The Antrim Coast Road Tour
For a time Northern Ireland was little visited by tourists, a great pity as there are some wonderful sights to see here. Vying with the Fermanagh Lakes for top spot is surely the tour from Belfast or Larne along the Antrim Coast all the way to Bushmills.
‘All the way’ in this instance is only about 80 miles Belfast-Bushmills, so if you were in a rush you could easily cover the distance in a day, or just an afternoon. But that would be missing out on the pleasure of dawdling, of searching out the hidden little side trips, eating great fish and chips , starting the day with an Ulster Fry , and stopping to enjoy the sights of which there are too many to list in full. They are generally well signposted, but you can always ask a local and with luck you could even get the classic response: “I wouldn’t start from here if I was you.” Whether you take the ferry to Larne or Belfast , or fly to that latter city, consider spending a day or even two in Northern Ireland’s capital. Take in a concert or a theatre visit, eat in one of the many fine restaurants , and stroll the Titanic Quarter or the Cathedral Quarter.
The real starting point of the coastal tour is Larne, but before you get there a visit to Carrickfergus Castle is called for, enjoying the views over Belfast Lough as the A2 follows the shore. If you don’t like staying in the city but want to visit it, Carrickfergus is conveniently close and has plenty of accommodation options. From Carrickfergus to Larne is about 15 miles, much of the route along the shore of Larne Lough, part of the way past the mudflats of Swan Island bird reserve in the middle of that water. If you take the ferry to Larne from Troon or Cairnryan you may want to catch your breath and spend a night in the town, fit in a walk on the sandy beach in Drains Bay on its northern edge, or get the kids to work off surplus energy before going further with a visit to Carnfunnock Country Park three miles further up the A2 – pitch-and-putt, play areas, walks, even clay-pigeon shooting.
That park is close to Ballygally , which at about four miles from Larne is an alternative spot to spend your first night off the ferry: it has a castle and pleasant beach, and the little bay in which it sits provides fine views across the waters – with luck and the right weather you’ll see Scotland.
Nine miles further north and you reach Glenarm, though don’t fall for the temptation of flooring it, stop along the way for a breath of sea air and a few quiet moments. Glenarm is the start of the Glens of Antrim , a mix of exposed moorlands and gentle valleys ending in little bays on the North Channel. There are nine of these Glens, and it would be foolish not to spend some time exploring at least one. Glenarm has a castle with a pretty walled garden, and forested public parkland where you can stretch the legs.
Another mile or two, round Straidkilly Point, and you reach Carnlough with its pretty limestone structures and lovely old harbour now thronged with pleasure craft. This is a good place to break your journey – it’s not a race – have a quiet pint, look at the house Churchill once owned, and even drop a line in the sea.
Continue past Garron Point, and where the road curves westward you pass Cloghastucan, a rock formation also called The White Lady looming apparently precariously on the slope to the left of the road. Another five minutes and you reach one of the must-sees of the trip, Glenariff Forest Park and its walkway taking in three waterfalls.
A couple of miles around the bay and you’re at the conservation village of Cushendall and its four-storey curfew tower. Well worth a little detour here is Old Layde Church, hidden away (deliberately when it was built) at the end of a little glen as its gives into the sea.
To get away from the main route you might want to loop inland a mile or so beyond Cushendall: turn left just north of the Glenaan River and potter along for a while until you turn left again and circle Slieveanorra Forest, past Altnahinch Dam and then east of Loughgulle hugging the Bush River for a time before following the signs or your SatNav towards Cushendun , one of the prettiest villages in the Island of Ireland so a place to stroll the Georgian streets and around the harbour before heading for Ballycastle via either the A2 if you’re pressed, or keeping to the little coast road passing Torr Head and Murlough Bay, rugged land with inspiring views.
Ballycastle is the next port of call, literally so as this is where ferries depart for Rathlin Island , a side-trip worth considering especially if you enjoy bird-spotting. Ballycastle is a good place to overnight, a quiet little resort set amid dramatic scenery, and with good beaches for a stroll. Kinbane Head and its ruined castle can be seen (and visited) from the town, and the bay is where Glentaisie and Glenshesk converge.
About five miles westward of Ballycastle is one of Ireland’s most famous tourist attractions, the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge that almost certainly you will have seen on television at some time, rather wobbly (but the new version an improvement on the old!) and not for those suffering from vertigo, but a memorable experience walking over a chasm to the little island just offshore.
Nearby is the village of Ballintoy , another even quieter option for an overnight stay, and somewhere those interested in architecture will not want to miss – this is where the famous Bendhu house is situated, a strange but now iconic modern structure.
Past Dunseverick Castle, though the headland merits a stop, and on to the greatest attraction of the tour – The Giant’s Causeway , its significance recognised by UNESCO in 1986 when they named it a world heritage site. Around 40000 interlocking basalt columns, the tallest 12m, form a strange natural wonder. Even the most blasé of teenagers will be impressed with this. And so to the end-point of the coastal tour: Bushmills . There are reasons other than the distillery for visiting the village – for example the narrow-gauge railway between it and the Giant’s Causeway - but none quite as enticing. It’s the oldest surviving licensed distillery in the world, so it would perhaps be uncultured not to call in at its visitor centre. A night in the village or the adjoining harbour village of Portballintrae rounds off the trip nicely, surely with a dram of the good stuff after eating. Or before.
Rather than retracing your steps, from Bushmills you can head inland, bypassing Ballymoney and making for Ballymena and then back to Belfast or Larne, even on a bad day just a couple of hours’ driving. Alternatively if you’ve enjoyed the coastal views one way, you may just turn the car round and do it all again.
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