Castle Ward The Real Winterfell

Game of Thrones Tour – Northern Ireland

In Featured Travelers by Kate Wasserman1 Comment

When I left my hotel for the Game of Thrones tour, it was still dark and wet outside. It had clearly rained overnight. The meeting location for the bus was not nearly as close as the Cliffs of Moher tour but I decided to walk anyway. About 30 minutes later I was in front of Jury’s Inn Custom House where a crowd had started gathering. With CIE’s tour of Britain, I was one of the younger people in the group. Here I could have been the mother of 80% of those in attendance. Some guy was wearing a shirt that said “Snow Lives”. There were a lot of Americans on this tour.

During the ride up to Northern Ireland, we watched some Behind The Scenes thirty-minute documentary on Season 1 of Game of Thrones. Many of the locations we were to visit as part of the tour were from the first two seasons. Dorothy, our tour guide, tested the attendees on their knowledge of Game of Thrones. Those who were caught cheating would lose their hand reminiscent of Jamie Lannister and anyone in attendance who couldn’t get one right isn’t worthy of being on the bus and would lose their head like Ned Stark. Well, fortunately nobody was beheaded or behanded. I didn’t do so well because a few of the questions were more behind the scenes and about the actors. One guy got all 10 questions right and he was designated as the “King of the North” who got special props at the end of the tour.

At last we arrived at our first stop, Tollymore National Park, which is a forest that occupies 1600 acres. The tour provides cloaks —some lined with real animal fur, others with faux fur—for the tour attendees to wear on their trek through the woods. Again, it was not freezing. It was somewhat cold and I knew that a 4 mile hike would warm my body up real fast so I left my winter coat on the bus and there was no way I was putting on one of those silly cloaks. I was the most scarcely bundled person in the group when we started our trek. I had a long sleeve shirt and a vest on.  At first it was cold and I cursed myself for not being better prepared but in about 20 minutes I was so glad to be wearing what I was while many of the cloak wearers were fanning themselves.

Game of Thrones Tullymore Forest

Tollymore is fantastic. There were patches of fog and barely any sunshine but as we progressed the sun came out and the fog burned off. It was amusing watching all these people in dark,  medieval cloaks roaming through the forest only to stop, pose and take a selfie with their phone (some with selfie sticks).  There’s no escaping selfies while touring.

It is not an easy hike. The tour guide said there were steep inclines and dirt trails. It started on a relatively flat path into the forest. We then turned right and walked down a very steep hill with rough terrain. It was incredibly quiet and peaceful. We continued down the right side of a river that possessed intermittent waterfalls as it streamed downhill. We walked uphill and then across a bridge and ventured onto the opposite side of the river and began an ascent uphill.

Game of Thrones TreeDorothy stopped and showed us a spot where F’s were written in pink chalk on designated trees. She said this indicated that this was a reserved shooting area for Game of Thrones. We continued to walk uphill and veered left venturing deeper into the woods when we came across an open area. Dorothy stopped and then pulled out a book containing stills of various scenes from GoT. A particular scene was shot in this spot that was in the first few minutes of the first episode and it involves a massacre that a character stumbles upon.

It was so graphic that the first time I tried watching GoT, I couldn’t get past the first few minutes because I thought it was way too violent and left me feeling really disturbed. Friends and family kept urging me to give it another chance. I did about a year later and was pulled into it and got through 4 seasons in 2 weeks. I told Dorothy this story and she said that she tells everyone if they can just get through the first two episodes, they will be hooked. The first two episodes are very shocking and graphic but by the 3rd episode you’re so invested in the characters and care what happens to them, that you accept the violence as a byproduct of the storytelling.

Dorothy displayed a still image in her book from the scene that was shot at this location and then mapped everything out in the scene.  She then broke out her tablet and played the scene so we could see how everything was laid out. This set the tone for the rest of the tour both here during this first trek as well as the second one. We’d walk and admire the beautiful scenery, stop, Dorothy would break out the book and discuss interesting facts about the scene and then she’d play the relevant scene (or scenes) on her tablet. To map out every single scene from the tour would be tedious and besides, you really have to be there to fully experience how cool it is.

One thing that occurred to me throughout our walk in Tollymore is that you don’t need to be a Game of Thrones fan to appreciate this tour. Tollymore is an amazing place to commune with nature and I cannot imagine anyone going there and not being gratified on some level.  There were a number of Game of Thrones scenes in Tollymore that Dorothy showed us and then it was time for us to head back to the bus. We took a roundabout track walking across stones placed on the river, ascended upwards till we were looking down into a deep crevice where the river flowed. It was really fantastic.

