Family fun in Northern Ireland

by Janet.McMeekin

With rugged cliffs and picturesque coves, tumbling waterfalls and historic castles, Northern Ireland is tailor-made for the kind of idyllic family holiday that childhood memories are made of

It’s funny how times change. As a little girl I used to adore our family’s annual summer pilgrimage to Northern Ireland’s spectacular Antrim Coast, where many a carefree day was spent happily playing on the golden sands of beautiful beaches, going for a donkey ride or accompanying my siblings on a fascinating rockpool adventure.
At that stage in my life, I could never have imagined that 30 years later I would have married an Englishman, brought two children up in Oxfordshire and be winging my way back to the green, green grass of home to recreate those halcyon days with my own family. Naturally, I’d visited Northern Ireland many times since relocating to England but on this occasion we decided this would be our main family holiday of the year and we’d live it up by becoming true tourists for a week.
And live it up we did. After a hassle-free flight with Flybe from Gatwick to the George Best Belfast City Airport, we picked up our practical Seat Leon hire car, courtesy of Hertz, and headed towards my hometown of Lisburn to visit relatives for a few nights, before driving up the spectacular Antrim Coast.
Blue skies and bright sunshine enticed us to head to the north of the Province via the absolutely stunning Causeway Coastal Route – a must for any tourist, particularly if the weather is fine. This dramatic route, sprinkled with historic castles, churches and ruined forts, is so breathtaking I could hardly keep my eyes on the road. As we passed rugged cliffs and picturesque coves, we took a left turn and meandered towards the gorgeous Glens of Antrim with their views looking out towards the Scottish Isles.
Our chosen picnic lunch destination, Glenariff Forest Park, was new territory for the entire family and turned out to be a true gem. Indeed, the two-mile Waterfall Trail proved to be one of the most magical family walks I’ve ever encountered. Timber walkways wind through the glen, leading you down to a moist microclimate where fast-flowing waterfalls hurtle over steep-sided rocky gorges before tumbling into foaming creamy pools. I couldn’t help but feel that the swirling pools bore a striking resemblance to that world-famous Irish beer, Guinness – and, no I hadn’t even touched a drop!
Several hours later we reluctantly left this tranquil paradise to make our way towards Bushmills (home to the famed Irish whiskey distillery) and coastal bolthole for the next three days. As it started pouring, we popped our coats on and drove into Portrush for a quick bite to eat at the contemporary 55° North restaurant, with its large windows overlooking magnificent views of the coastline and beaches I used to frequent.
No trip to this seaside resort would be complete without a visit to the bright and bold Barry’s Amusements. Barry’s has been operating for more than 70 years and, thankfully, the smells, sounds and many of the rides are just the same as when I was a youngster. Truth is, I enjoyed the whole experience even more as a mother, hearing the squeals of delight as our pair of little daredevils rode the dodgems and cuddled protectively into each other on the ghost train.
As the following day was fine, we seized the opportunity to visit the Giant’s Causeway – a World Heritage site, National Nature Reserve and must for any tourist visiting the region. For centuries, the awesome sight of 38,000 hexagonal-shaped columns of basalt packed closely together as if to form ‘stepping stones’ out to sea towards Scotland has astounded visitors.
Although many myths about giants such as the legendary Irish Finn MacCool surround the creation of this world-famous spectacle, geologists believe that the columns were formed more than 60 million years ago by the cooling and shrinking of molten lava from a vast volcanic eruption that formed the Antrim plateau. Personally, I was amazed and delighted not only to see huge numbers of tourists visiting the Causeway, but also to hear so many different accents from as far away as New Zealand, Australia, Japan and America.  
It was the same tourist story at the National Trust-owned Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, where a fabulous coastal walk leads visitors to the rather terrifying salmon fishermen’s rope bridge spanning an 80-foot chasm with water swirling scarily below. We all took our courage in our hands and crossed successfully to the tiny Carrick Island to bask in the sunshine and admire the staggering views.
Our day was rounded off in style when we were greeted by open peat fires and gaslights at the delightful Bushmills Inn. The food was delicious, offering a blend of tempting classical and new Irish cuisine, while the service was extremely hospitable.
After a relaxing few hours spent crabbing at Portballintrae and exploring the coastline further, we turned the key on our Bushmills holiday home and returned to Lisburn to prepare for the annual Oyster Festival in Hillsborough, where the Queen resides when she visits Northern Ireland.
The next day it was off and out for another memorable family trip, including a sumptuous lunch at the quaint Old Inn in pretty Crawfordsburn, just a stone’s throw from the sea at Belfast Lough. The atmosphere at this olde worlde inn – one of Ireland’s oldest hostelries, with records dating back to 1614 – set the tone for the final attraction on our whirlwind holiday itinerary, this time in the shape of The Ulster Folk & Transport Museum.
The museum takes you on a journey back into Ireland’s past, where rural schools, a forge and whole terraces of 19th-century houses have been saved from the bulldozer’s path and moved to a delightful setting surrounded by undulating hills with glimpses of the sea.
The next day, as we flew back to England over the beautiful patchwork of criss-crossed green and golden fields, the youngsters looked rather crestfallen. In fact my daughter’s telling comment was: “Mummy, I think we should have stayed for three weeks, not one.” I totally agreed with her sentiments and can’t wait to book up for more adventures – after all, who needs to go abroad when you’ve all of Ireland right on the doorstep?