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What to do around Strangford Lough, County Down

The largest inlet in Northern Ireland is brimming with opportunities for outdoor adventure, from birdlife to bracing waterside walks.

Scrabo Tower near Newtownards, at the northern tip of Strangford Lough.
 

Photograph by Alamy Stock Photo
Published 12 May 2022, 06:00 BST

Why go

Make the 50-mile loop around the UK’s largest sea inlet and you’ll find a natural playground of hiking trails, scenic bays and superlative places to paddle. At nearly 60sq miles, this vast lough is almost entirely enclosed by County Down’s Ards Peninsula, save for a narrow south-eastern channel where powerful tides from the Irish Sea gave rise to its Norse name of ‘Strangfyorthe’ or ‘strong fjord’. The Vikings mastered these mighty currents over three centuries of visiting the region, plundering monasteries, but it’s a much calmer escape these days, painted in a palette of sea blues, gentle greens and sunny yellow gorse. The area’s also home to protected mudflats and wetlands, where the wealth of birdlife belies the lough’s proximity to Belfast, some 20 miles away.

What to do

Paddle out from Strangford Lough Activity Centre on an expertly guided kayak, canoe or paddleboard tour around the lough. Discover islands home to ancient fish traps, basking seals and the remains of 18th-century kelp kilns. Even if you’re not a Game of Thrones fan, 18th-century gothic-Palladian Castle Ward and its forested grounds is a Strangford set piece. Explore its historic farmyard (the location for Winterfell, backdrop for much of season one), admire the blooms of the Sunken Garden and navigate the ‘Whispering Wood’, where Irish hares dart through the wild garlic.  

Where to eat

Strangford village’s Scandi-chic The Artisan Cookhouse serves an exquisite seafood chowder with Guinness bread and Abernethy butter, as well as Irish lamb rump with pomegranate and tzatziki. For Michelin Bib Gourmand-standard pub grub, head to Balloo House, in Killinchy. Choose from the likes of Irish charcuterie or Mourne mountain lamb shank.   

Hake bouillabaisse at Balloo House.

Photograph by Emma Kenny

Don’t miss

‘The Narrows’ is the name of the tidal channel between the Ards and Lecale peninsulas; the latter was once home to St Patrick and his eponymous, 82-mile pilgrims’ walk winds west from here. A far shorter stroll from Portaferry up Windmill Hill offers stellar sunsets — a view surpassed only by Mount Stewart’s Temple of the Winds, on Strangford’s northeastern edge. To get there, follow the shore-hugging road east, passing Grey Abbey along the way. nationaltrust.org.uk  walkni.com

We like

Make buttermilk soda bannock under the thatched roof of Tracey’s Farmhouse Kitchen in Killinchy and enjoy it with homemade jams and hand-rolled butter. Alternatively, try a Pizza & Paddle session: an hour’s SUP lesson in Ballymorran Bay before heading back to the 17th-century farmhouse for wood-fired pizza eaten hearthside or out in the sunny garden. 

Where to stay

Lough and ocean unfold below clifftop Slievemoyle Cottages, a cluster of restored, 18th-century stone farm buildings (sleeping between five and eight), with original wood-burning stoves and wood furnishings. From £300 for two nights. Strangford’s former boozer-with-rooms The Cuan reopened last year as a nine-room boutique hotel: all dark wood, burgundy leather and lough-blue hues. From £119 B&B.   

Published in the June 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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