I can think of three good reasons why this is the year to tick off Northern Ireland on your bucket list. Firstly, its natural wonders are an absolute must-see. From the iconic Mourne mountains – twelve shapely summits peppered with lakes, granite tors, forest and incredible views – to the Giant’s Causeway’s basalt columns reaching out into the Atlantic ocean and Rathlin Island’s beauty, comprising stunning views, rugged landscape and unexpected tranquillity, these all make for great Instagram content, and are only a short drive from Dublin.
Secondly, last week a number of Northern Ireland’s most popular visitor attractions reopened including The Ulster Museum, Hillsborough Castle and Gardens, Titanic Belfast and Ulster American Folk Park, while this week a month-long initiative “Eat Out to Help Out” gets underway. The latter allows diners to sample many of Northern Ireland’s best eateries from the Michelin-starred restaurants (Eipic), award winning gastro pubs (Mourne Seafood Bar, Wine & Brine), as well as cafés at half price on Mondays to Wednesdays until the end of August). There is no catch involved in this scheme – making a holiday coffee or dinner that bit more affordable (just enter the postcode of where you are staying and you can access participating venues). These cultural and culinary attractions are within reach as are plenty of museums and heritage spots to explore. As for where to stay, I’ve selected luxury resorts, stylish self-catering pods, cosy cabins, private castles and family-friendly hotels that will suit a range of budgets. Though I am biased of course (I’m from Co Down), there’s no excuse not to enjoy an overnight break and the glossy outdoors of Northern Ireland.
Slieve Donard Resort & Spa, Co Down
Nestled at the foot of the mountains of Mourne, the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa in Newcastle stands in six acres of immaculate private grounds. A golden strand of beach borders one side, while the Royal County Down Golf Links frames the other. There’s lots of places to go walking and exploring nearby including Tollymore Forest Park, Silent Valley, Castlewellan Country Park and Murlough Bay Nature Reserve. A stay also enables “Thronies” to visit some of the most iconic scene locations of Game of Thrones. Walk where the White Walkers first appeared (and also where the Starks discovered the direwolves), visit Team Stark’s home at Winterfell, go to Rob Stark’s battle camp, step foot where the “Red Wedding” unfolded and pay your respects to the Tullys when arriving at Riverrun. Currently on offer is an overnight stay with full Irish breakfast from only £85 per person. There is also a “Coast and City Twincation” which comprises a four-night staycation with breakfast each morning from only £270 per person. Spend two nights soaking up the ambiance of Newcastle before enjoying a further two nights in the perfectly poised Europa Hotel, in Belfast’s city centre; www.hastingshotels.com.
Bishop’s Gate, Co Derry-Londonderry
Bishop’s Gate Hotel is an elegant Edwardian property, perfect for those looking to explore the walled city of Londonderry. It was a former gentlemen’s club which once hosted Winston Churchill and WB Yeats and is epitomised by the friendliness of its welcome and ideal situation. It’s in the Cathedral Quarter, within walking distance of many of the main visitors attractions – next door to the 1813 neoclassical courthouse and across the street from the Bishop of Derry’s former residence. It’s two minutes’ walk from the ancient city walls, and only five minutes down to the riverfront and the excellent Tower Museum. Alternatively, Bishop’s Gate has bikes to rent for a cycle around the 400-year-old city. The award-winning boutique hotel is defined by its tasteful restoration. The Wig Bar in the former billiard room is lined with bookshelves and portraits of club members, with an open fire, marble-topped bar and serves posh pub grub. The adjoining Gown Champagne Bar and Restaurant, named as a nod to the courthouse next door, is romantically candlelit in the evenings and favours classical French style dining with a twist. The afternoon tea is especially popular served in a lovely drawing room with a portrait of the eccentric Bishop Augustus Hervey over the fireplace; www.bishopsgatehotelderry.com.
Lusty Beg Island Resort, Co Fermanagh
In the so-called Fermanagh Lakelands you’ll find the four-star Lusty Beg Island Resort – for those looking for an activity-filled break. Just a short ferry trip from the shores of Lower Lough Erne, this place is packed with things to keep grown-ups, kids and even grown-up kids happy all day and all night. There’s an adventure centre, games room, tennis court, bar and restaurant. A choice of self-catering accommodation is available from hotel-style rooms to open plan island cabins; www.lustybegisland.com.
The Merchant Hotel, Belfast
Whether you want to have a weekend of shopping (the Victoria Centre is close by) or sightseeing in the (cobbled) Cathedral and (sleek) Titanic quarters, The Merchant Hotel provides a five star location and currently has two temping offers. “A Taste of The Merchant” from £299 per person for two nights, takes guests on a culinary journey, where they can enjoy the magnificent surroundings of the newly refurbished Great Room Restaurant and enjoy a six-course tasting menu especially prepared by The Merchant’s chefs, on either Friday or Saturday night. A lavish breakfast is also served in The Great Room Restaurant before a leisurely late check-out. There’s also a “Spa-cation” overnight stay from £340 per room. This includes a revitalising spa experience with a 60-minute treatment from the Spa Treatment Menu followed by a glass of Prosecco in the relaxation area. Breakfast in the Great Room Restaurant is also included as well as complimentary in-room movies; www.themerchanthotel.com.
