DISCLOSURE: I was invited to Northern Ireland for work purposes to deliver a workshop and was entertained by Food NI and Mid & East Antrim Council. I wasn’t asked to write a blog post but wanted to share everything I’d seen with you as I was a bit blown away by just how much there is to do in that area.
Given how easy it is to get to Northern Ireland from England, it took me quite a long time to get there. And then it was thanks to work. You may remember I found myself lunching at Hadskis in Belfast with none other than Charles Campion during a brief trip there when I had my eyes opened to what a great place it was.
As a bit of a sequel to that experience, I was recently invited back to Northern Ireland on a working trip – this time to Mid & East Antrim to talk to some local food producers and people in the hospitality sector about how they can work with bloggers and influencers to spread the word about their particular business or brand.
While I was there, I was taken on a little tour of the area to witness firsthand some of the food-focused things to do, see and try, as well as other activities you could get up to on a visit. I wasn’t obliged to write about it but was quite blown away by how much there is (especially if you’re a food lover) on this little stretch of coast that so often gets missed out as people whizz from Belfast up to the Giant’s Causeway and back again.
Pop to the foodie haven of Whitehead
Whitehead might not seem particularly extraordinary when you first arrive, but hidden in this little town is a surprising concentration of stuff to do. Park up on the quintessential seafront complete with gaudy coloured buildings and soak up the sea air before you start exploring.
Have lunch or dinner at the Lighthouse Bistro, Whitehead
Just round the corner from the promenade is the Lighthouse Bistro, an unassuming little restaurant that I imagine would be the perfect cosy sanctuary on a cold day, as well as being a cool retreat if the weather is proving favourable. They’ve got a casual approach, with various small plates as well as main courses including pasta that they make themselves at the restaurant.
We feast on a spread of dishes including smoked brisket, seafood pasta, scallops and their special garlic potato skins that are so moreish it’s scary.
Check out the steam trains in Whitehead
While you’re digesting all that food take a walk up to the Whitehead Railway Museum. Whether you’re a steam train enthusiast or not you’ll enjoy the historic setting, as well as playing with the signals in the restored signal box. I hear they also have great events and put on steam trains into Belfast themed with everything from jazz to their Christmas trips.
Try local produce at The Bank House
Walk up the road and you’ll get to The Bank House, an Aladdin’s Cave that mixes tea room, shop, cafe and deli all in one place. You’ll find a showcase of local ingredients here ready to be taken away or in the form of sandwiches, salads and impressive deli boards that I manage to get my hands on.
I try everything from Northern Irish ciabatta from The Yellow Door to ham and pastrami from Quails in Babridge; harissa, pesto and humous from Sheridans, and the gorgeous Burren balsamic vinegar that I buy for my own kitchen. There’s a whole range of cheese on offer including Game of Thrones-themed ‘Dragon Egg’ that harks back to the cheeseballs that were so popular in the 80s, as well as the famous ‘Black Butter’ that’s unlike anything you’ll ever taste.
Visit Islandmagee for adventure and ice-cream
Get adventurous at The Gobbins Cliff Path
I didn’t make it to the cliff path at The Gobbins but it’s on my ‘to-do’ list for sure. Basically it’s an amazing-looking walkway that has been attached to the cliffside below Islandmagee, allowing you to get pretty much as close as possible to this rugged spot where sea meets land. It reopened in 2018 and has already extended its season because it’s so popular.
Get an ice-cream from the Rinkha
From the outside, you might be a bit confused by The Rinkha, but trust me on this. It looks like a bit of a hardware store cum old cinema, but inside is an ice-cream parlour that just happens to be home to several award-winning flavours.
The Rinkha has a wonderful story. The business goes back four generations, with its family ice cream recipe created in 1921 by current owner Ross’s great-grandmother Henrietta Hawkins. She and her husband ran a general stores in Islandmagee and in 1937 built a dance hall that they called The Rinkha. The dance hall attracted everyone from American GIs to people from across the country.
It went on to be all sorts of things, from leisure centre to community centre, but the ice cream has always stayed. Ross may not use the wooden churns his great-grandmother did, but he sticks to the same recipe and it’s still all handmade on site.
