Categories: County Down

Take a short break with a difference in County Down 

County Down‘s rolling hills, majestic mountains and island-dotted loughs were practically invented for relaxing weekends. 

Spa hotels, golf courses, famous tourist attractions and Michelin-rated restaurants make this the place to indulge in sheer luxury. What’s more, the county is dripping with history and heritage, so you’ll come across picturesque towns and villages on the coast and inland that will surprise you with their stories and delight you with their charms. 

Start with sea air and sustenance on the Ards Peninsula 

What better way to start your break and build an appetite for the adventures ahead, than a refreshing and inspirational drive down the Strangford Lough side of the Ards Peninsula. Enjoy gorgeous views over the water and make impressive Mount Stewart House and Gardens your first stop. Take a tour of the stately home and a stroll around the award-winning gardens. 

From here, it’s not far to the heritage village of Greyabbey, named for its abbey and considered to be the best example of Anglo-Norman Cistercian architecture in Northern Ireland. Explore the visitor centre and abbey church or browse through the village’s antique shop and then stop for lunch at the beautifully-restored Wildfowler Inn before hitting the road again. 

Further down the peninsular, the Gransha Road takes you to the Echlinville Distillery, where you can see the whole distillation process from field to glass, from the barley growing in the surrounding fields to the age-old tradition of distillery floor malting. 

With a souvenir bottle safely stowed, it’s time to head south to Portaferry, the end point on the peninsula and also the staging post for sea trips around the lough and for the ferry to Strangford across the surging tidal race. 

Staying the night in Portaferry itself offers plenty of interesting options, including The Portaferry Hotel (3*) and The Old Bank which is a boutique self-catering home packed with quirky details from its banking past but complete with the latest modern facilities. 

Take the ferry to Strangford and then make for Winterfell and Newcastle 

An early morning ferry ride from Portaferry brings you across one of the most powerful tidal races in Great Britain and Ireland to picturesque Strangford. Here there are several great dining options including The Cuan, which is renowned for its local seafood, while The Artisan Cookhouse and The Lobster Pot are perennially popular pit-stops. 

One of the big draws in these parts is Castle Ward. A National Trust property, this attractive medieval castle estate is well worth a visit - explore the grounds and the working farmyard and outbuildings which house a variety of artisan trades. What makes this place extra special, however, is its association with Game of Thrones where Castle Ward became the spectral and atmospheric Winterfell. 

Leaving the dramatic castellated silhouette behind you, you can head towards Ardglass Golf Course, a unique links that hugs the coastline and offers many challenges. If golf is not your thing, the Mourne Foods & Film Cycle Tour is ideal for movie lovers and foodies. 

Starting at Spelga Dam in the heart of the Mournes it’s downhill all the way through the meandering Shimna Valley and Tollymore Forest, taking in the filming locations of Philomena, Game of Thrones, The Fall and Dracula Untold and visiting local food producers along the route. Electric bikes are available too, so it’s suitable for everyone. 

Newcastle is your next destination and is where you’ll find the charming Hugh McCann’s pub, a traditional Irish bar renowned for serving fantastic hearty food and traditional Irish music. 

After that fresh air it’s time to indulge in a bit of pampering at the luxurious Slieve Donard Spa. Part of the magnificent Slieve Donard Hotel and Spa (4*) sitting at the foot of the Mournes, the spa has stunning views across the mountains and the Irish Sea. 

Choose from a range of relaxing treatments including hot stone therapies, facials, massage, pedicures and manicures.  

Suitably restored, it’s time to eat and taking advantage of the awesome local seafood should be top of your list when you’re here. Mourne Seafood Bar in Dundrum has a phenomenal reputation for delivering one hell of a taste of the sea. One big difference is that they control their own shellfish sourcing and beds, so you can be assured that the ingredients here are second to none. From crispy whitebait to king prawn linguini to fried whole bream, every dish represents the very best the local seas and chefs have to offer. 

Alternatively, try Brunel's which is named after the world's most famous engineer and known for constructing its own impressive dishes. Finish off with a nightcap in The Percy French, a lovely spot with friendly locals or sample local craft gin in The Anchor Bar. 

From barons to saints through Castlewellan, Downpatrick and Newtownards 

A night at Slieve Donard Resort and Spa can’t fail to set you up for yet another inspiring day in County Down, and Castlewellan is one of the loveliest places to head for first. From Castlewellan Lake there’s a short but pleasant walking trail covering around 2.5 miles along relatively flat terrain. The trail provides great views of Slievnaslat and the Scottish baronial Castlewellan Castle, built in 1856.  

From Castlewellan head to Downpatrick to visit the excellent Saint Patrick’s Centre. (Winner of Most Innovative Business (Small) at the Giant Spirit Awards 2022). The modern exhibition combines narration, sculpture, cinema and audio techniques to relate the adventures of Patrick's life and the major impact of Irish Missionaries on Dark Age Europe. Its open on Sundays only in July and August, but visitors to Downpatrick at other times of the year can still explore the saint’s legacy with a visit to Down Cathedral where he is buried under a simple slab of granite. 

From Downpatrick take the road to Killyleagh to enjoy some final views of Strangford Lough, which is particularly captivating at sunset on a fine day. This side of the lough is dotted with tiny islands and on Sketrick Island you’ll find Daft Eddy’s, a great place for a pre-dinner drink. 

To really finish your break in style and encourage the memories to linger, it pays to book well ahead for a meal in the Michelin Bib Gourmand accredited Old Schoolhouse Inn near Newtownards. This is where award-winning chef Will Brown conjures up imaginative meals from the finest Northern Irish produce and Strangford Lough seafood. It’s just a few minutes’ walk from magical Castle Espie – the perfect place for a pre- or post-dinner ramble. 

These are just a few suggestions for inspirational places to see, stay and do when you’ve a short break in Northern Ireland in mind. Rest assured that no two breaks are ever the same here and you’ll find more inspiration at every turn.