48km (30 miles) SW of Belfast
South and west from Downpatrick, the rolling foothills of the Mournes make a promise that the mountains beyond fulfill. These are the highest mountains in Northern Ireland and 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 it's not desolate. There are forest parks, sandy beaches, lush gardens, and, of course, pubs.
The region is dominated by the massive cold, barren peak of Slieve Donard (839m/2,752 ft.). From the top, the view takes in the full length of Strangford Lough, Lough Neagh, the Isle of Man, and, on a crystalline day, the west coasts of Wales and Scotland. (The recommended ascent of Slieve Donard is from Donard Park on the south side of Newcastle.) If that's too high for you, head to the heart of the Mournes, to the exquisite Silent Valley Reservoir (Silent Valley; tel. 028/9074-6581; car £4.50, or £1.60 adults, 60p children; Mar-Sept daily 10am-6:30pm, Oct-Apr daily 10am-4pm), where there are easy, well-marked paths around the lake and a coffee shop with an information center to keep it all from feeling too far from civilization.
Besides walking and climbing and sighing at the splendor of it all, there's Newcastle, a lively, traditional seaside resort with a golden sand beach and one of the finest golf courses in Ireland. It makes a good base for exploring the area, but if it's too urban for you (pop. 7,200), there are small coastal towns strung along the A2 -- Kilkeel, Rostrevor, and Warrenpoint -- that have more bucolic charms. If you make it to the town of Dundrum, you could find the streets filled with musicians, fire-eaters, and jugglers, all drawn by the annual All Ireland Busking Competition. The month (and, indeed, location) tends to hop around, however, so it's kind of pot luck as to when you might stumble across them.
Wherever you stay, the mountains are the main attraction, and in Ireland you can't have cliffs and sea without soaring birds, fairy-tale castles, and mysterious dolmens. Finally, if your idea of nightlife has more to do with stars than bars, the Mourne Mountains provide a luminous getaway.