The Mourne Mountains have inspired writers, musicians and adventurers for centuries. The literary connections – the mountains sweeping down to the sea in the songs of Percy French, or inspiring CS Lewis’s Narnia – have given way in recent years to the TV titan that is Game of Thrones. Much of the series was filmed around these mountains, making them, in the space of a decade, Northern Ireland’s most valuable tourist draw.
But older (and arguably more enduring) than the Thrones juggernaut is the lure of this area for adventure sports enthusiasts. County Down has an extraordinarily diverse landscape, and Newcastle, an attractive seaside resort in the shadow of Slieve Donard (Northern Ireland’s highest mountain at 850 metres) capitalises commendably on its enviable setting. It’s the perfect base for those in search of an adrenaline rush.
Set your sights high from the outset by taking a hike to the top of Donard, a five- to six-hour round trip. Climbs begin from Donard Park, just minutes from the centre of Newcastle and close to popular pubs and cafes. The mountain is hardly a colossus but it’s a significant challenge and not to be taken lightly, especially given the notoriously unpredictable local weather. At the summit, on a clear day the views over the Irish Sea take in the Isle of Man and the coastlines of Wales and Scotland.
Below Donard, the Kilkeel Road hugs the coast south to Bloody Bridge, which derives its name from a massacre during the 1641 Irish Rebellion and is another access point to the Mournes’ activities.
There is a campsite here and a public car park where a range of guided walks begin, and it is also the launch point for “wet bouldering”. As the name implies, this is basically a water-based version of traditional bouldering – rope-free climbing on rock formations – so as well as clambering up and around huge rocks, you can also expect to be plunging and sliding into the deep pools and waterfalls of the Bloody Bridge River. This is where all the unstoppable water running off the eastern slopes of Donard gathers and meets immovable granite, creating an epic natural water park. Invigorating and inspiring, this is an experience that can be tailored for a range of ages.
Or swap freshwater for saltwater and have a go at coasteering. You’ll be on the same side of Donard, but this time leaping from its steep lower reaches into the cold froth of the Irish Sea. There are various levels for this activity, depending on age or nerve. Those short on years or valour should start with the half-day experience at Maggie’s Leap, which also begins at the Bloody Bridge car park. (Evocative place names derived from local folklore are another enduring feature of the Mournes.)
To bob on the water rather than plunge into it, sea kayaking trips explore rocky inlets, small stony beaches and caves.
Inland, two forest parks offer activity bases. Tollymore is home to Northern Ireland’s National Outdoor Centre, which also has excellent indoor facilities, including a 9.5-metre climbing wall and bouldering area with expert tuition (entry £5, under-14s £2.50, four-evening skills course adult £64, child £40, one-day course £67). Residential packages include canoeing and kayaking on Strangford and Carlingford Loughs, hillwalking, mountain biking, mountaineering and orienteering, and specialist courses such as night navigation for sea kayakers and mountain skills.
A few miles away, Life Adventure Centre has made its home in the restored cottages of the old Castlewellan estate, at the edge of the vast forest park above Castlewellan town. Visitors can paddle, pedal, canoe and climb all around the park and much further afield. The centre provides wet bouldering and coasteering trips, but also a huge range of activities on the doorstep: kayaking on the park’s extensive lake, mountain biking on its 30km of mixed ability trails, raft building, archery courses and more (from £15-£29pp).
A less physically strenuous but considerably more confounding activity is trying to navigate the centre’s Peace Maze. It’s made up of over two miles of yew hedging, and getting to the centre, where there’s a peace bell to ring, takes most people around 40 minutes.
All that activity requires substantial fuel, and the Railway Street Cafe and Brew Bar in the centre of Newcastle offers filling breakfasts of sourdough, poached eggs and bacon, fruit-topped pancakes, and an inventive brunch menu featuring dishes such as salt and chilli king prawns on a bed of Thai slaw drizzled with sriracha mayo.
Newcastle is also home to the Soak Seaweed Baths (from £25pp for one hour) – a novel way to relax after a hard day’s adventuring – which sustainably harvests local seaweed daily. It’s close to the harbour and the beach, and also offers self-catering Snooze Apartments upstairs (two-night weekend around £195/£280 for a one-/two-bedroom apartment, guests receive a 10% discount at the seaweed baths).
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