Bushmills Inn, Co Antrim
Long before Game of Thrones popularised the coast of County Antrim, Bushmills Inn was a destination for foodies and hotel aficionados. Originally a coaching inn, dating from the 1600s, set in the pretty village of Bushmills, it’s now one of Northern Ireland’s most luxurious hotels, with peat fires, sumptuous rooms, and interesting nooks and crannies. As the perfect base to explore the coastline and also work up an appetite, there is plenty of (Instagrammable) scenery in the vicinity. No visit would be complete without a walk on the beach at Whitepark Bay, a visit to the Giant’s Causeway (a World Heritage site) and the iconic Dark Hedges. Bushmills is, of course, a magnet for whiskey enthusiasts and the distillery is a mere stone’s throw from the hotel, which has its own private cask for tasting in the gas-lit bar. Golfers are also drawn to the hotel given its proximity to Royal Portrush Golf Course – the recent home of the Irish Open – which features the Valley course and the world-famous Dunluce course, both overlooking the pounding Atlantic ocean. Once you’re back to the hotel, comfort and culinary delights await. Dinner in the award-winning Taste of Ulster restaurant (set in former 17th-century stables) is a treat. Guests also have access to intimate screenings of the latest blockbusters or old-time classics in the exclusive surroundings of the Inn’s Still Room cinema, the Afternoon Tea and Sunday carvery are other highlights around which you should plan a stay. www.bushmillsinn.com
Glenarm Castle, Ballymena
The 17th-century Glenarm Castle is a lovely rural getaway along the Causeway Coastal Route which has just introduced “Further Space” holiday pods to its accommodation offering. The pods are cosy, fully furnished and have all the comforts of home, including electricity, running water and heating and feature an expansive glazed entrance, coffee dock, shower room, double-bed, Wifi and somewhere to sit and relax. You can bring your own food or have the option of pre-ordering a breakfast or barbecue pack delivered to your pod. Pod prices range from £120 per night per pod which can accommodate a family of two (two adults and two kids in bunk beds); www.glenarmcastle.com.
Ardtara Country House & Restaurant
The historic ruins of Mussenden Temple, Downhill and Benone beaches and the Seamus Heaney HomePlace, celebrating the life and literature of the poet and Nobel Laureate, are all located within easy reach of Ardtara Country House & Restaurant. Nestled on a ten-acre estate, Ardtara Country House & Restaurant is an elegant Victorian manor, the former home of adventurer and linen baron Harry Jackson Clark. It retains the feel of a private house with many original features and has an impressive baby grand piano in the entrance hall. The serene setting is matched with seamless service and an award-winning restaurant, where the emphasis is on using seasonal local produce and fruit and vegetables grown in Ardtara’s own gardens. There are nine bedrooms overlooking the gardens, and a sound sleep is assured in such a tranquil setting. After a hearty breakfast here are several recommended scenic drives. The top of Binevenagh mountain has spectacular views across Lough Foyle to Donegal in the west. On the way back, take the coast road via Castlerock where you’ll find the 300-year-old thatched roof Hezlett House. For fishermen, Ardtara is also close to several good rivers (fly fishing on the River Bush and coarse fishing on the River Bann) and ghillies are available by request. www.ardtara.com
Belle Isle Castle, Co Fermanagh
Belle Isle Estate is a fabulous historic castle for exclusive hire on the Fermanagh lakelands. The castle has thirteen bedrooms (sleeping up to 26 guests), each an exquisite mix of antique furnishings alongside contemporary fixtures and fittings. Guests can choose to stay at the expertly restored five star Abercorn Wing, which have has views across Lough Erne, or opt for the Hamilton Wing, where exposed oak beams and grand four-poster beds set the scene for dreamy nights, and with fresh country views as far as the eye can see; www.adamsandbutler.com.
Titanic Hotel, Belfast
The Titanic Quarter is Belfast city’s tourism centrepiece with the waterfront regeneration providing a host of historic maritime and family activities. These include a visit to the shimmering star-shaped Titanic Belfast – where there are over nine interactive galleries featuring special effects, dark rides and full-scale reconstructions recreating Victorian Belfast and the four-year building of the ill-fated ship (a family ticket is £46). There’s also We are Vertigo, an adventure playground for adrenalin junkies a couple of minutes away with ski slopes, indoor skydiving to wall climbing and trampolining. Nowhere is better positioned for both these attractions than the Titanic Hotel Belfast which has an interesting “Northern Escape Package” this summer. Guests can stay for two nights at Titanic where room upgrades are the norm and you will also get two free tickets to the Titanic Experience. Afterwards enjoy two nights at Lough Eske Castle, Donegal.
Each hotel stay includes breakfast each morning, as well as complimentary parking, Wi-Fi and access to the swimming pool at Lough Eske Castle. This “Northern Escape Package” from Titanic Hotel Belfast and Lough Eske Castle, Donegal, starts from €699 for two people sharing midweek and is available until November; www.lougheskecastlehotel.com.
