Special Reports
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Elevate your staycation with a visit to Northern Ireland

To discover the best in food, festivals and family-fun adventures, you need only cross the Border

If you’re planning an end-of-year break but don’t want to hop on a plane to do it, then Northern Ireland could be the destination for you. A province that has everything on offer, from newly opened distilleries to world renowned festivals, as well as an array of exciting outdoor activities for the intrepid traveller, Ulster has it all going on. We’ve identified several of the best activities, as well as the cosiest places to eat and sleep up North, so you don’t have to. Find the highlights here when looking at taking a trip.


Hydro bikes

Belfast has been the location for many hit TV shows in recent years. One of the most enduring is cop drama Line of Duty, which offered up several great colloquialisms from one of its lead characters, Superintendent Ted Hastings, played by Fermanagh man Adrian Dunbar. “I didn’t float up the Lagan in a bubble” became a hit catchphrase among fans. The Lagan River flows through the heart of the city and you may not be able to float up it in a bubble, but you can now traverse it on a hydrobike. These sturdy contraptions, available from Lagan Adventures, allow you peddle and steer from one bridge to the next, taking in many of the sights of the city. These are great fun, and you can go solo or take a tandem bike, great if you’re worried about a child going rogue on the river.

Titanic Distillers


Prohibition and the second World War signalled an end to the once booming Irish whiskey industry, when around 150 distilleries shut down. Titanic Distillers is the first whiskey house in Belfast for 90 years and you can tour both the distillery and Thompson Graving dock in a 120-minute guided tour. Explore the old pumphouse and the new distillery before descending 67 steps into the dock to take in the sheer size and scale of Titanic, which was built and had her finishing touches put to her in there. While the first bottle of the new Titanic Whiskey will not be matured and ready to drink till 2026, a tasting experience is still on offer.

Murder mystery at Harrisons

Congregate at Harrison’s Chambers of Distinction on November 4th, where a “murder” is going to take place. The Victorian surrounds set the scene for a wake, where events will take a more sinister turn. Can you trust the local physician, Dr Robert Henry, or Raven Sythes, the local undertaker? Who has a motive for murder? Play Dead are hosts for the evening, which promises to be full of spooky surprises, suspicious characters and red herrings aplenty. Dressing up in Victorian gothic fancy dress is advised. Solve the mystery before bed so you can retire to one of the hotel’s stunning bedrooms or suites for what will hopefully be a peaceful night’s sleep!

Stay: The Merchant Hotel is as comfortable as it is opulent, with its art deco design and plush furnishings offering the perfect respite after a busy day touring Belfast. Enjoy a Negroni at the cocktail bar, afternoon tea in the Great Room, or take in the sights of the city from the outdoor rooftop hot tub. Eat local produce at the Cloth Ear, and best of all, sleep like a baby in the turned down beds.

Eat: Coppi offers classic Italian cuisine in the heart of the Cathedral Quarter (www.coppi.co.uk), while Howard Street (www.howardstbelfast.com) is a buzzy central restaurant serving European cuisine.


Giant’s Causeway

Whether you’re a big kid who chooses to believe the myth, that giant Finn MacCool created the Causeway as a crossing to Scotland, or the science, that 50 million years ago a flood of lava oozed from fissures in the earth creating the hexagonal columns that lead out to the sea, you’ll be awestruck either way. There are many great events on offer at the state-of-the-art visitor centre at the Giant’s Causeway during winter months, from an indoor and outdoor treasure hunt on September 23rd, to a walking talk and tour on the influence of famous women associated with the Causeway, on October 6th.

Dunluce Castle

Take a short drive from the Magerheracross viewpoint, which offers up exceptional scenery along the north Atlantic Coast, to Dunluce Castle. First built on the cliffs by the MacQuillan family in about 1500, during the 17th century Dunluce was the seat of the earls of Antrim and saw the establishment of a small town in 1608. Visitors can explore the findings of archaeological digs of the long-abandoned Dunluce Town. Listen to tales of the banshee and how the castle kitchens fell into the sea one stormy night in 1639.


