Overnighting on NI’s only inhabited island holds more than a touch of the Robinson Crusoe's. Stretching seven miles from tip to tip, Rathlin’s distinct L-shape lies just six miles from Ballycastle and 15 miles from Scotland’s Mull of Kintyre.
The island may be one of those places you see on a map and think ‘I keep meaning to go there’, but with regular ferry crossings, several accommodation options and such a fascinating story to tell, our advice is just do it.
Rathlin Island Ferry Ltd. operates several daily crossings connecting Rathlin with Ballycastle making it a very streamlined and affordable trip. Sailing time is 25mins on the passenger-only Rathlin Express and 45mins on the larger new Spirit of Rathlin which also carries a few vehicles – though, thankfully, tourist cars are not allowed on the island.
Journeys cost: adult/child return £12/6. Family 2+2 day return £32. NI Smart Pass Senior Citizens travel free and their RoI counterparts pay £10. U5 free. Bicycles can be taken across for £3.30. Book ahead via www.rathlinballycastleferry.com or tel. 028 2076 9299.
The Manor House looms large on arrival at Church Bay. This beautiful late Georgian whitewashed dwelling is owned by the National Trust and, following a seriously impressive revamp, is run by the exuberant Brian and Genevieve as the island's main accommodation and dining experience.
The welcoming reception area features a grand open fireplace and cosy seating where you can linger over a book or daily newspaper and have a Rathlin Red Ale from the bijou bar. The views throughout are, unsurprisingly, phenomenal, with ten of its 11 rooms en-suite and overlooking the NI 'mainland'.
Rooms range from single (£65), standard (£95) or superior (£100-120) to the Manor House Suite (£125-160) whose double/twin plus sofa bed can accommodate a family or group of up to four friends. All feature stunning supersized Rathlin photographs as bedheads, with TV and tea & coffee facilities upping the home-from-home ambience.
After your sound night's sleep, hearty cooked breakfasts set you up for some outdoor island exploration. While The Island Restaurant and Lighthouse Cafe take the sea's bounty as dining inspiration, with local produce served as standard. To book your island escape contact www.manorhouserathlin.com, tel. (+44) (0)28 2076 0046.
Beyond Manor House, food is available at McCuaig's Bar (with pool table and free WiFi) and the Watershed Cafe. A few more B&B, self-catering and hostel options cater for all budgets.
Following a recent population explosion, Rathlin now boasts 140 residents. That number is significantly swelled, however, when, from May to August, tens of thousands of nesting puffins, guillemots, gannets and kittiwakes call its craggy cliff stacks home. Two minibuses (payable) run daily from the ferry to the RSPB Seabird Centre at the West Lighthouse (£5/2.50 adult/child).
Descend 89 steps and you’re rewarded with the magnificent sight of one of Europe's largest seabird colonies. What at first seems like a homogeneous swarm of white dots soon comes into focus as RSPB volunteers hand out binoculars and telescopes and reveal the amazing spectacle. Your entrance includes access to the upside down lighthouse – the red light looking like it has fallen from its towering perch – houses a museum detailing its history, inhabitants and the island's sealife.
Exploring the undulating landscape on foot or by bicycle (cycle hire is available on the island) is a must. From the National Trust-owned Ballyconagan Waymarked Trails to the seal colony on the eastern tip, every road leads to a new ‘wow factor’ view or up-close encounter with nature.
Delve into the island’s precarious past at the compact yet replete Rathlin Boathouse Visitor Centre and read up on the 8th Century Viking pillage, 16th Century massacre, numerous shipwrecks (including WW1 Royal Navy flagship HMS Drake) and a certain meeting between Robert the Bruce and a cave-dwelling spider. And pop into Breakwater Studio where artist Yvonne Braithwaite has created a beautiful shop filled with her island-inspired work.
Marconi’s first commercial wireless telegraphy link (between Ballycastle and Rathlin’s East Lighthouse) in 1898 and Richard Branson’s 1987 trans-Atlantic balloon crossing splashdown complete the island’s modern lore.
As local destinations go, they don’t come much more enchanting than this. In fact, you may return to the rat race and pine for the quieter life left in your wake. For lots more info, check out the website listed above.