As you drive into Newcastle in Co Down, your gaze is distracted by the towering Mourne Mountains that align it. As Northern Ireland’s highest mountain, Slieve Donard is stunning to see up close. Then taking the turn into the drive up to the Slieve Donard Hotel – funnily, passing what is probably the nicest Lidl building you will ever see, as it has taken up home in an old railway station building – you are struck with the vastness of the hotel building itself.
Built by the Belfast and Co Down Railway in 1898 as a luxury holiday destination, the Slieve Donard was the epitome of Victorian grandeur. The building sits on the edge of the coastline overlooking the bay where the town of Newcastle is nestled against the backdrop of the Mourne Mountains. It is definitely reminiscent of a stately home, or château, from a period drama, or perhaps the setting for a murder mystery film. It is imposing, edgy and stunning to stand in front of.
Acquired in 2021 by Marine & Lawn Hotels & Resorts, it is an Adventurous Journeys (AJ) Capital brand, and part of a collection of hotels and resorts set along some of the world’s most coveted golf courses. The famous Royal Co Down course is right beside the hotel, where golf legend Rory McIlroy frequently plays. Fun fact: you can find the same illustration of Rory by a local artist in every ensuite in the hotel.
Originally a Victorian destination hotel, it has undergone an extensive transformation inspired by the hotel’s history. It reopened on 1 September 2023, which coincidentally is its 125th year.
The interior of the hotel is homely yet elegant; there is definitely a mix of country house vibes with art deco throughout.
It might be a cliché, but the bedrooms are where old world meets new. Luxurious fabrics and antique furniture are met with a modern, bold colour palette and chic bathrooms. This is topped by views of either the beach or the golf course.
Named after Slieve Donard’s original architect, J.J. Farrall’s sits at the heart of the hotel. This is a treat of a dining experience that is open for dinner daily and also for afternoon tea or a traditional Sunday lunch with all the trimmings. From polished parquet floors to sparkling chandeliers above, hanging ferns adorn every wall meaning there is always something to look at.
Executive head chef Hazel Magill keeps seasonal and local at the heart of the menu, so diners can feast on Mourne Lamb, local seafood and beef and fresh produce, straight from local producers. A starter of baked Templegall cheese soufflé with melted leeks and grain mustard sauce was a particular highlight.
There aren’t many women like Hazel still working at such an incredible pace in the Irish hospitality industry today. As well as leading a new culinary direction for this historic property, at 56 years of age, Hazel has a team of 22 kitchen staff under her wing and a demanding daily output which could involve 400 residents for breakfast, a wedding in the ballroom that can take up to 540 in attendance, 300 covers in The Percy French gastro pub and over 160 people being served in the hotel’s main restaurant and bar. She values local producers above all else, championing what she calls ‘The Kingdom of Down’.
Another dining highlight was The Wolf Bar – a room that almost feels like a hug when you enter it with comfy couches and seating. Definitely a place for a cosy pint or the spot for elevenses with scones, jam, clotted cream and a pot of tea. The cocktail menu features classics with a Slieve Donard twist, inspired by local history and ingredients.
While we were invited as media guests, we were looking up dates to rebook before we had even left. The new refurbishments certainly give the hotel a sense of entitled grandeur, and it is stunning throughout. However, it is the atmosphere and local charm, from the location in Newcastle to the staff members, that had us yearning for another visit.
• Take a stroll on Newcastle Beach:
From the Slieve Donard, you can follow a path up or down the beach and coastline. The views are gorgeous and there are plenty of opportunities for a sea swim too (if you’re brave).
• Going hiking: There is no better place to take a trek in the great outdoors and with the Mourne Mountains beside you, you have lots of options. The Slieve Donard Walk kicks off from Newcastle (if you’re driving aim for Donard Car Park). At 850m/2789ft, Slieve Donard is the highest peak in the Mournes and, while it’s a tough hike, it’s a very easy trail to follow when the conditions are good.
• Ramble around Murlough National Nature Reserve: Managed by the National Trust, this has plenty of nature trails and routes to explore.
The Reserve is home to 6,000-year-old sand dunes and stunning views.
• Explore Tollymore Forest Park: A short 10-minute drive from Newcastle, you’ll find this forest park that boasts a lush 640 acres of woodland and it was Northern Ireland’s first state park.
Those that visit can tackle one of several trails and it’s £5/€5.75 to enter.
• Try and solve the Seaforde Gardens Maze: About a 15-minute drive from the hotel, you’ll find the Seaforde Gardens, Maze and Tropical Butterfly House. It promises a truly plant rich and nature-filled experience for visitors.
A great family spot or for those interested in history or gardens, with lots to see and do.
• Enjoy a hot chocolate in NearyNógs
chocolate factory: A trip not to be missed while you’re in the area. This local award-winning chocolatier specialises in chocolate that is small batch handcrafted and uses ethically sourced, sustainable cacao beans. A family business, it was established in 2011. A tour of the factory, with a tasting experience is a delicious way to spend an afternoon. Plus, you can shop your favourites and enjoy hot chocolate at the end.
• Eating & drinking in Newcastle: A picturesque seaside town, Newcastle is bursting with great places to eat and spots to enjoy a night out. Top recommendations for food include Great Jones, Graphite, Quinn’s, Villa Vinci (Italian), and coffee spots Shimna Café, Maud’s and Niki’s Kitchen.