DUBAI: Ireland has so much to offer that it’s sometimes difficult to know where to begin. Do you head to the Wild Atlantic Way, to Dublin, to Galway, to Cork? Do you take a food tour of Belfast, wander the Glens of Antrim, or soak up the history of Kilkenny Castle? You can’t have it all, of course, but you can try.
The Grand Central Hotel in Belfast is an ideal starting point, not only for a Black Cab Tour of the city, followed by dinner at the Michelin-starred Eipic, but for the majesty of Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway and Causeway Coast. It’s a relatively short drive north from the capital to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is blessed with a dizzying array of inlets and bays, sea stacks and islands — all backed by the glorious Glens of Antrim.
A drive along the initial stretch of this rugged coastline takes in the picturesque villages of Cushendal, Cushendun and Ballycastle. Lying off the coast is Rathlin Island, a six-mile-long sanctuary for migratory birds, while to the north-east is the discernible outline of Scotland’s western seaboard. Further along lie the dramatic ruins of Kinbane Castle — perched atop a rock of white limestone — and the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, which was built by salmon fishermen in 1755. From all vantage points lies a coastline of remarkable beauty.
In Ballintoy, Northern Ireland’s starring role in the making of “Game of Thrones” comes to the fore. Its small fishing harbor was the setting of the Iron Islands’ Lordsport Harbor, where Theon Greyjoy met his sister Yara for the first time. At the Cushendun Caves — located at the end of a stretch of golden sand — Ser Davos Seaworth and Lady Melisandre came ashore beneath the walls of Storm’s End. Everywhere you go, in fact, there are signs and tales of Westeros. Even in Belfast, where the entirety of King’s Landing was built on an empty parking lot near the city’s Titanic Studios.
It is the Giant’s Causeway, however, that takes center stage. Formed over 60 million years ago by lava that oozed from the fissures of the Earth, its 40,000 interlocking basalt columns are the stuff of myth and legend. The columns act as hexagonal stepping stones, enabling visitors to scramble as close to the Atlantic Ocean’s crashing waves as they dare. On a blustery or stormy day, those waves are huge and the noise incessant, with the ocean creating a thundering soundtrack to nature’s unceasing ability to create wonder.
A short drive from the Giant’s Causeway is the Bushmills Inn, a boutique hotel and restaurant that will peacefully and satisfyingly charge your batteries for the day ahead — a day that takes in the sweeping grandeur of Whiterocks Beach, the traditional seaside resort of Portrush, and the 6,000-year-old sand dunes of Portstewart Strand, before heading south into Éire and on to the gentility of Castle Leslie. The latter is one of the last great Irish castle estates still in the hands of its founding family, and it shows. The welcome is warm, its rooms are lined with portraits and paintings, and there’s a real sense of family hospitality, even if you stay at the renovated lodge, with its Snaffles restaurant and wonderfully spacious rooms.
As you travel through Ireland you’ll begin to notice certain things: the lush, multi-layered greenery of its landscape; the friendliness of its people; the richness of its produce; the beauty of its country estates. The latter include the Powerscourt Estate (home to National Geographic’s third-best garden in the world) and the Mount Juliet Estate, now part of the Marriott’s Autograph Collection. Built by the first Earl of Carrick in 1757, Mount Juliet is perhaps best known for its Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, which this year played host to the Irish Open. But for travelers the real draw is its 32-bedroom Georgian manor house, complete with Michelin-starred restaurant and stunning views across the River Nore.
Our final day is spent in Dublin, touring Trinity College and searching for traces of James Joyce, before heading to Brown Thomas on Grafton Street and dining at Fade Street Social. Our base is The Merrion, an elegant and luxurious five-star hotel in the heart of Georgian Dublin. One of Ireland’s finest hotels, and lying within easy walking distance of the city’s myriad attractions, The Merrion is also home to an important collection of 19th- and 20th-century Irish art and Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, a two-star Michelin restaurant. All contribute to a sense of peace, of relaxation, of warmth and luxury — which sums up the trip nicely.