I think it’s no secret by now that I’m an absolute sucker for a proper road trip. The feeling of cruising along the road with gorgeous scenery at every turn and the freedom to stop when you want and soak up the amazing views – you just can’t beat it! Luckily our little corner of the world certainly has more than its fair share of gorgeous scenery. But today I wanted to shine the spotlight on Antrim in particular. The Giant’s Causeway might hog most of the limelight, but join me on a little journey along the Causeway Coastal Route and get ready to discover some lovely little gems along the way!
Snaking its way between ancient, wind-swept cliffs and the powerful waves of the North Channel, the Causeway Coastal Route is widely toted by many as one of the best road trips in Europe. Speaking from experience I can say they’re definitely not wrong! From strolls along gentle, sandy beaches to traversing sea caves, the wide range of activities on offer along the drive will keep you hooked.
The full length of the Causeway Coastal Route goes all the way from Belfast to Derry, but while it is definitely worth doing the whole length of the route you might not have enough time to do it all. So rather than rush it, take your time with a shorter trip. Here’s a great itinerary that’s easy to do in a day, yet jam-packed with memorable stops and unique experiences that have helped earn Antrim’s coastal drives their worldwide acclaim.
From Belfast, follow the A2 for half an hour towards the north and you’ll soon end up in the lovely town of Carrickfergus. It’s in actual fact one of the oldest settlements on the entire island of Ireland, and with such a long history it makes sense that the town has certainly seen more than its fair share of action! Fergus Mór, the Scottish king of Dál Riata, made landfall here and gave the settlement its namesake. The Normans also made their way up here, building the gorgeous and incredibly well-preserved castle that overlooks the peaceful harbour even to this day. It’s stood guard for over 800 years – pretty impressive stuff, considering it’s fended off a fair few attacks during its time!
Whitehead & Blackhead Lighthouse
Drive another five miles up the A2 and you’ll get to Whitehead. This peaceful seaside town epitomises your typical Victorian resort – think terraces of multicoloured houses, long promenade walks and even a proper steam railway! The Railway Preservation Society of Ireland runs a museum showcasing vintage locos and you might be able to catch a glimpse of mechanics hard at work restoring them, but in case you’re feeling a bit peckish there’s an old-school Edwardian tea room where you can get stuck into a nice brunch or afternoon tea.
Whitehead also serves as the gateway to the nearby Islandmagee Peninsula. As a nice introduction to the area, be sure to stop off at the Blackhead Lighthouse. Perched high up on the cliffs, you’ll be met with amazing views of the entrance to Belfast Lough. Those of you looking to stretch your legs a bit should consider walking the coastal path from Whitehead up to the lighthouse. It can be a little steep in places, but the sea breeze does you wonders – you’ll be able to spot Scotland and the Isle of Man out on the horizon when the weather is clear.
The Gobbins & Islandmagee
Once you’ve soaked up those glorious views of Belfast Lough, it’s time to head up to Islandmagee. It’s a real serene spot and the tranquillity makes it a popular day trip destination, but it’s also home to the most exhilarating experience along the Antrim Coast: The Gobbins Cliff Path. Easily the craziest coastal walk I’ve ever done and there’s nothing else quite like it in the world – you’ll be dipping in and out of caves, climbing steps carved into sheer cliff faces and cross walkways that the Irish Sea. At some points of the walk you’ll even be below sea level, which was pretty mind-boggling stuff! Keep your eyes peeled for the puffins if you’re here during the summer – the cliffs here are home to Northern Ireland’s sole mainland colony.
Sturdy walking boots, waterproof gear and a decent level of fitness are a must. It is possible to rent boots if your footwear isn’t up to the job, but they are only a limited number of pairs available so it’s best to be prepared. I also really recommend booking in advance as the tour is incredibly popular. But if you ever have the opportunity to do The Gobbins, don’t think twice – you won’t regret it!
Once the adrenaline has worn off you can continue your loop around Islandmagee, stopping off at the tranquil harbour in Portmuck and enjoying a leisurely walk along the beach in Brown’s Bay.
