Ed Leahy explores the Causeway Coastal Route and experiences some great golf and a quick Game of Thrones re-cap on the scenic route from Belfast to Derry.
It all started with a night out in Belfast
Like most great trips north, the thriving city is always worked into the itinerary, whether for a ramble about the ever-expanding docklands and Titanic Quarter across the Lagan, or just for a night out on the town in the vibrant city centre.
The Cathedral Quarter was where I dropped anchor for the evening’s entertainment, starting off with a great meal at the excellent Italian-influenced Coppi restaurant, before taking a short dander down to the Duke of York and on to the nearby Spaniard to round off a great night back in Belfast.
And with an early start lingering in the back of my mind, the midnight hour was still in its infancy as I bade farewell to the mean streets and settled for a nightcap back in the plush surroundings of the Merchant Hotel Cocktail Bar.
And while the trip out the coast would not officially begin until the following morning, I had taken a detour of sorts earlier in the afternoon to the renowned Belvoir Park Golf Club, to sample the parkland delights of the former Irish Open venue, ahead of my battle with the coastal courses that awaited.
Belvoir – pronounced Beaver in Belfast speak – is one of those golf courses that totally exceeds expectations and on arrival, boasts one of the most remarkable wow-factor views in Irish golf.
Located just minutes from the hustle and bustle of the south Belfast ring-road, you will experience a jaw-dropping moment as the panoramic glass wall of the bar and restaurant area reveals itself once inside the clubhouse.
Spectacular views of the sprawling Lagan Valley await below as perfectly manicured golf holes spread out like river tributaries throughout the mature Belfast woodland.
The course is a true gem of Irish golf and should certainly be considered for inclusion in any northern golfing itinerary. The Harry S Colt-designed links is up there with the very best inland courses in Ireland.
An Early Start - Breakfast in style
Late nights are never intended on golfing trips yet often prove unavoidable – thanks Belfast – but there are few grander breakfast locations that the majestic dining hall at the Merchant Hotel, where the cooked-to-order feast served up in the luxurious Great Room blew away the cobwebs of the Cathedral night out and set things up perfectly for a day out the coast to kick off, in earnest, the coastal jaunt from Belfast to Derry.
Whether you happen to be a golfer or not, the Causeway Coastal Route offers one of the best road-trip holidays in Europe with a host of excellent attractions dotted along the 200-kilometre trail on this most scenic route between Ulster’s two main cities.
The morning road travelled out past Carrickfergus Castle, one of Ireland’s best preserved medieval structures, and on to the Islandmagee Peninsula for a quick hike along the dramatic and rugged cliff-face path at The Gobbins. The oft-challenging path includes spectacular tubular and suspension bridges, caves, steps and tunnels and will remain open until the end of August.
Back on the road and once past the port town of Larne, the dramatic drive continues along the narrow road that winds its way up the coast with just the steep cliff-face and the sea to keep you company as you meander through the exquisite setting.
A quick check-in and a spot of lunch at the night’s lodging, Ballygally Castle, and minutes later we were teeing it up at the near-by Cairndhu course.
With the renowned stretch of world-class links awaiting once around the north-east corner of the country further along the Antrim coast, the track at Cairndhu is primarily parkland with a coastal influence, which creates those blustery seaside conditions.
The course offers a wide range of challenges for every level of golfer, and can also provide a very decent cardio workout on some of the steeper slopes.
But the course’s greatest asset is, without doubt, the spectacular views from on high over and beyond the adjacent Irish Sea – on a clear day you can see the coast of Scotland.
And with several holes playing close to the edge of this cliff-top course, even the social golfer will have plenty to take away from a visit to this hidden Antrim gem.
Game of Thrones
While Belfast has the Titanic Exhibition, the northern counties boast a similar tourist attraction of worldwide appeal since the multi-award winning Game of Thrones started filming around these parts.
And my first encounter with all things Winterfell was literally staring me in the face as I enjoyed a pre-dinner drink back at Ballygally Castle.
The hotel is a great base to go out and explore the many locations where the television epic has been shot, while Door 9 – an ornately carved wooden door from the fallen trees of the iconic Dark Hedges – boasts crests of House Bolton and House Stark, Ramsey Bolton's hungry dogs and Winterfell Castle and is located in the hotel bar.
