Come on Down for fun

It’s time for some ex­er­cise to see in the new year af­ter all the feast­ing

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - TRAVEL -

Af­ter all the Christ­mas par­ty­ing is over, the movie marathons are com­plete and the fes­tive food fin­ished off, the best way to start the new year is with some fresh air and ex­er­cise. North­ern Ire­land of­fers many op­por­tu­ni­ties to get away to­gether in the great out­doors, with many Ar­eas of Out­stand­ing Nat­u­ral Beauty wait­ing to be ex­plored.

Among these are the pic­turesque Mourne Moun­tains, the high­est and most dra­matic moun­tain range in North­ern Ire­land. Rivers, lakes and reser­voirs lie amid the peaks, and the moun­tains are a haven for walk­ers, hik­ers, climbers and ad­ven­tur­ers at any time of year. Pack up your gear and pre­pare for a bit of leg-stretch­ing in the most scenic of sur­round­ings you can imag­ine.

Depend­ing on age and fit­ness lev­els, you can opt for the chal­lenge of scal­ing Slieve Donard, the Mournes’ high­est peak, or for tak­ing a more leisurely walk through beau­ti­ful Tol­ly­more For­est Park.

It’s a three-mile hike to the top of Slieve Donard, but the ef­fort is re­warded with awe­some views from the sum­mit. On a clear day, you can see as far as the Isle of Man to the east, Co Wick­low to the south, Co Done­gal to the west and Scot­land to the north.

The as­cent passes through for­est, open moun­tain­side, past wa­ter­falls and fi­nally reaches the fa­mous dry­s­tone Mourne Wall, which leads to the peak. It’s tough, but think of all the Christ­mas calo­ries you’ll burn off.

At the foot of the moun­tains, Tol­ly­more For­est Park, stretch­ing over 1,600 acres, is a de­light with its scenic trails and gar­den fol­lies. Here you can wan­der by the sparkling Shimna River, ex­plore the ver­dant forests and dis­cover the many film lo­ca­tions for Game of Thrones, in­clud­ing the place where the Starks dis­cov­ered the di­re­wolves.

Af­ter a day on your feet, why not in­dulge with an overnight stay in the op­u­lent Slieve Donard Re­sort and Spa in New­cas­tle? Ease away the walk­ing and climb­ing aches with a sump­tu­ous spa treat­ment fol­lowed by fine din­ing in the ho­tel’s so­phis­ti­cated Oak Restau­rant. Then re­lax with a drink and en­joy some of the best views in the coun­try.

Mur­lough Na­tional Na­ture Re­serve is an­other must-visit beauty spot in the area. The 6,000-year-old sand dune sys­tem, on the edge of Dun­drum Bay, is criss-crossed with board­walks, mak­ing it an ex­cel­lent area for walk­ing and bird watch­ing. It is home to more than 600 species of but­ter­flies and moths, one of which, the Marsh Fri­t­il­lary but­ter­fly, is of Euro­pean im­por­tance.

Take the self-guided na­ture trail and dis­cover the com­plex bi­ol­ogy of the re­gion while en­joy­ing the views of the ex­pan­sive beach and the breath­tak­ing back­drop of the Mourne Moun­tains.

The sea air is said to build up an ap­petite, and nearby Dun­drum vil­lage is the per­fect place to re­fuel af­ter an af­ter­noon at the re- serve. Among the eater­ies to choose from is the renowned Mourne Seafood Bar, a must for seafood lovers. The restau­rant sources all its shell­fish from its own beds, and its catch of the day is fresh off the fish­ing boats at Kil­keel and An­na­long. It’s a rare com­bi­na­tion of top-qual­ity food and af­ford­able prices.

If time al­lows, mo­sey home along the Mourne Coastal Route from Dun­drum via Strang­ford to Porta­ferry, on up the penin­sula to­wards Belfast. You’ ll be treated to splen­did views, made even more mag­i­cal with the set­ting sun. No bet­ter start to a new year.

COUNTY DE­LIGHTS: scenic Dun­drum Bay, the op­u­lent Slieve Donard Re­sort and Spa in New­cas­tle (be­low right), and the Mourne Seafood Bar in Dun­drum vil­lage

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