When someone mentions Roadtrip, where springs to mind? Route 66 in the USA perhaps or Route 1 in Portugal. However, you might be surprised to learn one of the world’s most scenic drives is, literally, on our doorstep.
The A2 hugs the coastline while it passes through four of the six northern counties. In parts it is a narrow, winding road, in others it is a busy dual carriageway but along the way, takes in some of the best attractions and views the province has to offer.
Bagneals Castle in Newry is as good a place to start as any. The fortified house has been restored and now houses the city museum and tourist centre. Newry is a busy shopping town, but within a few miles, you can be driving along the shores of Carlingford Lough and passing by fishing towns like Warrenpoint and Kilkeel.
One town you will want to stop in is Newcastle, found as the song says, where the Mountains of Mourne reach down to the sea. The mountains are omnipresent throughout the town. Whilst I was quite happy to sit on the terrace of the Percy French restaurant, others nearby were preparing to undertake, or perhaps endure, the 6 Peaks Challenge. Slieve Donard is the highest point at 2798ft. Sadly I had forgotten my hiking boots, so had to suffice with an icecream and a walk along the promenade.
A stay in the Slieve Donard Hotel is a luxurious way to relax after a drive. Golfers are drawn to the famous Royal County Down Championship Links. Meanwhile others, like me who wouldn’t know what to do with a golf racket, are drawn to the award-winning spa to enjoy a bit of peace and tranquillity. The rooms in the hotel are very comfortable too, and I can highly recommend the suites, which have wonderful coastal views.
Not far from Newcastle you can delve into the life and times of St Patrick, who is said to be buried at the cathedral in Downpatrick. At Strangford, the A2 road becomes a ferry for the very short trip to Portaferry on the Ards Peninsula. The road hugs the coastline and passes through a number of small villages before arriving in Donagahdee, once the main sea port for travel to and from Scotland. From the famous harbour, you feel you could reach out and touch our celtic neighbours. The town is also home to Ireland’s oldest pub. Admittedly, there are several hostelries around the country with the same claim to fame, so its probably best left to you to make your own mind up.
As the A2 approaches Belfast, the road becomes somewhat busier. The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum is a perfect place to discover the history of the region. With exhibits ranging from old farmhouses and church buildings to a DeLorean car and steam trains, the museum is a fascinating place to visit.
The road becomes a dual carriageway and then a motorway as it passes through Belfast and heads towards Carrickfergus. The Castle here is one of the best preserved mediaeval structures in Ireland, and that’s despite being besieged by the Scots, Irish, English and French during its 800 year history. These days the castle houses historical displays and cannons and has beautiful views across Belfast Lough.
Our journey along the road, came to an end just north of Larne, where the A2 is better known as the Antrim Coast Road. Before this section was built, it was easier for the people living in the Glens of Antrim to sail across to Scotland to trade goods that it was to travel by land to the nearest market town.
The Ballygally Castle Hotel, which overlooks a beautiful bay, is said to be the oldest occupied building in Ireland. With such a long history, the reputation of the building being haunted will come as no surprise. The “ghost room” in the tower is approached by a spiral stone staircase and is suitably cold. Adding to the historic feel, one of the famous Game of Thrones doors guards the entrance to the restaurant as parts of the series were filmed nearby. This boutique hotel has 54 rooms, which are all finished to a high standard. The food available is also of a high quality, as local provenance is important to the chefs.
Whilst our journey along the A2 ended at this point, the road continues towards Ballycastle, the Giants Causeway and the northern coastal resorts before ending in the historic city of Derry/Londonderry. That’s a story for another day.