I’m guilty of heading west every time I fancy a coastal staycation in Ireland, but fresh off the back of my most recent trip (Insta highlights here), I’m bringing you my ‘how to spend 3 days in County Down’ itinerary. I’m not the biggest fan of long road journeys, or spending too long in the car so the fact that the whole region is less than two hours from Dublin really appealed to me. There is so much to see and do in terms of amazing food and drink all across the island of Ireland, but with Northern Ireland being awarded Best Food Destination 2018/19 it made sense to head north. Find out what’s going on during the Taste the Island celebration, which runs until the end of November, here. There are loads of ways to get involved with food trails, festivals and dining experiences, and the best bit? It’s back next year (and the year after that!), with big things planned. Read on for some of County Down’s Taste the Island highlights.
Where to eat and drink in County Down
Overwood, above Balloo House (recently awarded the Michelin Bib Gourmand for high quality at an affordable price) by Danni Barry comes highly recommended by locals and media alike, and they’re not wrong. The service is second to none, attentive yet down to earth, you trust what they say and the food speaks for itself. Quality meats are literally cooked over wood in the charcoal and wood, closed front Kopa grill. The charred flavour of juicy meat needs nothing but a simple salad to accompany it, but I over-ordered on the sides to go with my Côte de Boeuf anyway. The outdoor terrace with fire and cosy blankets is lovely for pre or post dinner drinks and there’s a wine merchant’s cabinet inside housing rare bottles with only corkage fee for a special occasion (read: not cheap).
Brunel’s in Newcastle is a must visit if you’re in the area, actually it’s worth going out of your way to eat there. Their local seafood chowder was hands down the best I’ve ever tried (and props to the chef for making it without the mussels for us – but they have Strangford mussles in cider and spring onion cream for shellfish eaters). The slow cooked Mourne lamb shoulder and belly with buttery champ wasn’t really necessary after the chowder but I’m very glad I over-ordered. Despite the fancy appearance, this was comfort on a plate. In fairness, lunch was immediately after a hike in the Mournes, so it was well deserved – more on that later in things to do in County Down. Hearty, warming goodness surrounded by the sea and the mountains and really reasonably priced. 10/10 will go back.
In Kilkeel, take an hour to pop into Honey Bee Bakery and try some of their home-baked goodies. The owner, also called Nadia, who is just 21 runs the coffee shop and makes all of the sweet treats herself – bar the divine apple crumble which her 85-year-old granny bakes.
Mourne Seafood in Dundrum does exactly what it says on the tin, with a side of an excellent wine list and unpretentious cocktails. Piles of scampi and chips if that’s what you fancy, or generous portions of hake, salmon, cod or whatever else the fish of the day is. You’ll find Strangford mussels here too and Carlingford Lough oysters, if they float your boat. Sit at the bar for a pre or post dinner cocktail (excellent sours) and just enjoy the relaxed vibe of this friendly coastal town.
Where to eat and drink in County Down kinds of blends into things to do, so keep reading for some tasting/learning experiences.
Things to do in County Down
Tracey’s Farmhouse Kitchen was probably the highlight of the entire itinerary in Co. Down. If I could just move in to her house, I probably would.
It’s as local and as authentic as you’ll get, Tracey literally invites you into her beautiful home with open arms…and into the kitchen to get stuck into a truly Northern Irish tradition. We were welcomed with freshly baked bread and scones and sat down with endless cups of tea and coffee before we began. “The kettle is constantly on boil”, Tracey said, indicating that we were to make ourselves feel at home.
Pick Tracey’s brain for local info while you’re there too. She’s a wealth of knowledge on everything food and drink related in the surrounding area, she knows everyone too – and everyone knows her! Plus she runs epic food and wine tours, check the website for more info.
While Taste The Island is all about showing off amazing Irish food and drink, it’s undeniable that County Down also has incredible sights and natural landscapes to explore. Plus, it’s nice to switch up the itinerary with a blow of fresh air and get moving in between meals. With all that in mind, I visited Life Adventure based in The Grange Yard Forest Park – a gorgeous destination itself to wile away a couple of hours. The guys have bikes which you can hire, kayaks to take out on the lake and guides who’ll show you the beautiful Mourne mountains, which is exactly what we did. Local guides who know the area like the back of their hand can whisk you off in a Land Rover (swoon!) to the unmarked walkways that steeply climb to stunning views as far as Strangford Lough and further. In fact you might even see the Isle of Man on a clear day. Between the sound of the sea and the river working its way through the forest and even a waterfall which you can just about spot from down in the town of Newcastle, the walk is the perfect way to switch off and enjoy a few hours in nature.
Our guide even packed a local pale ale from Whitewater Brewery to quench our thirst at the top. Hike and beer, what could be better?
