Belfast Telegraph

TRAVEL GUIDE: The Antrim coast

The Causeway Coastal route is widely acclaimed as one of the world's greatest drives.

The Times last year named the Ballygally to Bushmills stretch among the top 20 scenic drives in such glamourous company as the Grande Corniche in the millionaires’ playground of southern France and the spectacular spin around the clinging curves over Lake Garda.

Other international reviewers have compared our humble, largely single lane road to California's famous Big Sur.

Sure, it's easy to scoff and say you'd never get stuck behind a tractor on the Pacific Highway but when the sun is glinting off a glorious blue sea it is impossible not to feel your heart lifted by the rugged beauty of the journey along the old road carved between the hills and the shore.

I confess though I didn't take The Times travel writer’s advice and “tie a hazel wand to the bumper to guard against fairies” before I loaded up the X-Trail and headed from North Down to North Antrim last weekend with my wife and our three young children.

Of course, the views which inspired poets, artists and motoring writers are largely lost on kids and won't stop a couple of seven-year-olds and their four-year-old brother from asking the age-old “are we there yet?” question.

But there's plenty to stop-off and do en route to the Port or the Giant's Causeway.

Our first stop was Carrickfergus Castle, a place I admit I was always happy to drive past until my children discovered the magical stories of the Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.

When we were holidaying in the Loire Valley last summer one of the highlights for our kids was a visit to a French castle where the cannons, swords, models of knights in shiny armour, bows and arrows and dungeons brought to life a world they thought only existed in the movies and Playstation.

Handy then that we've got a 12th Century Norman castle right on our doorstep — and at Carrick they put on a show to more than match the Loire attraction.

A family ticket costs just £8 for Carrickfergus Castle and if our kids’ excited reactions are anything to go by then it's great value.

For us another ideal stopping point is Glenariff Forest Park near Waterfoot. We had a picnic there en route to Portrush and returned on the Sunday for a two mile scenic walk by the spectacular waterfalls.

Pleasurable as it is to drive the Causeway, the views are better enjoyed on foot and Glenariff — the Queen of the Glens — is arguably the most beautiful of Antrim's nine glens. And the Forest Park nature reserve with its various well marked out trails is a treasure. I'd have liked to have stopped off too at Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge which I haven't crossed for years but the wife's chronic vertigo put paid to that notion — and to my Indiana Jones impression.

We checked in at the three-star, 55 room Magherabouy Hotel just outside Portrush which from its hilltop vantage boasts great views of the Atlantic Ocean and to the Skerries and the Western Isles of Scotland.

The staff couldn't have been friendlier; our family room was very comfortable; and the evening meal and cooked breakfasts were hearty.

We last visited the Giant's Causeway a couple of summers ago on a scorching July day and the place was crowded with tourists. We were amused when on two occasions Japanese visitors twice politely asked us if they could take pictures of our red haired sons.

But last Sunday morning, with the weather crisp and fresh, there was only a smattering of foreigners (mostly Italian) as we took our three weans for a jaunt to the famous hexagonal basalt columns and, of course, regaled them with the legend of Finn McCool dressing up as his baby son to deceive and scare the pants off his bigger Scottish rival, Fingal.

Having worked up an appetite with a walk in the sea air we heeded a friend’s local knowledge and headed off for lunch at the Tartine Restaurant in the Distillers Arms, Bushmills.

It was one of the highlights of our weekend. The restaurant, which was revitalised by new owners last April, is an absolute gem.

The atmosphere is warm, the food classy — making good use of Co Antrim ingredients including Old Bushmills whiskey and local beef – and it’s all very reasonably priced (£16.95 for a really sumptuous three course Sunday lunch).

We walked off our meal by the waterfalls at Glenariff before returning home from our weekend on the Antrim coast feeling relaxed, rejuvenated and refreshed – just like the adverts suggest.

Samuel Johnson, the distinguished 18th Century English writer and critic, famously grumbled that the Giant’s Causeway “was worth seeing but not worth going to see”. Ah! but the old curmudgeon missed our famous Causeway coast road by a century and sadly didn’t have the luxury of a modern car.

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