Slieve Donard Hotel: Northern Ireland's majestic hotel where Charlie Chaplin once stayed

In 1921, when Charlie Chaplin was one of the most famous celebrities in the world, he signed the register of County Down's majestic Slieve Donard Hotel, recording his first name as "Charles" and his address as simply "New York".

The hotel, built by the Belfast and County Down Railway as the Northern Irish equivalent of Scotland's Gleneagles, opened in 1898 and still retains its romantic setting (though the neighbouring railway station is now a supermarket).

Perched above Newcastle's windswept pebble-and-seaweed beach that was so popular in Victorian times, the hotel has two other vistas.

Behind it (and accessed through an ornate wrought iron gate) lies one of the world's premiere links golf courses – Royal County Down, a regular venue of the venerable British Open.

Directly ahead, and visible from the hotel's superb indoor swimming pool and spa bath, lie the Mountains of Mourne – inspiration for both CS Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia and one of Ireland's finest folk ballads, written by Percy French, about an Irish exile working in London who dreams of returning to "the wild rose that's waiting for me/in the place where the dark Mournes sweep down to the sea".

Chaplin was also here at Slieve Donard (named after the tallest mountain in the dark Mournes – and the Gaelic word for mountain is pronounced "sleeve") on a melancholy quest.

His first Hollywood marriage (to Mildred Harris) had ended in disaster, and legend has it that the richest "little tramp" the world has ever seen came back to the Mountains of Mourne in search of his first love.

According to a plaque in the hotel's Chaplin Bar, the comic genius spent the weekend searching for Hetty Kelly's family.

She had been a 15-year-old chorus girl when they met on the London music hall scene, but she rebuffed his advances.

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"He returned home (to London) after the messy divorce to search for his first love but was devastated to discover that Hetty had died in the influenza epidemic of 1918," reads the inscription in the bar named after him.

"He fled to Ireland and tried, in vain, to trace the Irish side of Hetty's family."

This may or may not be factually correct. The Irish have a way of telling stories that are far better than reality. But Chaplin was definitely a guest here, and Percy French has a restaurant named after him in the hotel grounds.

County Down is one of the six traditional counties of Ulster province, now better known as Northern Ireland, which split from the rest of the island in 1921.

Arguably the most beautiful of the Ulster counties, it has undergone a huge resurgence in international tourism in recent years.

The Good Friday agreement of 1998 was 20 years ago. Now there's no border between the two Irelands and 117 cruise ships are due to dock in Belfast this year (2018) – a measure of how safe Ulster has become, and the Mountains of Mourne await your inspection.

(Just don't mention Brexit!)

To be honest, you're not guaranteed a view of Slieve Donard (850 metres), Slieve Commedagh (767 metres) or the other Mournes whatever time of year you choose.

When we arrived (in early summer), the range was shrouded in mist, but that night and the following morning their full glory was exposed.

Trekkers love this part of Ireland. The dry-stone Mourne Wall, for example, stretches 35 kilometres and crosses 15 summits.

Lewis, who was born in Belfast, spent holidays in the village of Rostrevor, near Newcastle. He loved listening to Celtic myths and later wrote about the Mournes: "It made me feel that at any moment a giant might raise its head over the next ridge".

As for French, born the son of an Anglo-Irish landlord (not good when Republicans were destroying aristocratic properties!), he became an engineer, painter, journalist, music hall performer and writer of comic verse.

The Mountains of Mourne, his best known work, still resonates today.

Written in the form of a love letter home to sweetheart Mary, the suitor explains that Londoners "don't sow potatoes, nor barley, nor wheat", while their fine ladies "don't wear no top to their dresses at all" and have "beautiful shapes nature never designed".

Not much has changed then.

Newcastle itself – once one of Britain's most prestigious seaside resorts in Victorian times – retains its bracing charm (people were actually swimming in the North Sea when we visited in June!)

And the Slieve Donard Hotel – despite its laid back Irish standards of service – remains good value.

Especially if you're a golfer, a trekker – or someone who loves relaxing in a hot spa bath looking at those mournful mountains.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/ireland

ireland.com

FLY

Cathay Pacific flies from Australia to Dublin four times a week, via Hong Kong. See cathaypacific.com. Newcastle is a two-hour car journey from Dublin airport.

STAY

Slieve Donard Resort and Spa. See hastingshotels.com

Steve Meacham travelled as a guest of Cathay Pacific and Tourism Ireland.

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