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Dublin: 5 °C Sunday 15 December, 2019
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How to do the Giant’s Causeway like a pro - including free parking and a secret swimming spot

Plus some legendary local ice cream.

THE GIANT’S CAUSEWAY is one of the top attractions on the island of Ireland, famous for its 60-million year-old rock formations, stunning sea views, and the legend of Fionn MacCumhaill’s stand-off with the giants of Scotland.

But what’s the best way to explore this Unesco World Heritage site? We asked Eimear Flanagan of Away A Wee Walk, who takes visitors on walking tours around Antrim’s famous causeway coast.

When’s the best time to visit?

The Giant’s Causeway is open all year round and gets busiest during the summer months. However, Flanagan says this shouldn’t deter people from visiting when the weather is good as there is plenty of space on the causeway’s stones to go exploring.

“People have a great fear that the stones will be packed, but it’s not like that. You might not get a photo in the middle of the day in July without someone else in the background, but you never get a sense that there’s too many people there.”

Pro tip: Avoid peak afternoon hours when tour groups descend on the area. “If you can get to the stones and finish your visit before 11 in the morning, or arrive after 3pm, that will transform your experience of the causeway,” Flanagan says.

Where should I park?

Although the stones of the causeway rarely get too crowded, Flanagan says that parking can be the main issue if you decide to go at a busy time.

The car park at the Giant’s Causeway site costs £12.50 per person, or €11 online - this covers entrance to the visitor centre and helps to fund the maintenance of the National Trust site. If that’s full, there is another carpark in Bushmills – a five minute drive away – with a park-and-ride bus service.

There are other options in the nearby areas, but Flanagan adds that visitors shouldn’t abandon their cars on the side of the road. “People will be tempted to park on the grass verges and the rural roads leading up to the site, but they’ll end up with a ticket and they’ll cause chaos if coaches can’t pass.”

Pro tip: Park for free in the village of Portballintrae and walk to the Giant’s Causeway. There is a path that runs along the beach and the headland, which takes around an hour each way.

Portballintrae, near the Giant's Causeway Source: Shutterstock/Ballygally View Images

What are the top sights?

The Giant’s Causeway itself is free to enter and it is possible to do a self-guided tour around the area. The main attraction is undoubtedly the causeway’s 40,000 hexagonal basalt columns, and natural rock formations such as the ‘Giant’s Boot’, the ‘Organ’ and the ‘Wishing Chair’.

If you decide to go to the visitor centre, your admission includes parking as well as access to videos, interactive exhibits and an outdoor audio guide. From the visitor centre it’s a 10-minute walk down a steep hill to the stones, or you can hop on a shuttle bus for £1 each way.

Pro tip: If you’re going for the first time, Flanagan says to allow half a day to explore the full site. “Walk down to the stones and then over to the next bay to see the ‘Amphitheatre’ – it’s spectacular. Then you can climb the ‘Shepherd’s Steps’ – there’s 162 of them – up to the cliff and take the high road back to the visitor centre. That’s the proper way to do it.”

The Amphitheatre at the Giant's Causeway Source: Shutterstock

Where can I stop for lunch?

If you’ve worked up an appetite, there are three options for lunch or a snack at the Giant’s Causeway site – the cafe in the visitor centre, the restaurant in the Causeway Hotel next door, and pub grub in The Nook.

“There’s an old primary school that was converted into a pub, now called The Nook. It gets busy but they do good food and it’s very atmospheric,” Flanagan says. “If you’ve had a wild day on the stones you might want a fireside lunch there.”

Pro tip: Head back to Bushmills for a few more food and drink options. “Bushmills is superb food wise – one of the best options on the causeway coast,” Flanagan adds. “There’s fine-dining in the village, the Bushmills Inn does a great carvery, and the Bushmills Distillery now does a great tour.”

How can I escape the crowds?

Both the Giant’s Causeway and the nearby Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge draw huge numbers of tourists to the area, but there’s plenty of other stops along the coast to explore if you’re looking to get away from the crowds for an hour or two.

“There are six beaches on the coast from Portstewart to Ballycastle, and you’d be shooting yourself in the foot if you were that close and didn’t visit one of them,” Flanagan says. “Portstewart Strand is famous. You can drive right onto the beach and there’s a gorgeous place to eat at the end of the strand called Harry’s Shack.”

Pro tip: If you’re heading to the beach, don’t miss a trip to Morelli’s. “In Portstewart town there’s Morelli’s ice cream, which has been trading for over 100 years. It’s famous for sundaes but the whole menu is fantastic,” Flanagan adds.

Dunseverick Source: Shutterstock

Are there any hidden gems that visitors might miss?

For families with older children or people looking for more of an adventure, Flanagan suggests starting your day at Dunseverick to get the full causeway experience and some of the best views of the coast.

“Park at Dunseverick Castle or get the local bus. It’s an ancient site, there’s not much to see now, but from there you can walk to the causeway. The showstopper hike is five miles and takes around two hours,” she says.

“A million people see the stones every year, but most people don’t see the best bits of the causeway coast. The coastal path is extraordinary and not everyone knows how stunning the high cliffs are.”

Pro tip: Bring your swimsuit and head to the harbour before your walk. “There are rock pools at the tiny Dunseverick harbour where you can go swimming. It’s great for families because it’s more sheltered than the sea. That’s a real unheard-of gem, even some of the locals don’t know about it.”

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Sarah Harford

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