To really experience the great outdoors in Northern Ireland, getting up to Down is the way to go.
It’s an easy drive from Dublin, heading straight up to Newry and then veering easterly, with the heathered Mourne Mountains providing ominous company for the rest of the drive.
In much the same way that Glendalough captures so much of the spirit of Wicklow, visitors to Down should consider the Mournes an essential part of any trip. Thankfully though, you don’t need to climb to the top of the mountains to appreciate them.
The Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle, an outstanding celebration of Victorian grandeur, sits proudly on the coast commanding an unparalleled view of Ulster’s highest point. While the six-hour trek to the top is exceptionally rewarding, drinking it in from the hotel lawn or contemplating it while relaxing in the spa is rewarding in its own way.
Newcastle also acts as a great base for day trips in the vicinity. A 40-minute drive north will bring you to Castle Ward, near Downpatrick. Castle Ward is owned by the National Trust, and offers over 800 acres of walking trails, farmland and gardens, as well as activities like kayaking and archery.
The 18th century house that sits just on the shore of Strangford Lough is a bit of architectural oddness. The side of the house that faces land is built in a classical style, in complete conflict to the Gothic-styled side that faces onto Strangford Lough.
A tour of the house shows how this is reflected in the interiors. The Jekyll and Hyde effect isn’t the result of one man’s madness; rather it is the result of one man and one woman.
Tradition holds that Lord Bangor favoured the classical side, and his wife Lady Anne favoured the gothic. This architectural tiff presumably had deeper roots as once the house was built Lady Anne left Castle Ward and never returned to live there.
Another amazing National Trust attraction in the area is Mount Stewart. A very quick trip on the car ferry from Strangford to Portaferry will reduce the driving time from an hour down to around 20 minutes, and on a sunny day it gives an outstanding view of the gothic face of Castle Ward.
On the opposite shore, Mount Stewart boasts some of the most amazing gardens on the island of Ireland. While many places claim to have a micro-climate, Mount Stewart proves it by growing banana trees and fruiting kiwi trees outdoors.
Anyone interested in horticulture will be in heaven here as there is an array of gardens to wander around and plants and clippings can be bought to take home.
The house at Mount Stewart was once famous for its glamorous Gatsby-esque gatherings that saw many notable figures, from Churchill and the future Queen Elizabeth, to WB Yeats and Michael Collins, pass underneath the lintel. If you’re keen to immerse yourself in this world, it’s best to visit while the residence jazz band play in the gardens, on the first and last Sunday of July, August and September.
The house itself is currently undergoing a huge amount of restorative work, but a tour is recommended if only to see the incredible amount of work that is involved in such a project.
After spending time slogging up the hills or wandering gardens, you’ll undoubtedly enjoy a reward – the Slieve Donard Hotel has an amazing menu, and watching the silhouette of the mountains disappear into the darkness from the big windows of the dining room is a very special dessert.
The second annual International Bread Festival was held this year at Castle Ward on the shores of Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland in May.
The three-day festival showcased Northern Ireland’s strong culture of making diverse and unique breads and visitors once again enjoyed baking demonstrations, taster sessions, local tours, as well as breads and foods from around the world. The legendary Van Morrison also performed an open-air concert during the festival.
For more information and updates on next year’s event, keep an eye on www.castlewardbreadfestival.com or visit www.discovernorthernireland.com.
Details on Mount Stewart and Castle Ward can be found at www.nationaltrust.org.uk.
The Slieve Donard Hotel offers classic double rooms starting from €130. For more information, visit www.hastingshotels.com/slieve-donard-resort-and-spa.