AT ONE end of a magnificent beach running the length of the town, stands a massive, austere red-brick building, looking sideways out to sea.
The town is the popular seaside resort of Newcastle in Co Down, about 50 minutes across the border, and the building, which has an almost Gothic feel to it, is the Slieve Donard hotel.
The exterior was used to portray the mysterious Hotel Splendide in the movie of the same name, starring Daniel Craig and Toni Collette, in 2000 — something I discovered in the wonderful little ‘museum’ in the lobby, along with other titbits about the hotel which was purpose-built for wealthy holiday-makers in the late 1890s.
But the museum had mysteriously disappeared the next morning, and the receptionist was unsure where exactly it had gone.
The town, a regular spot for daytrippers from Belfast and further afield, is a little jaded looking. The far end of the main shopping strip has quite a selection of amusement arcades and ice-cream parlours, while the upper end has a few smarter restaurants and cafes.
We loved the Slieve Donard’s generous breakfast in the dining room which has a civilised queuing system — at busy times they let you relax with a tea or coffee in the lounge and call you when a table is ready. Vegetarian sausage options can be ordered from the kitchen, and there’s a good selection of fruit and cooked foods, buffet-style.
On our first night, we dropped into Vanilla restaurant on the main street — a chic little bistro that was busy all night, with what seemed like a steady stream of ‘in-the-know’ locals. A two-course meal will set you back £15.95, with three courses at £19.95 from a menu which included grilled flat iron steak, duck leg and the catch of the day.
It was the first real example of what great value is on offer north of the border — and how this corner of Ulster is particularly forging a name for itself in food circles.
I chose a delicious beetroot and onion risotto with parmesan shavings and goats cheese parcels, and a side of buttermilk and black pepper onion rings. The standard and presentation of food here revealed a restaurant punching well above its weight. Desserts of caramac tart and sticky toffee pudding rounded off a delightful evening, and manager Seamus Rooney had to turn away a troupe of golfers staying at our hotel, but gave them plenty of nearby options.
“It happens a lot,” he told us, with a mixture of disappointment and pride.
“Don’t leave without a visit to the Mourne Seafood Bar,” a taxi man told us, so we secured a table for two in their Dundrum restaurant (they are in Belfast too), about ten minutes by car from Newcastle, on our second night.
From a menu packed with everything from mussels, to oysters, to squid, hake and haddock, I chose a crumbly, delicious crab meat salad starter, and monkfish for my main — while my partner loved his homemade fish ‘fingers’ of cod in a very light, fresh batter.
Our only complaint was that the Dundrum venue is quite small, and a group of noisy Americans beside our table meant our own conversation was a little difficult. But we hadn’t much time for idle banter, as the food came quickly and was scoffed down, along with a nice red wine.
The hotel is a favourite with golfers playing the next-door Royal Co Down, but the spa and sauna at the hotel are enough reason to make it a weekend break in itself. The large sauna looks out onto the sea, and the treatment rooms are well-sized and the staff are very professional. My 55 minute body massage rounded off an almost perfect day.
WHAT TO DO
Newcastle’s very trendy Soak Seaweed Baths are located in a beautifully renovated Georgian house on the South Promenade.
It’s such a wonderfully different treat, and a great way to wind down after a busy day. The hour-long ritual starts with choosing a CD for your room from Soak’s extensive collection — or bring your own. Inside your personal bathroom, begin by sitting into a Victorian wooden steam cabinet, which opens your pores. Then sink into the warm seaweed-strewn bath to let the nutrient and mineral-rich oils soak into your skin. After 40 minutes or so, a cold shower rinses off the oils and closes the pores again.
There are recently renovated apartments above for all-in girlie or family weekends. And owner Dermot Devine even markets the seaweed baths as a ‘hangover cure’, so says it’s perfect for hens, and has weekend packages designed with that in mind.
The next day we decided to tackle the ‘other’ Slieve Donard, the one which gives the hotel its moniker — the mountain. Tucked neatly behind the Central Promenade is an archway leading into a well-appointed car park, where walkers were piling out of their cars on this bright morning.
Within minutes we were traversing gurgling streams, pretty little bridges, climbing rugged steps and spotting photo opportunities around every picturesque waterfall. Within the hour we had quite gently found ourselves above tree level, with a spectacular view across the bay to our hotel and beyond, towards Belfast.
Slieve Donard and the adjoining park are a facility that the town really doesn’t make enough of.
After two healthy hours we had a delicious lunch of homemade soup and toasties at the cosy Niki’s Kitchen cafe, and treated ourselves to some delicious desserts.
SHOPPING & NIGHTLIFE
Newcastle wouldn’t be famous for shopping or nightclubs, as Belfast is under an hour’s drive. Newry is a closer, though less comprehensive, option.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Probably the best reason to head to Newcastle is the value — the Donard has a selection of winter offers, including 1 night’s B&B plus 4-course dinner from €131pps.
ANYTHING TO ADD
We tend to overlook the North as a weekend break destination in favour of European cities, but with ease of access, most places accepting euro and the wonderful value for money, and an improved tourism offering in recent years, it really should be more popular.
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