Categories: County Down

A short break with a difference in County Down 

The incredible standard of spa hotels, golf courses, famous tourist attractions and restaurants make this the perfect setting for a weekend of luxury and indulgence. What’s more, there's history and heritage around every corner, meaning you can look forward to countless picturesque towns and villages along coastlines and inland that will surprise and delight you. 

Start with sea air and sustenance on the Ards Peninsula 

Start your break and build an appetite for the adventures ahead, with an inspirational drive down the Strangford Lough side of the Ards Peninsula, south-easterly of Belfast. Enjoy gorgeous views over the calm waters and plan for a pit stop at the impressive National Trust's Mount Stewart as your first stop. Take a tour of the stately home, stroll around the award-winning gardens and stop into the coffee shop for handmade bakes and a coffee.

From here, it’s not far to the heritage village of Greyabbey, named for its abbey (Grey Abbey), considered to be the best example of Anglo-Norman Cistercian architecture in Northern Ireland. Explore the visitor centre and abbey church, before a browse through the village’s antique shop for a true sense of the local history and heritage.

Further along the peninsula, the Gransha Road takes you to the Echlinville Distillery, part of The Spirit Trail, where a guided tour brings you into the detail of the distillation process from field-to-glass, including the barley growing in the surrounding fields and the age-old tradition of distillery floor malting. The earthy aromas really bring your senses to life, and you might want to stop in after the tour to enjoy a glass of their Whiskey, gin or poitín in the on-site bar.

With a souvenir bottle safely stowed in the boot, head south to Portaferry, the end point on the peninsula and also the staging post for sea trips around the lough and the ferry, which carries passengers over to Strangford across the surging tidal race. 

Staying the night in Portaferry itself offers plenty of interesting options, including The Portaferry Hotel (3*) with individually decorated rooms, antique furniture and food served until 8pm, and The Old Bank which is a two-bed self-catering base, packed with quirky details from its banking past combined with modern facilities. 

Take the ferry to Strangford and 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 and beyond.

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 may wish to head towards Ardglass Golf Course, a unique Links course that hugs the coastline and offers many challenges. The Irish Sea is visible from all 18 tees and greens and on a clear day it is possible to see across the Irish Sea to the Isle of Man.

The seaside town of Newcastle is your next destination, set at the foot of the Mourne Mountains and featuring a popular promenade for walking along the sea front. For food and drinks options you'll be spoiled for choice, with the charming Hugh McCann’s pub, a traditional Irish bar renowned for serving fantastic hearty food and traditional Irish music. Alternatively, try Brunel's which is named after the world's most famous engineer and known for constructing its own impressive dishes. Or if you're searching for seafood, the Mourne Seafood Bar in nearby Dundrum has a phenomenal reputation, using locally-sourced ingredients that are second to none. From crispy whitebait to king prawn linguini to fried whole bream, every dish represents the very best the local waters have to offer. 

If you're hoping to indulge in a spot of luxury, and perhaps some pampering, check into the magnificent Slieve Donard Hotel and Spa (4*), where the spa boasts stunning views out over the mountains and sea. 

Their range of relaxing treatments includes hot stone therapies, facials, massage, pedicures and manicures, all of which guarantee to help you wind down for the evening. Although, if you prefer to finish off with a nightcap make for The Percy French, a lovely spot with friendly locals.

From barons to saints through Castlewellan and Downpatrick

A night at Slieve Donard Resort and Spa can’t fail to set you up for yet another inspiring day in County Down, and the nearby town of Castlewellan is a charming spot to head for. The Forest Park is very popular with walkers, mountain bikers and water enthusiasts, and those with a relative level of fitness should head for the a short but pleasant walking trail just beyond the lake, covering around 2.5 miles along relatively flat terrain, which takes in the great views of Slievenaslat and the Scottish baronial Castlewellan Castle, built in 1856.  

For more culture, head to Downpatrick to visit the excellent Saint Patrick’s Centre (winner of Most Innovative Business (Small) at the Giant Spirit Awards 2022). This modern exhibition combines narration, sculpture, cinema and audio techniques which relate the adventures of Patrick's life and the major impact of Irish Missionaries on Dark Age Europe. It's open all week (9am - 5pm) except during July and August when it's open on Sundays only, and visitors can explore St Patrick's legacy further with a visit to nearby 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 and its many tiny islands, including your next pitstop on Sketrick Island where you’ll find Daft Eddy’s, a great place to stop for a bite to eat or a drink whilst enjoying the fabulous views, cheers-ing to a wonderful three days spent exploring the area.

We hope this travel guide for County Down proves useful, and has given you helpful suggestions for inspirational places to see, stay in and things to do whilst you're here. As you'll no doubt discover, no two trips here are ever the same, and you’ll likely find more inspiration at every turn. 

