Lizzie PopeSee other travel guides written by Lizzie Pope
Of Northern Ireland’s six counties, County Antrim is arguably the most well known, in no small part owing to its incredible collection of natural wonders and attractions. A wonderful place to explore on your caravan holidays in Northern Ireland, County Antrim is a land of spectacular countryside. Mountains, lakes, glens and a coastline of World Heritage status sit alongside historic towns with fascinating histories, be it the folklore and ancient monuments of the ‘county town’, Antrim, or the building of the world’s most famously tragic ship, The Titanic, in Belfast.
Taking up the north east corner of Northern Ireland, County Antrim’s northern coastline spreads into the Atlantic Ocean while its eastern coast juts into the Irish Sea. The county was once a part of the ancient kingdom of Ulster, hence the naming of a long distance walking route that covers much of the county and largely follows the coastline, the Ulster Way.
Predominantly rural, Northern Ireland has several small towns such as Larne, Ballycastle and Portrush on the coast and Ballymena, Ballymoney, Ballyclare, Antrim and Lisburn inland. Visit Belfast, Northern Ireland’s capital, and the only city of any size. Belfast’s history revolves, largely, around shipbuilding and ropemaking, which had a big impact on its growth in the 19th century. Hence many of the tourist attractions in Belfast have a maritime theme, the focal point of which is Titanic Belfast.
Visitors to the city can also see the Titanic's Dock and Pump House, the tragic ship’s last place on dry land and where she was fitted out. To gauge something of the splendour of the age, it is also possible to visit SS Nomadic, the last remaining White Star Line (owners of Titanic) ship, now restored to its original glory, when staying at one of the campsites near Belfast.
Away from the maritime theme, other attractions in the city include the Ulster Museum, the impressive Belfast City Hall, described as an Edwardian ‘wedding cake’, and The Crown Liquor Saloon, a gin palace built in 1826 and one of the best-known landmarks in the city. Alternatively, visit one of the city’s newest visitor attractions, opened in 2012, the notorious Crumlin Road Gaol (HMP Belfast). To gain freedom and spectacular views of the city, however, take a walk along the new 4.2-mile circular Divis Ridge Trail. It’s not just the city you’ll see but, on a fine day, Scotland and the Lake District too.
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 White Park Bay, that dot the same coastline. There are many good campsites in Northern Ireland, some within reach of the Causeway Coast and Glens scenic driving route.
Close by are the world-class Royal Portrush Golf Course and the Bushmills Distillery, the oldest whiskey house in the world, plus the ruined Dunluce Castle, a 13th century stronghold that clings precariously on the edge of a rocky cliff.
For something a little different, hop on a ferry from Ballycastle for a day trip to Rathlin Island, Northern Ireland’s only inhabited (with a population of 100), offshore island, that is rich in history and traditional culture. It’s also one of the best places in the UK to view wildlife, with the RSPB Seabird Centre (closed for refurbishment until 2015) at its western tip.
At the island’s most north eastern point, with views of Scotland’s Mull of Kintyre, is Bruce’s Cave. Here, in 1306, is where Scotland’s King Robert the Bruce hid in the black, basalt cavern and watched a, now very famous, spider that encouraged him to persevere and defeat the English army – something not to miss when staying at campsites in County Antrim.
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. The picturesque fishing village of Cushendall is considered the ‘Capital of the Glens’, where three out of nine of Antrim’s glens converge. These U-shaped glacial glens run between the Mountains of Antrim. You can hop on a bike and follow the Glens of Antrim Cycle Route or enjoy the spectacular scenery while walking through the Glenariff Forest Park, in the heart of the glens.
A few miles north of Cushendall is Cushendun, a coastal village with numerous cottages distinctly – and deliberately – Cornish in feel. The village, designed by renowned architect Clough William Ellis in 1912, was built with a Cornish appearance to please the Cornish wife of Baron Cushendun.
Finally, for fans of the hugely popular medieval fantasy TV show, Game of Thrones, Northern Ireland is the place to go. Produced in TV studios in Belfast, much of the series is filmed ‘on location’ within County Antrim. Places connected include the Caves at Cushendun, the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge to an island, and the Larrybane headland, Ballintoy Harbour and Murlough Bay (known as The Iron Islands in the series) and the Castle Ward estate, overlooking Strangford Lough in neighbouring County Down. While self-guided tours are possible, you can pick up several fully guided minibus tours of the filming locations for Game of Thrones during your caravan holidays in Northern Ireland.
Top five things to do in County Antrim
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.
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.
Visit the Old Bushmills Distillery, the world’s oldest working distillery. Take a guided tour and watch whiskey being made before sampling a wee taster of one of the world's most famous brands.
Have fun while learning about the importance of sustainability and biodiversity at the ECOS visitor centre in Ballymena. One for all the family to enjoy on your caravan holiday, interactive displays and galleries highlight topical issues while outside, there are 220 acres of woodlands, lakes and meadows to explore in the Nature Park.
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 County Antrim
St Patrick's Day, of course, is celebrated throughout the island of Ireland in the week leading up to 17 March. But what else is going on so you can plan your caravan holidays in County Antrim?
Cushendall enjoys the Walk the Glens Festival in May/June, with different walks for various abilities of walker. The town is also the focus later in the year for the Heart of the Glens Festival during August, with music, sports and fun for all the family.
Aside from the Walk the Glens Festival, May is indeed a busy month in County Antrim. Two biggies in Belfast are the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival and the Belfast Titanic Maritime Festival, both offering plenty of cultural entertainment for all. Another link to the sea in May is the Rathlin Sound Maritime Festival in Ballycastle on the Causeway Coast, with music, watersports, food and traditional crafts, while the Balmoral Show in Lisburn is one of the largest rural and agricultural showcases in the region. There are lots of foodie exhibits at the Balmoral Show and this theme continues into June at the Irish Game Fair and Flavour Fine Food Festival.
Pitched at one of the campsites near Belfast? Late July sees a very colourful Rose Week, centred on the City of Belfast International Rose Garden. Then in August, the focus returns to Ballycastle where the Ould Lammas Fair, on the August bank holiday Monday and Tuesday, has taken place since the 17th century. Marking the end of summer and the beginning of harvest, thousands gather to enjoy street entertainment, traditional Irish music in the pubs and plenty of food.
Food and drink is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the theme of the Bushmills Salmon and Whiskey Festival in September, something of a winning combination, while the Belfast Festival takes place over a fortnight in October with a line up of cultural events.
Care should be taken when visiting certain areas within Belfast on or around 12 July, when the Orange Order marches take place.
How to get to County Antrim
Stena Line operates between Cairnryan and Belfast and Liverpool (Birkenhead) and Belfast – do check the website as sometimes there are special offers for caravans. P&O Ferries sails to Larne from Cairnryan and Troon.
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 and Belfast, 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 by British citizens when travelling to Northern Ireland on caravan holidays. It is advisable, however, to have passports to hand, along with all vehicle documents, in the unlikely event of being stopped by the police.