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We’re funny (usually), controversial (sometimes) and insightful (always!). Our travel experts share their experiences below in hopes of hearing back from YOU. So read, comment and enjoy!

Posts in ‘Sightseeing & Culture’

New Year’s Kiss

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New Year's Kiss A friend once told me that her New Year’s resolution was to be kissed as the clock struck twelve on the first day of the New Year. So here are some great and different places that I would suggest for that magical kiss with that special someone:

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Famous for its Carnival, Rio is also great destination any other time of year. This is one of the few times of the year that the locals join the tourists for a great time! This celebration is on par with their Carnival and the fireworks are absolutely amazing. Dress up in white and share that New Years kiss on the beaches of Rio! And you cannot come all the way to Brazil without experiencing its rainforests, can you?

Venice, Italy

This small city in Italy is perfect for a New Year’s kiss. On the last night of the year, many restaurants in Venice have feasts starting from 9p.m. and lasting until midnight, with great food and cheap wine. Also, in St. Mark’s Square there is a huge celebration with music, fireworks and a huge group kiss at midnight. And nothing spells romantic like a gondola ride through the canals of Venice!

Cape Town, South Africa

Welcome the New Year dancing in Cape Town! Some of the hottest parties and celebrations are held in this seaside city, and you can have your special New Years Kiss while on the beach. You of course will have to try the wine while in South Africa, for it rivals even Italy for quality!

Hong Kong, China

Although the Chinese Lunar New Year does not coincide with December 31st, there are still celebrations held in Hong Kong! You will not be at a loss to find a popping party the night of. Top the Hong Kong experience off with your New Years kiss while LED lights count down the last 60 seconds of the old year! You cannot forget the wonderful beauty outside Hong Kong either, for China is home to some of the most breathtaking sights.

Sydney, Australia

Although not as typically romantic as European cities, Sydney has a lot to offer. Enjoy your New Year’s kiss as some of the first New Year’s fireworks in the world explode in the night sky amid music! The best part of being in Sydney at the end of the year is that it is not wintertime; you will be coming in the height of summer. You can spend your days at the beach, dolphin spotting and enjoying the Australian lifestyle!

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Doge’s Palace Venice

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The Palazzo Ducalo, Venice, also known as the Doge’s Palace, combined with St Mark’s Cathedral and St Mark’s Square make up the most beautiful architectural complex in the world. The Palace on its own is a very impressive complex. Every façade is really striking, whether you approach on a boat via the Lagoon or from La Piazza (St Marks’s Square).

For over a thousand years it was the residence and seat of the rulers, the Doges, of the Venetian Republic. In 1923, the palace was turned into a museum. Since then it has been one of the top draws in Italy with huge crowds going in and out of and around this pale chalky masterpiece of Venetian Gothic architecture and design.

Throughout its history, until it became a museum it has been a place where official, legal, political and commercial work took place. Its fabulous halls and rooms housed public offices, archives room, courtrooms, prisons, torture rooms, the Doge’s apartments, stables, armouries, and other facilities.

The structure, as it stands today, is the culmination of centuries of building, rebuilding, renovation, expansion and a variety of architectural styles. It has suffered the ravages of three devastating fires, the first in the 10th century, the next in 1483 and the last in 1547.  No traces of the original building remain but the result of the fires and the growth and power of the Venetian state saw additional construction and extensions to the structure.

Most of what we see today is the result of work started and directed by Doge Bartolomeo Gradenigo in 1340. His efforts were focused mainly on the side facing the lagoon. Before that other major works were carried out under Doge Sebastiano Ziani (1172–1178) and Doge Francesco Foscari who extended the building by raising a wing facing the Piazzetta (little Piazza). The highlights of this construction were the ground floor arcade, the delicately beautiful open loggias that run along the first floor, the internal courtyard and the lovely Porta della Carta.

