It was fantastic to visit Northern Ireland and, for us, a new part of the UK. We spent two weeks touring around the country, from the stunning Antrim coast to the Mourne Mountains. We explored Derry and Belfast and were enchanted by the Fermanagh Lakeland. Two weeks was good but it isn’t really long enough to see everything in Northern Ireland; there were parts we didn’t reach and places we didn’t spend enough time in.
We sailed to Northern Ireland with P&O from Cairnryan to Larne. At £351 return for our campervan for a trip that is around 41 miles one way this has to be the most expensive mile-for-mile ferry crossing we have ever taken [about £4.28 a mile]! It is surprising the ferries are not subsidised by the Northern Ireland Government to encourage tourists in the way the Scottish Government have used the Road Equivalent Tariff. Once I got thinking about this I had to compare the costs. Uig to Tarbert on Harris is about 30 miles and would cost around £46 one way [£1.53 per mile] making it is easy to see why motorhomers make the choices they do. Our favourite way to reach mainland Europe, Hull to Zeebrugge, is also with P&O [they only sail to Rotterdam now]. That sailing is overnight and includes a cabin. It usually costs us about £250 on way for the approximately 320 mile trip. You don’t have to be a mathematician to figure out that this is less than a £1 a mile [actually 78p]!
My first top tip is bite the bullet and cough up for the ferry as Northern Ireland is well worth visiting but take a picnic for onboard! The journey to Northern Ireland only takes two hours and on the ship there are places to sit inside and outside, although the amount of outside seating varies depending on which ship you are on and our return ship had much more. We made the mistake of deciding to eat lunch onboard on our outward journey. You might think the high cost of the ferry would subsidise the cost of the food but apparently not. There was little choice for two vegetarians and the two cheese toasties we had were an expensive snack.
Top Tips for a Campervan Trip in Northern Ireland
Height Barriers – There are more car parks with height barriers and so inaccessible for a high-top campervan along the Antrim coast than I really like to see. The most annoying for us was the large National Trust car park for Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. We did eventually find parking in nearby Ballintoy and when I spoke to the National Trust parking wardens at Carrick-a-Rede they said there is a telephone number at the entrance for you to ring and they will come and open the height barrier.
Wild camping – When we asked the knowledgeable people of Facebook quite a number of them suggested we were best not to wild camp in Northern Ireland and so we booked campsites. The popularity of wild camping is why there are so many height barriers on car parks along the Antrim coast but there are parking spots where people do overnight such as the lovely seaside village of Cushendun. In some popular walking areas farms have car parks where you can overnight. We spotted one good example of this in the Mourne Mountains near Carrick Little, it was a gorgeous peaceful place with mountain and sea views.
Campsites – These varied from the excellent Ballyness campsite to Kilbroney Park that we couldn’t wait to leave [see below for more details]. We travelled in June and most of the campsites were full [with the exception of the one in Belfast] and booking ahead was worthwhile.
School holidays – You can’t really call 2021 normal so this may not happen in other years. Although we were travelling outside of school holidays in England and Northern Ireland, the holidays in Ireland can start in June and by the end of our trip the campsites were busy with Irish families.
Commemoration of the Revolution of 1688 – Although the Orange Order walks and parades often pass without incident, some advised us to avoid the period around 11 and 12 July when there are bonfires and marching bands in the streets.
Places to visit – some highlights
There is more to the Antrim coast than Giant’s Causeway, although that is spectacular. Take the time to walk along some cliffs, visit a castle and stroll along one of the many beaches. The harbour at Ballycastle is pretty and the short but steep walk to Kinbane Castle is stunning.
Derry / Londonderry’s 17th century city walls are just 1.5 km long but they are packed with history and interest. We took the scenic train journey from Castlerock, rather than drive into the city.
Portstewart is a perfect seaside resort. It has a prom for strolling, a walk around a craggy headland, an interesting sculpture alongside a tiny harbour and, most importantly of all, Morelli’s that sells delicious Italian ice-cream.
Crom Estate near to Enniskillen was another memorable outing. This estate and nature reserve, owned by the National Trust, has a ruined castle, a quaint boat house and summer house and idyllic walks along the shores of Upper Lough Erne.
Our love of hiking was inevitably going to take us to the Mourne Mountains, south of Belfast. These hills have a comprehensive network of footpaths that are well used and it is worth getting to a car park early if you have a specific walk in mind. The highest peak is Slieve Donard at 853m but there are valley and hilltop walks for most abilities. You can download a walkers guide here.
The Crown Liquor Saloon in Belfast was another highlight of our trip. The bar is a unique masterpiece in pub architecture that has to be seen to be appreciated. I’m sure, like us, you will be amazed by the mirrors, tiles and carvings. It is worth booking one of the private snugs for the full experience.
Here is the list of campsites we stayed at in Northern Ireland.
|Cushendun Holiday Park, Northern Ireland||The site only had ten touring pitches, all hard-standing and in a small area with the rest of the site made up of statics. The site is by the village & sea. Showers are £1 each and the site is popular with families.|
|Ballyness Caravan Park, Bushmills||A lovely tidy site with pitches off-set and in small areas. Reception was friendly & helpful and the facilities were good and clean with roomy showers that were warm. The site had a large indoor wash up area. We had good phone signals for EE & Three Mobile.|
|91 Bishops Road CL, Castlerock||A hillside & grassy CL with some hard-standing and a friendly & helpful owner (he offered us a lift to Castlerock) & water by each pitch. No facilities but fantastic sea views over Downhill Demesne [see top pic]. EE and Three both had a good 4G signal.|
|Riverside Farm Marina & Caravan Park, Enniskillen, Northern Ireland||A small site by the river run by a friendly owner the site has a few statics. The pitches are not huge and are mostly hard-standing with grass available in dry weather. The three showers are £1 for 4 minutes and are good and hot. There is one indoor sink for wash up in a kitchen that also has a microwave.|
|Dungannon Park, Dungannon||In a park on the edge of Dungannon, good sized hedged pitches with grass & hard-standing. Clean facilities, hot showers and only one wash up sink.|
|Kilbroney Caravan Park, Rostrevor||Busy & popular site on a hillside with many sloping pitches and we struggled to get the van level. The facilities are kept clean and the showers are warm but no adjustment for the temperature and push buttons. There was a nighttime security person. We both had a good phone signal.|
|Tollymore Forest Park, Newcastle||Pleasantly situated site with space between pitches that are hard-standing and surrounded by grass. There were lots of families here in the good weather and with no reception staff, just occasionally drive-by wardens it can have a wayward air, depending on your neighbours. The facilities are very dated & scruffy but the showers were excellent, hot, adjustable and continuous. The campsite is in a woodland country park with lovely riverside walks that you can follow into Newcastle.|
|Dundonald Caravan Park, Belfast||This site was eerily quiet, only our campervan, one caravan and one tent were on this small site which has secure gates and security staff. There is traffic noise but you are surrounded by trees and this is a great spot for catching a bus into Belfast. The facilities are clean and roomy with hot showers & there is a kitchen. The bus stop into Belfast is 10 mins walk away and there is a cinema nearby.|