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by Patrick Cruywagen, 27th August 2016

If you're visiting Northern Ireland it's essential to put the Antrim coast at the top of your places-to-see list

You can drive all the beautiful roads in the world, but if you haven't taken your Land Rover along Northern Ireland’s Antrim Coast, I'm afraid to say your lifelong scenic journey isn't complete. Imagine a road where to the one side you have the green Glens of Antrim and on the other, the spectacular and sometimes stormy cold Atlantic Ocean. On a clear day you can easily see Scotland from certain viewpoints, while each bend in this twisting road tends to bring with it an even better view than the previous one. I have driven Australia’s Great Ocean Road and South Africa’s Garden Route, and can safely declare that the Antrim Coast is just as good. In fact it has some unique features that might just make it even better.

Remember the opening ceremony of the London Olympics? There was a scene where they went live to various children’s choirs around the UK. When they showed Northern Ireland the kids were standing at the Giant's Causeway, the jewel in the Antrim coast crown. No wonder the Northern Irish tourist board has spent millions of pounds building a visitor centre to mark this very spot, where they welcome tourists with their usual friendly banter. The Giant's Causeway is Northern Ireland’s answer to the Great Barrier Reef or Grand Canyon. When you see it for the first time you straight away realise what all the fuss is about. It’s as if giants once played here with massive hexagonal-shaped Lego blocks. Now, when us smaller humans come to visit the place, we can clamber over one of the prettiest and most unusual pieces of coastline anywhere in the world.

Locals advise that a good time to visit the Giant's Causeway is during a storm, when the Atlantic Ocean smashes against the rocks. It's cold, wet and windy as we walk down to the causeway, but the ocean is pretty well behaved. The waves gently drift in before softly lapping against the most impressive gathering of rocks I've ever been lucky enough to see. The thousands of basalt columns, towering cliffs and general good views are what make this Northern Ireland's only Unesco World Heritage Site. I must have been about six or seven years old when I first became aware of a place called Northern Ireland. I was watching the news of course and it depicted the place as somewhere where people constantly tried to bomb, shoot or maim one another. I was happy to be on the other side of the world. Little did I know that 30 years later I'd be married to a Northern Irish lass and travelling through this lovely place in a Defender. Fortunately things have normalised here somewhat since those dark days, though as Ross Kemp recently said on his Extreme World TV series, things still tend to kick off during the marching season. When going somewhere new I try to immerse myself in local custom and history. As my wife read Irish History at university she helps by giving me a little background history to the place and its people. Most of the attractions are in close proximity to the Giant's Causeway, so you could find yourself a nearby base and launch daily assaults on the area's various attractions from there, or else you might start in Londonderry and make your way all along the coast to Belfast, or vice-versa of course. As this is my wife’s home turf, she suggests we base ourselves in the seaside town of Portrush. From here we'll first explore westwards towards Magilligan Point, and after spending a night in Portrush, will head south-east along the coast back towards Belfast. Your biggest enemy along here is time – or lack of it – as you need a few days to see it all properly.

At the height of summer, Portrush is a bustling seaside resort town with no parking and pink-faced bathers everywhere. It's also full of students, as they attend the nearby University of Ulster, but live here. However locals will be quick to tell you that in the winter, you'll find more life in a morgue than Portrush. The students head off to some el cheapo Spanish Island and everything, including Barry’s famous amusement park and Waterworld, are shut for a few months. As a travel writer I prefer places when they are quiet and don't mind the foul weather, as long as no-one freezes to death. So we've definitely come at the right time. One place I'd recommend visiting in Portrush is the restaurant 55 Degrees North, where the floor-to-window ceilings give you the best views in town. Compared to England, the prices here are from the 1990s. If you like to play golf, then you've come to the right place, as each coastal town along the Causeway coast seems to have a scenic seaside course. Northern Irish golfers have won some big tournaments of late and the big Rory McIlroy billboard in the middle of town confirms him as their current favourite golfing son. The coastal road west from Portrush takes a slight detour after Portstewart, towards Coleraine. The reason for the detour is the River Bann estuary, known as Barmouth, which is in the way. This river is 80 miles long, making it the longest river, by some distance, in Northern Ireland. The source of this lengthy waterway can be found just below the summit of Slieve Muck in the Mourne Mountains.

