Friday, October 3, 2014

Taking the Game of Thrones Locations Tour of Northern Ireland

My tribute to the immortal Hulk Hogan on a rock at Carrick-a-rede and Larrybane where Brien of Tarth wins he place as a part of the Kingsguard
Taking the Game of Thrones Locations Tour of Northern Ireland
by rick olivares

As a fan of Game of Thrones (both the book that I read first and the television series), I had to take this tour guaranteed a look and then some of picturesque Northern Ireland. 

While chatting with former Ateneo Women’s Volleybelle Patty Taganas-Crampton who has lived in Northern Ireland for the past two years about my trip to the United Kingdom, she suggested taking the tour (of which she hadn’t as well).

I have admired the work of Robert Boake, the series’ location manager, who recently was the recipient of an award for his work on Game of Thrones. While the series has been filmed in a number of countries – Croatia, Iceland, Malta and Morocco – the most number of set locations have been in Northern Ireland. If the Lord of the Rings showcased New Zealand to the world, Game of Thrones has painted altogether another picture of a place that in most minds in strife ridden. And I assure you it is not.

We took McComb’s Game of Thrones Tour that was slated to last a whole day for £35. It is not so bad considering you are seated comfortably in a nice coach and with a group of not more than 30 people. But for our tour, there were about 24, an even more intimate number because the bus isn’t the cramped. Furthermore, we had a cracking good time with our hilarious and awesome tour guide, Derek Gordon, who spiced his commentary about Northern Ireland and the Game of Thrones location sets with his humour.

More than the wit, Derek added to our tour with side trips to other scenic spots in Northern Ireland. Leaving Belfast, our first stop was Carrickfergus Castle, one of the earliest settlements on Northern Ireland that was later used as a base by William the Conqueror. I swear, I will never look at William the Conqueror again in the same manner (in a height and carrots-manner). You'll understand that if you take the tour.

Once we left the city confines, we traveled along the sunbaked and wind-swept east coastline that was simply breathtaking. It was a stark contrast to the rough road out of Belfast International that was some teasing scenery such as tree line that resembles the Dark Hedges and some urban decay. But what modern day city doesn’t have that? It greatly improved as we left Belfast.

We passed by Cairncastle where in the first episode of Game of Thrones, Ned Stark beheads a Night Watch deserter. We didn’t stop though for any photo opportunities as there really wasn’t much to begin with.

Larne where current Liverpool FC manager Brendan Rodgers was born and raised. The location in County Antrim is also home to the memorials for Paddy the Pigeon and SS Periot

Our second side trip was to picturesque Larne where according to Derek, current Liverpool FC manager Brendan Rodgers was born and raised. That got a huge whoop out of me and some boos from Pete Stott, a Manchester United fan from Birmingham. Derek and I kind of got on Pete in a good-natured manner that left the other tourists roaring with laughter.

Larne is beautiful for its lovely seaport that has been in operation for over a thousand years! This is the port where Scots used to land when migrating to Northern Ireland. 

The Harbour also has two memorials – one for the SS Peridot that sank just off the coast due to bad weather and another for Paddy, a pigeon that was used during the Allied landings at Normandy to carry messages. To date, Paddy is the only recipient of the Dickin Medal that is the Irish’s equivalent of the Victoria Cross!

From all that history, we moved on to another key location for Game of Thrones!

At Cushendun Cave

This one was at the Chushendun Caves where the frightening scene of Melisandre giving birth to the Shadow Creature was filmed as Davos Seaworth looked on in horror.

There are two caves here. The one that comes from the sea is where Davos and Melisandre step out. And the wider cave is where the witch gives birth to that foul creature. With the set design, it looks downright creepy but in the daylight sans props, it’s an ordinary cave in a lovely setting.

Our next stop was Carrick-a-rede and Larrybane where Brien of Tarth defeated Sir Loras to win her place as Renly Barratheon’s Kingsguard. It’s an old limestone quarry, hence, its white walls. And it offers a beautiful view of the sea and nearby Sheep Island where a farmer supposedly let his sheep graze as a means to combat poaching.

You have to be careful about walking around and taking photos because some places have a treacherous drop while some grass areas have sheep and cow dung. But luckily, the area is well maintained because of the tourists who come in on a daily basis. 

From there we drove off to lovely Ballintoy Harbour that is the set for Iron Islands’ seaport and the scene of Theon Greyjoy’s homecoming in Season Two. Obviously, the set producers had to make it look like a medieval seaport. But like everything else, it was breathtakingly beautiful.

The marker for Theon Lovejoy's scene at Balintoy Harbour

By the Harbour is Roark’s Kitchen, a traditional Irish pub. It was close to lunch and I along with the other tourists were already hungry. I just snapped some photos but we as a group repaired to the Fullerton Arms Pub and Hotel that is along the Main Street. This is where the cast and crew of Game of Thrones go for eats and drinks during breaks in their shooting schedule. The pub itself has its own Game of Thrones Room where there is a mock Iron Throne and a Map of Westeros! 

My first authentic Irish meal? Steak and Guinness Pie at £8.50! After a sumptuous lunch and a time for bonding with the rest our tour group, we proceeded to Ballycastle that is the home to Lady Catelyn Stark although we didn’t stop for any photos.

Lunch at the Fullerton Arms Pub where the cast of Game of Thrones frequently dines and drinks.

Our second to the last stop was at Giant's Causeway. As a youngster, I read about the myth  of the Irish warrior Finn MacCool who battled the Scottish giant Brenandonner. The result of their battle was Giant's Causeway. With the 40,000 basalt columns placed in near perfect symmetry, it seems that Giant's Causeway is man-made. But it is not. It is the result of an ancient volcanic eruption and since 1986, has been named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

I am either Echo and the Bunnymen's Ian MacCulloch or Ralph Macchio doing Karate Kid. Take your pick.

There were hundreds of people scrambling for photo ops and selfies atop the basalt rocks. But none more beautiful and romantic than a newlywed couple’s photo op while kissing.

Our last stop was the Dark Hedges where Arya Stark escaped to following the beheading of her father, Ned Stark. The Dark Hedges is an avenue of beech trees that were planted by the Stuart family some two centuries ago. Their gnarly branches and formation make for a magnificent sight and are always the subject of many a photo essay and pictorial. Me and some friends? We reprised that famous Abbey Road crossing along the Dark Hedges! Brilliant if I may pat my own back. Hahaha. Now since this was our last stop, we had a tour group picture.

Crossing the Dark Hedges -- Abbey Road style!

The entre tour, including the side trips, has been one postcard sight for sore eyes. When you think about it, its £35 well spent. If you had gone on a personal trip it might have cost more. Sure you travel at a pace of your own. But in a group, especially one as boisterous and cool as we had – including the insightful and humorous commentary by Derek, our tour guide; it was added to the pricelessness of the trip. The trip wasn’t just a connection with a fantasy series I have loved since the book’s initial release (and to the subsequent HBO series that is even better) but it was also a trip down some of the best locations on God’s green earth.

Our tour group minus four people (who were lagging behind).

With our tour guide, Derek, Northern Ireland's resident funnyman and fellow Liverpool fan.

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