A driving holiday might sound like something a pair of past-it parents would plan, but there’s really no better way to see a destination to its fullest.
Hitting the open road, passing little villages, breathing in the coastal air and being absorbed by the rolling countryside; the UK and Ireland has many picturesque driving routes, and Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast is one of the most breathtaking. Two days on the open road from Derry City to Belfast brings you along the County Antrim coast taking in castles, temples and natural wonders, not to mention incredible food and drink.
A recent Capital of Culture in 2013, we begin by flying into Derry, both the second biggest and the most westerly city of Northern Ireland. A walk along the original Derry City Walls is a must, followed by a visit to the Guildhall, which boasts incredible architecture and houses an interesting interactive exhibition on the history of the Ulster Plantation and Derry’s beginnings.
Heading across the iconic and unusually-designed Peace Bridge, dinner awaits at the new Walled City Brewery, whose team can proudly proclaim to literally organising piss-ups in a brewery. This craft beer emporium has a talented kitchen, its delicious menu propped up by a wide selection of local brews, unique cocktails and a globe-trotting gin menu. Continue afterwards late into the night with more pints (and a spot of traditional music) at popular watering holes Blackbird or Sandinos.
Sitting just inside the city walls, the Bishop’s Gate Hotel is an ideal spot to rest your head for a night. This newly-redeveloped, plush four-star hotel is pristine, perfectly-sized and luxuriously comfortable. It’s also a purveyor of an exceptional Ulster Fry – no trip to NI would be worthy without sampling this cooked breakfast featuring ‘fadge’, also known as a potato farl.
Departing Derry, we trace the eastern edge of Lough Foyle and arrive at the 18th century Downhill Demense. Navigating our way through a dropping-lined walking trail bypassing hundreds of sheep, you soon reach Mussenden Temple, set atop a north-facing cliff battered by the crashing waves of the roaring Atlantic. This is a must-stop to catch your breath and take in the beauty of the coastline, which only gets more dramatic along the drive.
Perfectly placed a short drive away is the seaside town of Portstewart, with one of the best seafood and shellfish restaurants in the country set right on its strand. Harry’s Shack cooks the daily catch (landed each morning on the very shore that’s a backdrop to your meal) paired with local craft beers. The chowder is incredible, as is the light-as-air battered fish and chips. Be brave and order a whole fish on the bone, it’s excellent value but, more importantly, incredible flavour. You couldn’t get a better setting or a more fitting lunch stop than this beautifully-designed seaside shack.
Fifteen minutes later we land at Dunluce Castle, the preserved ruins of a medieval castle town jutting into the ocean, now connected only by man-made bridge. Soon after, the road takes you to Bushmills town, a stopping point for two reasons – a visit to the famous Bushmills Whiskey Distillery and Northern Ireland’s natural wonder, the Giant’s Causeway. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, at this area sits tens of thousands of interlocking basalt columns rising majestically from the choppy ocean, a result of ancient volcanic activity. The experience is second-to-none with a big budget visitor centre and audio guides weaving myth, humour and fact.
Onwards and reaching the most north-easterly point of Ireland sits Carrick-a-Rede, a treacherous-looking rope bridge connecting the mainland to a nearby island is an Instagram-worthy opportunity en route. Here, you can continue the scenic coastal route – hitting the charming towns of Ballintoy, Ballycastle, Cushenden, Cushendell and Glenarm – before turning at Larne towards Belfast or, alternatively, veer south after the Causeway and descend deep into the heart of Antrim as you pass through the Game of Thrones favourite The Dark Hedges.
Arriving in the cosmopolitan capital of Belfast, spend a night or two at the Bullitt Hotel, the city’s newest bolthole oozing coolness with two bars, a smart casual restaurant and a mixture of designer licks and endearing local touches. For a pair of thirsty travellers, drinks await at Perch, the city’s rooftop cocktail bar. Continuing into the night, Belfast’s ‘scene’ centres around Donegall Street including Maverick, Boombox, Kremlin and Union Street Bar.
2016 was Discover Northern Ireland’s Year of Food and Drink, and you’re spoiled for fabulous food across the country, not least in Belfast. A trip here isn’t complete without stopping by the foodie haven of St George’s Market, packed to the rafters with producers, street food vendors and local craftspeople. The St George’s Bar & Grill, one level up, is as great a place for breakfast as it is for a quiet dinner.
The market is also the start point of Caroline Wilson’s Belfast Food Tours, an expertly-guided four-hour tour of the best eats and drinks the city has to offer. Pit-stops include a champ and cider session at The Garrick, chocolate truffles at chocolatier Co Couture, gin and ginger serves at The John Hewitt, coffee at Established, before finishing with bubbles and nibbles at Coppi. Finally, if you have room, dinner at Michelin-starred OX – if you can get a table – offers incredible value with an unforgettable eight course seasonal tasting menu for £50pp.
All that in two or three days and just an hour’s flight from the UK? Food and drink may just be the driving force behind Northern Ireland tourism right now…
GastroGays travelled with FlyBe to Northern Ireland with Tourism Ireland.
Europcar provided complimentary car rental. Ryanair operates routes between City of Derry Airport and Glasgow International and Liverpool John Lennon. FlyBe, easyJet, Ryanair, British Airways and Aer Lingus operate daily routes between Belfast City Airport or Belfast International and the UK.