The Container B&B, Todds Leap Adventure Centre, Ballygawley
Up to four people can spend the night in a brightly coloured, fully fitted shipping container dorm, at Todds Leap Adventure Centre. Each container is kitted out with an en-suite bathroom, fridge and TV to ensure you’re not short of home comforts. Also available onsite is The Tree House which offers a tranquil experience for smaller families as well as Log Cabins overlooking the stunning landscape of Clogher Valley. All accommodation is just a short walk to the on-site restaurant and activity centre. Prices start from £50 per person sharing for one night’s bed and breakfast and £75 per person sharing for two nights bed and breakfast – accompanying children get a rate of half price; www.toddsleap.com.
Killeavy Castle Estate, Co Armagh
Set within 350 acres of farm and woodland located in County Armagh’s stunning Slieve Gullion, Killeavy Castle Estate offers a castle, boutique style hotel and quaint gate lodge. The package includes: one night’s luxury accommodation, full Irish breakfast and complimentary use of the Spa thermal facilities (re-opening once restrictions ease for the spa and leisure sector). The price is £160 per room per night based on two people from Monday – Thursday, and on weekends from £180; www.killeavycastle.com.
Ashbrooke House, Co Fermanagh
Ashbrooke House is a fabulous, quirky eight-bedroom Georgian country house available to rent exclusively in the heart of County Fermanagh. As the Dower House for the Colebrooke Estate, Ashbrooke has been in the Brooke family for over 200 years. Formerly the home of Viscount and Viscountess Brookeborough, the house has recently been restored and renovated to provide luxurious accommodation. Surrounded by rolling hills and a charming river that winds its way through the estate and coniferous woodland, it’s definitely outdoorsy – the place to enjoy rambling walks (on a clear day walk the “Stairway to Heaven” boardwalk which offers a viewpoint of the Fermanagh lakes), bird watching, and fishing. Other activities such as fishing, clay pigeon shooting, cycling and many more can be arranged; www.adamsandbutler.com.
Newforge House, Co Armagh
Newforge House is an idyllic, ivy-clad Georgian country house set in 40 acres of lush grounds with mature gardens, while indoors, many original features have been retained creating a sense of gentility and intimacy. Chilling out is encouraged, while comfort is assured. The house has just six individually decorated bedrooms, many containing family heirlooms, which boast modern bathrooms, and a pillow menu. This five-star service is matched by the first class food. Meals are carefully prepared by the owner John, a trained chef, using seasonal local produce and vegetables grown at Newforge House. Dinner is legendary – served at 8pm, guests are requested to arrive at 7.30pm for a drink in the drawing room first. (Choose from a list of some 30 gins and 21 whiskies). Many local residents have been known to book into Newforge House for the evening, to fully enjoy the experience! Meanwhile for more adventurous guests there is plenty to visit in the area. Magharalin is a pretty village on the doorstep, while Co Armagh is a spiritual paradise and ancient historical hub. Cathedrals are the order of the day as is art history – two windows at the Church of St John the Evangelist in Gilford were recently discovered to be by stained glass artist Harry Clarke. Historians will be inspired by Navan Fort – an important archaeological site linked in legend with the tales of Cúchulainn. While The Argory, a National Trust property, and Hillsborough Castle & Gardens, the Queen’s official residence in Ireland, are both recommended and sustain the elegant vibe perpetuated in Newforge. https://www.newforgehouse.com/
Fitzwilliam Hotel, Belfast, Co Antrim
The five star Fitzwilliam Hotel Belfast is located in the Belfast city centre and is ideally situated for a visit to Ulster Museum. Named “AA Hotel of the Year Northern Ireland 2019/2020”, the Fitzwilliam has 146 guestrooms and suites, a much-loved bar and is noted for its friendly welcome. The hotel has been accredited as “Good to go” – in collaboration with Visit Britain and Tourism NI – meaning it has been checked and has also secured the AA “Covid Confident” mark assuring guests that safety measures are in place. Currently, Fitzwilliam is offering a “Safecation” offer from £90 per person per night based on two people sharing. This includes bed and breakfast, complimentary room upgrade, early check in and late check out and a voucher of £25 or €25 Euro to spend on a further two night stay at The Fitzwilliam Belfast or The Fitzwilliam Dublin. This offer is available until October 16. www.fitzwilliamhotelbelfast.com
Corick House Hotel & Spa, Co Tyrone
Corick House is a luxury four-star Hotel & Spa, located in the County Tyrone countryside. Set among meandering streams and winding country roads, the hotel offers guests hospitality, superb cuisine and lavish surroundings. A one-night bed and breakfast offer is from £99 per room per night based on two people, until October 16. It’s an ideal location to visit Ulster American Folk Park, County Tyrone, where visitors can immerse themselves in the story of the brave emigrants who made the journey across the Atlantic to America hundreds of years ago. Book tickets online in advance to guarantee your time slot; www.corickcountryhouse.com.
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