Nearly every Venetian and Italian artist, architect and designer of note has contributed to the Palace at some time or the other. The fires may have destroyed many masterpieces, but they only inspired later exquisite works. Frescoes, paintings, sculptures, staircases, ceilings and nearly every corner and cornice has the touch of some master. Listing them and their works in the Palace would require a separate article to do any justice.

Today the entrance to the Palace is from the Porta Del Frumento leading to the Museo dell’Opera containing a profusion of sculptures. The upper floors are where the Doge’s apartments are located. The second floor contains the Institutional Chambers, the Armoury and the attic prisons (immortalised by the escape by Casanova).

Venice, especially the Palace, was famed for its intrigues, conspiracies, plots, shady politics and assassinations. This led to the construction of a series of backdoors, stairways, secret chambers and hidden corridors running through the Palace. To visit these areas you have to book a scheduled tour in advance. It is called the Secret Itinerary Tour and can only be done in the company of a guide.

A visit to the overwhelmingly marvellous Doge’s Palace generally finishes with a walk-through the attic prisons onto the New Prisons, which is reached by the world-renowned Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri). The Bridge is reputed to have acquired its name from the sigh of the prisoners as they trudged across never to beautiful Venice or the world again.

As you walk out, you too sigh, wishing you had more time to really take in all the Palace has to offer.

Visiting Hours: Daily 8:30 – 7:00 (closes 5:30 in winter), last admission one hour before closing. Closed January 1 and December 25

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Christmas Shopping in the Fashion Capitals of the World

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The Christmas season is upon us once again, and you know what that means- shopping! No matter how much you love to shop, at this time of year, it can get tedious. But why not combine travel to a fantastic city with that little bit of pleasure and pain? Here are some great ideas for your Christmas shopping:

Paris: Paris is well known as the city of love and lights, but it is also one of the oldest cities in the world.  In the Antique Shopping tour, you can acquire little pieces of its past! This tour ensures you do not go into Paris to face the many shopping options alone. Your guide will pick a market in Paris for you to visit, where you can either enlist your guide’s help in shopping, or go around on your own. Whether you’re looking for antique furniture, jewellery, or clothing, you’re sure to find it while on this tour. Antique items make a great and unique Christmas present for anyone, and you will be satisfied with the great prices!

Dubai: Dubai is not an ancient city like Paris, but it has been climbing the ranks in one of the most fashionable cities in the world. So why not treat yourself with a shopping tour with an expert guide? This tour will take you to some of the best malls and souks where you can get some amazing bargains! You will not only get to visit the more conventional malls, but also the more traditional markets and really get a feel for the city of Dubai.

Milan: Everyone knows that Milan is the capital of fashion, but Serraville Outlet is the capital of brand names. It’s the first designer outlet in Italy and the largest in Europe, and only 50 minutes outside the fashion capital! It is a huge area with 180 shops and boutiques of the most prestigious brands in a very pleasing surrounding.

London:  I’ve only been in London for a couple of months, but I’ve noticed that Londoners love their markets! The markets are absolutely amazing and provide unique and great presents for family and friends, and at great prices! You also don’t have to brave these London markets on your own; a guide can be with you. What’s even better, the tour is not the same every day, so you can go on the same tour twice, but get two totally different experiences!

New York City: New York City is well known worldwide for being a great destination for tourists, business, food, and of course, shopping. So it is no surprise that there is a Fifth Avenue Shopping Tour! On this tour you get to visit some of the most popular stores in the Big Apple. Not only that, but an expert stylist is your tour guide- so you can get clothes that fit your body and budget! This tour also includes coffee and cake at the famous Trump Tower. No matter what place you decide to visit for your Christmas shopping, you can be guaranteed a great shopping experience, a beautiful city, and great tours besides!

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Amsterdam Canals

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Flying into Amsterdam you could be forgiven for thinking that you were looking down on the film set of a Star Wars movie. The geometric, radiating belts that you see are defined by the 8 main canals that give Amsterdam its nickname of “Venice of the North.” With over a hundred kilometres of canals, spanned by more than 1,500 bridges the label is most fitting. Oh yes, it also contains around 90 islands! One of them, Java Island is man-made and was completed in 1995.
 
