We loved Ireland so much that I already knew we would love Northern Ireland. Something about that island feels magical. I desperately needed an outdoorsy trip because sometimes city trips can be stressful on the kids. They are always having to be strapped into a stroller or not allowed to run free. We deal with more tantrums and meltdowns.
Northern Ireland is the place to take your kids. We didn’t have one incident because the boys were happy to run around and explore. We also lucked out (again…Ireland loves me) with the weather. 50’s and mostly sunny the entire trip! People keep saying how rainy this island is but we have yet to experience it. Luck of the very distant Irish I guess! did I mention that the Irish are so nice and friendly? We had great, genuine conversations with strangers and everyone was very social with the boys. I never felt like I was being treated like a tourist.
Portush is the cutest little village on the northern coastline. I highly recommend staying at the Portrush Atlantic Hotel. Its within walking distance of anything you would want to see in the village and it is right across the street from the ocean. Unfortunately, being the winter and off season there was a deserted feeling. Not many gift shops were open and the restaurants had more limited hours. I would still stay here again being that its the perfect location to hop on Dunluce and Causeway roads. These are the scenic coastal highways that will lead you to the top sites on the coastline. Eat at the Ramore- family friendly atmosphere and the food was divine. The food at the hotel was pretty good too.
White Rock Beach
This is a beach a few minutes drive from Portrush and worthy of at least a couple hours. We put on our boots and ran around the beach, hiked along the cliffs and even had some ice cream (even though it was upper 40’s). The beach is my happy place and I have certainly passed the gene to my children. No old buildings or city landscape will ever impress me as much as some cliffs and the beach. The beach reminded me of a cross between the cliffs of Dover in England and the cliffs of Moher in Ireland.
An ancient volcano erupted which created the 40, 000 rock columns at Giant’s Causeway. It’s a World Heritage site and entry is free with a National Trust membership. I want to say it was a highlight of our trip but really can’t since we loved everything about our holiday in Northern Ireland. One thing I know is you can’t come all this way and miss it.
Parking is at the visitor center which has bathrooms, a great gift shop and small cafe. You can elect to take the bus to and from the visitor center down to the site but I would advise you walk down and take the bus back up since its uphill. The walk down was beautiful and we stopped to take pictures and enjoy the beauty.
The boys loved this excursion because they love rocks and stepping from stone to stone. Some areas were a bit slippery so we had to make them hold our hands near the water. Someone tried to be a little too independent and got wet but he didn’t even care because there was too much fun to be had.
Also along the causeway route is rope bride that connects the mainland to a tiny island. Fisherman used to use bridges to access the island for salmon but it is now used as a tourist attraction. It is free with a National Trust membership. I honestly cant advise how long the walk is from the car park to the bridge but I think it took us about an hour because nap time happened. Carter decided to fall asleep in the baby carrier so we took our time on the walk and stopped a lot to admire the scenery. It was absolutely gorgeous. We lucked out with sunny, warm skies and a fairly small crowd. When the little one is sleeping is when I get my best site seeing in. I love being able to just stop and enjoy the moment. That’s a luxury when you have two rambunctious toddlers.
I was fairly certain there was a possibility I would chicken out once we arrived at Carrick-a-Rede but up until that morning I was prepared to do it. Once we arrived I realized from the starting point of the stairs you cannot actually see the beginning of the bridge. It was hard to judge how far the bridge was above the water. Children can only cross if they are able to use both hands so you would need to wear a child that isn’t old enough. Carter was sleeping in the carrier so I had no excuse other than I was scared. I told Ben and Kellan to go first and that was probably a bad idea because I was able to see and hear Ben go into full paranoia mode on Kellan as they were crossing. “Kellan! Use both hands! Kellan! Slow down!” So I knew it was scary. When they made it back the crowd cheered and high fived Kellan and he was so proud of himself. He asked me to go again so that was all I needed to chicken out and I let him take my ticket. 5 years ago I would have been first in line but lately heights have become a real fear!
