The Mourne mountains are Northern Ireland’s highest mountains, situated in County Down in the south eastern corner of Northern Ireland, not far from the Irish border. Known for its dramatic scenery, this is a truly beautiful corner of the county that is really worth exploring.
Northern Ireland is fast gaining increased recognition for its outstanding food and drink, and its vibrant network of enormously talented chefs and producers who are harvesting, producing and cooking some truly exciting and innovative food.
Where to stay
My base for this trip was the small seaside town of Newcastle in County Down, around an hour’s drive south from Belfast.
I stayed at the leading luxury hotel in the area, Slieve Donard in Newcastle, a large luxury hotel on the seafront with a well-regarded spa and swimming pool. Slieve Donard is named after the nearby mountain, Northern Ireland’s highest. Originally built at the end of the 19thCentury, Slieve Donard has been extensively modernised by current owners, the Hastings Hotel Group.
Slieve Donard is a big, busy hotel, with room situated over three floors, and guests staying from all over the world, on holiday, business and plenty to play golf at the adjacent Royal County Down Golf Club.
Dining rooms, lounges and bars are all on the ground floor, mostly looking out to see and across to Slieve Donard, which at 850m high, it creates an imposing backdrop. Rooms are generously proportioned and very comfortable, with large bathrooms and plenty of space to work and relax. The swimming pool and spa area are very pleasant, and I managed to pack three swims into a two-night stay. Hitting the pool first thing was a lovely experience, watching the sun rise across the sea and mountains as I clocked up my lengths was a very special start to the day.
During my stay, I only spent one evening in at the hotel and, anticipating the feasting to come, opted for a seafood chowder and glass of red wine for dinner in the bar, rather than a full dinner.
Breakfast is taken in the dining room and is a lovely, leisurely experience, if you have time to linger and enjoy the good views from window tables. There is a very strong focus on local ingredients on the menu, including local bacon, sausages, eggs, oats, bread, yoghurt, honey and even Bushmills whiskey to top a bowl of porridge.
What to do
Newcastle is a great base for exploring the area. It is a small, popular town with a wide range of places to eat and things to do. There are plenty of coastal walks along the seafront and up into the mountains starting from Newcastle, and for those feeling less active, there are plenty of small independent places to eat and drink, and hardly any chains at all. There’s a good deli and local butcher, The Cookie Jar bakery that has won Great Taste Awards for its wheaten bread and Morelli’s ice cream, which is also very well regarded.
The weather was unseasonably cold when I arrived, and so I headed to the Soak seaweed baths in Newcastle to try something new. These are the only seaweed baths on the east coast of Ireland and I managed to get a walk-in appointment. For those new to seaweed baths, it’s said to help detoxify the body and can help ease aches and pains. Aside from the health claims, I hoped for a relaxing hour ahead. The seaweed bath sessions are an hour long and one, quite literally, bathes with seaweed, albeit in a private room with a soundtrack of your choice in the background. The process involves a good steam, followed by a soak in a cool bath, filled with freshly harvested bladder wrack, then a shower to finish. A wonderfully unique and refreshing experience.
For those really wanting to get under the skin of the Northern Ireland food scene, then I really recommend booking Tracey Jeffrey of NI Food Tours. Tracey runs bespoke tours across the region and is such a lovely, knowledgeable lady, she will show you all the best spots to visit on a trip.
Real ale lovers can taste and even make their own craft beers at the amazing Whitewater Brewing Co. site at Castlewellan. Owners Kerry and Bernard Sloan have been brewing craft beers locally since 1996, but have recently opened a new brewery and tap house, which offers charming, personal and relaxed tours and tastings with a really intimate sense of family and heritage, and they even have their own micro brewing room, in which you can craft your own beer. Do book in advance, and look out for Whitewater beers in local hotels and restaurants.
Gin lovers can tour and taste at the amazing Shortcross Gin distillery on the Rademon Estate. David and Fiona Boyd- Armstrong run this slick operation, distilling delicious gin using botanicals foraged and fruit picked from their busy family estate at Downpatrick. They too have recently built a magnificent new extension to their distillery, and offer hugely engaging tours and tasting, including the opportunity to mix and pour the perfect Shortcross G&T.
And finally, we visited Montalto Estate for lunch and a tour. Montalto is a recently opened, privately owned estate just outside Ballynahinch. The estate was purchased by the Wilson family in 1994 and extensively renovated. It has been extensively renovated and is open to the public with a stunningly good café, beautiful shop, gardens and event venue, which is very busy hosting stylish weddings. Lunch at Montalto was absolutely stunning – such beautiful food made with great integrity and attention to the provenance of ingredients used. A visit here is an absolute must – it is such a beautiful spot to explore and enjoy some delicious food and stylish shopping.
What to eat
This beautiful corner or Northern Ireland is rich in sensational produce. Seaweed, shellfish and dairy are all superb in this part of the world, and there is a whole host of innovation amongst small independent producers in Northern Ireland.
Some highlights from this trip include sensational Mill Bay Oysters – huge Carlingford Lough oysters with an amazingly fresh, clean flavour were very special indeed. Mill Bay Oysters are part of Rooney Fish based in Kilkeel, who harvest and export top-grade seafood and shellfish all over the world. I just hope more restaurants can serve it locally, so it can be enjoyed more in situ.
We also tried some fabulous scampi from Simply Scampi (@simplyscampi), based in Portavogie. Ryan and Ben take the sweetest, freshest langoustines fresh from the harbour and fry them in the lightest, crispiest batter. They are utterly scrumptious – do look out for them popping up at events all over Northern Ireland – they are unmissable.
The butter in this part of the world is sublime, and I urge you to track down (it’s not difficult) Abernethy butters. They are based in Dromara and hand churn and roll fresh cream to make these beautiful fresh, clean butters. They are sold widely in delis and independent shops across Northern Ireland. I always stock up on a stash to take home.
Castle Screen Farm at Downpatrick produces some seriously delicious Dexter beef, which is sold from the farmhouse and local farmers markets including Hillsborough, Downpatrick and Newcastle markets. This is a lovely farm, run by Damien and Jackie, and they produce some really great meat from well cared for cattle. Watch out for their farm shop, opening on the farm soon.
There are some delicious apple-based products in this part of the world, and some fantastic Armagh apple juices and ciders. We tried the delicious Kilmegan ciders made by Andrew Boyd, who has a really lovely crisp style of production, which is made using native apple varieties, sourced from counties Down, Armagh and Tipperary, and make using a traditional rack and cloth press in Dundrum. Andrew has won a whole host of awards for his delicious ciders.
We had a delicious lunch at the Harbour Inn in Annalong – a sweet little fishing village. This water-front inn was utterly charming – with the warmest of welcomes and delicious local seafood on the menu. This was followed by a very nice dinner at Brunel’s in Newcastle. This is a wonderfully atmospheric restaurant – a really lovely destination for a special dinner – cooking local produce with imagination and ambition.
I can’t recommend a trip to the Mourne Mountains enough. It is such a mesmerizingly beautiful, charming and spirited corner of Northern Ireland. We left enchanted. I do hope to get back to this most special place very soon.
Thank you so much for Newry, Mourne and Down District Council and Food NI for inviting me on this trip. Some of the experiences were covered by them, and some were paid for my me personally.