Hidden Irish travel gems: A journey through the north and northwest


Welcome to Ireland’s revitalized North and Northwest, a region whose natural beauty and proud traditions beckon the traveler. Even the hip Lonely Planet Bluelist proclaims Northern Ireland as the hot new destination, and cites Belfast as one of the top cities on the rise.

This sudden popularity comes as no surprise to regulars who have long known the area as one of the most beautiful and interesting in Europe. Discover the sights and sounds of the region, which includes the famous ancient castles and battlements as well as the lesser-known farms that were ancestral homesteads to 15 Presidents of the United States. Who knows where the adventure will take you.

Day One (Belfast, County Down)

Belfast is a city reborn, where old merges with new, a booming retail center with a rich and historic Victorian streetscape. Saint Anne’s Cathedral is the center of the oldest quarter, an area packed with cobbled streets, historic pubs and superb restaurants. Enjoy street theater at Custom House Square, or chat with locals at Kelly’s Cellars, one of Belfast’s most ancient pubs. See other historic locations such as Rosemary Street Church and the “Entries.” With the help of a local guide organize a customized tour of Clifton House, Mary Ann McCracken’s House in Donegall Street and City Graveyard off Clifton Street.

The ship RMS Titanic is synonymous with Belfast. The transformation of the storied docklands of Harland & Wolff, where the ship was built, into Titanic Quarter is the largest urban development in Northern Ireland. A selection of specialized tours makes this area a key point on your itinerary. Other must-see stops include Queen’s University, near the restored Ulster Museum; and downtown, where you can visit City Hall and stop at the Crown Bar across from the landmark Europa Hotel. Don’t miss the designer boutiques and cafes of Lisburn Road. Just outside the city is The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum with its Titanic exhibition. Revel in a perfect museum setting, nestled on a lush 178-acre parkland overlooking Belfast Lough in the Cultra area.

Day Two (South East: Counties Down and Armagh)

South of Belfast, the scenic Ards Peninsula offers tranquility, rural landscapes and pretty seaside towns and villages. At Groomsport trace the story of Eagle’s Wing, the fabled ship North America bound with early Scots-Irish emigrants.

Then pop into the Bangor Heritage Centre and Bangor Abbey. Gardeners and architectural enthusiasts will enjoy Mount Stewart House and Gardens. The nearby village of Greyabbey is noted for its antique shops. Visit the Greek Revival Presbyterian Church at Portaferry, and take a five-minute ferry ride to Strangford village. Visit nearby scenic Castle Ward.

It’s a quick step from here to the St. Patrick’s Trail, which leads to Armagh, the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland. This dignified city boasts Saint Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral and Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral. At Downpatrick visit St. Patrick’s Grave and St. Patrick’s Centre and Down County Museum. Nearby scenic villages include Dromara, Hillsborough, Moira and Banbridge.

The Craigavon area around Portadown and Lurgan features important landmarks associated with the Ulster Scots. At Lurgan Park you can learn how English linen barons designed their estates. The National Trust maintains an 18th century gentleman’s farmhouse at Ardress. Nearby is the site of the Battle of the Diamond and the cottage where the Orange Order is said to have been founded, still run by the Winter family down through all the generations.

Day Three (South West: The Lakelands of County Fermanagh)

Fermanagh offers stunning lakeland scenery and an abundance of castles. The twin lakes of Lough Erne cover one-third of Fermanagh. Visit the Marble Arch Caves European Geopark, a fascinating natural underworld of rivers and waterfalls. Here one finds a number of the country’s Anglo-Irish family homes. Florence Court, built in the mid-eighteenth century, is noted for its rococo plasterwork, while Castle Coole, completed in 1798, is one of the best neo-classical homes in Ireland.

Eniskillen’s famous Portora Royal School, founded in 1608, boasts such literary alumni as Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett. You can stay with the Brooke Family at Colebrooke; the Duke of Abercorn, a member of the Hamilton family, has opened Belle Isle School of Cookery where visitors prepare lunch with local produce, and can stay overnight. A visit to Fermanagh would not be complete without shopping at Belleek Pottery. For a luxurious stay follow the road to Lough Erne Golf Resort, a stunning new resort located between Lough Erne and Lough Castle Hume, with spectacular views over rippling lakes and green landscapes.