Why you should make Hillsborough your base in County Down, Northern Ireland


Northern Ireland isn't a big country and no matter where you are, you're really no more than 90 minutes away from each main attraction. If you're looking for a base near the coast then I would recommend Portrush or Portstewart but if you're looking to explore the Mourne Mountains then Hillsborough is where you should stay. 


Famous for being the home of Hillsborough Castle, a royal residence and a place which played a key role in the peace talks, the town is unlike anywhere I've been in Northern Ireland. We joked it was a place where you could smell the money! The houses were pretty spectacular and people looked rather fancy. You know when people just have that 'look'? It had a very affluent feel and, despite only being 20 minutes away, it felt miles away from Belfast.






It boasts a cute little high street filled with an independent greengrocer, butcher, cute homeware shops and lots of pubs to whittle away a few hours over a pint. Everything is within walking distance which means you can forget about the car for the night and enjoy the craic. We enjoyed a bite to eat at The Parson's Nose and loved our breakfast at the Owl & Pussycat Cafe - be sure to get the fry! On our list for next time is dinner at Hara and a few drinks at The Plough. Make sure you make time to enjoy a walk around the man-made lake. Take a stroll through the forest, keeping an eye out for the 17th-century fort. 


We stayed at the most adorable little cottage in the middle of town. It was tiny but had absolutely everything you could possibly need including a gorgeous log burner. Sadly the weather was pretty special while we were over so never got to use it. We had such a warm welcome from the host and nothing was too much trouble. We were impressed with the interiors that we even stole an idea from the bedroom storage to use in our own house. Our understair storage doors are modelled on that house! They left us a lovely bottle of wine and apple pie as a surprise. It was the little touches like that which made it a joy to stay. 


We had such a lovely few days in Hillsborough and will definitely be back!







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Exploring the UK: Devils Pulpit, Finnich Glen, Glasgow, Scotland


We had one last morning in Scotland before having to catch our ferry over to Ireland. Needing to fill the time, I did a google and realised we wasn't too far from Finnich Glen aka Devil's Pulpit. Thanks to the underlying red sandstone, the water flowing through this gorge looks red, giving it the sinister name. 




I'd recommend arriving early morning as parking is very difficult. There isn't a carpark and you'll have to fight it out over a few spaces on the side of the road. It can get pretty chaotic! Tucked away in a forest, the gorge is a short walk from the car parking spaces. Wear sensible shoes and ones you don't mind getting muddy. Keep an eye on where you're walking as the gorge is pretty steep so it could be easy to lose your footing and fall over the edge. It's not a place I'd recommend taking children or visiting with people with mobility issues. Keep walking around the gorge until you get to a pair of stone stairs with a rope handrail attached to the side.


The steps will be very slippery thanks to the traffic up and down. Don't let go of the rope and tread extremely carefully. The stairs are narrow and only really allow for one-way traffic so always make sure to look down to see if anyone is coming. Keep in mind your feet probably will get a little damp. Despite all these warnings it's absolutely fab. It really does feel like an adventure! It was one of my favourite sights we visited during our trip. 


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Exploring the UK: Loch Katrine, Trossachs, Scottish Highlands


Back in September we decided to stop for a few days in Scotland to help break up our gigantic road trip to Ireland. We wanted some fresh air but didn't want to drive too far north. So the most logical answer was to venture just past Glasgow and arrive at Loch Katrine. Pretty close to the border but far enough in the countryside to feel like you were a million miles away from home. It was absolutely glorious and one of the most beautiful places I've visited in the UK. 



Loch Katrine is situated in the Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park. The freshwater loch has served the city of Glasgow for the past 150 years. If you're a fan of Outlander (something we're not!) then you'll recognise the scenery from season two as it's where Brianna and Roger have a picnic together. Following in the footsteps of Queen Victoria, its home to an historic steamship you can board for a trip up and down the loch. We chose to veto this option and decided to do our sightseeing by foot.

We were so incredibly lucky with the weather. It was pretty cold but such beautiful blue skies and sunshine. It made walking around the loch a dream. We parked the car in the main carpark, picked up a drink from the kiosk and took to our feet. The rangers are pretty helpful and pointed us in the right direction to find a map. There are numerous suggestion of walks in the leaflet depending on how much time you want to spend in the area. We still had other sights we wanted to squeeze in so we chose the two hour walk. We didn't end up completing it but still had a leisurely stroll for just over an hour. It was pretty empty so seemed even more magical because we had it to ourselves. I'd recommend scheduling in at least half a day to really enjoy the scenery. 



It was nearing lunchtime and we were getting hungry so we stopped for a bite to eat in the cafe over looking the loch. It was pretty pricy for a bog-standard fizzy drink, soup and sandwich but it was worth it for the view as we sat on the balcony wrapped up in a scarf and hat. Sometimes you've just got to pay up eh?


