Exploring Northern Ireland: Giant’s Causeway, Carrick-a-Rede & Belfast
After a wonderful day exploring Dublin and the nearby seaside yesterday, I am positively beside myself with excitement to journey north and see more of this little island’s natural beauty. I even convinced my new friend Maryem to join me on the tour today, making plans to meet at 6.45am at the hostel reception. When my alarm goes off, I am amazed at how quickly morning has come, and I realise just how tired I must have been to sleep without a single moment of restlessness on the horribly uncomfortable hostel bed. It’s always challenging to get up in the dark, but I am bubbling with anticipation for the day, so I set off to the shower, getting completely dressed and am only moments from ready before I think to check the weather.
Connecting to Wifi for the first time since I arrived in Ireland, my phone suddenly updates to the correct time—11.40pm. It takes a few moments to process, but quickly becomes clear that I’ve gotten up about 6.5 hours sooner than was really necessary, which explains the darkness and also the steady stream of people coming back into the hostel from drinking.. And so I pack all my bits away and go right back to bed.
I have better luck with my second alarm, and soon I’m walking with Maryem towards the pick-up point on O’Connell St, keeping eyes peeled for a bus that I later realise would have been literally impossible to miss (think shamrocks and leprechauns). We depart just after 7am in our opposite-of-discreet Paddywagon Tours bus, driving across the border and into Northern Ireland for a day that will include the Dark Hedges, Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Giant’s Causeway, and Belfast.
All the details: Northern Ireland tour
Cost: Explore Northern Ireland on a Wild Rover Tour for €70. (I actually went with Paddywagon Tours for €60, and they were good, but I preferred my other experience with Wild Rover for all the history and cultural information shared on board by the dedicated guide; plus, their tour skips the Dark Hedges and spends more time in Belfast, which I would have preferred.)
Getting there: Meet the Paddywagon bus on O’Connell Street near the Savoy Theatre at 7am, and then all the day’s onward transportation will be totally taken care of by your lovely driver until you arrive home after 8pm.
Where to stay: Abbey Court Hostel, just off O’Connell Street and about a 5min walk from the pick-up point, offers dorm beds ranging from €10-25.
The Dark Hedges
We travel a couple of hours to reach our first stop, a long tunnel of towering trees that was used as “the kingsroad” in Game of Thrones. I stopped watching the show when everyone was still carrying on about “Winter is coming” (seriously, how long does it take for the seasons to change), so I can’t say that the place holds any real significance for me. Still, it’s a beautiful natural phenomenon, and seeing as I have eyes, that’s significance enough. We have to walk about 10 minutes through forest to reach the Dark Hedges, which Maryem is quick to point out are not actually hedges at all, and has her remarking every 30 seconds of the walk “where are these dark hedges?” until I finally tell her “we’re in them”.
They are definitely pretty, but (in additional to definitely not being hedges) I think we are both a bit underwhelmed, particularly by the number of other tourists along the road who seem determined to position themselves immediately in front of my camera. It’s a short visit anyway, and before long we are “walking with purpose” (a variation on “power walking” in which you don’t actually move any quicker than normal walking, but you adopt a look of purpose so that people get out of your way) back to the bus.
The main stop of the day (and really the whole reason I booked this tour) is the Giant’s Causeway later in the afternoon, so after our experience at the Dark Hedges, I have lowered my expectations for our second stop, a potentially gimmicky rope bridge that I really don’t know much about. We also have to hand over an extra 10€ for tickets to walk across the bridge, and although I’m not keen on the expense, I figure I may never be here again and I may as well make the most of the day, touristy or not.
Carrick-a-Rede bridge & island
What we find when we arrive, however, is one of the most incredible stretches of coastline I’ve ever seen, rugged and dotted with tiny islands, one of which is accessible via the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. After travelling all over Ireland, I still believe this is one of the most spectacular places in the country and it is just about as far from gimmicky as you can hope to get.
From where the bus parks, it’s about a 15 minute walk to the bridge, but we easily spend 45 minutes covering the short distance, constantly distracted by beautiful view after view. The best part may be that, spread over such a large area, you can’t really tell that there are many other people here—hardly anyone is stepping into my photos or jockeying for the same spot.
As we come up and over the slight hill, our vantage point only improves, showing brilliant aqua water against a green and yellow coastline as far as the eye can see, all under a perfectly sunny sky (did I mention the weather is phenomenal today?!).
We do finally make it to the bridge, where a sizeable queue has formed to cross (our first indication of just how many people are actually here).
Spotting a photo opportunity on an adjacent hill that is practically calling out to me, we quickly hurry over to take some photos of the bridge while an Irish family saves our place, making it back just in time for Maryem to hand me her bag so that she can nervously grip the bridge with both hands.
Other fears notwithstanding, I am entirely unbothered by heights, so I jog eagerly ahead on the swaying rope bridge to take photos of the scenery and capture Maryem as she comes across, white-knuckled but grinning.
Once on the island, we walk up the hill for more amazing views, and take a moment just to soak it all in, before we realise it’s been about 70 minutes and we need to think about heading back.
As we queue up for the return, I am able to coerce an American family into carrying my camera across and getting a photo of me while I carry one of their mobile phones and try my best not to fumble it off the bridge. After reviewing my camera, I’m convinced it would be impossible to take a bad picture surrounded by scenery like this, and I honestly can’t wait to show everyone these photos of Ireland that look nothing at all like what I was expecting.
