Travel Guide: Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland has become a mecca for Game of Thrones fans-which doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of earthly delights for those who can’t tell a Dothraki from a dragon.

Last year, when I broke my leg and was stuck in bed for three months, the one thing that got me through was watching HBO’s Game of Thrones. The show’s legions of fans knew something my doctors didn’t: an epic fantasy world of warring noble houses has surprising healing powers. When I was finally vertical again-and in anticipation of the Season 5 premiere, expected in April-my newly perambulating feet headed to Northern Ireland. My quest: to explore the real world of my favourite make-believe show and a coastline that would inspire any traveller to fight dragons.

The much-sought-after Iron Throne-the seat of GOT power and the subject of the battle on which the show centres-is right in the heart of Belfast. Although it’s not generally open to visitors, Queen Elizabeth II was granted a rare tour a few weeks before I visited, meeting Maisie Williams, who plays Arya Stark. When later asked what the visit was like, Williams responded that it was “awfully strange” to have a real-life monarch on set.

The 200-kilometre causeway coastal drive, north of Belfast, is hours of green, rollicking hills and boat-studded turquoise water. Roughly an hour’s drive from the city is the Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO World Herit­age Site that interrupts the coastal landscape with hectares of otherworldly basalt columns. Nearby, the 30-metre-high Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, first erected by salmon fishermen to cross from the mainland to the island for which it’s named, is now used by thousands of thrill-seeking tourists looking to scare the bejesus out of themselves (I barely suppressed a scream as it swayed). For GOT fans like me, there are several set locations dotted along the drive, including Cairncastle, which has been used to film much of the exterior Winterfell scenes (the home base of the Starks) and where the series opens.

Discounting tourism dollars, Game of Thrones has injected $158 million into Northern Ireland’s economy over its four seasons of filming, creating roughly 900 full-time and 5,700 part-time jobs, of which Dan Spencer and his wife, Brona (née Steenson), have the best. Owners of Steensons, a family-run jewellery shop in Belfast, the couple have created many of the show’s signature accessories (such as King Joffrey’s crowns).

The store’s aesthetic is more modern than medieval but, prompted by the daily throng of tourists, Steensons has launched a small GOT-inspired line of brooches, with pendants and rings being added this spring. When asked if he’s a fan, Spencer’s mouth slides into a grin.

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