Belfast, the capital city of Northern Ireland, which lies over Counties Antrim and Down is set spectacularly in the valley of the River Lagan, on the shores of Belfast Lough.
However, Belfast’s scenic position between the Divis, Black and Cave hills contributes to its reputation as ‘The Big Smoke.’
The name dates back to the 19th century when the city grew up around its linen and ship building industries and remains because car petrol and factory fumes hang trapped between the mountains as part of a phenomenon called the fishbowl effect.
Between austere Victorian buildings in the city centre a vibrant social and cultural life, is focused around the theatres, concert halls, bars, restaurants, cafes, cinemas, museums, galleries, discos and dance clubs. Like all world cities there are areas of town which the casual visitor should enter with caution; in Belfast these are easily recognisable by the painted kerb stones and paramilitary wall murals.
The Giant’s Causeway is a massive clutter of about 40,000 tall basalt hexagonal columns which sprawls in amazing patterns under the mammoth cliffs. A World Heritage site, with 395,000 visitors a year it is Northern Ireland’s most popular tourist attraction.
Created when boiling lava came spewing out through the earth’s crust 60 million years ago, legends tell that it was built by Ulster warrior giant Finn McCool built so he could walk to Scotland to fight a Scottish giant.
Cars are charged ?3 on entry and you can catch the minibus down to the rocky beach for 60p (Tel 01265 731855) Walk along the cliff path to get a good view of the rock formations which have names like the Wishing Chair, the Giant’s Organ and the Honeycomb.
Antrim Coast Road
Driving or cycling along the County Antrim Coast road North from Larne is a scenic experience in itself, as much of the route clings to the cliffs and bays by its fingernails.
If you have a head for heights you will appreciate the gulls wheeling around the black faces of rock as the sea churns white below Torr Head and Fair Head along the scenic route from Cushendun to Ballycastle.
If you get vertigo, follow the inland route towards the Giant’s Causeway.
Glens of Antrim
The nine Glens of Antrim are beautiful lush green, wooded and bogland valleys which stretch down to the sea between rugged headlands along the Antrim Coast Road.
To explore the Glens use one of the many small villages along the road as a base and prepare to tramp through virgin (and often wet) territory.
Cushendall village sits at the head of Glenballyeamon, Glenaan and Glencorp. Glenariff is the best glen to visit for the casual walker as it has been made into a forest park (?3 per car) complete with a wooden boardwalk around its waterfalls (?3 per car – the park also has a campsite phone 01265 763917 in advance).
Quaint village fans should visit Cushendun (8 miles inland from Cushendall).
With a long sandy beach curving under the striking Fair Head cliffs, Ballycastle was once a thriving holiday town and is still a centre for nightlife in the area.
It comes alive during the Lammas fair in August. The glory hole an eerie (and dangerous) plug-hole-like smugglers cave to the sea is at the end of the strand, the half ruined Bonamargy Franciscan Friary is on the edge of town and Ballypatrick Forest Park is 10km away near the village of Watertop where there is also an open farm which welcomes visitors in summer.
In good weather Ballycastle’s biggest attraction is the ferry to Rathlin Island.
The new Campbelltown ferry links Ballycastle to Scotland, just 12 miles off the Antrim Coast.
Six miles off Ballycastle, Rathlin Island is windswept and barren, even in good weather, but has thriving bird colonies including puffins nesting on its impressive cliffs.
It also has a bird sanctuary, interpretive centre which tells how the residents of the island were massacred three times, a lighthouse with a cave where Robert the Bruce is said to have hidden out and one pub.
Scuba Diving is also very popular.
The scuba centre was reportedly financed by Richard Branson after locals refused to rescue him from the strong seas currents around Rathlin after the Virgin boss crash landed his hot air balloon, unless he donated money to the island.
Four ferries a day run to and from Rathlin in summer, and two in winter from Ballycastle.
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
Over 61,000 tourists a year love to scare themselves silly by walking 60 feet across the swaying Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge near Ballintoy to a tiny island where there is nothing to do except contemplate the walk back.
The original bridge, hanging 80 feet above the sea, was made out of two ropes slung casually across the gap by salmon fishermen who used it to get to their nets.
If you don’t want to cross the bridge you can take a ?1 boat trip to look up at it from Ballintoy harbour
After appreciating the natural beauty of the Giant’s Causeway you might want to stop into the Old Bushmills Distillery, the oldest legal distillery in the world (apparently) licensed in 1608.
The whiskey production process isn’t fascinating, but you do get a snifter to sample at the end.
Perched so close to the high cliff edge that its kitchens fell into the sea killing most of the kitchen staff in 1639, Dunluce Castle is Northern Ireland’s most romantic castle.
A peculiar mixture of a medieval castle with a renaissance mansion built inside, the ruins still give you a real feeling of what it would have been like for the MacDonnell clan, who ruled North East Ulster in the 16th century, to command amazing views along the coast and be flayed alive by winds straight from the Arctic.
Portrush is a popular beach town which is thronged in summer during good weather.
The strand at Portstewart, a mile west along the coast in County Derry is prettier, but Portrush is much louder and livelier with amusement arcades, outdoor rides and water slides and flumes, ice cream and chip shops burgeoning on the seafront.
The newly built Dunluce Centre also sports a simulated ghost train, interactive children’s nature exhibition and Tumbletown, a children’s indoor activity playground.
The Royal Portrush Golf Club overlooking the sea is one of the best links courses in Northern Ireland.
Built by the Norman Lord John de Courcy, Carrickfergus Castle is one of Ireland’s oldest and best preserved castles.
There are exhibits and guides to tell you all about the grisly methods used by the castle garrison to keep out invaders and you can sit down in the fully restored banqueting hall and imagine what it would have been like to eat wild boar from the trestle tables, when the castle wasn’t under siege and rats were the main item on the menu.