Our Giant Walk (Giant’s Causeway to Carrick-a-Rede)

Bird_CliffsWhenever you travel, there are always things you planned to do, things you hadn’t planned to do but ended up doing, things you didn’t plan to do but should have, and things you planned to do but sadly couldn’t. There are things you planned to do that you shouldn’t have bothered with. There are things you didn’t plan to do that were amazing. And then there are the things you planned to do, absolutely HAD to do, so you did them, and they were as awesome as you’d hoped.

One of the things I wanted, absolutely HAD, to do on our honeymoon was walk the Causeway Coastway in Northern Ireland, between the Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. Amazingly enough, the one day we’d set aside for doing this was sunny (which for Northern Ireland is nothing short of miraculous) and all in all, TC estimates we walked upwards of 25 km that day.

Believe it or not, the walking was the easy part. In order to give us as much walking time as possible, I decided that we should stay someplace quite near one of the two attractions we were walking between. The community I settled on was Bushmills, an adorable bunting-filled town a couple of miles from the coast and the Giant’s Causeway (also home to the Bushmills Distillery, a plus for TC). We booked a room for two nights at Finn MacCool’s Guest House on the main drag (I describe their awesome friendliness at the end of this post), and then just sort of forgot about it.

Until we realized that there is no rail line to Bushmills, and no line between Galway and Coleraine (the nearest train station to Bushmills), or even Galway and Belfast. We had to book a train from Galway to Dublin Heuston (opposite side of Ireland), catch a tram to Dublin Connolly, take the train to Belfast, and hope we could buy a ticket for Coleraine there before the next train left. Once in Coleraine, we would ask about the next bus through Bushmills and do our best to be on it.

Though we stayed up later on our last night in Galway planning, and had to wake up earlier than I would have liked the next morning (some cries of “But we’re on our honeymoon! We’re supposed to be RELAXING!” may have been uttered), our crazy, multi-train + bus travel plan actually went off without a hitch. We JUST missed a Bushmills-bound bus in Coleraine, but the next one was only 25 minutes later which gave us time to regroup and eat a sausage roll.

Once in Bushmills we needed maps and bus schedules (helpfully provided at the guest house which is good because the websites for such things were somewhat hard to use), and we needed to figure out where to start, how to get there, and how the hell to do this big long walk anyways. We discovered that part of the cliff-top walking path had been blocked by a landslide and that we would need to detour between Dunseverick and Portbraddan (luckily, the walking map we had, issued by WalkNI, was really more of a booklet with smaller maps of each section we were going to walk and descriptions of where to turn, etc., including for the detour section. It’s worth noting that their published literature was more useful than their website. Huh). We also checked the high tide times for White Park Bay to make sure that stretch of coast would be accessible when we wanted to reach it (it was). TC made the call that we would walk from Bushmills to the Giant’s Causeway and go towards Carrick-a-Rede, as opposed to busing to Carrick-a-Rede in the morning and not getting to start our journey until likely past noon.

So that is what we did. At the suggestion of the lovely Tracy at Finn MacCool’s, we walked to the Causeway by way of the old Bushmills Railway (there’s a good path along the tracks) and from the end of the railway went past the spendy visitor’s centre and down the long and winding road to the Giant’s Causeway. Which is really effing cool. We could have spent a good hour climbing all over those hexagonal rock stacks and taking photos but we had a long day of walking ahead of us and we wanted to get going.

There was a bit of panic and swearing and furious fast-walking (mine) when we realized that the Shepherd’s Steps path, which connects the Giant’s Causeway to the Coastway above, was closed, and that we would need to do a couple kilometres of uphill backtracking to get back to the clifftop. We weren’t sure how to join up with the rest of the walk and I was getting a bit weepy at the prospect of potentially missing out the ONE THING that I had REALLY wanted to do (and the thing I had put the most planning and effort into). Luckily, I remembered that the walking guide mentioned that you don’t need to go down to the Causeway to do the Causeway Coastway, which meant that obviously the path should be accessible from above, and it was. Glory be.

Of all our experiences on our honeymoon, this was by far my favourite. After that little bit of morning adversity, the sun shone warmly on our faces and the sea was blue as a jewel. Topped by farmers’ fields (with the occasional sheep or cows), the cliffs were sometimes sheer, sometimes craggy, folding into islets and inlets that were breathtaking at every turn. It was important to remember to look behind us every once in a while so we would not miss the equally impressive views unfolding at our backs. Very little (almost none) of what we saw that day would have been visible from the motorway. No sirree. This kind of North Irish beauty is reserved for those on foot.

And so we walked. And walked. And ate bananas. And walked ever so much more.

