Winding along pebbled beaches, through cliff-side tunnels, past castles and natural wonders, it’s hard to believe that Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coastal Route was not designed especially for a tourism brochure. From Belfast, we took two laid-back days to drive the 120 mile coastline in our Wicked camper, finding plenty of delights along the way, and ending up in the amazing city of Derry.
Just over ten miles north of Belfast, along Shore Road (A2), is the seaside town of Carrickfergus, where you’ll find bobbing boats and a twelfth century Norman castle. Wandering along the cannon-armed stone ramparts that overlook the Irish Sea, it easy to imagine the importance of this stronghold and why it has been fought for by the Normans, English and French over the years.
Further up the enchanting coastal road, after about an hour of driving like an 80 year old to catch the views, we arrived in Ballygally. Glistening beds of seaweed lined the beaches and wide, camper-friendly carparks were filled with people enjoying the afternoon sun through their windscreens.
By the time we arrived at the thriving beach-side town of Glenarm, which is also part of the well-known Antrim Coast Road, it was positively time to join almost every other person on the Causeway Coastal Route in the pleasure of a soft-serve ice-cream in the warm sunlight.
Our next stop was the calm little cove at Cushendun, where we reclined in the front seats of Panda van and had an afternoon nap in the waning light. Through the haze of sleep, I enjoyed the sounds of dog-walkers, sand-castle-builders and chatting neighbours who wandered the sandy coastline. After an hour of pure holiday-maker relaxation, we continued north through sun-drenched fields.
Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge
When we pulled into Carrick-A-Rede to see the limestone cliffs and rope bridge, the sun was sinking below the horizon, casting a pale pink hue across the calm evening sea.
Bridge entry had closed fifteen minutes before, at 6pm, meaning we could wander the stunning headland trail free of both charge and crowds. Although the rope bridge was heavily barred, the pleasure of gulls in chorus along dramatic drop was enough to overcome the disappointment of not walking the short, recently-reconstructed planks that dangle 100 feet above the cold waters.
The Giant’s Causeway
As the main attraction along the Causeway Coastal Route, the Giant’s Causeway’s bank of hexagonal basalt columns has attracted UNESCO World Heritage status, the limelight from Northern Ireland’s tourism campaigns and visitors from around the world – and all rightly so.
Local legend claims that this unusual geological formation was created by the Giant, Finn McCool, to challenge his Scottish rival. On the other hand, science claims the rocks were formed more than 60 million years ago as lava ran into the sea, quickly cooling, crystallising into rocks, which then cracked into the pattern evident today (as generally understood from my non-sciencey brain). But no matter which story you prefer to believe, there is no doubt that these stepping stones to the Irish sea are fascinatingly beautiful.
From the main carpark and visitor’s centre, the footpath leads you down past black volcanic boulders and thick windblown grasses to marvel at this natural phenomenon. We took a couple of hours and walked a couple of miles in the stiff salty breeze while exploring the site, which is free and open all year around.
Roller doors barred shop entrances as we wandered down the deserted city streets at 6pm. Although boasting all the traits of a rebuilt city – new buildings, chain stores, cafes and art galleries, Derry in the early evening felt like an abandoned city. But with the morning came the people, a thriving, friendly feel and my discovery of a city that is wiser and more intriguing than I could’ve anticipated.
The old city is wrapped in 17th century walls that have watched Derry’s dramatic history unfold. Built from the ashes of an earlier sacked city, the Derry walls have withstood the longest siege in British military history; watched violence over land, religion and poverty; seen troops flood in and out during the world wars; and witnessed the Battle of Bogside, Bloody Sunday, British military occupation and IRA bombings across the city. Now, just over a decade since the The Troubles inched into a young peace, the walls host visitors and locals alike as they look over a new Derry; a modern, creative and optimistic city.
As I wandered the walls, looking over the Bogside peace murals, it struck me that most people living in the city lived through The Troubles and would’ve known people lost to the street protests and battles and bomb explosions. The city’s scars where only freshly healed; leaving a clean, new skin that was still tender to touch.
With only two days in Derry, I was pressed to see all I wanted to see. An hour tour of the city walls gave me an express version of the city’s dramatic history, then three hours wandering The Tower Museum gave me Derry’s story in much more, provocative detail, and a night in pubs talking to locals helped me to meet the human face of the dramatic Derry story.
Useful info for travelling the Causeway Coastal Route:
This route has been appropriately embraced by the Northern Ireland tourism industry, meaning there is heaps of great info about attractions, itineraries and accommodation, both on the coast road and near it… here are a couple of handy links to get you started:
Carrickfergus marina carpark has paid water & power facilities for campers. This was the first place we saw this and we were quite impressed. You can just pay there, hook up for a while, then drive away. Brilliant.
At only £4/adult for entry, this well-preserved castle is worth a peek for an hour, showing you how life would have been for ye olde inhabitants. For more info about Carrickfergus and the castle, check out the local borough website.
The coast road around Ballygally, Glenarm and Cushendun has lots of wide lay overs that are great for an ice-cream break, and afternoon nap or some overnight wild camping ( as most have no signs prohibiting overnight parking/ sleeping).
There are multiple parking options at different costs and distances from the Giant’s Causeway. The main carpark is the closest and most expensive, and you will need to get there near opening (10am-ish) to secure a spot. Find out more about the site by visiting:
Derry is known for its lack of campsites. After sussing out all of the winter-limited options, we checked ourselves in to the Derry Independent Hostel in the middle of the city. Apart from having free, on-street parking for Panda and being price-comparable for a fancy campsite, the hostel was very homey and welcoming. I felt a little better about leaving Panda outside when the hostelier confirmed that she sees many camper-vanning folk who struggle with the lack of nearby campsites and free parking.
If you are just dropping by, the cheapest and most convenient paid parking it down by the river, next to the Tourist Information Centre (although be aware that, while it’s pretty cheap for a few hours, parking there will still cost half a mint if you stay all day).
Nightlife in Derry doesn’t start until about 10.30-11pm. Between close of business around 5pm and 11pm, the city centre is a bit of ghost town, but trust in the fact there are plenty of people around later in the evening to share the good times. Waterloo Street hosts a run of little pubs. Metro Bar on Bank Place seems to be a local favourite with a rowdy young crowd. We were told that Derby Bar on Great James Street is a great traditional watering hole, but didn’t get there to check it out ourselves. If you’re looking for a good place to start, the colourful Sandino’s bar on Water Street is a sure bet with a very creative toilet wall display.
Next time I’ll tell you about driving the west coast of Ireland, from Derry, via Westport, Achill Island, Galway and the Cliffs of Moher.
A big cheers to Wicked Campers UK for the awesome campervan that made my UK and Ireland road trip so much more of an adventure. I loved everyday of the ride (and miss Panda van).