When it comes to visiting Ireland, Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Kerry dominate the travel guides. However, my home patch of Warrenpoint, County Down – a 60-minute drive from Belfast and a mere 90 minutes from Dublin Airport – is a gateway to a green and tranquil border region once overshadowed by the Troubles.
Warrenpoint – a small port town – is perched on the shores of Carlingford Lough, a beautiful inlet bordered by the Mourne and Cooley Mountains. The whole region is steeped in Irish mythology, from the boy warrior Cuchulainn and the first-century Cattle Raid of Cooley to Fionn mac Cumhaill, the giant whose battles left a 50-tonne granite boulder on the peak of Slieve Martin. These days, the lough is used for fishing and boat racing in traditional currachs, while the surrounding peaks are popular with hikers, mountain bikers and those who simply want to drink in the natural scenery.
My favourite events
Those looking for Irish culture should visit in July when the Fiddler's Green folk festival in the nearby village of Rostrevor hosts Irish and international acts. For a more regular fix of traditional music, the family-run First and Last pub in Warrenpoint hosts regular sessions. A more international feast of music takes place in mid-May when Warrenpoint's Blues on the Bay festival brings 90 free gigs to town.
For more energetic pursuits, the peaks above Rostrevor are home to a thriving mountain-biking scene, including the hair-raising Red Bull Fox Hunt downhill event. The Mournes are criss-crossed with hiking trails and the Cooleys host the annual Poc Fada na hEireann – a five-kilometre skills competition in the Irish sport of hurling. For a more sedate afternoon, Warrenpoint has an 18-hole, par 71, parkland golf course that is home to June's three-day Carlingford Lough Golf Classic. There is also sea and lake fishing throughout the region.
The area has been an inspiration to creatives for years. High among them is author C S Lewis who said: "That part of Rostrevor which overlooks Carlingford Lough is my idea of Narnia." That inspiration has been immortalised in Kilbroney Park's Narnia Trail, dotted with sculptures depicting Lewis's fantastical creations.
My best eats
The cold waters of the lough are used to farm oysters and mussels, and no visit would be complete without tasting fresh shellfish served yards from where they were grown. Driving east from Warrenpoint, visitors can take the Carlingford Lough car ferry across to the medieval village of Carlingford. There, call in at PJ O’Hare’s for a plate of oysters served with traditional Irish wheaten bread and butter. To really indulge, visit in August when the Carlingford Oyster Festival is in full swing.
My top tip
The above is just the tip of the iceberg. The nearby Ring of Gullion in County Armagh has been designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and its low, rolling hills are awash with Irish heritage, hiking trails and villages to explore.