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Northern Star: Six things to do around Omagh and the Sperrins

Don't just skirt around the edges of North Ireland, make sure to put the charming town of Omagh on your list, says Audrey Kane

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The Gortin Glens Forest Park, 16 kilometres north of Omagh. Photo: Tourism Northern Ireland

The Gortin Glens Forest Park, 16 kilometres north of Omagh. Photo: Tourism Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland Tourist Board

Afternoon tea at The Silverbirch

Afternoon tea at The Silverbirch

An Creagan Visitor Centre

An Creagan Visitor Centre

Audrey Kane at The Abingdon Collection

Audrey Kane at The Abingdon Collection

Christmas Caroling at the Ulster American Folk Park.

Christmas Caroling at the Ulster American Folk Park.

Brian Morrison

Making bread at the Mellon Inn

Making bread at the Mellon Inn

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The Gortin Glens Forest Park, 16 kilometres north of Omagh. Photo: Tourism Northern Ireland

Think of a trip to Northern Ireland, and big attractions like the Giant’s Causeway, or the city of Belfast, inevitably spring to mind.

As savvy travellers know, however, going off-radar is often more rewarding.

And Omagh in Co Tyrone is definitely off-radar. Set on the footsteps of the region’s famed Sperrin Mountains and Gortin Lakes (above), the town is hidden away in the heart of Northern Ireland.

From the M50 to the N2 and straight all the way on the A5 from Dublin, however, it’s just a two and a half hour drive before you find yourself right in the heart of Omagh town - surprisingly close.

Here's what to do once you get there.

1. Afternoon tea at the Barreta

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Afternoon tea at The Silverbirch

Afternoon tea at The Silverbirch

Afternoon tea at The Silverbirch

Our first stop was the Barreta Bar & Grill in the three-star Silverbirch hotel. As it’s the only hotel in the centre of Omagh, it provides an ideal base for discovering the sights and attractions in the local area. It’s a lovely spot to while away a few hours and indulge in the quaint offerings of traditional afternoon tea.

The atmosphere was relaxed and the wait staff friendly as we began with our first-course — an amuse-bouche followed by a selection of finger sandwiches. But once the waiter arrived with a three-tiered cake stand and its selection of mini desserts, I started to get a little giddy — I blame the bubbles.

For me the sandwiches didn’t quite hit the spot (I think it was the flavour combination); my other half, however, devoured his and mine. Do remember to keep some room for the floury traditional scones.

Details: 2-5pm everyday at £21pp; silverbirchhotel.com

2. Time travel at An Creagán

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An Creagan Visitor Centre

An Creagan Visitor Centre

An Creagan Visitor Centre

There's plenty to do at An Creagán, an interpretative exhibition on the ancient landscape and traditions of the past. Activities range from stunning walks to cycle trails, a restaurant, and eight self-catering cottages.

You can also see some of the artefacts uncovered from one of the many ancient archaeology sites close to An Creagán, dating back to the Ice Age and Bronze Age. Manager John Donaghy brought us back in time as we took part in some Bronze Age wall building with willow, cooked a fish on the open fire and tried our hand at making some bread.

After a hectic morning we were ready for lunch (preferably one we hadn’t burnt) in The White Hare Restaurant.

Here, chef Mark Gibey is steadily building a reputation in the area for exceptional food and it’s easy to see why. We enjoyed peppered chicken with onion rings, a Buddha Bowl of freshness finished off with a giant pot of tea and a caramel shortbread (what diet?).

You can avail of the early bird two-course meal for £9.95 on Friday from 4-7pm, or Saturday from 4-6.30pm.

Details: ancreagan.com

3. Step into an Aladdin's Cave

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Audrey Kane at The Abingdon Collection

Audrey Kane at The Abingdon Collection

Audrey Kane at The Abingdon Collection

Next, we made our way to the Abingdon Collection. This Aladdin's Cave has classic cars, superb 50s, 60s and 70s collections, and a wealth of wartime artefacts. It's divided into two distinct sections - the first area covers classic cars and motorcycles — think Poncherello’s bike in CHiPs. The second is definitely a little more surreal, and concentrates on the dark days of World War II with over 3,000 items on permanent display.

While admission is free, contributions to Cancer Research are gratefully accepted and it’s by appointment only.

Details: For an appointment contact philipfaithfull@hotmail.co.uk

4. Feel the folk history

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Christmas Caroling at the Ulster American Folk Park.

Christmas Caroling at the Ulster American Folk Park.

Brian Morrison

Christmas Caroling at the Ulster American Folk Park.

The much talked-about Ulster American Folk Park operates a small, village-style museum, with over 30 different buildings to explore representing different times in Ireland’s tumultuous history.

This exhibition examines life in Ulster during the 18th and 19th centuries and allows you to take a look at how emigrants lived during this time, both before and after their transatlantic journey and the challenges they faced. You go on a journey by way of an interactive experience with costumed character on hand to retell classic stories.

Details: nmni.com/our-museums/ulster-american-folk-park; £11/£6

5. Have lunch at the loaf

After our tour it was time for some lunch at the Loaf Cafe located at the Folk Park — a social enterprise supporting people with learning difficulties and autism. The cafe is light and airy and we thoroughly enjoyed Loaf’s award-winning sausage rolls and salad to round off our trip. It might just be a quick bite at lunchtime after your tour or some Sunday lunch, but at just £10 for two courses, Loaf is definitely worth a visit.

Details: loafcatering.com

6. Make for The Mellon

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Making bread at the Mellon Inn

Making bread at the Mellon Inn

Making bread at the Mellon Inn

The Mellon Country Inn was our base for two nights - a family run three-star hotel near Omagh. Under the Irish-American ownership of the Mahoney family since March 2017, it has 18 en-suite bedrooms and a central location making it ideal base for tourists to explore.

After our tour of the region, we tucked into a three-course-meal and a bottle of house red at O’Briens Restaurant. The place was hopping as it was country music night.

While I found the red wine variety slightly disappointing and limited in terms of choice, what can’t be faulted is the food. For starters we had prawns with Marie Rose sauce; for mains I had their famous Beltany Burger - with bacon, cheddar, Ballymaloe relish and red onion on toasted brioche bun. With greens instead of chips, it was priced at £10.50.

The other half had Mary Gray’s Fish n Chips with mushy peas, lemon and tartar sauce for £10.95. For dessert we both opted for blueberry cheesecake, which was divine.

Our Executive Suite was an elegant and spacious room with outstanding views of the Sperrins, and our other night at the hotel saw us venturing into to O’Briens Bar. The staff here made us feel right at home, and you’d be hard pushed to find a warmer welcome — which seems to be a recurring theme in Omagh.

In fact, we were having so much fun chatting with the staff and locals we decided to enter the local pub quiz. Eight rounds of sport later and with a pub quiz name “Hill16” we had nowhere to hide as we came last.

It was time to call it a night...

Details: Prices from £60 B&B off-peak for two. melloncountryhotel.com

NB: Audrey was a guest of Omagh Sperrins Tourism. exploreomaghsperrins.com

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