GoT Tour Tollymore National Park Northern Ireland

Before I knew it, we were back on the bus and pulling out of Tollymore. The walk was intense and I felt like I had a bit of a workout but ultimately, I felt great. Dorothy told me that the tour is booked solid at least 2 weeks in advance. Sometimes people show up at the meeting destination to see if there were any cancellations. She has guided sold out Game of Thrones tours through Tollymore National Park in a torrential downpour. People from all over the world come for this tour and are willing to withstand anything Mother Nature has to offer. It has been so bad that people have been forced to make stops to dump water out of their shoes. That put it in perspective for me and I realized how fortunate I was that I was able to dress so moderately in the middle of the fall in Ireland and enjoy this amazing scenery.

Dire Wolf from Game of ThronesNext stop on the tour was Paddy’s Barn in Northern Ireland. Dorothy said it was a nice pub but then again so did my tour guide yesterday when we stopped in Doolin and that pub wasn’t as nice as she made it sound. I was delighted when Paddy’s Barn turned out to be a really cute restaurant. We were greeted with that Irish hospitality. I had a goat cheese salad that was really quite good. Dorothy then told us she had some surprised guests who were stars on the Game of Thrones. It was two of the Stark dire wolves, Thor and Auden. After lunch, I went to meet them. The owners are definitely trying to capitalize on the success of Game of Thrones. There was a table set up selling t-shirts and other paraphernalia about the dire wolves. The father had a book of Game of Thrones memorabilia including a cigarette butt from Kit Harrington. The dogs were lovely and really cute. On the outskirts of Paddy’s Barn is a view of St. Patrick’s Church that Dorothy pointed out.

From there we were off to Castle Ward, the ruins of an old Northern Ireland castle that was used to represent Winterfell. This was the second trek of the Game of Thrones tour and was a lot less challenging than the first as the terrain was relatively flat with a few mild inclines. There was a huge body of water along the trail known as Strangford Lough. Dorothy, again, stopped along the way and showed us pictures of the actual scenes from Game of Thrones so we could align it with the real location.

What was really surprising was discovering just how much of the Game of Thrones set is altered by CGI. Castle Ward is not as elaborate as Winterfell but with CGI, they have added to it and altered certain things that would not translate well to medieval times. Even trees were implanted via CGI special effects. And whole towns like Portaferry (the oldest running ferry in the world) were removed from the distant landscape. The property was beautiful even if you erase the fact that Game of Thrones was shot there (but when you factor that in, it makes it double special).

Game of Thrones Ireland Tour ImmersionOnce we ended our second trek, we headed back on the bus. Since daylight was becoming scarce and we had fulfilled our “two treks” as promised in the tour itinerary, I thought we were done. I was pleasantly surprised when we made one more stop… the ruins of a monastery called Inch Abbey. I had avoided wearing one of those silly cloaks all day long but Dorothy said for the last stop EVERYONE had to put on a cloak and grab some of the props like swords and helmets and shields. Dorothy went over one last location vs scene breakdown and then we were free to roam and play with each other in our cloaks.

As I understand it there are a number of Game of Thrones tours in Ireland and what sets this apart from some of the others is the immersion factor. You really are living Game of Thrones from the moment the bus picks you up to the moment it drops you off. Yes, you are experiencing Ireland and seeing historical sites in the process but never do they let you forget that the reason you are here is because Game of Thrones, the epic HBO drama, is shot here regularly. In between stops on the bus, we are watching either short documentaries on Game of Thrones or we are watching full episodes.

These people are hardcore about their GoT. The American “King of the North” who got all ten questions said he wanted to find out how to become an extra. Dorothy our tour guide told me she has seen the first season five times. There were a number of solo travelers who traveled long distances for their authentic Game of Thrones experience. For me, that’s what made the tour so unique and what set it apart from all the other tours I’ve taken throughout the course of the last two weeks —the passion of everyone there and the universal bond of Game of Thrones.

Inch Abbey Game of Thrones Tour

I highly recommend it for anyone who is a Game of Thrones enthusiast and even for those who aren’t but who love to see all that nature has to offer. At the end of the day, when you factor in all the walking I did (the tour plus getting to and from the meeting place), I walked about six miles so if you’re in love with hiking and nature, then regardless of how you feel about Game of Thrones, you should consider this tour. It’s well worth it.


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