Mount Stewart
The National Trust
Mount Stewart House

Mount Stewart is a stunning estate in the beautiful scenic area of Strangford Lough. The Formal Gardens are ranked as one of the top ten in the world and the within the house there are collections of national and international significance.

Grey Abbey
Abbey / Priory
Grey Abbey ruins and graveyard from a birds eye view

Grey Abbey, a Cistercian Abbey church and its living quarters were founded in 1193 by Affreca wife of John de Courcy, the Anglo-Norman invader of East Ulster.

The Echlinville Distillery
Couple walks outside the Echlinville Distillery in the sunshine

Discover how Echlinville Distillery captures the flavour, colour and mouthfeel of their spirits, before settling down to relax and enjoy them in the bar.

Portaferry Marina
Boats moored at Portaferry Marina

Portaferry Marina is situated on the east shore of The Narrows, the gateway to Strangford Lough, a marine nature reserve of unparalleled beauty, it is a good starting point on which to explore the Lough, and on-shore activities.

The Portaferry Hotel
Portaferry Hotel Entrance

The Portaferry Hotel, the ideal place to relax, the minute you walk through our doors you can feel the atmosphere, snuggle up to our open fires or enjoy the stunning scenery with walks along the shore. And not forgetting our outstanding food offering.

The Old Bank
External view of accommodation

The former banking hall is now a large open plan kitchen and lounge with wood burning stove, master ensuite bedroom with a kingsize bed with twin beds in bedroom two. The Old Bank has a stylish 5 star review rating on Airbnb - luxury accommodation.

The Cuan Restaurant
The Cuan Restaurant

The success of The Cuan has been built on consistently serving excellent food and drink coupled with exceptional customer service. A strong emphasis is placed on using fresh ingredients and sourcing our produce locally. Stay over in our bedrooms.

Castle Ward
The National Trust
Castle Ward

Discover a place of contrasts and creativity at Castle Ward, an eccentric 18th century mansion and estate looking out over the tranquil waters of Strangford Lough in County Down where visitors can explore cultivated gardens, sheltered woodland and the shoreline.

Ardglass Golf Club
Links Golf Course
A birds' eye view of Ardglass Golf Club, Ardglass

Located 30miles from Belfast on the beautiful County Down coast, Ardglass Golf Club is links as it should be.

Tollymore Forest Park
Forest Parks
Tollymore Forest Park

Covering an area of almost 630 hectares at the foot of the Mourne mountains, Tollymore Forest Park has panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and the sea at Newcastle. It's open to the public all year.

Hugh McCann's Cafe Bar Deli
Live Music
Hugh McCann's Cafe Bar Deli

Hugh McCann's has a spectacular location opposite Newcastle's new promenade with panoramic sea views. The two hundred year old building is fully restored with antique fixtures and fittings.

Slieve Donard Resort and Spa
Slieve Donard Exterior

A beloved destination for families, golfers, and holiday travellers, Slieve Donard is a local landmark that’s equal parts homey and breath-taking. The resort sits at the foot of the Mourne Mountains, on the edge of Royal County Down Golf Club, ranked no. 1 in the world by Golf Digest.

Mourne Seafood Bar
Mourne Seafood Bar

Our aim is to provide locally sourced seafood at an affordable price. All our produce is sourced from local ports and delivered daily to ensure freshness and quality.

Brunel's Restaurant
Exterior of Brunel's Restaurant, Downs Road, Newcastle

Modern European Cuisine. Focusing on seasonal produce. A Creative menu that evolves constantly, showcasing when possible locally sourced ingredients.

Castlewellan Forest Park
Forest Parks
View of the Annesley Walk in Castlewellan Forest Park

Castlewellan Forest Park boasts a stunning Victorian Castle, incredible panoramic views, scenic walking trails, 27 km of mountain bike trails, nature play perfect for the kids, an on-site multi-activity centre, hedge maze and equestrian centre, making it a must-visit for all ages.

The Saint Patrick Centre
Visitor Centres & Museums
The Saint Patrick Centre

The Saint Patrick Centre is the only permanent exhibition in the World about Ireland’s Patron Saint. The History of Ireland starts here in Patrick’s words, which guide you through our amazing multimedia exhibition. Located 2 Hours north of Dublin and 35 minutes south of Belfast beside Saint Patrick’s Grave with a fantastic Craft Store and incredible Garden Cafe. This needs to be your first stop in Ireland.

Down Cathedral and Saint Patrick's Grave
Down Cathedral and Saint Patrick's Grave

Down Cathedral, a Cathedral of the Church of Ireland with magnificent stain glass windows, box pews and beautiful organ case was built in 1183 as a Benedictine Monastry. The patron saint, Patrick is believed to be buried in the nearby graveyard.

Daft Eddy's Bar & Restaurant
Dining area

Renowned for its fresh food and wonderful hospitality, Daft Eddy's offers fresh seafood and a host of other local produce.