A 'Game of Thrones' quest to Northern Ireland

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Sophie Turner and Aidan Gillen in a scene from HBO's “Game of Thrones,” which uses Northern Ireland as a prime shooting location. (Helen Sloan / HBO / The Washington Post)

NORTHERN IRELAND - On the Kings Road . . . at last . . . en route to Winterfell.

I, a true pilgrim and loyal bannerperson, do pledge allegiance to the clan Stark and wish to pay homage at the seat of the King in the North.

My journey began in Belfast, my mother's ancestral home. I confess to being a fan of the HBO cult hit Game of Thrones, and having traveled to Northern Ireland to visit family, I seized the chance to see some of the filming locations. About 75 percent of the show is shot here, transforming the fortunes of those lucky people who can now find work in the film business - and giving a boost to the tourist industry.

First, I traveled north to the Antrim Coast, whose scenic glens and coves play host to numerous Game of Thrones dramas. The one-day tour was organized by McComb's Travel, which started these bus excursions a year ago. Co-owner Caroline McComb told me they appeal to a new demographic of tourist: the "Throners," generally under 50, who come to Northern Ireland to see the filming sites. Once here, they get to see all the stunning vistas, castles, forests, moorland and caves that originally lured the cable network - all within a two-hour drive of Belfast.

An added bonus is the traditional "hundred thousand welcomes" from the locals, who have a tale or two to tell of their own and legends to rival those written by George R.R. Martin, whose fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire the show is based on.

Our first stop was near the town of Ballymoney, at "the Dark Hedges," which framed one of the best-known scenes from the series: the flight of a young heroine, Arya Stark, from her father's betrayers at King's Landing. There is no mistaking the eerie beauty of this avenue of beech trees, and it has become a favorite subject of amateur photographers.

The picturesque Ballintoy Harbor served as the backdrop to antihero Theon Greyjoy's homecoming. Today, elderly couples mill around a whitewashed cafe, while Game of Thrones fans snap selfies in another of the show's most recognizable locations.

The Larrybane quarry on the Antrim Coast will be familiar to fans as Renly's military encampment in Season 2. It also serves as an overflow parking lot for the nearby Carrick-a-Rede bridge, a famously terrifying rope bridge suspended nearly 100 feet above the sea, connecting a rocky island to the mainland cliffs. Alas, our bus schedule meant that we didn't get to make the crossing. But if you have a head for heights and the resolve of a Stark, it's well-worth a visit.

Most northbound tours make a detour to the Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland's most famous natural feature and a UNESCO World Heritage site (though it hasn't - yet - appeared in Game of Thrones). A four-mile promontory made of huge, interlocked basalt columns, it rises from the North Atlantic as if carved by the giants who stalk Ulster's mythology. The columns were created about 60 million years ago when this landscape was volcanic and took their striking polygonal form from rock crystallization as lava slowly cooled.

The second day of my pilgrimage took me south, by car, toward the Mourne Mountains. I grew up in the foothills of these granite giants, not far from Sandy Brae, whose bleak landscape appears in the TV series as the entrance to Vaes Dothrak, home of the Dothraki people and their new khaleesi (queen), Daenerys Targaryen, a key heroine and claimant to the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms.

Tollymore Forest was a favorite spot for many outings of my childhood; memories of negotiating stepping-stones over the Shimna River came back as I wandered through woodland glades enjoying the dappled sunshine.

Onscreen, though, this idyll is often a place of menace. Tollymore appears in the very first episode as a snowy forest haunted by the mythological undead. Later, patriarch Eddard Stark and his men are traveling in the woods when they come upon a gored stag and some direwolf pups, which the Stark children adopt.

I had family in tow, and after a hearty walk around Tollymore, we stopped at Inch Abbey, a ruined 11th-century monastery near Downpatrick. For us, it was the perfect spot for a picnic and some solitude; in the series, this is where Robb Stark, son of Eddard, is declared "King in the North" by the rebels.

Another short drive brought me and my companions to my journey's end: the show's Winterfell.

Castle Ward is an 18th-century mansion on the shores of Strangford Lough, popular with visitors in its own right. But its fame is now overshadowed by that of the 10 Game of Thrones locations on the estate - particularly a castle dating from the 16th century that plays the role of the Stark family home, Winterfell.

The Clearsky Adventure Center at the castle offers a "Winterfell Experience." I didn't have to be asked twice whether I wanted to dress as a Stark in furs and cloak; I also tried - but failed - to wield a sword gracefully. Extras include meeting the Northern Inuit dogs that have portrayed some of the direwolves onscreen, and getting archery tips from a Stark look-alike. Groups can also book medieval-style banquets.

It seemed that everywhere we turned on the Castle Ward estate, we found evidence of Starks, including Robb's camp on Audley's field, the seemingly impassable crossing at Riverrun, and a hanging tree, scene of a brutal execution.

My quest complete, I discarded my cloak and returned to my clan.

 


Guide to Westeros

 For information on Game of Thrones filming locations in Northern Ireland, tours, and nearby accommodations: www.discovernorthernireland.com/gameofthrones