A 20-minute walk from the visitor car park will take you to sea cliffs which are connected to an island by rope bridge, suspended almost 100ft (30m) above sea level. Carrick-a-Rede Island is home to a single building – a fisherman’s cottage. The rope bridge was first erected by salmon fishermen hundreds of years ago but has been updated since and is cared for by the National Trust. Crossing the bridge is an exhilarating experience, you’ll sway in the wind high above the Atlantic but fear not, the crossing is short. Try to spot some wildlife or sea life below, if you dare, but be warned – choose your bridge crossing buddy with care, kids like to bounce across!

Stay: Bushmills Inn is a former coaching inn from the 1600s which retains many of its original features, including the old stone walls. This place has an abundance of nooks; check out the hidden library, or make use of the cosy reading rooms. The restaurant offers a delicious mix of local produce and the bar regularly hosts live music.

Eat: The Bayview Hotel is situated at the heart of the picturesque village of Portballintrae, one mile from Bushmills. Sip quietly on a pint or munch on locally caught fish, with chips, as you watch sail boats bob in the harbour.


Marble Arch caves

Enter the Marble Arch caves on foot or by boat if water levels permit. Formed more than 340 million years ago, this is a young geologist’s playground, with kids eager to point out stalactites, stalagmites, curtains and many other natural formations within the caves. On a guided cave tour, paths allow visitors to go deep inside the caves while discreet lighting points out the many cave features. A knowledgeable guide makes this a fun and engaging tour for kids and adults alike. Look out for the organ pipes, streaky bacon and the porridge pot – fun names given to several of the formations by locals.

Island Discovery Tour

Your skipper awaits to take you by boat along the beautiful Lough Erne and around the many islands of this Fermanagh Lake. Take a window seat on the fully electrical boat or water taxi, which was custom built, and listen as a guide explains the history of Enniskillen. From the 15th century castle to the new houses that have been built along the shore, your captain will explain the wildlife and beauty of lakeside living. No need for cars here – many locals still sail to the nearby shops.

Stay: Killyhevlin hotel

Watch from shore as boats pass by, or the more adventurous can indulge in a spot of water skiing, as you sip on a cocktail or dine at the hotel restaurant. With full leisure facilities and an Elemis spa, the Killyhevlin Hotel is the perfect base to explore Co Fermanagh.

Eat: Firehouse Restaurant

Stone-baked pizzas, excellent cocktails and a varied menu makes the Firehouse one of the best places to dine out in Fermanagh. Staff are friendly and attentive, and it is very child-friendly.


OM Dark Sky

This is an international dark sky park, using the latest technology, from holographic installations to virtual reality headsets to bespoke evening audio-visual shows. Visitors to the OM Dark Sky centre are able to explore the solar system and star gaze using telescopes to view the night sky without light pollution, as Davagh is the only official “dark sky” park in Northern Ireland.

The Argory

Overlooking the Blackwater River, the Argory is an impressive 315-acre estate and house built in 1820 for Walter McGeough Bond. Take a tour of the house and look out for the cabinet barrel organ, read letters from the past or enjoy a coffee in the courtyard while taking in the beautiful views of the Clock Tower.

Ulster American Folk Park

The Ulster American Folk Park is a magical immersive experience that allows visitors to walk in the footsteps of Irish migrants who set sail for America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Follow the trail from the labourer’s one-bedroom cottage in Ulster, to the more salubrious wooden houses built on the other side of the Atlantic. Learn of the hardships during the 12-week crossing aboard the Brig Union ship and discover how our ancestors created new lives in America.

Stay: Sperrin View glamping

Only metres from Beaghmore Stone Circles and a mile from Davagh Forest, Sperrin View Glamping’s four pods offer a unique glamping experience at the foothills of the Sperrin Mountains. An excellent place to see the night sky, each pod features a special viewing window. Pods sleep up to five, with two double beds and a single sofa bed. Small kitchens have everything a family could need, but this is fancy camping, so there is a BBQ, outdoor picnic table and even a fire pit to toast marshmallows. Book early to secure one of two pods with outdoor hot tub.

Eat: About a 15-minute drive from Sperrin View is the Glenavon Hotel, which offers plenty in the way of sustenance and a varied menu for young and old.


SUP - Hub NI

Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) is the world’s fastest growing watersport, and in a setting like the Ards Peninsula – using Bangor marina as the base – it’s easy to see why. With fully qualified instructors and boards, wetsuits and life jackets provided, SUP Hub NI provides “Ready to Ride” lessons for even the most novice of boarders.

