Take a walk on the wildlings side: A ‘Game of Thrones’ tour through Northern Ireland

Written By By LORI RACKL TV Critic Posted: 06/16/2014, 11:52am
Array A path on the Castle Ward estate takes cyclists under the branch that held a trio of corpses encountered by Brienne of Tarth and Jaime Lannister on their way to King's Landing. (Lori Rackl~Sun-Times)

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Standing on the coast near the tiny village of Cushendun, you can spot Scotland across the North Channel on a clear day.

This is not a clear day. And that’s OK. The steady trickle of tourists making their way down a short coastal path aren’t here to see Scotland. They’re here to see the cave where sorceress Melisandre gave birth to a shadow baby in season two of “Game of Thrones.”

HBO’s international hit series, which ends its superb fourth season Sunday, does the bulk of its filming in Northern Ireland, especially within a 75-mile radius of the capital city, Belfast.

The world’s most pirated TV show is the biggest thing to come out of Northern Ireland since the Titanic, and tourism officials know it. They’re hoping the fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels will work the same kind of magic on their visitor numbers as “Lord of the Rings” did for New Zealand.

That’s why the Northern Ireland Tourist Board foot the bill for me and a group of other journalists to go on a press trip in April to check out some of the “Game of Thrones” filming locations — an increasingly popular pursuit among the show’s growing fan base. Averaging north of 18 million viewers each week, “Game of Thrones” has eclipsed “The Sopranos” to become the biggest series in HBO history.

“The groundswell of people understanding how much of the show is shot in this country is only starting to happen now,” Robbie Boake, “Game of Thrones” supervising location manager, said in a recent phone interview. “The tour operators are only starting to get busy and understand that there’s a lot to show people. Word of mouth has spread.”

Fans looking for a bit of real-world Westeros should be sure to hit Clearsky Adventure Centre near Downpatrick, roughly 45 minutes from Belfast. Clearsky occupies the 16th century courtyard that doubled as Winterfell, home of the Starks.

Visitors can dress up in “Game of Thrones” garb and try their hand at archery in the same place that Robb Stark and Jon Snow tried teaching Bran how to use a bow and arrow. A hearty lunch of soup and sandwiches made with recipes from the “Game of Thrones” cookbook gets served around a fire pit.

You can rent mountain bikes and follow routes dotted with various show locations, like the tree that held a trio of hanging corpses encountered by Brienne of Tarth and Jaime Lannister on their trek to King’s Landing.

In nearby Tollymore Forest Park at the foot of the Mourne Mountains — the rocky backdrop to the Eyrie — pedal to the serene spot where Jon Snow doled out direwolf pups in season one. A short hike leads to a circle of tall trees where a slew of dismembered wildlings were artfully arranged in the chilling series premiere.

Day trips that take in these sites, among others, are available from Belfast and Dublin through GameOfThronesTours.com, or you can book directly at Clearsky.

Another option, McComb’s coach tours, is based out of Belfast. Stops include a picturesque fishing harbor in Ballintoy, where Theon Greyjoy — in his pre-Reek days — arrived home to the Iron Islands. You’ll get a photo op at the Dark Hedges, the beech trees that flanked the Kingsroad as Arya Stark, disguised as a boy, escaped King’s Landing.

Travelers who’d rather go the DIY route can pick up a rental car and “Game of Thrones” map at Budget or download one of three self-drive itineraries at CausewayCoastAndGlens.com.

“It’s the adaptability that the countryside has to offer which makes Northern Ireland so valuable to a series like this,” said Boake, a South Africa native.

He has used the versatile landscape of this tiny country — measuring one-tenth the area of Illinois — for everything from scenes set in warmer climates, like the city of Vaes Dothrak, to those that unfold in the icy tundra north of the Wall. The deep-pocketed production also has filmed in Iceland, Croatia, Malta and Morocco.

The main soundstages for “Game of Thrones” are in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter, in the massive Paint Hall complex behind the new Titanic museum (a must-see). Visitors aren’t allowed inside the film studio, so forget about getting a glimpse of the Iron Throne.

You might, however, see Hodor hanging around Belfast. The actor who plays him, Kristian Nairn, is a longtime DJ at the gay nightclub The Kremlin.

Email: lrackl@suntimes.com

Twitter: @lorirackl

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