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Hop on the tour bus

Don't miss the bus,' Brian warned, 'unless you want to spend all your beer money on a taxi back to Belfast'

Posing as the Ironborn at Ballintoy Harbour. Photo: Kristen Cowling
Posing as the Ironborn at Ballintoy Harbour. Photo: Kristen Cowling

Don’t miss the bus," Brian warned, “unless you want to spend all your beer money on a taxi back to Belfast." Brian was the guide on my Game Of Thrones tour of Northern Ireland’s rocky coastline. He was admonishing us not to take more than the 30 minutes allotted for lunch. I’m not normally one for tours. Exploring a place on a tight schedule along a predetermined itinerary is not how I like to discover a new country. Yet, on occasions, when both time and budget are constraints, there is no denying the efficacy of a tour.

After a week in Ireland, exploring the island’s meadow-filled interiors, I was eager for a glimpse of the Atlantic. I didn’t want to return without having seen the rugged, wind-whipped coastline and walked on the hexagonal stones of the weird and wonderful Giant’s Causeway, a Unesco World Heritage Site. But as Brian rightly pointed out, a cab would have cost a pretty penny, and with just one day of my visit remaining, I didn’t have the luxury of exploring via public transport. So, a tour it was.

I have a secret formula for times like these. When I am trying to pack a lot of sights into less time and money, I’ve found film-related tours work really well. For one, the itinerary seems less arbitrary. Instead of a compendium of spots tour companies think travellers ought to see, these tours include the highlights of locations picked by a production house that invested a lot of time and money in scouting for them. On a trip to New Zealand, for instance, I met the helicopter pilot who flew scouts for The Lord Of The Rings all over South Island. He spoke of the many days and flights it took to identify just the right settings for particular scenes. The knowledge of that effort makes the thought of following a predetermined itinerary less onerous.

Places on such a tour are inevitably the best that a destination has to offer. And they frequently veer off the trodden path. On that same trip to New Zealand, I wound up at a sheep farm on North Island. It was a primeval landscape of craggy limestone cliffs and gnarly trees that were twisted and bent into unusual shapes. My guide pointed out several fossilized shells in a large rock. It was a dramatic landscape that I would not have visited otherwise.

Even if I’m visiting a spot for just 15 minutes, as is often the case with tours, I already have a certain context to it that enriches the experience. A hillside covered in southern beech trees is so much more than a pretty forested slope when you can picture a horde of blood-thirsty orcs thundering down it. It’s also a chance to learn interesting facts about nature that stay with you because of the unique links. For example, I never forget that it was the southern beech trees that made the forests of South Island the perfect setting for Lothlórien, the home of the elves. Their leaves are always tinged with yellow and red, as though at the cusp of autumn, which was ideal to indicate the elven forests that had started to change colour as the time of the elves came to an end.

The tours are often led by people who worked in the films in minor roles or as extras. Their experience makes them better storytellers, and they have inside tales to share. Not only did Brian grow up on the Northern Ireland coastline that the tour explored, he had also acted in several seasons of Game Of Thrones. The result was an enriching combination of local knowledge and show lore.

During a coffee break in the tiny town of Carnlough, he showed the group the steps at the little harbour where a temporarily blinded Arya was filmed crawling up to the streets of Braavos. Cushendun caves took on an eerie cast as we relived Melisandre giving birth to the shadow assassin.

On the way, we visited scenic Northern Ireland landmarks like the magical Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge and Giant’s Causeway. And at Ballintoy Harbour, where Brian revealed a chest full of cloaks and swords, we dressed up as the Ironborn and marched down the road to the coastline, drawing many a strange glance. Feeling utterly foolish yet thrilled, I posed for a goofy photograph wielding a sword—it became one of my best memories of the trip.

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