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Three of the best beaches to visit on the Causeway Coast, Northern Ireland

I've mentioned the Causeway Coast many times on this blog so you'll have to deal with yet another post waxing lyrical about it's beauty. This time I'm going to talk about the beaches. Even in the pouring rain the beaches are gorgeous, but if you manage to catch them on a sunny day then they are absolutely stunning. You could be almost anywhere in the world with the bright, blue sea and beautiful white sand. It'll be hard to comprehend that you're only across the water in Ireland. 



White Park Bay

This one is my ultimate favourite and I make sure I visit every time we head over to Ireland, even if it's just to stand at the view point and gaze out across the Atlantic Ocean. This year we managed to time it perfectly so we went beach hopping on a truly gloriously sunny day. Despite the car park being pretty full the beach was almost empty. We just had to contend with a few dog walkers and families playing. it is also so spotless and the sand is pure white. Located not too far from Ballycastle, be sure to stop for a bite to eat at Bothy for some pizza. They also do a takeaway if you fancy eating it with the sand between your toes. It is quite a trek down to the beach so this may not be one to attempt if you have mobility issues. Keep in mind there isn't any toilet facilities. 





Portrush

Out of all the Causeway seaside towns Portrush is my favourite. It has a typically seaside town feel but still seems to retain its charm. There's some great coffee shops and the town centre is nice to wander. If you love amusements then you'll enjoy the nostalgia of Barry's. The beach isn't that spectacular but it's a fun place to chill and watch the world go by. We like grabbing a treat and a sweet treat from Babushka before sitting on a beach to people watch. Take a stroll up Ramore Head for stunning views across Donegal in the Republic of Ireland. On a clear day you'll be able to see for miles. 




Whiterocks Beach

Within walking distance from Portrush is Whiterocks. Famous for it's impressive limestone rocks, this beach is a bit more rugged-looking than the rest. You'll still be greeted with the gorgeous white sand and crystal blue sea though! It's well-known amongst surfers so you may be lucky to have some entertainment for the day. The proud owner of a Blue Flag Award, Whiterocks is very popular so it'll probably be the busiest beach you'll come across. 

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What to visit in County Down, Northern Ireland


The Mourne Mountains
I've mentioned these last week so you already now how much I love them. They should, without a doubt, be the very first thing on your list of things to visit in County Down. Make sure to do both the higher mountains scenic route and the mountain coastal route. This way you'll see them all in their glory. Keep aside a whole day to explore as you'll be stopping every 30 minutes to take pictures. Newcastle is a great little town to stop over for some lunch. We ate at Great Jones Craft & Kitchen which was delicious. They offer some great Northern Irish craft beer choices. I recommend the Cajun fish tacos. They went down a treat! 



Castle Ward

I'm a sucker for an old stately home in manicured, fancy grounds. Castle Ward ticks all the right boxes. There a Game of Thrones location to tick off if you're that way inclined, some trails to wander if you like to walk and a lavish home if you want to imagine how the other half lived. There's a lovely little cafe on the grounds to enjoy an afternoon of cake and tea. 




Inch Abbey

If there's one thing Ireland does well then it's an ruin. Be it a castle or an abbey, the island is full of them. Featuring early gothic architecture, Inch Abbey was the place where the northmen rallied behind Robb Stark in Game of Thrones. From the abbey you'll have a gorgeous view of Downpatrick, where St Patrick is buried, and the River Quoile. The ruins are very well-intact and you can definitely tell what it was hundreds of years ago. There are some great signposts scattered around detailing the history. 




Murlough Nature Reserve 

Don't be too alarmed if you hear gunshots. The beach backs onto an army shooting range so you'll be able to hear them practising. There's signs in the sea to warn you not to go too far out just in case. But if you carry on strolling the gunshots gradually due away and you'll be able to swim until your heart's content. Surrounded by the mountains, the nature reserve is a great place to blow away the cobwebs. Pack some comfortable shoes and go for a wander. Follow the wooden broadway to get down to the sea. Wrap up warm as that sea air does get chilly!




Dundrum Castle

Located not too far from Newcastle, Dundrum Castle is believed to have been built in and around 1177. It's fast become of my favourite castle ruins in Northern Ireland, second to Kinbane Castle on the Causeway Coast. Considering it's been around since the Norman invasion, the ruins are surprisingly very well intact. I loved the fact there are stairs allowing you to climb the ruins to explore further. They offer you a great view! A fun fact which actually isn't fun to anyone apart from me. But my boyfriend's family came over to Ireland during the Norman invasion so this castle is as old as their Irish family tree! Crazy right?




Ard Peninsula 

Located on the east coast of Northern Ireland, the Arg Peninsula is only half an hour from Belfast. making it the perfect contrast to city life. Surrounded by the Irish Sea and Strangford Lough, there's some lovely little villages and towns to stop off along the way. Our favourite places were Grey Abbey where you'll find some ruins and Scrabo Tower which offers incredible views.




Hillsborough

We based ourselves in Hillsborough for four days while we explored the county. It's such a charming town and so unlike anywhere I've ever visited in Northern Ireland before. For a small place it has some fab places to eat, lots to explore and cute little houses you can't help but look up on Rightmove. Be sure to take a walk around the pretty lake and grab some lunch at The Parson's Nose.




