For many decades now, Northern Ireland has been pretty much ignored by the rest of the UK as a holiday destination. With the Troubles, of course, this was far from surprising. What is surprising is that no one has rediscovered this wild and beautiful land. And the bonus, of course, is that you have it (most of the time) to yourself.
My journey began in the town of Newcastle (yes, another one) that sits in a splendid location with a long sandy beach in front and Northern Ireland’s highest mountain, Slieve Donard (850m), behind. This is one of the Mourne Mountains and their haunting beauty has inspired poetry and myth – and the summit is where Saint Donard is said to have had his hermitage. There used to be a yearly pilgrimage to the top of the mountain and many people walk here nowadays for the sheer beauty of the place.
I was staying at the Slieve Donard Resort, originally a huge Victorian railway hotel – this was a famous seaside and spa town in the nineteenth century. Nowadays, the Resort features not just wonderful views but a renowned golf course, a spa and an excellent restaurant. Newcastle has become a bit of a foodie town, with star chef Paul Cunningham drawing in the crowds from Belfast and Dublin at his new restaurant, Brunel’s.
Driving here is a pleasure – the roads are empty and the scenery is remarkable. The Mourne Mountains sweep down to the sea, there are caves and underground rivers, the hedgerows are ablaze with wildflowers, steep glaciated valleys alternate with rolling downs and the patchwork fields are full of sheep and cows dozing in the late summer sun. I’m on my way to the Silent Valley, and the reservoir created in the 1920s to ensure Belfast’s water supply. Now, it is a walker’s paradise with plenty of trails to choose from. Then, it was a remarkable feat of engineering and there are haunting reminders of the men who built it, and the eight who died during its creation.
The next day brought a longer but equally beautiful drive along the Causeway Coastal Route past long sandy beaches and rocky coves – and Rathlin Island where Robert the Bruce met his spider. I was en route to the Giant’s Causeway – and here I do have to make an exception to the rule about NI’s emptiness! This place is quite a draw. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a 60 million-year-old geological wonder with over 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, the result of intense volcanic and geological activity.
There is, of course, another story about how the Giant’s Causeway came into being – this is Ireland, after all. The Giant was Finn MacCool and he wanted to do battle with a rival giant in Scotland, Benandonner. Finn built enormous stepping stones across the sea and challenged the Scottish giant to cross but, when he saw how big he was, he fled home to ask his wife, Oonagh, to hide him. Oonagh put him in a cradle and disguised him as a baby. When Benandonner saw the “infant” he assumed the father must be gigantic indeed and fled back over the Causeway ripping it up behind him. And there are similar columns at the other end – in Staffa’s Fingal’s Cave – so who can say? You could always give it some thought over a glass of Bushmills – the world’s oldest whiskey distillery is just up the road from the Causeway.
With just one more day and an evening flight home, I stayed close to Belfast and headed for Castle Ward, 820 acres of beautiful park, woodland and gardens set around Britain’s largest sea inlet, Strangford Lough. There are lots of trails (walking, bikes, horse riding), a quirky 18th century house, a couple of old castles and Winterfell – the Game of Thrones film location. Longbow lesson, anyone?
The island of Ireland is getting ready to showcase its world-class food scene this autumn in a major new event: Taste the Island, a celebration of Ireland’s food and drink from 6 September to 30 November. Highlight Northern Ireland experiences will be Derry Slow Food Festival and Armagh Food & Cider Festival. This autumn, Taste the Island will illustrate how unique and exciting the island of Ireland’s locally produced food and drink can be.
Visit Tourism Ireland for more details.