Eventually our feet and knees and hips did begin to get tired and sore (especially when we had to detour onto asphalt roadways, ouch) but once past Dunseverick (where the last bus stop is before the rope bridge) we really had no choice but to continue on to Carrick-a-Rede and to be honest, it would have taken a lot to make me to give up my goal of walking from the Causeway to the bridge.

And so it was that we reached the car park at Carrick-a-Rede just before 5 p.m., feet like hot lead and joints like old wicker chairs. We could have caught the bus back to Bushmills right then and there, especially when a little signpost pointed towards the rope bridge, still a kilometre away. We thought, is it worth it just to see a rope bridge? And then we thought, we’ve come this far.

So we went to the booth and paid our admission and walked the kilometre and stood in the line and walked across the bridge and looked around the little island (and at Scotland, about as far away across the sea as Vancouver Island looks from Vancouver) and stood in the line again and walked back across the bridge and back along that kilometre of path to the car park and had a scone with jam and cream (well, I did) and at 6:10 in the evening caught our bus back to Bushmills. And all that, TC estimates, was more than 25 km of walking. We did it!

Tips and thoughts and other things if you want to do the same walk we did:

  • The walk between the Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede bridge is just a section of the much longer Causeway Coastway. You don’t necessarily have to begin or end where we did (or travel in the same direction), but you should make sure you know where you can catch a bus, etc. at the end of your day or if you need to abandon your walk early. We kept a bus schedule with us along with our maps. People who walk the whole Coastway do it over three days or so and stay in accommodation along the way.
  • Dressing in layers is strongly recommended. It’s generally cool and cloudy in (Northern) Ireland, even in the summer, but we found the weather changed hour by hour during our trip, sometimes minute by minute. You definitely need a shell that can keep out the rain, preferably one that has a hood. I started our walk wearing five layers on top, at some point was down to two layers, and ended the day at four. Layers are the bomb.
  • We were SO tempted to just hop the fences and scramble across the land-slide blocked trails. We chose not to for our own safety of course, but also the safety of anyone below. How terrible would it be if you hurt someone (or damaged the beautiful natural landscape) below you just because you couldn’t be bothered to take a little detour?
  • If you are staying in Bushmills and don’t have a bunch of money for the fancy Bushmills Inn, I heartily recommend Finn MacCool’s Public House and Guest Inn. The rooms are fairly spartan but they were clean and warm (or as warm as it gets in such damp climes) and I can’t praise the hospitality enough. Though Finn MacCool’s has a pub and does breakfast, they have no restaurant of their own so they let us bring our take-out into the pub, gave us plates and cutlery and napkins, and cleared up after us as if we’d bought the food there. TC got to try a 16-year-old Bushmills single malt on the house and after we checked out on our last day, Tracy let us leave our bags behind the bar and continue to hang out in the pub and watch TV and use the wifi for a few hours while we waited for our bus. We’d bought strawberries for lunch and she gave us a bowl of whipped cream for them (I assume they had it for Irish coffees). We didn’t want to take up a table for nothing so I bought a soda and TC had a cup of tea but when we rose to leave Tracy just waved us off and wished us well. Thank you Tracy!
  • The Giant’s Causeway is amazing (and free, as long as you don’t go into the Visitors’ Centre), but the Carrick-a-Rede bridge is a little underwhelming, especially as you have to wait in line for a lot longer than it takes to actually cross the bridge. If you aren’t going to do the long walk we did the trail from the car park does have some nice views but honestly, we saw better!
  • The websites for Northern Irish transit and transportation are not as good as those in Ireland or North America. It’s best to organize travel in Northern Ireland ahead of time and find up-to-date hard copy published material if you can. On the flip side, people are so nice there we had help and suggestions at every turn.
  • White Park Bay (and the 2km of beach pathway on it) is not accessible during high tide. You should definitely check high tide times before going out; we found them on a surfing website.
  • The train between Belfast and Coleraine is not very fast. There is a bus that goes from Belfast right to the Causeway via Bushmills but only once a day. We used it to get back to Belfast and it is much faster.
  • Bathrooms on the walking path are few and far between (I believe Ballintoy Harbour maybe had one, and there’s one at Carrick-a-Rede). The cliff path is mostly wide open, with fields on one side and a sheer drop on the other. The Emerald Isles are not known for having an abundance of trees and the low bushes along the trail were so thick and prickly they were a definite no-go for bathroom cover. There were some taller grasses along the cliff edge, but I didn’t fancy falling to my death with my pants around my ankles. You might just have to make sure no one’s coming along the path and go for it, which is more or less what I did.

And on that note, happy trails.

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