I can’t help but ponder, as I stand in Belfast’s Duke of York pub on the eve of a two-day Game of Thrones-inspired tour of Northern Ireland, whether I’ll get the behind-the-scenes insight I’m hoping for. With CGI enhancing many of the locations, or dramatic lighting obscuring them, will I be able to use my imagination to conjure up the magic of the series when I’m there for real?
A few splendid pints of Guinness later (at just £3 each, there was no reason to hold back) all doubt is thrown aside and I’m convincing my comrades we’re on the eve of a journey of great discovery.
The Causeway Coastal Route
The next morning, with a slightly fuzzy head, I don’t feel quite as majestic as I climb aboard, not a glimmering chariot pulled by a rippling stallion, but a large, boxy, white coach. I do feel a little triumphant though, as I’ve bagged a window seat on the right-hand side, which means I’ll have first-class views out to the North Sea as we drive up the Causeway Coastal Route – a small victory for the House of Lyon.
With filming of the fifth season of Game of Thrones in Northern Ireland now secured, and a new tourism campaign just launched, Northern Ireland Tourist Board is doing all it can to encourage visitors to the country. The government is hoping for a £20 million cash injection into the economy in return for the £10.9 million it gave HBO to secure the filming, which takes place in Belfast’s Titanic Studios as well as a number of coastal and inland locations.
The first stop we make, about 25 miles north of Belfast, is Cairncastle. It’s an area of rugged greenery, often enshrouded in mist, where Ned Stark beheaded the Night’s Watch deserter in the first series.
“I saw what I saw,” says the deserter, trying to convince Ned the Whitewalkers were worth the risk fleeing Winterfell. And now, I try to see what I see, which is not much from beneath the two hoods I’ve pulled over my head to keep out the wind and the rain. “How did the actors stand around for days on end in this weather?” I wonder. I start to have a newfound respect for the cast.
Despite the drizzle, I can tell the Antrim Hills give way to some stunning walks. And as I hurry back onto the coach, I make a mental note to come back again soon, armed with hiking boots, and perhaps a few boar skins to keep out the wind chill.
From high ground to grasslands
From Cairncastle I visit Glenarm and go inland to Ballymena and the Slemish Mountain, where Daenerys Targaryen meets the Dothraki in season one. As we pass the pretty location, Dee, our spirited McCombs guide, does a great job of regaling us with snippets of celebrity info, like where Sean Bean stayed during filming (Ten Square), and how good-natured Jack Gleeson really is; she later points out the river where Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark) used to go swimming as a child, and where Conleth Hill (Varys) likes to drink on a Saturday (the Central Wine Bar). We go there for lunch. Sadly, he’s not there today.
The Cushendun Caves are where Melisandre (The Red Woman) gave birth to the shadow baby in season two. Although far smaller and more inviting than the eerily dark cavern we know and fear, it’s pretty exciting to be standing on the spot where this red-headed oddity squatted and squeezed out one of the most disturbing characters in the series.
Meanwhile, Larrybane is a beautiful bay with white limestone cliffs. Quarrying ended in the late ’70s, and has left a striking amphitheatre-type space where Brienne of Tarth beat Ser Loras in a duel in season one.
It’s not quite the imposing scene we see on screen, but all of a sudden it doesn’t matter. It’s beautiful in its own right, and despite how much the wind tries to force me back onto the coach, I enjoy fighting my own battle and stand my ground to take it in.
Day two of our trip along the north coast has many more sights to offer: the gorgeous inlet that is Ballintoy harbour, used as Lordsport Harbour for the homecoming of Theon Greyjoy in season two; and further on west, Mussenden Temple and Downhill Beach, where the Seven Idols of Westeros were burned and Melisandre told us: “the night is dark and full of terrors.” Today, the day is mild and full of dog walkers. But I love it just the same.
At the end of a second spectacular day I ponder once more about what our guide Dee has been enthusing – that Game of Thrones will be to Northern Ireland what The Hobbit was to New Zealand, and draw in tourists from far and wide.
As I catch sight of a rotund family sporting “Winter’s Coming” T-shirts, chatting away with their American accents, I’m pretty sure I have my answer.
What else to do
Eat and drink
Splash out on a tasting menu at renowned chef Michael Deane’s Eipic restaurant. Join the late night throng and bop to live sessions at Belfast’s best pub, The Duke of York
The UNESCO World Heritage site is famed for its impressive six-sided basalt columns, find out the history and decide if they were created by a volcanic eruption or the footsteps of a fleeing Scottish giant.
Traverse the lofty rope bridge, originally erected by salmon fishermen, to get stunning views from the craggy island.
Clinging to a dramatic cliff top, Dunluce in County Antrim is said to be one of the most romantic and picturesque castles in Ireland.
Where to stay and how to get there
easyJet flies to Belfast from Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, or London Gatwick, Luton, or Stansted, daily. Prices start from £44.98 return.
Charlie travelled to Northern Ireland with support from Tourism Ireland. When Radio Times contributors receive assistance from travel providers such as tourist boards, airlines and hotel to conduct first-hand research, we retain our editorial independence at all times, and never accept anything in return for positive coverage.