Northern Ireland may have hit the news headlines for all the wrong reasons too frequently for anyone to wish for. It goes without saying that the province's political history, now described as 'The Troubles' in history books, dampened enthusiasm for tourist travel. But what were once places to avoid in the latter half of the 20th century are now cultural highlights on the tourist trail.
Of course, these visitor 'attractions' are just one aspect of Northern Ireland to consider when planning a motorhome tour of the province. Taking up 15% of the island of Ireland, it's a land of wonderful countryside where lakes, glens and mountains mingle with historic towns and pretty villages. And all this edged by a spectacular coastline. Suffice to say, there are lots of things to do in Northern Ireland.
Once a part of the historic kingdom of Ulster (you'll find many references to this kingdom whether in rugby circles, banking or the Ulster Way, a long distance walking trail), Northern Ireland is made up of six counties – Antrim, Fermanagh, Tyrone, Down, Derry and, the smallest, Armagh. Each county is worthy of a visit, and offers something different.
Obvious attractions and places to visit within Northern Ireland include the popular Causeway Coast with the Giant's Causeway, Ireland's only UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Titanic quarter of Belfast where the tragic ship was built, film locations for the popular TV production Game of Thrones, and well-known historic houses like Mount Stewart.
But go further than skin deep and you'll uncover lesser-known parts, like the stunningly beautiful lakeland area of County Fermanagh, the remoteness of the Inishowen peninsula, or the peaceful splendour of the Mourne Mountains, a superb area for walkers and cyclists. Northern Ireland is a great location for touring, and one of the finest routes is the coastal road between Larne and Cushendall.
Top five things to do in Northern Ireland
Whether you wish to try a local pint or sip an orange juice, visit The Crown Liquor Saloon, the most famous pub in Belfast. Now owned by the National Trust, the atmospheric building is unique with an incredibly ornate exterior and no less an interior of brightly coloured Victorian tiling, carvings, glass and period gas lighting. Settle in one of the cosy snugs and admire the highly decorative carved ceilings and mosaic work.
Visit Bushmills Irish Whiskey, Ireland's oldest working distillery. There are guided tours around the distillery, where you can see the traditional copper potstills, have tutored whiskey tastings and there's a specialist whiskey shop.
Explore Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles. A good starting point is the Lough Neagh Discovery Centre where you can find out about the lake's international importance for wildlife, take walks and trails through the National Nature Reserve, or enjoy a boat trip around the lake.
Take the train from Derry-Londonderry to Coleraine and experience what is considered one of the most beautiful rail journeys in the world. The 45-minute journey begins in the sixth century walled city before sweeping along the edge of Lough Foyle and the beach of Benone Strand. The final leg of the journey is alongside the beautiful River Bann.
For a hard-hitting look at the British/Irish conflict, take an award-winning Black Cab Tour of Belfast. A political sightseeing tour, you'll gain an insight into Belfast during The Troubles, seeing famous hotspots and associated murals.
When to visit Northern Ireland
St Patrick's Day, of course, is celebrated throughout Ireland in the week leading up to 17 March, but particularly in Downpatrick, the town named after the patron saint. In addition to general revelry, you'll find pilgrimages, concerts and historical talks.
Armagh celebrates the Brian Boru Festival in April, when the High King of Ireland won victory over the Vikings at Clontarf in 1014, ending Danish power in Ireland.
The City of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival is held every May with big name stars in the world of music, while the Mourne International Walking Festival offers spectacular scenery around the Mourne Mountains near Newcastle, County Down, every June. Cushendall, County Antrim, enjoys the Heart of the Glens Festival for nine days during August, with music, sports and fun for all the family.
And if you happen to be in Belfast during January, take advantage of the annual Out to Lunch Festival. There are three weeks of theatre, music and comedy all served within the lunch hour – with lunch of course!
Care should be taken when visiting certain areas within Belfast on or around the 12 July, when the Orange Order marches take place.
Cheap overnight stops
Motorhome users looking for budget options are spoilt with a number of continental style Aires de Service across the province, providing overnight stops and, in most cases, facilities in the form of standard service points. Facilities are being added all the time but currently include Annalong, Ballymena, Carrickfergus, Donaghadee, Portrush and Ballyclare.
Motorhome access and information
Northern Ireland is a fabulous region to tour in a motorhome. You'll find the people incredibly accommodating and relaxed towards motorhome parking in many towns. There are height barriers in some places and the general rule for car parks with marked bays is that a 'van must fit into a single bay (in other words, you can't park over two bays and buy two tickets). But you'll find plenty of places with specific motorhome parking or simply a large, open car park.
How to get to Northern Ireland
Visitors travelling from south west and southern England may find it easier to use ferry routes to the Republic of Ireland and use the M1 motorway to Northern Ireland, a two-hour drive. Stena Line has sailings between Fishguard and Rosslare, Holyhead and Dun Laoghaire, and Holyhead and Dublin. Irish Ferries operates between Holyhead and Dublin as well as between Pembroke and Rosslare.
Being a part of the UK, passports are not required when travelling to Northern Ireland. It is advisable, however, to have passports to hand along with all vehicle documents in the unlikely event of being stopped by the police.