Ciarán Ó Conluain travels north with his wife and two kids to enjoy the wonderful outdoor activities on offer
As parents of two kids, aged six and eight, we are always looking for good value short breaks in Ireland that keep everyone happy. It can be increasingly difficult to find them with prices inflating and inbound tourism on the rise again too. We started to look north of the border and found some incredible options that meant the whole family could enjoy a few days’ break and do the things they loved.
We didn’t want to be in the car too long, so we chose Newcastle in Co Down, which was within an easy two-hour drive of Dublin. It is a beautiful seaside town but also has the highest peak in Northern Ireland within walking distance of the town centre. Newcastle is also home to the Royal County Down Golf Club which is regularly voted one of the best courses in the world. We love spending our time outdoors and with spring in the air, we were all ready to get active!
We stayed at the 4-Star Burrendale Hotel which is a one-mile walk from Newcastle town centre. The kids loved the hotel’s swimming pool, while my wife Maria and I enjoyed the jacuzzi and spa facilities. Having facilities like this is the perfect way to loosen up after a couple of hours in the car.
We ate dinner in the hotel’s Vine restaurant, and the food was delicious. Our favourite was the chicken Caesar salad starter (£7) and the slow braised blade of beef with a beautiful gravy (£17). For the fish lovers, my wife really liked the hake with chorizo, tomato and white bean cassoulet, with basil pesto (£16). The staff were so friendly and the assistant general manager, Connaire McVeigh, was at hand to help with anything that was needed. The kids loved everything about the place.
We had a large family room with two double beds and two singles. The view of the Mourne Mountains really made us feel like you were on a country retreat, but with the benefit of having the buzzing Newcastle town centre only a few minutes away. We went to bed early enough the first night, but only after one quick nightcap in the hotel’s cosy Cottage Bar.
The next morning we all enjoyed the Burrendales buffet breakfast. The kids loved, what they called, the “robot” pancake maker and we left early, with full stomachs, to see the local sights. My wife and kids really wanted to climb Slieve Donard (2,800ft) and I knew the pedigree of golf courses in the area was something I had to experience, so we went our separate ways.
I drove 30 minutes to Kilkeel Golf Club where I met Andy, the greenskeeper who is doing a fabulous job on a course that is entering its centenary year in May. Despite having had one of the wettest months on record, the course looked beautiful on this sunny day. I was playing alongside two members, Keith and Gary, who gave me all the local knowledge you could ask for.
The Eddie Hacket-designed course is a challenging 6,600 yards from the white tees and is quite undulating. What I liked most about it was that you were always being challenged by shot choice. Gary and Keith would advise me where to aim to avoid trouble on the next shot and this made for a very enjoyable game of golf.
My favourite hole was the first, where you start high up at the clubhouse and drive down to a sharp dogleg left. If you are a good driver, you will be aiming straight at mature tall trees to your left to cut the par 5 hole in half. Like most of the holes, you have trees to contend with and the rolling landscape naturally makes each hole a different challenge. Kilkeel is well worth playing if you are in the area (green fees from a very affordable £25) and has hosted the R&A and Senior European Tour, having been used as a qualifying course for the British Amateur and Senior British Opens.
On the way back to the hotel, I picked up Maria and my two kids who were fairly exhausted after over four hours of what they described as ‘an outdoor StairMaster’! From the photos I saw, the hike was stunning and very clearly marked. The Mourne Mountains offer a choice of 15 peaks all connected by the wall created in the 1500s. The kids told me there were actually teams of people on the mountain repairing the wall that very day.
When we arrived back at the hotel, we had a quick nap and then a swim. We felt totally reinvigorated! We also felt very hungry so paid a visit to the Percy French Inn restaurant and cocktail bar, which is located on the stunning grounds of the Slieve Donard Hotel . The restaurant is named after the Irish writer Percy French, composer of the beautiful song “The Mountains of Mourne”.
The restaurant manager Krissy McKinley was a brilliant host and she told us that the restaurant will soon be fully refurbished and will open again this summer. I am sure it will be even more beautiful and befitting of the stunning seaside views.
We started the evening with a cocktail each while the kids got busy colouring. For food, Krissy recommended their secret recipe sugar pit pork chop (£22) and the kids absolutely loved their seafood chowders, which were full of veg and fresh fish. The pork was perfectly cooked and has a lovely accompanying sauce and a side order of chunky chips. This was washed down by a delicious bottle of Riesling. The restaurant and bar were very busy and there was a lively atmosphere all around. We waited for our desserts which were very kindly packed for takeaway as the kids’ eyes were beginning to close after a very active day.
We all slept soundly and awoke ready to attack our final day in Co Down. This time, we set off for Ardglass Golf Club which has the honour of having the oldest golf clubhouse in the world (dating to 1405!). It is also rated by Irish Golfer magazine as the 46th best golf course in Ireland, so before you begin, you know you are playing on something special.
We arrived after a 30 minute drive and the sun was beaming. The kids, who are starting to show an interest in golf, had fun putting on the practice green while I talked to Adam in the pro shop. This predominantly links course has views of the Irish Sea from every hole and some of the holes are truly breathtaking. You are tempted to take your phone out for stunning pictures every few minutes.
The course starts at the craggy rocks of the 1st tee and goes uphill over a 170-yard carry to a shared fairway with the 18th hole. If the first hole is as good as it gets, then it would already be worth the trip. Amazingly, there are even better holes to come!
I was paired up with Denise, a local Banbridge player, who said the greens had been sanded very recently but are usually of the highest standard. We were also joined by scratch golfer Phil from London, who afterwards said the course was the second most beautiful course he’d ever played. He said it was only beaten by Turnberry in Scotland which has hosted The Open four times. That course can cost up to £395 per person, so with Adrglass prices starting from only £35 for Golf Ireland members and £60 otherwise, it’s one of the best value courses you will ever find.
Their most iconic hole is the par-5 11th where you drive over the ocean on your right to the tight fairway. Phil hit a perfect drive and then one of the best 2nd shots I have ever seen to within 8 feet of the hole. It’s a course that is incredibly challenging but is actually also playable for higher handicap golfers. I cannot recommend the course enough. The scenery alone is some of the best I have ever seen and to be able to play golf there is very special. The design and use of the natural environment is a work of art. To have something so accessible and affordable just a couple of hours away makes me realise again how lucky we are for golf in this country.
When the round ended, I met with my family for the trip home. We all had experienced something wonderful in just a couple of days. The quality and value were excellent and our children are already planning their next trip “up north”. The hospitality and the outdoor adventures we all had are just hard to beat!
The Burrendale Hotel has a midweek deal of two nights bed and breakfast with one dinner from £160.
For further information about places to stay or things to see and do in Northern Ireland, visit www.discovernorthernireland.com
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