Life

Travel: Giant's Causeway not the world's only basalt columns but probably the best

Although it hasn't changed much in millions of years, the Giant's Causeway has experienced a surge in popularity recently. Unimpressed on her first visit, Joanne Sweeney was persuaded to return to discover what all the fuss is about

Visitors at the Giant's Causeway in Co Antrim
Joanne Sweeney

I’M AFRAID to admit this… but I was underwhelmed the first time I saw the Giant’s Causeway.

I know it’s our major tourist attraction and the scene for the beautiful quaint Irish folklore story of a feud between Ulster giant Fionn Mac Cumhaill and Scottish giant Benandonner – but surely stones are just stones at the end of the day?

I visited the north’s only Unesco World Heritage Site with a boyfriend on a weekend break away to Bushmills and a trip to the Causeway was a must-do. It rained, of course. It was cold, of course. And it was grey. After a clamber over the famous hexagonal basalt stones and a walk round as far as the Organ, that was the Causeway done for me.

However, a chance to go back and learn more about the Causeway and stay a night in the Causeway Hotel, the only National Trust-run hotel in Northern Ireland, has reacquainted me with the importance and the allure of the site.

Fast-forward some 30 years since my first trip and I’ve got a new appreciation for the Causeway which welcomed more than one million visitors from around the world last year.

With a guided walk from Lucy, one of the National Trust’s welcoming guides, I learnt about the history of the Causeway as well as its ecological importance and the conservation work that goes on behind the scenes that visitors are mostly unaware of.

The Causeway Hotel, the only hotel in Northern Ireland run by the National Trust

I discovered the 40,000 unique basalt rocks at the Causeway are not that unique. While our Co Antrim site tops the world list of where the basalt columns can be found, the stones can be seen in places from California to Japan, Russia, Iceland and of course, Fingal’s Cave in the Isle of Staffa off Scotland.

However, the Cape Stolbchaty stones in Russia is the only other Unesco site.

The stones and columns are the wonderful natural legacy of volcanic activity from around 60 million years ago when somehow the cooling of molten rock emerged from the seabed and hardened into these geometric shapes.

The spectacular north Antrim coast

While most of the stones in the Causeway are six-sided, they come in four and five sides too and there’s even one seven-sided stone.

What marks the Causeway out, of course, is the folklore which has arisen over the centuries. From the stories about the Camel, to perhaps the bay's most famous feature, the Giant's Boot, the tales are well told to visitors by the guides or via audio guides in 11 languages.

Apparently, the boot was lost by Fionn as he fled from the wrath of Benandonner, and is reputed to be a size 93.5.

Another popular feature is the Wishing Chair, a natural throne formed from a perfectly arranged set of columns. However, the Causeway is much more than the stones as visitors have 10 miles of walks along the Co Antrim coastline to enjoy as part of their visit.

The £21 million Visitor Centre, opened in 2012, is world-class and is run as sleekly for home and international visitors as the modernity of its exterior and interior suggests.

The interpretative centre reveals even more about the ecology of the Causeway and the craft shop has quality items of interest and design. With 80 per cent being made in the north, the stock is a world away from the usual bits and pieces you see in most tourist venues.

The Giant's Causeway – not the only basalt columns in the world but, or so we like to think, the best

An overnight at the Causeway Hotel extends the visit for guests as many rooms have glorious views of the sea or hills. It has something of a faded charm that looks slightly incongruous with the snazzy design of the Visitor Centre, but it is comfortable and the staff are very welcoming.

The menu choice is more country restaurant than a cosmopolitan offering to appeal to international visitors, but everyone looked happy with the fare and a chance to sit outside on a warm day and watch the world go by.

Joanne Sweeney stayed at the Causeway Hotel close to the world-famous visitor attraction. Video from Anna Crockard 

Factfile

:: Giant’s Causeway tickets – adults £11.50, children £5.75 and the family price is £28.75. Discounts can be obtained for online ticket purchase and for large groups over 15 people.

:: For one night bed and breakfast staying in the Double Seaview room in the Causeway Hotel, Bushmills, prices start from £159 (based on two people sharing).

The Causeway is run by the National Trust. For more details on National Trust-run hotels in the UK visit nationaltrust.org.uk/holidays/hotels

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