- Reliving ‘Game of Thrones’ in Northern Ireland -
As “Game of Thrones” fans relish the six-episode Season 8, its final season, Northern Ireland continues to draw crowds of people eager to visit some of the sites where the HBO show was filmed.
Those fans not only get treated to some of what went on behind the scenes of the wildly popular drama based on the George R.R. Martin book series, “A Tale of Ice and Fire,” they get to experience the beauty, the history, the culture and of course, the food and libations that make the northern part of the island a truly unforgettable experience.
The final season of the series, which also filmed in other countries such as Iceland, Spain, Croatia, Morocco and even Canada, was almost 90% filmed in Northern Ireland, whose economy has gained a tremendous boon by tourists flocking to see the ground upon which their favorite characters have trodden. One fun way to visit areas important to filming the show is with the “Journey of Doors” Passport, which visitors get stamped in each location the 10 doors, telling the stories of Season 6, are located. They are all hung in pubs and restaurants near key filming locations. There’s also a Game of Thrones Filming Locations Northern Ireland app to download as guidance. Another campaign designed for tourism is the beautifully embroidered Game of Thrones Tapestry, which is 80 meters long and will be on display at the Ulster Museum in Belfast until July 28. Discovernorthernireland.com, tourismni.com, gameofthronestours.com
After flying into Dublin, we were driven to the Ballygally Castle Hotel on the scenic Causeway Coastal Route in Northern Ireland, where we had ample time to explore the historic castle and its outstanding gardens. The castle is home to ghosts and Door No. 9, which depicts the famous “Battle of the Bastards,” in which the Starks regain Winterfell. Nearby sites depict portions of the neck and north of Winterfell. The real highlight was an authentic “Game of Thrones”-themed banquet in the 1625 Room (yes, that’s how old it is), where we were served pumpkin soup with (Castle) black bread, braised lamb with vegetables, and a trio of desserts: Sansa’s Lemon Cake, Dothraki Trifle and Arya’s Blueberry Tart. We finished the evening watching the sun set over the Atlantic at nearly 10 p.m.! hastingshotels.com/ballygally-castle
Our tour guide was the fabulous Dee Morgan (deetoursireland.com), who is so much fun with extensive information on all things “Throne.” After a lavish Irish breakfast spread at the hotel, we began the tour the next morning by traveling through the lovely country side to scenic Glenarm Castle for photos and then to Hot Milk Forge and Blacksmith School (hotmilkforge.com). Artist Blacksmith Eamonn Higgins is a professional artist/sculptor and helped train the actors who played blacksmiths on the show. He forged and crafted a knife as we looked on in awe.
Next stop was the Cushendun Caves, where Milasandre (“The Red Woman”) gave birth to the blood-magic shadow that killed Renly Baratheon. We then pulled the perfect pint of Guiness at Mary McBride’s, once one of the smallest bars in Ireland and home to Door No. 8, which features events that took place in Braavos. We ate an ample lunch at O’Connors bar in Ballycastle (I had fish and chips, a must), before embarking on an afternoon Sea Safari piloted by Richard Lafferty of Aquaholics (aquaholics.co.uk). We were able to view, up close, sites that depicted Slavers Bay, Dragonstone Cliffs, The Stormlands, Nagga’s Hill, Old Wyck, Lordsport Harbour, Pyke, the Iron Islands, and the real Scottish Islands which lie across the North Channel. We stopped off at Fullerton Arms in Ballintoy to sit on the Iron Throne and view Door 6, which champions House Targaryen and Drogon, the fearsome dragon.
We overnighted in Ballycastle at the Marine Hotel (overlooking a marina, of course) and enjoyed dinner at Central Wine Bar Ballycastle. Marinehotelballycastle.com
The next day was another full day, starting at The Dark Hedges (The Kingsroad). The site is one of the most photographed natural phenomena in Northern Ireland and the nearby Gracehill House is a popular venue for events such as weddings. The beautiful avenue of beech trees was planted in the 18th century and has its own ghost, the Grey Lady. Gracehill House, surrounded by lavish gardens, is home to Door No. 7, which features scenes of the Three-Eyed Raven. We then traveled to Portstewart Strand, where the sweeping beaches stood in as Coast of Dorne.
