This post was originally created as a part of the Finnish ‘Irish Week’ campaign. The main partner of the campaign was Tourism Ireland.
This post has one very valuable lesson. The lesson isn’t necessarily specified to the Antrim Coast or any other part of Northern Ireland, but to any travel destination, anywhere in the world.
The lesson to learn is: never travel solely based on the information you can find on the pages of guidebooks, maps or tourist information leaflets. The lesson to learn is to always keep your eyes and adventurous mind wide open, anywhere you go. Even by the most famous tourist attractions in the world, you can always find true hidden gems that the tourist masses haven’t yet found. Not even if they’d be located within a few minutes walk.
Because you can’t find them in guidebooks.
The North-East Coast of Northern Ireland, also known as Causeway Coast and Antrim Coast, with its dramatic cliffs, castle ruins and natural formations is a one-of-a-kind destination for adventurous hikers or road trip enthusiasts. The 51 km hiking trail covering the coast can be split into shorter walks. If you want to walk through the whole Antrim Coast trail, you should reserve 2–3 days at minimum for the full-length trail. There is a lot to explore and admire along the way.
As tempted as I was to hike through the coast during our 4-day road trip in Northern Ireland in February, due to our rental car we couldn’t take any one-way hikes. Luckily it’s very easy to explore the Antrim Coast by car, and taking shorter, circular walks is always a great option.
When you’re planning a road trip in Northern Ireland, you should always plan your route leaving the coast on your left-hand side. There are two reasons why; First of all, this way the person on the codriver’s seat will get much better views and possibilities to photograph from the car window as you go. The second reason is that during the high peak tourist season, the tourist buses are driving along the coast from South to North. Heading the other way, you won’t get stuck behind them. In addition to better views, you’ll have a lot more space on the narrow roads of the Antrim Coast.
And that’s the reason why we’re now exploring the hidden gems of the Antrim Coast from North to South.
Dunluce Castle and the Mermaid’s Cave
The ruins of the medieval Dunluce Castle are hard to miss – but something below them isn’t. The castle resting right at the edge of a cliff is one of the most popular and widely known attractions in Northern Ireland, and definitely worth a visit. When walking along the castle wall, or what’s left of it, you’ll get a stunning view along the curly coast by the Atlantic Ocean.
As with any old castle, also Dunluce Castle has thousands of stories to tell. You just need to know how to listen. A few weeks ago, when I was introducing
A few weeks ago, when I was introducing the highest highlights of our Northern Ireland road trip, I referred to a hidden surprise that was awaiting us at the bottom of the stairs next to the castle wall.
Now it’s finally time to reveal what’s hiding down there. Right below Dunluce Castle ruins, we found a small cavity with a warning sign. The sign was forbidding entering the cave. As you probably know, I’m like a child – if something is forbidden, I just have to do it. Or at least I have to peek inside a little.
Later I found out that the cave is called Mermaid’s Cave. I don’t know where the cave has got its fairytale-kind-of a name, but I read about the tragic story that took place in the cave.
The story tells that Lord MacQuillan, whose family built the castle in the 16th century, imprisoned his only daughter in the North-East tower after she turned down the marriage her father had organised. The determined young lady, Maeve Roe, was already in love. The love of her life, Reginald O’Cahan, helped Maeve Roe out of her prison, and together they escaped into the Mermaid’s Cave. With the small rowing boat waiting for them in the cave, the young couple was supposed to disappear into freedom.
The surges of the rough Atlantic Ocean threw the boat on the cliffs. Reginald’s body was soon found in the sea, but Maeve Roe was never discovered. The legend tells that she’s still haunting in her prison tower today.
If you’re a curious child like me and want to descend into the cave, please know that you’ll do it at your own responsibility. Going down on low tide is fairly easy, but be careful on the slippery rocks – and remember to look for the falling rocks.
Dunluce Castle was no doubt an impressive place to visit, but I would lie if I said I didn’t enjoy exploring the Mermaid’s Cave even more. Luckily we were curious enough to follow the stairs down, as I hadn’t come across the cave on the pages of guidebooks prior to our visit.
Even Giant’s Causeway is more than just Giant’s Causeway
There’s no doubt, Giant’s Causeway is the most visited and well-known tourist attraction in Northern Ireland. Consisting of 40,000 basalt columns, Giant’s Causeway attracts almost a million visitors each year. And this number only contains the travellers arriving through the newly built visitor centre.
