Stealing the scene

Dunluce Castle sits perched on the dramatic coastal cliffs of north County Antrim. Photos: Getty...
Dunluce Castle sits perched on the dramatic coastal cliffs of north County Antrim. Photos: Getty Images
With its mountain views and wild coasts, this far corner of Northern Ireland provides a spectacular backdrop to many of Game of Thrones' memorable moments, writes Claire Daly. 

I was never one for a "swords and horses" TV series, so when Game of Thrones burst on to our screens in 2011, I had to be forced to watch it. The unexpected joy framing the beheadings and braids was a rugged landscape I instantly recognised. Antrim's northeast coast is where Ireland and Scotland almost scream at each other over a deceptively narrow sea. The abundance of castles and caves peppering the basalt-rich coastline are a visual treat. The only wonder is that it took so long for Hollywood to take notice.

Growing up in Belfast's northern suburbs meant these seascapes were a Sunday run in the car with grandparents, flasks of tea and home-baked buns. The Causeway Coastal Route, which stretches more than 160km from the outskirts of north Belfast round the top of Ireland to Derry, is a dramatic road, lurching from cliff-edge to beachside, with grass and boulders at times in alarming proximity to the car windows.

As a child I would lie on the back seat staring up at the rock faces (before seatbelt laws obviously) half in wonder, half in terror. I took my own children there recently, and their carbon-copy reactions took me back to a time of happy picnics and surprise beach days, when I remember thinking this countryside was so beautiful - and that was why everyone was fighting over it.

The Unesco-listed Giant's Causeway, thousands of interlocking basalt columns.
The Unesco-listed Giant's Causeway, thousands of interlocking basalt columns.
Of course this landscape, carved 55million years ago by volcanic fissure eruptions and giant ice sheets, will exist long after the Game of Thrones cast has hung up its wigs and goblets, but it is nice to see the area getting a boost. Despite the "location buzz", the coast is still relatively unspoilt. In these parts, no-one takes themselves too seriously. And you don't have to pose with a plastic sword to appreciate a landscape with an inherent aura of the ancient.

While you can do a bus tour in one day that takes in a dizzying number of GoT locations, it seems a crime to whisk past the breath-taking views and pretty wildflowers. In spring, primroses pop from the hedgerows and twin lambs will stare back. If you can, take your time. In fact, please do go slowly as the roads are full of adventure, to put it politely.

I feel I have to add a weather disclaimer at this point: it is as unpredictable as the landscape. Nothing would stop our Sunday outings, which were never met with much enthusiasm, I have to admit, as my father tried to get "our pasty faces shifted out to get some air". Now I do the same with my two children, whose idea of jeopardy is substandard Wi-Fi, as I try to change their attitude to rain and wind. The bracing coastal winds mean that, for the most part, nothing lingers too long, so don't let it shape your day. A miserable squall as you head off can turn to balmy skies at the shore, like the heavens rewarding you for your efforts (or that's the mantra to get us in the car).

Along the north Antrim coast, there's loads of places to blow off a grey winter face with a good walk.

At the scary end of the scale is the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. The clue is in the name - a rather hopeful bunch of ropes and planks lie between oneself and a 30m drop to the cliffs below. First built more than 250 years ago by salmon fishermen, the short bridge connects the cliffs to the small island and is now owned and maintained by the National Trust. I won't judge you if your nerves aren't up to it, but just know this: back in the '70s when my parents took us, there was only one handrail.

A family favourite is the walk through farmland to Fair Head, an imposing cake-wedge of a cliff where a brooding Jon Snow looked out to sea in season seven of GoT. On a clear day, Scotland feels like a few leaps away. I have climbed this route many times over the years, but it never gets stale, the sense of slow building anticipation as the fields and heathers fall back to reveal the main event - a sleeping giant of a rock jutting its jaw out to sea. The route is challenging - to be safe consult a map before you go and take care near the cliff edge.

A better option for mixed abilities is the Unesco-listed Giant's Causeway. The shoreline can feel part madness, part alien world - thousands of interlocking basalt columns, unmoved by wave after crashing wave. For those who want to keep walking, the crowds quickly thin and some of the best sights are still ahead of you - such as the Chimney Stacks, or Lacada Point, where the Spanish Armada ship La Girona foundered in 1588. Climb up the shepherd's path and back along the cliff top to meet up with everyone else back at the visitors' centre.

Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge connects the cliffs to a small island.
Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge connects the cliffs to a small island.
One of the best known GoT locations is Cushendun Caves where red priestess Melisandre gave birth to a shadow. I prefer the nearby beach for a paddle and a deeper dip when the sea warms up in late summer. Cushendun village is one of the many towns and villages in the nine Glens of Antrim. Nearby Carnlough harbour and Cushendall, which hosts the Heart of the Glens community festival every August, are lovely, too.

Like a sheltered port in a storm, the Londonderry Arms in Carnlough is a wonderful spot to take a rest. Built in 1847 the former coaching inn was once owned by Winston Churchill, and the welcome has an emphasis on the traditional. Warm up with a whiskey beside the fire, or book ahead for afternoon tea.

Up round the top of Ireland, Mussenden Temple keeps watch over the massive 7-mile expanse of Downhill beach, which appeared in season two of GoT when Stannis Baratheon and Melisandre burn effigies of the Seven Gods of Westeros.

The sheer size of the clear yellow sands is overwhelming.

The landscape rules up here, you feel honoured to be allowed to bask in its awe.

You can still drive cars on to the sand, which forms a helpful windbreak, much as we did back in the old days, a convoy of cousins eager to dig to Australia, unleashed and barefoot. By the end of the day we had to be dragged back in the car with sandy feet to fall asleep on the way home.

When you've had enough of the big vistas, head to nearby Castlerock village where Ruth's Home Bakery and Crusoes Coffee Shop are excellent spots for sustenance.

You can't come to the north coast without having an ice cream; I have school friends who will drive from Belfast to Morelli's in Portstewart for a cone.

The Bayview Hotel (doubles from 129 ($NZ250) B&B) is a good base for Bushmills Distillery and Dunluce Castle and there is also Cul Erg House (90 B&B) in Portstewart.

Discover Northern Ireland has an app for navigating Game of Thrones locations.

- Guardian News and Media


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