Volunteering in Northern Ireland at a food truck by the Giant’s Causeway was an absolute blast this summer, and a great way to get back into traveling after the world events this year. Unfortunately, I only went for a week, which wasn’t nearly enough time, especially with all the places in Northern Ireland to visit in my free time. I was just lucky to find the opportunity with Worldpackers.
Volunteering in Northern Ireland
First, a brief geography lesson. Northern Ireland is on the island called Ireland, but not part of the country called Ireland. It’s part of the United Kingdom, along with the three countries (England, Wales and Scotland) on the other big island (called Great Britain) in the British Isles. The British Isles are all the islands put together – Great Britain, Ireland, the Isle of Man, and all the other islands of the individual countries, like the Isle of Skye in Scotland.
Thus, volunteering in Northern Ireland follows the rules and regulations of volunteering in the UK, rather than the EU (European Union). Ireland (the country) is part of the EU, has the euro, and has different visa requirements. Legally, you need a work visa to volunteer in the UK or have British citizenship. However, there are many people who volunteer “under the radar.” There was an old Chinese lady in Northern Ireland who got stuck in the country during the lockdown and ended up helping out unofficially as a volunteer.
There aren’t currently a lot of volunteer opportunities in Northern Ireland. It’s a small country and, other than the Giant’s Causeway and a few Game of Thrones filming locations, there aren’t a lot of major tourist attractions. On the other hand, if you’re a fan of beautiful nature and scenery, it’s a great country to visit, although it’s better if you have your own mode of transportation.
Finn McCool’s Hostel and the Hungry Giant
Finn McCool’s Hostel is only about 300 feet from the visitor center of the Giant’s Causeway. The house was originally built nearly a century ago as social housing. Back then, it was a good idea to put that kind of house out in the remote countryside. Now it’s a highly coveted location with great views of Portballintrae Beach. The hostel has been there for a few years now, and the Hungry Giant food truck was added in August 2019.
I applied for the job through the Worldpackers volunteering website. After several months confined to Edinburgh, it was great to get out of the country, or rather to a different part of the UK, as Northern Ireland is still technically the same country. The hostel had remained open throughout the lockdown as a refuge to those stuck or stranded in Northern Ireland, and they were happy to accept volunteers to help out. Visitors were also picking up at the Giant’s Causeway for the end of the summer holidays, particularly Irish who had never visited the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
At the time of my arrival, two volunteers were already at the hostel, and two more arrived before I left. There weren’t a whole lot of jobs to do at the hostel, especially on weekdays. However, when I asked if the manager needed any help in the food truck on the basis of my past experience as a chef, he was happy to put me in there. For the next week, I served a steady stream of customers, especially on the weekend when I set the record for sales by a volunteer!
Living at the hostel was quite nice. For the first couple nights, I was able to stay in one of the regular dorms. After that, I moved into the volunteer’s room, a dorm behind the garage. One of the other volunteers was rather messy, but otherwise it wasn’t a bad room, although there was a bit of a debate on whether to have the heater on. The room seemed to be too hot when it was on, and too cold when it was off. The WiFi in the hostel was great (although it didn’t reach the volunteer’s room), and the views just couldn’t be beat.
When I arrived, I did a big online order for food for the week. There was a local market about three miles away from the hostel, but the prices were about twice as much as the big online supermarket, even with the delivery fee.
The Giant’s Causeway
The Giant’s Causeway is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Northern Ireland. The unique formation is made up of around 40,000 basalt columns that were created around 50 million years ago as the result of odd volcanic activity. Ther are other similar formations around the world, but this one is the largest group of columns.
The reason it’s called the Giant’s Causeway is connected to the mythical warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill, or Finn McCool as it’s written in English. According to legend, Fionn built the causeway to challenge the Scottish giant Benandonner to a fight. Upon seeing that Benandonner was far bigger than he was, he went home where his wife disguised him as their baby. The Scottish giant arrived and saw how big the baby was and how sharp his teeth were, and assumed the father must be much bigger than himself. So he turned tail and fled, destroying the causeway behind him.
The other end of the causeway is said to be Fingal’s Cave on Staffa Island in Scotland. That’s a place I’ve always had on my bucket list, but I’ve yet to make it there.
People have been going to the Giant’s Causeway for centuries, but it’s only since the 1700s when it really became popular after a watercolor painting was made of the location. In 1897, a law was set in place making the Giant’s Causeway a permanently free attraction. Then in 1986, it gained UNESCO World Heritage status. Since then, the National Trust has been purchasing the land around it and opened a visitor center in 2012. While it’s free to actually walk down to and on the causeway, parking at the visitor center costs a small fortune.
The Giant’s Causeway isn’t the only awesome feature in the area. Just a little ways further down the path is the Giant’s Organ where the basalt stones form the side of a cliff. In the distance are the Chimney Stacks with the columns rising in the air. A large, curved boulder on the beach is called the Giant’s Boot, and a slippery staircase leading up to the top of the cliffs (which is usually closed due to safety measures) is called the Shepherd’s Steps.
Exploring the Giant’s Causeway is definitely not a drive-by photo stop. In the week I was volunteering in Northern Ireland, I walked down to the causeway nearly every day and spent hours taking photos of the rocks and scenery, hiking the many trails along the cliffs and coast. If I were you, I’d plan to spend at least half a day at the Gaint’s Causeway.
