By Declan Harte

STEEPED in history and mythology, one of the world’s natural wonders is open for business just a short hop across the Irish Sea.

The mystic Giant’s Causeway comprises thousands of large hexagon rock columns extending into the Atlantic Ocean on Ireland's dramatic north coast.

My girlfriend and I walked in the footsteps of giants after climbing onto the otherworldly rocks on a recent visit.

There are daily flights from Cardiff Airport to Belfast and the magical causeway site is easy to reach by train and bus.

Tourist numbers at the stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site have shot up since the opening of the ultra-modern visitors centre.

Inside, video screens and fun interactive exhibits outline the two theories of how the causeway came to be.

The first is that the Giant's Causeway is the result of intense volcanic and geological activity. Science-themed displays for families provide a glimpse into the Earth's most ancient past. There is an epic 60-million-year-old legacy to the cooling and shrinking of successive lava flows and you don't have to be a geologist to follow the fact-packed displays and videos.

Of course, the more popular explanation can be found in Northern Ireland's best-known folk legend. The story goes that 50ft giant Finn McCool built the rock causeway to Scotland to fight his arch-rival, Scottish giant Benandonner. Each stone column was lifted by Finn and spiked into the ground until the two nations were connected.

After Finn lured the Scottish giant to Ireland and scared him with an elaborate trick, Benandonner smashed the causeway to pieces while fleeing. All that remains of the crossing is the honeycomb-like spread of 40,000 interlocking basalt columns in County Antrim (as well as a much-smaller corresponding rock site on the Scottish side). Finn can now be seen glowering over tourists on a big screen inside the visitors centre, in a fun animation showing the clash of the two titans.

Entry is £9 per adult, £4.50 for children. This includes access to the multimedia visitors centre and a choice of outdoor tours with an expert guide or a multi-language headset. All the money is put back into the site to help preserve the landmark, thanks to the National Trust. There are three different signposted scenic routes from the museum down to the stone columns, catering for different abilities. A minibus can also zoom you there and back.

Blessed with a glorious sunny day, we opted for the full coastal walking tour led by an enthusiastic local history expert.

For hundreds of years, myths and legends about the Giant's Causeway have been passed down through generations.

Having someone tell these tales in person helps to keep that oral-history tradition alive.

The well-trod story of Finn's fateful walk was aired with wit and plenty of blarney by our lively guide, until we got our own turn to step onto the iconic stones. At various stops on the way, other storytellers from the centre were waiting to spin a yarn about Finn, his unusual family and how one rocky journey led to the ultimate cross-channel dispute.

Guide Brian Carty told us: “Finn McCool probably was a real person during the time when Ireland was a land of warring tribes.

“Finn was likely a chieftain somewhere along the coast here whose reputation would have lasted for many, many years. The name grew and grew in stature over the years until he did become a giant. The Finn we know came to be through storytelling and the whole oral tradition and these tours are keeping that storytelling tradition alive. And since the opening of the new visitors centre we now welcome a million tourists per year.”

He added that Welsh visitors will find particular parallels with their own folklore.

He explained: “You have similar characters appearing in Welsh mythology as you do in Irish mythology and certainly being Celtic cultures there is a crossover. So our Celtic cousins in Wales would find the wealth of myths and legends along this coast very attractive.”

A different type of myth is also drawing huge crowds to Northern Ireland – the hit HBO fantasy show Game of Thrones. With many sites across the area used as filming locations for the cult smash, themed bus tours ferry faithful fans around the real-life land of Westeros.

This has brought a welcome tourism boom not only to the causeway, but other coastal must-sees such as the nearby uninhabited Carrick-a-Rede island with its daunting rope bridge.

The wobbly bridge spans a dizzying gap and those brave enough to look down find they are almost 100ft above sea level.

The bridge was first erected for fishermen 350 years ago, and is now a favourite of bird watchers and thrill seekers alike. With staff telling us to hold on tight and stay single-file we edged forward. We couldn't resist looking downward though – it's the best place to view the clear green water splashing around the beauty spot. Those who hold their nerve and make it to the other side are rewarded with stunning views of Rathlin Island, the Causeway Coast and even Scotland on a clear day.

Entry, which includes a coastal walk through a Site of Special Scientific Interest with multiple viewing points before the bridge itself, is £5.90 for adults and £3 for children. Discount tickets for families are available at both sites.

Following Game of Thrones and its legions of fans, something called Star Wars also landed a bit further down the rugged coastline in County Donegal to film a few scenes recently. Another blockbuster boost to shores that are starting to show real star power. All welcome in this land of storytelling, but only time will tell if they can reach the heights of Finn and Ireland's own tall tales.

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