AS THE sun reflected on the clear green water below us last Thursday afternoon, we could have been forgiven for thinking we were in the Mediterranean rather than just outside beautiful Ballintoy at Carrick-a-Rede.
Myself and other members of the press were invited along by the National Trust to enjoy a guided tour of the unspoilt scenery around Larrybane and Carrick-a-Rede, and for someone who has lived nearby for almost 20 years I'm ashamed to say this was my first time at this beauty spot.
As I arrived early I was able to have a brief catch up with Laurence Ghisoiu, who is the Senior Visitor Experience Officer with the National Trust.
Laurence explained how the area had become even more popular with Game of Thrones fans over the years, so much so that the site had to limit the tourists to 240 an hour and actively encourage visitors to book online beforehand.
He said: “Our numbers are up 100% in the last five years, with Game of Thrones marketing we are seeing a massive increase on footfall, but it's up to us to do our best.
“The newest advert showing the queues at the bridge has seen the online bookings increase as well as the guided tours.
“Crossing the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge is an exhilarating experience, high above the water and open to the elements. Thousands of people come every year to blow out the cobwebs, see beautiful coastal scenery, and spot rare wildlife.
“For these reasons, it’s a busy place and pre-booking is highly recommended. We limit the number of people who can cross the bridge in any given hour. As a conservation charity we are committed to preserving and protecting our special places and spaces for everyone to enjoy.
“This includes protecting ongoing conservation, managing health and safety and trying to ease traffic congestion around the site.”
Visitors to the site who do not wish to cross the bridge can access the coastal pathways and the viewpoint for free by foot.
Laurence also explained that at Easter time they saw a 60% increase in their ticket bookings online, something which the National Trust are keen to promote.
Although the National Trust has come under fire regarding the Giant's Causeway site and the cost of the visitor centre, Laurence explained that the money paid for entrance into attractions helps to keep other National Trust properties open. Places such as Springhill in Moneymore or The Argory in Dungannon or Castle Coole in Enniskillen wouldn't be open for the public to enjoy, without the other fee paying sites.
He said: “We work within tight budgets and although some of the National Trust properties have volunteers to help run them, we don't have many volunteers working at the site, but the ones we have are hard working and very much appreciated.
“Membership is the main income for the National Trust, not ticket income.”
Although I could have listened all day to Laurence promote the beauty of the area he is so proud of, it was time to commence the tour!
The tour guide on Thursday was Ray from Dalriada Kingdom Tours and as we made our way across the path from the bustling café I couldn't help but notice the tour buses lined up, tourists clambering off with cameras in hand ready to capture the beauty of the area we call 'home'.
Dalriada Kingdom Tours is a family run business with a history of guiding that dates back 125 years. It's clear from Ray's knowledge and passion that he has a love for the area as his 'story telling' was full of facts and information that made it interesting.
As we stopped at various places along the walk, Ray shed some light on the easily overlooked Larrybane, Stackaboy and Sheep Island (designated as a SPA and ASSI in 1992). Sheep Island, legend says, holds enough pasture to 'fatten ten, feed 11 and starve 12, meaning if 12 sheep were sent there to graze, one would die.
And as Ray pointed out, Rathlin Island is never far from view...after a few tales about the island and some of its most famous characters we heard about Fair Head, considered to be Ireland's finest climbing crag and believed to be the biggest expanse of climbable rock in the British Isles.
Ray filled us in on the abundant flora, fauna, birds and beasties in the area. These days over 350,000 visitors come each year to walk the short coastal footpath to the bridge – but Carrick-a-Rede is about so much more than the bridge!
For more see this week's Chronicle