Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast: Golf, Game of Thrones and the most spectacular cliff walk in Europe

Northern Ireland's Causeway Coast seems to be on a roll at the moment – and this year it'll have the eyes of the world on it as it hosts golf's greatest championship, with The Open coming to Royal Portrush. Toby Keel paid a visit.

The change in perception of Northern Ireland over the past 20 years has been nothing short of astounding. There was a time when it rarely made the news unless it was about politics; and yes, thanks to Brexit, the Backstop and the DUP holding the balance of power in Westminster, the nation still earns plenty of column inches on the political pages.

Yet that’s only a small part of the reason that this beautiful part of the world finds its way into the public eye. Fans of Game of Thrones have been flocking here for years to see for themselves the extraordinary natural beauty that the programme’s producers chose as the backdrop for their fantasy yarn. The interest in RMS Titanic – particularly following the James Cameron film in the late 1990s and the more recent 100th anniversary of the sinking in 2012 – prompted the creation of a museum in Belfast that has won all sorts of awards. And travel publisher Lonely Planet named Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast as the world’s top destination for 2018.

The rope bridge of your dreams? Carrick a Rede, County Antrim

The rope bridge of your dreams – or nightmares? Carrick a Rede, County Antrim. Pic: Getty

This summer, however, it’s one of the other strings to Northern Ireland’s bow which will command the attention of people from around the world: golf. With Rory McIlroy becoming the world’s second-most-famous golfer and Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell also becoming major champions in recent years, the country has become as famous for its golfers as it already was for its golf courses. And the reason why the  Royal Portrush will host golf’s Open Championship this July (the first time since 1951 that it’s left mainland Britain) while there are many other great places to play along the Causeway Coast.

But as that name itself implies, you don’t need to play golf or binge-watch TV shows to enjoy a trip here: the Causeway Coast also boasts the bewildering natural splendour of the Giant’s Causeway, the quintessential crumbling pile that is Dunluce Castle, breathtaking white beaches backed by rugged cliffs.

Aerial Views of Royal Portrush Golf Club - An aerial photograph from out to sea of the par 3, sixth hole Harry Colts' in the foreground and the par 4, fifth hole 'White Rocks' behind on the Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush Golf Club the host venue for the 2019 Open Championship on October 10, 2018 in Portrush, Northern Ireland. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

Royal Portrush Golf Club and the beach beyond (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

Golfing on the Antrim coast

Royal Portrush is the big draw for golfers, but first the bad news: if you were planning a trip here for The Open, you might be out of luck. Given the relatively remote location and pent-up demand for an Open in Ireland, the R&A capped ticket sales at a little under 200,000 and they sold out in a matter of a few weeks – a first for a 150-year-old championship where fans have always been able to roll up on the day and get in.

If you can’t watch, however, why not play? The course – which we’ve reviewed separately – is simply one of the best in the world, with endless clifftop vistas, daredevil carries across ravines and fascinating holes which weave and wend their way through towering dunes. It really as good as it gets.
Green fees from £70 in winter to £205 in summer –www.royalportrushgolfclub.com

Royal Portrush

Royal Portrush

If you’re playing at Portrush you also need to schedule time to play Portstewart Golf Club, a few miles up the road. It hosted the Irish Open a couple of years ago, and it’s not hard to see why it got the nod: the place is spectacular, with one of the finest first tee vistas I’ve ever seen in 30 years of playing golf.

The front nine is a true feat of golfing engineering, passing through dunes which look simply too big and steep to allow golf – but a routing was found, and the course. The pyrotechnics die away on the second nine, which while good always suffers by comparison. It’s surely a matter of time before the reverse the order of the two loops to get away from the slight anticlimax.
Green fees from £60 in winter to £175 in summer– www.portstewartgc.co.uk

Portstewart Golf Club

Portstewart Golf Club

Across the River Bann estuary from Portrush is Castlerock Golf Club, a very pretty (and recently renovated) course which is also worth a visit, though not in the same bracket as Portrush or Portstewart.
Green fees from £45 in winter to £100 in summer – www.castlerockgc.co.uk

Castlerock Golf Club

Castlerock Golf Club

These three fine courses are just the start – for those wishing to tick off their ‘world’s top 10’ list then Royal County Down (£90-£240, www.royalcountydown.org), on the other side of Northern Ireland, is every bit as good as Portrush, while the newer links at Ardglass (£60-£130, www.ardglassgolfclub.com) is building a fine reputation.

See more of Ireland’s golf courses at www.ireland.com/golf

Things to do on the Causeway Coast

‘Worth seeing, but not worth going to see,’ was Mark Twain’s withering judgement on the Giant’s Causeway. The main was talking nonsense: the place is mesmerising, and if you’ve not been for a while a real shock to see how the grand new visitor centre has brought something new to this ancient natural wonder.