At the multiple award-winning Bushmill Inn Hotel and Restaurant (bushmillsinn.com), a historic building with parts dating to 1608, we enjoyed lunch on an outdoor patio and took a 30-minute helicopter ride with Cutting Edge Helicopters over the country and the coast that we had seen by boat the day before. Visitors should make the five-minute drive into Bushmill proper and buy a personalized bottle of Irish whiskey at the extensive Bushmill Distillery, swarming with tourists, which was granted the world’s first ever license to distill whiskey. We then took a coach to Belfast and checked into the stellar Titanic Hotel where we had an early dinner.
The Titanic Hotel (titanichotelbelfast.com) overlooks the Titanic Studios, a massive set of structures where most of the green screen filming for the show was done. The hotel opened in 2017 and is built on the grounds of the restored Harland and Wolff Headquarters and Drawing Offices. They painstakingly preserved much of the original architecture, furnishings, even documents, while elevating the guest experience to a whole new level with its nautical-themed guestrooms. For instance, the restaurant and bar are situated in the original Drawing Office Two, where the Titanic and many other ships were designed. You could spend a whole day following its Art and Heritage Trail and touring the nearby Titanic Belfast Experience, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world.
After dinner, we walked to the SSE Area for the opening night of the critically acclaimed “Game of Thrones” Live Concert Experience led by “Thrones” Music Composer Ramin Djawadi. Along with its iconic theme song, the concert featured songs from the first seven seasons and truly was amazing with energetic musicians playing unique instruments, haunting vocals, state-of-the-art technology and a large screen with visuals from the show. You don’t have to be a fan of the show to enjoy the production, which is on tour in 2019 for the third time and includes a Sept. 27 date at The Woodlands Pavilion outside of Houston. It will have footage from all eight seasons in an "immersive outdoor concert experience." Djawadi has also scored a number of movies and other TV shows, including “Iron Man,” “A Wrinkle in Time” and “Westworld.”
The final day of the tour started at Tollymore Forest Park, where a guide who had worked on the series as an extra led us on an entertaining hike, visiting sites such as where wildings were slaughtered in Season 1, Episode 1, and the creek were the direwolf pups were found. Then it was on to Inch Abbey, where ruins date back to the late 1100s. Visible in the distance is Downpatrick Cathedral, where St. Patrick is buried. Robb Stark’s Camp at Riverrun was filmed at this location and it’s also where The War of the Five Kings begins.
Probably the location fans are most excited about, Old Castle Ward and Demense, stood in for Winterfell in the first season, and the area around it continued to be used for filming. William Van Der Kells, in period costume, led us on a spirited adventure in which we enjoyed a genuine luncheon (no utensils, sipping ale from copper mugs), wore capes from the HBO costume department, engaged in archery and swordfights, and toured key places in “Games,” such as the enchanted tree Bran visits when he had his visions as the Three-Eyed Raven. Winterfell-tours.com.
We got to visit with two of the “direwolves” from the series, who are owned by a family who were actors, extras and cameramen on the show, before dining at The Cuan in Strangford (thecuan.com)). The inn and restaurant houses Door 1, which reflects the opening title sequence of the show. In a private room, we were met by owner Caroline McErlean and graciously served an authentic meal inspired by The Kings Banquet at Winterfell on pieces of slate. They even carry an exclusive Hodoor Pilsner! We dined on bread with pease porridge, cod cakes with winter squash, honey-roasted chicken with roasted onions in gravy, and iced blueberries in sweet cream with sweet biscuits. Yummy! Back in Belfast, we hit up the nightlife in the Cathedral District, sharing a pint or two at popular pubs The Duke of York, The Dirty Onion and the Dark Horse Bar, which houses Door 10, representing key events from the end of Season 6.
Since my trip last spring, a number of new attractions have sprung up in Belfast. The “Glass of Thrones,” six beautifully crafted, freestanding stained-glass windows, have been appearing across the city of Belfast as the final season unfolds, one for each episode. Each window highlights a key house from the show, with a series of panels depicting the most exciting and talked-about moments from the entire saga. An interactive digital version of the windows can be found at Ireland.com/glassofthrones.
Also, GES Events and HBO have teamed up to create an interactive and immersive “Game of Thrones” exhibition, which includes costumes, authentic props and iconic settings from all seven seasons. Located at the TEC Belfast, where much of the series was filmed, visitors can explore Castle Black, enter the House of Black and White, marvel at THE Iron Throne and more. The exhibition will be on site until Sept. 1. gameofthronesexhibition.com