Game of Thrones was the only thing to look forward to on a Mondays, but since it’s a long wait until the next episode will be aired in April 2015, you may need to know how to get your fix from the lands of ice and fire in the meantime.
Some of you might be reading George R.R. Martin’s books, others could be satisfying themselves by creating imaginative fan art, but for serious Game of Thrones fans you can easily catch a short flight to Northern Ireland and explore the locations where they filmed scenes at Wintefell The Stormlands and the Iron Islands.
If you’re a fan this already sounds like a great holiday destination, but if not and you couldn’t give two hoots about Games of Thrones, well read on because Northern Ireland’s causeway coast from Belfast to Londonderry boasts some of the most beautiful scenery ever seen.
To start the journey you can either join a GoT's tour or you can hire a car and then download a self-guided itinerary complete with map and tread your own path.
First stop is Belfast. It’s pretty easy to get around but if you’ve never been here before you should take a black cab tour with Ken Harper who will give you whistle-stop tour of the sites in an afternoon, including the Titantic Studios. HBO filmed the pilot of Game Of Thrones here in 2009 and have subsequently returned to shoot the other four seasons too.
However, the tour really starts is as you go further off-the-beaten track towards to coast.
If you’re looking for somewhere to stay that has the old-world atmosphere that’s fitting for such an escapade, then you could stay in Ballygally, near Cairncastle where many scenes from Winterfell were shot in the first season. Ballygally is a picture postcard village with an idyllic coastal location and the perfect based for a Game of Thrones-themed tour.
The village’s castle hotel is full of character with Harry Potter style turrets that you can sleep in. I didn’t know this when I checked in but I was delighted with my spectacular sea-view room in the more modern part of the hotel.
The castle’s original 1625 dining room was even used by the cast for costume changes while on location in the first season. Kit Harrington and co were not there this time, but there is a ghost that lives in the castle to liven things up a bit instead.
From Ballygally you can cycle along the coast to Glenarm, 7.7miles away, which takes about 45 minutes, even if, like myself, you're the slowest cyclist in the world. Here you will find Steensons jewellers, a family-run goldsmiths who have been creating leading designs in their workshop for 40 years. Since retirement Bill and Christina Steenson have passed their craft onto their daughter Brona and son-in-law Dan Spencer. It’s in this tiny workshop that all the jewellery from Game of Thrones is made.
The gold chain of hands worn by The Hand of the King is made of 35 pieces and took 15 days to make. Dan and Brona spends days on end hand-crafting all the symbols for each house, such as the golden rose of the Tyrell family, the dragon brooch worn by Daenerys Targaryen, the 'Mother of Dragons,' and the stag antlers of the Baratheons. King Joffrey’s crown of stag horns also took 15 days to complete, made out of brass at a cost of £4k.
Further along the Causeway coastal route between Balintoy and Ballycastle is Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. It’s been named one of the most dangerous bridges in the world and attracts thrill seekers and tourists. Crossing the bridge actually wasn’t that bad, if you don’t look down.
[SPOILER ALERT] Larrybane Bay and headland near Carrick-a-Rede was also used in Game of Thrones season two for Renly Baratheon's camp and Catelyn Stark agrees a treaty with Renly to avenge Ned Stark's death. It’s also where Brienne of Tarth beats Ser Loras to win her place in Renly's Kingsguard.
A little further along the coast is Ballintoy Harbour, situated in one of the most picturesque parts of the North Antrim Coast between the Giant's Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. It was used as the location of Pyke, one of the eight major Iron Islands and the famous Dunluce Castle is used as the seat of the House of Greyjoy.
From there you can travel to the Dark Hedges in Ballymoney, the haunting avenue of trees near Armoy otherwise known as The King’s Road. Nestled out of sight on Bregagh Road, this natural phenomena, formed by beech trees, was used for the scene of Arya Stark's escape from King's Landing on the orders of King Joffrey.
If all of that wasn’t enough, last but by no means least the tour takes you to the Giant’s Causeway. Whether you’re on the Game of Thrones tour or not, everyone should go and see this spectacular landscape with its dramatic cliffs at least once in their life. A UNESCO World Heritage site, if there’s one thing I needed, it was more time here. You could spend at least a day trekking and climbing the rocks.
Here’s a tip. Most will arrive on expensive tour buses or pay for the car park. However, a slightly cheaper way is to take public transport. The bus route 252 goes from Belfast’s Europa Bus Centre to Coleraine and then get from there to the Giant’s Causeway at £11.50 one-way.
Although I went for the Game of Thrones locations, the best thing about the trip was the unpoilt villages and beauty spots. There’s no Game of Throne theme park, costumed actors cashing in or hordes of tourists littering the land. The beauty of the landscape and wild coastal atmosphere speaks for itself. And thankfully the real-life settings of the lands of ice and fire are a lot more peaceful than the TV show.
Fly to Belfast with Aer Lingus from £56pp.
BallyGally Castle Hotel from £80 for a single room and from £100 for a double
To get to Ballygally Castle Hotel fly into Belfast then take a bus or train to Larne and a local bus from there. Or it’s a 30 minute taxi ride from the airport.
Europa Hotel in Belfast City Centre from £80 for a single room and from £100 for a double
Game of Thrones locations tour information from Visit Belfast.
For more information about events, accomodation and things to do in Ireland, go to www.ireland.com