Northern Ireland’s jagged and jaw-dropping beauty was forged in the mists of time. One geological event, in particular, stands out. Between 50 and 60 million years ago, during what is known as the Palaeocene Epoch, the region that now comprises the county of Antrim was subject to a lot of volcanic activity. Molten basalt, which is highly fluid, pushed through the region’s chalk beds to create a massive lava plateau. As the lava cooled, it contracted. Cracks occurred, similar to those seen in drying mud. These cracks propagated down, creating pillar-like stone structures, which also broke horizontally into ‘biscuits’. The speed at which the lava cooled determined the size of the columns. The result is one of the most dramatic coastlines in the world, with the standout attraction being the Giant’s Causeway, an area with around 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, most of them hexagonal in shape, lending them an eerie, man-made quality. Despite its otherworldly vibe, the Causeway is a mere three miles (4.8km) northeast of the charming town of Bushmills, home to the world’s oldest licensed whiskey distillery. In 1986, Unesco declared the Giant’s Causeway a World Heritage Site. In 2017, over a million people visited it, the first time an attraction had achieved that milestone in Northern Ireland.
Given this is Ireland, there’s bound to be a nice—and completely fantastical—explanation. According to legend, the columns are what remain of a causeway built by a giant, Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool), who was challenged to a fight by the Scottish giant Benandonner. After accepting the challenge, Fionn constructed the causeway across the North Channel so the two giants could meet. In one version, Fionn manages to defeat Benandonner. In another, he hides from Benandonner when he realises how much bigger than him his opponent is. Oonagh, Fionn’s wife, disguises him as a baby and puts him in a cradle. When Benandonner sees the baby’s size, he figures the father must be a giant among giants. He retreats to Scotland, destroying the causeway behind him to prevent Fionn from following him.
If you access the Giant’s Causeway from Belfast, you’ll be taking the Causeway Coastal Route. Running from Belfast to Londonderry, it is one of the most scenic drives in the world. The route passes picturesque villages, castles, splendid English gardens and manor houses, dreamy glens and a startling coastline which you’ll have difficulty whizzing past. Not to mention, bunches of Game of Thrones stuff, including Steensons, the jewellery workshop where some of the finest jewellery featured in the series was crafted. The Antrim coast itself was often cast as ‘The North’.
You can drive the entire 120-mile (190km) route in a day, but to make the most of it, 3-5 days are recommended. The route connects with the Wild Atlantic Way in Muff (County Donegal) and the Mourne Scenic Route in Belfast. Beyond the Giant’s Causeway, the route carries on to the historic walled city of Londonderry, a fitting finish to a memorable drive.