No crowds and a warm welcome – the unexpected allure of a seaside holiday in Northern Ireland

Portrush, Northern Ireland
Portrush, Northern Ireland Credit: Getty

“We had English friends over to stay a little while ago”, said Sharon, one of the owners of Shola’s Coach House, a beautiful B&B just outside the centre of Portrush. “We warned them things get busy here on the beaches. Come evening, they turned to us and said, ‘so, when does it get busy?’ They didn’t realise this is busy for us.” 

Myself and my partner, Alex, were midway through a tour of Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast, and midway through a welcome drink in the property’s plush living room. Rather than the hesitant formality of being presented a fruit cocktail or glass of champagne abroad, chat over hot tea and whisky-infused fruit cakes at Shola’s quickly felt more like a catch up with an old friend. 

Sharing where we’d been – “Oh, The French Rooms in Bushmills, yes the owner there is lovely” – and where we were going, Sharon gave us recommendations for places to eat and what to see. 

In the same way that Londoners frequently profess to having never stepped foot on the London Eye, it’s to my shame that I’ve never done a proper tour of the north coast, despite having grown up between Britain and Northern Ireland. And it is a shame – Antrim is Northern Ireland’s most visited county, and holds the majority of the region’s most recognisable sights, including the Giant’s Causeway and a glut of Game of Thrones sights. 

With a pandemic on, and our traditional family holiday to Donegal cancelled, it seemed no better time to correct this oversight – a domestic holiday merged with a post-lockdown family catch up. 

Balleygally, Northern Ireland Credit: getty

After spending the weekend with family close to Belfast, we made our way to Ballygally, a seaside town in the first section of the Causeway Coastal Route. Our former-17th-century-castle-turned hotel, Ballygally Castle Hotel, overlooked a prime example of what has always, to me, made Irish beaches so special. Smooth sands stretched towards the horizon, seeming to melt into the sky. Drizzle brought out the palette of greys the island does so well; periwinkle and silver skies, gunmetal green hills, and sand in shades of cream and smoke. What Ireland’s coast lacks in heat, it makes up for drama.

We wandered the near-deserted beach at dusk, then retired to our coast-facing room, where the horizon of the sea came so far up the window, it felt as if we were inside a ship, rather than on dry land. Morning brought with it the first leg of our journey, on towards Portrush, our home for the next two nights. 

The Causeway Coast is a road that cleaves largely to Northern Ireland’s north coast and is some drive. Hulking landscapes to your left contrast with the open sea to your right, and bends in the road nearly always give way to panormas of towns backed by towering mounds of patchwork green. 

We stopped in Glenarm to see the town’s castle – the ancestral home of the Earls of Antrim – and on the side of the road near Carnlough to pick up bags of dulse – a type of Northern Irish seaweed – from a tiny shop, and marvel at some of the scenery. 

If you’re doing the drive, make the time to follow the coastline, rather than do any shorter routes. In Cushendall, I insisted Alex turn the car back after Coastal Route signs pointed us away from the sea. His long-suffering looks turned to awe as we drove through the Torr Head Scenic Route. 

Torr Head, Northern Ireland Credit: getty

A rolling road that looks over Scotland’s Mull of Kintyre, the test of Alex’s new driving skills and the sun-drenched views had us feeling full of adrenaline as we made our way towards the town of Bushmills. Whiskey aficionados will know the name – the popular Northern Irish whiskey of the same name has its distillery within the town.

While the distillery was closed to visitors due to Covid, The French Rooms, a prettily-outfitted restaurant serving French dishes; a nod to the region’s history with French Huguenots settlers, who were heavily involved in the Ulster linen industry. 

A long strip of tarte flambée, a symphonic blend of salty lardons, smooth creme fraiche and tangy onions, was accompanied by a platter of more local flavours. Fresh bread was dipped in Broighter rapeseed oil from Limavady, smeared in Fermanagh cheese or topped with Causeway cured meats. Thankfully, Portrush, and Shola’s Coach House, wasn’t too far to roll ourselves to afterwards.

