In honor of the final episodes of Game of Thrones, we headed to Northern Ireland for a four-day trip, with plans to hike and to visit many of the filming locations of the show. We started with an evening flight from Luxembourg to Dublin, where we picked up our tiny Euro compact rental car from a super friendly team at Sixt, and then we headed about an hour north near the border with Northern Ireland, and slept at a local inn with shockingly huge rooms and super comfortable beds.
Tollymore Forest Park
We woke up at sunrise the following morning (Erin forgot to change the time on her phone and accidentally tricked Dave into getting up at 6 am) and hit the road, heading for Tollymore Forest Park, the site of the haunted forest in the first episode of GOT, and also where the Stark children found their direwolves. We took a two hour hike along a crystal clear stream, past dewy fields of sheep dotted with wildflowers and through towering conifer forests. The air was so crisp and clean and we had the entire forest to ourselves.
After climbing some trees and attempting to ford the river (where Dave got a double soaker in his boots) we headed back to the car and continued north to Castle Ward - the site of Winterfell from the first few seasons of GOT (they later moved to a set, also located in Northern Ireland, which will become a tourist attraction in the coming years). We parked on a small clearing set next to a lake and walked through the grounds, which featured a stately mansion, the Winterfell castle grounds, the crumbling tower that was the Twins in GOT (home of Walder Frey) and locations for a few other early seasons of the show. We walked amongst the wildflowers and watched as a small group of tourists dressed up in furs practiced archery, just like the Stark family did in the show. We visited the main mansion and the accompanying Victorian sunken garden, and headed out as we heard the roar of giant group of schoolchildren approaching, who were dressed in period attire for a school field trip.
In the afternoon, we headed to Belfast, where we had a delicious vegan Asian lunch at Jumon and then shopped for vintage military gear and learned from the shop owner that Jason Momoa (aka Khal Drogo) was a frequent customer. We also talked to him about Brexit and the best local pubs - we have found that the people in Ireland are the friendliest in Europe, far and away. After that, we took a long walk through town and checked out the Peace Walls, which historically served to separate Republican and Nationalist Catholic neighborhoods from Loyalist and Unionist Protestant neighborhoods and are now decorated with murals. On the way back, our Uber driver told us about "the troubles" and how his neighbor and father were both imprisoned in the 90s.
In the evening, Dave tried his first proper Guinness on tap in a real Irish pub - he's now become a Guinness man We kept it simple and ate some steamed buns for dinner as we watched YouTube videos about the history of Northern Ireland in our room.
The following morning, we did a drive along the outskirts of Belfast to where the Titanic was built, and continued to head north along the coast toward Ballymena, where we stopped for snacks and walked around the little fishing town. The sunny day quickly turned dark, and within 15 minutes, we were in a foggy rainstorm. As we approached our first real stop, some cliffside castle ruins, the rains slowed and a giant, vibrant rainbow formed from the coastal cliffs down to the sea - we could actually see the beginning and end of the rainbow, so clearly we could almost touch it. We climbed up the castle, as the sun broke through the clouds.
Our next stop was Kinbane Castle, dating from 1547 and sitting on a tiny peninsula jutting out into the sea, next to a cliffside waterfall. Due to the rain, we were the only people at the spot when we arrived, and we almost sprinted down the steep pathway to the crumbling castle grounds to run around on the vivid but soft green grass and to climb on the ruins. Cursing ourselves that we didn't bring a picnic, we laid out on the edge of the sea and took in the ocean, waterfall and sun.
Our next stop was Ballintoy Harbour, the set of the Iron Islands and Dragonstone, where we did some rock scrambling and bouldering and walked around on the seaweed filled beach, where Theon Greyjoy met the Drowned God. Dave climbed in the cave where Melisandre birthed her wicked shadow baby. In the afternoon, we checked into our hotel, the Inn on the Coast in Portrush, home of some famous golf courses and the site of the 2019 British Open. In the evening, we headed to a local pub and feasted on a seriously delicious meal of steak for Dave, fish pie for Erin, caesar salads and Guinness. The food in Ireland doesn't have the best reputation, but we appreciated the simple, fresh ingredients and homestyle food like we had back in the day. We watched the sunset over the sea from a coastal cow pasture and called it a day as the sky turned dark.
