How many times do you visit a UNESCO World Heritage Site and have the place to yourself? I would venture to say never! That’s where we found ourselves when we visited the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland…watching the sun rise over the basalt columns, listening to the waves crash on the rocks and taking in the natural wonder that is the Giant’s Causeway – all without the sounds and distractions of other visitors.
We arrived in Ballycastle in the evening and were so happy to check in to our pre-arranged accommodations. We drove along the coast and pulled in to a marked drive, labeled Crockatinney Guest House. The Bed & Breakfast is one of the larger guest houses in the area and sits overlooking the ocean to Fair Head and the Scottish mainland.
Crockatinney is absolutely perfect for families traveling. We booked two of the rooms at the guest house and they were so spacious – not just for European standards – for standards anywhere! We had three adults in one room and two adults, one child in the second room with plenty of extra space to spread out.
The absolute best part about the guest house was our lovely host, Caroline. She was so kind, was always available to give advise on where to visit, and breakfasts were delicious! We had such a great time with Caroline that we hope to return to Northern Ireland to visit…this time with our daughter, Addison, too!
The Giant’s Causeway is steeped in myth and legend and all myths and legends have to start somewhere, right? In this case, it started with an Irish giant, Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool). Fionn built the causeway so that he could battle a Scottish giant, Benandonner. When Fionn saw how big his opponent would be, he quickly made an about-face and returned the way he came. His quick-thinking wife disguised him as a baby and placed him in a cradle. When Benandonner saw the “baby” he surmised that his father, Fionn, must be massive so he decided to return home, thus avoiding a fight between giants.
That’s the legend…now the science. Geological evidence suggests that the causeway was formed in the aftermath of major volcanic activity around sixty million years ago! Molten basalt flowed through chalk beds and as it cooled, it contracted and broke into plates. The cracks then propagated downward making the large columns, the vast majority of which are hexagonal in shape. Cool, right?
We left the guest house early in the morning because we were hoping for a photo opportunity during the golden hour shortly after sunrise. Because it was early, Liam was still asleep. We didn’t want to wake the sleeping baby, so Adam volunteered to stay back at the guest house with him (and get a few more winks himself). The rest of the family took the short ten minute drive from the guest house to the Giant’s Causeway. We pulled into an almost empty Causeway parking lot, got out and found an open gate leading down a paved path to the coast. So we walked….
The coast was as spectacular as I had imagined! It is no wonder that this amazing place is one of the 501 Must See Natural Wonders of the world!
These stepping stones to the ocean were all stacked at various heights and it was interesting imagining all of the people that had come before us to examine the stones. You can see pictures from as far back as 1868 here and 1940 here. Just imagine who will be looking at our photos years from now!
After learning that we avoided the entrance fee on the first go-round, we decided to visit the stones once again (and cough up the money this time). For this viewing, dad and mom stayed back so that Adam could experience the causeway.
Fees for the Causeway are paid through the National Trust and are now (in 2015) £9.00 for adults, £4.50 for children and £22.00 for family passes. There are a few ways to get a slight discount on the tickets such as pre-purchasing online (save between £1 – £3.5o depending on the type of ticket purchased) or if you are feeling particularly active, go green and save by taking public transportation, biking or walking and you could save £2 on adults, £1.50 on children and £4 for families. I almost think the little guys should get a bigger discount for walking – they work so much harder with their little legs!
When we returned, we still opted for walking down the trail to the stones. There is a bus that will transport visitors down to the coastline but the walk is a very pleasant one – albeit a good incline. This time we grabbed an audio guide from the visitor’s center.
The audio guide was quite pleasant and explained both the legend and science behind the natural wonder. It also pointed out the various rock formations. If you are traveling with kids, give them a scavenger hunt and see if they can spot some of the rock features which resemble objects such as the Giant’s Eyes, a Giant’s Boot, a Camel’s Hump, an Organ and Chimney Stacks. They will have great fun looking while the adults can focus on capturing the moments on camera.
We came with multiple cameras, tripods, and other gear. The walk wasn’t bad because I had everything organized in my favorite bag (you can see it hiding behind me in the picture below).
Adam and I took a few minutes to sit in the Wishing Chair before starting our walk back to the visitor’s center and to join the rest of the family.
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge – another must-see attraction in the area – was just a two minute drive from Crockatinney Guest House. The rolling hills and vivid green pasture land that surrounds the beautiful coastline looks to be straight out of a movie.
The walk from the parking lot to the bridge was one of the longer ones on the trip at 0.7 miles, but by no means a hike. From the car park, visitors will pass a small information hut where you can grab a brochure and pay a small entrance fee of £5.40 for adults and £2.90 for children. Ensure you keep your tickets as you will need them for proof to cross the bridge.
The grassy hillsides are rich with flowers and have an occasional grazing cow. As you get closer to the bridge you will start a steep descent down gravel trails and multiple sets of stairs.
The bridge spans 66 feet and is 98 feet above the crashing water and rocks below. This bridge, and its previous incarnations, have been in use by salmon fishermen for about 350 years! As late as the 1970s, the bridge was little more than a few wooden slats on a precarious rope bridge with a single guide rope to hold on to.
After years of fishing and the salmon population declining, the fishermen no longer return to this area to cast their nets, however the bridge still remains. It is now reinforced with steel wires, rope and additional wooden planks. On windy days, the bridge still gets quite a swing to it.
Once on Rocky Island, you can walk around a circular trail with spectacular views of Rathlin Island, Scotland and the Causeway Coast. After snapping some photos, you might have to wait in a small line to cross back over the bridge.
If you want to take part in another local legend, you can see this company turn water into Golden Whiskey on the Bushmills Distillery Tour. “Since way back” generations of Northern Irish have been throwing back some local whiskey.
Public Tours are limited and are based on a first come, first serve basis. One thing that we didn’t really look into prior to arriving was the age limit for the tour. Children under 8 are welcome on site, however due to safety reasons are not allowed on the tours. It was ok as we just spent that time at the Distillery Kitchen and Bar a bit longer than the others. A 6 month old was welcome there!
The mind-boggling beauty that is Northern Ireland is shown in its landscapes, its small towns and its people. As the sun was setting on the coast, we would be driving back to the airport to return home to Texas.
As we look back on our trip to Ireland, we will always remember our first family trip, watching my alma mater play (and lose) in football, finding out exactly how small rental cars are, exploring a town that reminded us of home, witnessing one of the largest passage tomb sites in Ireland and falling in love with Northern Ireland. It will always be in our hearts and we can’t wait to return!