While it often plays little brother to big brother golf vacation haven Scotland, Ireland (including Northern Ireland) has some amazing golf courses and a thoroughly enjoyable lifestyle. Portmarnock, Old Head, Royal Portrush, Waterville, Ballybunion, Portstewart, Ardglass, Trump International Ireland (formerly Doonbeg) and Tralee head the list of great places to tee up.
For many golfers, though, Royal County Down is the absolute must play on the Emerald Isle. Stunningly photogenic and challenging, the course is set on natural duneland at the foothills of the Mountains of Mourne in Newcastle, about 30 miles south of Belfast.
Opened in 1889, Royal County Down was designed by Scottish schoolteacher George L. Ballie (who laid out the first nine) and Old Tom Morris (who laid out the second nine) with later tweaks and alterations by Harry Colt, Harry Vardon and Donald Steel.
Stretching out before you like a Monet painting come to life, the course is colorfully accented with purple heather and yellow gorse.
Undulating and roller coaster-like fairways, blind drives, bunkers framed by testy fescue grasses and small greens with dips and rolls dominate the golf experience at Royal County Down.
Golf writer Bernard Darwin's description captures the essence of this special course: "It has big and glorious carries, nesting greens, entertaining blind shots and beautiful turf – the kind of golf people play in their most ecstatic dreams."
Two holes that golfers typically talk about over a frosty pint in the clubhouse are the par-3 fourth and par-4 ninth holes.
The fourth, which plays 229 yards from the back tees (215 from the Medal and 202 from Stableford) requires a tee shot over a sea of golden gorse to a green surrounded by 10 menacing bunkers. If you can hit the green, it's fairly flat, and birdie or par might be etched on your scorecard. For those struggling bunker players who land in the sand, a par is a terrific score.
For sheer beauty, the 483-yard ninth (427 yards from the Medal and Stableford tees) is one of Ireland's most panoramic holes. Standing on an elevated tee, you can see the 3,000-foot-high Slieve Donard peak in the distance. You hit a tee shot to a fairway 60 feet below, and a second shot is played over two bunkers to an elevated green.
After the round, make sure you leave some time to enjoy a cold libation at the clubhouse, which is brimming with historical photos and artifacts.
If possible, stay at the luxurious 181-room Slieve Donard Resort & Spa, which is situated only 150 yards from the clubhouse. Sitting on six acres of spectacularly maintained grounds, the sprawling Victorian hotel has rooms with views of the course, Mourne Mountains, Irish Sea coastline and landscaped grounds. It also has superb dining options and an Afternoon Tea.