During my 5-day stay in Dublin, despite how much I loved this lively city full of the friendliest people I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet, I decided to take advantage of my proximity to Northern Ireland, UK.
After a long evening spent partaking in the extreme nightlife offered in Temple Bar, I was boarded a coach at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m., and our bus full of bleary eyed adventurers took off for a full day of exploration to some of the most gorgeous natural sites in the world.
What will be of no surprise to Game of Thrones fans, many of these landscapes have also played host to film crews for the massively popular show, whose location scouts seek out the most wondrous, beautiful, and remote places on earth: Iceland, Croatia, and Morocco, to name a few. The vast majority of the show’s filming takes place in Northern Ireland, and after visiting there, I can see why — there is staggering beauty literally everywhere you turn.
The day was so full, I must split it into two parts. This post will focus on just the Game of Thrones sites and Belfast. The Giant’s Causeway was so spellbinding, it calls for its own entry (coming soon).
THE DARK HEDGES
First up was the Dark Hedges, a stunning canopy of beech trees planted in the 18th century along Bregagh Road in Ballymoney, County Antrim. To us GOT nerds this is better recognized as the Kingsroad, one of the main thoroughfares in Westeros, where Arya makes her escape from King’s Landing.
This beautiful avenue of beech trees was planted by the Stuart family in the eighteenth century. It was intended as a compelling landscape feature to impress visitors as they approached the entrance to their Georgian mansion, Gracehill House. Two centuries later, the trees remain a magnificent sight and have become one of the most photographed natural phenomena in Northern Ireland.
Next, we ventured to view the turreted ruins of the medieval Dunluce Castle, aka Pyke Castle of House Greyjoy, in Bushmills, the town home to its namesake whiskey distillery.
Again, from Discover Northern Ireland:
First built on the dramatic coastal cliffs of north County Antrim by the MacQuillan family around 1500, the earliest written record of the castle was in 1513.
It was seized by the ambitious MacDonnell clan in the 1550s, who set about stamping their mark on the castle under the leadership of the famous warrior chieftain Sorely Boy MacDonnell during an era of violence, intrigue and rebellion.
In the 17th century Dunluce was the seat of the earls of County Antrim and saw the establishment of a small town in 1608. Visitors can explore the findings of archaeological digs within the cobbled streets and stone merchants’ houses of the long-abandoned Dunluce Town.
The dramatic history of Dunluce is matched by tales of a banshee and how the castle kitchens fell into the sea one stormy night in 1639.
Next we stopped by Larrybane Quarry in North Atrim, where King Renly set up camp in the Stormlands during Season 2, and was the site of the tournament in which Brienne of Tarth was introduced.
Once a working chalk quarry, it now serves as an overflow car park for the Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge.
The site of Theon’s return to the Iron Islands was shot at Ballintoy Harbour, a charming fishing village in County Atrim.
One of the little coves nearby was also a beach on Dragonstone, where Stannis Baratheon, Davos Seaworth, Melissandre and Salladhoor Saan meet up. It was also here in a beautiful tidal pool where Theon gets baptized into the faith of the Drowned God.
Our final Game of Thrones site was the caves of Cushendun. Formed over 400 million years, they lie on an elevated beach at the outflow of the Glendun and Glencorp valleys. The name in Irish is Cois an Duine, meaning Foot of the Dun, identifying the village’s location at the mouth of the River Dun.
These wonderfully textured caves were used as Storm’s End, the backdrop for one of the most iconic moments in the series, when Ser Davos was ordered by King Stannis Baratheon to bring the Red Priestess Melisandre ashore so that she could give birth to the evil “shadow baby.”
A notable feature of this quaint coastal village is a large sculpture of a goat named Johann. He was a feature of the harbor area for many years, grazing at the river bank and greeting visitors. Sadly, during the Foot & Mouth outbreak of 2001, he had to be put down, to the despair of his owner. Artist artist Deborah Brown created the statue of Johann in his honor. Today, another goat named Mirriam carries on Johann’s legacy in the shadow of his sculpture.
Before our wonderful tour ended, we made a brief stop in beautiful Belfast, the capital and largest city in Northern Ireland.
Special thanks to Finn McCools Tours and our fabulous tour guide, William, for making this a magical day.