As we walk down the King’s Road, the intertwining trees overhead provide shelter from the sun. Winter may be coming, but today the sun is shining. This place might look just like Game of Thrones’ Westeros, but we’re actually just an hour outside of Belfast.
Indeed, Northern Ireland is one of the major filming locations for HBO’s epic drama. Its castles, mountains and beaches are a fitting match for the awe-inspiring world that George RR Martin paints in his books. But it’s not just Game of Thrones making the most of the emerald isle’s beauty. Films such as 2014’s Dracula Untold, and countless TV series, have been filmed here. Across the border in the Republic of Ireland, there’s a veritable roll of honour of big budget titles, from Harry Potter to Ryan’s Daughter, that use its lands as a backdrop.
My journey across the island was to take me from Belfast, in the north, to the far western shores and along the Wild Atlantic Way before ending in Dublin, taking in some of the stunning scenery, hospitality and famous film locations along the way. The Wild Atlantic Way is a 2,500km coastal road that runs down the west coast of Ireland, from Donegal in the north to Cork in the south. The route takes you through villages and towns, revealing stunning scenery.
Game of Thrones’ King’s Road is known locally as the Dark Hedges. This small farmer’s road in Stranocum, County Antrim is flanked on both sides by large beech trees, which have grown together and intertwined to form a natural tunnel. Driving on north, we reach the coast and the small fishing village of Ballintoy, which doubles as Pike’s Lordsport Harbour on the Iron Islands, where Theon returns to ask his father to support the Stark’s war on the Lannisters. The harbour is at the end of a small windy road and not only is it a beautiful setting, it also has views of the vertiginous Carrick rope bridge to the east.
Travelling west along the coast, we head towards Portstewart Strand. The Strand is just across the river from the town, and is one of Northern Ireland’s finest beaches – its wide golden sands stretching for miles. This was used as the coast of Dorne in Game of Thrones, and with a view of Mussenden Temple on the cliffs above, it is just as otherworldly.
We continue through County Derry and over the border into County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland. Little changes as you cross the border – there are no checkpoints or walls – just the first signs of the Wild Atlantic Way.
The signposts guide you along the coastal road, around the very top of the country, to Malin Head and the many loughs, bay and glens that make up the desolate but aweinspiring coast of Donegal. We take a more direct route southwest, towards Donegal Town where we stop for the night.
The next morning, we head west to a lesser-known cliff face. At over 600 metres tall, Slieve League is considerably higher than the popular destination of the Cliffs of Moher and arguably more impressive.
After a brief stop in the town of Westport for some lunch, we head to one of Ireland’s most religious destinations. The mountain of Croagh Patrick stands at 764 metres and is believed to be where Saint Patrick fasted for 40 days in 441AD. Just a handful of walkers pass us on their way to the climb, which takes around three-and-a-half hours to complete and offers stunning views over Clew Bay.
Further down the coast in Doolin you can catch a ferry out to the Aran islands, which also offers some of the best views of the cliffs of Moher. The cliffs rise nearly 250 metres, providing a dramatic backdrop and a great spot to see some of the bird life, including puffins. The alternative is a visit to the cliffs themselves, where you’ll find a gigantic visitors centre and coachloads of visitors. The views here are still impressive but it’s far from peaceful.
We continue south into County Limerick and the picturesque town of Adare, then on into County Kerry and out to the Dingle peninsula and Ireland’s most westerly point. The town of Dingle is a chocolate-box fishing town with multi-coloured houses and working vessels docked in the harbour.
The wind whips around us on the shores by Slea Head. We look out towards the Blasket Islands and Teataght Island in the far distance. The next morning is an early start to reach Portmagee in time for the ferry. Since the new Star Wars movie filmed on the island of Skellig Michael, this Unesco World Heritage site has become a popular destination. It’s about an hour-and-a-half along the single-lane roads of the Ring of Kerry from Kilarney.
The Skelligs are around a 45-minute ferry journey in one of the small boats from Portmagee. The ancient stone steps climb the two peaks to the summit of the sixth-century beehive-style monastery. Its remote location made a perfect retreat for Luke Skywalker in Star Wars Episode VII and is equally as
stunning in real life.
Beyond Portmagee, we join the Skellig Ring Road, one of the finest drives of the trip and one of Lonely Planet’s top travel destinations for 2017. A few kilometres in, a small sign points to the Kerry Cliffs. The cliffs are as impressive as those of Moher, but rather than coach loads of tourists, just one other couple are walking up the track to the cliff face.
From here, both Skellig Michael and Little Skellig are clearly defined in the vast waters. The next morning, after yet another large Irish breakfast, we head east towards Dublin, a journey that takes just over three-and-a-half hours on the motorway. Our first stop in the capital is to the Teeling Whiskey distillery. Teeling is the first new distillery in Dublin for 125 years, and as well as a working distillery there’s a state-of-the-art visitors centre, which includes a full tour of the facilities.
Dublin has a wealth of attractions, from museums and galleries tohistorical sites like Kilmainham Gaol, the prison that held the leaders of the Irish Republican movement, including those from the Easter Rising in 1916. There’s also live music to be found, particularly along the tourist hive that is Temple Bar.
Our final day conveniently falls on the date of this year’s All-Ireland Final replay. The local Dublin side are up against Mayo – a team that haven’t won a final since 1951. Croke Park is one of Europe’s largest stadiums, holding 82,300 fans, and today is a full house.
Gaelic football is a fast game but pretty easy to follow, especially for those familiar with rugby. Mayo start well but are trailing by half time, and though it stays close for a nail-biting second half, Dublin take it in the last minutes. The city will party long into the night but we have a plane to catch and must say goodbye to Dublin and to an amazing week.
By: Mat Gallagher