Ever since HBO’s Game of Thrones started filming in 2010, Northern Ireland has been cast as the site of bloody power plays and betrayal, of Iron Islands with impossibly craggy coastlines and caves that conceal shadowy births. Annie Leibovitz’s recent Vanity Fair cover shoot — those beautiful and austere portraits of the show’s cast in Ballintoy — reinforced the notion that when you play the game of thrones, you win…or you die.
It’s all pretty bleak until you drive down the Causeway Coastal Road, Northern Ireland’s answer to California’s Highway 1 or Australia’s Great Ocean Road, and take in the view beyond the viewfinder. To the left of the winding, narrow highway are high plateaus marked by hedges in orderly rows, and sloping hills dotted with stone cottages and sheep in varying shades of white, gray, and tan. Destinations roll by called Ballygally and Ballycastle and Larrybane, all sounding like teasing nicknames for stomachaches and herbs for overcoming ordinariness. The cows are as big as horses and all happily grass-fed — and to say that grass is greener on the other side would be accurate.
Northern Ireland’s natural beauty and charm are reason enough to visit, but if you’re reading this, you’re probably a fan of Game of Thrones. Maybe you’d even consider taking an on-location vacation; there are more than a few tours through the Seven Kingdoms nowadays. We crafted our own day trip along the coast and into County Antrim, looking for UNESCO and HBO sites alike, and nearly made it onto a set. Note: If a security guard asks you if you’re “with the unit,” just say yes. Always say yes.
Check out the gallery above for a tour of the Game of Thrones universe in Northern Ireland. (All photos by Laura Dannen Redman, October 2013)
If you go…
Cross the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, 30 meters above the sea.
Visit the Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and stand tall atop the basalt columns.
Drive through the centuries-old avenue of Dark Hedges (but beware the Grey Lady, who’s said to appear at dusk).
Take the Game of Thrones road trip.
Clare House B&B (Ballycastle, from £30, clarehouseballycastle.com)
The Londonderry Arms Hotel (Carnlough, from £35, glensofantrim.com)
Ballygally Castle (Ballygally, from £230, hastingshotels.com/ballygally-castle)
The Red Door Tea Room (Ballycastle, 14a Harbour Rd)
Roark’s Kitchen (Ballintoy Harbour, 56 Harbour Rd)