In the ice cream parlour at the front of The Rinkha there’s a rainbow of flavours, including the Turkish delight that scooped two awards at the National Ice Cream Competition. I’ve tried it and can confirm it is, indeed, dreamy. Get yourself there for a taste of history and yummy ice cream.
Enjoy traybake and tulips at the Glenarm Estate
Okay, that title doesn’t really do Glenarm justice and makes it sound like some kind of tearooms and gardens. It is – complete with a tulip festival that I hear is very impressive, and a lovely place to sit and have a coffee while you enjoy a piece of traditional traybake (did you know that traybake is actually a big Northern Irish ‘thing’? I didn’t).
But there’s far more to Glenarm than tea, traybake and tulips. It’s also the home of award-winning Glenarm Shorthorn Beef as well as Glenarm Organic Salmon, which you’ll see pop up on menu after menu anywhere in the area. A quick chat with managing director Adrian Morrow and it’s clear to see the drive and passion for producing the best beef possible that has seen these guys garner huge success.
If you time your visit right you might be able to make it to the Glenarm Festival, which combines music and food all in this stunning setting.
Visit the Galgorm Resort & Spa
Have you seen Dirty Dancing? The Galgorm spa and golf resort outside Ballymena reminds me of the holiday resort where it’s set – except a gazillion times better. Eye up the resorts own Rolls Royces as you arrive at the impressive front building that I reckon you could stay in for at least a week without getting bored.
The stunning spa, complete with indoor and outdoor facilities and its own Elements cafe in an amazing bubble-shaped building, is temptation alone. But for me its the food offering that makes it a dreamy destination for a short break. A traditional Italian, a cavernous steak house, its own pub, a riverside restaurant perfect for afternoon tea, and then the River Room, the fine dining restaurant with serious aspirations for a Michelin star.
If that’s not enough you can go up to the golf course to try the resort’s other restaurant the Castle Kitchen and bar. Oh, and let’s not forget the piece de resistance – a gin bar boasting no fewer than 300 different gins.
The accommodation is spread through hotel buildings and lodges and I managed to get a sneak peak at Galgorm’s most expensive suite, complete with to-die-for bathroom, terrace with hot tub, private dining room (with the services of a chef if you want) and its own bar. Maybe one day if I win the lottery!
Go all Game of Thrones at the Ballygally Castle Hotel
Venture further up the coast and you’ll get to the Ballygally Castle Hotel – an impressive building complete with haunted room overlooking the beautiful Ballygally Bay. At first glance it’s just a lovely hotel, but you’ll soon realise it’s one of several places in Northern Ireland that will give you a chance to get a little Game of Thrones fix if you’re missing it. Look out for GoT doors and try the themed afternoon tea.
If you’re not a Game of Thrones fan, don’t worry. Even without that, it’s just a lovely setting. Enjoy the big rooms with views out over the bay, check out the ‘haunted room’, wander the grounds, and dine in the impressive restaurant. I enjoyed a hearty yet refined dinner of Glenarm salmon with buttered greens, sweet potatoes crushed with black garlic and tarragon
with a wholegrain mustard cream, washing it down with a local Northern Ireland gin recommended by our waitress.
Take a walk along the beach in the morning and then dig into breakfast that will tempt you with everything from an Irish breakfast to a whiskey porridge. They’re big on provenance here, so you can see exactly where every element came from.
Visit the Crosskeys Inn
A trip to this neck of the woods isn’t complete without a visit to the Crosskeys Inn. The oldest thatched pub in Northern Ireland, it’s a proper tourist hotspot with coach parties apparently pouring in regularly for a taste of a traditional pub.
The history is everywhere to see – adorning the walls, leaching out of the stone walls and wooden floorboards, and in the very air you breathe inside. We go when there are only a few locals parked in their favourite spots in one of the several bars but if you go at the right time you’ll get live music and a packed pub. Don’t forget to try their own Crosskeys whiskey!
Do a foodie tour with Toast the Coast NI
I haven’t done one of these tours but having met Portia and read some of the reviews of them, they seem to me to be the perfect way to immerse yourself in the food and drink of this area.
Pick various tours or get a bespoke one made for you, and take in everything from guided tours to foraging, distillery visits and, of course, Game of Thrones themed tours. Great if you don’t want to sort it all out yourself, and the perfect chance to meet like-minded food fans.