The Dark Hedges
The following morning we headed straight to The Dark Hedges, which are a series of beech trees curled together over a country road, and were featured as The King's Road in GOT. We'd seen pictures online where hoards of visitors were overtaking the spot, so we arrived early and had it all to ourselves, apart from a film crew who were shooting a car commercial. We walked along the road, taking tons of photos, and Dave flew his drone under the old, spindly trees - one of his most risky flights ever.
Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge
Next, we headed to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, which was originally used by salmon fisherman to traverse from the mainland to a small island where their boats and good sources of fish were located. Today, it is a famous spot, so we arrived just as the bridge opened. While Erin waited for tickets, Dave walked the mile-long coastal path to the base of the bridge to take some photos. As soon as they opened the gates, Erin ran the mile-long path with the tickets, so we could be the first people to cross the bridge and have the adjoining island to ourselves. We took our time on the bouncy bridge, exploring the island and views to the epic, steep and bright green coastal cliffs before heading to our next stop: the famous Giant's Causeway.
In Irish myth, Giant's Causeway was known to be the foot of a bridge to nearby Scotland built by a giant who wanted to fight another giant across the sea. In reality, the series of 40,000 interlocking, hexagonal basalt columns were the result of an ancient volcanic fissure eruption. We passed on the giant tourist complex and tour bus and hiked down to the strange and beautiful natural phenomenon. Unlike the rest of our Ireland experience, which was wild and free, at this spot there were guards cautioning people where to climb and to stay away from the sea. We were a little turned off by the hoards of people, but we did take a bit of time to sit out on a quiet area of the rocks, drink some tea and take in the scene. Our next stop was the ruins of the medieval Dunluce Castle, set on a rock outcropping over the sea.
Mussenden Temple and Downhill Demense
As the sun set, we headed to Mussenden Temple and Downhill Demense, built by an eccentric Earl who used to sprinkle flour outside guests' rooms to know who was bed-hopping in the night. We arrived just before sunset, and, once again, had the entire grounds to ourselves. We climbed on the ruins of the manor house and braved the powerful wind to the temple, where we took in the views down to the beach that was featured as Dragonstone Beach in GOT. We headed back to Portrush and enjoyed a late dinner at a coastal restaurant, eating local seafood with fresh veggies and some "wee caesar" salads - we usually aren't super into dairy, but the milk, butter, ice cream, and really anything with dairy are so good in Ireland, we had to give in on this trip.
For our last full day, we drove west toward Sligo, stopping along the way at Benbulben Mountain, a large, flat-topped rock covered in bright green grass. Since we had a seaweed bath appointment in the early afternoon, our original plan was just to walk around the base of the famous geological site, but our competitive natures kicked in and before we knew it, we were jumping through mossy bogs trying to stay dry and climbing up a steep, narrow footpath toward the top of the mountain. We read online that getting to the top would be a 3-4 hour round trip hike, but we only had two hours, so we did not stop for breaks and motored it to the top, stopping only for Dave to fly his drone and to take in the views to the sea from the top.
Sligo surf town
We ran down the mountain (which we would feel in our legs for the next week), hopped in the car and drove to Sligo, a cute surf-vibe town, where we made it just in time for our appointments at Voya, a spa famous for its seaweed baths. The attendant showed us in to our private room, and we took a steam before dropping into our clawfoot tubs filled with slimy seaweed and hot salt water. After the hike, the hot, salty water felt wonderful, and we were both surprised at how the gooey seaweed made our skin feel soft and fresh. On the advice of the spa, we let the seaweed soak on our skin without showering off, and we headed out to check out the little town, probably reeking of stewy beach.
We sat down for lunch at Shell's, a hipstery but delicious seaside cafe, where we evened out the calories burned on our hike with a feast of veggie burgers, goat cheese salad, bread and (insanely good) local butter and vegetable soup. Totally satisfied and very sleepy, we headed back to the car for a long drive eastward across Ireland, back toward Dublin, where we would fly out first thing the next morning.
Before moving to Europe, Ireland was never at the top of our list. Now, it is one of our most recommended stops, especially for people who like the outdoors. The nature in Ireland is so rugged and unspoiled. The people are super friendly and the food is reminiscent of the home cooking of our youth. Northern Ireland in particular was less crowded than other spots like the Cliffs of Moher and ruggedly beautiful. We truly appreciated the freedom to roam.
Next up, hiking castles, luxuriating on beaches and boating along the coast of Sardinia.
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