The science and the lore of its creation are equally fascinating: the former a tale of super-cooled rock crystalising through volcanic heat in the last days of the dinosaurs; the latter a marvellous tale of the giant Finn McCool outwitting a jealous rival, and creating both Lough Neagh and the Isle of Man into the bargain.
Entrance costs £12.50 (free for members) and includes audio guide – www.nationaltrust.org.uk/giants-causeway

Giants Causeway

Giants Causeway

The crumbling ruins of Dunluce Castle have an extraordinary tale to tell. ‘In July 1606, James I confirmed Randall McDonnell, from 1620 the 1st Earl of Antrim, a son of the Scots-Irish chieftain Sorley Boy McDonnell, in his extensive Irish possessions,’ Country Life’s architecture editor John Goodall wrote recently. It was a condition of the confirmation that he build a “fort or garrison” at Dunluce.

By 1610 he had created ‘a good house of stone with many lodgings and other rooms’ on the spectacular headland. It didn’t last long: legend tells that one part of Dunluce fell into the sea, taking with it eight servants and the cook, while the castle was pillaged in the Civil War and abandoned by the family in the late 17th century. Glenarm, also built by McDonnell, had better luck and still stands today.
www.glenarmcastle.com/dunluce-castle 

The ruins of Dunluce Castle, County Antrim, at sunrise

The ruins of Dunluce Castle, County Antrim, at sunrise

The various Game of Thrones filming locations are worthy of an article in their own right. Luckily the discovernorthernireland.com website has an exhaustive list of options, from self-guided drives to archery lesson and medieval banquets to quench the desires of the most ardent fan.
More details at the Game of Thrones page at discovernorthernireland.com

Northern Ireland, near Ballymoney, alley and beeches, known as Dark Hedges

Near Ballymoney is an avenue of trees known as the Dark Hedges – made famous in Game of Thrones

The Bushmills distillery is also nearby, and offers tours and tastings of Ireland’s oldest whisky.
Guided tours £9, tasting experiences also available – www.bushmills.com

And finally, if the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge (pictured towards the top of the page) isn’t scary enough for you, try the vertigo-inducing cliff path at the wonderfully named The Gobbins at Islandmagee. It’s probably justifiably billed as ‘the most dramatic walk in Europe’, hugging the cliff face and involving bridges over chasms, tunnels and smugglers’ caves. It was first opened in 1902 as a tourist attraction by Berkeley Deane Wise, chief engineer of the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway.
Find out more about walking the path at www.thegobbinscliffpath.com

Where to stay

Bushmills Inn

I first visited The Bushmills Inn, at the heart of the village of Bushmills, almost 20 years ago. A decade later I went back, this time staying overnight in one of the 40 or so rooms. And a couple of months ago I went back again, this time staying a few nights in this effortlessly charming 17th century coaching inn, where endless nooks and crannies always seem to be lit with lamps and open fires, inviting you to treat the place like one big living room.

Two things have become clear: first, that the places hasn’t changed a bit, in the best possible way. And second, if I keep extending the length of my stay each time, then by 2048 (assuming I’m still around) I’ll probably end up spending a month here.

Rooms at the Bushmills Inn start at £120 for two people, including breakfast – www.bushmillsinn.com

Other options

If you’re looking for somewhere a little nearer Belfast – or just a more modern vibe – the Galgorm Resort & Spa (www.galgorm.com) is half-way between the capital and the coast, and is the host venue for the Northern Irish Open golf tournament. It’s swish, shiny, has excellent restaurants and one of the finest gin bars we’ve ever seen, with several hundred different varieties – the R&A have apparently booked the place out for Open week in July, so they’ll need plenty of stock ahead of then.

Portrush itself has a lot of options, including dozens of holiday homes to let, while if it’s views you’re after the very reasonably-priced Royal Court Hotel has a clifftop location that’s second to none.

Food and Drink

This part of Northern Ireland is fast cultivating a foodie-friendly reputation – to be honest in three days we had nothing but excellent food, whether it was a fine evening meal or a fish and chip lunch. Dinner at the Bushmills Inn was an absolute treat, the fillet steak meltingly soft yet and rich in flavour.

The culinary highlight of this trip, however, was undoubtedly at the Tartine restaurant in the Distiller’s Arms (www.distillersarms.com), just along the main street in Bushmills. The young, energetic and brilliantly enthusiastic team have put together a menu of genuinely superb food at extremely reasonable prices (starters around £7, main courses around £17) that ought to make most gastropub owners hang their heads in shame.

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Royal Portrush, in County Antrim, is one of the finest golf courses not just in Northern Ireland but the world.