Made famous by the traditional Irish ballad in its lyrics, “Where the Mountains o’ Mourne sweep down to the sea,” this distinctive range of granite mountains is Northern Ireland’s highest. In a county otherwise given over to gentle green countryside and associated with the later years of St. Patrick, the tightly packed Mournes are barely 7 miles across, with a dozen of the fifty-odd peaks (resembling “earth-covered potatoes,” wrote C. S. Lewis) over 2,000 feet.
This so-called Kingdom of Mourne is ringed by a road, with just one other that runs through it. A web of ancient footpaths through open moorland and upland pastures once used by smugglers and shepherds makes it a rambler’s paradise. Head for the safe and relatively easy climb up the Mournes’ highest peak, Slieve Donard (2,796 feet), where they say if the day is crystal-clear, you can see all the countries of the British Isles. The ascent begins near Bloody Bridge north of the lively seaside town of Newcastle.
For gazing upon the Mournes and their wuthering beauty, the best accommodations can be found at the Slieve Donard Hotel, with hiking paths that start on the manicured grounds. Besides offering luxe rooms-with-a-view and classic Irish cuisine, the turreted, Victorian redbrick hotel is also the home base of choice for those who come from near and far to play the world-class links of the Royal County Down Golf I Course, which is within walking distance.