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.

This outdoorsy region is dominated by the massive barren peak of Slieve Donard (839m/2,752 feet). 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. Recreational opportunities abound, but there are also some intriguing old ruins to explore. Newcastle, a lively traditional seaside resort with a golden sand beach and one of the finest golf courses in Ireland, makes a good base for exploring the area; several small coastal towns strung along the A2 road—Kilkeel, Rostrevor, and Warrenpoint—offer their own low-key charms.

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.