There was certainly a whiff of magic and mystic in the air when we buttoned up our waterproofs and prepared to follow in the footsteps of the mythical giant Finn McCool.
Finn is the fella attributed to having brought Nothern Ireland its first UNESCO World Heritage site aptly named The Giant’s Causeway.
A natural spectacular, it really is a fabulous place and just over an hour’s drive from our base on the coast at Ballygally, County Antrim.
This lovely spot with its dramatic views across to Scotland is three miles from the Port of Larne, where P & O Ferries run two hour crossings from Cairnryan in Dumfries and Galloway to Northern Ireland.
I always think crossing the sea is part of the fun of a holiday and we caught the European Highlander ferry, a slick, modern vessel which was efficiently filled up with holidaymakers and lorries and left and arrived bang on time.
Once onboard, there is plenty to keep you occupied from a cinema and entertainment centre for the children and restaurants with fair priced meals, to the Club Lounge, where if you pay £12 before you board, you can enjoy peace and quiet and complimentary refreshments and newspapers as you cross.
Once we had disembarked, we made our way to Ballygally Castle, our home for the next three nights. And boy, what a home! Part of the Hastings Hotel group, this converted 17thcentury castle is a lovely place to stay.
It is prime place for views across the sea and once inside the hotel is modern, with a traditional twist. The castle part of the hotel is still used and there are artefacts on the walls and interpretation boards to explain its history. A luxury wing of bedrooms has been added on too, providing all the mod cons a traveller now demands, including Wi Fi, televisions, tea and coffee making facilities and lots of nice bathroom toiletries.
The hotel has a main resident, a ghost, said to be Lady Isabella Shaw, wife of Lord James Shaw. Legend has it that Lord Shaw wanted a son and when his wife delivered his heir, he snatched the baby from his wife and locked her in a room at the top of the castle. While she tried to escape to search for her beloved child, Lady Isabella fell to her death from the tower window.
Said to be a friendly ghost, the bedroom where she fell from is open for guests to take a peek at, if they dare!
The hotel also gives a nod to the successful Game of Thrones television series which was filmed around County Antrim, with the door into The Garden Restaurant, one from the set.
The restaurant looks out onto a beautifully kept garden, complete with palm trees and inside the food is fine dining, with Hasting Hotels brilliantly living up to their pledge to use local produce. At breakfast, you can feed like a king on everything from white oat porridge with cream, sugar and Irish whiskey or a hand made granola topped with lovingly made yoghurt to an Ulster fry up with dry cured bacon, free range eggs and honey flavoured sausages.
And if you feel like splashing out, there is a Game of Thrones afternoon tea, featuring food like Dothraki Trifle with Mini Dragon’s Egg or Winterfell Jaffa Cake with Stark’s Chocolate Cake .
Once the tum is full, there is much to see and our first stop was joining Finn McCool for a tour of The Giant Causeway.
Cared for by The National Trust, you arrive at the eco friendly visitor’s centre which has been built to blend in with the landscape. Made from sustainable materials, all the facilities are energy efficient and the centre full of walls of glass and with a grass roof.
Inside is a fascinating exhibition on the history of Giant’s Causeway and once you have seen this, its time to step outside and see what all the fuss is about.
About 65 million years ago, the landscape was covered in rolling hills lying on a bed of limestone. Then the earth’s plates began to move away from each other and the molten lava, which lies deep in the earth’s core began to pour into cracks in the land.
The lava became hard and formed layers of rock, called basalt and for about two million years, there was hardly any volcanic eruptions and the warm, wet climate weathered the rocks, creating deep red soil. The cracks in the earth opened up again and more lava flowed out. Some of the lava poured into a river valley, where it cooled down and cracked evenly, creating the 40,000 interlocking basalt columns you can see today.
An audio tour of the area is a great aid and allows you to learn all the history of the rock formations such as the Giant Boot, Wishing Chair, Camel, Giant’s Granny and The Organ.
Climbing the basalt columns is the most fun though and takes you right out to the sea, with spectacular views. A short hop from here see you at the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, owned by The National Trust too. Pinned precariously between two rocks and 100 foot above sea level, it’s a great way to conquer your fear of heights.
Once used by fishermen to catch their salmon, this rope bridge is now a major tourist attraction, with people daring each other to cross it, without looking down to the sea, which has claimed many a mobile phone or camera dropped over the years!
A few miles from Ballygally lies the conservation village of Glenarm, which has a lovely old fashioned style about it and is also family home to The Earl of Antrim.
Here you can look round the beautifully kept walled garden, with its special mount affording views of the area and a magnificient fountain and cascade.
You can also get the history of the castle via a trail which takes you infront of the magnificent building which dates back to 1636.
The castle itself is closed to visitors, but is a popular venue for music festivals and Highland gatherings throughout the year.
Travelling along the coast road, you can take in some magnificient views as you pass through some lovely villages and head for the 9 Glens of Antrim, a sight not to be missed. Its no wonder Finn McCool and the wonderful people of Northern Ireland are so keen for you to follow in his giant footsteps!
Northern Ireland has a lot going for it. With stunning scenery, top attractions, excellent hotels, fine cuisine and great transport links, it’s a real winner. And County Antrim is home to some of the best.
Transport: The fastest and easiest way to reach County Antrim is via P & O Ferries which offer the shortest and quickest way via the gateway to Scotland. You sail from Cairnryan to Larne and reach shore in just two hours. On board there are fantastic facilities to keep all the family happy, from Wi Fi to duty free shopping and a cinema and entertainment section too. A place in the Club Lounge can be booked before sailing at £12 per person or £14 on board and allows you to relax and enjoy complimentary drinks and snacks while reading the newspapers and magazines available. P & O have lots of offers on throughout the year, with the summer one allowing children under 15 to go free on all sailings across the North Sea and a free flexi upgrade in all outbound legs of a return journey. Check out www.POFerries.com
Accommodation: Hasting Hotels offer some of the finest accommodation in Northern Ireland. Ballygally Castle, just a five minute drive from the port of Larne is a jewel in the hotel crown. This 17th century castle ha stunning views across the sea to Scotland and as with all Hastings Hotels, it oozes class. The luxury hotel even has its own resident ghost! And food at the hotel is impressive too, with local produce high on the list of priorities. Nightly rates are from £75 per person on a bed and breakfast basis. Visit www.hastinghotels.com or ring 028 9042 1066.
Attractions: There is so much to do and see from the Giant Causeway to the 9 Glens of Antrim. The famous Games of Throne television series was filmed in this area, so it’s a great place for fans.
The Giant Causeway is Northern Ireland’s first UNESCO World Heritage site and a wonderfully mysterious place it is. Cared for by The National Trust, it is a fascinating place to explore and a few minutes drive takes you to another National Trust gem, the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, suspended almost 100ft above sea level and so much fun to cross. www.nationaltrust.org.uk
Glenarm Castle and Walled Garden is the home of the Earl of Antrim and one of Ireland’s oldest and most beautiful estates. It’s a wonderful place to explore. Check out www.glenarmcastle.com