The Giant’s Causeway
Walking with purpose, we make it back to the bus within our 90 minute time frame, bubbling over with excitement as we continue on towards the Giant’s Causeway. By early afternoon, we are off the bus again, given just under 2 hours to explore this World Heritage Site and grab some food. The time limit means that we completely bypass the Visitor’s Centre, which has a wealth of information on the geology of this unique formation, and head straight down towards the Causeway, where thousands of hexagonal basalt columns meet the sea. Luckily, I was able to chat with my geologist father and have him fill in all the science that I missed, and our wonderful tour guide did a great job relaying the Celtic legends associated with this site.
The geology behind Giant’s Causeway
The Causeway is actually made up of around 50,000 interlocking hexagonal basalt columns, which were estimated to have been formed some 60 million years ago through volcanic activity in the area.
“The hexagonal basalt columns are formed when molten lava cools and shrinks slightly. As adjacent portions of the lava shrink, it cracks into individual columns. Because the cooling stresses act in a radial fashion, there is a tendency for the columns to be circular. However, you cannot form an interlocking pattern with circles; only identical (same size and shape) triangles, squares, and hexagons will form a perfect interlocking pattern (think of all the bathroom tile you’ve seen). Of these three geometric shapes, hexagons most closely resemble circles. Therefore, the basalt columns are nearly always hexagonal.
Another feature of basalt columns is that the size of the columns is commensurate with the rate of cooling; large columns are the result of slow cooling, and small columns are the result of rapid cooling. The relatively small columns seen at Giant’s Causeway indicate that the lava cooled very rapidly. In other locations, where cooling was very slow, it is not unusual to see basalt columns that are 10 to 20 feet in diameter.” — my father (seasoned geologist, mountain man & all-round rock lover)
The legend behind Giant’s Causeway
Irish legend, however, takes a slightly different view of how the Causeway was formed. Many hundreds of years ago, the beloved Irish giant Finn McCool was engaged in a long-standing feud with a Scottish giant, Benandonner, and the two frequently shouted and argued with one another across the water. Finally, Finn just couldn’t take the insults anymore and challenged his rival to a dual, giant to giant. Taking rocks from the Antrim coast of Ireland, he built himself a causeway all the way to Scotland, only to find that Benandonner was at least 100ft tall and twice as large as himself. Fearful that he wouldn’t survive a battle with this much stronger giant, Finn ran all the way back to Ireland and into his home in County Kildare, where his wife had the perfect plan to hide him.
Not long after Finn’s return, Benandonner came bounding up to the McCool household and demanded that his rival face him like a man. Mrs. McCool apologised, but explained that Finn was away hunting in County Kerry and Benandonner couldn’t possibly have seen him in Scotland. Suspicious, the giant poked around the house and discovered Finn McCool wrapped up in a blanket, apparently sleeping– but clever Mrs. McCool whispered that this was Finn’s young son, taking his afternoon nap.
Realising that if Finn’s son was this large then Finn must be absolutely enormous, Benandonner made a hasty retreat from the house, apologising to Mrs. McCool for the inconvenience, and then fled all the way back to Scotland, pushing much of the causeway under the sea as he ran. What remains today is just a small part of the Causeway on the Irish coast, as the original link between Ireland and Scotland was firmly hammered into the earth by the colossal giant, Benandonner.
What we find down at the Causeway is absolutely otherworldly and looks all too likely to have been the result of giants. I’m instantly reminded of the basalt columns on Iceland’s Reynisjfara Beach and at Svartifoss, but the gradual descent of these black hexagons from the hillside down into the ocean lends the landscape a definite uniqueness.
Even though there are quite a few people milling about the Causeway, it occupies such a large area of the coastline that you can easily walk out to a section and enjoy the scenery alone. It’s puzzling, then, that there is a crowd forming on one particular rock while so much of the site is empty and just waiting to be photographed! Maryem is in sandals and somewhat hesitant to go skipping around on the rocks, so I take some photos of her near the trail and then frolic off into the distance to see what else I can find.
After I’ve explored to my heart’s content, we stroll back along the trail and find a seat at the little restaurant. We have managed to use up the vast majority of our 2 hours already, so there’s only time to order some hot chips and drinks before we need to walk with purpose back to the bus. As much as I could have spent the entire day in this stunning location, we have one more stop on our whirlwind tour of Northern Ireland, and we are both eager to see what Belfast holds.
Awakening from a nap, we have finally arrived in the northern capital and step off the bus to explore on our own. The only landmark we really see during our time in Belfast is City Hall, which may not sound terribly exciting, but is actually one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen, both inside and out (I’m referring to the ornate interior, not the building’s “inner beauty”..). We spend the rest of our evening just strolling along, not walking with any sort of purpose whatsoever, and soaking in Belfast. It is dominated by old, decorative buildings and immediately strikes me as a very cultured (and also very clean) city, and one which I’m disappointed to leave all too soon.
Back on our bus for the drive home, Maryem and I both consider what a lovely day we’ve just had, seeing some of Northern Ireland’s best highlights all in a single, action-packed day. I could absolutely have taken several days to visit all these spots, but given my limited time, there really was no better way than to join a bus tour like this one.
And with all my wariness of organised tours, the day could not have been better—we were shuttled right to all the places I so badly wanted to see and given our own time and space to explore without having to move as a group, the perfect combination of convenience and independence. I hope my next two tours prove equally wonderful, but either way, I will be leaving Ireland next week totally obsessed with what I’ve seen here today.