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 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.
If visitors can put aside ‘The Troubles’ and relegate them to history, what those looking for a caravan holiday in Northern Ireland will find is a land of gorgeous countryside: 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.
Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom, takes up 15% of the island of Ireland, in its northeast 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, Derry 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.
Derry – also known as Londonderry for historical reasons when livery companies from London settled there in the 18th Century – in the northwest of the region is a city of major historical significance and worthy of a visit. 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 with commanding views across the city.
Derry is close to the Causeway Coast, a coastline with both natural and manmade attractions every few yards. Just northeast 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. Heading into County Antrim, the first major attraction is the ruined Dunluce Castle, a 13th-century stronghold that clings precariously on the edge of a rocky cliff.
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.
Northern Ireland’s most westerly county, south of Derry is County Fermanagh. One of the least well-known areas, its greatness is in its remoteness. Its main town, Enniskillen, is a lovely and tranquil small town with the most spectacular outlook, situated on an island between two of Ireland’s most picturesque lakes. 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 Lakeland area 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, Lough Neagh, 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. 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. 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 Course.
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
Things to do
1.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.
2.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.
3.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.
4.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.
5.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
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. In addition to general revelry, you’ll find pilgrimages, concerts and historical talks.
The Visit Mourne Outdoor Fest held in March, offers spectacular scenery around the Mourne Mountains near Newcastle, County Down for wet and wild outdoor activities.
The City of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival is held every May with big name stars in the world of music, while Armagh celebrates the Brian Boru Festival in July, when the High King of Ireland won victory over the Vikings at Clontarf in 1014, ending Danish power in Ireland. Cushendall, County Antrim, enjoys the Heart of the Glens Festival for nine days during August, with music, sports and fun for all the family.
And if you happen to be in Belfast during January, take advantage of the annual Out to Lunch Festival. There are three weeks of theatre, music and comedy all served within the lunch hour – with lunch of course! That’s followed by the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival in April/May.
Care should be taken when visiting certain areas within Belfast on or around the 12 July, when the Orange Order marches take place.
Visitors travelling from south west and southern England may find it easier to use ferry routes to the Republic of Irelandand use the M1 motorway to Northern Ireland, a two-hour drive. Stena Line has sailings between Fishguard and Rosslare, and Holyhead and Dublin. Irish Ferries operates between Holyhead and Dublin as well as between Pembroke and Rosslare. P&O Ferries travels from Liverpool to Dublin.
Being a part of the UK, passports are not required when travelling to Northern Ireland as a British citizen. It is advisable, however, to have passports to hand along with all vehicle documents in the unlikely event of being stopped by the police.
Where to stay
Practical Caravan’s Top 100 Sites for your caravan holidays in Northern Ireland. The region always features well in the Awards, as voted for by you. In the 2021 Awards, Rushin House, overlooking the beautiful Lough MacNean in County Fermanagh became the Regional Winner, and not for the first time; it’s a very popular choice. Other popular choices include the very-well kept Ballyness Caravan Park, Regional Winner in 2022, and Annalong Holiday Park in County Down.
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Those looking for a caravan holiday in Northern Ireland will find a land of gorgeous countryside: mountains, lakes, glens and a coastline of World Heritage status sitting alongside historic towns