With the dawning of a new year invariably comes a whole raft of resolutions.
For me, these included more sleep, reading a book a week and hitting the gym every other day.
Two weeks in, I’ve yet to see my bed before midnight, Atlas Shrugged sits with a bookmark at page 47 and my gym bag remains rooted to the same spot it was on 31st December.
Perhaps I need to set more realistic goals.
One common refrain from us both, lately, has been that we need to make better use of our weekends, ideally to travel.
On these drizzly January days, a mini-break in the south of France or a Spanish costa seems pretty appealing, but with work commitments and a wedding to pay for, hopping on a plane for a few days of sun just isn’t an option.
Step forward, the ‘staycation’ – an irritating neologism but one with plenty of upsides – no expensive flights needed; less time spent travelling (maximising your relaxation time) and no currency concerns.
True, Northern Ireland may not enjoy the enviable heat of somewhere like Athens, but you know what? Our food’s better and the Acropolis is just Mussenden Temple for show-offs anyway.
We’re still pretty new to the idea of holidays at home, but at the tail-end of 2017, Tourism NI sent us on a trip to Strangford that opened up a whole world of travel options, right on our doorstep.
Our break began, as any good break should, with a delicious and relaxed dinner, at The Schoolhouse, near Comber. Seated in what must be one of the handsomest dining rooms in the country, we were treated to an imaginative menu, that began with an array of snacks – deep fried whitebait, crescents of crispy cod skin topped with an oyster emulsion and crunchy beef tartar nibbles.
The starters (we chose the Helen’s Bay onion tart and Jerusalem artichoke soup) were subtle but perfectly seasoned, meticulously presented and washed down with a berry-filled sangiovese-merlot (a wallet-friendly £20 a bottle).
For main course, I plumped for the Mourne Mountain lamb loin, while Lynsey opted for the flat-iron steak with mushroom pie. Both carried rather more robust flavours than our starters. Lynsey’s choice of beef was very tasty but my lamb was particularly memorable. The slightly ferrous flavour of the meat mingled perfectly with the rich, fruity jus and sweet, earthy beetroot. Excellent.
Pudding was again the product of considerable care and imagination. My ‘fruit cake’, far from the stodgy, boiled affair your grandmother might serve with stewed tea, was in fact a soft sponge oblong, draped in a tangy, getalatinised fruit blanket and served with an elderberry coulis, candied walnuts and blackcurrant sorbet. Lynsey’s primadonna of a pudding took an extra 20 minutes to prepare, but when it arrived, was suitably theatrical. The marmalade souffle, presented on a distressed wooden board, with Grand Marnier butter and icecream, had a beautifully burnished crust on top and a pleasingly seductive wobble, that showed it had been cooked to perfection.
The three course set menu was a very reasonable £25 (or a more parsimonious two course option could be had for £20).
If we’d had a meal of that quality in London, Paris or Berlin we’d be delighted. To do so as cheaply would be impossible. We will be back.
The restaurant was just a 10 minute drive from our resting place for the night – Peartree Hill B&B.
Perched in the middle of the County Down countryside, surrounded by a patchwork of fields, the tranquility belies the fact you’re only 20 minutes from Belfast.
It’s clear owners Avril and Ian take great pride in the environment they’ve cultivated – one that balances a homely feel with impeccable taste and outstanding amenities.
Peartree Hill is part of a new breed of B&B that combines the unparalleled hospitality of a Northern Ireland guesthouse, with the sort of quality of accommodation you’d find in a boutique hotel.
Dozens of little details – the sensation of luxurious, deep pile carpets underfoot; the binoculars to help you enjoy the view; the Hilden beer and Kilmegan apple juice in your fridge – all add up to something truly exceptional.
After a deep sleep in such peaceful surroundings, it’s a bit of a wrench to leave the Egyptian cotton cocoon, but once you do, you’re rewarded with a warm welcome from your ever-charming hosts and as high quality a cooked breakfast as I’ve seen anywhere,
Everything on the plate was local. Our eggs came from a neighbour’s hens, the soda bread was from Comber, a stone’s throw away and the bacon was sourced from Kennedy’s in Omagh.
From the mezzanine table, overlooking the glass-fronted hallway, you’re treated to an emerald vista of fields and hedgerows and depending on the season and how early you’re up, perhaps even a sunrise.
This enticing offering is available from £120 a night, based on two sharing. It’s frequently booked out and it’s not hard to see why. With its five star status and situation, within striking distance both of Belfast and stunning Strangford, it’s a compelling option.
There’s no shortage of activities in the immediate area and a number of new businesses have popped up to cater for growing visitor numbers. Strangford Sea Safari appeals to speed freaks and nature lovers, fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones can satisfy their swashbuckling urges on an interactive tour of Winterfell at the Old Castle Ward in Downpatrick while the newly re-opened Exploris Aquarium gives visitors the change to get close to a stunning array of marine life.
For history buffs like us, a trip to the ever-changing Mount Stewart is unmissable. Even the coastal drive that takes you there feels like a treat – a meandering road that hugs the shoreline of the shimmering lough. On a crisp, clear day there can’t be many prettier journeys on these isles.
We arrived as the National Trust had just finished work on several rooms which were newly opened the public.
This was just the latest phase in the gradual restoration of the estate, following a three year, £8m renovation project that ended in 2015. The continual work to return the house to its original state and events such as the Festival of Light ensure visitors to Mount Stewart will always enjoy a new experience.
Undoubtedly the ideal way to see the house is as part of a guided tour. There are so many artifacts and stories of historical visitors to explore and our knowledgeable host was able to direct us to them and enliven the story of Lady Edith Londonderry in a way a Google search or printed leaflet could not.
Having built up quite an appetite, pottering around the beautiful house and gardens, our next stop had to involve food, and plenty of it.
Thankfully we were headed to the home of Tracey Jeffery, of NI Food Tours, whose famous macarons had landed her several Great Taste awards.
In the kitchen of her delightful home, a converted 18th Century barn, her friend Fred ‘the bread’ taught us the rudiments of hand-making traditional Irish soda and potato breads.
At a time when we’re witnessing an explosion of fine dining and global influences on food in Northern Ireland, it was a lovely reminder of our own, indigenous food culture.
This was further reinforced when we sat down to a lunch table, heaving with incredible local produce – everything from hand-rolled Abernethy butter to flavoured Burren Balsamics oil and spiced damson relish from Passion Preserved.
We have enjoyed food tours and foodie experiences on various holidays, but none had been nearly as unique or hands-on.
Our final activity took us to Castle Espie wetland centre, just a short drive back round the coast, towards Comber.
Among the more unusual presents my grandparents bought me as a child was membership to the Young Ornithologist Club, so in my younger years I was a frequent visitor.
Twenty years later, would it still hold the same appeal? In short, yes. You don’t have to be Bill Oddie to enjoy the impressive collection of native and exotic birds (Ireland’s largest). If you don’t mind the gentle nip of some voracious little beaks, you can even feed the birds by hand, though scarves, sleeves and shoe-laces are also susceptible to the odd nibble. For any humans who feel a bit peckish, there’s a new café in the visitor centre that serves excellent coffee, which doubles as a useful hand warmer for a chilly stroll around the sanctuary.
As Chris, who works in the centre told us, many of the migratory birds had flown thousands of miles to reach these shores. Our tour of County Down, reminded us why tourists are also flocking to Northern Ireland for their holidays. In 2018, we’ll be among them. That’s one resolution I know I’ll keep.