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Ireland and Northern Ireland:
Taking you on a journey

On a fam trip organised by Tourism Ireland, we get a taste of some of the top sights and attractions the Causeway Coastal Route and the Wild Atlantic Way have to offer

In the tourism industry, we often hear the phrases ‘steeped in history’ and ‘rich heritage’, but no destination truly encapsulates this better than Ireland and Northern Ireland.

On a cross-border trip encompassing a variety of experiences along the Causeway Coastal Route in Northern Ireland and the northern section of the Wild Atlantic Way in the Republic of Ireland, we experience just a small measure of this.

From its breathtaking scenery, proud residents and, yes, rich heritage, groups will undoubtedly fall in love with the Isle.

Belfast’s maritime history

Our Ireland adventure begins in Northern Ireland’s capital and largest city, Belfast.

As the birthplace of the RMS Titanic, a trip here wouldn’t be complete without visiting Titanic Belfast.

It is the world’s largest Titanic visitor experience, which has nine interactive galleries and the last remaining White Star Line ship in the world – SS Nomadic - for groups to explore.

Restored to her original 1911 glory, groups can go onboard SS Nomadic to experience the atmosphere of this historic ship, and learn the intriguing stories of her passengers and the ups and downs of her career.

Groups can also dine in Bistro 401 and browse for souvenirs in the Titanic Store.

The winner of last year’s European Coach Friendly Attraction Award at the British Coach Tourism Awards, Titanic Belfast has lots to offer groups.

Pre-booked groups of 15+ will receive 10% off adult admission, fast-track entrance, meet-and-greet on arrival, and a souvenir ticket. There is also a coach drop-off point and free parking on-site. 

Taste of Belfast

For a less obvious excursion, Taste and Tour provides a selection of guided tours for groups to experience the best of Northern Ireland’s food and drink.

We sample local gin and champ in the Garrick Bar, fresh local seafood at Mourne Seafood Bar, as well as a visit to Sawers – Northern Ireland’s oldest deli, which offers a wide variety of culinary delights.

There are set tours, such as the Belfast Gin Jaunt where groups can taste seven gins in different bars and pubs, Belfast Bites to experience the best traditional Northern Irish food and drink, and the Belfast Whiskey Tour. Private bespoke tours can also be arranged.

Walking between different venues provides groups with the perfect opportunity to see the sights of the city as well.

An Anglo-Norman castle

Next it’s onto Carrickfergus Castle in Carrickfergus, County Antrim. Located around 11 miles from Belfast, the journey is ideal for taking in the scenic Causeway Coastal Route. Having a tour guide onboard the coach is also an ideal way for groups to learn about the surrounding area and passing sights.

Carrickfergus itself makes for a nice rest stop with stunning views of the coast. There is ample room for coaches in the car park next to Carrickfergus Castle. The admission fee for pre-booked groups of 10+ is just £3 and groups could spend around an hour discovering the Castle’s history, which dates back to the Anglo-Norman times.

Accessibility to the Castle from the car park is good, but there are some uneven walkways and staircases within the Castle’s site. This should not deter older groups, however, as there is still lots to see, a gift shop to browse, and scenery to enjoy.

Guided tours can be arranged if pre-booked, which is highly recommended to get an informative overview of the Castle’s military history.

Adjacent is the Carrickfergus Marina with pathways where groups can wander a little further and admire the views of the castle and the coastline. There are also several restaurants where they can sit and relax.

A charming garden

Travelling further up the east coast, we reach Glenarm Castle and Walled Garden.

Glenarm Castle and Walled Garden has so many elements for groups to explore

The Walled Garden has so many elements for groups to enjoy, including the Kitchen Garden, the Herb Garden, and sculptures by Angela Sykes – later Countess of Antrim.

Following a trail on a map, visitors are taken through the garden and round to the Castle to admire its striking exterior. Although we did not get a chance to see inside, exploring the gardens and grounds was a great way to spend an hour or so, and groups can choose to explore as little or as much as they like.

Guided tours of the garden can be organised for groups of 12+. Groups of 20+ are welcome to visit the Castle itself, but as it is the private residence of Viscount and Viscountess Dunluce, visits are subject to availability and must be pre-arranged.

There is also a lovely tearoom serving light lunches, cream teas, cakes, and drinks, and the Castle Shop – opened just last year – sells a selection of fashionwear, gifts and souvenirs.

Discover the traditions

Next we head inland to Seamus Heaney HomePlace, but not before stopping off at The Old Thatched Inn in Castledawson for lunch.

The Old Thatched Inn is an ideal meal stop in Castledawson, County Londonderry

The inn is one of the oldest country pubs in Northern Ireland and it is the perfect stop-off before or after Seamus Heaney HomePlace for groups to enjoy refreshments in traditional, cosy surroundings.

Seamus Heaney HomePlace celebrates the life and literature of the late poet and Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, who passed away in 2013.

It opened in September 2016 and houses an interactive exhibition – arranged over two floors – and is filled with personal stories and artefacts, family photographs, and video recordings from those who knew Seamus, notable figures, and the poet himself.

Seamus Heaney HomePlace is a poignant tribute to the life  of the late poet

A visit to Seamus Heaney HomePlace is truly a poignant one. Located 45 minutes from either Belfast or Derry, it is a must for literature lovers, or for those who want to discover more about Northern Ireland’s past and traditions.

Tours are self-guided and groups could easily spend 1.5 hours here. There is also on-site coach parking.

Wander the walls

One of the highlights of the trip is a visit to Derry-Londonderry.

Since holding the title ‘UK City of Culture’ in 2013, the city has come a long way and groups will love discovering its fine architecture, rich heritage, thriving arts and foodie scenes, and the locals who are passionate about the city in which they live.

