From Larne we continued north, enjoying the highly scenic Antrim Coast and the Glens of Antrim — a series of nine glens, or valleys, from which streams flow down toward the sea, with a tidy town at each inlet surrounded by lush green farmland. From Glenarm in the south to Ballycastle in the north, sea views appeared and disappeared as the road climbed up and down and wound past the inlets.
Between Glendun and Glenshesk, we opted to detour up to Torr Head — the closest point on the Emerald Isle to Scotland, whose Mull of Kintyre lies a mere 12 miles away across the sea. Getting there required nerves of steel. The narrow, winding road had frequent uphill stretches with no visibility of oncoming traffic and the occasional sheer drop-off on one side. Driving a manual transmission car through intermittent rain that made the pavement slick kept my knuckles white until we reached the point at Torr Head. It was a relief to get out of the car.
We were rewarded with one of the most exhilarating views in all of Northern Ireland. In fact, Torr Head was perhaps one of the most beautiful spots we’ve seen anywhere in the world. A carpet of green, sheep-dotted fields swept down to the sea, across from which sat Scotland low on the horizon. We explored the crumbling ruins of and old Coast Guard station built in 1822 and abandoned in 1920, and snapped as many photos as we could, none of which captured the true majesty of the place.
Back in the car, we drove on to the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. Salmon fishermen built the original rope bridge two centuries ago to cross a 65-foot span high above the ocean and reach the tiny sea stack known as Carrick-a-Rede. Only a few people at a time are allowed on the narrow, delicate bridge, and people with a fear of heights often can’t muster the courage to cross it. We did but found the kittiwakes, black guillemots, razorbills and other hardy seabirds nesting on the area’s rock ledges just as interesting as the bridge.
We motored on to the Giant’s Causeway, a World Heritage site and probably Northern Ireland’s premier tourist attraction. For five miles or so, large, hexagon-shaped basalt columns in varying heights fringe the coast. It’s not the only place in the world with such formations — Devil’s Postpile National Monument in California and the Prismas Basálticos in the Mexican state of Hidalgo are closer to home — but its wave-splashed location on the North Atlantic adds scenic drama.
Killjoy geologists say that rapidly cooling lava contracting at varying rates created the formations in a process called columnar jointing. Similar columns from the same lava flow occur across the sea at Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish isle of Staffa. The more fanciful explanation says that Scottish giant Benandonner challenged Irish giant Finn MacCool to a fight, and Finn built a causeway across the water for the match. In one version of the tale, Finn’s wife tricks the Scottish giant by dressing up Finn as a baby. When Benandonner sees how big Finn’s “baby” is, he runs away in fright at how big Finn the father must be and destroys the causeway behind him to keep Finn from following him across the water. In his haste, he leaves behind one of his enormous boots, now turned to stone.
The Giant’s Boot is one of several fancifully named stone formations in the area, which we spent a few hours exploring with an audio guide relating more tall tales about Finn MacCool. We descended via the Blue Trail down to the stone beach, admiring the Highlandman’s Bonnet, Lady’s Fan and Wishing Chair formations. We went to the end of the rocky trail and then doubled back to climb the 167 Shepherd’s Steps to the clifftop, where we returned to the Visitor Center via the Red Trail on the plateau.
We drove on to Derry and checked into The Merchant’s House B&B, on the western Cityside half of town. I think I had stayed here during a trip 10 years prior, as both the building and the owners, Peter and Joan, seemed very familiar to me. After dinner in a nearby Indian restaurant, we strolled along the Foyle Embankment and crossed the pedestrian Peace Bridge (seen above in a daytime shot with two white “arms” extending toward each other) spanning the River Foyle over to the eastern Waterside half of town, a predominantly Protestant-Unionist/Loyalist zone. We thought about going for a pint but decided to turn in early after our very long day of sightseeing.
The following morning we walked atop the stone wall ringing the heart of old Derry to get a bird’s-eye view of the city. The 20-foot-high wall runs for roughly a mile and dates back to the early 1600s, when English and Scottish settlers renamed the town “Londonderry” and built the walls to protect themselves from hostile Irish locals. The walls held up well — sheltering Protestant defenders during a 1688-89 siege by Catholic forces — and still sport historic cannons here and there.
Just outside one stretch of the wall sits the largely Protestant Fountain neighborhood, where at the time of our visit Loyalist murals decorated the walls around the Cathedral Youth Club and striping on the curb had the red, white and blue colors of the Union Jack. The sectarian murals were painted over in 2016 and now honor the Derry men who fought in World War I.
Farther along the wall, we detoured at the “Free Derry Corner,” where sectarian strife came to a head on Jan. 30, 1972, in what became known as Bloody Sunday. From there, we walked along Rossville Street in the Catholic Bogside neighborhood to view the murals depicting events during Northern Ireland’s “Troubles” — and other political commentary — on the walls of residential flats and other buildings. See some of the Bogside Murals here.
Next up: The onward drive west across the border into Ireland’s County Donegal.