These ten counties of the Island of Eire are technically its own country. A country that makes up only 3% of the population of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (affectionately known as the UK). For a better (or at least I hope better) explanation of the names of the regions of the British Isles, see my “British Isles” page.
It’s seems to me that Northern Ireland doesn’t get as much recognition as the Republic of Ireland. I understand, when you think of Ireland, you think of Dublin. Though the Republic’s capitol is a must-see for all the american tourists who have to say: “Oh back when I was in Dublin, and yes I mean Ireland, yada yada,” who cares, you’d be severely missing out on Ireland’s natural beauty if you chose to forgo Northern Ireland.
If you are planning to visit any part of Ireland, here’s a few ups and downs to Northern Ireland to help you decide if the northern ten counties are right for you (uh oh, I feel like I’m selling insurance. By the way, you could save 15% or more by….).
First, let’s start with the bad news. Northern Ireland is on the pound (GBP), so if you’re coming from the U.S., that can decelerate your “bang-for-your-buck-o-meter” rather quickly. Although, the dollar (USD) is climbing at a staggering rate. Last time I checked, 1 pound sterling cost $1.47, that’s about what the euro cost when I was in Europe last year (2014).
Another bit of bad news: you probably won’t hear that “leprechaun accent” that you know you were hoping for. In fact, the Northern Irish sound to me like heavily accented Minnesotans (don’t tell them I said that, of course). I’m not going to go into the full explanation of why that is, but to illustrate this further, when overseas I’ve been labeled as Irish as many times as I’ve been placed as American (now that could be because I tend to adopt the accent of whoever I’m talking to, but that’s besides the point).
Onto the good stuff (Hint: Notice how short the ‘bad news’ portion is). In my opinion, there are three things you HAVE to check out while you’re visiting Northern Ireland. The best part: they’re all located within about 11 miles of each other!
So hop in your car that you’ve rented (hired, if you’re going to learn the lingo) and then once you’ve realized you’re sitting in the passenger seat, gracefully exit the vehicle and get in the driver’s seat…weirdo. Anyways, drive up to Dunluce castle, which should take you about 1 hour and 15 minutes if you’re driving from the capital city of Belfast (that is if you don’t get into a head-on collision since you keep veering into the other lane). Once you arrive in Dunluce (and after you’ve changed your trousers from all of those close calls) behold this, now ruined, medieval castle. The rule is: the more ruined the castle, the cheaper it is to tour.
As a side note, when you plan on gallivanting across a country where there are heaps of castles, pick one castle that you feel you must see the inside of and stick with that one. If you veer from this advice, you’ll soon find that once you’ve seen one castle (on the inside that is) you’ve seen them all. Now don’t get me wrong, I love castles. I usually try to incorporate at least one new fortress on each trip, but I choose to take the free route. Follow this easy three-step process when touring a castle: Step 1-Save £30 by not paying to go inside the castle. Step 2-Load up on pictures of the exterior. Step 3-Proceed to the nearest pub, and go “hog-wild” on a shepherd’s pie. All the while, flipping through countless (free) castle pictures on your camera and admiring that crisp £20 note that you just saved (cost of pie and pint factored).
Now, back to Dunluce. It is quite “ruined,” meaning it is quite “cheap” (£5, I think) and since it’s in this state of dilapidation, there’s not much to see on the inside (it’s so ruined, you can practically see the inside from the outside. Definitely not the castle you should pick to ‘splurge’ on.), but you can take some amazing exterior shots. I believe this castle even made it on the inside of a Led Zeppelin CD case. (I may have misheard though. So google it before bragging to all of your ‘LedHead’ friends.) Ok, spend 20-30 minutes tops here, and then head northeast!
The Giant’s Causeway
In only 4.5 miles you’ll reach my personal favorite. Even though I typically would never call a touristy area a necessity, the Giant’s Causeway is just that. This natural wonder is, well, naturally wonderful.
Seeing about 40,000 interlocking polygonal pillars, some towering almost 40 ft. in the air, feels like LEGOland the way nature intended it. (If you’re debating between visiting Northern Ireland and going to LEGOland, then sadly, we can’t be friends). As a budget traveler you should, of course, opt to walk instead of being bussed down to the causeway. Though I originally chose that option to save some dough, in hindsight I’d recommend this anytime over the bus. Though it is a bit of a trek, you’ll be rewarded with a plethora (all great article uses plethora, everybody knows that) of Kodak moments. If you’re into folklore, check out the visitor center/gift shop that has a video presentation about Finn MacCool and the fearsome Scottish giants (I have no idea if it’s worth watching. Plop me in a foreign country with a camera and the last thing you’ll find me doing is watching a movie, unless it’s a good movie…and there are snacks. Come to think of it, if there were snacks at that Finn MacCool video then you wouldn’t be seeing these pictures of Northern Ireland). Spend as long as you like here, this is an unforgettable sight to see.
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
Then after you have seen enough, venture another 7.5 miles to get to Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge near Ballintoy, Northern Ireland. Legend has it, bridges were built to the miniature island of Carrick-a-Rede for over 350 years. Originally used by salmon fisherman, but since the salmon have all but disappeared, it now serves only as a tourist attraction. There is a toll of £5.60, which is certainly worth it (reach into your pocket, you should still have that £20 note from NOT blowing it on castle admissions, and cheesy “my friend went to Ireland and all he got me was this lousy…” trinkets). If you’d rather not cross this bridge, I understand…pansy. At first I found it frightening, but then seeing my 70-something-year-old tour guide (No, I didn’t pay for a tour guide, he was my cousin, obviously) fly across the bridge with the grace and speed of a well fed Peregrine falcon, I decided to ‘give it a go.’ Words and pictures cannot convey the excitement of crossing this perilous overpass. It looms 98 ft (30m) above waters that share the same latitude as the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. As you intrepidly cut across this mess of ropes and planks, bombarded by winds in all directions. All the while swaying side to side, back and forth, and up and down, it’s no wonder why some are so petrified by the time they reach the other side that they have to be boated back to the mainland. I’m making this sound horrifying, aren’t I? It sounds terrifying, but when it comes right down to it, it’s a blast. Look on the bright side, according to records, no one has fallen off this bridge in all those centuries. Hey, maybe you could be the first!
So if you choose to make the voyage over to Ireland, be adventurous and give Northern Ireland a chance. Yeah, they may not have the accents we’d hope for, and sure it’ll cost you a little more to peruse then euro zone Ireland. But remember the next time you’re at a dinner party and that one guy starts out his story: “Oh, back when I was in Dublin, and yes I mean…,” (we know he was really just there for a two-hour layover after some business trip) all the dinner guests begin to slouch in their seats and prepare for the long ride ahead. That’s where you jump in and say: “Yeah, but did I ever tell you about the time that I scaled the perilous bridge of Carrick-a-Rede.” Instantly the heavens will turn ominous and roar with thunder. You’ll then be transformed into a bearded fisherman with one leg and a yellow rain slicker. Instantly endowed with an impromptu Irish accent. All the, once bored, dinner quests will be on the edge of their seats, glued to every word of your tantalizing Irish tale.
Editor’s Note: When telling your ‘tantalizing Irish tale,’ resist the urge to say ‘top of the mornin’ to ya’, which no one in Ireland actually says or even worse, ‘Argh!’ which gives the story a pirate feel ultimately leading to the death of your once interesting story, prompting the return of the business trip drivel. Trust me, you don’t want that.