Stones and Thrones Game of Thrones Location Tour

Matthew Coyle joins enthusiasts of the HBO series for a tour of the most picturesque shooting locations on Northern Ireland's North Coast

Making the cover of Vanity Fair is one sure sign of an arrival. That discerning bible of news and popular culture does not simply feature anyone, or anything, on its glossy exterior. Thus, the appearance of County Antrim’s rugged northern expanses on the face of its April 2014 issue was a statement like few others.

The singular beauty of the north coast was merely a backdrop, admittedly, to the centrepieces of Annie Leibovitz’s image. Captured with her trademark richness, the main cast of HBO’s Game of Thrones – a juggernaut of event television without equal – populate a photo of grim elegance. The Northern Irish landscapes, however, provide the majority of the show’s exteriors and Belfast houses its massive sound stages; this is home.

With its varied and concentrated geography, Northern Ireland has proved to be a star of the show in its own right, a bespoke canvas onto which head honchos DB Weiss and David Benioff now paint Westeros, the fictional world at the heart of the source material: George RR Martin’s sweeping literary saga, A Song of Ice and Fire.

Given the scale of this annual undertaking, the series sits proudly at the forefront of the region’s booming film industry. From Downpatrick to Ballymoney, GoT's reach is a long one and a fervent fan base is flocking to the country in droves to follow the trail.

Leading this charge is the handily named Stones and Thrones tour. Every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday up to 40 willing fantasy enthusiasts pile into two mini coaches and set off to take in a veritable feast of iconic filming locations and stunning scenery on the Antrim coast.

According to Gerard Rogan, manager at Titanic and City Tours, his company’s newest enterprise came about in 2013. ‘We wanted to do a bit of a twist to the Giant's Causeway trip. Last year at the World Fire and Police Games the tourist board had asked us to do something really special for the Games. We looked at the locations that they [HBO] were using and it fitted in, hand to glove. It was perfect.’

Customer feedback has been almost wholly positive, says Rogan. With GoT as the hook, ever increasing numbers of punters are being exposed to Northern Ireland’s finest attributes. ‘It’s a fabulous sightseeing tour but a sightseeing tour with a twist. People are just amazed. The first thing they say is that they can understand why the north Antrim coastline was selected for locations, because of its beauty.’

The company is understandably pleased with its product, signalled best by the recent addition of a separate, though slightly less subscribed, County Down jaunt. ‘All in all, it’s been a great success for us,’ Rogan confirms.

Indeed, the basic numbers are particularly noteworthy. Based on independent figures, Stones and Thrones accounts for 350 hotel bookings per month, in Belfast and beyond – it is a hefty contribution to an economy still recovering from a fallow period. But what do these outings entail, exactly?

An average day is a surprisingly cosmopolitan affair, if nothing else. Departing at 9.45am from Belfast city centre, the route carries the travellers out along the lough before taking in the Glens of Antrim via the majestic coastal route. This writer finds a lone seat on a coach boasting visitors from, amongst other places, Australia, Canada, England, France and the United States, while a second bus, filled with Norwegians, brings up the rear.

Siobhan, the jolly leader for the day – who describes herself as a 'fanboy first and a guide second' – dons a theme-heavy black cloak with a faux fur collar for the occasion, an instant indication that this is no straightforward expedition.

That said, the first stop in the hills above the hamlet of Carncastle is as remarkable for its awe-inspiring vistas as its status as a key staging post in GoT's first season. Everybody seems mightily impressed and as the bus winds its way through narrow lanes, and under rocky overhangs, towards the brilliantly twee outposts of Cushendall and Cushendun, there is a genuine feeling of discovery in this relatively unheralded corner of the globe.

The dank interiors of the seaside caves in Cushendun go down well. Season two’s notoriously horrifying ‘shadow baby’ sequence was captured within these dark walls, and a nearby beach is also instantly recognisable to observant fans.

