THE much-anticipated £18.5 million Giant’s Causeway visitor centre opened its glass doors to the public on Tuesday 3 July – and was immediately hailed as one of the “brightest jewels” in Northern Ireland’s tourism crown.
The National Trust project – built at the Unesco World Heritage Site – has been designed to complement the dramatic landscape, with a sloping grass roof supported by columns similar to the world-famous attraction.
The centre – which features exhibitions on the stories and the science behind the Giant’s Causeway – has already won an award for innovative design and sustainability.
Visitors, the first of whom were the First and Deputy First Minister, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, will be taken on a virtual journey to hear the story of the stones and the legend of Finn McCool, who reputedly created the Causeway to fight a Scottish rival. On seeing Finn disguised as a baby, the competitor fled, ripping up the ground and leaving the Causeway in his wake.
Walks and trails around the site have also been upgraded, with the addition of a new accessible cliff-top walk for families and those with disabilities.
Around 600,000 people visit the Giant’s Causeway every year – but it’s hoped the new facilities will see visitor numbers soar by another 40,000.
Mr Robinson said: “It [the centre] showcases one of the brightest jewels in our crown – the only World Heritage Site on this island now has a visitor centre that befits its unique status.
“The remarkable history of these stones and the history of this part of the country can be told using the very latest interactive technology.”
John Kay, 95, who lives on the north coast, was a flag boy who used to direct trams between nearby resorts and the Causeway in 1931 and was paid a tuppence a day.
He met Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness at the key-turning ceremony.
Mr Kay said he thought the new centre was “very elaborate”.
The First Minister said imaginative schemes such as the Causeway visitor centre will help transform the Province into a world-class destination.
His Stormont colleague, Mr McGuinness, added: “Against the backdrop of a world recession and very difficult economic circumstances, this is our fightback.”
The decision to rebuild the centre follows years of controversy after the original centre burned down in 2000.
The new centre will have longer opening hours over the summer and will be serviced by a park-and-ride facility from nearby Bushmills.
In 1986, Unesco declared the Giant’s Causeway to be a World Heritage Site.
In 2007, the then Environment Minister, Arlene Foster, announced she was minded to let property developer Seymour Sweeney’s company Seaport Investments Ltd build the centre.
However that decision was reversed months later.
In January 2009, Mrs Foster’s ministerial successor, Sammy Wilson, gave approval to the National Trust’s plan for new facilities.
Giant’s Causeway project director, Graham Thompson, said: “This is a significant milestone for the National Trust in Northern Ireland and is the culmination of years of working in partnership with stakeholders in the community, the business sector, and government and political arenas. This reflects our commitment to the tourism industry and Northern Ireland confidently moving on.”
Max Bryant, general manager of North Coast property for the National Trust, said he joined the Trust four years ago, “the week they put in for planning permission for this building”.
“I am delighted with the building. It does what it is designed to do both from an architectural perspective and from the visitor experience perspective,” he said.
“It has always been about more than just a pile of stones. It is about the people of the area, the whole north Antrim coast and Northern Ireland and the fact people come for the beauty of the landscape and to meet the people. They also find out what happens in the local area. It is all about people.”
Mr Bryant added that the centre was “a whole new experience for visitors”.
“They can go through and enjoy the active interpretation area, before picking up the free audio guide, voiced by local actor Conleth Hill, and take that to the stones,” he said.
Admission to the centre costs £8.50 for adults and £4.25 for kids. A family ticket for two adults and up to three children costs £21.