Combine healthy, physical, outdoor exercise with great entertainment, fine lodgings and homely food for that well-rounded weekend break or short holiday in Ireland
Percy French, the famous 20th century songwriter and entertainer, immortalised a mountain range in Ireland in song, ensuring an everlasting testament to a wonderful landscape and enthralling beauty.
"There's beautiful girls here - Oh, never you mind
With beautiful shapes Nature never designed
And lovely complexions, all roses and cream
But O'Loughlin remarked with regard to the same,
That if at those roses you venture to sip
The colours might all come away on your lip
So I'll wait for the wild rose that's waiting for me
Where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea".
With these simple but beautiful words, Percy set the foundation that would put the Mournes on the world map as a hikers' paradise, a photographer's dream and an area of outstanding natural beauty. On a clear day, the majestic peaks can be seen from Belfast, which is thirty five miles to its north. The sloping foothills caress the small town of Newcastle, with its fantastic sandy beaches, challenging golf courses, enjoyable nightlife and easy pace of life.
Comprising of twelve peaks, the Mournes are ideal terrain for the hiker, cyclist, climber and horse rider. The choice of walks is fantastic and provides for all levels of fitness and age. So much so that I could fill a book, let alone a guide. Organised walks, climbs and - for the more energetic - marathon running, are well worth consideration as the changeable Irish weather can cause havoc amongst the best novices when out on the desolate mountainside. The Mourne International Walking Festival takes place on the last weekend in June (www.mournewalking.co.uk).
One such walk sets out from Slieve Donard Park car park just to the rear of Turlough O’Hare’s pub in Newcastle and slowly ascends the mountain on meandering country pathways, opening up into the barren unprotected mountainside with its craggy rock faces and mountain goats. It continues for twenty long and. at times, arduous miles, taking welcome rests at Pollaphuca (pool of the fairies) or Buzzards Roost. The aroma of coffee is a delight to the nostrils as flasks are opened and empty stomachs replenished with freshly made salmon adorned baps and soda breads filled with sumptuous Irish ham and locally-produced cheese. With boots off, a full belly and the summer heat in your face, you can now take in the awe-inspiring vista. Overlooking the Irish Sea - its waves massage the sandy coves, majestic old trees of the forested foothills carpet the lower approaches and add another dimension of green to an already full swatch of greenery. Truly, an amazing sight, appreciated all the more because of the wonderful vantage point high in the clouds.
Slieve (Irish for mountain) Donard, Slieve Commedagh and Slieve Bearnagh are the highest of the peaks with an average height of 2,500ft, along which snakes the Mourne Wall. This dry stone construction is ideal for a navigated walk as it meanders over and around 22 miles of stunning mountainside and 15 summits. It also provides great shelter and windbreak if inclement weather does descend.
Within the range lies the Silent Valley, a vast expanse of water dammed and corralled between mountain peaks, servicing Belfast’s population with the finest drinking liquid these mountains can produce. Another nearby dam is the Spelga.
The 65 million year old granite peaks are devoid of major vegetation apart from thick low-lying grouse and bog land that once provided the American army with the ideal environment for its D Day preparations. Discarded munitions and war paraphernalia is to be uncovered there to this day.
This website is ideal for further information: www.mournemountains.com.
Tollymore Forest Park
Formerly owned by the 8th Earl of Roden, Tollymore is a vast area of forest that contains huge redwoods, Monterey pines and the oldest slow-growing spruce trees in Ireland and is a prefect location for that relaxing day out. The marked circular walks that worm around the foothills of the Mournes beneath a canopy of fir are spectacular. The attraction offers superb facilities that includes a well-maintained campsite and caravan park, restaurant and supervised activities.
If you are a roadrunner like me, then this is the prefect training ground, with its demanding climbs and rollercoaster treks through the forest and along its majestic rivers. Interesting stop offs include Parnell's Bridge, the Cascades, Shimna River and the Hermitage. You will never get bored!
Other attractions to be found here are, car rallies, festivals and cycle tours, or why not see it all on horse back (www.mountpleasantcentre.com)?
Newcastle is a seaside town consisting of the main street and its newly refurbished promenade that overlooks the sandy beaches and ends at the huge sand dunes just north of the town, most of the other streets are residential. Sure, it has what every Irish seaside town has: amusement arcades, buckets and spades, rock candy and its day-trippers. Old age pensioners sit on benches licking mammoth ice cream cones as they re-invigorate their well-being with ample intakes of sea fresh air and sunshine. Yelping children brave the water of the outdoor swimming pool, a tad warmer than the chilly tides of the Irish Sea and more enjoyable, with its diving boards and slides. In fact, nothing much has really changed since my childhood, when my family and I set out on many a day trip to the town. It was here that I was taught to cast my first fishing rod and accustomed a taste for dulce (dried red seaweed) - delicious and very popular in this part of Ireland.
This small town also has great eateries like the Mourne Seafood (107 Central Promenade; 028 4372 6401; www.mourneseafood.com), offering the very best in fish dishes that will satisfy the body and mind and are fresh daily from the nearby fishing villages of Kilkeel and Annalong. Sea bass, mussels, oysters and John Dory - the range is amazing and superbly cooked and served with helpings of locally produced vegetables and breads. Average two course meal will cost £25.00.
For excellent pub grub at realistic prices, try O’Hare’s Front Bar Cafe (121 Central Promenade; www.oharesloungebars.com). Situated at the harbour end of town it offers music, food, song, dance and great craic, ensuring a great night out and all under one roof. Try the champ (creamed potatoes and scallions) and ribeye, delicious. Average two course costs £17.00.
The most famous is the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa - a hugely popular hotel set in six acres of wonderful grounds, which offers the world-renowned Royal County Down golf course. A round on this delightful links course would challenge the very best. It also has first class spa facilities allowing you to wallow in some welcome pleasures after a hard day on the mountain. The Oak restaurant serves great Irish traditional fare made with the finest local produce. Overall service is friendly and satisfactory. All this and you are still only three minutes from the town and the beach. A double room will cost £105/£200 pp.
The Donard Hotel is situated on the main street and is ideal for its location and reasonable prices. The staff are wonderfully attentive and the rooms are spacious and comfortable. The restaurant serves excellent food and has an excellent ambience, as does its cosy bar. A double room costs from £38 pp and the hotel offers some great specials on weekend breaks.
Located on the main Belfast road and within walking distance into Newcastle is the Burrendale Country Club and Spa. Here you will find the entire home from home comforts that include the 12-metre indoor swimming pool, gym, spa treatments and spin classes. The rooms are very spacious, bright and airy. Eat at the Vine restaurant or its Cottage kitchen serving local delights and recommended. A double room from £140 pn and packages are available at reasonable prices.
For that different overnight experience, why not book into the Seaweed Bath House (5 South Promenade; Tel: 028 4372 6002; www.soakseaweedbaths.co.uk) This establishment is located on the sea front and offers apartment accommodation, along with the in-house facilities, that include their famous seaweed baths and treatment rooms. Apparently, providing detoxification of the body and enhancing your skin with the vitamins A-K. Sounds pretty good to me!
Therefore, if it is a soak, sooth, sip and snooze that takes your fancy, this could be just the ticket for you. Tariffs vary and there are a number of money saving specials.