Later, across the small stone bridge, the group streams through the doors of Mary McBride’s, a cosy pub and eatery, which is certainly reaping considerable rewards from HBO’s continuing presence in Northern Ireland. Throughout the week, the Stones and Thrones buses deposit their hungry passengers in the tiny village, each having the option to avail of the restaurant's tasty, affordable cuisine.

Tucking into a hearty steak and Guinness pie, Jared Magid, a Californian who has spent the last year living in Vienna, is thrilled with the overall experience so far, from the excursion to his host city. 'I love Game of Thrones,’ he says, ‘and I heard Belfast would be a cool place to check out.’

On the Irish leg of a journey across Europe, the University of Oregon student admits that he was not aware of the connection between his new destination and the television show until after he landed, but was quickly sure of at least one activity on his itinerary. ‘I re-routed to make sure that I could do the tour.'

The terrain itself has been a bonus, Magid adds, pointing to the Giant’s Causeway as a landmark he is looking forward to seeing.

As lunch settles, the convoy meanders towards Ballycastle, with its unencumbered views of Rathlin Island. Beyond that, at Larrybane, with the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge in the near distance, Siobhan refreshes memories of scenes involving Coleraine’s Michelle Fairley (as the tragic Catelyn Stark) in the bleached bowl of an abandoned quarry.

Ottawa lawyer Sean May and his son, Drew, are on vacation in the UK and Ireland. Keen followers of the television series, if not the novels, they are eager to avail of this chance to explore. ‘We didn’t come specifically for Game of Thrones but we knew it was filmed here,’ says Drew, a journalism major at Carleton University in the Canadian capital. ‘What we didn’t know was just how many different sites there were in this area of Northern Ireland.’

Aside from the chance to feed their Thrones-based curiosity, the Mays have been charmed by the bucolic surroundings. ‘It has been a real revelation,’ says Sean, 'to see how lovely it is.’ In his view, that attraction was crucial: ‘For me it was a great opportunity to see more of Northern Ireland, to see places we never would have seen… It’s gorgeous.’

This is, perhaps, where Stones and Thrones best succeeds: it mixes fantasy with reality to an affecting degree. That concept is best exemplified at Ballintoy harbour – there are few spots anywhere in Ireland as attractive and, arguably, it is the most recognisable location of the day.

The quaint little port sits at the foot of a steep road, its impish scale dwarfed by the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean beyond. The natives here, accustomed to busloads of eager sightseers seeking out Westeros for themselves, obligingly ignore another tranche of outsiders wandering around their patch.

It may seem predictable, inevitable even, but no trek to the north coast is complete without a pilgrimage to the aforementioned causeway. As it drifts into view, Siobhan cheekily dismisses the boring, scientific explanation for its existence, embracing instead a tale of giants, giant babies and ancient Hiberno-Caledonian friction: ‘the truth’ in short.

After an hour of clambering over the Giant's Causeway rocks, pondering their formation and enjoying the stiff sea breeze, the party gathers for the final leg. For the uninitiated, the Dark Hedges at Stranocum are a wondrous sight, not only for GoT devotees — they feature heavily in the early part of season two — but for anyone who appreciates nature’s penchant for the weird and wild.

This claustrophobic avenue of gnarled trees possesses a sense of the spectral; the boughs, brooding and cruel, curl over the road, smothering any sign of the sky above. Stroll along this haunting route and one may easily discern HBO’s reasons for selecting such an evocative setting.

It is a fitting end to the trip and a memorable introduction to Northern Ireland for first-time guests like Alex Maczugowska and her sister, Teresa, newly arrived from London. ‘The fact is that doing this tour actually takes you to more places,’ says Alex. ‘I never imagined Ireland to look as beautiful as this.’ Teresa agrees: ‘It has exceeded all expectations.’

Back in Belfast, Rogan suggests that the rest of us catch up with all this rampant positivity. ‘Sometimes you take things for granted. We don’t appreciate what we’ve got,’ he says. Maybe we should. Everyone else does.

Visit the Stones and Thrones website for information on forthcoming tours.