Magical & memorable!
My trip to Northern Ireland's Belfast in June this year, was absolutely thrilling not only because I was visiting this picturesque place for the third time, but because this time 'round I was doing the iconic 'Game of Thrones' trail across Northern Ireland.
HBO's 'Game of Thrones', if you recall, was and still is one of the most iconic TV shows in the world, which has not only garnered the highest TRPs but has gathered fans across the world in an almost cult-like a revolution.
Belfast pre-Game of Thrones was a small quaint little place ravaged by internal wars and woes caused by the IRA. However, after 'Game of Thrones' used many of the scenic places in Belfast as location, everything changed rather magically for this beautiful place. Today, the economy has boomed wonderfully well as the Northern Ireland Tourism Board has rather cleverly weaved the 'Game of Thrones' mania into their tourism programme.
Luxe & Cosy
So here I am one fine balmy morning making my way to the Europa Hotel, one of Belfast's biggest and luxe hotels which also incidentally shares the dubious honour of being one of the most bombed hotels in Europe (it has been bombed 33 times by the IRA).
But this magnificent hotel does not show any ravages of the past. Nestled right in the midst of the well-planned Belfast city, it is crisscrossed by malls, amazing bars, modern restaurants like St James and even an opera house. I find it a delight what with its richly carpeted lobbies, spacious rooms, wonderful dining restaurants and amazing service. By the way, former US President Bill Clinton has been hosted here twice, and so was I! Quite a feat, right?
Let the adventure begin
And as I step out of the revolving doors of the luxurious hotel, I can feel my excitement bubbling over… yay, my 'Game of Thrones' adventure is ready to kick off. It is rather cold in Belfast (about 12 degrees C) and as I gingerly clasp my warm jacket together against the billowing winds, my guide Billy (a quick-talking Irish man) whisks me off on a Coastal Causeway road trip.
My first stop is the Dark Hedges, a stunning landscape of two beautiful rows of beech trees with sprawling roots planted on both sides of the road making it look more like a shadowy tunnel - this was made famous in the very first episode in the 'Game of Thrones where Arya Stark escaped from King's Landing dressed up as a boy.
Though it's pretty early in the morning, I meet a lot of tourists dressed up in billowing purple and maroon cloaks, wielding daggers and swords looking as if they had just walked out of an episode of the 'Game of Thrones'. A mandatory selfie with the costume flaunting tourists made me stop for a while to admire the striking landscape. However, since I had a chock-o-block schedule, I realise I can't really hang around here to soak in the ambience, I had many miles to go and so much to see. So off I go with the intrepid Billy who drives me to the Ballygally Castle on the Causeway Coast in County Antrim – this is the proud home of the 'Game of Thrones', 'Door of Thrones No 9'.
Door 9 depicts the famous battle between the House Stark and House Bolton in the penultimate episode of Season 6. Carved on this beautiful door, I examine admiringly the crests of House Bolton and House Stark, Ramsey Bolton's hungry dogs and Winterfell Castle. A sight to behold, this magnificent door is now the entrance to a beautiful Garden Restaurant and sits amongst other Game of Thrones-inspired memorabilia.
From there, I am herded quickly to the Foot of Cairncastle – The Neck & North of Winterfell. The windswept plateau located above a Bronze Age fort and settlement provided the wild landscape where Ned Stark was beheaded at the Night's Watch desert in Season 1 episode 1.
Just a whistling distance is a picturesque harbour situated in the small coastal village of Carnlough. This is where when Arya surfaced from the water after being attacked by the Waif and crawled up the harbour steps onto the streets of Braavos. Billy insists I pose on the slippery steps that lead into the harbour – I do so rather gingerly hoping… I don't do an Arya Stark and get dumped in the waters.
But all's well…and after a quick lunch at a picturesque pub, I listen enchantingly to the 'Game of Thrones anecdotes my guide Billy who is now totally in character rattles off while ferrying me off to visit the Cushendun Caves and Mary McBride's pub where you can see another of the famous Game of Thrones doors.
The Cushendun caves were formed over 400 million years ago and are easily accessible along the coast from the quaint village of Cushendun. They were used in Season 2 Episode 4: Garden of Bones when Melisandre gave birth to the shadow creature, which goes one to kill Renly Baratheon.
Dotted along the famous Causeway Coast and Glens route right up to the Giant's Causeway is Murlough Bay, one of the most beautiful driving roads. With views of Rathlin Island as well as the Mull of Kintyre and the Scottish Islands, Murlough Bay was used for these scenes in Season 5 Episode 6: Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.
Along one of Europe's most beautiful driving roads are the wild and windswept cliffs above Murlough Bay– Slavers Bay. It's here that brothers Stannis and Renly met and where Tyrion and Jorah were captured by slavers in a different episode. From there I head to
Fair Head or Benmore, a rocky headland in the north-east of County Antrim. Known as Northern Ireland's tallest cliff face, the impressive Fair Head rises 600 feet above sea level and lies about 3 miles from the town of Ballycastle, …and the smart 'Game of Thrones' crew used this as location too, hence making it another iconic stop.
Another one being, Larrybane bay on the North Antrim Coast, protected by Sheep Island and a shallow reef, this too is one of the most scenic locations along the Causeway Coast. Beneath the limestone cliffs of Larrybane is an unusual sea cave which has some fine pillars, stalactites and stalagmites. From the cliffs above Larrybane, the magnificent coastline can be viewed including Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. It's magnificent and I hold my breath in awe at the amazing natural beauty around me.
But Billy, the Irish man on the go refuses to let me stop for a breather. He takes me back into Belfast city to check out the 'Game of Thrones: The Touring Exhibition', which gives me an opportunity to step inside Westeros and the lands beyond. Filled with breath-taking images and enthralling artefacts, this exhibition gets me plumb into the midst of the Seven Kingdoms for an up-close and personal look at authentic props, costumes and set decorations from the show. From there I check out the famous 'Game of Thrones' tapestry where every episode is weaved in at the Ulster Museum. Very nice!
Being Sansa Stark
The next day is a little hurried as I head 40 minutes out of Belfast for the Winterfell tours helmed by the charming Will. It's super cold but the drive is scenically stunning too. And though I don't really know what to expect for my Winterfell tours, the experience is absolutely amazing. From dressing up like Sansa, trying out archery, to checking out location hotspots like the sprawling demesne of Old Caste Ward including Winterfell Castles, the tower window Bran Stark fell from to the courtyard where many important happenings occurred including the savage Red wedding was held. This is definitely highly recommended.
…Indeed, touring on the 'Game of Thrones' tour across Northern Ireland and Belfast is an experience of a lifetime. If you are a 'Game of Thrones' fan or even if you are not…. Belfast is a must-visit simply because of its scenic natural beauty, amazing people and delicious food. So, go ahead, lace up your travelling boots… and head off to Northern Ireland.