From the tip of the stone columns jutting up into the Inner Seas which connect the Irish Sea to the North Atlantic between Ireland and Scotland, it is easy to understand why locals might have thought this to be created by a giant. The hexagonal basalt columns can in places look very much like paving stones before dropping off and only the blue waters going on. Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site, is not only beautiful, but offers two competing tales of formation. Which is true is up to you.
First, the scientific. Roughly fifty million years ago, this portion of Ireland (which was then connected to Scotland) was a place of tremendous volcanic activity. Lava ended up forming a large plateau stretching over what is now the coast of Ireland through Scotland, and when it cooled, it fractured, forming mainly hexagonal shapes. Based on how quickly the lava cooled, these took difference sizes, and when they were exposed to external forces, some eroded or broke, leaving the columns uneven in height. Today, roughly 40,000 of these exist here at Giant’s Causeway, with a matching portion on the Scottish Isle of Staffa. The in-between area would have vanished into the sea with the land bridge.
In the legend, Giant’s Causeway was built by Irish giant Finn MacCool (Fionn mac Cumhaill in Irish). Finn constructed it so that he could challenge the Scottish giant Benandonner, but upon realizing the Scot was larger than he, Finn retreated unseen. But Benandonner heard him, and raced across the causeway to Ireland to seek him out. Finn’s wife told Finn to dress as their baby and hide in the crib, and when Benandonner arrived, he burst in on the nursery. Hearing that this huge giant was just a baby, Benandonner believed Finn (the father) must be absolutely enormous, and fled back to Scotland, destroying the causeway behind him.
Whichever you believe, the formation of the Giant’s Causeway resulted in one of only a handful of places on the planet with basalt columns like this, and possibly the oldest. (Devils Post Pile in California, for example, only dates back roughly 100,000 years.) It is both a treat and a challenge to walk along the columns, watching as their colors change from light to darker based on sea levels and how many centuries they have been exposed to the elements. Contrasted with the bright blue of the sea and the green of the surrounding hills, it makes for an incredible sight.
A paved road leads down from a fairly lousy visitors center, with a shuttle available for £1 for those who cannot or would rather not make the walk. An audio guide narrates the walk for those who choose to do it, describing some of the surrounding features before one arrives at the causeway itself. Reservations are preferred, as timed entry is pretty strictly enforced to keep the crowds down, though you’ll still fight for some of the best views.
As amazing as Giant’s Causeway is, it is only one feature of Northern Ireland’s Antrim Coast. Although the “official” Antrim Coast (the government sanctioned Antrim Coast and Glens) is only a small section, the coast itself runs pretty much the entire way from Belfast to Derry, and can be driven through cute towns, through lovely valleys, and along stunning and dramatic coasts lined with sea cliffs, beaches, and fertile pastures.
Just outside Giant’s Causeway is one of the more famous towns of the Antrim Coast: Bushmills. Today’s population is just 1300 or so, but Bushmills is a name known all over for its whiskey. The distillery here was founded in 1784, and is one of only a couple distilleries to have survived the centuries.
A bit further toward Belfast is the Carrick a Rede rope bridge. Carrick a Rede means Island of the Casting, and this small island is where fishermen would ply their craft. In 1755, they built a bridge over the narrow (66 foot) gap at about 100 feet above the water. Today’s rope bridge, which can be crossed for a rather hefty fee, is a reconstruction. For those who, like me, don’t wish to pay, there are a couple viewing points for it just to see the bridge.
Northern Ireland’s Antrim Coast is one of the world’s great coastal roads. While most famous for Giant’s Causeway, it is a place of immense beauty that is worth visiting, and worth the much longer duration to take as a route between Belfast and Derry. And whether features here were made by geology or by giants doesn’t really matter.
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