A week before my ..th birthday I was having breakfast, thinking that in a week I would finally go on holiday; I could not wait! I was so tired and felt like going back to bed, but I had to go to work. I picked up my phone quickly to check my email before leaving home. And there it was: an early birthday present 🙂 I jumped up from the couch and did a little happy dance. It was an email from Tourism Ireland that said: Congratulations you have been chosen to attend the Ireland Specialist FAM trip! YES… happy dance! 4 weeks (and a holiday in between) later I am on my way to Northern Ireland.
Day 1: from Amsterdam via Dublin to Newcastle
We meet on Friday morning at Schiphol Airport; 8 Dutch travel agents and a lovely lady named Ann Marie from Tourism Ireland meet at the gate, ready for our flight to Dublin. We fly with Aer Lingus, with whom I have flown to Dublin before. Within 1,5 hour we already arrive; it is only a short flight! At Dublin we (the Dutch travel agents) get acquainted a bit better and we get a bit of extra time to do so. We wait for 5 Belgium travel agents to arrive from Brussels, but their flight is delayed with half an hour. Not a problem, Ann Marie gets us a warm drink and we chat away until the group is complete.
After the Belgium travel agents have joined us, we meet Conor, who represents Hidden Tours Belfast and who will accompany us for the next few days. He guides us outside of the airport and we walk towards the bus, where driver Martin of Quinns Coaches is waiting for us. And off we go, leaving Dublin straight away. Conor introduces himself a bit more on the bus and tells us we are free to ask him as many questions as we want. He lets us enjoy the landscape along the way instead of talking too much on the microphone. I actually am happy about that because upon arrival on a destination, the first impressions of what you see are many and I like to take it quietly. And the beautiful green landscape along the way speaks for itself. I already fell in love with Ireland 7 years ago and am so grateful I am back to explore a part I have not seen before.
We drive north and the weather is not so good. Hmm… The drive takes us about an hour and I enjoy looking out of the window, seeing the green hilly landscape. When we arrive at our first stop, the sun has come out, like it was meant to be. We do not stay overnight, but we have lunch at the lovely Whistledown Hotel in Warrenpoint. Warrenpoint is a small port town at Carlinford Lough. The hotel is right in the middle of Warrenpoint overlooking the lough. What a great location to stay and what a view. We have a table on the first floor and I take a seat by the window so I can look outside at the water. I can stare for hours just looking at sea birds, boats passing by, people walking on beaches or boulevards. We get to choose from a special menu and I order a steak sandwich. OMG, it is the best ever, although I can hardly get out of my seat after eating it. Simply delicious and the rest of the table is very quiet too during lunch (always a good sign). Before moving on to the next stop, we quickly go outside to take some photographs of the old pool and the lovely houses on Rostrevor Road.
We go further north and half an hour later we stop to have a look at Spelga Dam in the Mourne Mountains. They are also called the Mournes or Mountains of Mourne and they are a granite mountain range in County Down. The dam is located about 12 kilometres from Newcastle. We are told that it is a man made dam built in 1960 and on the other side of the dam is Spelga Reservoir. The reservoir and dam apparently were built as part of a project with the idea of supplying water to Belfast, but the Portadown and Banbridge areas receive the water supply. At the parking there are 2 buses of school kids going for a hike, maybe even camping and what a beautiful area to do so. I quickly run down the road to take pics of the Dam and then we move on.
We run a bit late. Let me tell you… travel agents are probably the worst tourists since we want to see it all and always wonder off to catch another glimpse of something ;-).
From the dam it is only a 20 minute drive to Tollymore Forest Park. Although we take a bit longer to get there (extra sight seeing on the way). I read about Tollymore Forest Park, it is the first state forest park in Northern Ireland. It has the most amazing views of the surrounding mountains and the sea at Newcastle. Once we arrive, we get ready for a Game of Thrones Experience (including wearing a fake fur cape). I feel like lady Stark. Where is Ned Stark??? Oh right, he died… and lady Stark did too.
Northern Ireland is home to many film locations of this immense popular TV show and Tollymore Forest Park is one of them. We walk through the park where the Shimna river flows through and there are 16 bridges you can cross. It is like walking in a real life fairytale. We get to see the location where the scene of the husky puppies is shot in season 1 (Game of Thrones fans will of course know what I am talking about). But there are more film locations in the park.
We have to get back before it gets too dark. A shame, because this fairytale looking Forest Park is so beautiful. If you ever have the plans to go to Tollymore, you can of course go for the Game of Thrones experience (for sure if you are a big fan), but you can also get yourself a map and take your time to walk around. Take a picnic with you, sit down in between and just enjoy the beauty of the park.
