Exploring Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast with a Toddler on My Back

I’ll be honest. I had never heard of the Giant’s Causeway before watching Matt Harding dance on it in 2008. From that point it was on my must-visit-list. I love natural phenomenons and Giant’s Causeway looked too good to be true. How could something that looks so artificial exist in nature? Our trip to Belfast was very short at only two days long but we were determined to spend one entire day exploring what is known as the Causeway Coast. We put together an itinerary that would be drivable from Belfast in a single day and not too exhausting since we would have our 18 month old girl with us. Never being a fan of guided tours, we rented a car complete with baby car seat around the corner from the Europa Belfast Hotel and set out into the Irish countryside.

Belfast's Europa Hotel is the perfect base in Belfast and ideal starting point for a day trip to the Causeway Coast.

Belfast’s Europa Hotel is the perfect base in Belfast and ideal starting point for a day trip to the Causeway Coast.

Driving from Belfast along the coast, it takes about 2 hours and 15 minutes to reach the Giant’s Causeway. Because we were traveling with our little girl who typically hates being in the car, we opted to drive the inland route up the M2 to the A26. This shaved a full hour off our time each way although at the expense of a beautiful coastal drive.

Our daughter looking out at the crashing waves below Dunluce Castle.

Our daughter looking out at the crashing waves below Dunluce Castle.

Dunluce Castle

One hour and 15 minutes after pulling out of Belfast we arrived at our first stop, Dunluce Castle. Despite the weather being unseasonably perfect, nobody seemed to be out and about so we had the entire castle to ourselves. Set dramatically overlooking the sea, Dunluce Castle dates back to the 1500’s and although is in a ruined state, still has enough of the structure in tact that you can imagine what it was once like. It cost about £12 to explore the castle which was for two adults as our daughter was free. The views from the castle are equally stunning on all sides and our little girl loved watching the waves crash on the cliffs far below. There’s also an intact tower that we were able to ascend via spiral staircase. The views from the top were incredible but not nearly as good as the view of the castle itself from the nearby cliff.

Dunluce Castle is one of the most dramatic sites in Northern Ireland.

Dunluce Castle is perched on one of the most dramatic sites in Northern Ireland.

Bushmills

By the time we were finished at Dunluce we were ready for some lunch. Just a few minutes down the road we entered the town of Bushmills, home of the famous whiskey distillery. Right in the center of town is the Bushmills Inn which I had been told is the perfect place for lunch. The quaint inn is filled with adorable wooden furniture and roaring fireplaces. It feels like it has looked exactly the same for the past 100 years. Everything we ate was delicious from the mussels in a curry sauce to the chicken fillet and fruit kebabs. The waitress even brought our little girl a child-friendly set of utensils and dishes. After lunch we grabbed a coffee at the nearby Lilly’s Coffee shop where the baristas gave our daughter a handful of tiny marshmallows which she held tightly in her hand not sure what to do with them. Once I told her to eat one, they all quickly disappeared. Nice and full, it was time for the day’s main event – the Giant’s Causeway.

The Old Bushmills Inn is as quaint as it is delicious and for some unknown reason was even flying an American flag.

The Bushmills Inn is as quaint as it is historic and for some unknown reason was even flying an American flag.

Giant’s Causeway

From Bushmills it’s only a 10 minute drive to reach the Giant’s Causeway. Although technically free to visit, you do have to pay a fee if you plan to park or use the visitors center. £17 covered the three of us as once again our daughter was free. In the visitor center we learned a bit about how the causeway was formed by volcanic eruption. We also learned about the legend of how it was built by two giants – one in Ireland and one across the sea in Scotland who planned to meet in the middle to fight. You can actually find the same hexagonal shaped columns in Scotland on an uninhabited island in a place called Fingal’s Cave.

Walking with my daughter on the Giant's Causeway.

Walking with my daughter on the Giant’s Causeway.

Chandra and our little girl enjoying the view.

Chandra and our little girl enjoying the view.

