Northern Ireland has recovered from years of violent political conflict, better known as "the Troubles," and emerged as a rugged travel destination for serious hikers, cyclists, and rock climbers. It's clear why. The region, set on the northeast corner of Ireland a ferry ride from Scotland, was carved by glaciers during the Ice Age and is now a mix of wide valleys, low mountains, and steep cliffs marking the North Channel coast.
With options that range from the classic (hiking, canoeing, cycling) to offbeat and pulse-racing (paragliding, rally racing, scaling sea cliffs), the hardest part about visiting can be choosing what to do.
"The terrain is diverse, from one of the most rugged coastlines in the world to mountains, caves, and lakes," says Padraic Woods, author of 30 Irish Adventures. "And everything can be reached in a four- or five-hour drive."
For downhill thrills, try mountainboarding in the Mourne Mountains. It’s a cross between snowboarding and skateboarding, done on a wheeled board. The Irish championship course boasts a demanding dirt track – and grass slopes for beginners.
Northern Ireland's inland also hosts some of Europe's toughest rock-climbing routes. The epicenter is the Mourne Mountains, featuring granite outcrops and more than 1,000 graded routes. "All of the crags have character," says Trevor Fisher, instructor at Tollymore Mountain Centre, which offers weekend courses that begin on climbing walls before heading into the mountains. For bragging rights, attempt Buzzard's Roost, host of the notorious Divided Years, once the world’s most difficult climb.
Where surf hits rock, you'll find the obscure sport of coasteering. Wearing wetsuits, flotation devices, and helmets, participants play in the 12-foot zone where land and sea battle it out. "It's liquid adventure," says John Keating, a guide at the Life Adventure Centre. "The rocks are trying to scrape you, and waves are trying to pull you off the rocks." Bouldering and cliff jumping add to the rush. Highlights near the Blue Quarry include leaping from a rock bridge into a sea cave.
On Northern Ireland's western border, you can also learn to maneuver a real armored tank, then crush a small car with it. Adventure Tours Northern Ireland lets you get behind the wheel of an ex-British Army FV432 tank – an eery echo of past violence – and navigate a rugged course. As for the car crushing: "Sometimes the windows explode or the roof gets ripped off," says chief instructor Marcus Griffin.
More information: On the southeastern tip of the region in Castlewellan is Hillyard House, a small inn that serves local seafood and is close to Maginns, the town's most popular pub. In Derry, on the northwestern end of the region near Ireland, guests at Tower Hotel Derry can see where the Battle of the Bogside took place from the hotel gym.