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 Winterfell, 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 have seized the chance to visit some of the filming locations scattered across Northern Ireland. About 75 percent of the show is filmed 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.
Siobhan Starrs recounts her journey in Northern Ireland on "Game of Thrones" tour:
First I traveled north, to the Antrim Coast, whose scenic glens and coves play host to numerous "GoT" dramas, on a one-day tour organized by McComb's Travel.
Pictured: Dunluce Castle built on a headland that drops straight into the sea along the North Antrim coast in Northern Ireland. The castle dates back to the 14th century. The castle doubles as Pyke on the Iron Islands on HBO's "Game of Thrones."
McComb's Travel started these bus tours a year ago. Co-owner Caroline McComb tells me they appeal to a new demographic of tourist: the "Throners," generally younger than 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. A bonus is the traditional "hundred thousand welcomes" from the locals in Northern Ireland, who have a tale or two to tell of their own and legends to rival those written by George R.R. Martin.
Pictured: A scene from the HBO series "Game of Thrones" filmed at Magheramorne Quarry in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Magheramorne is a tiny hamlet of about 75 people. The limestone quarry, Larrybane Quarry, has been the primary location for Castle Black and the Wall in the first season.
Ballymoney, 'The Dark Hedges'
Our first stop is 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.
Pictured: "The Dark Hedges" in County Antrim in the town of Armoy, one of the most photographed natural phenomena in Northern Ireland.
People don't often visit Ireland in the hope of fine weather, but I was blessed with blue skies and glistening seas. The picturesque Ballintoy Harbour 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.
Pictured: Ballintoy Harbour served as Lordsport Harbor on the Iron Islands in the second season of the show.
Theon Greyjoy in Ballintoy
A scene filmed in Ballintoy, Northern Ireland, with "Game of Thrones" star Alfie Allen who plays Theon Greyjoy. This served as the backdrop to antihero Greyjoy's homecoming.
Larrybane quarry in Cushendun
The Larrybane quarry on the Antrim Coast will be recognizable 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.
Pictured: The "Game of Thrones" filming locations Larrybane and Carrick-a-Rede are in the town of Cushendun. The Cushendun caves are the locale where Melisandre gives birth to the shadow baby in Season 2.
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
A short coastal footpath leads to Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. On the way, there are wonderful vantage points to stop and take in the natural beauty. The geology, flora and fauna have won Carrick-a-Rede recognition as an area of special scientific interest. Fulmars, kittywakes, guillemots and razorbills breed on the islands close to the rope bridge.
North Antrim Coast
Tourists pose on June 13, 2014 for photographs on the North Antrim Coast close to Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge and the Larrybane headland. Larrybane was the dramatic spot chosen for Renly Baratheon's camp in Season 2 of "Game of Thrones."
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 "GoT"). A four-mile promontory made of huge, interlocked basalt columns rises from the North Atlantic as if it was 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.
Pictured: The iconic Giant's Causeway, a natural wonder on the Causeway Coastal Route.
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.
Pictured: The Mourne Mountains are a granite mountain range located in County Down in the south-east of Northern Ireland, and are among the most famous of the mountains in Ireland.
Tollymore Forest was a favorite spot for many outings of my childhood; memories of negotiating steppingstones over the Shimna River came back as I wandered through woodland glades enjoying the dappled sunshine.
On-screen, 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.
Pictured: "Game of Thrones" filming location Tollymore Forest Park in County Down in the town of Newcastle.
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.
Pictured: "Game of Thrones" filming location Riverland at Inch Abbey in the town of Downpatrick.
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 on-screen and getting archery tips from a Stark look-alike. Groups can also book medieval-style banquets.
Pictured: "Game of Thrones" tourists take part at Clearsky Adventure Center, which has built an exact replica of Winterfell Archery range in the same spot where filming took place at Castle Ward, Strangford in Northern Ireland.
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.
Pictured: Robb Stark's Camp, a "Game of Thrones" filming location, at Audley's field in Strangford Lough. Not far away is Audley’s Field on the shore of Strangford Lough is where Jaime Lannister was captured -- and released.
My quest complete, I discarded my cloak and returned to my clan.
Pictured: "Game of Thrones" fans stop for a picture on their way to Audley's Field and castle in Strangford in Northern Ireland. Audley's Field and castle were used for filming Season 1 as King Robert Baratheon and his retinue arrive at Winterfell.
If you go ... McComb's Tours
McComb's Tours offers one-day trips from Belfast including "Game of Thrones" sites. The northern trip, "All Aboard to Westeros," to Antrim Coast includes Dark Hedges, Ballintoy and Giant's Causeway, $50. Runs every day except Tuesday and Friday. The trip south to County Down, "Winterfell Is Coming," includes Tollymore, Inch Abbey and Winterfell at Castle Ward, $60. Runs Tuesday and Friday. Moderate fitness ability recommended. For more information visit mccombscoaches.com.
Pictured: "Game of Thrones" filming location Polnagollum Cave near Belmore Mountain.
If you go ... 'Winterfell Experience'
"Winterfell Experience," Castle Ward Estate, Strangford, Downpatrick. Interact and role-play at 10 locations on the Castle Ward estate that are featured in "Game of Thrones." Prices start at $38; gameofthrones-winterfelltours.com for more information.
Pictured: Slemish Mountain in County Antrim and the home of Saint Patrick, which looms over Shillanavogy valley. In "Game of Thrones," these are the Dothraki grasslands, where Dany first learns what being a khaleesi means.
'Game of Thrones' Tours
The “Game of Thrones" Tours leave from Belfast or Dublin to County Down filming sites, including Tollymore and the Castle Ward. Both tours involve a walking tour of about four miles, $60. For more information, visit gameofthronestours.com.
Pictured: With views of Rathlin Island and the Scottish mainland is Murlough Bay. Visitors have to follow a narrow road winding down a steep incline, and some simply give up and go to one of the more-accessible strands. “Game of Thrones" actress Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark) loved shooting at Murlough Bay because she used to swim there as a child. This was also the backdrop for Theon Greyjoy and Asha riding to the road to Pyke.