It’s not every day you visit a distillery among lush gardens and forest and then look out at cows while you’re tasting a G&T. But here we are at Rademon Estate. We took a quick tour of the distillery (no phones allowed where the magic happens) to learn about more about the distillation process for whiskey and gin and the botanicals foraged from the estate which go into each bottle of craft gin. It’s thirsty work, all that listening, so out to the bar we went. The visitor’s centre is Pinterest goals, in fact if you’re inspired enough you can buy one of the bottles-turned lamp, complete with edison bulb in the gift shop to take home. I loved the fact that they stock lots of other products from local bits too, not just their own. I learned how to make a proper gin and tonic, with the right ratios and why certain brands of tonic work better than others with the flavours of the botanicals. Best of all though – mulled gin came into my life! How did I not know this was a thing? Christmassy spices (syrup if you like), a slice or orange or lemon and some hot water in with a measure of Shortcross Gin, similar to a hot whiskey I suppose. YUM. Tickets cost £22.50 here.
All wine lovers simply must stop by JN Wine in Crossgar, County Down. Their shop is unexpected, to be honest, it’s huge and has rows and rows of the most amazing bottles that are hard to lay your hands on. That doesn’t mean they’re expensive, though. In fact at the moment, travelling to Northern Ireland, wine is actually really good value to buy there. Definitely pick up a bottle of their own sparkling Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley and if you go before or around Christmas time, their hampers take all the hassle out of choosing wines for the festive season. They deliver too though, so you can always browse the website when you get home as well.
I was also lucky enough to taste some Ballylisk single herd, triple cream cheese from Armagh while at JN Wine too – Liz Hurley’s fave, or so she recently tweeted.
While I didn’t make it to the distillery on this trip (there’s a lot to see and do in County Down), I did get to pick up a bottle of Killowen Distillery’s delicious gin when I stopped by the night market in Newry on the road back to Dublin. Craft spirit aficionados will be interested in the flame-fed pot stills at the distillery which produces small batch whiskey, gin and poitín. The setting sounds idyllic too – literally in the Mourne Mountains. You can book a tour for £15 on their website, it’s on my list for the next trip!
Forage for seaweed at Crawford’s Rock (minutes from the ferry at Greencastle). I met Michelle the owner of Crawford’s Rock Seaweed Co. in Kilkeel for a walk along the completely unspoilt beach learning about and foraging for seaweed. Her family have long been custodians of the shore with agricultural kelp rights and they use six different varieties in cosmetic and food products for their many health benefits, kelp and nori are the ones we were most familiar with.
I had the chance to taste some of the infused oils and seasonings on fresh seafood, frying it up mere feet from the beach. Dip your feet in the Irish Sea to wake you up before going about the rest of your day
Ten minutes drive away, in Kilkeel, you’ll find Made in Mourne, a community collaboration project. The non-profit shop showcases handmade gifts from local producers and makes the perfect place to pick up a souvenir. Bite to Savour (artisan food gift hampers) would make a gorgeous present for family or friends living abroad. Fill a box with delicious Irish tea, chocolate, fudge, chutney and wheaten bread mix. Upstairs in HUB, grab a coffee from the honesty bar, use the free WiFi and kick back on the sofas while you plan your next move. The living room vibes of the communal space help you relax and feel at home in your new surroundings.
Soak in a seaweed bath. Directly on the waterfront in Newcastle, Soak Seaweed Baths have individual rooms filled with steaming hot baths of seaweed cut fresh from the rock on the shoreline. The place has a retro feel which I kind of liked, it all felt very laid back. It costs £25 for one hour, you choose your music (I went for Sharon Shannon and the gals, but you can bring your own CD – I told you it’s retro) and control the volume in your treatment room. Start with ten minutes in the wooden steam pod then jump into the bath and reap the skincare benefits before finishing with a cold shower to seal the deal.
Where to stay in County Down
The newly refurbished Bakers Cottages in Seaforde had me at hot tub. Yep, that’s a six person hot tub in a renovated barn, complete with TV, fire and fridge for your drinks. Absolutely dreamy! The house is too though, with three bedrooms, a cosy living room and really well equipped kitchen which is perfect for cooking a big Ulster fry to set you up for the day. Views of the Mourne mountains and the rolling fields surrounding the cottage from every window, it’s completely quiet and totally private. You get the feeling of being really remote, yet you’re only ten minutes drive from town.
Setting out from Dublin early morning, it took 90 minutes to arrive in Greenore for the 9.30am Carlingford Lough Ferry crossing. The scenic route only takes 15 minutes and brings you into Greencastle, in County Down. One way tickets are around €13.50, make sure to check the website for updated times and sailing status. Of course you can stay on the road and drive all the way, but take the scenic route on a nice day.
I recommend downloading your local area in Google Maps so you can still use it offline for driving directions, there’s not much signal once you’re off the beaten path. I’ve added all my favourite stops here:
In the absence of a designated driver and you’re looking for a taxi to and from town, The Bakers Cottages have handily left loads of info for local drivers who’ll swing by and pick you up – they double up as the best local County Down guides!
This post was sponsored by Tourism Northern Ireland in conjunction with Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland. All views are, as always, my own.