Spa of the Month: Slieve Donard, County Down


The Northern Ireland coastlines of Counties Down and Antrim are wild, beautiful, empty places. Nobody goes – certainly not from mainland Britain – perhaps unsurprisingly given the long history of the Troubles. All I can say is that you’re missing out if you don’t. There are cliffs and coves (including the extraordinary Giant’s Causeway), rolling downs and forests, vast loughs and inlets (including Carlingford Lough for devotees of the shipping forecast) and mountains. If you’re looking for a wild nature detox, this is a pretty good option.

The Slieve Donard Resort and Spa sits beneath the mountain of the same name in the charming seaside town of Newcastle in County Down. It’s the highest mountain in Northern Ireland and has a brooding presence above the small town and its long, beautiful beach. The resort was built as a railway hotel in the late Victorian period and is an absolutely massive pile, seemingly out of scale with the town itself – but only if you ignore the popularity of this place at the time. It was the ultimate seaside destination in the north of the country and it was also what the Victorians regarded as a spa town, a place to come for your health, offering both sea bathing and (unusual for the time) Turkish baths.

Nowadays, it caters for golfers (busloads of Irish, English, Japanese and Americans while I was there), families, weddings and events. If that sounds a bit on the hectic side for a spa break, don’t worry. If you’ve come for the nature, once you’re in the hills or the woods, or if you’re down by the sea, you’ll see very few people. And, in the spa, there’s a very quiet upstairs area for people having treatments, complete with single sex saunas, hot tubs, steam rooms and relaxation areas. Downstairs, there’s a huge swimming pool with another sauna and steam area. This is a spa that is very treatment based, though, and their partners are one of my favourite brands, ESPA.

Having spent the morning driving down the coast and walking in the Silent Valley up in the Mourne Mountains (highly recommended), the rain had helpfully held off (you do get a lot of weather here) until it was time for my facial. And not any old facial. This was an ESPA Natural Face Lift. It’s a tricky one to describe (I will try) but if I had to sum it up in a phrase, I’d call it a total workout for the face. And that’s at the HIIT end of the spectrum, too, not a bit of gentle stretching.

So, you will have guessed, there’s a lot of massage involved here. ESPA say that this can have the same benefits for the face as physical exercise has for the body: increased blood circulation; improved cell vitality; detoxification through increased lymphatic circulation; relaxation; skin radiance.

The process begins with a double cleanse and an inspection of the skin under a UV light to decide on precisely which of the ESPA range of products will be best for you. The next stage is described as detoxifying and is based on lymphatic drainage. It starts with the lightest of touches, barely perceptible, encouraging the lymph to drain toxins out of the skin. This becomes gradually stronger with long sweeping movements from the face toward the major lymph nodes, specifically in the area around the armpit.

It’s all pretty gentle till we get to Stage Two: the invigorating phase. For this ESPA has taken inspiration from Japanese Kobido Massage –and invigorating barely covers it. Never have I experienced such a workout for the face, using both manual techniques (I felt like my face had turned into some kind of rubber mask competing in the gurning finals) and Jade rollers. These worked at speed and some pressure over my face. The theory behind Kobido massage is that it works on the facial meridians and acupressure points to achieve a balance in the skin and muscles, activating the facial nerves and increasing Qi energy flow. This is the core of the natural facelift effect and it removes dead cells and encourages elastin and collagen production along the way.

The third stage is sculpting – pretty gentle by comparison – and then we’re into the relax bit (phew!) with a mask and a scalp massage. The mask and all the products used are from ESPA’s Tri Active Advanced ProBiome range (serum, moisturisers and eye creams). The ProBiome complex includes peony extract which removes damaged mitochondria in the skin cells; microalgae to reduce the effects of the stress hormone cortisol; and sea kelp and probiotic extracts to protect and balance skin microbiome.

Skin microbiome? A microbiome is a unique ecosystem of microscopic organisms that live on the skin and within the human body. Think about it: at one time it was estimated that we were 10:1 bacteria. More recently, it was thought we were 50:50. Whatever the as yet unknown precise ratio, it would seem that a well balanced, diverse and healthy skin microbiome helps protect the skin and the ingredients in the ESPA range helps to increase that biodiversity and protect against environmental aggressors, such as climate and pollution.

The products have hyaluronic acid for an immediate lifting effect and the eye cream contains tuberose cell complex to diminish dark circles and puffiness. The serum even protects against the effects of blue light on the skin – so, a real digital detox! After all this, I was told to have plenty of water and rest. You bet.

If you want your body to have a workout, too, there’s a big gym as well as the pool, and plenty of classes that include everything from yoga to circuit training, as well as organised runs along the beach. All through the mountains and along the coast there are hiking and cycling trails, too, as well as sailing and paddle-boarding.

The hotel has a really superb restaurant (no weight loss here, I’m afraid) and specialises in local food. There’s a booklet on your table that tells you precisely where in the area your breakfast came from, with photos of the farmers who produced everything from the milk and butter to apple juice and sausages. There’s a particular mention of the brilliantly named Waggle Dance honey (produced by hardy Northern European bees) and a honeycomb stands on the breakfast buffet table. There’s also a bottle of local Bushmills whisky – and they recommend adding a shot of this along with the honey to your bowl of porridge. Not a total detox then but a rather appealing option on an autumnal morning, maybe….

Hastings Hotels offer rooms at The Slieve Donard Resort & Spa from £190 on a B&B basis. For more information, including details of spa packages, visit

For more information about the region, visit the official Tourism Ireland website at