Travel review: Newcastle, County Down, Northern Ireland

The Mourne Mountains. Photo: Northern Ireland Tourist Board

The Mourne Mountains. Photo: Northern Ireland Tourist Board

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Golfers take years honing their skills to hit that perfect hole in one. Flora (5) managed hers only 10 minutes after teeing off!

The ball may have been bigger, but the skill was still needed. Rory McIlroy eat your heart out! The top golfer would have been proud of Flora’s achievements, especially as they took place on his home soil.

Newcastle Harbour. Photo: Northern Ireland Tourist Board

Newcastle Harbour. Photo: Northern Ireland Tourist Board

We were in Newcastle, County Down, Northern Ireland, just a stone’s throw from Rory’s home town of Holywood and also the host venue for the 2015 Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, which was held in May at the Royal County Down Golf Club and sponsored by Rory’s Foundation.

Golf’s number one in the world is a regular visitor to the seaside town of Newcastle and has no doubt had a go too at the latest sport to hit this golf crazy nation. Footgolf has captured the Irish people’s imagination and its no wonder as its great fun! Basically it’s golf, but with a football. It sounds easy, but as Flora, Ruaridh (7) and I found out, its no mean feat trying to kick the ball hard and straight enough to get it into the hole. But Flora showed the way and we really enjoyed ourselves tackling the nine hole course, which had some tricky corners to negotiate.

The Footgolf is just one of the highlights of this lovely part of Northern Ireland. The pristine beaches alone should entice anyone to visit and being in the National Park, the scenery is pretty impressive too.

Troon in South Ayrshire is an ideal place to catch the ferry across to Northern Ireland as its only a two hour crossing. It takes you to Larne, around an hour and a half’s drive to Newcastle, but is ideally placed for the up and coming Belfast too.

Slieve Donard Hotel

Slieve Donard Hotel

P&O Ferries run regular daily crossings from Troon and nearby Cairnryan, so there are lots of opportunities to cross. The service itself is slick and efficient, you are on and offer in minutes and on board there is plenty to do, with activities and films for the children to enjoy and a spot of shopping (with great discounts!) or fine dining for the grown ups. For just £12 (£14 if you pay on board), you can use the Club Lounge where you can eat and drink light snacks until your heart’s content or you can just sit back and relax in the public lounges.

The drive to Newcastle takes in some fantastic scenery and when you arrive, you are surrounded by the magnificent Mourne Mountains.

Pretty special too is the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa which was the official host hotel to the Irish Open and is named after the 2,790 foot mountain which surrounds the town.

The hotel is a joy to visit. Victorian grandeur greets you with a top hat and tails adorned concierge waiting at the door. And once inside, boy, its impressive. Originally built in 1896 by the Belfast and County Down Railway Company as an end of line luxury holiday destination. It took two years to finish and was one of the most majestic hotels of its time and nearly self sufficient with livestock, vegetable plots and impressively, its own power plant which provided electricity for the railway station.

In 1972 it was bought by its current owners Hastings Hotels and today it still oozes class and luxury. The staff are so friendly and helpful, the bedrooms, nice and comfy with all the mod cons and to Flora’s delight, a top hatted Hastings duck in the bath too! There are a selection of restaurants to tempt the palate with local produce high on the menu and a relaxing spa and pool, with a vitality pool where you can unwind and gaze out of the window at the lovely sea view. Breakfasts are served in the Oak Room which equally has stunning views and serves up a top class Ulster Fry to keep you going all day.

There is plenty to see and do in the area too. The famous Game of Thrones television programme was filmed in the area and if its outdoors you want to concentrate on, there is Tollymore Forest Park and Castlewellan Forest Park , not far away. In the foothills of the Mourne Mountains, the parks have lovely scenic walks to enjoy and in Tollymore, oak wood was used for the interior of the Titanic, with Castlewellan famous for having one of the most outstanding shrub and tree collections in Europe and a lovely peace maze.

The weather was great on our visit, so outdoors was our usual venue and The National Trust also has some impressive sites to visit. Just outside Newcastle is the Murlough National Nature Reserve, which is a 6,000 year old sand dune system, with a wonderful view.

A short drive takes you to Rowallane Gardens which were created in the 19th century by Rev. John Moore and his nephew Hugh Armytage Moore and in the sunshine looked wonderful. Nearby is Castle Ward, an eccentric 18th century mansion set in stunning grounds, looking over Strangford Lough, home to some of the best oysters in the world.

Castle Ward was used for filming Game of Thrones and you can submerge your imagination with castles and dragons as you tour round this fascinating building. Cyclists and walkers can enjoy miles of trails too.

Northern Ireland’s jewel in its crown is Mount Stewart, which has just re-opened after three years of restoration. It was once home to the 7th Marchioness Edith, Lady Londonderry and her family in the 20th century and has some impressive rooms. The gardens though are breath-taking from Italian villa landscapes to the biggest and strongest trees you have ever seen!

If you visit all these sights and the many more on offer, then no doubt you will be as happy as Flora and her hole in one!

Factfile: Accommodation: The Slieve Donard Hotel is the perfect spot to stay to explore the area as it is perched just on the edge of town and has lovely views of the water and Mourne Mountains. For booking and special offers, log onto www.hastingshotels.com/slieve-donard-resort-and-spa

Transport: P &O Ferries run a regular and quick service to Larne, Northern Ireland from Troon or Cairnryan in Scotland. The beauty of using the Troon service is the speed of the journey, just over two hours and you are just half an hour from Belfast. The Express from Larne service costs from £114 for a car and driver. For more information on crossings and fares, log onto: www.poferries.com

Attractions: There is much to see and do in this part of the world from the new great sport FootGolf to visiting museums and historical houses. For more information on FootGolf,with special prices on offer for 18 holes and children, log onto www.ukfootgolf.com or email newcastlefg@gmail.com

The National Trust for Ireland has some wonderful properties to see, log onto www.nationaltrust.org.uk

Tourism information can be found at www.discovernorthernireland.com