Coast Monkey welcomes Nial Toner from Food and Travel blog Pikalily.com for this great article!
2016 was a celebration year in Northern Ireland as the country championed local food and drinks producers with their ‘Year of Food and Drink’.
Each month was dedicated to a food or drink group, with Breakfast Month, Love Dairy, Love NI Meat and Bread & Baking among the most popular. 2016 has done so much to champion the great food available in Northern Ireland, so there’s never been a better time to hit the road and explore everything that Northern Ireland has in offer.
With the 2017 Irish Open taking place on the iconic shores of Royal Portrush, and a more than favourable exchange rate, Northern Ireland is a must see in 2017. Forget hoping on to a plane, there’s nothing quite like getting into the car, and driving off to wherever the road takes you.
And luckily for you, we’ve put together a list of four great coastal drives you have to check out.
1. Causeway Coastal Route
Top of the list for many is the popular Causeway Coastal Route, a 190km drive that will take you from the capital city of Belfast, to the Walled City of Derry, where you are well placed to head west to Donegal and onwards along the Wild Atlantic Way.
While the cities of Belfast and Derry give you plenty to see and do, it’s the treasures of the coasts that are the real attraction of this part of Northern Ireland.
The stunning Giant’s Causeway is the most popular tourist destination in Northern Ireland, and simply a must see, while other popular destinations include Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Dunluce Castle and Mussenden Temple.
Hit TV show Game of Thrones has put the Causeway Coast and Glens on the global map with areas like Ballintoy Harbour and the picturesque Dark Hedges attracting visitors all year round. Other highlights along the way include Glenariff Forest Park, The Gobbins and Rathlin Island, while the coastal towns of Cushendall, Ballycastle, Portrush and Portstewart are worth stopping off in.
For the golfing fans among you, Royal Portrush is worth trying to get a round in, as it will play host to this year’s Irish Open, and the 2019 British Open. Green fees for the Valley Course start at £25 in winter (Nov – Mar), and £42.50 the rest of the year, while the Dunluce Championship Course can cost £190 to play.
It’s worth giving yourself 3-4 days to really see all that the Causeway Coast and Glens has to offer, and for the whiskey fans among you, a trip to the world-famous Bushmills Distillery is a must.
2. Mourne Coastal Route
Another popular coastal driving route in Northern Ireland is the Mourne Coastal Route in Co. Down. Taking you from the Ring of Gullion in Newry to Strangford Lough, this coastal drive will take you through an area of outstanding natural beauty, with many highlights waiting for you along the way.
The 100km drive will take you through the heart of the Mourne Mountains, Northern Ireland’s largest mountain range.
This part of Northern Ireland has a tale to tell at every turn, and the Mourne Scenic Loop which takes you to Spelga Dam and Silent Valley Reservoir should be one of your first stops. Located in the heart of the Mournes the Scenic Loop will provide a truly memorable drive and ample picnic opportunities allowing you to escape from everything in this area of sheer tranquillity.
One of the highlights of the Mourne Scenic Loop is the magic road known as Electric Brae, a road which defies gravity by letting a car run uphill when the handbrake is off. You can find out the location of Electric Brae here.
As well as the incredible scenic views that the Mourne Coastal Route provides, it gives you a real chance to escape and enjoy the outdoors with walks along the Mournes, in the parks of Kilbroney, Castlewellan and Tollymore.
For the biking enthusiasts among you, the Mourne Coastal Route has two of Northern Ireland’s 3 National Mountain Bike Trails, located at Castlewellan and Rostrevor, while Castle Ward and Tollymore have regional and local trail routes for keen mountain bikers to try out. Check out MountainBikeNI.com for all the essential info including trail maps and latest news.
The area has plenty of great foodie options, with the popular award-winning Mourne Cookery School in Kilkeel well worth getting along to. The school will give you a great insight into the culinary heritage of this land, with Kilkeel affectionately known as the “Seafood Capital of the Mourne Mountains”.
The small coastal villages of Annalong, Dundrum, Ardglass and Tyrella will give you a real sense for the land, while the National Trust Property at Castle Ward is worth dedicating a day to explore, especially for the Game of Thrones fans among you (this is the home of Winterfell after all).
As with the Causeway Coastal Route, it’s worth giving yourself a few days to explore the picturesque Mourne Coastal Route. If you’re looking for more things to do, the lovely folk at Expedia have created a 3-day itinerary to driving the Mourne Coastal route as part of their newly launched Drive Ireland website.
3. Strangford Lough and Ards Peninsula
Explore another of Northern Ireland’s most scenic drives by exploring the area of Strangford Lough and the Ards Peninsula. This drive will take you from the coastal town of Strangford, around Strangford Lough to the popular seaside towns of Bangor, Kircubbin, Portavogie, Cloughy and Portaferry.