Portrush, for those not in the know, is akin to Northern Ireland’s Blackpool or Brighton. It’s buzzy, full of good restaurants, good nightlife and stylish summering young people. To the Northern Irish, it’s busy, especially given our arrival on a Monday bank holiday and the last day of the UK’s Eat Out To Help Out scheme.

To those used to the English coastline however, it’s blissfully empty. The images of the crowds of Cornwall and Bournemouth were a far cry from Portrush’ White Rocks beach, which we meandered down at sunset in jeans and t-shirts, with metres of free space to either side of us. 

Should you want even fewer people, however, just head to the neighbouring resort town of Portstewart. Portrush’s calmer older sister, its two-mile beach is speckled with young families and dapper older couples. Put simply: my glamorous cousin likes Portrush, while my eternally elegant grandmother prefers quieter Portstewart.

The next few days saw us drive to a host of local sights. The Giant’s Causeway, an area of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns said to have been formed by legendary giant, Finn McCool; the Dark Hedges, an avenue of twisted beech trees seen in Game of Thrones; Dunluce Castle, a ruined medieval structure perched atop wind-lashed cliffs. All were near empty, and ours to explore in peace.

Interspersed were long barefoot walks down soft sandy beaches, and drinking the local beer left for guests in Shola in our roll tub bathtub. In short, utter bliss. 

Our final home cooked breakfast at Shola – hot smoked salmon and scrambled egg served with the sound of rain outside and a nip of whiskey – set us up for the hour’s drive onto the Causeway Coastal Route’s end: Derry. 

Also known as Londonderry, this city is bisected by the River Foyle, and was a place of turmoil during the Troubles. Now at peace, the city is an engaging place for visitors, and has come to light as such in recent years thanks to both the television show, Derry Girls, and its stint as UK City of Culture in 2013. 

Derry Peace Bridge Credit: getty

The Everglades, a spacious hotel under Northern Ireland’s Hastings Group, was our base for the city, and a short drive from the Museum of Free Derry. Opened in 2007, the museum tells the story of what happened in the city during the period of 1968 and 1972. Closed on the day we planned to visit, the museum manager opened up for us to visit: the walk through was a quiet, emotional, deeply necessary experience for any visitor to Derry. 

We leavened the after-effects of our visit with pints in Peadar O'Donnells, a traditional Irish pub, and bourbon and cardamom cocktails in Blackbird bar for £6 a pop, before walking over the Derry Peace Bridge to Walled City Brewery. 

This fairylight bedecked ‘brewpub’ is a showcase of modern Derry. Their own craft beers are served in flights or by the pint, while gin and tonics are made with Earhart, Derry’s first gin. Why Earhart? The pilot landed in a field near Derry in 1932, after becoming the first woman to fly solo, non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean. We worked our way through as many tasters of the former as we could manage, from highly sessionable Indian pale ale to saline oyster stout, as well as Porn Star martinis on tap and tongue-in-cheek ‘Rose of Strawlee’ and ‘Strong Cuppa Tae’ cocktails. 

Thankfully for our dignity, food was also on hand in the form of chimichurri-drizzled ribeye, salsa verde-slathered king prawns and an affogato of creamy Morelli’s (an NI ice cream stalwart) topped with Frangelico and espresso. If we rolled out of The French Rooms, then we stumbled out of the Walled City. 

We made our way back towards Belfast, the start of the route, hungover but elated. “It’s colder, but it’s more beautiful, it’s further away but it’s quieter, and the only w****rs over from London are us! I’ll take it over Cornwall any day,” said Alex as we pulled away. I couldn’t help but agree.

Where to stay

Grand Central (grandcentralhotelbelfast.com) in Belfast starts from £135 a night for a double, including breakfast.

Ballygally Castle (hastingshotels.com/ballygally-castle) in Ballygally starts from £90 a night for a double, including breakfast.

Shola Coach House (sholabandb.com) in Portrush starts from £110 a night for double, including breakfast.

Everglades Hotel (hastingshotels.com/everglades-hotel) in Derry starts from £80 a night, including breakfast.