This is the tail end of January, 2016.
I looked up from my breakfast as other guests rushed to the nearest window in the International Youth Hostel, all of them abuzz about something big. So, after putting down my fork I joined them and got one of the most pronounced reality checks to date – it’s snowing in Belfast.
This was something different indeed.
Naturally I got my share of photos for the inevitable Facebook post (this is the first time I’ve seen snow in an urban environment so it is something) before casting the experience to the back of my mind – the impression doesn’t last much, mostly because I’m seeing Northern Ireland’s Antrim Coastline. That’s all I’m caring about.
Now, I’m a loud and proud Game of Thrones fan (I’m sure there’s a name for people like me a la Whovian and Sensie) and that’s the kind of tour I hop onto outside the Europa Hotel on Great Victoria Street (the snow had stuck around so the Europa’s staff were allowing tour members to wait in the lobby – good karma to them!)
The show has influenced a lot of my big backpacking adventure so I’m ready to see the Northern Irish locations on the A2, which will be topped off with a stint at the Giant’s Causeway. Whilst I do enjoy experiencing the locations used in film and television, I’ve always primarily been drawn to the natural. With that said, today should be something special.
The Antrim is absolutely stunning – I’ve grown up visiting sun drenched stretches of coastal road so I was most welcoming of the drastic change in the weather (I’m from Melbourne so I’m conditioned for influxes of cold) – the fresh snow on the green compliments everything.
On the itinerary are Carrickfergus (where the rising sun greeted us) and Carnlough, and then some of the stops whose names I have sadly forgotton.
The cave where Lady Melisandre birthed her ‘shadow baby’ was on the tour, which in fact serves as a resident’s driveway here in the real world (cosplayers were in attendance there) and the quarry where Brienne and Margery made their first appearances – think it was there that I got a look at the far off Scottish coastline… so I have at least seen Scotland!
We moved on to Ballintoy Harbour where the sun made another comeback (we’ve had a mix of snow, rain, wind and grey clouds since leaving Belfast) and the sea was foaming – I have never seen so much foam. It was wonderful to gaze at. This is the kind of natural that sticks with me.
Nerd fact – Ballintoy Harbour served as Lordsport in the Iron Islands, where Theon reunited with his sister Yara and had what could be the last of his more notable hard ones… before Ramsay wanted more pork sausages.
The harbour was being overtaken by the sea, but it was something else to marvel at – I loved feeling the fierce wind, tasting the air born salt which had landed on my lips and watching a fully geared up surfer take on the waves. My personal nature normally dictates that I head away from the cold but Ballintoy may have changed that to some degree – well done!
Next on our list, and this is the icing on the cake that is the day – the Giant’s Causeway. My love of nature might have been amplified here.
Now for those unaware, the Giant’s Causeway is made up of many, many, many basalt columns that at some points are submerged into the North Channel. Many of these columns are hexagonal in shape which allows for them to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.
Additionally (and this is a big positivo for me), there’s a legend that goes with the Causeway – mythology and legends are sexy to me in case you were wondering.
It’s believed that the Causeway was constructed so that Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool – who’s loving this?), who was either a giant or a human warrior, could do battle with a Scottish opponent. Scotland’s island of Staffa has a similar formation of columns in Fingal’s Cave which supports the legend of a bridge that once stood across the sea.
Upon arrival we all had the freedom to walk down the road leading to the Causeway, thus allowing us to go at our own pace (there is a shuttle bus service for anyone interested.) It was scenic and beautiful and everything else I love to see when on the road, but it was at that point when Northern Ireland showed me what it could do… weather wise.
As I, the weather beaten Melbournian Sheep, said earlier there’s been a share of rain, snow, wind and sunlight… but the Causeway treated us and about a hundred plus others to some of the hardest hail I’ve ever felt!
I am not kidding – hail is no one’s friend. NO ONES! Short of diving under a parked van that the attending rangers were using, there was nowhere to hide. NOWHERE! One reprieve I can think of is that it didn’t last longer than a few minutes.
When it came to leaving, we were treated to two final sights – Dunluce Castle, which left us all satisfied, even if it was a drive by, and the Dark Hedges.
This stretch of country road, lined with amazing and looming beech trees, serves as the King’s Road. This is where the day got a little bit ‘fairy tale’ and I was appreciative – I’ve never seen a picturesque road like this back home. It’s quite singular. Again, people were everywhere but this is a travel quirk I’ve long since learnt to hate but accept.
Now of course I’m going to recommend Antrim (this post should suggest such a thing) but mostly because I was left with a sense of satisfaction that only a fan of fiction can be left with. Add to that, the Antrim is also the most northern point on the planet that I have ever experienced so that’s an effort I’ll always smile about.
I wasn’t in Northern Ireland for long (I no longer plan every aspect of my journeys for that and other reasons) and I’m still peeved, but the country has given me my share of reasons to go back and see what else it has to offer – I’ll probably hire a car though. I like going at my own pace.