Where magical Mournes sweep down to the sea
Stephanie Bell enjoys an E-bike ride through the forest and time out in the Slieve Donard hotel’s luxurious spa
It was one of the wettest days of the year, and as we drove into Castlewellan Forest Park, the visibility was so bad that we couldn’t see any of its natural beauty beyond the roadside. I had booked a guided electric mountain bike ride around the park’s lakes with Life Adventure with my 12-year-old son, Matthew, en route to the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa for a one-night break.
With the relentless downpour making the morning look more like night, I had every intention of taking a rain check on our appointment.
Thankfully, over a warming cup of coffee at the welcoming Castlewellan Trail Centre, our instructor was more enthusiastic and persuaded me to give it a go.
After getting kitted out in full waterproof gear, we set off fully protected on our electric bikes in the driving rain.
What followed was an exhilarating hour. Thanks to the power of the E-bike helping to propel up the steeper slopes, I soon forgot my fears about being able to keep up with my son.
It was our first time trying E-bikes and, despite the downpour, we enjoyed every minute. I can’t wait to return in the summer when, hopefully, the sun will be shining and we will be able to fully appreciate the park’s beauty.
The ride in the open air worked up quite an appetite, so we were looking forward to lunch in Newcastle’s Brunel’s restaurant after checking in to the stunning Slieve Donard Resort and Spa.
The beautiful Victorian hotel was as busy as ever when we arrived, but the friendly staff soon escorted us to our room, where we were delighted to discover we had sea views.
Even the relentless rain couldn’t dampen the beauty of the view over Newcastle beach and the spectacular Mourne Mountains.
Armed with a large umbrella, courtesy of the hotel, we walked the short distance to Brunel’s, on Down’s Road, overlooking the beach.
This modern, bistro-style eatery offered a beautiful winter brunch menu. We were also pleased to see a good children’s menu that included steak — a favourite of Matthew’s.
The food was original and flavoursome, and it was two very satisfied customers who happily headed back to the Slieve Donard to relax and, for me at least, enjoy a bit of pampering in the hotel’s luxury spa.
Seen as a haven of escapism, you can’t stay at the Slieve Donard without visiting its spa facilities.
As well as a list of indulgent treatments, it has luxury relaxation rooms, a hot tub, sauna, a swimming pool and floor-to-ceiling windows with loungers looking out over the sea, and you can lap up the tranquillity of the rejuvenating space for as long as you want.
I emerged feeling completely relaxed after a wonderful ESPA facial followed by a lie-down in the calming chill-out room.
Dinner in the venue’s Oak Restaurant was another treat. After enjoying the most succulent lamb I have ever tasted, we were happy to spend the rest of our evening relaxing in our comfortable room.
The next day, unfortunately, was the last day of our lovely break. After treating ourselves to a full breakfast delivered to our room, there was so much to explore before returning home.
If you are planning a break in Newcastle or along the Co Down coast, there are endless activities and beautiful sights to see.
You can scale the peaks of the highest and most spectacular mountain range in Northern Ireland at the Mourne Mountains, or enjoy the spectacular scenery from the foothills along short and gentle trails with lots of stunning forest parks, coastal views and impressive gardens.
Tollymore Forest Park offers horse riding, gentle strolls, cycling, nature trailing or pic- nicking by the Shimna River. Alternatively, check out Murlough National Nature Reserve, a fragile 6,000-year-old sand dune system owned by the National Trust that is excellent for walking and birdwatching because of its spectacular location at the edge of Dundrum Bay and the Mourne Mountains.
If you are anywhere near Rostrevor and Kilbroney Forest Park, you must climb to see the giant Cloughmore Stone as well as, of course, views of Carlingford Lough that will take your breath away.
Kilbroney, too, is lovely for the CS Lewis-inspired Narnia Trail. The author spent boyhood holidays in the area and said it was his idea of Narnia.
Another experience everyone should try is rolling up the Magic Hill. There will always be magic in the Mournes, but for a little extra, stop your car on the enchanted road at Spelga Dam and let the handbrake off —it will mysteriously roll uphill in apparent defiance of the laws of gravity.
As our trip proved, you don’t need the sun to be shining to enjoy a fabulous staycation in Northern Ireland.
TOP SPOT: the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa offers luxury in the shadow of the Mournes