This drive has strong ties to St Patrick, with several popular heritage sites just waiting to be explored. As with the Mourne Coastal Route, it’s worth spending time exploring Castle Ward on the banks of Strangford Lough, and if the weather is kind to you, leave your car behind and set off to explore this area on foot.
As you leave Strangford you will head towards the towns of Saul and Downpatrick, the two areas of Down with the strongest ties to St Patrick. Saul Church has the tallest St Patrick statue in the world, while St Patricks Grave is in the town of Downpatrick.
Other popular sites with ties to St Patrick that are worth visiting as you explore the area around Strangford Lough and the Ards Peninsula include the Nendrum Monastic Site in Lisbane, Comber Stones in Comber, Bangor Abbey and the North Down Museum in Bangor, and Grey Abbey.
This part of Northern Ireland is famous for its many award-winning pubs and restaurants, with Balloo House in Balloo, The Poachers Pocket in Lisbane and the Old Schoolhouse Inn in Newtownards, and if you’re looking for a hidden gem, try out Daft Eddies near Whiterock. Located on the small Sketrick Island, this is a popular hangout for many locals.
And if you fancy a game of golf with a difference, tee off at stunning 9-hole Mahee Island Golf Club. The town of Donaghadee also lays claim to Northern Ireland’s oldest bar (and some would claim Ireland’s oldest) with Grace Neill’s Bar which dates back some 400 years to 1611, and well worth calling in for a tipple.
Your drive along the Ards Peninsula will take in many wonderful sites and locations including Castle Espie Wetland Centre (perfect if you’re travelling with kids), the 19th Century Mount Stewart House and Burr Point, the most easterly point on the island of Ireland. The picturesque Kearney Village will be one of your last stops as you travel south from Portavogie and Cloughy, and well worth discovering on foot. From here, make your way towards the town of Portaferry, being sure to call into the Exploris Aquarium. Take the ferry across the lough to Strangford, and you’re back to where you started.
You can find out more about the Strangford Lough area at www.visitstrangfordlough.co.uk.
4. Explore Rathlin Island
The next scenic drive to consider will see you leave the mainland and head for Northern Ireland’s largest island, Rathlin Island. Take the ferry across from the town of Ballycastle and get ready to explore this densely populate, rugged island.
April – August tends to be the busier visitor months on Rathlin, and it’s not just humans who pay a visit to the island, as this is a period that see’s puffins descend on the island, so don’t miss the opportunity to do some bird watching while you explore the island. At only 7 miles long, the best way to explore Rathlin in all its glory is on foot along Rathlin Trail. This 6.5km walk will see you start at the harbour, and take in popular sites of the island including the Rescue Station, Kinramer Wood, Kebble Nature Reserve, where on a good day you’ll see the stunning Causeway Coast in Antrim, and Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal.
With several trails to explore on foot, if you’re feeling energetic, other popular attractions on the island to check out include the RSPB Seabird Centre and West Lighthouse, McCuaig’s Bar, Manor House and both the East and Rue Lighthouse. The East Lighthouse provides a great view of Scotland, with Rathlin only 20km from the famous Mull of Kintyre. The island was once at the centre of a battle between Scotland and Ireland to see who it belonged to, and this was settled in 1617 with Rathlin being declared part of Ireland.
The island has Neolithic ties dating back to 6000BC when it is thought the first settlers arrived from Scotland, and the Brockley Axes, Mass Rocks, Kelp Kilns and Viking Burial grounds doted across the island are evidence of life on the island for thousands of years. Although around 100 call the island home today, it’s an island worth exploring for the day, and one that you take you away from the world for a day.
Knockans Viewpoint at Church Bay is the perfect place to rest in between exploring the island, while Mill Bay, which is located near the harbour and main village, is a safe paradise for seals, and a great viewpoint to see these wonderful creatures. Rathlin Island really is an escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, and if you want a coastal trip that is a little different, spend the day getting up close and personal with the natural beauty, the rugged landscape and the birds, sealife and wildlife that call Rathlin Island home.
For more information on Rathlin Island, and for things to see and do, visit www.rathlincommunity.org.
Plan your trip today: For more information on some of the scenic coastal, and indeed inland driving routes across Northern Ireland, visit www.discovernorthernireland.com.
About the Author | Nial Toner
Enjoy exploring Ireland when I get the chance and love living by the coast at the foot of the Mourne Mountains in Co. Down. Write about my food and travel experiences with my wife Helen at pikalily.com. Find us on Facebook.