Wet* your staycation appetite for Northern Ireland (* no, really)
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Wet* your staycation appetite for Northern Ireland (* no, really)

Travel across the Irish Sea to dramatic Game of Thrones territory and a land where rain reigns supreme

Stephen is the Jewish News' Foreign Editor

The north coast of Northern Ireland, known to TV fans as 'Game of Thrones' territory
The north coast of Northern Ireland, known to TV fans as 'Game of Thrones' territory

Formative years spent in Manchester are years spent knowing rain.

There’s fine rain, spitting rain, horizontal rain, heavy rain, rain that doesn’t give up, rain that surprises you, rain that refreshes you, rain that soaks you through, and all manner of wet in between. There are runners from rain, weavers through rain, lovers and haters of rain, preparers for rain, and predicters of it. The latter really know their shades of grey. To borrow a phrase from the inimitable Bill Bryson, growing up in Manchester is like growing up inside a Tupperware box.

We and our clothes are amongst the least dry anywhere, or so I thought. It turns out there’s somewhere wetter, somewhere that can out-precipitate us Mancunians. I learnt this shortly after I met the girl who would later be Mrs O and went to visit her family in Northern Ireland. There, they deal in a whole new kind of sodden.

Don’t let it dampen your spirits. There are vast amounts to love about this majestic corner of the UK, including its history, people, humour, welcome, mystique, and above all, its beauty.

Dramatic lakes, ancient dunes, crisp forest, perched castles, pretty fishing villages and the naked wonders of geology all cram neatly into 100 miles or so. No wonder C S Lewis was enchanted.

Back when people were allowed out of their houses, Mrs O and I stayed in two of Hastings Hotels’ best offerings – Culloden Estate and Spa in Belfast and the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa in County Down.

The former stands high on the slopes of the Holywood Hills, overlooking Belfast Lough and coastline, while the latter is a lovingly maintained Victorian hotel nestled at the foot of the Mountains of Mourne, from where my better half’s family hails.

They’re not Jewish – these days, few in Northern Ireland are. But instead of disappearing entirely, as many predicted, the tiny Jewish presence stubbornly continues to meet in north Belfast, with a minister and services every Shabbat.

In May last year Prince Charles visited the synagogue to unveil a plaque marking the installation of two new stained glass windows.

Few places do scenery quite as well as Northern Ireland

Might there even be glimmers of hope for a resurrection? In September last year Queen’s University student Olivia Fletcher arrived thinking “there must be some Jewish students around here somewhere,” so she formed a Jewish Society (J-Soc), the first in many years. Sure enough, they started to emerge. The first Friday night dinner was beckoning just before lockdown.

Don’t let my lack of writerly skills posit the proposition thus far only of rain and a few Jews – book your flight or ferry if for no other reason that the hotels.

Culloden was once a Palace for the Bishop of Down (eat your heart out, Chief Rabbi…) and it maintains a palatial feel today, with its fine antiques, acres of secluded gardens, and highest levels of customer service, all overseen personally by members of the Hastings family.

Stephen at the Giant’s Causeway in Co. Antrim, an area of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns

Moreover, if* it is raining outside (* I’m legally obliged to say ‘if’ because technically there’s a chance it won’t be) then this hotel has all the best indoor excuses, from the log fires of Cultra Inn, to the scones and cakes of the Crozier Lounge, the gothic grandeur and gourmet chic of the Mitre Restaurant, and the zen of the luxury spa. If you can, grab a room right at the top of the hotel for fantastic views of the Lough, then hire a car by day and strike out for the Giant’s Causeway and the coastline made famous by the Game of Thrones TV series.

If golf is your thing, you have the Royal Belfast nearby, but even more impressive is the Royal County Down, one of the best courses in the world, which is right on the doorstep of the Slieve Donard, itself sited smack bang in the middle of the town of Newcastle, where seafood is among the best in the British Isles.

With its 180 bedrooms and famous “cloud beds”, this hotel surprised me. I’m sorry to say it, but I simply did not expect it to be this good. The secret, I think, is its outstanding manager Michael Weston, who I met by chance, and its location, just yards from an expansive sandy beach, with rugged bays beyond and spectacular nature reserves a short drive away. Attaboy Atticus, the hotel’s mountain-climbing labrador, has personally tested all good nearby walks.

Yet if* the rain’s a lashing you may lose to the urge to stay indoors. If so, you will find that the spa really does pack a punch, the sauna and pool both having phenomenal uninterrupted views of the sea.

An hour’s easy yet interesting drive between these two hotels makes a long weekend feel like two separate stays, given that the experiences are so different. Think Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, just rainier.

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  • Stephen was a guest of Hastings Hotels (www.hastingshotels.com, 028 9042 1066), which offers nightly rates at the Culloden Estate & Spa from £125 per person on a B&B basis.
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