The Mourne Mountains experience provides visitors with two holidays in one. Not only can you spend days rambling and exploring on the mountain heights, but those who prefer can linger in the pretty fishing villages that adorn the coast near the lower slopes - included are Annalong, Ballymartin and Kilkeel. As the refrain goes ‘the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea', and at Newcastle that is almost literally so. With its lovely sandy beach it is the largest seaside resort in County Down and the most convenient base from which to undertake climbing expeditions to the nearby mountains. It is worth emphasising that Mourne is not only for the serious climber but has many attractions for the casual walker, especially on the lower slopes.
The barren peak of Slieve Donard rises steeply to 2796ft above sea level; it is the principal mountain in the Mourne range dominating the sublime blue distance of the landscape. For the fit it is only an afternoon's climb from Bloody Bridge, near Newcastle, to the top of the peak, with its massive hermit cell. From here spectacular vistas unfold in all directions, most especially toward the Isle of Man and over the long stretch of Strangford Lough. On a clear day, looking north-west, the pale line of Lough Neagh, a vast inland sea covering 153-square miles, can be dimly discerned.
For those who prefer a more relaxed approach to walking there are several pleasant and undemanding parks, created from the estates of former private houses. These tend to be located on the gentle rolling lower slopes of Slieve Donard; such a one, and the nearest to Newcastle, is Donard Park. On the northern slopes of the Mournes is Tollymore Forest Park, encompassing some 500 acres of picturesque trails that wind their way through verdant woodland and beside the sparkling brooks and rivers that thread their courses through the undergrowth. Entrance to the park is through two strikingly ornate Gothic gates - this structure is in fact a folly, of which there are more to be seen at nearby Bryansford. Further north, and moving inland, is Castlewellan Forest Park, tucked in the folds of the lower Mournes, located just outside the elegant market town of Castlewellan. At the parks highest point in the forest, at Slievenaslat, there are breathtaking views of the mountain range. Equally attractive and vying for your attention is a marvellous arboretum, dating from 1740, but now much expanded. The 1720 Queen Anne-style farmstead and courtyards near the main entrance, Hillyard House, offers accommodation and arranges outdoor pursuits.
For more serious climbers approaching the Mourne Mountains, the heights worth considering include Slieve Binnian, situated beyond Hare's Gap, by the Blue Lough; Slieve Commedagh, with its Inca-looking pillars of granite, and Slieve Bearnagh, to the side of Hare's Gap. In the panorama beyond Hare's Gap stand the spectacular slopes of Cove Mountains and Slieve Lamagan. At Hare's Gap, interestingly, minerals have seeped through the rock to form precious and semi-precious stones - topaz, beryl, smoky quartz and emeralds - in the cavities of the aptly named Diamond Rocks.
The sweep of coast from Newcastle around to Greencastle hamlet was notorious for smuggling in the 18 th century. Old coastguard lookout points recall the time when liquor and tobacco, tea, silk and soap were landed by boat from the Isle of Man and spirited away along the Brandy Pad and other smugglers' trails through the mountains. It remains a beautiful drive trailing the shore along the edge of the mountains, past a chasm known as Maggie's Leap and over the Bloody Bridge, site of a nearby massacre during the 1641 rebellion.
The small fishing village of Annalong lies on the Mourne coast, a pleasantly relaxed seaside town with a stoney beach and the crags of Slieve Binnion as its backdrop. Inland about a mile from the village are two large artificial lakes supplying water to Belfast and County Down; this reservoir is referred to as the Silent Valley. It is the result of an enormous 30-year engineering project that was completed in 1933, and the entire enterprise is encircled by a huge dry stone granite wall boundary, a staggering 22-miles in length, connecting 15 summits and known as the Mourne Wall. The fishing village of Kilkeel, known as the ‘church of the narrows', is a much grander version of Annalong. The ruined ‘narrows' church, built in the 14 th century, stands in the centre of Kilkeel in a ring fort. Its graveyard has one infamous guest, William hare (of Burke & Hare infamy), who murdered 16 people in the space of a year in Edinburgh. Ballymartin is a charming hamlet tucked away further along the Mourne coast, with a good small beach.
Guarding the north of Carlingford Lough, which borders the Mournes to the south, is Greencastle Fort. It sits in brooding isolation about 4-miles south-west of Kilkeel, a comparatively well-preserved Anglo-Norman edifice. After succumbing to several attacks from the local Magennis clan, and eventually capitulating to Edward Bruce in 1316, the stronghold finally collapsed into complete ruin after the Cromwellian invasion. Looking from the ruins there are spectacular views back to the mountains and also across the lough itself.