Mount Stewart

Mount Stewart, located on the shores of Strangford Lough, has undergone a three-year, £8 million (€9.3 million) restoration programme, significantly transforming the 19th century house. Voted as one of the top 10 gardens in the world, the Italian, Spanish, Mairi and Shamrock Garden are a must see. Look out for red squirrels, badgers or pine martens at the Squirrel Hide and enjoy coffee and cake in the pretty tea rooms.

Royal Hillsborough

Home to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Hillsborough Castle is another grand family home and gardens not to be missed. Steeped in history, walk through the many state rooms and see where the peace process negotiations took place, with then secretary of Northern Ireland Mo Mowlam leading the round table discussions. Move from there to the banqueting hall and on to the private sitting room of the king, complete with family photos of all the royals. The Peace Room is a moving experience, with the main protagonists of the peace process represented on walls in either photography or paintings.

Stay: Culloden

Only a 10-minute drive from Belfast city centre in picturesque Holywood, Culloden Estate and Spa is the perfect base to discover the Ards peninsula. Situated in 12 acres of gardens and woodland and overlooking Belfast Lough, it offers a quiet place to relax and unwind.


Eat: Noble Restaurant

This is an exciting local restaurant run by Saul McConnell in Holywood. Portavogie prawns, locally sourced oysters and lemon sole specials appear on the seasonal menu, and it also offers a well thought out wine list.



Armagh Observatory and Planetarium

For your young star gazer, take a trip to the Armagh Planetarium. A state-of-the art digital projector system provides an immersive experience under the full dome that will take your kids to the moon and back. Then explore the exhibition area, where you can touch a real meteorite, create your own solar system or get a selfie with an astronaut.

Glamping at Tepee

Five pretty chalets or old-style caravans are dotted across the park at Tepee Valley Campsite. From the Log Cabin and Abrams house to the Shepherd’s hut, each cute property offers something different, but the beautiful Armagh countryside, abundant with apples at this time of year, is the star of the show. Tepee Valley offers all the fun of camping without having to pitch a tent in wind and rain this autumn.

Navan Fort

Experience life more than 2,000 years ago in Navan Fort, one of the most important archaeological sites in Ireland. Walk to the drumlin, thought to be the site of a pagan sanctuary. Little ones can dress as Celts, adorn themselves in war paint and step back in time, immersing themselves in Iron Age life, as you meet the resident Celtic clan and step inside their one-room hut. Warrior guides will keep your little ones entertained and educated at all times.

Stay: Newforge House

A Georgian country pile, Newforge House is situated in beautiful gardens and green fields, and John and Lou Mathers offer a warm welcome to guests of their old family home. Bedrooms blend antiques with contemporary comforts and guests are encouraged to relax and unwind in the drawing room before dinner.

Eat: On the hoof BBQ

Don’t let the name fool you: while the barbecue meat is delicious, On the Hoof BBQ is all about the pizzas too. Excellent dough, flavoursome sauces and creative toppings make these some of the best pizzas in Ireland.


Halloween Festival

Prepare to be petrified in Derry this October with Europe’s largest Halloween festival, running from the 28th to 31st. Involving the whole community, storytelling is at the heart of the celebrations. The festival began 37 years ago and has grown and evolved into a yearly spectacle with some of the highlights including a walled city trail, live music, live animation and street acts and, of course, the carnival parade.

Seamus Heaney HomePlace

Take a trip through the life and work of one of Ireland’s greatest writers. Situated between Heaney’s two childhood homes at Mossbawn and The Wood, and only a few hundred yards from St Mary’s Church, Bellaghy, which he chose as his final resting place, this is the place that inspired much of his poetry. At Seamus Heaney HomePlace the poet’s distinctive voice guides you through the exhibition, and many items have been donated by the Heaney family, including his wooden desk from Anahorish Primary School, a recreation of his study in Dublin, and the fax machine that delivered the news when he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995.

Stay: Overlooking the city walls, Shipquay is a boutique hotel with lots of character and charm. An Italianate-style listed building, it was originally constructed for the Provincial Bank of Ireland but is now one of the prettiest hotels in Derry.

Eat: Pyke and Pommes started out as a food truck but now offers a bricks-and-mortar restaurant with tasty food, creative cocktails and comfy surrounds.

Mimi Murray

Mimi Murray

Mimi Murray is a Content Studio journalist with The Irish Times