Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Ireland Travel Guide! (Formerly “Top 5 Places in Ireland!” but just couldn’t narrow it down.)

In the immortal words of Jim Morrison…“The West is the Best.”

As some of you may know, I just got back from my first trip to Ireland…and loved it. In the end we hired a car and toured the whole island. And behold…I bring you my Ireland Travel Guide, with all the best bits and none of the filler…Not that Ireland has a lot of “filler”. It’s pretty much all “best bits”. Also, it’s for a clockwise trip. If you want to go anti-clockwise, read it from the bottom or something. Anyhow,…enjoy!

Best places to go in Ireland:

Co. Dublin

Dublin – Though I usually try not to advocate the practice of going to capital cities and then saying you’ve been to the country (no-one would do it for DC so stop doing it for London!), I will have to make an exception for Dublin, partly on the grounds that a ridiculously high percentage of Ireland’s population live there, and partly because it’s just an awesome city. In the daytime, be sure to hang out at the Trinity College campus and my favourite art gallery in the world, the RHA Gallery. By night, you can’t miss Temple Bar, or (if you don’t want to feel like you could just as easily be in Thailand) the area immediate across Dame Street and following the R114 (it changes too many times to call it by any other name). Also, I recommend reading James Joyce's Dubliners while your here. It's extra rewarding.

Co. Wicklow

Wicklow Mountains National Park – This incredible region of Ireland is made even more so (incredible, that is) by its close proximity to the capital. Within a matter of minutes you can be out of the city traffic and in one of the most desolate landscapes on the planet. Even in the rain, the wild, unspoilt moors retain their beauty and are worth a visit on character alone. Though they don’t hold up against the dramatic vistas of the West (coming up) that’s why I say do it first (hence clockwise).

Co. Waterford

Bunmahon – The first of a string of picturesque seaside towns and villages, Bunmahon is known for its wildlife and its surfing.

Co. Cork

Youghal – This little seaside town welcomes you to Cork with a long stretch of sandy beach.

Cobh – Pronounced “Cove”, this historic port town remains much more scenic and remote than its industrial counterpart. Cobh is perhaps most famous as the last point of call of the ill-fated Titanic, and as such has a sombre tone, with the dark, menacing church on the hill and the eerily quiet seafront.

Cork – Many people come to Cork expecting it to be beautiful. They are very wrong, and are no-doubt mistaking it with the county of which it is part. The city of Cork is ugly, industrial and run-down. That being said, it is home to some of Ireland’s best music and many a great pub.

Kinsale – Back to the coast now for Ireland’s gourmet capital. This Cork seaside town is home to far more than its fair share of Ireland’s best restaurants and has rightly earnt itself the title of Ireland’s Fine Food City.

Bantry Peninsula – Just when you’re thinking that all the rumours about Ireland are just that, rumours, and that you’ve seen nothing hugely astounding yet, you hit the South West. Suddenly you’re surrounded by the most beautiful scenery in the world and you’re forced to admit that it really is as amazing as people say, and, in that case, that the people really are friendly here and maybe the Guinness really does taste better. This is Western Cork and is where the tourists got their ideas about Cork. Bantry is the smallest of four peninsulas, but this, along with its remote location, means there are nothing but white (local) roads. A trip to the tip is an adventure in itself.

Beara Peninsula – My personal favourite of the scenic peninsulas, Beara has everything the others do (dramatic mountain ranges, jaw-droppingly beautiful sea-views, miles of winding lanes to explore, etc) but is also relatively untouched by tourism. Hint…All the best photos of Ireland come from Beara.

Co. Kerry

Iveragh Peninsula – Better known as the “Ring of Kerry”, which falls mostly on the peninsula, Iveragh is the Classic…the Big Daddy of the Irish peninsulas. Here you will find all of Ireland’s most sought after tourist destinations. Everyone who makes it to the West Coast heads for Kerry, and with good reason.

Killarney National Park – This is the other (inland) section on the Ring of Kerry. Killarney town is famous for its horse drawn carriages and its ridiculous number of accommodation options (remember, competition = cheap) but is nothing on the National Park that lies outside. Impossible to describe in words, this incredible scenery has to be seen to be believed.

