The jewel in Northern Ireland's crown

Northen Ireland's dramatic Causeway Coast, steeped in history.

The unique geological feature of the Giant's Causeway.

My Little Kitchen Cookery School chef Phillip Ford prepares a Glenarm salmon for some mouth watering recipes.

Tourist guide Jim Dixon celebrates St Patrick's Day.

First published in Travel

THE stunning beauty of Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast and Glens is matched only by the warmth and passion of its people.

Place names like Belfast, County Antrim and County Derry, were once synonymous with “the troubles” that plagued the region for decades, but they are now taking their place alongside the best city and country break destinations in the world.

With regular Bmibaby flights from Birmingham, the Emerald Isle is just an hour away and, once there, visitors cannot fail to be impressed by the resurgence of the capital city and be swept away by the breathtaking beauty of the northern coast and countryside.

Jewel in the crown, is the Giant’s Causeway – designated a World Heritage site in 1986 – in recognition of its outstanding geological features, with its mass of striking basalt columns.

The causeway is managed by the National Trust and can be easily accessed by a short walk or bus ride. A new eco-friendly visitor centre is currently under construction and is due to open this summer, in time for the Irish Open Golf Tournament at the nearby world-renowned Royal Portrush Golf Club from June 28 to July 1.

The region is home to a dozen top golf courses, including the 18-hole parkland course at the Roe Park Resort, near Limavady, which has established itself as one of Northern Ireland’s premier golf resorts.

The four-star hotel on the site is a perfect place to relax with a swimming pool and spa and is ideal for visitors wishing to explore the miles of magnificent coastline, the Sperrin and Binevenagh Mountains and the nine Glens of Antrim – designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The National Trust is also custodian to the remarkable Mussenden Temple and Downhill Demense, a beautiful landscaped park with sheltered gardens and cliff walks.

The temple, built in 1875 as a library on the estate of the eccentric Earl Bishop Frederick Augustus Hervey, is now a dramatic wedding venue, perched on the edge of sheer cliff drop. Visitors can also walk within the walls of his ruined 18th century mansion, enjoying the striking views captured through the deserted stone window frames.

This is a land steeped in tradition, myths and legends and there can be no more enthusiastic or knowledgeable tour guide than Jim Dixon, who runs Bespoke Tours.

His ready repartee and jovial Irish tales keep visitors enthralled, leaving not a dull moment in his luxury minibus drives.

Restaurateurs and cafe owners are rising to the challenge of welcoming the growing influx of tourists by providing quality local produce, well-prepared and with a friendly, typically Irish, charm.

People like Roger Robinson, of Crusoes Coffee Shop in the seaside village of Castlerock, who combines his passion for food, arts, service and music, with monthly jazz nights featuring musicians from around the world as well as local.

Scones and breads are baked daily, enticing homemade cakes and biscuits fill the serving counter and his creamed-topped coffee and hot chocolate artworks taste as good as they look.

His dedication is replicated in eateries throughout the region – like at Thyme & Co, in Ballycastle, also on the coastal route, where freshly prepared and flavoursome meals and snacks can be savour.

In Limavady, at the award-winning, yet unassuming, Lime Tree restaurant, Stanley and Maria Matthews, again, take pride in using fresh seasonal produce much of which is locally sourced and have created a reputation for classic dining with a good mix of fish, meat and vegetarian dishes in their repertoire.

This small town is also home to the Classic Wine Bar, with a Tardis-sized modern cocktail bar and courtyard restaurant disguised behind a fairly modest frontage and serving a fabulous fusion of dishes from around the world, including classic chorizo chicken, pan seared duck breast marinated Chinese style and Indian lamb brinjal.

In Belfast, No27 in Talbot Street is an award-winning contemporary brasserie-style eatery, which prides itself on using quality ingredients – such as Glenarm organic salmon – combined with creativity and superb cooking, Glenarm is the closest farmed salmon can be to its wild cousins, with the farms located in the exposed and energetic waters off the Antrim coast, where currents and tidal flows ensure vigorous exercise and firm muscle formation, making for top quality fish.

One of many fans of Glenarm salmon is chef Phillip Ford, who runs My Little Kitchen Cookery School in Graysteel, County Derry, with his wife Nuala.

With superb views overlooking the waters of Lough Foyle and across to the countryside of Donegal, it is an idyllic place to boost culinary skills, or celebrate a family or corporate event with one of a range of cookery classes from traditional to international cuisine - with farmhouse accommodation thrown in if a stopover is required.

With a two-year-old 4.7kg salmon, Phillip took our group of novice cooks step-by-step through the processes to create their own cordon bleu menu of savoury cornets with salmon and sweet red onion crème fraiche, followed by olive oil poached salmon with fennel and parsley salad and boxty potatoes, to enjoy for lunch, complemented with homemade soda bread and a bottle of Riesling – a delicious combination and definitely something to impress dinner guests with back home.

Alongside a good, slow-pulled pint of Guinness, a visit to Northern Ireland would not be complete without a tot of Irish whiskey – and at the home of this iconic product, Bushmills distillery, County Antrim, visitors can watch it in the making and enjoy a wee taster as the secrets of 400 years of distilling are unlocked.

Along with stunning countryside and coast and friendly passionate people, the region offers a host of activities from watersports, to pony trekking, hang gliding to cycling, or you can take it easy and enjoy crashing waves and fine dining. Whatever you do, you will go away eager to return.

Fact box

Leading low cost airline, Bmibaby, offers daily flights to Belfast City Airport (just minutes from the city centre) from East Midlands Airport and Birmingham Airport and a frequent service from Stansted Airport. Flights depart up to 18 times per week with fares starting from just £19.99 one way including taxes. Bmibaby offers customers many benefits including allocated seating and online check in.

For further information or to book a flight visit, www.bmibaby.com Causeway Coast & Glens Tourism www.causewaycoastandglens.com 028 7032 7720

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