An area of outstanding natural beauty, Strangford Lough and Lecale area certainly lives up to that title as I found out recently on a day of discovery in some of the region’s best loved visitor centres and attractions.
On what was a packed day of stops and starts, the first port of call on our tour of Strangford Lough was an early morning visit to Scrabo Tower. The iconic landmark which has taken pride of place 540 feet above Newtownards since 1857 was built as a memorial to Charles Stewart, the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry who was a general under the Duke of Wellington During the Napoleonic Wars and something of a local hero. Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to scale the 122 steps to the viewing level, but that will be a trip for another day. What I found remarkable is that throughout the day, despite all the other locations visited, that Scrabo tower was visible almost at all times.
Scrabo tower was illuminated earlier this year by the Global Rainbow
Next stop was a visit to the magnificent Mount Stewart House and Gardens. We were incredibly fortunate to have such glorious weather for what was my first visit to Mount Stewart and despite having a very limited knowledge of plant-life and floral displays, I could not but be impressed by the creativity, care and craftsmanship that has gone into ensuring the various gardens are some of the worlds finest. With Spanish and Italian inspired gardens and stonework reflective of ancient Greece and the Orient, Mount Stewart is a must for all ages and interests. A brief tour of the house itself focused on the artwork, decor and history of the Londonderry family and it was encouraging to see just how many local & international tourists were exploring the house and grounds during our visit.
The magnificent Mount Stewart house and gardens
Moving further along the A20 we paid a visit to one of the newest attractions on the Ards Peninsula, Harrisons of Greyabbey. Combining flowers, fine produce, and fresh food is a winning strategy. On site visitors can purchase everything from rare garden plants to local crafts, home grown vegetables, meats and preserves. The 92 seat restaurant was a perfect coffee stop and the restaurant has a menu catering to all tastes and budgets.
The newly opened Restaurant and Shop at Harrisons
Arriving in Portaferry, our group made a beeline for Exploris – The Northern Ireland Aquarium and here visitors are provided with an opportunity to view and learn about indigenous marine species. Most of our visit was spent at the discovery pools where we were allowed to hold Sea Urchins and Starfish and the tour guide explained that allowing visitors to get up close and personal with the sea life really helps to develop an appreciation of nature and break down boundaries. A personal highlight of this visit was a walk around the seal sanctuary. The sanctuary which has beem operational since 1999 has 6 hospital pens, food preparation rooms, a nursery pond and large pond with underwater viewing area.
We made some new friends at the NIE Seal Sanctuary at Exploris in Portaferry
Following the whistlestop tour of Exploris, no visit to Strangford Lough would be complete without taking to the lough itself, and on board the St Brendan we travelled across the great expanse towards Killyleagh before sailing back to our next port of call, Strangford Village.
After a light lunch in the Cuan Seafood Restaurant, our exploration of Strangford Lough continued with a visit to Delamont Country Park. With 100’s of acres of unspoilt park land and country-side, the park is a true gem in the heart of Strangford Lough. The park plays host to a wide range of events from April right through to October, has amazing adventure playgrounds for the young and the not-so-young, and could be considered as Northern Ireland’s most unique Gym with over 30 pieces of equipment dotted along the various trails which is free to use. And to prove that it does work, I had a go one some of the more unusual pieces designed to improve strength, flexibility, balance and co-ordination. The park is perfect stop for those taking a camping or caravanning break in Northern Ireland.
The Millennium Stone at Delamont Country Park
Having spent a little more time than planned in Delamont County Park it was a race against time to our final stop of the day at WWT Castle Espie Wetland Centre. The centre is home to a wide range of exotic, migrant and indigenous birds, while other wildlife attractions include bats, otters, hedgehogs and many more. One of the sites most popular features, the duckery is open to the public all year round, and provides support to a huge number of newborn ducklings, goslings and cygnets. The centre is famous for bird watching with facilities including the recently opened Lime Kiln which boasts 360 degree views of Strangford Lough, and the Limestone pavilion which offers an interactive learning opportunity for visitors and incorporates an outdoor climbing wall for active visitors.
Stop by and help feed the ducks at Castle Espie Wetlands Centre
The attractions we visited are only a mere sample of what the Strangford Lough and Lecale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty has to offer and more information about visitor attractions and events in the region can be found at www.discovernorthernireland.com
Have we missed something that you love about Strangford Lough on our visit. Share your hints and tips for exploring the region now!