It’s difficult to imagine the sharp click-clack of military boots marching at the very spot where I’m luxuriating in an expertly administered head massage. The relaxing scents and sounds of a spa instead flood my senses, as I go on to feast on bubbly and buns in a relaxation room at an historic military base.
Approaching Ebrington Square, I admire the huge, thick stone walls built for defence. Turning around, I find stunning views across the winding Peace Bridge into Derry city.
The Ebrington Hotel, which opened in July, is the first destination spa in Northern Ireland’s second city. It occupies a former 19th century army barracks, lovingly transformed with its distinctive clocktower intact, the building has been a landmark ever since it was constructed in 1842.
It even has its own signature scent, created for the hotel by spa consultant Orla Gallagher, who also developed a skincare range – available in all the bathrooms and guest bedrooms, as well as the spa.
Managing director Cecil Doherty admits the original plan for the spa was a “much smaller entity” for hotel guests only. But when they realised there was not another hotel spa or day spa in the city, they expanded to include a large hydrotherapy pool.
“This immediately set us apart from what was already in the area,” he says.
The hotel, which has around 90 rooms, including four suites, is a complete transformation from the barracks which dominated the site for several centuries, until the army left in 2003.
The remainder of Ebrington Square is also revitalised: the former parade grounds now host concerts, while the Walled City Brewery offers locally brewed drinks as well as a venue, and there are plans for a new maritime museum.
A city made big by the small screen
Also known by the nicknames Derry, Doire, or even Legenderry, Derry is on the international map thanks to Lisa McGee’s television series Derry Girls.
I join tourists across the world to take a peek at Erin’s diary and a closer look at some of the show’s most memorable costumes, during a visit to an exhibition at the Tower Museum.
A walk around a recreation of Erin’s living room reminds me of the exchange on the show where Granda Joe is confronted about being seen eating a cream horn with a mystery woman. I enjoy finally trying the sweet treat after a visit to Doherty’s Bakery on Foyle Street, and can confirm the sweet pastry filled with cream is worth a family confrontation.
Just steps away are the historic city walls where Charlene McCrossan, the youngest qualified blue badge guide in the UK, is on hand to show us how much more there is to the city than Derry Girls and it’s famous Halloween spectacular every year.
She tells us how the city’s walls, the only continuously intact city walls in Ireland, were once described as a “noose” for the city, but now are celebrated as a necklace.
Her father, the late Martin McCrossan, set up the tour company in the 1970s, despite being told he was “mad” for doing so amid the conflict which dogged Northern Ireland for decades before the 1998 peace agreement.
“He went from ‘Madman McCrossan’ to ‘Mr Derry’,” she laughs.
Having become acquainted with the historic sights, I get to see the city from a new angle by boat thanks to Foyle Adventures. Zooming along the river offers superb views, including of the country estate Boom Hall and the riverside walk, as well as passing under the Peace Bridge, giving another perspective on Ebrington from the water.
In need of sustenance, I turn to Pyke’n’Pommes, a street food vendor that proved so popular, they were able to open a restaurant on the Strand Road. After much agonising between the burgers, fish and steak, I opt for the Masa Chicken Tacos which are superb, freshly made and bursting with flavour.
I finished the night by enjoying some of the famous Derry craic and traditional music at Peadar O’Donnell’s.
Exploring the north coast
There’s enough to keep you occupied in Derry, but it would be a shame to miss out on attractions along this part of Northern Ireland’s coastline.
Under the expert eye of chocolatier Geri Martin at the Chocolate Manor in Castlerock – who has made sweet treats for King Charles and Queen Camilla amongst others – I create my first hand-made chocolates.
With the measured out ingredients helpfully laid out, I melt white chocolate pebbles with Limoncello, made locally in Portballintrae, and a sprinkling of lemon zest to create a gorgeous filling for some pre-made square chocolate moulds.
A short jaunt along the coastline, I enjoy getting back to nature with Claire O’Kane’s Mussenden Unwind experince. As a keen sea swimmer, the sight of waves always gives me a twitch to jump in. Luckily, this is all part of the experience, along with foraging in the forest, story telling, and some cooking and dining on Downhill Beach.
As someone used to calmer seas, the waves at Downhill are bracing but exhilarating, provoking squeals and laughter.
Exploring further, I sample some of the fruits of the sea at Lir, a seafood restaurant in Coleraine. Owners Rebekah and Stevie McCarry opened the business in an old boat club building in January 2020, and from simply selling seafood – socially distanced throughout the pandemic – Lir has now blossomed into an award-winning restaurant on the banks of the River Bann, and a regular on best-restaurant lists.
Return of the wild in Co Donegal
It takes just minutes to cross the Irish border from Derry to a borderland which is home to bears and wolves.
While that may sound like something your mother warned you about as a child to keep you close to home, Wild Ireland owner Killian McLaughlin has, in fact, rescued bears from across the world.
The facility is currently home to bears rescued from Lithuania, a journey documented in the Netflix docuseries, The Bear Man Of Buncrana, as well as wolves, wild boar, foxes and lynx.
Mindful of the warnings to admire from afar, I get my animal cuddle fix later at Malin Head with some friendly alpacas. It may sound unlikely – a herd of alpacas at the northern most tip of Ireland, but former plasterer-turned-animal keeper John McGonagle assures it is the most popular attraction in Inishowen.
Against the stunning backdrop of the Five Fingers Strand jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, the alpacas happily trot along beside me, patiently posing for pictures.
For one of the most remote corners of Ireland, there is no shortage of attractions, including Fort Dunree, an outpost first fortified in the late 1790s to repel any Napoleonic invasion, and the ancient Grianan Of Aileach fort for views across the peninsula and Lough Swilly, not to mention Farren’s Bar at Malin Head – the most northernly pub on the island.
The north west of Ireland may not attract the numbers of tourists enjoyed by Dublin and the south coast, but with scenery as beautiful, the help of a smash hit television series, and direct flights to City of Derry airport, it is likely to be gaining fast.
How to plan your trip
Rooms at The Ebrington start from £130 (room only). Visit theebringtonhotel.com.
For more information on the destination, go to ireland.com.