The canals were built in the 17th century, during what is regarded by the Dutch as their “Golden Age.” The first, oldest and innermost, the Singel, however dates back to 1480, when it was actually a defensive moat that protected medieval Amsterdam. Along with the Singel there are seven other major canals in the city of today.
 
Four of these, the Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht, Herengracht and Jordaan, were put on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2010. They also frame the precincts of the city centre. The buildings, mansions and property lining the banks of these four major canals are prime property, exclusive areas and very beautiful. Many of them date from the glory days of the Dutch.
 
The good burghers of Amsterdam have created some ostentatious homes along these waterways that have lovely inner gardens and old-style coach houses. One of these posh areas is called the Golden Bend. Streets in these areas are frequently recognised for their beauty.
 
Several of Amsterdam’s better known buildings can be found around these four major canals. They include Anne Frank’s House, Westerkerk (the tallest church in town) and the Homomonument (Gay Monument!) The canals also bear testament to the city’s past activities.
 
It was a major textile centre and port of destination for the Dutch merchant navy and the Dutch East India Company bringing their cargoes of spice, silks and other exotic products.   Many of those warehouses have become high-priced homes and apartments. Oh yes! It wouldn’t be Amsterdam if there no houseboats. Some of the loveliest and picturesque houseboats on the European continent can be found on these waterways.
 
With so much history, beauty and attractions lining the canals it is no wonder that cruises and hop-on-hop-off tours along them are popular. Where other countries indulge in street processions and cavalcades for visiting dignitaries, Amsterdam takes them on a cruise. Three million passengers a year attest to the fact that Amsterdam is best seen from the deck of a canal cruiser.

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Neuschwanstein Castle – A Fairy Tale Castle

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Driving through the Bavarian countryside close to the Austrian border is a trip into picture postcard land. The beauty of the green undulating country side and its lovely forests, which could get spooky in winter with mist drifting through it, is almost unreal.

The road climbs up to what are the lower foothills of the Alps till you get to the village of Hohenschwangau. That’s when you get a really good view of Neuschwanstein Castle.  Perched on the steep rugged hill above the village and rising above the surrounding trees, it is the castle you have seen in every illustrated fairy tale book. On one side are the rocky escarpments of the Tyrol Mountains and on the other are the Alpsee and Schwansee lakes.

All the elements are there. The startling white walls; slate grey, sloping roofs; high pointy turrets and innumerable windows, not to mention, the tall tower in one corner and you know you are in Disneyworld. Through this castle the tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm come alive.

Building started in September 1869 and though Ludwig II, moved in 1884, it had not really been completed then or now.  A three-nave church and “knights’ bath” were never built.  In fact, when he died Ludwig had spent only 172 days in the castle. Inspired by the Romanesque Revival style, the design borrows heavily from German legends, the classic castles of medieval knights and Ludwig’s own romanticised vision.

Inside, the decorations, paintings and furnishings pay homage to the grand operatic themes of Richard Wagner, the composer, and the epic German Lohengrin sagas. They are opulent, intricate and very elaborate with the figures all heroic in dimension and action.

As a visitor, be warned as there are plenty of steps to navigate. Tours to the castle are all guided and you cannot wander around on your own or at your own pace. There are several don’ts with no cameras being allowed one of them.  The tour takes about half an hour.

The northern and western sides of Neuschwanstein castle are undergoing restoration work and are not expected to be completed before the end of 2012.

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Visiting Greece

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Greece is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations – ranking in the world’s top 20 countries. The country’s beaches and reliable sunny summer weather coupled with its nightlife, historical sites and natural beauty are what attract tourists. Let’s have a look at some of the more prominent places to see or do when visiting Greece:

Athens City Sightseeing : This enchanting capital of Greece has loads to offer with its many modern and classical sites. Its wonderful culture makes the city a centre for philosophy, learning and the arts. From Acropolis and Parthenon, Tower of Winds, Panathinaikos Stadium to the New Royal Palace, to the Temple of the Olympian Zeus and Zappeion Gardens, you’ll see why Greece is such a tourist top spot.

