By Sally James
Last year over 1.3 million Americans embraced the opportunity to visit Ireland. Yet only a relatively small proportion of these adventurers opted to enhance their Irish experience by heading over the border into Northern Ireland. Here we take a closer look at some of the delights which the region can offer and highlight why it is a must on any Emerald Isle itinerary.
Brimming with beauty
With dramatic coastlines and fertile forestry, Northern Ireland’s vistas can rival any on offer in its southern neighbour. From the marvels of the Marble Arch Caves in Fermanagh to the magnificence of the Mourne Mountains, there are plenty of options available. The comprehensively restored Gobbins Cliff Path in County Antrim is also a recent addition to the portfolio of natural attractions in the region. One of the most long standing and well-known viewpoints is the Causeway Coastal Route- rated as one of the top five road trips worldwide. Follow this popular winding road to experience first-hand the drama of the coastal backdrop as well as the picturesque villages dotted along the way. The Causeway area boasts no less than three designated Areas of Outstanding Beauty (AONBs) – including the Causeway Coast itself, as well as the Antrim Coast and Glens and Binevenagh. There are plenty of stopping opportunities en route, giving you the chance to get up close and personal through attractions such as the Causeway Visitor Attraction Centre and the famous Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. This coastal area holds a special place in the hearts of Game of Thrones aficionados as it is home to a number of filming locations for the popular HBO series. These include Stormlands (Carrick-a-Rede), Pyke, The Iron Islands, (Ballintoy) and of course The King’s Road (Dark Hedges).
Awash with history
Although for many years Northern Ireland was most notable for its political history, the region has now largely moved on with stable governmental structures in place. Many visitors are still interested in exploring the sites of the infamous ‘Troubles’ but nowadays it is the region’s maritime history which draws most attention. As the birthplace of the ill-fated Titanic liner, Belfast is home to ‘Titanic Belfast’, an iconic building housing the world’s largest Titanic visitor experience. This stunning construction contains nine interactive galleries dedicated to exploring the story of the shipyard where Titanic was built, the detail of the liner itself and the excitement surrounding the launch of what was to be the world’s most luxurious ocean vessel. The building is located in Titanic Quarter, which also contains the historic Titanic Slipways and Plaza and is where the recently restored SS Nomadic is permanently berthed. A visit to the SS Nomadic, which was the tender ship to the RMS Titanic and is now the last existing White Star Line Ship in the world, provides a feel for maritime life over 100 years ago.
For another type of step back in time, why not pay a visit to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in nearby Holywood. Set in more than 170 acres of stunning countryside, this impressive museum provides a real insight into what life was like in Northern Ireland over 100 years ago. Costumed visitor guides talk to visitors in the thatched cottages, schools, shops and farms which make up the typical Ulster town of the 1900s. The museum is also home to one of Europe’s biggest collections of transport, which includes everything from horse-drawn carriages to vintage fire engines.
Overflowing with food and drink delights
All that Northern Ireland sightseeing is enough to make anyone hungry! The good news is that visitors need never go without when it comes to food and drink in this tasty region. Northern Ireland restaurants deliver a high standard of fine food right across the country, from traditional dishes to innovative fusion cuisine. North Coast favourites include the ever popular Bushmills Inn and the complex of Ramore Restaurants in Portrush. Belfast can also satisfy any appetite with top picks including the quirky Holohan’s and the centrally located James Street South.
If you are keen to sample Northern Ireland’s local delicacies, start early in the day as one of the most notable local dishes is the Ulster Fry. Traditionally consumed in the morning, this combination of bacon, sausage and egg stands out from other cooked breakfasts due to the inclusion of soda bread and potato farls. Other local specialities worth tasting include champ (mashed potato with lashings of butter, warm milk and chopped spring onion), boxty (a heavyweight potato cake mainly found in Fermanagh), and for the sweet toothed, Yellow man (a golden crunchy sweet treat similar in form and consistency to honeycomb). Don’t forget to wash your meal down with our most famous tipple- Bushmills whiskey.
Practicalities of heading ‘up north’
If you are planning to travel from Ireland to Northern Ireland as part of your visit, there are a few practical issues to be aware of. If you are using a hire car, make sure your insurance includes travel in Northern Ireland. Also remember that road signs ‘up north’ display speeds in miles per hour, rather than kilometres. Cars drive on the left hand side of the road in both countries but if you’re paying for petrol (or anything else) you will need to convert your Euros (currency in Republic of Ireland) to pounds sterling (Northern Ireland). Although some businesses will accept payment in Euros, there is likely to be a surcharge for this service, so it is always better to pay in the local currency.
Roman philosopher Seneca once said,“Voyage, travel and change of place impart vigor.”
Embrace your voyage to Northern Ireland, enjoy your travels and experience the vigor of a trip north of the border.