Glenoe & Larne
Deviate from the main A2 road for a moment and head up to the quaint village of Glenoe, tucked away in the gentle hills just outside Larne. There’s a breathtaking waterfall hidden away in a narrow gorge – from the car park you’ll be able to follow the paths there. It’s straightforward enough, but it can be a little tricky in places. The views of the waterfall are well worth the effort though. The lush foliage all around makes for some amazing photographs, and you can enjoy a few peaceful moments as you listen to the rushing water and the birdsong all around.
Head back to the coastal road and the harbour town of Larne. A busy crossing point for ferries to and from Scotland, there’s one landmark here you can’t miss: the Chaine Memorial Tower – or “the Pencil” as the locals like to call it. Built in 1888 and funded by donations from the local populace, this replica of an Irish round tower is dedicated to James Chaine, a politician in the late 19th Century who was a key figure in developing Larne and its harbour. 11 years after it was constructed, the tower was converted into a working lighthouse, and it’s now helped to guide boats and ships past nearby Hunter Rock for over 100 years. There’s also a small section of Larne Town Park dedicated to Chaine as well.
Antrim Coast Road
As you continue on from Larne, you’ll now be driving along the Antrim Coast Road, a 40km stretch of road that is widely toted as one of the best drives in Europe – if not the whole world.
What seems like your usual bit of road was actually a colossal engineering feat back in the mid-19th Century. The steep hills aren’t exactly the prime conditions for building roads – it was easier for the locals to just make the short hop across the sea to Scotland to ship supplies and than to cross by land. That was until a civil engineer by the name of William Bald had a genius idea – build a road at sea level where the ground is flat! Over the space of 10 years, more than 30,000 cubic metres of solid rock was carefully blasted from the cliffs – and the Antrim Coast Road was born.
This mighty engineering project has since gone on to become one of the most scenic drives in the whole world. Look to one side and you’ll be greeted by sheer cliff faces, soaring up to 100 metres in places. To the other you have the crashing waves of the sea, almost at your fingertips. Once you’re on this stretch of the Causeway route, just take your time and enjoy the drive – you’ll soon see why people all over the world rave on about it!
Guru tip: Be sure to pay the little Antrim Coast Road Memorial a visit before you head off. You’ll find it as you leave Larne – a small plaque is dedicated to William Bald and the men who carved their way through Antrim’s cliffs.
Glenarm & Carnlough
The Antrim Coast Road will eventually bring you up to where the Glens of Antrim meet the sea. The gateway to the region is the picturesque village of Glenarm, situated in the first of the nine valleys and sheltered by windswept hills. With artisan workshops and a beautiful 16th Century Castle there’s plenty to do here, but I personally recommend giving the Layde Walk a try. You’ll pass the gorgeous Barbican Gatehouse, stroll along the Vennel with its rows of cute cottages, and soak up panoramic views from the hilltop.
Just a stone’s throw away is Carnlough, a charming fishing village that will make for the perfect place to end your day of adventuring. Head out to sea on a little boat trip with local operator Carnlough Bay Boat Tours and observe dolphins, seals and rare bird species out in the bay? Once you’ve made landfall again you can cosy up in the pub in the Londonderry Arms Hotel and enjoy a hearty meal as reward for a long day of exploring. Keen-eyed observers might also recognise the steps at the harbour from Season 6 of Game of Thrones®, where Arya Stark survives a dicey encounter with the Waif.
Get planning your next road trip
Having done the drive myself I can only recommend it! Gorgeous scenery and awesome experiences – the Causeway Coastal Route really is the perfect day out for adventurers and sightseers, so if you’ve yet to check out the area you should get planning! For more info about the coastal route and more fantastic itineraries, take a look at the new Shaped by Sea & Stone website set up by the good folks at Mid and East Antrim Borough Council. There are loads of suggestions for things to do and places to stay during your time there, so there’s nothing in the way of a fantastic trip!