One of these people is tour guide Ronan McNamara who takes us on a walking tour of the historic walls in Derry-Londonderry. It is a tour not to be missed by those who want to learn more, not just about the city’s past, but also about its present vibrant cultural scene.

In the heart of the city is the Guildhall. Highlights of the Neo-Gothic-style building include an exhibition on the Plantation of Ulster, a 3,132-pipe organ and stunning stained-glass windows.

A nighttime stroll over the lit-up Peace Bridge really tops off the experience.

Dinner at the Walled City Brewery is highly recommended for those looking for a true taste of the North West. Opened in 2015, the brewery has a restaurant where diners can pair its beers with its superb menu.

One to look out for is The Quiet Man whiskey distillery set to open nearby this year.

Onto the West

Travelling towards the west coast, we reach County Donegal – part of the Wild Atlantic Way trail.

At the mouth of the River Eske, Donegal itself is a small town, yet offers an array of souvenir and gift shops, eateries, and picture-perfect scenery.

Then there’s Donegal Castle. Built in the 15th century, it was almost fully restored in the early 1990s.

Furnished throughout and containing Persian rugs and French tapestries, visitors can now discover the history of the Castle and its previous inhabitants. Information panels reveal the history of the Castle owners from the O'Donnell chieftains to the Brooke family, but guided tours can be arranged.

Literary links

The best thing about coach travel is the elevated views you can see from the comfort of your seat – something that is much appreciated as we make our way down the Wild Atlantic Way. The scenery is simply breath-taking.

Lissadell House and Gardens situated on the shores of Sligo Bay is our next port of call.

Lissadell House reveals the history of its past owners and links with poet WB Yeats

Some may be slightly underwhelmed by the grey, austere exterior of the house, but we are told it was built using grey limestone – a more affordable material back when it was built in the early 1830s.

The inside of the house, now the private home of husband and wife Edward Walsh and Constance Cassidy and their seven children, reveals the fascinating history of its previous owners and its links with poet WB Yeats.

The house and grounds combined are sizeable and groups could easily spend a few hours here. There is also a courtyard complex housing a café, shop and an exhibition, The March of a Nation.

A novel experience

For an excursion with a difference, how about a sheepdog experience with Martin Feeney at Atlantic Sheepdogs?

Watch Martin Feeney and his sheepdogs at Atlantic Sheepdogs in action

Based in Streedagh, County Sligo, sheepdog handler Martin, together with his dogs, has represented Ireland on an international stage over the past 20 years.

Join Martin on his farm to learn all about life on an Irish sheep farm, how the border collies are trained, and watch the sheepdogs in action.

Even the rain couldn’t put a dampener on our spirits as we watch sheepdog Jack herd the sheep with minimal instructions from Martin.

It would be difficult for anyone not to be in awe of the skills of the sheepdogs and their owner, and leave with a smile on their face.

Go back 6,00 years

We make our way down further south for a guided tour of the Céide Fields – in Ballycastle, County Mayo – the most extensive Stone Age monument in the world.

Visitors can watch a 20-minute audio-visual show of the history of the site, and how it was discovered, in the award-winning visitor centre.

See the remains of stone field walls set against stunning scenery at the Céide Fields

Then it’s onto a guided tour of the fields that lasts between 45-60 minutes. Groups will see some of the remains of stone field walls, houses and megalithic tombs, which have been preserved over thousands of years by a blanket of peat.

Back inside the centre there are exhibitions where groups can learn more about the unique ecology of the bogland, and the story of an ever-changing landscape. The centre also has a tearoom and toilets.

It is a fascinating visit and the coastal views from the fields alone are well worth the trip. However, it’s important to note that entrance to the centre is up a steep hill and accessibility of the fields might be difficult for older or disabled passengers.

Award-winning museum

Staying in County Mayo, you will find the National Museum of Ireland – County Life in Turlough.

The National Museum of Ireland – County Life reveals how the people of rural Ireland lived between the Great Famine and the end of the 1950s

Groups could spend hours at this impressive museum, which is spread over four floors. Interactive displays and screens and real video footage of traditions reveals how the people of rural Ireland lived in the hundred years between the Great Famine and the end of the 1950s.

Visitors can also explore Turlough Park House, which was built in 1865 and features a grand staircase, stained glass windows and a library. And also wander the parkland around Turlough Park, with its Victorian iron greenhouse and gardens.

There is also an award-winning café and sizeable gift shop selling a wide-range of souvenirs and gifts. 

Back in time

The last stop on our Irish adventure was Westport House.

Learn all about Westport House and its past inhabitants on a 30-minute guided tour

The house is filled with wonderful relics, furniture, art and décor to take groups as far back as the 16th century. But perhaps the most impressive is the Sicilian marble staircase made by Italian workmen and imported to Westport House in 1858. Look out for the staircase’s centerpiece – the mythological Angel of Welcome, with the tradition of shaking the angel’s hand when visiting.

Groups will learn all about the house, the events that have taken place, and the past inhabitants on a 30-minute guided tour around the main floor and basement.

A further 60-90 minutes is recommended to enjoy all 30 rooms, six permanent exhibitions – including a rather eerie waxwork exhibition of 10 notable contributors to Irish literature, music and the arts – and take a stroll around the grounds.

Combine this with a Westport Train Tour to really experience the town. Groups can board the land train and get a guided tour of Westport town, Westport harbour and the Westport House estate, visiting 46 of the town’s sights along the way.  

Making it happen

Tourism Ireland
David Wood
Trade and Industry Manager
dwood@tourismireland.com