For the geographically challenged, that's on the other side of Northern Ireland. From here it flows 42 miles before reaching Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in the UK. The river literally slices the province in two, and in days gone by it played an important role in industries such as linen production and distilling Irish whiskey. Today it's mainly used for recreation and fishing. So it comes as no surprise when we run into Sean McCarry, regional commander of the Community Rescue Service, on the banks of the river. They have two Defenders, but more importantly several boats, as they look to keep all river users safe. Sean also runs a coffee shop called The Crannagh, ideally located on the banks of the river, near the rescue boats. I walk around his Defenders and notice that they haven't done many miles. “Yes they have low mileage, but what they have done has been hard work,” he explains. We ask Sean where we can legally go off-road, and he points us to the track running along the northern shore of the river. It starts just outside Coleraine and lasts until you hit the River Articlave, one of the Bann’s tributaries. You then need to backtrack, as it's not safe or right to try and cross here. I am still determined to see the river mouth, and it's possible to do so by driving along the beach at Castlerock. There are several other 4x4s doing exactly this. We have barely left Castle Rock when we see the National Trust signs for the Mussenden Temple and Downhill Demesne, and just had to follow them. To get to the Temple you have to pass Downhill House. Even though it’s a shadow of its former self, it gives you enough clues that this was once a grand old mansion. Today its roof and insides have been removed, though some of the large walled sections still stand defiantly. Most of my interest lies with the Temple, as it's visible from miles away when approaching along the coast. The Temple was built as the estate library, but spectacularly stands atop a 120 ft cliff – so you can imagine the views up and down the coastline. The tunnel, which the train uses to get up and down the coast, actually runs directly beneath the cliff. The dramatic setting of the Temple makes it one of the most photographed places in all of Northern Ireland.

From here we follow the A2 all the way to Magilligan Point, passing a prison with the same name. If we had more time we could have taken the ferry across Lough Foyle into the Republic of Ireland. We have run out of sunlight and so backtrack to our base in Portrush. The following morning it's time to take the route south-east from Portrush. After seeing the famed Giant's Causeway, we try to stay as close as possible to the coastline as we make our way to Ballycastle. The first notable sight is the Dunseverick Castle ruins. What remains of this 16th century castle is perilously perched on a grassy tuft. Saint Patrick was the castle's most famous visitor, but all that remains of it today is the gate lodge. The rest of the structure has become one with nature. In fact if your guidebook didn't tell you where it was, you'd probably drive past it.

One thing you have to do when exploring this stretch of coastline is take all the turn-offs towards the coast, as they're sure to reveal real treasures. A mile past the castle we head into the tiny harbour town of Portbradden. It's said to house the smallest church in all of Ireland. Again drive slowly or you may miss it. Not long after rejoining the A2, you might want to take the turn to White Park Bay, an area famous for its white beach. While it's the cliffs, dramatic coastline and Glens of Antrim that make the tourists come here, the beaches too are sure to make you stop several times. They are great for stretching the legs or getting away from the busloads of tourists. Several of the roads here are not caravan or bus-friendly. These are the ones you want to take. Only a few miles further on is the town of Ballintoy, which is also postcard pretty – but make sure you go all the way down to its harbour. Especially if you're a fan of the blockbuster TV drama Game of Thrones, as some of the scenes were filmed here in the harbour. In fact the local tourist board has worked out a whole three-day Game of Thrones tourist route, taking in all the locations used. Thousands of white stones were used to build the harbour and this helps make it look very old and picturesque. A good spot for a scenic picnic.

Our next port of call is the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, the second most famous spot along here. It's about a ten to 20-minute walk to get there. Compose yourself before crossing the fragile-looking bridge. If afraid of heights, don’t look down. Keep your eyes on the little island. I  try hard not to look scared as there's a 75-year old lady behind me. Originally fisherman used the bridge to get across to the island so they could throw their nets out and intercept the salmon moving along the coast. As you walk back towards the car park look out towards the quarry – another location for Game of Thrones. From Ballycastle head inland along the A44 to the Dark Hedges, even if only to take a picture of your Land Rover there. The old trees have becomes so entwined, they resemble a dark row of hedges. Definitely worth a slight detour. The north-eastern corner of the Antrim coastline is characterised by the nine Glens. It's where three great lava flows and white coastal cliffs met many millions of years ago. These coastal valleys are a pleasure to drive over and through. Once again there are several turns off the A2 towards the coast, including Fair Head, Murlough Bay and Torr Head. Of these my favourite was Murlough Bay, probably because it's the most remote and it gets a little rough towards the end. We pass an Audi, which can go no further due to the bad track. A rainbow appears and the sun comes out. On a clear day you can see the Mull of Kintyre and the peaks of Arran in south-west Scotland from here. So far, this coastal road has totally captivated me. It continues to do so as we drop down a little towards the village of Cushenden, complete with Cornish-style cottages. From Cushendall we head inland along the A43 towards Ballymena. To get there we have to pass through Glenariff, which some say is the best-looking of all the Glens. How the scenery has changed from wild coast to thick green forests, that make you want to lace up your 
walking boots. I can hardly believe how such a relatively short section of coastline has been crammed with so many beautiful places. Maybe this is the last place on earth God made and as  there was so much good stuff left, He just had to put it all down here. I don’t know the explanation, but what I do know is that visitor numbers are sure to go up and up as word gets out. Why would anybody want to go to the south any more? Even the Guinness up north seems to taste better.


Belfast Land Rover Thanks to Charles Hurst for providing us with a 14YM Defender 110. Charles Hurst sells a wide variety of both new and second hand Land Rovers. At one stage our Defender was comfortably carrying five passengers with loads of gear in the back. See www.charleshurst.belfast.landrover.co.uk or call them on 02890 383 435.
Where we stayed The Ramada Hotel, Portrush www.ramadaportrush.com +44 (0) 28 7082 6100

Photos by Alison Cole

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