It's a chilly winter afternoon, and the sky above Strangford Lough is pure blue, dotted with a few fluffy clouds. The still water crisply reflects an island with one tree sticking up in the middle and a village at the far end.
Those assembled stop admiring the view and squint instead at an iPad being held aloft by our guide.
We're not here for the scenery; this is a Game of Thrones tour, so we stop only at places where specific scenes in the HBO television series were shot. We try to figure out where the camera must have stood; where our favourite characters sat; which parts of the landscape were digitally altered to include buildings and extra rocks.
In various locations around Northern Ireland, Arya Stark makes her escape from King's Landing; Catelyn and Robb Stark learn of Ned's beheading; Stannis Baratheon wields a flaming sword; and Theon Greyjoy first meets his sister, Yara. We won't get to see all of the many set locations in the province, but on such a tour, you discover how a popular TV show can affect an area, from faint physical traces on the landscape (HBO was not permitted to make significant alterations) to the locals who have to contend with gaggles of tourists.
EARLY THAT MORNING, when it was still cold, dark and rainy in Dublin, my wife and I boarded a bus with people we didn't know, including Dorothy, our cheerful iPad bearer.
After two hours heading north on the bus, watching "making-of" featurettes, we get off at Tollymore Forest Park, follow a rough gravel road flanked by towering trees, cross a wooden bridge and stop in front of a trunk marked with a bright red "F", for "filming", the most obvious sign of actual production we'll see.
In a circular clearing bordered by a short mossy, rocky wall, Dorothy takes out a stack of laminated photographs and shows us one of a particularly large rock near where we stand, then flips to a picture showing the same clearing covered in (fake) snow. We watch the opening scene of the first GoT episode and see the clearing full of dismembered Wildling bodies, then turn around and see a hole in a tree trunk, to which the crew nailed the head of a "young girl".
Still in the "Haunted Forest", we stop by the Altavaddy Bridge, an old stone construction over the Spinkwee River beside which is a large rock marked with a white stripe. This is the spot where, in the first episode, the Starks come across a dead stag.
After lunch in an otherwise empty Paddy's Barn, we head out to the pub's car park to meet Odin and Thor, the two Northern Inuit dogs that play the parts of Bran and Robb Stark's direwolves, Summer and Greywind. The dogs look around curiously while their owner, Ross Mulhall, a tall local with long black hair and a denim shirt, holds them loosely on chain leashes. Beside him stands his father, William Mulhall, who is wearing a blue coat and a long grey beard that reaches down the top of his chest. Ross tells us stories from the set, where he, his father and his brother worked as extras. Their dogs have gained new identities by being on the show, and so have the owners.
Ross has clearly given his speech many times: he knows his audience will laugh at the line about how GoT was introduced to them as "just some show with swords and shields", and the story of how he confronted one of the actors (whose character, Theon Greyjoy, almost kills the dogs in the first episode) in a pub about trying to hurt his animals.
The Mulhalls played Dothraki slave traders, nobles and members of the Night's Watch. They produce a scrapbook that contains pictures of them with cast members and of the set (which, they say, they weren't really supposed to take).
Then it's on to Castle Ward, an 18th-century house (former home of the Ward family) and grounds that overlook Strangford Lough. Parts of the walled grounds are known to millions around the world as Winterfell and in the farmyard is a tall stone rectangular edifice with battlements at the top and a stone arch next to it. This is where King Robert Baratheon and his entourage march into Winterfell in the first episode, and a quick flip through Dorothy's laminated pictures shows us that the HBO artists digitally wiped out a clock and bright red door, and added another tower, walls and many more battlements.
We can see how popular this place must be when the weather is warmer. Another tour bus, with a giant wolf's face painted on the back, is in the car park and a sign tells us that we can try our hand at archery on a set created to look like the one on which young Bran Stark learned to shoot.
Dorothy takes us on a walk along Strangford Lough, which, at 150 sq km, is the largest sea inlet in the United Kingdom. The lone island with its one tree is a distinctive marker that shows up in several scenes set in the Riverlands of the Game of Thrones universe.
We end the tour at Inch Abbey, where an alliance of Northerners rallies around Robb Stark, the King in the North. The 12th- or 13th-century abbey has been reduced to freestanding stone walls but we all don cloaks and swing replica swords as we pose for pictures.
As we make like the Night's Watch, a young girl and two boys kick a football around while a man and woman just stare. Visitors appear to coexist peacefully with the locals, although there is an exception. At one point in the show, Robb Stark, having learned that his father has been beheaded, slashes at a tree with his sword. The mangled tree is nearby, says Dorothy, but it's on private land. HBO paid the landowner a lot of money to use that spot, she says, but he is less keen on tour groups.
We could spend weeks getting to know every part of this landscape. I came to relive scenes from Game of Thrones, which sounds like the opposite of discovery, but found a lot of places to explore and return to.
Season six of Game of Thrones premieres tomorrow on HBO, at 9am, with an encore at 9pm.
Getting there: Game of Thrones Tours depart from both Dublin and Belfast. For more details, go to www.gameofthronestours.com.