Martin drives us to the Burrendale Hotel in Newcastle where we check in. The hotel has a perfect location for sporty people who want to go for a walk or a hike in the area. But of course it is not only for the sporty ones. We all have a comfortable room where we freshen up for dinner. I take a bath; I do not have a bath tub at home, so when I get the chance… I relax and go down to the restaurant to meet the group. During our check in we already got the chance to order from the menu so we do not have to wait long for our food. Another great meal, a good glass of wine and a yummy desert. And I am in good company and we talk about what we have seen this afternoon and how incredibly lucky we all are to be on this trip. 13 lucky travel agents!
Day 2: from Newcastle to Belfast
After a good breakfast we leave Newcastle and go to Belfast. The drive is about an hour. Martin drives us to various spots in the city and Conor gives us information about the places we see and where we stop as well as some history lessons. We stop at Queens University Belfast, one of UK’s leading universities. We see the Garden of Remembrance en route as well as other important places in the history of Belfast. An emotional stop is at Belfast Peace Wall at Cupar Way, the biggest Peace Wall in Belfast. The Peace Walls in Northern Ireland are barriers that were erected to separate Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods.
This Peace Wall is a major tourist attraction and that feels a bit weird. On the other side, I am standing here as a tourist too right now and we learn about an important part of history. On the wall there is wall art displaying images of Peace Walls from all over the world… Are they though, Peace Walls? I am not in a position to give my opinion. I am not religious. I am just a person who thinks that in this world we have so many serious problems. Let us focus on what really matters: our beautiful planet, being healthy, having a place to live, a job that pays the bills and having family and good friends around to enjoy those simple pleasures in life… Belfast people: you are beautiful, to me your religion, background, colour does not matter.
We continue our drive through Belfast and arrive around 11am at The Titanic Experience. The building which is home to The Titanic Experiece is beautiful; the ships bows are sailing in all kinds of directions. Check out the YouTube video below to learn more about this iconic design.
Ofcourse we go inside! The tours takes us through nine innovative and interactive galleries, telling the story of the famous RMS Titanic. From her conception in Belfast in the early 1900s, through her construction and launch, to her famous maiden voyage and tragic end.
The galleries have many features, such as diving to the depth of the ocean to explore where RMS Titanic now rests (I think I have seen a documentatry once on TV; maybe the same one?). We enjoy a dark ride, an underwater exploration theatre and see recreations of the ship’s cabins. It is very busy this Saturday. It is a major tourist attraction, but really worth it! I thought I knew a lot about the Titanic, but I have learned so much more know. On the ground floor you can score some great souvenirs, go for a drink, eat a snack or even a meal. All the facilities are there!
We, however, have other plans for lunch. We go “next door” and have lunch in the Titanic Hotel. This boutique / art deco hotel lies within the Titanic Quarter. People are having lunch or a high tea when we walk in. It actually looks really cosy inside. A delicious tomato soup is being served to us along with light sandwiches. Just what we need. After lunch we get a tour through the hotel from Zi Ayoub, who takes so much pride in his job and loves working at this hotel. He has many interesting stories to tell. The hotel was once Harland & Wolf’s headquarters and drawing office. It is filled with art, beautiful historical photographs and vintage posters and for sure I would love to stay in one of the rooms for a few nights.
Next on the program is a visit at Crumlin Road Gaol. We are going to discover over 150 years of history and follow in the footsteps of over 25,000 prisoners as we make a journey through Northern Ireland’s only remaining Victorian Era prison. Guide Roy takes us on a guided tour. He used to work here as a guard and is such a sweet man. He tells us about the building’s colourful past and gives us a unique and memorable insight into the daily lives and routines of both prisoners and prison officers over the Gaol’s existence. We walk through the tunnel that used to connect the prison with the court house and it gives us the creeps… well a tiny bit anyway.
The building is well looked after and inside we get to see the cells, toilets, the kitchen, etc. and the hanging room. Now that room really gives me the creeps. Roy makes the tour a great experience. He tells us that at night you can go on a ghost hunting tour, since people did die in this prison and there is paranormal activity. But he also tells us he will never go himself; NO WAY! I guess that would be a NO WAY for me as well.
Martin drops us off close to Belfast Cathedral. We meet Adam from Seed Head Arts, who will take us on a wall / street art tour through the Cathedral Quarter. It has started to rain a bit, but not too bad and we walk along the streets for about 1,5 hour and we get to see the most amazing wall art. I think I must have taken about a 100 photographs; the paintings all are so beautiful and different; not one is the same! Adam tells us about Seedhead Arts, about the artists who create the wall art, about the wall paintings, how they wer made and about the events Seed Head Arts organize. My favorite wall painting you can see below.