Zakynthos: For beaches, sun and relaxation, Zakynthos is your place. The island, named after Zacynthos, son of legendary Arcadian chief Dardanos has a thriving tourism industry. Its northern and eastern shores contain numerous wide sandy beaches that are always packed with tourists in summer months. One amazing small beach here in the north is the Xigia beach that has underwater springs rich in sulphur, giving it a characteristic odour.

Santorini: Santorini is famous for its dramatic view – with the island essentially the remains after an enormous volcanic explosion. It is also famous for its stunning sunsets from Oia town, its strange white aubergine, the town of Thira and naturally its very own active volcano.

There are also naturally fantastic beaches such as the beach of Perissa, the black pebble beach of Kamari, white beach and red beach. The Greek island of Santorini also beckons visitors to explore the beautiful Aegean waters framed by steeped cliffs rising hundreds of feet skyward.

Mykonos Island Tour: It is probably the most popular Greek island due to its cosmopolitan atmosphere, its nightlife and gay community, as well as its magnificent golden sandy beaches with transparent waters. Besides these, Mykonos Island also has small white painted houses lined in paved alleys and hundreds of little family churches.

All in all, Greece is such a beautiful place that one should visit at least once during one’s lifetime. It has so much to offer to say the least.

 

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Explore Amsterdam

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Amsterdam is a city of dichotomies. Where else will you find coffee shops selling marijuana situated next to ancient churches? The city’s varied culture means there is an attraction guaranteed to pique the interests of every traveller. From the enlightening to the leisurely, here are the top things to do in Amsterdam:

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1. Canal Cruise

Amsterdam is connected by a series of canals, so one of the fastest (and most scenic!) ways to orientate yourself with the city is to go on a canal cruise. Relax aboard a guided tour and discover hidden treasures including houseboats and the splendid architecture of the many bridges. You’ll see there is a reason why Amsterdam is called “The Venice of the North.

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2. Red Light District tour

There is no other place comparable to Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light District. A tour of the district allows you to see past the often overwhelming spectacle of half-dressed girls and cannabis-shops aplenty and understand the history of the district. Informative, educational and amusing, a Red Light District tour will give you insight on a key aspect of Amsterdam’s culture.

3. Anne Frank’s House

Whether you have read Anne’s diary or not, when you walk in the same spots the Frank family spent years hiding from the Nazis, you just begin to comprehend their situation. Visiting Anne Frank’s House is a very emotional and eye-opening experience but one that you absolutely must do. At Otto Frank’s request, the house was left unfurnished after the Nazis raided it and the windows remain blacked out, offering you a glimpse of how they lived.

4. Bike Tour

Amsterdam’s preferred mode of transportation always amuses car-reliant travellers. (Have you seen a multi-storey bike parking lot before?) With the narrow streets and everything in close proximity, bikes are the quickest method of travel. Experience the city through the eyes of a local and go on a bike tour. Nervous about pedalling around a foreign city? Don’t worry as there are special bike lanes and lights and you’re more likely to come across fellow cyclists than cars. And of course, don’t forget to wear your helmet!

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5. Keukenhof

If you fancy a quick day trip out of the heart of the city, visit the picturesque Keukenhof gardens. There is a reason it is one of the most popular gardens in the world with its immaculate flower displays that literally go on for miles. (It is the largest flower bulb park in the world after all!) Every year a staggering seven million flower bulbs are planted in accordance to a specific theme. Time is of the essence as the garden is only open from about March to May because of the flowering season.

