We wrote about Ireland with kids on St. Patrick’s Day. Many people don’t think about Northern Ireland as a wonderful family vacation venue, although after reading Dana’s post, I agree … why not? Sounds amazing.
Trips, should I say adventures, have a knack for just happening in my family.
We were trying to plan a trip to the Loire Valley for a family wedding. I’d done my homework; sketched out a rough itinerary in my notebook and lined up hotel reservations. I had everything but plane tickets. Flights into Paris were off the charts expensive. I had been watching, waiting and hoping for a serious airfare war.
What I got was a fabulous trip to Northern Ireland and France.
OK, bear with me. It will all make sense in a minute. Flights to Paris didn’t go on sale, but flights to Ireland dropped at the speed of light. So my family of four touched down in the land of green and I used the “savings” to add a four day tour of Northern Ireland onto the trip. Simple and cheap commuter flights took us across the bay to France for the French part of the trip.
Why Northern Ireland? Why not? On my last trip to Ireland, going north wasn’t an option. Though my girls were disappointed they wouldn’t get to kiss the Blarney Stone, (a reason to go again, I assured them) everyone was game for the adventure.
This sleepy, picturesque seaside village was a lucky find. We were headed to Belfast and needed to stretch our legs. The sun had just come out when we pulled into town. We popped into the local tourist office for a map and then just started to wander. We hunted for sea glass, and walked along the harbor, soaking in the sun and the views of the largest marina in Northern Ireland. But it was the swans that won my girls’ hearts.
Sitting right on the water’s edge is the Pickie Family Fun Park complete with a lake loaded with swan boats. A morning of rain had convinced the crowds to go elsewhere, so my girls had the high seas to themselves. They pedaled, splashed and squealed. My husband and I had the best (dry) seat in town … a bench with a view of our crazy kids and the beautiful marina. It was about an hour before the girls hit dry land, only to take off running for the amazing playground just across the way. We didn’t even have to switch benches, though I will admit trying out some of the playground toys!
Antrim Coast, aka Sweaters on Legs Drive
The coast of Northern Ireland is stunning. You’ll love it, and so will the kids. Don’t rush the drive and don’t be afraid to stop. You’ll be rewarded with fabulous beaches, some of the best playgrounds my kids have ever played on, and fabulously funny sheep. Affectionately known as ”sweaters on legs” by my girls, you can’t help but laugh at them. Running looks more like prancing. And the wooley critters have an incredible knack for winding up right in front of your car, even when they’re trying to run away. Drive slow, forget about trying to pass, and enjoy the coast.
High Thrills at the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
Originally built by fisherman to get access to the best places to catch migrating salmon, this bouncy rope bridge is now open to thousands of visitors just looking to catch the perfect view of the Antrim Coast. The high thrill is worth the easy and scenic 20-minute one-mile walk from the parking lot. The narrow, 90 foot bridge stretches 65 feet, connecting the mainland to a tiny island. (If you’re not fond of heights, it might not be your cup of tea, but as a parent I had no safety concerns. The bridge is very secure.)
Once on the other side, you’ll be rewarded with views that never end. Seabirds abound and there’s lots of lush green grass to just lie in.
Only so many folks can be on the bridge at a time, so there’s the equivalent of a park ranger on duty to help keep folks flowing smoothly back and forth. That said, the gentleman on duty when we visited was more than happy to stop traffic to snap family photos.
Think of it as a playground made by a volcano a long, long time ago. The Giant’s Causeway is the most popular tourist attraction in Northern Ireland. According to legend, it was built by Irish warrior and giant Finn McCool so he could walk to Scotland to fight an enemy giant. According to geologists, it was formed during a volcanic eruption 60 million years ago. Hot lava cooled fast, leaving behind thousands of basalt columns. Pick the version that works best for you. But know, if you’re the type who likes to buy books when you’re traveling with your kids, you’ll find plenty of great stuff to choose from on good, old Finn McCool.
So what’s interesting about basalt columns? They just happen to be on a beautiful stretch of beach and they offer an endless number of things for your kids (and you) to climb on. Things can get wet and slippery, but your kids will love climbing their way up and down the coastline. My girls were especially fond of the Giant’s Boot.
You can’t go to Northern Ireland without spending at least a day in Belfast. This city has a great vibe. It’s claim to fame … it’s where the Titanic was built, and if peace prevails, I expect Belfast will someday be a major player in Ireland’s tourism industry.
Take the kids to the top of the dome at Victoria Square for a cool 360 degree view of the city. Or go for a spin on the Wheel of Belfast. Each ride lasts about 12 minutes and provides great city views.
If you haven’t done it already, eat fish & chips. Remember, you are technically in the United Kingdom. Ask the locals where they go and you won’t be disappointed. We discovered a great place in Belfast called Bishop’s, and I’ll admit we ate there more than once. OK … maybe more than twice. But we burned it all off crossing bridges, climbing rocks and chasing sheep.
Ashford Castle falconry with kids