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The Ards Peninsula, beginning about 10 miles (16km) east of Belfast, curls around Strangford Lough. A wildlife reserve of great natural beauty, it’s also lined with historic buildings and ancient sites, from the austere Castle Ward and the elegant Mount Stewart House to the mysterious, megalithic Giant’s Ring. All are an easy drive from Belfast city center—you can reach most sights in half an hour, perfect for a day trip.

More outdoorsy types will want to press on to explore the Mourne Mountains, the highest mountains in Northern Ireland. The rocky landscape here is breathtaking—all gray granite, yellow gorse, purple heather, and white stone cottages. Remote and traversed by few roads, the mountains—complete with barren, wind-swept moors—are left to hikers and walkers. The ancestral home of the Brontës is here, in ruins. But the region is not desolate: You have forest parks, sandy beaches, lush gardens, and, of course, pubs to explore.

The Portaferry Tourist Information Office at the Stables, Castle St., Portaferry ([tel] 028/4272-9882) is open daily, Easter through September. The Newcastle Tourist Information Centre at 10–14 Central Promenade, Newcastle ([tel] 028/4372-2222), and the Silent Valley Visitor Centre on Head Road, Kilkeel, Newry ([tel] 084/5744-0088) are both open daily year-round.
 
Two roads traverse the Ards peninsula: A20 (the Lough road) and A2 (the coast road). The Lough road is the more scenic. At the southern tip of the peninsula in Portferry, you’ll need to take a 15-minute car ferry ride ([tel] 030/0200-7898) to get back to the mainland, in Strangford. Ferries run twice an hour more or less from 8am to 10:45 or 11pm.