I am so inspired, although wall painting is not really something I have tried yet. But I am creative and for sure I need to do something with all that is buzzing in my head right now. It is only 1,5 week ago that I enjoyed the wall art in Reykjavik, but Belfast for sure has become a place where Street Art has flourished, where many artists from around the world have come to paint. Just WOW. This tour is a must do when you are in Belfast!
We go to the Maldron Hotel, where we will stay overnight. Our suitcases are already there and it is great to take off the wet clothes and have a warm shower, relax a bit and get changed for dinner. We walk to Café Parisien, located in front of Belfast City Hall. We have 2 tables on the first floor. Café Parisien is a great place to relax, the interior takes me back in time a bit. It is Saturday night and the place is packed. The staff is friendly and the food and drinks are good. We take our time for dinner and afterwards we ask Conor to bring us to a pub with live Irish music and dance. We end up at Henry’s, a great restaurant/bar with lots of choice in beers and other drinks. I enjoy a Guinness. This place is packed too with locals who enjoy the live music and the Irish dance and so do I. I remember quite a few songs! When living in Australia for a year back in the 90’s I used to go to The Mercantile in The Rocks, Sydney every Sunday and that is where I enjoyed the Irish live music and learned the songs by head.
Belfast has surprised me today. I think it is a great city, still authentic and despite what people may think: very friendly! Together with a few girls in the group we walk back to the hotel and I have a good night sleep.
Day 3: from Belfast via the Causeway Coastal Route to Bushmills
We get up early (quite difficult for those who had little sleep). We leave Belfast and soon we are driving on the scenic Causeway Coastal Route. I make sure I sit on the right side of the bus, to enjoy the sea view and the scenery is really stunning. After 45 minutes we arrive at The Gobbins Visitor Centre. The Gobbins is a cliff-face path at Islandmagee, Country Antrim on the Causeway Coastal Route. It runs across bridges, past caves and through a tunnel along The Gobbins cliffs. We will walk along the famous Gobbins Path together with a lovely young lady called Amy, who is our guide. We get a safety talk first, put on our hiking boats and a safety helmet. By minivan we are taken to the start of the walking tour.
The area is breathtaking. As soon as we start our walk we see a dolphin in the distance. I am too late to grab my camera phone, but that is OK. It is swimming too past up north and disappears in the distance. The weather is great when we start the tour and we can taste the salty air, feel a bit of wind from the Irish Sea. Our guided walk takes us along the path hugging the dramatic cliff face and across spectacular bridges looking down on the crashing waves of the North Channel. We are lucky with the weather, so no big waves for us. Another dolphin pops up in the distance and a curious seal is following us along the coast. At the end of the tour it starts to drizzle a bit, but who cares. Where I come from we say: I am not made of sugar and will not melt from a bit of water. You have to be fit to walk a walk like this, but hey… I managed (and I am really not that fit). I can highly recommend doing this guided walking tour, I enjoyed it so much.
It takes about half an hour to reach Ballygally Castle Hotel where we will have lunch. The hotel is located right by the sea and I love it. I cannot do without the sea, so this trip is just perfect for me. Ballygally Castle is a stunning 17th Century Castle which overlooks the golden sands of Ballygally Bay and the Irish Sea. At the hotel we find one of the Games of Thrones Doors. In January 2016 a storm swept the island bringing down some of the famous Dark Hedges trees. The wood from the fallen trees was salvaged and transformed into unique works of art in the form of 10 intricately crafted doors. We have some big fans in our group, so they are really enjoying this part of Ireland where Game of Thrones shot so many scenes.
We order lunch and have a bit of time to wander through the beautiful garden. This place is a little peace of heaven on earth. You can hear the water from the river behind the hotel, the sound of the sea at the front, birds singing and it is so peaceful. After lunch we get a little present: a Duck of Thrones. Clients who would book a Game of Thrones tour together with a stay at the hotel got a duck… and thankfully there were a few left. It is a collectors item, so I will treasure it!
Afterwards we do a small tour around the hotel. There is a ghost room in the tower and a bridal suite that I would love to stay in for a few nights (seriously, I need to come back to Northern Ireland… I keep saying this). The view from this room is just perfect. I go outside and go for a quick walk on the beach. I think I made the bus wait for me. Sorry guys for being late… but it is so beautiful here!
We continue our journey to the north. The scenery gets more beautiful every minute. Little villages by the sea, small harbours with a few fishing boats, colourful houses and beautiful beaches. If I was driving a car, I would stop a 100 times to look around and take photographs. Martin needs to move on though. We do stop at Portnareevy View Point. From here there is a stunning view of the Carrick a Rede Rope Bridge. We do not have time to go there, but looking from is distance is fine by me. I am sure crossing this bridge is not for the faint hearted.
