There’s no getting away from it – Northern Ireland has had a troubled past. The Anglo-Irish conflict is now even described as ‘The Troubles’ in the annals of history. But don't let that deter you from taking caravan holidays here, because there are now some fantastic campsites in Northern Ireland to enjoy in peaceful rural locations near world-class tourist attractions.
What were once no-go areas in the 1970s and 80s are today’s tourist spots, with tours of political hotspots all part of the visitor attractions, alongside Stormont, Northern Ireland’s parliamentary building and a symbol of peace and the future.
If visitors can put aside ‘The Troubles’ and relegate them to history, what those looking for caravan holidays in Northern Ireland will find is a land of gorgeous countryside. There are mountains, lakes, glens and a coastline of World Heritage status, sitting alongside historic towns with superb architecture and a fascinating history, be it the birth of Christianity in Ireland or the building of the world’s most famously tragic ship, the Titanic.
Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom, takes up 15% of the island of Ireland, in its north east corner. Its northern coastline spreads into the Atlantic Ocean while its eastern coast juts into the Irish Sea. It is made up of six counties – Antrim, Fermanagh, Tyrone, Down, Londonderry and, the smallest, Armagh. It was once a part of the ancient kingdom of Ulster, hence the naming of a long distance walking route that covers much of the region, the Ulster Way.
Predominantly rural, the capital Belfast is the only city that has really ever had a major industrial revolution – with shipbuilding and ropemaking having a big impact on its growth in the 19th century. Hence, the other towns and second city, Derry, continue to have a rural, provincial feel to them.
Visit Derry – also known as Londonderry for historical reasons when livery companies from London settled there in the 18th century. Situated in the north west of the region, Derry is a city of major historical significance. Designated as the first ever UK City of Culture in 2013, Derry’s city walls (built in 1618) are the best-preserved city fortifications in Europe having never been breached. At 26 feet tall, it is possible to walk the walls of Londonderry to enjoy commanding views across the city.
Derry is close to the Causeway Coast, a coastline with both natural and man-made attractions every few yards. Practical Caravan readers regularly vote Ballyness Caravan Park, near the Giant's Causeway in Bushmills, into the top spot in the annual Top 100 Sites Awards for this region. Just north east of the city, along Ireland’s longest beach (and with Blue Flag status), known as Magilligan Strand, is a Martello Tower at the entrance to Lough Foyle.
Due east is the out-of-place Mussenden Temple, a very Italianate rotunda preserved by the National Trust that’s perched on a cliff top. The popular holiday resort of Portstewart, the world-class Royal Portrush Golf Course and the Bushmills Distillery, the oldest whiskey house in the world, follows.
Of course, Northern Ireland’s best-known attraction on the Antrim coast is the Giant’s Causeway. Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site, this unique site of basalt polygons attracts visitors in their thousands. Aim to visit if you can once the coach parties have long gone and linger instead at the beautiful bays and beaches, such as Whitepark Bay, that dot the same coastline.
One of the prettiest parts of the Antrim coast is between Larne and Cushendall – there’s a great coast road to follow for sweeping views of the sea, including views of Scotland on a clear day. The picturesque fishing village of Cushendall is considered the ‘Capital of the Glens’, where three out of nine of Antrim’s Glens converge. These glens run between the Mountains of Antrim; you can hop on a bike and follow the Glens of Antrim Cycle Route.
Visit Northern Ireland’s most westerly county, south of Derry, County Fermanagh. One of the least well-known areas, its greatness is in its remoteness. Its main town Enniskillen became well known across the world for all the wrong reasons back in the 1980s, but it really is a lovely and tranquil small town with the most spectacular outlook, situated on an island between two of Ireland’s most picturesque lakes. Practical Caravan's Top 100 Sites Awards often feature one of the best campsites in Northern Ireland, Rushin House in County Fermanagh, on the border with the Republic of Ireland.
Lower Lough Erne and Upper Lough Erne are dotted with islands and have a distinct snaking shoreline creating dozens of tiny peninsulas. You can island hop around Fermanagh’s Lakelands using the waterbuses in summer. Enniskillen also has a romantic-looking 15th century castle with Rapunzel-like towers but it’s nearby Castle Coole, an 18th century mansion, that is the more sumptuous of the two 'castles'.
A large part of County Tyrone, in the centre of Northern Ireland, is covered with the Sperrin Mountains, a remote area of highlands and lush river valleys. Sparsely populated, the area is great for walkers with the Ulster Way passing between the mountains. Close by is the Ulster American Folk Park, an open air museum with more than 30 historic buildings that provides the story of the mass emigration to America during the 18th and 19th centuries.
