Everyone has heard of Lough Neagh but do we all know what this destination has to offer?
I couldnâ€™t wait to find outâ€¦ From the Lough itself, to the many beautiful islands and of course the tempting trails Lough Neagh is just begging to be photographed from every angle and I left with more images than I knew what to do with – but as the saying goes â€˜a picture speaks a thousand wordsâ€™.
World of Owls
Lough Neagh is one of the best places in Northern Ireland to see wildlife and with the largest owl sanctuary in Ireland right here on our doorstep I just had to take a sneak peek at the wonderful â€˜World of Owlsâ€™!
Set within the very picturesque Randalstown Forest, this unique attraction has something to offer all the family.
Being Northern Irelandâ€™s only Owl, Bird of Prey & Exotic Animal Centre boasting 55 species of owl, the only eagles to be displayed in Northern Ireland and some of the smallest owls in the world, I quickly realised that this is a very special place.
On arriving we took a guided tour with owner Mike, who gave us an insight into the many owls they look after and I was quite excited to experience an owl perched on my arm!
Next we dared to step inside the very creepy Crawlies Cavern which is a dark cave featuring snakes, scorpions, cockroaches, spiders and much more â€“ I stress this is not for the faint hearted!!
Top tip: If you stop in at the right moment you might be lucky enough to see a falcon flying display which happens once a day, normally around lunch time.
Next on to the quaint and picture perfect Crosskeys InnÂ and what a hidden gem this is. Established in 1654, Irelandâ€™s oldest thatched pubÂ is a famous traditional music venue and home to members of the now famous traditional band, Beoga.
I entered through the latched door and breathed in the welcome smell of burning turf, took in the sounds of traditional Irish music, the low ceilings, worn stone floors and with the fire burning in the background, I had literally stepped back in time.
You will be amazed at the Aladdinâ€™s cave of history and I couldnâ€™t help but wish that I could hear the stories it keeps a secret from over the years – when you are there, sample a pint of Guinness which some claim to be the best pint of Guinness in the whole of Ireland.
With big plans for the future, and storytelling sessions from tellers from all over Ireland, this pub should be on everyoneâ€™s list to visit.
Top tip: Watch out for the collection of oil lamps hanging from the ceiling, an instagrammers delight.
Laurel Villa Guesthouse
I have heard people wax lyrical about our next stop and we were definitely in for a welcome treat at the 4 Star Laurel Villa Guesthouse in Magherafelt.
The late Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney captured the imagination of poetry lovers all over the world and in telling his story, Laurel Villa does not disappoint.
Owners Eugene and Gerardine are incredibly passionate and with such a friendly welcome, a poetry story to seek in every room and an exclusive connection to Seamus Heaney, this guesthouse certainly impressed.
Stay in the Heaney room starting from just Â£40pps and treat yourself to one of Gerardineâ€™s exquisite home made afternoon teas or take a unique tour of Heaney country with owner Eugene.
Top tip: Make sure to enquire what Â makes the four poster bed so special in one of the rooms and what it is made of?
What a beautiful day it was and how better to spend an hour or two than with a visit to our next stop, Ballyronan Marina.
This newly developed marina is both picturesque and ideal for a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of urban life.
From a walk around the marina, visit the new childrenâ€™s play park or sign up as an associate member of Ballyronan Boat club for the day and learn how to sail a boat on the Lough.
Then it was â€˜All aboard!â€™ as we got on The Maid of Antrim which offers a great escape across the Lough and can take groups, has a fully licensed bar and is registered for weddings for all you quirky brides out there!
Hiring a boat for the day has just been made easier with the recent launch ofÂ Lough Neagh Boat Hire.Â Located at Ballyronan Marina, hiring a boat, for a day or even an hour, is the perfect way to explore what this stunning part of the world has to offer.
Whether you fancy boating on the water, stopping off at scenic locations to catch a breathtaking sunset or enjoy some fishing with family and friends, there is a boat to suit you. No previous experience is necessary as full safety instruction, navigation maps, life jackets and fuel are included in hire prices that start at Â£10.
Top Tip: Why not make a day of it, and enjoy a picnic along the banks of Lough Neagh or at the Marina.
Hungry and full of stories from our journey we stopped at Ballydougan Pottery.
Just 27 miles from Belfast and designed by owner Sean Oâ€™Dowd, this thatched house, originally a linen merchantâ€™s house has been impeccably restored to its former glory.
The main restaurant is â€˜Ulster chicâ€™ meets â€˜old time classicâ€™ and the highlights for me where the unique cartwheels hanging from the ceiling, draped in spring flowers to match the season.
The walls are adorned with local artistry and pottery spilled from every nook and cranny as I eagerly tucked into a mouth watering lunch of chicken marinated in honey glaze and bacon on homemade ciabatta bread and the added extra of being served on Ballydougan pottery itself – delicious food served on great pottery!
After lunch we headed into the craft studio and watched a highly skilled potter throw and decorate using techniques employed by potters for millennia.
If you want to rest your weary head you can do so in one of the stylish self catering courtyard cottages and why not try your hand at a pottery class while you are there.
Top tip: Donâ€™t leave without visiting the 18th Century Courtyard Gift Shop, just tempting you to take a piece of this artisan home.
Rams Island Boat Trip
You canâ€™t go to Lough Neagh without experiencing one of the many boat trips available. We shouted â€˜Ahoy, Mateys!â€™ and jumped aboard the Island Warrior for the short 10 minute trip from Sandy Bay Marina to Ramâ€™s Island and Michael, our skipper for the day filled us full of laughter and enthralling tails of the Lough.
Uninhabited and stretching over one mile of coastline by half a mile wide, Rams Island must be seen to be believed.
A highlight for me was spotting the hand carved inscriptions on many trees written by American soldiers stationed here during World War II.
A guided tour uncovered the hidden heritage as we walked the trails around the island taking us through the history and the stories of past inhabitants, including the 19th century summer house and the round tower.
A weekend ferry service to the island departs from Sandy Bay Marina and can also be booked for private charter.
Top tip: Bring your own picnic, and afterwards see how many of the unique wooden sculptures you can find.
After our island adventure we jumped back on board the Island Warrior and made our way home but I will definitely be back, the beauty of Lough Neagh speaks for itself and the icing on this inviting cake were the people and characters we met along the way.
Look out for â€¦.
Lough Neagh Discovery Centre & Oxford Island
For some great family fun head to Lough Neagh Discovery Centre & Oxford Island and discoverÂ birdwatching hides, woodland, ponds, wildflower meadows, picnic and play areas.
If you’re looking for a thrill, head to the JungleNI where you can participate in activities such as zorbing, segway-ing and a tree top assault course
For some heritage, be sure to check out Ardboe Cross which was was placed in Lough Neagh over 1,000 years ago.
Antrim Castle Gardens
Garden lovers, do not miss the chance to visit the stunning grounds of Antrim Castle Gardens & Clotworthy House, a true hidden gem in Northern Ireland.
To find out more about Lough Neagh & Its Waterways visit http://www.discovernorthernireland.com/loughneagh/Â and http://www.discoverloughneagh.com/wb/