We arrive at the village of Bushmills and stop to take some photographs of Dunluce Castle. The sun shines bright in our faces, making it impossible to take photographs, too much light comes in, but the view is amazing and dreamy with the bright sunlight behind the castle.
We visit Bushmills Distillery for some whiskey tasting. I would have loved to do a proper tour, but we are late. Our guide Gerry does tell us about the process and the different types of barrels the whiskey is ageging in. And hey, the best part is that we get to taste a glass of 12 year old single malt. After the tasting we quickly hurry to the shop before it closed to buy ourselves some gifts. I go for the whiskey toffees and caramels (of course).
We leave Bushmills and check in at at Causeway Hotel. The story of the Causeway Hotel began in 1836, when Miss Elizabeth Henry built the hotel, creating the first place for travellers to stay overlooking the famous rock formations (say The National Trust website). I love this hotel, which is right at the famous Giant’s Causeway, surrounded by a rough coastal landscape and the Atlantic Ocean. What a view, what a location… In the room there is another warm welcome in an envelope from The National Trust
Instead of freshening up for dinner I walk, together with 4 other of the group, towards the Giant’s Causeway. We do have it on our program tomorrow morning, but the weather is great, so we might as well take this moment. It is about a 20 minutes walk and seeing the hexagon basalt columns is overwhelming. You just cannot beat nature and this place is magical.
We stay for another 20 minutes before we start our walk back to the hotel. I have a warm shower, get changed and go to the restaurant. The interior of the hotel is just as a coastal hotel should be. We have a lovely dinner and afterwards I go back to my hotel room. I am really tired, in a good way of course, but I just need to relax a bit. In the middle of the night I wake up, there is a storm going on outside, but thankfully I manage to fall asleep again.
Day 4: from Bushmills back to Belfast
It is still grey outside and raining when I wake up. No breakfast buffet this morning. We get to order from the menu and I decide to treat myself to pancakes with bacon and maple syrup. Yum! We check out of the hotel and walk to the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre. During breakfast the sky opened up and now the sun in shining. What a gift!
The £18m Visitor Centre is an innovative state of the art facility which rises out of the landscape with walls of glass, soaring basalt columns and a sloping grass roof. In the Visitor Centre there is a lot to see and to learn about the area and there is a shop with beautiful souvenirs.
We are welcomed by John, who tells about the National Trust and the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre (which is located in an incredible building). He introduces us to Neill, the guide who will accompany us throughout our walking tour. Neill tells us amazing stories, most passed on to him by his grandmother and he is the perfect guide. 60 million years ago, when molten lava cooled suddenly on contact with water the Giant’s Causeway was created. It is an area of about 40,000 interlocking, mostly hexagonal basalt columns. We see the camel, the Wishing Chair, and the Giant’s Organ; all formations created by mother nature.
We have to leave and we take the shuttle bus back up; it just saves us time. Martin drives us to the Dark Hedges. The Dark Hedges were intended as a compelling landscape feature to impress visitors as they approached the entrance to their Georgian mansion, Gracehill House. However, two centuries later, the trees remain a magnificent sight and have become one of the most photographed natural phenomena in Northern Ireland. In fact, these iconic trees have been used as a filming location in HBO’s epic series Game of Thrones, representing the Kings Road. It is impossible to take a photographs without people in it, but who cares. The trees are beautiful and impressive.
Our 4-day trip is almost coming to an end. We go back to Belfast, which takes about an hour. We stop in city centre and have lunch in McHughs. After lunch the Dutch travel agents go to George Best airport. We fly back from to Schiphol with KLM, who celebrates her 100th anniversary. The Belgium depart from Dublin back to Brussels. We say goodbye. We had such a good time and in great company. We all got along so well. How quickly these days passed by. But it is as the saying goes: time flies when you are having fun.
I once visited the Republic of Ireland and I fell in love with the country, the landscape and its people. And now I have fallen for Northern Ireland where the landscape is just as pretty, maybe even prettier and a bit rougher and the people are so kind. The Causeway Coastal Route to me was one of the highlights of the trip. I hope to come back and then I will come for a week at least, rent a car and take my time to stop in every picturesque little village on the way. I will continue the trip towards the north and drive back through the north west coast. There is still so much to see in Northern Ireland.
Thank you Tourism Ireland, Tourism Northern Ireland for your hospitality, for inviting us to get to know you. I enjoyed every single minute!
Travel Blog by Elisabeth, One Lucky Traveller
October 7, 2019
If you want to read my travel blog about my holiday in the Republic of Ireland, click here.