It’s a bit of a trek from the visitor center down to the causeway itself and since we had our daughter in a carrier, we opted for the shuttle bus which costs £1 per person each way. This got us down to the causeway quickly so that we could maximize our time in an otherwise busy day. Once you reach the Causeway itself, it’s a free for all. You can basically explore anywhere you like and climb up and down the 40,000 basalt columns as you see fit. We took turns having our daughter strapped on our backs as she could not have easily navigated the unusual terrain on her own. We first climbed the highest and most prominent section of the Causeway and then made our way out towards the sea where the columns get very flat. Here we were able to let our daughter walk around a bit and she loved splashing in the small puddles that form in the tops of the columns. We explored the other areas too including the higher outcropping of columns that goes right out into the sea where we attempted to take the perfect family photo.

The perfect family photo? We're pretty happy with it.

The perfect family photo? We’re pretty happy with it.

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge

Our next stop was just 14 minutes further down the coast from Giant’s Causeway – the famous Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. We arrived at 5:05pm and were told that the last ticket of the day is sold at 5:15 so we were very lucky with the timing. £11.20 got us all in with Samara once again being free. When we planned this trip Chandra had told me she had no intention of actually crossing the bridge. It looked terrifying and the idea of getting our daughter across it was enough to enough to make us queasy. Before we could make that decision though, we needed to hike the 1km out to the bridge. With a baby on our back you would have thought the hike would be a real challenge but the setting was so beautifully perfect and early evening light so good, it was hard to mind it. Walking along the sea we passed groups of cows and beautiful pastures before arriving at the beginning of the famous bridge.

Crossing the rope bridge with a very brave little girl on my back.

Crossing the rope bridge with a very brave little girl on my back.

With our daughter safely on the other side, I could get a bit more daring with my photography.

With our daughter safely on the other side, I could get a bit more daring with my photography.

Due to our timing, we once again had the stunning attraction all to ourselves. Chandra assessed the situation and decided to cross the bridge with our daughter on her back – something that was perfectly safe although we fully expected to get grief for when people back home saw the photos. Although the bridge looks endless in photos, it’s really only 60 feet long and takes just a minute or two to cross. The view was stunning with the golden sunlight shining on the tiny island of Carrickarede on the other end of the bridge. Once we were both across, we were able to let our daughter walk around on the lush green island. From here the views back of the mainland were incredibly dramatic and unforgettably beautiful. Most of our trip had been confined to cities but this was truly the “Emerald Isle” we had heard of. Eventually we had to relinquish our private island and get back across the bridge before they locked the gate at 6pm.

Chandra walking with our daughter on Carrickarede  Island.

Chandra walking with our daughter on Carrickarede Island.

The stunning landscape of Carrick-a-Rede.

The stunning landscape of Carrick-a-Rede.

Dark Hedges

As it was starting to get dark we opted to drive the inland route back to Belfast instead of changing things up and going along the coast. This also gave us the opportunity to stop off at the Dark Hedges, a spookily beautiful location made famous by its use as a location on Game of Thrones and just 18 minutes from Carrick-a-Rede. We arrived at dusk – the most mysterious time of day to visit. I had heard Dark Hedges could be a challenge to find but Google’s directions were spot on. At this point our daughter was passed out in the back of the car so she missed us driving up and down the beech tree lined country road and getting out to take lots of photos. There’s no cost to visit the Dark Hedges and it’s an easy stop to work in when traveling from Belfast up to the Causeway coast via the inland route.

I took about 100 photos of these trees but I think this is by far the best. Right?

I took about 100 photos of these trees but I think this is by far the best. Right?

Back to Belfast

It took us about an hour to get back to Belfast and after returning the car it was the perfect time for dinner. Over an excellent dinner at nearby Gingeroot Restaurant we reviewed just how perfect the day had been. Despite going to so many different places and driving in an unfamiliar country, everything was seamless and really came together to be the perfect day-trip. Our little girl had no problem sleeping in the car and fully participating in all of the sites we brought her to. Everyone along the way was so friendly and accommodating to our 18 month old with us. It was a day exploring our young family will never forget.

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