Northern Ireland holidays: On the up in charming County Down

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Northern Ireland holidays: On the up in charming County Down

 'A lot of English people still think Northern Ireland's going to be high-rise flats everywhere and jumping from bomb to bomb,' says Tracey Jeffery

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 ‘A lot of English people still think Northern Ireland’s going to be high-rise flats everywhere and jumping from bomb to bomb,’ says Tracey Jeffery from the kitchen of her 18th-century farmhouse on the shores of Strangford Lough, County Down. ‘But when they get out here, they’re amazed.’ 

For the past few years, Tracey has been showing visitors just how much her county, south-east of Belfast, has to offer, especially its victuals.  

The bumpy glacial hills around here are called the ‘drumlins’, and they give the later stages of the 25-minute drive from the capital a roller-coaster quality. But at the lough, where kayakers paddle and swimmers cool off from the heat, all is peaceful.

The Mourne Mountains in County Down, which is south east of Belfast. This undiscovered part of Northern Ireland was growing in popularity with visitors before coronavirus brought tourism to a halt

The Mourne Mountains in County Down, which is south east of Belfast. This undiscovered part of Northern Ireland was growing in popularity with visitors before coronavirus brought tourism to a halt

The Mourne Mountains in County Down, which is south east of Belfast. This undiscovered part of Northern Ireland was growing in popularity with visitors before coronavirus brought tourism to a halt

County Down has been less affected by the virus than many regions in the UK and still has lots of availability for holidaymakers. Pictured are the Mourne Mountains from the beach

County Down has been less affected by the virus than many regions in the UK and still has lots of availability for holidaymakers. Pictured are the Mourne Mountains from the beach

County Down has been less affected by the virus than many regions in the UK and still has lots of availability for holidaymakers. Pictured are the Mourne Mountains from the beach 

Tracey’s kitchen serves as a classroom, where she teaches the art of making soda, wheaten and potato bread — it seems no meal around here is served with fewer than three types of starch.

Although technically a ‘blow-in’ from the north coast and married to an Englishman, Tracey is a passionate advocate for the area.

She trained as a pastry chef in France and started out hawking macarons and other Gallic delicacies in farmers’ markets.

These were a tough sell, but the markets were a good way to meet other local producers. There’s Abernethy Butter (which adorned Meghan and Harry’s wedding table), Kilmegan cider, and prizewinning Millbay oysters from Carlingford Lough.

The stunning Strangford Lough in County Down. Ed says that the main attractions in this county are outdoors

The stunning Strangford Lough in County Down. Ed says that the main attractions in this county are outdoors

The stunning Strangford Lough in County Down. Ed says that the main attractions in this county are outdoors

Driven by this bounty and the beauty of the loughs and the Mourne Mountains, this undiscovered part of Northern Ireland was growing in popularity with visitors before coronavirus brought tourism to a halt.

County Down was about to take off,’ says Brendan Carty, proprietor of Killowen, Ireland’s smallest distillery. ‘This was going to be a massive year.’ Carty, an architect, founded the distillery three years ago, and it was quickly gaining a reputation as a favourite stop-off for whiskey-lovers.

With coronavirus visits dried up but the disruption could prove a long-term boom as Britons are encouraged to look to their own doorstep for holiday destinations. Operators have reported a tenfold increase in local inquiries.

Game Of Thrones fans will appreciate the National Trust property at Castle Ward, pictured, which became Winterfell, home of the Starks

Game Of Thrones fans will appreciate the National Trust property at Castle Ward, pictured, which became Winterfell, home of the Starks

Game Of Thrones fans will appreciate the National Trust property at Castle Ward, pictured, which became Winterfell, home of the Starks

The Royal County Down golf course, which is routinely voted among the world's best courses

The Royal County Down golf course, which is routinely voted among the world's best courses

The Royal County Down golf course, which is routinely voted among the world’s best courses 

Many of the traditional spots in the Lakes or the West Country are booked until late autumn. Yet County Down, less affected by the virus than many regions in the UK, has lots of availability.

‘There’s been a bit of Covid-19 in Belfast and Dublin,’ says Carty, ‘but out here… You wouldn’t know anything had happened.’ There’s masses to do. 

For those who don’t only travel on their stomachs, the main attractions are outdoors. There’s golf, of course, with Royal County Down routinely voted among the world’s best courses.

Killowen is the smallest distillery in Ireland. It was founded three years ago in County Down and has quickly gaining a reputation as a favourite stop-off for whiskey-lovers

Killowen is the smallest distillery in Ireland. It was founded three years ago in County Down and has quickly gaining a reputation as a favourite stop-off for whiskey-lovers

Killowen is the smallest distillery in Ireland. It was founded three years ago in County Down and has quickly gaining a reputation as a favourite stop-off for whiskey-lovers

Abernethy Butter is made in County Down and adorned Meghan and Harry's wedding table

Abernethy Butter is made in County Down and adorned Meghan and Harry's wedding table

Abernethy Butter is made in County Down and adorned Meghan and Harry’s wedding table

The mountains themselves provide spectacular walks for all abilities, but are also perfectly handsome to gaze at from sea level. Game Of Thrones fans will appreciate the National Trust property at Castle Ward, which became Winterfell, home of the Starks.

‘We don’t have a Giant’s Causeway, so we have to create other year-round attractions,’ says John Keating, operations manager at Life Adventure (onegreatadventure.com), an adventure sports spot on a lake in the grounds of Castlewellan castle.

His task has been made easier by a change in the law to allow e-bikes, bicycles with an electric motor, to boost riders up the hills.

These are great, but on the day I go I forget to wear a sensible outfit and tear my trousers.

I am also due at the reopened Titanic Museum the next morning, but think it might be a bit on-the-nose to wear swimming trunks. 

It’s ironic that Belfast’s most high-tech museum celebrates one of the most disastrous trips of all time, when so many opportunities for peaceful, happy excursions lie in the countryside around it. 

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