Arriving from south, you exit the ever-busy M1 motorway just before the border crossing for a pleasant 25-minute drive that takes you into the village from the east. The glimpses of the sea become increasingly alluring as you near Carlingford and the neatness of the place gives an initial impression of a strength of civic pride that is above the ordinary.
They won the Tidy Towns award over 20 years ago and seem to be continuing the tradition ever since. As you descend into the lower parts of the town, it becomes increasingly mediaeval and stony with ever-narrowing streets.
You can explore the whole place in as long or as short a time as you care to give it. The gently sloping dinky Market Square looks like its days as a rural market are long gone, with an eclectic collection of pubs, craft shops and restaurants forming the basis of its existence. The warren of little streets leading seawards from here are all inviting and are all worth exploring for their olde-world charm and well-kept chic. Tolstel Street is a particular draw — a narrow pedestrian walkway that was still buzzing with a vaguely continental outdoor cafe vibe on the mild winter’s day that we visited.
If you go left in the opposite direction, Market Street soon catches your eye with the imposing ruins of Taaffe’s Castle — a towering extension of the bar of the same name that claims to be Carlingford’s oldest pub.
There’s a playground and car park across the road here, right next to the lodge-style tourist office facing the sea on the waterfront Newry Street. When you are on this street, the medieval nature of the town seems to fade into the background, but the natural setting of the place is what then takes precedent. The two piers that almost enclose the harbour like a bronze-age bracelet form a symmetrical stage with the aforementioned Mourne Mountains making a dramatic backdrop.
We walked around to the left towards King John’s Castle and stood watching a family of hardy locals dressed in wetsuits jumping off one pier and swimming across to the other and back while the bright November sky lit up Slieve Foy and the Cooley Peninsula behind us, and the dark Mournes turned red in the setting sun.
The principal recommended activity here is to walk around and soak up the atmosphere of the place. You can amble at your leisure with a map in hand so that you know what you’re looking at. For example, it’s not everyone that can spot an ancient corner of a house that happens to be shaped like a profile of Charles de Gaulle. You can also get a guided tour of village by contacting the aforementioned tourist office. Locally-based Setanta Tours (setantatours.com) also organises heritage walks and cycle tours all over the Cooley Peninsula.
Apart from fishing, the other great water-based activity not be missed here is sailing. The setting in Carlingford Lough is stunningly beautiful and the almost enclosed nature of the long lough makes for a very sheltered area in which to get to grips with one of the most exhilarating leisure pastimes there is.
The Cooley Peninsula is the site of the legend of the famous Cattle Raid of Cooley, where Cúchulainn led the defence of Ulster against Queen Maeve, chasing the Brown Bull of Cooley around the peninsula in the process.
There’s a local map that retraces the steps of the hurling giant and the resultant driving route takes you on a scenic tour through more tidy and alluring villages such as Omeath and Greenore, where the mouth of the lough narrows before opening into the Irish Sea.
Newry is just 18km up the road and over the border but a far more fun way to cross the Irish frontier is to take the ferry that runs daily during summer months from Omeath to Warrenpoint in Co Down.
The hill-walking around Slieve Foy to the west of the village is another excellent facility that’s worth exploring. The Foy Centre at the foot of the hill makes for a great base from where to set out. You can leave the car here at no charge while you set off on your ramble and make use of its showering and changing facilities when you come back.
The culinary standards seem to be high and places like Dan’s Stone Wall Café enjoy a huge local trade in the heart of village on Market Square. We opted for Magee’s Bistro. Located on the atmospheric Tholsel Street and with an attractive façade, the interior has a relaxed and funky vibe that mixes traditional with contemporary in a strangely satisfying manner.
While I found the service a tad hurried, there was no arguing with the quality of its seafood cuisine, which enjoys a well-deserved strong reputation.
Nearby on a corner location is PJ O’Hare’s Pub. Here, the atmosphere is of an even more genuine traditional variety with charm bursting out of its red wooden doors.
It has twice won the Best Gastro Pub in Louth award from the Restaurant Association of Ireland and is an ideal spot to try local oysters washed down with your favourite tipple.
For an excellent quality base just outside of the centre of Carlingford, the Four Seasons (4seasonshotelcarlingford.ie) offers good leisure facilities in a smart modern hotel that does exactly what it says on the tin. B&B packages start at €60 per person sharing.
For a more intimate stay in the heart of the village, try McKevitt’s Village Hotel (www.mckevittshotel.com). Located on Market Square, midweek B&B rates start at €69 per room.
There is a local indoor craft and food fair held on the first Sunday of each month in St Michael’s Hall in the village, while March sees the advent of Táin Walking Festival at the start of the month and the National Leprechaun Hunt at the end of the month. For further details, see www.carlingford.ie.