Ballynoe Stone Circle

I had never been a stone circle before yet ended up at two during this trip! It is a bit tricky to find this and you do have to leave your car in a dodgy place. It won't really work if there's another car already parked. Be prepared to walk through a magical-looking track surrounded by overgrown trees. Once you get to the end, you'll be greeted with an incredible view of the Mourne Mountains. The stone circle was built in the Bronze Age but no one is quite sure of its purpose yet. 




Tollymore Forest Park

If you're a fan of Game of Thrones then you definitely know about Tollymore. You will have seen it! You'll past the place where the Starks found the direwolves, where the Night's Watch found bodies in the snow and where Tyrion and Jon chat on their way to the wall. It really is a beautiful place and you'll need at least half a day to explore. We could only spend an hour and it wasn't long enough. Take a picnic with you and enjoy the scenery.

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Exploring the U.K.: Castle Ward, Strangford, Northern Ireland


National Trust properties are my jam. Call me old before my time but I love wandering round manicured grounds and outrageous stately homes imagining what life used to be like. Castle Ward had been on my Irish bucket list for a while so I decided it was finally time to tick it off. 




Due to the current climate you can't turn up at any National Trust property without pre-booked tickets. They must be booked at least 48 hours in advance and you have to arrive within a designated time slot. We wanted to avoid any crowds so we went for an early time slot in the hope that everyone would be in bed! It worked out just fine and we only saw a handful of people milling around. Tickets are currently priced at £10 which is an absolute bargain in my eyes.

Game of Thrones fans will be keen to know that this is the home of Winterfell. Obviously there has been some insane CGI in the show but you'll be able to make out the bare bones. We noticed they offered special tours (just not in COVID times) and you can book yourself in for a game of archery. There's not too much to see but it's fun to take a stroll and think back to the series. 

Definitely don't skip the grounds. They're one of the best bits of the property! Be sure to pick up a map from the cafe because they have a list of trails to follow. You can walk about the lough, past a castle ruin, alongside an old boat house and through endless woods. It was so quiet and peaceful making it the best place to catch your own thoughts. 

The house is currently offering limited access due to COVID so they only have self-guided tours. The upstairs is out of bounds. I didn't feel like this took away from the experience and we actually enjoyed the recordings in each room outlining the history. The recordings were nice and concise. Sometimes a guided tour can be too long-winded. 

Castle Ward was definitely one of our highlights from County Down! 







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Why you should visit the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland


I've been going to Ireland for the past decade and feel like I'm pretty well traveled in the north. But there was one place where I hadn't been and now I'm gutted I haven't been sooner. The Mourne Mountains in County Down. County Down is one of the six counties of Northern Ireland in the south-east of the country. Home to the highest points in the country, the Mourne Mountain range is spectacular. It's said to have influenced C.S Lewis to write The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. You'll spend your entire trip marvelling at the serene beauty and wondering why on earth its not more popular. But you'll be secretly glad it's not as too many people would spoil it. 




Things to do

Take the high Mourne Mountains scenic route

If you only have time to do one thing, make sure it is this as you'll be blown away. Driving to the top of a mountain is both absolutely terrifying and probably the coolest thing you'll do. We picked it up from Newcastle and it finishes just before Annalong. It will take you past Tollymore Forest Park - see more about this below. Along the drive you'll find various points to spot off with car parking spaces and picnic benches. Definitely don't be shy to stop and snap some pictures or have a wander around. The majority of the time we only had sheep for company. We declined a trek up the mountains this time but we did spot a few more adventurous people than ourselves. On a clear day you'll even be able to see the Isle of Man or the Lake District in England. 





Take the Mourne Mountain coastal route

Nowhere quite has a coastline as beautiful as Northern Ireland. It's wonderfully rugged, delightfully wild and thankfully untouched. The route from Newcastle will take you through the peaks of the east Mournes and past the Bloody Bridge (named after an Irish massacre in the 1600s). Once again you'll pass so many lay-bys and picnic areas where you can stop. Be sure to park the car at the Bloody Bridge and go for a wander along the well-known former smugglers paradise. 





Visit Tollymore Forest Park

If you're a fan of Game of Thrones then you definitely know about Tollymore. You will have seen it! You'll past the place where the Starks found the direwolves, where the Night's Watch found bodies in the snow and where Tyrion and Jon chat on their way to the wall. It really is a beautiful place and you'll need at least half a day to explore. We could only spend an hour and it wasn't long enough. Take a picnic with you and enjoy the scenery.




Stroll along Murlough Nature Reserve

Don't be too alarmed if you hear gunshots. The beach backs onto an army shooting range so you'll be able to hear them practising. There's signs in the sea to warn you not to go too far out just in case. But if you carry on strolling the gunshots gradually due away and you'll be able to swim until your heart's content. Surrounded by the mountains, the nature reserve is a great place to blow away the cobwebs. Pack some comfortable shoes and go for a wander. Follow the wooden broadway to get down to the sea. Wrap up warm as that sea air does get chilly!


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