I have always loved the Northern Irish accent, but beyond history, politics and ‘The Troubles’, I didn’t know much about Northern Ireland. But when I won a 2 night stay there through The Yes Tribe (who I have talked about before in this post), it was the perfect opportunity to see what Ulster had to offer an outdoor enthusiast.
Climbing Slieve Donard, Northern Ireland’s highest peak, became my priority. This blog post will share info about the climb itself, as well as everything you need to know to plan your trip.
There are plenty of flights to Belfast airport, which is closest to the Mourne Mountains. However, my tip would be to check flights to Dublin as well. We were flying during the August bank holiday weekend, when prices are at a premium, and it was significantly cheaper to fly to Dublin. We saved about £40 each doing it this way, plus there is an even wider range of flights from London to Dublin airport. The drive was only about 15 minutes longer, and you have the added bonus of a short time in the Republic of Ireland where you can stock up on Taytos to snack on for your mountain climb.
I had planned on doing the trip by public transport, but my fantastic bestie Kathy offered to drive. Now that I have been there, I would say having a car is imperative. There would have been no way for us to get from the bed and breakfast to Slieve Donard without a car.
The Slieve Donard Climb
Slieve Donard is the highest mountain in Northern Ireland, standing at 850m. It challenges its climbers, but can definitely be tackled by someone with moderate fitness, without much trouble. The route is pretty easy to follow as well.
You start from Donard Car Park, and make your way to the trail through the back of the parking area, past some sports fields.
The path takes you up through a stunning pine forest, with its tall narrow trees. It feels more reminiscent of a Scandinavian wilderness than the UK countryside. And that piney smell!
On the first bridge you come to, cross to the other side, and then you can follow the river along for quite some time. The sound of the rushing water is magical.
A short way up, there is a little detour off the main path, which takes you to a waterfall and pools of icy water that are easily accessible from the big rocks. It’s a bit slippery, but branches around can support you. It’s shallow enough to paddle your feet in, but there are spaces that would be perfect for a proper wild swim. We were the only people there most of the time, so it provides a little privacy from an otherwise quite busy trail.
When you have found the path again, keep following the river. It will take you up through woods, then open spaces covered in wild heather.
It’s no surprise that landscapes in Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings were shot here, as the setting is dramatic, wild and untamed.
When the path reaches the saddle, you hit the Mourne wall, where you turn left, and can follow the structure along and up until you reach the summit. The climb gets steeper here, but following the wall means you don’t need to think about navigation, even if the weather turns dreary and you’re in thick fog.
After a good slog, you’ll reach the top. Apparently, on a clear day, you can see Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man, but all we saw was a lot of cloud and rain. You can shelter quite comfortably behind the Mourne Wall while enjoying your picnic and taking the inevitable summit selfies.
If you don’t want to totally retrace your steps back down, you can always walk on the other side of the wall for a different point of view. There are ladders and breaks in the wall when you reach the turning to go back down, so it’s easy enough.
The whole day should take around 5 hours on average – less if you want to power through, and more if you want to stroll at a leisurely pace and enjoy the natural delights around you.
Where to Stay
If nature’s playground isn’t enough to entice you to the Mournes, The Views Bed and Breakfast will be. Nestled down a remote backroad, close to the town of Kilkeel, this beautifully decorated BnB provides the perfect base for your Slieve Donard ascent.
Owners Jonathan and Michael will make you feel like part of the family. Not only did they welcome us in, help us plan our adventures and cook us a delightful made-to-order breakfast, but they also shared their drinks, introduced us to their friends, took a genuine interest in getting to know us and were notorious feeders (which gets no complaints from me!)
The place is stunningly designed, with wood floors, high ceilings, and personal touches like photos and teddy bears. Aside from spacious bedrooms that are immaculate, there are plenty of communal spaces, including an exercise room. My favourite was the room with a view – just a couch overlooking endless rolling hills where you can snuggle with a novel after a good day out hiking.
The real icing on the cake at The Views is the fact that it is home to the most beautiful Staffordshire Bull Terrier and her puppies. They are some very happy, well looked after dogs who provide plenty of cuddles, licks and fun.
Where to Eat
When you get back down the mountain after battling the elements, you’re going to want a hearty meal to recharge you. The town of Newcastle has plenty of pubs and eateries, but a real favourite was Vanilla, which has a restaurant and a separate wine and tapas bar.
We opted for the restaurant, which was pretty damn fancy, so do bring a change of clothes so you’re not mingling with the Newcastle elite in your waterproofs and sweaty gear!
The menu is varied, with plenty of fish dishes, meat, and some Asian fusion. When I told them I was a vegan, the personable waiter spoke to the chef who prepared the most exquisite salad, with more varieties of beetroot than I knew existed.
Do book in advance, as it gets busy.
There are plenty of other things to do in the Mournes, and I want to give a special mention to Silent Valley Reservoir. It boasts tremendous views, and has a selection of short walking trails.
We only had a couple of days in the Mournes, but if I went back, my priority would be bagging more peaks.
You can never climb too many mountains!