By Rick Steves and Pat O'Connor
The Antrim Coast — the north of Northern Ireland — is one of the most interesting and scenic coastlines in Britain and Ireland. Within a few miles of the train terminal of Portrush you can visit evocative castle ruins, tour the world's oldest whiskey distillery, risk your life on a bouncy rope bridge, and hike along the famous Giant's Causeway.
Superficially, Portrush has the appearance of any small British seaside resort, but its history and large population of young people (students from the University of Ulster at Coleraine) give Portrush a little more personality. Along with the usual arcade amusements, there are nightclubs, restaurants, summer theater (July–August) in the town hall, and convivial pubs that attract customers all the way from Belfast. At the end of the train line, Portrush is an ideal base for exploring the highlights of the Antrim Coast.
Planning Your Time
You need a full day to explore the Antrim Coast, so allow two nights in Portrush. An ideal day could lace together Dunluce Castle, Old Bushmills Distillery, and the Giant's Causeway, followed by nine holes on the Portrush pitch-and-putt course.
For a good look at Northern Ireland as a loop trip from Dublin, consider this itinerary:
Day 1: 9:00–15:00 — Train from Dublin to Derry
Day 2: All day in Derry, 16:00–17:00 — Train to Portrush
Day 3: All day for Antrim Coast sights and Portrush
Day 4: 8:00–10:00 — Train to Belfast, all day in Belfast; 19:00–21:00 — Train back to Dublin.
The town is busy with students during the school year. July and August are beach-resort boom time; June and September are laid-back and lazy. Families pack Portrush on Saturdays, and revelers from Belfast crowd its hotels on Saturday nights.
These romantic ruins, perched dramatically on the edge of a rocky headland, are testimony to this region's turbulent past. During the Middle Ages, the castle resisted several sieges. But on a stormy night in 1639, dinner was rudely interrupted, as half of the kitchen fell into the sea and took the servants with it. That was the last straw for the lady of the castle. The countess of Antrim packed up and moved inland, and the castle "began its slow submission to the forces of nature." While it's one of the largest castles in Northern Ireland and is beautifully situated, there's precious little left to see among its broken walls.
The 16th-century expansion of the castle was financed by the salvaging of a shipwreck. In 1588 the Spanish Armada's Girona sank on her way home after an aborted mission against England, laden with sailors and the valuables of three abandoned sister ships. More than 1,300 drowned, and only five washed ashore. (The shipwreck was excavated in 1967, and a bounty of golden odds and silver ends wound up in Belfast's Ulster Museum.)
Castle admission includes an impromptu guided tour of the ruins. The tour is interesting for its effort to defend the notion of "Ulster, a place apart — facing Scotland, cut off from the rest of Ireland by dense forests and mountains..."
Old Bushmills Distillery
Bushmills claims to be the world's oldest distillery. Though King James I (of Bible fame) only granted its license to distill "Aqua Vitae" in 1608, whiskey has been made here since the 13th century. Distillery tours waft you through the process, making it clear that Irish whiskey is triple distilled — and therefore smoother than Scotch whisky (distilled merely twice and minus the"e"). The 45-minute tour starts with the mash pit, which is filled with a porridge that eventually becomes whiskey. (The leftovers of that porridge are fed to the county's particularly happy cows.) You'll see thousands of oak casks — the kind used for Spanish sherry — filled with aging whiskey.
The finale, of course, is the opportunity for a sip in the 1608 Bar — the former malt barn. Everyone gets a single glass of his or her choice. Non–whiskey enthusiasts might enjoy a cinnamon-and-cloves hot toddy. To see the distillery at its lively best, visit when the 100 workers are staffing the machinery — Monday morning through Friday noon (weekend tours just see a still still).
This four-mile-long stretch of coastline, a World Heritage Site, is famous for its bizarre basalt columns. The shore is covered with hexagonal pillars that stick up at various heights. It's as if the earth were offering God his choice of 37,000 six-sided cigarettes.
Geologists claim the Giant's Causeway was formed by volcanic eruptions 60 million years ago. As the lava surface cooled, it contracted and cracked into hexagonal shapes. As the layer of hardened but alligatored rock settled, it broke into its many stairsteps.
Of course, in actuality, the Giant's Causeway was made by a giant Ulster warrior named Finn MacCool who wanted to reach his love on the Scottish island of Staffa. Way back then the causeway stretched to Scotland, connecting the two lands. Today, while the foundation has settled, the formation still extends undersea to Staffa, just off the Scottish coast. Finn's causeway was ruined (into today's "remnant of chaos") by a rival giant. As the rival fled from ferocious Finn back to his Scottish homeland, he ripped up the causeway so Finn couldn't chase him.
For cute variations on the Finn story, as well as details on the ridiculous theories of modern geologists, start your visit in the visitors centre. A video gives a worthwhile history of the Giant's Causeway, with a regional overview. A gift shop and cafeteria are standing by. A minibus zips tired tourists a half-mile directly to the Grand Causeway, the highlight of the entire coast.
For a better dose of the causeway, consider this plan: Follow the high cliff-top trail from the visitors centre 10 minutes to a great viewpoint, then go 10 minutes farther to reach the Shepherd's Stairway. Zigzag down to the coast; at the T junction, go 100 yards right to the towering pipes of "the Organ." Then retrace your steps and continue left to the "Giant's Boot" for some photo fun and the dramatic point where the stairs step into the sea. Just beyond that, at the asphalt turnaround, you'll see the bus stop for a lift back to the visitors centre.
You could also walk the entire five-mile Giant's Causeway. The hiking guide points out the highlights named by 18th-century guides (Camel's Back, Giant's Eye, and so on). The causeway is free and always open.
Pat O'Connor is the co-author of Rick Steves' Ireland guidebook