Travel: Fire and ice in Bushmills and Fair Head – and not just for GOT fans
With Co Antrim's dictinctive and dramatic Fair Head now on the Games of Thrones tourist trail, Joanne Sweeney was among a small group of hardy souls who braved the north's tallest cliffs on a wintery day in search of GOT lore, a warm bed and a hearty meal
IT'S one of the most stunning vistas in HBO's Games Of Thrones – when the Mother of Dragons Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) meets Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) at Dragonstone cliffs as they plan how to defeat the White Walkers in series 7.
To the uninitiated, White Walkers are a deadly, frozen zombie army that aim to kill all that stand in their way. After a walk up Fair Head, one of the locations for Dragonstone, on a Baltic Sunday morning during the recent Beast of the East cold snap, my daughter and I felt like White Walkers as we trekked over the 600ft north Antrim cliffs.
Fair Head – or Benmore, from the Irish an Bhinn Mhór, meaning 'the big cliff' – is one of the dramatic new GOT locations in Co Antrim and right smack on the Causeway Coast which, along with Belfast, is the Lonely Plant's 'best region to visit' in 2018.
Kept under wraps until Season 7 aired last year, the distinctive promontory is now firmly on the tourist trail, whether you are a Game of Thrones fan or not. No doubt overlooked by some travellers due to its proximately to world heritage site the Giant's Causeway, it gives commanding views of one of our most northerly points.
Fittingly, given that GOT is a TV adaptation of the fantasy novels A Song Of Fire And Ice by George RR Martin, much of Fair Head's stunning landscape was created by ‘fire’ from volcanic activity, then later sculpted by ‘ice’, from the ice ages, to leave its mark over time.
Our 'fire' was supplied the night before by the unobtrusive but nevertheless brilliant hospitality of the Bushmills Inn, close to the famous Bushmills whiskey distillery.
It had been 25 years since I last stayed at the 1600s coaching inn and it's been extended several times in the interim. It still has the feel and the decor of an country inn and hostelry, with the service of a top hotel and rooms to match; furry robe and slippers and Elemis toiletries came as standard in our garden room suite.
Proper coffee-making machine, great towels and a claw-foot iron bath with oodles of hot water can really help thaw a woman out.
Dinner started with succulent pan-seared Greencastle scallops with cider-soaked golden raisins, cauliflower purée, Clonakilty black pudding crumble, red wine syrup, followed by two delicious pork dishes, assiette of pork and glazed pork belly with more Clonakilty, which is never a bad thing.
A trad music session in the Gas Bar with a roaring fire continued to warm up our cockles and I discovered that Bushmills with the cute Shamrock shortbread biscuits the hotel supplies was the perfect nightcap ahead of our Fair Head adventure the next day.
After a fortifying breakfast, we met our guide Flip, a 6ft 8in gentle giant who runs – wait for it – Giant Tours Ireland, in Ballycastle – a man who has more of a passing interest in the world's most watched TV show.
Flip worked as a stand-in for Hodor (played by Belfast actor Kristian Nairn) in an episode called 'The Door' and as Gregor 'The Mountain' Clegane in ‘Oathbreaker‘ and ‘The Winds of Winter', in Season 6. But he is also a local who genuinely loves showing people around the Causeway Coast and Glens and pointing out facts and stories that could never be gleaned in an unaccompanied tour.
His service aim is luxury and comfort as he gives bespoke private tours in his eight-seater carrier, providing hot tea/coffee and food as required.
Local farmer Sean McBride kindly allows walkers on to his land to access the top of Fair Head – sorry, no dogs – for those who want to scale the cliff face (an endeavour only to be undertaken by experienced and well-equipped rock climbers), birdwatch or enjoy the view. The path is also dotted with very handy interest-point signage to explain the show's locations.
On a clear day you can see Rathlin Island and, across the North Channel, the Mull of Kintyre in this place where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Irish Sea. It's simply naturally stunning and you can see why it was chosen as a dramatic backdrop. Loch Dhu, which sits near the top, would have been perfect for the White Walkers as it was frozen around its edges on the day we visited.
We were taken then to Murlough Bay to see the GOT Slavers Bay location, a Season 7 spot where Ser Davos was rescued following the Battle of the Blackwater and Tyrion and Jorah come ashore only to be accosted by slavers.
A stone's throw away is a cottage where west Belfast SDLP MP Gerry Fitt used to spend his summers away from the hassle of his everyday life and I'm told that after certain tides, Murlough provides the most beautiful secluded beach to enjoy.
As we bade farewell to Flip, more fire was supplied by O'Connor's Bar and Restaurant in Ann Street, Ballycastle, for a late Sunday lunch. Bowls of steaming and delicious seafood chowder with bread and a crisp white wine by the open fire in this lovely Irish bar started this hearty bar meal.
Perhaps the Lonely Planet people know a thing or two that we don't about what's so pleasurable and breathtaking right on our doorstep.
:: Prices for the Bushmills Inn Garden Room Suite (sleeps 2) are from £250 for bed and breakfast for a Saturday night stay – bushmillsinn.com
:: Private tours with Giant Tours Ireland start from £150 (maximum eight people) – gianttoursireland.com
:: Food is served daily from 11.30am-9pm at O’Connor’s Bar, Ballycastle – oconnorsbar.ie
:: For further information on travel and accommodation in Northern Ireland see discovernorthernireland.com