Beyond Belfast there is mountains, castles, gardens and porridge

Castlewellan's colourful perennial border.
Julie Orr-Wlison

Castlewellan's colourful perennial border.

Things don't get much better than this, I thought, as I sat at the breakfast table, sun on my back, looking out at the most exquisite sculpture. Beyond were a shining sea and wild expanse of sunny sky. I was staying at the luxury, five-star Slieve Donard Resort and Spa, eating muesli, handmade locally, with Lady Dufferin's creamy, artisan yoghurt – that was, until I discovered the White's Porridge Oats on the buffet.

Cooked to creamy perfection, porridge the Irish way required a lesson in construction. First the oats, then a glug of local Bushmills Whisky, a drizzle of honey, Farmview Dairies' cream, sultanas and, the finale, pecans. I knew the food's provenance because on the table was a complimentary booklet, Who made my breakfast?, featuring most of the suppliers to this wonderful hotel.

I was glad I had walked earlier along the perimeter of Newcastle town. This was intended to work off the effects of the previous night's dinner at Brunel's Restaurant, where I had dined on Lough Erne eel and treacle-glazed duck breast, but now on my second breakfast I doubted it had been enough.

The Ards Peninsula looking back toward the Slieve Donard Resort.
Julie Orr-Wlison

The Ards Peninsula looking back toward the Slieve Donard Resort.

Of course, my favourable mood was about more than just porridge. Just the day before I had been on a stellar bike ride with Mourne Mountain Bike Trails. We had left the pretty,1750s French architecturally designed village of Castlewellan, taking an off-road trail in the Castlewellan Forest Park.

Against a backdrop of craggy, heather-covered Mourne Mountains, we gazed down on the Peace Maze hedge of 6000 yew trees which was planted in 2000. The yew were specially chosen for its symbolism of regeneration and longevity. Designed to commemorate the peace and reconciliation efforts of Northern Ireland, it was a moving memorial.

We had made it up to a Moorish-style ruin, built originally as a teahouse for Lady Annesley and her children to travel by carriage to enjoy the views. Finally skirting the lake, we arrived at the Annesley family, Scottish-style granite castle. Our guide, Martin, informed us that this summer retreat was known for its parties. When the ancient family rubbish tip was unearthed, it consisted mostly of champagne bottles.

Mabel Annesley's walled garden at Castlewellan.
Julie Orr-Wlison

Mabel Annesley's walled garden at Castlewellan.

Prior to this we had been wandering the grounds of the National Arboretum, Castlewellan. Passionate dendrophiles Sam and Elwyn were keen to show off their "tree zoo". With more than 40 trees deemed to be "champions", there's a wide range of rare maples, pittosporum and Chinese rhododendrons, a eucryphia walk and wonderful ornamental fountains.

Sam happily pointed out the New Zealand plants. The Neopanax laetus (pseudopanax) and Podocarpus acutifolius (totara) having excelled in the 1.8 metres (6ft) "brown earth" Castlewellan soil. The standout New Zealand species was the Southern red beech.

The park setting gave way to colourful perennial borders and intimate, walled garden, known as the Annesley Garden. With seats and scents and the recently refurbished summerhouse, which Mabel Annesley had created, it felt personal, like her presence still existed there.

Arrogant peacocks strutt their stuff.
Julie Orr-Wlison

Arrogant peacocks strutt their stuff.

In 1914 Mabel had inherited a declining Castlewellan and was largely responsible for saving it from demise. Her son was the last Annesley to own the estate. Mabel was a respected watercolour artist and wood engraver. During World War II, living in our own Golden Bay, she was a trustee of the Suter Art Gallery in Nelson and a selection of her woodcuts and linocuts are now in Te Papa's collection. I loved these New Zealand connections.

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Earlier that day, we visited Colin and Susan at Timpany Nurseries and Gardens. Describing themselves as "blow ins", they had relocated from England, with Colin choosing to pursue an academic career, while Susan developed the house and 8 hectares (20 acres) of garden. Specialising in alpines and famous for her Meconopsis (Himalayan poppy), Susan was a true plantswoman.

Of particular interest to me was the pond area, created from two old "lint holes". Originally it was used to soak flax for the linen industry. In a process known as retting, the flax would be weighed down with stones to rot the tough outer stems and expose the linen fibres. Removing the flax to dry and bundle was a smelly, slimy task. Now a peaceful wildlife pond, it's often home to otters and native fish.

Susan Timpany in her perennial border garden.
Julie Orr-Wlison

Susan Timpany in her perennial border garden.

On my travels in Belfast the word "demesne" kept popping up. It was unfamiliar to me but became clear when we visited Seaforde Gardens, which has been in the family since the 17th century. Our guide,  Charles Seaforde, explained how the walled garden dating from the early 18th century was originally heated with chimneys. The camellia house and greenhouses now given way to a selection of plants. The garden also holds the national collection of Eucryphias. We lingered in awe at the Davidia involucrata (dove tree) whose dove-like, white flowers were in full bloom.

It appeared Charles liked to travel and was very interested in rare species of plants. There was a sense he worked very hard to keep the place going. The demesne (a piece of land attached to a manor and retained for their own use) was now "shared" with a paying public. Part of the walled garden housed a tropical butterfly house, tearooms and playground where arrogant peacocks strutted their stuff. We ate lunch at the cafe where Charles' sister-in-law had made the best banana bread.

Taking a spiral staircase to the top of the Mogul Tower we were able to view the garden feature, a 40-year-old hornbeam maze. It was resourceful the way they had used old Nissen World War I huts for the framework of Ireland's oldest maze.

Seaforde's hornbeam maze.
Julie Orr-Wlison

Seaforde's hornbeam maze.

As I checked out of the magnificent Slieve Donard that morning, my only regret was that I could not stay. I longed to spend more time on the Ards Peninsula. To adventure along another bike trail to the Turnip House Cafe. To eat more porridge......

MORE INFORMATION: discovernorthernireland.com

GETTING THERE: Emirates flies Auckland/Dubai/Dublin, six days a week. Newcastle is about one hour from Belfast. There are regular bus services and the usual range of car-hire companies.

''Wind and Sea'' by Dublin born sculptor Paddy Campbell.
Julie Orr-Wlison

''Wind and Sea'' by Dublin born sculptor Paddy Campbell.

STAYING THERE: At Slieve Donard Resort & Spa bed and breakfast prices start from NZ$358. www.hastingshotels.com/slieve-donard-spa

BEING THERE: Eat: Brunels Restaurant www.brunelsrestaurant.co.uk/

Bike: Castlewellan Forest Park www.castlewellancastle.org/forestpark.html

Hike: One of the Mourne Mountains' seven peaks www.walkni.com/destinations/mourne-mountains/

Golf: Five-star Royal County Down Golf Club www.royalcountydown.org/

Tour: Tollymore Forest Park, Game of Thrones set www.gameofthronestours.com/tollymore/

Explore: Murlough National Nature Reserve www.nationaltrust.org.uk/murlough-national-nature-reserve

The writer travelled courtesy of Northern Ireland Tourism

 - Stuff

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