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Diamond Jubilee Events

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Imagine doing your job for 60 years without a real vacation or sick day? That is something worth being honoured for! The Royal Family are attending numerous engagements, not just in the UK, but in far-reaching places of the Commonwealth from Jamaica to Australia, to commemorate the Queen’s impressive six decades as Monarch. The celebrations will culminate with a series of spectacular events on ‘The Central Weekend,’ 2-5 June 2012. Here are just some of the not-to-be missed activities:

1.      The Big Jubilee Lunch – Sunday 3 June, 2012

Every good celebration involves food, so get together with your friends, family and neighbourhoods and celebrate the Jubilee by sharing a meal. The idea comes from the Big Lunch initiative whose goal is to foster a sense of community and togetherness among residents. After all, nothing bonds people more than breaking bread. If you’re in the UK, your local authority may already have a party planned so contact them directly to find out further details. Not in the area? You can still get in on the action and host your own Big Jubilee lunch in your hometown, be it a street party, picnic or celebration in your backyard.

2.     The Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant – Sunday 3 June, 2012

A thousand boats will join Her Majesty and The Duke of Edinburgh as they travel in their Royal Barge from Battersea Bridge to Tower Bridge, in one of the largest flotillas ever on the River Thames. Roads and bridges will be closed so people can gather along the Thames to view the spectacle and viewing screens will be set up, if you don’t get a spot at the front!

3.      BBC Concert at Buckingham Palace – Monday 4 June, 2012

If you were lucky enough to score tickets to this prime event, you’ll see some of the best of British perform at Buckingham Palace. The line up includes Jessie J, JLS, Elton John, Tom Jones, Annie Lennox, Sir Paul McCartney, and Ed Sheeran, just to name a few. For the rest of us, the concert will be broadcast live in the UK and around the world.

4.      Carriage Procession and Flypast – Tuesday 5 June, 2012

The final day of the Jubilee celebration is jam-packed full of activities. After The Queen attends a special service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, a reception and a Jubilee lunch, she and the other members of the Royal Family will travel along a Processional Route by Carriage from the Palace of Westminster to Buckingham Palace. At Buckingham Palace, the Royal Family will make an appearance on the balcony and there will be a Flypast. For front row seats, you better starting queuing now!

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Exploring Vietnam

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Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Nobody had really thought of Vietnam as a tourist destination, until the early 1990s when people have awoken up to discover what a hidden gem of an attraction it really is. Vietnam is truly blessed with soaring mountains, dramatic coastlines, bold landscapes, green rice fields, exotic temples and pagodas, sandy beaches and thatched bamboo huts. It also has a vibrant culture and tradition. In short, Vietnam has it all!

Places to See in Vietnam:

Hoi An, Hanoi, Hue and Ho Chi Minh City are all interesting cities to visit.

Hue: Hue (pronounced ‘hway’) is the ancient capital of Vietnam and has many historical sites that are very much worth-visiting. If you are a history or culture buff, Hue is your place – you can rent a bike and ride all around inside the Citadel, the Imperial City.

Ho Chi Minh City: Saigon, as it is more commonly called locally, is the largest city in Vietnam and has many sites to see – the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, War Remnants Museum, Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens, Notre Dame Cathedral and Culture Park.

Hanoi: Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam is another very interesting city that provides  rich traditional culture and charming landscapes – with many lakes and trees. Check out the Old Town (36 streets).

Hoi An: Da Nang, in Hoi An town has a nice, calm view. You can also sun bath at Cua Dai beach. There is an estimated 300 to 500 tailors working in this awesome city, making it a fashionista heaven.

For other specific attractions, lying west of Ho Chi Minh City is Mekon Delta – well-known for its rice fields, sleepy villages, orchards and canals. A cruise on Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site will also surely amaze you with its thousands of islands and rocks of different shapes and sizes. For beach lovers, Phu Quoc Island has a natural white-sand beach with fresh seafood; and Nha Trang, located about 10 hour by train from Ho Chi Minh City is another beach city.

