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Northern Ireland: A brilliant cocktail of golf, natural beauty and Game of Thrones legend

Joy Chakravarty

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Photos: Northern Ireland Tourism Board

Travel Thursday: Sports Lounge uncovers the best golf courses of Northern Ireland along with prominent tourist attractions of the region. So, pack your bags and get ready to explore…

County Antrim: Everywhere you went to during the week of the Open Championship—from the awe-inspiring Titanic Museum in Belfast to the overflowing pubs in Portrush—one sign was bound to welcome you: ‘Northern Ireland – Made for Golf’. sports articles

For the golf-crazy Irish fans, punch drunk on the run of Major success that started with Padraig Harrington and continues with Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke, Rory McIlroy and now Shane Lowry, the return of the Open Championship to the island for the first time in 68 years was an occasion to celebrate. Additional tickets had to be issued by the R&A after the initial lot was sold out within a week, and a record 237,750 people visited Royal Portrush during the championship. sports articles

The golf course itself, considered by many as one of the finest links courses anywhere in the world, forms the heart of this small County Antrim town, which had just 7,355 residents during the last count in 2012. sports articles

Before the Open Championship, more than 200,000 overseas visitors flew into Ireland to play golf and contributed approximately €270 million to the economy and accounted for over 1.7 million bed nights (figures by Failte Ireland). That number is expected to increase exponentially following the massively successful hosting of the tournament and Lowry’s magnificent win. sports articles

However, Royal Portrush is not the only must-play golf course in the region and golf is not the only reason to visit this part of the world. The rugged coastline and the quaint towns are set amidst immense natural beauty and has attracted thousands of tourists. sports articles

Another big contributor to the growing number of visitors in Ireland is the ‘Game of Thrones’ Factor. Ever since HBO started televising the global phenomenon and chose Northern Ireland as its location, the number of tourists has grown by leaps and bounds.

Sports Lounge has compiled a list of some of the fantastic golf courses and places to visit around Portrush and the acclaimed Causeway Coast in County Antrim…

ICONIC GOLF COURSES

Royal Portrush Golf Club: Do we need to make a sales pitch for this golf course now? Let’s just say that this amazing course, originally designed by four-time Open champion Old Tom Morris in 1888 and redesigned by Harry Colt in 1929, should be in the bucket list of every golfer.

Perhaps the greatest tribute to how amazing the course was, was paid by the 156-man field at the Open Championship. None of them had anything negative to say about it!

Ballycastle Golf Club: Just 18 miles away from Royal Portrush, and involving a drive down the scenic Coastal Causeway Route, is the superb Ballycastle Golf Club. Established in 1890, it is a unique mix of links and parkland holes.

The first five holes are parkland style, flanked by the Rivers Margy and Carey with various trees and natural hills as the main landscape. From sixth onwards, you encounter 13 excellent links style holes with views of the famous Antrim Coastline.

Portstewart Golf Club: Portstewart has championship pedigree too. Home to three lovely courses, the Strand was the host venue of the 2017 Dubai Duty Free Irish Open on the European Tour.

Located just 15 minutes away from Portrush towards Derry-Londonderry, the Strand course has a number of challenging holes, starting from the par-4 first, where you have to hit your tee shot down a fairway surrounded on both side by huge mounds. Some critics have called the front nine of Portstewart the finest collection of opening nine holes.

TOURIST ATTRACTIONS

Dunluce Castle: This is the closest attraction to Royal Portrush Golf Club and forms a magnificent backdrop to several holes. Built somewhere in late 16th, early 17th century, it was headquarters of the MacDonnell Clan. Make sure you travel a little way further and get a picture of the castle with Royal Portrush Golf Club behind it.

Drive down the Coastal Causeway Route: This is 120 miles of sheer bliss, beauty and awesomeness. It starts at Belfast and ends at Derry-Londonderry. Along the way, you will witness the jaw-dropping beauty of the Nine Glens of Antrim, the Carrickfergus Castle, Cushendum, Torr Head, Giant’s Causeway and much more. One word of caution: carrying a valid International Driving Permit is a must in Northern Ireland to rent a car.

The nine Glens of Antrim: The nine glens (valleys) of Antrim are places of immense beauty. There are several cities that are part of the glens—like Cushendall, Cushendun, Ballycastle and Glenarm—and you’ve got to stay in one of the local hotels for a night or two to take in the whole place. A few hours to enjoy the wilderness and the waterfalls of Glenariff Forest Park is massively recommended.

Mussendun Temple

Game of Thrones shooting locations: If you have watched Game of Thrones, you’ve got to keep a few days to visit the locations where the series was shot. Many of these are in County Antrim, and some are down south in County Down.

Some of the spectacular places in Co Antrim include the Ballintoy Harbour; Cushendun Caves; the Mussendun Temple, which became Dragonstone; the Glens of Antrim; The Dark Hedges; Murlough Bay and the beaches of Portstewart. sports world

You can also try and locate the 10 Game of Thrones Doors, which were carved out of a giant beech tree that fell during a storm in 2016 and depict scenes from Season 6. They are put up in various places across the country.

It would be advisable to download the very helpful Game Of Thrones Filming Locations Northern Ireland App. Just makes everything simple and informative. sports world

Giant’s Causeway: You reach the Giant’s Causeway, and you wonder – who made this? How did they make it? A World Heritage Site, it is a wonder of nature. Thousands of polygonal basalt columns form the Causeway and is believed to have been created 60 million years ago. Legend has it that it was built by a giant as a pathway to Scotland. In reality, it was a result of volcanic activity in the region many moons ago. sports world

Bushmills Distillery: If you like your whiskey (The ‘E’ an addition of the Irish kind), this is a must-make pit stop. About seven miles from Portrush, this distillery was opened in 1608. Save some pounds for the merchandising shop at the end of the guided tour, which gives you an excellent idea of how this world-famous triple-distilled Irish whiskey is made. sports world

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge: Built by salmon fishermen in 1755, crossing this rope bridge near Ballintoy takes some courage. It is 20 meters long, 30-meter high above the rocky outcrops of the Atlantic and connects the mainland to the tiny Carrick-a-Rede island. The one-hour walking trail from the car parking offers some stunning views of the coastline and the ocean. sports world

The Dark Hedges: It’s hard to pick a favourite when you visit a place like Northern Ireland, but this was mine. An enchanting array of 250-year-old beech trees, forming a tunnel with their branches over a road that it slightly longer than a long par-5. It was part of Season 2 of Game of Thrones, but you don’t have to be a fan to enjoy this ravishing, and dare I say, slightly haunting, sight. Try reaching there early in the morning, or late in the evening to experience the light filtering through the trees. sports world

Joy Chakravarty (@TheJoyofGolf) has been closely involved with Indian golf over the past two decades and is considered one of the leading golf journalists in Asia. He has covered 18 major championships and more than 100 events on various Tours. He was the first journalist from Asia to be inducted into Association of Golf Writers. A seasoned media manager, Joy is currently responsible for media outreach for various golf tournaments organised by the R&A, Augusta National Golf Club and the MENA Tour. When away from the course, Joy is passionate about increasing awareness and raising the profile of Asian players through various media platforms.