristy; you’ll only miss out on all of the incredible spots listed above.