Travel: Northern Ireland's spectacular coastal route
For all that the Antrim coast is synonymous with centuries-old lore and mythology, the extraordinary global success of Game Of Thrones, the television series which has appropriated swaths of Northern Ireland as the canvas for its tales of bloodshed and epicurean plenty, has ensured that many of the region’s visitors are drawn nowadays by altogether more modern fables.
Ballintoy harbour, an enclave looking out over a series of rocky outcrops in the Atlantic swell, is a case in point. With bobbing fishing boats and a yawning sea cave where stricken vessels were once mended, the nook’s traditional appeal is clear.
Yet squint and you can also see Theon Greyjoy emerging from the surf to arrive home in the Iron Islands. It is a seminal moment in the show, and one that does not go unrecognised. But in installing a modest interpretation panel by Ballintoy’s foreshore, past and present, heritage and fiction, serenely co-exist.
At the Irish Sea’s narrowest pinch, a stretch of water just 12 miles wide separates the Antrim coast and Scotland, yet it feels like a world of its own, a beguiling yet imposing landscape cast in slate greys, ochre reds and verdant greens.
Such proximity makes it the ideal destination for a short family break, especially given the convenience of P&O’s two-hour Cairnryan to Larne crossing. With no baggage limit, a child-friendly entertainment room and reasonably priced fare on offer, our party – which includes two nippers under three – find it an easy and relaxing way to travel. Its ferries even have Club Lounges on board which, for around £12 per person, offer complimentary wine, soft drinks, and various snacks, with a friendly steward service on hand.
On arrival, Larne itself is unremarkable, but it proves to be the ideal starting point for what must surely rank as one of the greatest coastal drives in western Europe.
The brainchild of William Bald, a Burntisland-born civil engineer and cartographer, the A2 hugs rocky headlands as it winds through the pastel postcard village of Glenarm and the striking Red Arch tunnel at Cushendall, before veering inland towards Ballycastle. The route is just 25 miles long, but its sea-sprayed majesty whets the appetite for what awaits.
The Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, our first stop, is one of the area’s bona fide attractions, though others might classify it as an act of masochism. First raised by salmon fishermen in 1755, the crossing binds the mainland to the eponymous island. Some 75 feet below, the Atlantic lashes against chalk cliffs.
If that sounds ominous, my three-year-old clearly disagrees, given how she bounds and skipped across. We set off with her clinging on to my hand. By the time we reach terra firma, the roles are reversed.
With the adrenaline rush over, we venture west, past Ballintoy and the decrepit splendour of Dunluce Castle, a turreted pile perched on an isolated stack, in search of some rest and relaxation at the Roe Park Resort on the outskirts of Limavady.
Nestled in Roe Valley Country Park, the extended manor park has won a clutch of awards for its spa and parkland golf course, and it is the ideal base for a sightseeing trip.
After freshening up in our spacious family suite, we head for dinner to Greens, the hotel’s Taste of Ulster award-winning restaurant, one of two on-site dining options. Greens is located in a surprisingly grandiose room – a sweeping, circular, split-level space with oversized chandeliers, but if the décor feels a little imperious, the fare on offer deserves every plaudit going.
The roast rump of lamb, served with locally sourced chorizo and red pepper stew, is a delicious Mediterranean-inspired delight, but even that is usurped by the 4oz medallions of fillet beef, served with shallots and rosemary scented jus, a masterclass in how well-sourced ingredients and simple flavour combinations can create something magical.
The next morning, after my wife has enjoyed a relaxing spa treatment, we take a pleasant riverside meander in the park before setting off for nearby Benone Beach.
On a sunkissed morning, it is hard to believe this seven-mile golden strip is in Northern Ireland. The strand stretches from the mouth of Lough Foyle in the west all the way to Downhill in the east, offering the ideal spot for a bracing walk – or, in our case, gathering seashells and building sandcastles.
If Benone’s natural splendour is something of an open secret, a hidden treasure is just five minutes away. Angler’s Rest, a family-owned bar and restaurant, is full of surprises. Its unassuming exterior might hint at hearty pub food, but enter its beautifully defined space – awash in New England hues with a log burner at its heart – and you realise it has its sights set higher.
The kitchen, led by head chef Chris Furey, fulfils that ambition with aplomb. After a delectable starter of crispy Boilie goat’s cheese croquettes and beetroot chutney, we settle on the roast offerings for lunch. My sirloin of Angus beef, served with beef dripping Yorkshire pudding, vegetables and bone marrow gravy, is the definition of the ideal Sunday lunch, while the roast loin of Saddleback pork – accompanied by crispy crackling – is succulent and bursting with flavour. The dessert menu, meanwhile, is light and imaginative, with the coconut panna cotta, pistachio granola and mango sorbet a highlight.
Suitably energised, we head off again for the coast, this time bound for Antrim’s biggest draw – the Giant’s Causeway.
Forged when lava flows hit the ocean 60 million years ago, the polygonal expanse of 40,000 interlocking basalt columns rising out of the sea is a marvel that attracts more than a million visitors a year. And though it has rightly been designated by Unesco as a World Heritage Site, the causeway is mercifully free from modern health and safety constraints. Clambering up on to the rocks gives you a real appreciation of nature’s bewitching design and, as you hop from one to another, it feels like you are at one with some ancient, curious history.
It is the jewel in the crown of the Causeway coast, a place of fables, spectacular scenery and first-rate food. We Scots should consider ourselves spoilt that it is just a pleasant sail away.
P&O Ferries’ Cairnryan to Larne service starts from £89 each way for a car and driver. Customers can also upgrade to enjoy the on-board Club Lounge for £12 per person in advance, or £14 on board.
One night’s B&B in a family suite at the Roe Park resort starts from £129 and includes complimentary use of the health club with indoor heated leisure pool, steam room, jacuzzi, sauna and gym. Children aged four and under stay complimentary, while the cost for children aged five to 12 is £15 B&B. A round of golf for residents is priced at £25. www.poferries.com, www.roeparkresort.com