Another must see along the northern coastline is Dunluce castle. The 13th century ruins are set on a cliff with beautiful views. The history is rich here with ties to many battles, vikings, Scottish clansman and royals. The boys made sure to bring in their swords in case we saw a dragon. That’s our way of making castles fun and exciting since we visit so many. The entire grounds had a great Princess Bride feel- like being in a movie.
Below the castle is a small rocky beach. There is no path granting access but we took our chances with the kids and made the steep climb down via our own path. There we got to view the castle from below while the boys had a blast playing with all the rocks. We had the beach all to ourselves and it was fun pretending it was our own corner of the world for the afternoon.
The Dark Hedges
A lot of this post contains filming locations from the HBO show Game of Thrones. If you watch it, you may recognize some of these locations. I’ll be heading to more filming sites in Croatia soon so stay tuned for that. If you have never heard of GoT then these places are still major tourist attractions in the country. The dark hedges is the only location I went to that served no purpose in my going there -other than it being a Game of Thrones site.
Due to the popularity of the show the dark hedges has become a pit stop for basically any tour bus travelling from Belfast to the northern coast. We stopped in on our way from the airport mid afternoon and the road was filled with people taking pictures. This was a weekday in the winter. I can imagine the summertime is very busy. I said “no thanks” and we decided to come back first thing in the morning on the way to Belfast. We got to be the only people on the road.
The beech trees were planted in the 18th century and have a very mystical feel. The street is featured as the King’s road to Winterfell. Fan of the show or not- its still worth it to swing by. Beautiful
On the southeastern coast we visited Inch Abbey on our way to Tollymore Forrest. Its ruins date back to the year 800. Across the river from the abbey you can see Down Cathedral- the burial site of St. Patrick. Inch abbey also serves as a filming location for Game of Thrones. Scenes include Robb Stark and his army after taking Jamie Lannister prisoner. We spent about 30 minutes here letting the boys run around and of course- fight dragons.
Castle Ward is a sprawling 18th century estate near Strangford. It’s a National Trust site with a playground, cafe and lots of walking. Since we were short on time we opted to just see the Game of Thrones shooting locations and didn’t actually tour Castle Ward itself. The farmyard and tower house of the estate is featured as house Winterfell and a few other areas of the estate are featured for other scenes. We had a great time walking around and fortunate enough to have the place to ourselves. I can imagine it being a busy place when tour buses arrive since tours come here for the “Winterfell” experience complete with archery lessons.
Tollymore Forest Park
Tollymore is about an hour and half south of Belfast and is now one of my favorite places on Earth. We stopped into the most picturesque coastal town of Newcastle where we had an amazing lunch before spending our afternoon hiking. You could really spend a whole day here so pack a lunch if you plan to do so. There are several routes you can take ranging from 0.7 km to 9 km. We opted to take the red “river route” which was 5.2 kilometers. We basically had the forest to ourselves and it was a gorgeous day. You will also see Game of Thrones tour buses here since scenes such as the dire wolf pups were shot in the park.
Our route went along a small river and we stopped often to let the boys throw rocks into the water and play. There are so many beautiful spots on this path of old bridges, stepping stones, a hermitage and waterfall. It was so gorgeous I kept thinking to myself if it was this pretty in the winter…I can’t imagine what it would look like in the spring or early fall. The boys had the most fun and after our hike we sat on a bench and enjoyed getting to know a local couple and their dog.
We didn’t spend a lot of time in the city since we came to Northern Ireland for the great outdoors. We did spend an evening walking around, eating at a Mexican restaurant and shopping for souvenirs. It is a smaller city and a good base for day trips elsewhere. The museums were fabulous:
Hands down- the best children’s museum I have ever been to. They put a great emphasis on sensory seeking, eccentric, fun. The entire time we were there I was dreaming of having a place like this closer to where I live in England. It’s just perfect for two toddler boys looking to have a good time.
The Titanic Experience
While not exactly a fun time for the kids in comparison to the W5; they did seem to enjoy a few of the displays. They have a small ride like attraction, a projection room with ship blueprints on the floor, and an IMAX screen showing wreckage of the titanic under the sea. Kellan was surprisingly in tune with how serious the sinking was, seemed very concerned and asked a lot of questions. I would love to come back without children and read every display top to bottom.