Mournes, County Down.
County Down has it all – majestic mountains, a tranquil lough, pretty coastal villages and Michelin-rated restaurants.
If you can only linger a while, here’s what you must see and do.
1. Climb the Mourne Mountains
If striking landscapes, lakes and wonderful wildlife are your thing, then set off for the majestic Mountains of Mourne. The inspiration for C.S. Lewis’ ‘Narnia’, you’ll not need to step into the wardrobe to find inspiring scenery. Scale the highest peak, Slieve Donard or tackle a smaller one via the accessible network of paths and trails.
2. Venture into Tollymore Forest
Below the Mournes lie 1,600 acres of verdant beauty. Tollymore Forest Park’s array of wildlife is a botanical and sensory odyssey. The mapped trails amidst lush mossy beds will enchant, while the sparkling Shimna River boasts many a cosy clearing for a picnic. Hiking, caravanning and camping are also available. If children are with you, let them find the wooden stag and be a knight of realm for a day.
3. Indulge your golfing dreams
From Rory McIlroy’s favourites – world-class Royal County Down (Voted Number 1 in the World's 100 Greatest Golf Courses, Golf Digest, 2017 or his home club in Holywood – to the fantastic links of Ardglass, the parkland of Warrenpoint and the undulating greens at Kilkeel, the golf in County Down just couldn’t get any better. Kirkistown Castle is exceptional, and the nineteenths are pretty special too.
4. Dip into Exploris
Discover a sea kingdom for small and big kids alike. Brave the Exploris Aquarium touch-tank to see if you can tantalise a tentacle or two. Cute seals and energetic otters might steal the show, but don’t miss the talks in the reptile area and the shimmering snake and crocodile. Explore everything from the native fish of Strangford Lough to the colourful coral reefs of the tropical oceans.
5. Roam Mount Stewart
Make your way to Mount Stewart to indulge in the splendour of an aristocratic home. Investigate over 15,000 items of the Londonderry family’s memorabilia and roam through the five extraordinary gardens, currently seeking World Heritage status from UNESCO. No visit to the area is complete without a drive through the beautiful Ards Peninsula. Stop off at Greyabbey to browse the antique shops.
6. Wander the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum
Experience life at the turn of the century at the captivating Ulster Folk & Transport Museum. Discover cottages, farms, schools and shops as you wander through the beautiful parkland. Speak with the residents tilling the land, enjoy some of their baked bread, take a horse and cart from farm to farm, or satisfy your sweet tooth with a quarter of barley sugars at the corner shop.
7. Tour St Patrick’s heartland
Sit in peace and tranquillity in Downpatrick, the final resting place of St Patrick, where, in the grounds of Down Cathedral, his grave is marked by a single slab of Mourne granite. Then tour Down Cathedral, be engrossed in his legacy at The Saint Patrick Centre, or take a pew at Saul Church, built to commemorate Patrick’s first church in Ireland.
8. Sink into a secret swamp
Find wildlife fun at Castle Espie throughout the year. Take a tour of the spring duckery, grab a bag of seed and play pied piper to a flock of fluffy ducklings. Watch you don’t fall in to the secret swamp with its upside-down trees and zip lines. For contemplative bird watching in autumn, when the Brent Geese arrive, snuggle into a hide or the Limekiln Observatory and let time float away.
9. See the Game of Thrones castle
Castle Ward in reality; Winterfell on the set of the Game of Thrones fantasy world – either way it’s a must see. Owned by the National Trust, the location, grandeur and setting provide a great backdrop for walking, cycling, horse riding, picnicking or simply people watching once you have toured the estate. Game of Thrones fans can indulge in an immersive on set experience with Clearsky Adventures.
10. Soar over Strangford Lough
While the views on the ground are spectacular, in the air it’s a whole new world. Board a helicopter tour at Ards Airport and prepare for a trip of a lifetime. Soar over Strangford Lough, taking in the stunning views of the islands and coastal towns. At 1,500ft and 120kmph, it’s eye-poppingly beautiful.
11. Eat your way around the county
County Down has been central to Northern Ireland’s food and drink renaissance and is rippling with great restaurants. Balloo House, The Poacher’s Pocket and the Old Schoolhouse serve truly great modern Irish cuisine.
12. Tour the Queen’s palace
Amble up the hill in the quaint village of Hillsborough to the seat of royalty. A tour of Hillsborough Castle (Currently closed for refurbishment unitil July 2018) guides you through the elegant state rooms, the majestic throne room and graceful drawing room, and reveals stories of its fascinating history. The glorious gardens are open all year and are well worth investigating, before descending the hill to one of the many village pubs or restaurants.
13. Visit Down County Museum
County Down Museum was once a Georgian gaol used as a final staging post for convicts bound for Australia. Experience the cell conditions the prisoners endured prior to their journey. Uncover the stories of people incarcerated for minor offences, the rebels captured after the battles of Saintfield and Ballynahinch in 1798, and stand at the spot where united Irishman, Thomas Russell, was executed.
14. Ride a steam train
Peep, peep! Climb aboard ‘Sugarpuffs’ and take the short steam-train journey from Downpatrick to Inch Abbey, the site of Viking King Manus Barefoot’s grave. Take in the visitor centre charting the development of railways in Ireland from the nineteenth century on. Check out the Royal Saloon, which carried Kings George V and VI, as well as King Edward VII and their friends.