Hitchhiking in Northern Ireland
As I wanted to keep the trip as budget-friendly as possible, I opted not to rent a car for the week. Instead, I relied on hitchhiking. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect after the world events of 2020 and how friendly the world would still be. I learned that people are still incredibly friendly, at least in Northern Ireland.
After getting out of the airport in Londonderry, I walked to the main highway (about half a mile away) and stuck out my thumb for a few minutes. A couple cars passed by and the drivers smiled at me, but no one stopped. Then I switched to the successful tactic of using a sign. I didn’t have any paper, but I was able to write the town I wanted to go to on my tablet and enlarge the font. I was actually surprised when the very next car stopped to pick me up! He had to do an errand on the way, but I was happy to wait in the car.
He couldn’t take me all the way to the Giant’s Causeway, but he brought me to the town halfway there, even driving me to a hamburger restaurant. He then did something completely unexpected…offering me buy me dinner! I was hesitant to accept, but he made it clear that it was just out of the goodness of his heart. To be honest, I love buying or cooking meals for my friends or Couchsurfing hosts and guests, and it’s quite nice to get the generosity back when I travel.
After dinner, it was only a few more minutes with my thumb out before another car stopped to pick me up and drive me directly to the hostel, which was a little out of their way but they were more than happy to help out.
Both drivers mentioned they were a little surprised to see hitchhikers, but they certainly weren’t put off from picking me up. In turn, I’ve always been happy to pick up hitchhikers when I’ve had my own vehicle (as long as I had room in the car). Sure, there are a handful of bad stories out there, but the evil people of the world are a) a tiny percentage and b) not limited to any country, group, activity, etc. Don’t let the insanity of a small handful of people put you off from following your dreams or trying something new. I’ve hitchhiked all around the world and only had good experiences. Anyway, rant over. On with the story.
Later in the week when I had a day off from the hostel, I hitchhiked out to Dunseverick Harbor and Waterfalls, and then to Ballintoy Harbor. Dunseverick was beautiful, but the waterfall was a little anticlimactic. There’s also the Dunseverick Castle, but the hostel manager said not to bother as it was just the remnants of one wall, which is what it looked like on Google Maps too. Ballintoy Harbor was far more interesting, as it’s also one of the filming locations for Game of Thrones.
After a really nice lunch at The Red Door Cafe, I made my way to Larrybane Quarry – another Game of Thrones filming location, and then to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. Unfortunately, the rope bridge was closed due to social distancing measures. After that, I wanted to get down to the Dark Hedges, but no one was going in that direction, and after a couple hours of trying, I finally got a lift back to the hostel.
Other Budget Tips for Volunteering in Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland isn’t that expensive of a country, and volunteering is a great way to stick to a budget. It’s quite easy to hitchhike along the coast and visit the key attractions, such as the Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge, Ballintoy Harbor (where they filmed scenes for Game of Thrones), Portballintrae Beach, Portrush, etc. Unfortunately, some of the attractions (like the Dark Hedges and Castle Ward a.k.a. Winterfell) are very difficult to get to if you don’t have your own mode of transportation.
If you’ve got the money, consider taking a tour such as with Shamrocker Adventures. The tours aren’t particularly cheap, but considering transportation and accommodations are both included, they’re a pretty good deal, especially if you want to cover a lot of ground in Ireland and Northern Ireland.
If you’re looking for food around the Giant’s Causeway, I have to throw in another plug for the Hungry Giant food truck. Their homemade burgers are delicious, and the prices are quite reasonable. Otherwise, I’d suggest stocking up on provisions at the large supermarkets in the cities (Belfast, Londonderry, Coleraine, etc) before heading out on your adventures. While working at the hostel, the online food purchase I made at the beginning of the week helped to keep my budget very low.
In fact, I was able to spend just over £100 ($130) for my entire trip to Northern Ireland, including the flights from Edinburgh. It would have been under £100, but we choose to make a detour into Belfast on the final day to see the city and attractions like the Titanic Belfast. We didn’t really have that much time before our flight back to Edinburgh, but it was certainly worth the extra couple pounds for the train ticket.
Sign up for Worldpackers
Worldpackers is my new favorite volunteer website. They’re a bit newer than Workaway and HelpX so they don’t have as many hosts, but the quality of their hosts seems to be a lot better. I’m already looking for my next assignment, although it looks like it might have to be next year as a lot of opportunities are closing down for the winter months.
The price for a Worldpackers membership is $49 a year. That’s a bit more than the $40 that Workaway charges, but if you click on this link to sign up, you can get a $20 discount, bringing the cost to a meager $29! Or use the promo code SKYETRAVELS when you sign up. Also, for a limited time, get a bonus 6 months on your membership for free! Join now!
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I believe that giving back in your travels is a huge plus, and I’ll always spend a few months out of every year doing volunteer jobs. Here are some more articles that cover volunteering, the pro’s and cons, and some of the experiences I’ve had.
- Is Workaway Worth It for a Budget Traveler?
- 5 Reasons Why Workaway Reviews Are Inaccurate and Could Be Improved
- My Workaway Experience in Brussels
- My Original Workaway Story for France
- My Workaway in France – A Story of Worst Case Scenario
- My Adventure with Zanzibara Campground via Workaway
- My First 3 Weeks Back in Europe, Helping on a Farm in Sweden
- My Five Weeks in Sjuntorp Could Have Been Better
- A Worldpackers Review and 5 Reasons It’s Better Than Workaway