Giant’s Causeway has plenty of stories to tell, too. If you ask any of the locals how Giant’s Causeway was born, the answer will most likely be an Irish giant called Finn MacCool. Finn wanted to challenge a Scottish giant, Benandonner, so he built Giant’s Causeway as a passageway for his enemy. Once Finn saw giant Benandonner arriving, he got so scared that he asked his wife to hide him.
The wife snorted and called her husband a big baby. Apparently, sarcasm already existed, as she hid Finn in an enormous cradle, just like a baby.
When Benandonner was approaching Ireland he noticed the huge cradle and freaked out. He didn’t want to face a giant with a child that big, so he escaped back to Scotland and destroyed the passageway as he went. The other end of Giant’s Causeway is still visible by the Fingal Cave in Staffa Island of Scotland.
Alternatively, you’ll be told that Giant’s Causeway was formed approximately 60 million years ago as a result of cooling lava flows after serious series of volcanic eruptions.
The legends are intriguing, and the basalt columns are definitely worth seeing, but unfortunately, only a few visitors take the time to explore the other stunning natural formations that are located within a short walk. And those ‘others’ are, in my honest opinion, even more, impressive than the Giant’s Causeway itself.
Like ‘Finn’s Boot’, a shoe-shaped rock that was surprisingly comfortable to have a rest on.
Whether you’re entering the site through the visitor centre or along the hiking trails, this is what I recommend you to do, in case you’re not afraid of a little walk: Start with the upper path on top of the cliffs. It’s easy to access by the visitor centre. This is the best way to get a good view of the whole area and the beautiful Antrim Coast.
Next, take the ‘Shepherd’s Steps’ down to the shore and take a moment to admire ‘the Organ’, incredibly tall basalt columns fitted to a large rock. When you look at the columns from a distance, they look exactly like a church organ. Perhaps for a reason? The legend tells that Finn the Giant built this organ for his son for playing.
Continue walking forward around the rocky corner. There you’ll find ‘the Amphitheatre’ formed by astonishing basalt columns. This is, at least to me, the most impressive sight in the whole area. I tried hard to get a successful panorama photo of the amphitheatre, but I failed badly. Hopefully, these smaller photos give you an idea of how incredible the site really is.
Don’t forget to pay attention to ‘Chimney Tops’, the separated basalt columns that are rising on a cliff above the Atlantic Ocean.
Do you remember the ruins of Dunluce Castle where we just visited? The Spanish ship La Girona of the Spanish Armada sank in the bay due to these ‘chimneys’ in 1588. The crew mistakenly thought the basalt columns were Dunluce Castle. When sailing towards them, the stormy Atlantic Ocean became the final resting place of the ship and the crew.
Stop by at the Ballintoy Harbour
When you’re ready to leave Giant’s Causeway behind and start driving towards your next destination which will, for sure, be the world-famous Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, I’d recommend a short stop along the way. Just before turning to the rope bridge, you’ll see a sign pointing left for Ballintoy Harbour. The extremely narrow road descending towards the shore is full of 90-degree turns with very poor visibility, so you shouldn’t try this road with too large of a car. For buses, the road is completely forbidden.
You could easily spend several hours in Ballintoy. Unfortunately, we only had time for a very quick stop, so we had to miss the stunning stone arches rising up from the sea and other rock formations. Luckily, Ballintoy Harbour has a lot of exciting features also for a short visit.
See it yourself.
The highlight of the Antrim Coast hides near the rope bridge
Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge is quite likely on your list when you’re exploring the wonders of the Causeway Coast. For some people, the bridge is too much – according to the staff, surprisingly many visitors end up backing out when they arrive at the bridge.
Some people give up already on the way. The walking distance from the ticket sales booth to the bridge is approximately 1 km. Apparently, some travellers are not used to walking and returning back to their cars even before having the rope bridge in sight.
The rope bridge was quite a fun experience, but nothing really special. Unless you’re afraid of heights and bouncy walkways – then it might feel a bit extreme. The most exciting feature, the true hidden gem of the area, was found thanks to the bridge: Daniel, my observant travel companion, spotted caves down at the beach. That’s where we headed for after walking over the bridge a couple of times.
The route to the caves passed the lower parking lot of the rope bridge. A parking lot that might be quite a familiar one for Game of Thrones fans.
After passing the parking lot called Larrybane Field, named after Larrybane Bay, continue walking towards the shore. When you arrive by sea, turn right and walk a little while in the direction of the rope bridge. The rocky shore will require good shoes and some concentration, but if you’re into an adventure, you don’t want to miss this place!
As I mentioned in the beginning, this article has one and only one lesson to learn. No matter how touristic your destination is, always remember to look around. Be curious. Be nosy. Because you’ll never know what’s waiting for you around the next corner.