County Armagh may be Northern Ireland’s smallest county but it boasts Britain’s largest natural freshwater lake, 18 miles long and 7 miles wide. Boat trips are a great way to make the most of the water, famous for its eels, but you can cycle the Loughshore Trail along quiet country roads.
The county ‘town’, Armagh, is also the spiritual capital of Ireland, making it a special destination on a caravan holiday on this island. One of Ireland’s oldest cities, St Patrick founded a church here in the 5th century, now one of two cathedrals.
South of Armagh is Slieve Gullion, an extinct volcano that sits in the Ring of Gullion Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Climb to the top of the 1,880-foot (573m) ‘mountain’, through the Slieve Gullion Forest Park and you can see the geological phenomenon – a ring of hills beyond a glacial valley that surrounds the volcano on all sides. There are great views too of the Mourne Mountains in County Down.
The Mourne Mountains are a walker’s paradise, perhaps not the scenery that an unsuspecting visitor would associate with Northern Ireland, so why not turn your caravan holiday into a walking holiday, too? The group of mountains display a gentle drama of rugged moorland, forest parks, divine valleys and secret loughs, alongside a charming rural landscape of tiny stone-edged fields that run down to the east coast.
The Mourne Wall, an incredible feat of man's craftsmanship, circumnavigates the mountains, up and over the steepest hillsides. Newcastle on the coast acts as an entry point north of the Mourne Mountains. The upmarket town has a delightful sandy beach sweeping around Dundrum Bay, home to the Royal County Down Golf Club.
A few miles north and crossing the Antrim border is Strangford Lough, a sea lough that is almost landlocked but for the very narrow mouth on the southeastern side. It is rich with wildlife and a great place for birdwatching.
There are some excellent campsites in Northern Ireland, and from here it's easy to explore across the invisible border into the Republic of Ireland, where you'll need Euro currency, the speed limit signs are in kilometres and the road signs are in a mixture of Irish and English or just Irish, depending on the area.
Top five things to do in Northern Ireland
Visit Titanic Belfast, the world's largest Titanic visitor experience. Located beside the historic site of the ship's construction, the state of the art exhibition tells the story from conception in Belfast during the early 1900s until its tragic end and the aftermath. Explore the ship with exclusive footage from the bottom of the ocean, where Titanic now rests.
Visit the Causeway Coast route and take the rope bridge to Carrick-a-Rede Island for a thrilling (not for the faint hearted) walk across the chasm. At 80 feet (30m) above the sea, those bold enough to cross are rewarded with amazing views of the Antrim coast.
The largest sea lough in the British Isles and an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, visit Strangford Lough and take a sea safari to watch the seals and the wealth of other wild and bird life in the area. Then visit Mount Stewart House and Gardens on the edge of the lough, considered one of the most important gardens that the National Trust owns.
Return to yesterday and visit Castle Coole near Enniskillen. One of Ireland's finest Neo-Classical houses, much of the original furniture is still in place, as is the State Bedroom, prepared for a visit by George IV.
Take an award-winning Black Cab Tour of Belfast for a hard-hitting look at the British/Irish conflict. A political sightseeing tour, you'll gain an insight into Belfast during The Troubles, seeing famous hotspots and associated murals.
When to visit Northern Ireland
So if you're heading for caravan holidays in Northern Ireland, when is the best time to visit? Armagh celebrates the Brian Boru Festival in April, when the High King of Ireland won victory over the Vikings at Clontarf in 1014, ending Danish power in Ireland. 2014 sees extra Viking celebrations for the millennium.
The City of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival is held every May while the Mourne International Walking Festival takes place around the Mourne Mountains near Newcastle, Co Down, every June. Cushendall, Co Antrim, enjoys the Heart of the Glens Festival during August, with music, sports and fun for all the family.
St Patrick's Day, of course, is celebrated throughout Ireland in the week leading up to 17 March, but particularly in Downpatrick, the town named after the patron saint.
Just for 2014, the Giro d'Italia, one of the world's greatest cycle races alongside the Tour de France, starts off in Northern Ireland with three days of cycling and festivities between 9 to 11 May.
Care should be taken when visiting certain areas within Belfast on or around the 12 July, when the Orange Order marches take place.
How to get to Northern Ireland
Visitors travelling from south west and southern England may find it easier to use ferry routes to the Republic of Ireland and use the M1 motorway to Northern Ireland, a two-hour drive. Stena Line has sailings between Fishguard and Rosslare, Holyhead and Dun Laoghaire, and Holyhead and Dublin. Irish Ferries operates between Holyhead and Dublin and Pembroke and Rosslare.
Being a part of the UK, passports are not required when travelling to Northern Ireland. It is advisable, however, to have passports to hand along with all vehicle documents in the unlikely event of being stopped by the police.