The rest of the evening was enjoyed over a fine meal at the hotel, which prides itself on creating a dining experience based on the best local produce available on its excellent seasonal menu.
Further Game of Thrones attractions are all accessible along the Causeway Coastal Route, including the aforementioned Dark Hedges (filmed as the Kingsroad), Ballintoy Harbour (The Iron Islands) and Cairncastle (featured in Season 5 for scenes with Littlefinger and Sansa).
The North Coast
Once around Torr Head, the tourist attractions come thick and fast with a range of detour options, which allow you to appreciate the beauty of the rocky headland out by Fair Head, with stunning views out towards Scotland and Rathlin Island, while the picturesque ruins of Bonamargy Friary can be found just outside the lively seaside town of Ballycastle.
But a real must-do moment on this trip is to stop off and experience a leg-trembling wander across the amazing Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.
The 30-metre deep and 20-metre wide chasm to the island is traversed by a rope bridge that was traditionally erected by Salmon fishermen.
It’s a bit more sturdy these days but there’s still only one way off the island - back across the swinging bridge.
The base for this leg of the trip was the always-welcoming Bushmills Inn*, which is surrounded by some of Ireland's best known tourist attractions, most notably the Giants Causeway and the historic Dunluce Castle, which is perched dramatically on the cliff edge, dating back to 1500 and was built by the local MacQuillan family and later seized by the Scottish MacDonnell clan.
Not to mention the world famous Old Bushmills Distillery, located on the hotel's doorstep, where you can take a guided tour of Ireland’s oldest working distillery, which has been producing fine Irish whiskeys for over 400 years.
Portrush or Portstewart? - A Question with No Answer
But back to the golf and with days running out, there was a very difficult dilemma awaiting as I had to choose between Portrush and Portstewart for my final round of golf on this all-too-short sojourn.
But the decision to by-pass the home of Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke at Portrush was internally justified with the fact that the 2017 Irish Open was hosted further along the coast in Portstewart.
I had previously walked the course of Portrush at a previous visit to the north coast and had also played the equally excellent Castlerock links, however, the views that welcome you onto the opening tee at Derry's Portstewart, make the trek north very worthwhile indeed.
In fact, there should probably be a walking route for non-golfers around this majestic golf course that is carved right through the dramatic dunes of Portstewart.
And the golfing experience more than matches the surroundings as the opening nine holes must rank with the best links tracks throughout the world.
The course is in pristine condition and is no wonder that the European Tour sanctioned Portstewart for the Irish Open - a perfect example of what Irish golf offers to tourists throughout Ireland and the world.
So with the clubs packed back in the car and ready for the trip home - the golf bag admittedly lighter than on departure, thanks to several lost balls - the final stop of the journey was another that boasted a perfect blend of cultural importance and coastal aesthetics.
Mussenden Temple is located in the beautiful surroundings of Downhill Demesne, perched dramatically on a 120-foot cliff top, boasting spectacular views out towards the Donegal coast and back along the coast towards Portrush and Fair Head.
The temple was built in 1785 as a summer library and its architecture was inspired by the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, near Rome.
So a most enlightening and enjoyable trip ended with all my questions and curiosities of Causeway Coastal Route answered - all but the reason why they pronounce Belvoir as beaver in Belfast.
You can't have it all, I suppose.
Where to stay:
The Merchant Hotel: The Merchant Hotel in Belfast is located in the heart of the Cathedral Quarter, surrounded by some of Belfast’s best bars and restaurants and close to the city’s shopping areas and transport links.
Ballygally Castle: This 17th century castle which overlooks the golden sands of Ballygally Bay and has uninterrupted views towards Scotland. The perfect base for exploring the stunning Antrim Coast.
Bushmills Inn: The Bushmills Inn is situated in an enviable location a stone’s throw from a host of visitor attractions including Royal Portrush Golf Club, Old Bushmills Distillery, The Giant’s Causeway, Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge and Dunluce Castle.
For more information, visit: www.discovernorthernireland.com/golfing/