Travel: A tree-top re-awakening
Burrenmore Nest near Castlerock is a retreat which offers a holiday for the senses. Gail Bell visited one of its tree-top lodges for a bird's-eye view of the forest
A COVID lockdown project like no other, a trio of treehouses near Castlerock in Co Derry is proving the ultimate escape for those who like to bag a bird's-eye view when booking a room.
Burrenmore Nest in the heart of Downhill Forest is top of the tree when it comes to a room with a view, the floor-to-ceiling glass in each tree-top lodge - there is also one on the ground floor for disabled access - overlooking a vivid green-brown tableau of fern and bark and branches.
Still in its first full tourist season, the lodges at Burrenmore Road, Castlerock, are already a popular go-to retreat for visitors who believe nature and technology don't need to be mutually exclusive.
Outside, peacocks grandly wander and the magic of a woody wonderland is all around, but inside our elevated glass and wooden sanctuary it was 'Alexa' who ruled the roost.
Amazon Alexa voice control is included in each lodge as standard - it can be disabled on request - and she is ready to answer verbal requests for everything from adjusting the interior mood lighting or playing a favourite song to reporting on the weather for the day ahead.
Another high-tech feature is the wireless blackout blinds system operated via a small remote – a press of a button noiselessly blocked out the night-time forest and transformed our 'Peacock's Roost' into a cosy home cinema with expansive 120-inch viewing screen.
Used in combination with an overhead projector above the bed – 'Alexa, projector on' – guests can 'Chromecast' from any iPhone or Android phone (or laptop) and lie back on a hybrid memory foam mattress to watch YouTube videos or movies from their own Netflix account.
In fairness, during our visit last month it took us a while to join all these digital dots, although instructions are clearly set out in the welcome pack and helpful manager, Hal, or another member of the Burrenmore team, is always nearby for technical assistance if needed.
One thing staff can't help with, though, is adjusting the volume of the screeching peacocks whose piercing calls ring ear-splittingly loud in the morning as a wake-up call like no other.
Yet, for all the noise they make, the peacocks that wander down from a nearby farm and make themselves at home here are a quirky attraction at Burrenmore Nest where wildlife, plant life and humans - not to mention Alexa... - seem to symbiotically co-exist.
The visual appeal of a peacock while sipping coffee on the balcony is equalled only by another sensory sensation - the two-person al fresco whirlpool bath tucked away in a private spot beside each lodge, its moss-covered exterior blending aesthetically into the arms of the forest.
Fresh water is drawn for each new occupant and there is something hedonistically indulgent about sitting in a whirlpool bath - with 20 hydrotherapy massage jets and chromotherapy LED mood lighting - at dusk, flicking the colours from to pink to blue to green just because you can.
We tip-toed under our treehouse and over twigs in flip-flops to find the bath encased in a net falling from a canopy, a jug of water and glasses positioned thoughtfully on a tiny table nearby.
All of this: the bath, the forest, the treehouses - the silence, the peace, the vibe - has been the vision of Co Down architect Maddie Stewart who, along with son, Nick, and nephew, Hal Sutton (Burrenmore Nest on-site manager), brought it to life over the course of the pandemic.
Originally the derelict site of a 1950s water reservoir pumping station, Maddie set about creating a boutique escape: a retreat for those who like to escape to the 'wild' with a little luxury included; a space with nature at the front door and beaches 'out the back', with forest and river walks nearby, but restaurants and shops a short drive down the road.
"Burrenmore Nest was something of a Covid lockdown project and I suppose inspired by the idea - which everybody became more aware of - that people need to be able to connect with and get out to nature," she says. "The link between people's wellbeing and the physical space you are in, is so important.
"Along with so many people from all across the world, lockdowns made me appreciate the value of the outdoors and of nature, of a sense of freedom and escape, and it made me more aware of the link between our spaces and our mental health."
An architect for most of her life for large housing construction firms in England, Maddie moved back to Northern Ireland when in her fifties and started to work on dream homes in Ireland.
She designed a number of houses for families in Ardglass and Coney Island – where she now lives – and mid-2020, aged 74 and with "no interest in retirement", convinced her son and daughter-in-law to invest in the plot at Burrenmore Road, lying within the Binevenagh Area of Oustanding Natural Beauty and beside 82 hectares of the Downhill forest estate.
Now open for just nine months, the lodges - the Scandi-feel Peacock's Roost, Swallow's Nook, Robin's Perch and Pipit's Hide - are booked months in advance by walkers, travellers, beach lovers, couples, families and animal lovers (two of the lodges are pet-friendly).
It is easy to see why. The accommodation is as appealingly quirky as the ethos is sound and in addition to modern comforts inside - the en suite bathroom with waterfall shower is stocked with Voya toiletries - a communal barbecue area and firepit outdoors is the perfect place for get-togethers after sun-down or just for a quick warm up by the fire following a forest bath.
Little touches count. Part of the breakfast offering was a freshly-baked wheaten cob, which on arrival was sitting beside two hand-crafted 'Welcome' chocolate discs made locally in Castlerock. Also open on the beautiful, reclaimed timber coffee table was a Scrabble board (use of traditional board games included), its letter tiles spelling out a personal welcome.
But, no word games today. The sun was shining and historic local landmarks were waiting to be explored. "Alexa, how far to Mussenden Temple?" Only a 10-minute walk - three minutes by car - for the record.
More at burrenmore-nest.com