Visiting The South East – The Mournes, St Patrick’s Country & the Ards Peninsula

The South East area of Northern Ireland is a popular area for outdoors holidays with probably the most prominent attraction being the Mountains of Mourne where there is plenty of hiking to enjoy.

As with anywhere in Northern Ireland, all points of interest are within a short drive of eachother, and although the Mourne Mountains sit between attractions such as Carlingford Lough and the Newcastle area, there are scenic drives through and around the mountains.

Overview

Distances:

  • Belfast to Newcastle:  35 miles, 1 hour approx
  • Dublin to Newcastle (via Newry): 92 miles, 2 hours approx
  • Newcastle to Rostrevor:  18 miles, 1/2 hour approx
  • Newcastle to Downpatrick: 14 miles, 1/2 hour approx

Exploring the South East

Carlingford Lough and area

Rostrevor, a town with many pubs, sits on the shores of Carlingford Lough

South of the Mournes you will find the breathtaking and magical Carlingford Lough which forms a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – the border runs down the centre of the lough.

The lough is framed by the Mournes on its northern shores, and the Cooley Mountains of the Republic of Ireland to the south. It is this area that CS Lewis, the Belfast born author of the Narnia tales, described as his idea of Narnia. A popular day out is to take a drive around the lough, completing the circuit by taking the car ferry that runs between Greencastle and Greenore in the Republic of Ireland.

Rostrevor sits on the northern shore and with the adjacent Kilbroney Forest which stretches back into the Mournes and is a popular place for camping holidays, and mountain bikers. The lough itself provides for some watersports. The stunning Silent Valley Reservoir is situated inland between Rostrevor and Kilkeel with walks for all levels.

The Mountains of Mourne

Silent Valley Reservoir and Park
Silent Valley Reservoir and Park, Mourne Mountains

The Mountains of Mourne comprises a compact area of  more than 12 granite peaks including Slieve Donard, Northern Ireland’s highest peak at 850 m (2,790ft). The area is criss-crossed with hiking trails and with the circular Mourne Mountain Rambler bus service, which runs through the summer months (May to August), hikers are not restricted to circular walks, getting dropped off and picked up at different points.

The Silent Valley Mountain Park provides a more accessible way to enjoy the Mournes with several less challenging walks tailored for different levels of fitness and mobility.  The park is home to the Silent Valley Reservoir as well as the higher Ben Crom Reservoir.

The Mourne Wall is a distinctive 22 mile (35km) long wall that was built between 1904-1922 and snakes over the Mournes, forming the reservoirs’ catchment area.

Scenic Drives – there are several scenic drives you can take around and through the Mournes including the Mourne Coastal Route, the High Mournes Scenic Loop, the Slieve Croob Scenic Loop and the Roosley Scenic Loop.

Newcastle Area

Murlough Beach
Murlough Beach looking towards Newcastle, with the Mournes in the background

Newcastle is a popular seaside town just north of the Mournes and naturally provides a base for hiking the mountains. It is also famous for the Slieve Donard Hotel & Spa and the 130-year-old Royal County Down Golf Club links. Nearby you will find:

Tollymore Forest – The Shinma river runs through this attractive wooded park, which used to form part of the estate of Tollymore Park House, which was demolished in 1952. It has also recently found fame as a filming location for Game of Thrones. Enjoy walks and picnics and see if you can find the Game of Thrones locations. Camping options are available.

Peace Maze
The Peace Maze at Castlewellan with the Mournes, again, as a magnificent backdrop

Castlewellan – Another grand estate turned over to public use. Activities include walking and mountain biking, and canoing and SUP boarding on the small lake. Castlewhelan is a popular destination for picnics and a highlight is the Peace Maze with the Mountains of Mourne as a backdrop.

Here’s a great little video shot by Barbara, a knitting enthusiast and video maker!

Murlough Beach – Murlough Beach is an expansive five-mile-long sandy Blue Flag beach with the Mournes providing a dramatic backdrop.  The beach is backed by an extensive 6000-year-old sand dune system that is the home to a diverse range of plant and animal life, and is managed by The National Trust as a nature reserve.

St Patrick’s Country

St Patrick's Grave
Saint Patrick’s Grave at Downpatrick Cathedral

Probably the world’s best known saint, St Patrick became the patron saint of Ireland for the simple reason that he was incredibly successful at converting the ‘heathen’ Irish to Christianity. He was so successful that Ireland became a shining beacon of Christianity at a time when much of Europe was going through the dark ages.

Naturally, to be so successful St Patrick travelled far and wide throughout Ireland,  but this area is rich in St Patrick’s history as it is believed that when he returned to Ireland to convert his former kidnappers to Christianity, he came ashore near Downpatrick  and set up his first Church at Saul near by.  Newry and Downpatrick (the clue is in the name) were early centres of Christianity, and St Patrick is believed to be buried at Downpatrick Cathedral. A large stone marks his grave. The large St Patrick’s statue that stands atop Slieve Patrick is also worth a visit for great views over North Down, Strangford Lough and of the Mournes.

Strangford Lough & The Ards Peninsula

Catch the car ferry that runs between Strangford and Portaferry and take a tour of the Ards Peninsula, a land of picture-perfect rolling hills (Drumlins from the glacial era) and fishing towns.  Places to visit include Grey Abbey,  Mount Stewart stately home, Ballycopeland Windmill and Donaghadee Lighthouse and Moat. Bangor, a seaside resort town, sits at the top of the peninsula and provides accommodation, seafront restaurants and Pickie Park for the kids.

Bangor Marina

Places to visit on the western shores of the lough  include Scrabo Tower, Hill Island, Castle Espie Wildfowl and Wetlands Park, Castle Ward and the Royal Palace, Hillsborough Castle.  There are many restaurants to enjoy along the route with Daft Eddie’s at Sketrick being a perfect choice for a summer’s day.

Castle Ward – open for a visit

Castle Ward – Castle Ward is a large estate on the shores of Strangford Lough with an 18th century stately home you can tour and large grounds you can explore. The estate was used in the filming of Game of Thrones to shoot scenes set at Winterfell and Robb Stark’s camp. There is also a campsite and an adventure centre where you can hire canoes and bicycles, or take an archery class.


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