Affordability :

A trip to Vietnam will definitely not cost you a bomb; things are pretty cheap here. In fact, it is considered one of, if not the best value destination by many tourists. You can pack light and buy hats, flip-flops and T-shirts in the city itself for next to nothing, which you can toss when you are finished with the trip.

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Experiencing St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland

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Experiencing St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland

St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Saturday this year, giving you a great chance to get away for the weekend and experience an authentic St. Patrick’s Day, and other fantastic adventures that only Ireland has to offer.

1.) Cut Loose the Irish Way

The St. Patrick’s Day Festival:

The St. Patrick’s Day Fesitval is a great way to experience authentic Irish culture on such a special holiday. The festival takes place in Dublin and is known to last for around four days (this year it begins Friday March 16 and ends Monday March 19).

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Some of the world’s best street performers and musicians can be found on Dublin’s streets during these four days. Also be on the look out for some great free concerts, with local and international bands, along with great theatre performances and even a Russian spectacular show.

The Guinness Brewery & Storehouse:

Another great way to celebrate Ireland and its fantastic pub culture is to partake in the Guinness Brewery & Storehouse experience, home to Ireland’s most beloved beer- the Guinness Draught. The brewery, located in Dublin since 1759, is a key contributor to Guinness’s 2 billion dollar a year revenue. The tour includes several floors to experience the history behind Guinness, with even a glass pint-shaped atrium tribute to the Guinness “black stuff”. Tours of the brewery usually finish up at the Gravity Bar, a bar with a 360 degree panoramic view of Dublin situated atop the famed storehouse.

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2.) Get Your Irish Knowledge On!

Although you may know the origin and story of St. Patrick’s Day, other cultural and historical tales from Ireland are important and interesting ways to enhance your trip. There are many castles, monuments and sites to be seen that hold signifigant value to the Irish people, but the Tomb of Newgrange is certainly one of the coolest.

The Tomb of Newgrange:

The Tomb of Newgrange is one of the oldest historical sites in the world, dating back before Stonehenge and even the pyramids of Giza. Although called a tomb, there’s still no official account for what the site was used for, although many believe it was connected with burial rituals and the Winter Solstice. What IS known about the historical structure is that it dates all the way back to the Neolithic period and is considered Ireland’s greatest national monument.

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The tomb resembles a giant mound with alternate layers of stones and grass to make up the outter structure of the building. The tomb has three small rooms, which all connect to the one main room. Rock slabs line the walls of the tomb, along with a slab centered in the middle of the room, which the bones of the deceased are believed to be laid. The Neolithic abstract art of carved swirls and shapes only add to the mysterious beauty of the tomb.

3.) Find the Beauty of Ireland

Part of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day is by embracing the Irish culture and the beauty of Ireland. No better place can this be achieved than Ireland’s coast, which offers several mesmerizing landmarks and sites that will surely enhance and enrich your trip. Beautiful hills, valleys and look out points scatter the 120 mile long route known as the Causeway Coastal. Although the route has many stops, the most famous of them defintely belongs to the Giant Causeway.

The Giant Causeway:

Located in Northern Ireland in Antrim County The Giant Causeway is the biggest tourist attraction in all of Ireland. The Giant Causeway is primarily known for its basalt stepping stones and 40,000 chimney stack columns which slowly descend into the sea, giving it the title of the fourth greatest natural wonder in the United Kingdom. The Causeway was created some 50 million years ago, when the Antrim coast was subjected to intense volcanic activity.

Many legends surround the Causeway, with the most popular focusing on the Irish warrior Finn McCool, who outwit and frightened his enemy Benandonner, who fled from McCool and destroyed the Causeway in his flight. The Giant Causeway can be seen as a jump off point for a truly exciting road trip all along Ireland’s coast, with many more memorable stops on the way.

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The Glens of Antrim

The nine Glens of Atrim is more inland than the Giant Causeway, but is defintely worth the ride. The nine Glens of Atrim is named after the nine lords from the 13th century and is a prime example of beautiful green rolling hills and lush flowers that call Ireland home.

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