A few days before we left for our adventure my mom asked what on earth we would do in Ireland for almost two weeks. When I told her that my original itinerary was over three weeks, she was shocked. And truth be told, Northern Ireland was not initially a high priority on my itinerary. In fact, I almost overlooked it completely – like many unfortunately do. However, it made the initial cut for two reasons:
- Titanic: During late high school to early college years, I had a mild obsession with the movie Titanic. Kate and Leo were not the big draw for me. I was more impressed with the historical aspects of the movie. I had watched most of the made-for-TV movies about Titanic, so the 1997 was impressive (for me… at the time). And – did you know? Titanic was built in Belfast.
- Tom Clancy’s Patriot Games: I love the movie Patriot Games. It has consistently been one of my favorites for at least the last fifteen years (stark comparison to Titanic). If you have not seen the movie, Jack Ryan (played by Harrison Ford) thwarts an IRA-related terrorist attack in London and then becomes involved with the investigation into the incident and its perpetrators. The IRA was born out of much the conflict between Northern Ireland and Ireland – and much of that has played out in Belfast.
To learn more about the complicated history of Ireland, I recommend A Brief History of Ireland Land, People History by Richard Killeen. The context that the book provided definitely enhance the trip for me.
So there you have it, my really far-out-there reasons for including Northern Ireland on the itinerary. However, as I developed the itinerary further, there were so many other great reasons to visit the Northeast corner of the island.
Beyond the fantastic food in Belfast, there were a couple of museums that we visited that the kids absolutely loved:
- W5: The mornings can be chilly and many days rainy, so the W5 is a great museum to allow kids to burn off some energy. We visited on our second day in Belfast after having a proper night of sleep. W5 is like many children’s museums with interactive play areas. Though not quite to the level of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, this one was great – and probably the best children’s museum we have visited. The museum featured interactive areas for the kids as well as a very cool live science show that explained how energy is created, stored, and then used for power.
- Titanic Belfast: Opened in 2012, the museum provides a comprehensive history of not only Titanic, but also of ship-building in Belfast. There were full-scale cabin replicas of each of the class levels, detailed accounts of the rescue and recovery efforts following the sinking, and most stunning a theater that provided a bow to stern tour of the wreckage. And though ships today are vastly larger, for its day, Titanic was a giant.
While there were several stops in Belfast, the one that I regret we missed was taking a Black Cab tour of the murals – remnants of The Troubles. In my planning, I did not book in advance, which presented logistics challenges for the day we had time for this. In case you make your way to Belfast, my research pointed me to Paddy Campbell’s Black Cab Tours: www.belfastblackcabtours.co.uk
Beyond Belfast – The Causeway Coastal Route
If my initial thought of Northern Ireland centered on conflict and ships, my mind had a reset moment when I first saw pictures of Giant’s Causeway. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Giant’s Causeway and its over 40,000 hexagonal rocks changed that perspective. Ultimately, the initial itinerary of a day-trip to Belfast turned into a three-night stay in Belfast to accommodate a day along the Causeway Coastal Route.
The night before our day-trip to the coast I unfolded our large map of Ireland to mark the roads that we would take the next day. Once I started to look for the stops that we wanted to make, I realized that our big map was missing roads! Enter Google Maps. The Google Maps app offers the ability to download sections of a map for offline use. Even though you may not have a data plan abroad, GPS will still track where you are on the map. By the end of the trip, I had downloaded most of Ireland to my phone and was able to provide Low Key with turn by turn directions using the built-in GPS. Best hack of the trip!
Dark Hedges: The first stop of the day was Dark Hedges. Beech trees are woven together along a short stretch of road – pretty much in the middle
of nowhere. The stretch of trees has been the backdrop to many movies and television series, including Game of Thrones (which I have not seen, but Low Key has read). A few months ago an overly eager road painter mistakenly painted lines on the very narrow road, but quickly painted over them. Though slightly off the path to the Coastal Route, it is definitely worth the detour.
Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge: Who doesn’t love a swinging bridge? My children. Or so they thought. Many years ago we visited a Capliano Suspension Bridge and Goose does not have fond memories of that experience. However, this ended up being a pretty cool 20 meter bridge across a rope bridge hung 25 meters above the sea. Once very rickety and used by fisherman to cross to some islands, it is now (perfectly safe and) available for tourists to venture out to the islands for amazing views of Rathlin Island (where puffins live – wished we had time to visit) and Scotland.
Kid PSA: if you have a stroller with you, take it! Chicken protested the entire kilometer or so walk out to the bridge and back from the parking lot (aka car park). There are a few stairs near the end of the hike, but park your stroller at that point.
Giant’s Causeway: To get the kids excited about the next stop, we may have lied and implied (or said) that they might see actual giants. It was really too easy with a name like that. Thankfully, Irish folklore helped to solidify our elaborate tale with the legend of Finn McCool. The visitor’s center offers insights into both the legend of Giant’s Causeway as well as the more scientific explanation about “hot lava” as the kids now explain to people. The kids enjoyed the center as much as the actual rocks. At want point, I was browsing through the shop while they were in the exhibit area and heard them screaming with laughter, but you will have to go for yourself to find out why! On the walk down to the rocks, Low Key and Goose found some extra spots to climb – where Goose was able to see “the whole world.” Between Goose’s pride of his big climb and seeing the rocks, Giant’s Causeway was definitely one of our favorite stops during our time in Ireland.
Kid PSA: After the mistake of leaving behind the stroller in the car at the rope bridge, we made sure to use the stroller at Giant’s Causeway. Good thing to – it was a hike to see the stones! However, we could have taken a shuttle bus that offered round-trip (or one-way, which we used for the hike back uphill) to the main rocks.
Food PSA: It is worth noting that Giant’s Causeway Visitor Center has an excellent café to grab a bite before continuing along your journey.
Dunloce Castle: Sitting along the cliffs over-looking the North Atlantic, Dunloce Castle was beautiful. It would be neat to see at sunset when approaching from Giant’s Causeway. When we arrived, it was quite crowded and our kids were tired from the morning adventures, so we only viewed it from the outside before returning to Belfast.
There were plenty of other sites along the Northern Ireland coast that we could have stopped in to visit, but skipped – Rathlin Island, Jameson Distillery, and the rest of the Coastal Route. From exploring the home to giant ships to where giant rock paths were built, we loved Northern Ireland and would highly recommend it being part of an itinerary to the island.
In the next post, I will tell you about our harrowing back roads adventures from Belfast to Limerick and how we got to experience a bit of Braveheart because of the kindness of others.