Our newborn was less than a month old when the wanderlust returned. A quick overnight trip to London to apply for baby’s passport didn’t quell the need for a new adventure. How could we get off the island before the newborn had his passport?? We quickly found our answer.
Four Kids, an Overnight Ferry, and Northern Ireland
That title could be the beginning of a horror story. But it was, in fact, the answer to our question. Since Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, no passport or visas are required to visit if you are coming from England.
We found cheap flights to Belfast and intended to fly until we started pricing rental cars. Welcome to traveling as a family of SIX. Vans and SUVs that could fit our family are hard to come by and expensive. The cost of our rental van for three days completely negated the cheap airfare. The overnight ferry from Liverpool to Belfast that had seemed incredibly expensive when I’d first started looking was now affordable when compared to airfare, airport parking fees, and a rental car. And what fun would traveling be if the journey wasn’t half the adventure?
The Overnight Ferry to Belfast
Our first real travel adventure as a family of six taught me one very important lesson: Packing the day of travel may have worked in the past, but that newborn who suddenly decides he has to be held constantly and will poop through every outfit can throw a serious wrench into my superhuman last-minute packing abilities. End result? We arrived at the ferry port THREE minutes before the deadline to board. Yeah, we cut that a little close. As we checked in and waited to drive onto the ferry I breathed a sigh of relief. Only to find myself clutching my armrest and praying audibly that the car not start rolling backwards as we made our way up the steepest incline ramp I’ve ever seen and with another car right on our tail. It was terrifying. My husband has my full respect. There is no way I could have driven us up that ramp let alone maneuvered into the teeny spot they directed us to on the upper deck. I’ll take the ferry again, but will NEVER do the driving.
Our accommodations were exactly what we had expected: tiny cabin with four beds and a baby cot. My kids were ecstatic about sleeping on the top bunks, but the minimalist rails had me nervous. We got creative and reinforced their railings and ALL of my kids were asleep within half an hour of boarding the boat. Four children slept all night on the boat ride to Belfast AND on the return trip back to Liverpool. That had never happened before and hasn’t happened since. I actually wished the journey had lasted more than 8 hours. We will definitely be taking the ferry again.
I’ve learned one major lesson in the past two years of traveling with our kids: don’t try to do too much. My solution is to make two lists. I narrow my must-sees down to the absolute bare minimum. For Northern Ireland, my absolutes were Carrick-a-Rede and Giant’s Causeway. I then have a second much more extensive (and prioritized) list of the dozen other things I really want to see. My secondary list included the ‘Troubles’ Tour of Belfast, multiple castles along the north coast, and a few Game of Thrones locations. In the end we basically skipped Belfast altogether because we couldn’t get enough of Northern Ireland’s coast line.
In addition to Carrick-a-Rede and Giant’s Causeway, we explored the Dark Hedges, Dunluce Castle, Old Bushmills Distillery, and two beaches. Driving along the coast we encountered multiple other castles and National Trust properties that time-permitting we would have loved to explore. And, if we’d had time, I would have loved to check out the Titanic Experience in Belfast and Tollymore Forest Park south of Belfast. But with only three days at our disposal, I think we did a decent job covering the highlights. And now we have a reason to go back…
Northern Ireland with Kids
Since we completely skipped Belfast, I can only speak for our time on the north coast. And the Irish coast was a spectacular place for my young kids. My two big kids (ages 4 and 6) had no issues hiking to the rope bridge at Carrick-a-Rede or walking to Giant’s Causeway. Giant’s Causeway is a paved path that is extremely easy to walk along. My kids took a few tumbles climbing on the Causeway rocks, but to them it was just a big playground to climb on and they loved it. There are some steep ledges and drop offs at Carrick-a-Rede and we made sure the kids stayed on the inside of the paths and away from any drop-offs, but most areas had rails and more dangerous paths were marked.
The newborn was our best explorer. He slept contentedly in his front carrier for 90% of our hiking and exploring. He slept while we climbed across the rocks on Giant’s Causeway and as we made our way across the rope bridge at Carrick-a-Rede in strong winds. Snuggled tight and zipped up in my jacket, he couldn’t have been more content. It is extremely important to note that anyone crossing the rope bridge is required to have both hands free while crossing. If we hadn’t been wearing the infant and toddler we would not have been permitted to cross the bridge.
The toddler, as always, proved the most challenging. It’s not the particular child so much as it is his age. Toddlers make the worst travel companions. He wants to walk, but can’t keep up. He wants to be one of the big kids, but has a hard time following simple instructions when it matters. The one time he was out of the backpack carrier on our hike back from Carrick-a-Rede he started sprinting in circles on the gravel path and ended up with a nice scrape on his forehead in all our photos. He would spend the rest of our hikes primarily in the backpack. And, for the most part, he enjoys his cool ride on daddy’s back.
Both Carrick-a-Rede and Giant’s Causeway are run by National Trust and it is definitely worth having a membership if you plan to visit. You can technically visit Giant’s Causeway without utilizing NT services, but then you have to find a different car park to use and can’t visit their incredible visitor’s center/information exhibit. There are multiple interactive exhibits for the kids and an animated movie telling the legend of how Irish giant Finn McCool built the causeway. They had to be dragged out when it was finally time to leave.
If It Rains
Much to my husband’s dismay, we did not take the tour of Old Bushmills Distillery. Children under 8 are not permitted on the tours, but I had it on my list as a “rain option”. And, sure enough, when the skies opened up as we drove the coast our final day, we popped into the Gift Shop. Husband got his souvenir, kids got to use the bathrooms and splash in puddles next to barrels of whiskey.
It rained our entire drive up to Giant’s Causeway and then, miraculously, we had gorgeous blue skies for the next hour and a half while we explored. Thankfully, National Trust runs a shuttle back and forth from the parking lot/visitor’s center to Giant’s Causeway which is free for members. So while we walked down to the Causeway, we quickly hopped on to the shuttle for a ride back when it started to downpour at the end of our visit. As stated, the Visitor Center is fantastic and the kids played (and possibly even learned a little) for over half an hour while it rained.
It would rain sporadically our final day as well. We opted to drive the coast and stop along the way at sights we came upon when the rain let up. It was a brilliant plan. We were rewarded with dozens of rainbows and long gaps in the rain where the kids got out and played at the deserted beaches we stumbled upon along the drive. And when the skies again opened up while we explored Dunluce Castle, we gathered in the one enclosed, roofed structure at the castle ruins and played duck-duck-goose until the rain let up a few minutes later. Somehow the rain only managed to add to our adventure.
Discover Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland was magical. And late October was the right time to go. Crowds were minimal and the rain was sporadic at best. The kids spent the car rides spotting rainbows and discussing leprechauns. Our hikes were exhilarating but never long or exhausting and the views were always worth it.
Oh, and we brought our brand new drone on our trip. Check out our first video!