Dingle Peninsula – This, most northerly of the peninsulas is home to a large Gaeltacht (Irish Gaelic speaking) community, Ireland’s dramatic most westerly point, and a collection of exceptional beaches and hidden coves whose soft, white sand and clear, blue waters will have you thinking you stepped into the Caribbean…except without the tourists…and, it has to be said, the water is f’ing freezing!

Dingle – No, this isn’t a typo. Dingle is the principle town on the peninsula and deserves a section all to itself. This sleepy, typical Irish fishing village doubles as an enclave for expats and travellers from all over the world. The town comes alive every evening, with as many restaurants, pubs and live music venues as there are (colourful) houses.

Co. Limerick

Shannon – The Shannon River, as opposed to the town or the airport, is Ireland’s longest and is quite a spectacle. Limerick, Ireland’s second largest city, also lies smack bang on it.

Co. Clare

Lehinch – This small but frequently visited seaside town is one of the gateways to the Cliffs of Moher. The beach is amazing and, rain or shine, you’ll see surfers out on the waves.

Cliffs of Moher – One of Ireland’s most dramatic and recognisable spots, these cliffs are home to tens of thousands of birds, including the puffin (who you may remember from the Guinness posters). From the top you can see…well a lot (most of the things in this travel guide).

Doolin – Picture your dream Irish village, complete with country cottage, and Doolin is it. It is home to great “Trad” Folk music, arts and crafts shops, and some nice Irish pubs. The whole place smells of straw and wet fields and everything Irish.

The Burren – Another of Ireland’s National parks. This one stands out from the rest with its large stretches of jagged rock. It was once fertile land but was over-farmed into the desolate landscape you now see there. Actually, it’s still fairly pretty.

Co. Galway

Galway – Like Cork but nice to look at, Galway definitely takes my “Coolest City” Award (sorry Dublin). Galway is an easily walkable University city where the pubs stay open ‘til 4 in the morning every day of the week. It encapsulates everything that is good about Ireland, has a large Gaelic speaking population of its own and really knows how to celebrate being Irish. It is also just a stone’s throw from some of the most beautiful parts of the country…and the world.

Spiddal – Another Gaeltacht town just outside of Galway. Spiddal has a great beach and plenty of nearby forests.

Connemara – This region of County Galway is characterised by loughs (lakes), mountains and most importantly a poor and troubled history. Until relatively recently, Connemara was decades behind the rest of the British Isles, both in terms of agriculture and levels of wealth and poverty. The landscape seems to embody the hard Connemara life and the sadness of the past. The hotspots are the Maamturk Mountains and the 12 Bens (or Pins, depending on who you ask, or what map you’re looking at). The R344 runs between the two and is arguably the best road to take to see the region at its best. There’s also Ballynahinch, home to some of Ireland’s best beaches, including the nation’s only coral beach. Not to mention Clifden, the “Sky Road”, Connemara National Park and the “Connemara Giant” in Recess. The Giant is the most Irish attraction there is! A nearby sign says “Late 20th c. antiquity” and his own plaque confesses that he was “Built in 1999. By Joyce’s Craft Shop. For No Apparent Reason” (except of course to get people into their shop). In the same vein as the Blarney Stone, rumours have even begun to circulate that kissing the Giant’s hand will give you the give of wisdom. My favourite is another nearby sign that reads “On this site…in 1897…nothing happened”. On the way out of Connemara you pass through the interesting towns of Letterfrack and Leenane, the latter of which sits on the bank of Ireland’s only fjord, the beautiful Killary Harbour.

Co. Mayo

Achill Island – Way out in the middle of nowhere, this long island is home to the “Deserted Village” (the eerie remains of a famine village) and Croaghaun (a set of cliffs even higher than Moher), which you can walk up to from a picturesque beach near the tip of the Island.

North Mayo Coast – Though it’s hard to get there, and rarely heard of in the guide books, this area of exceptional natural beauty is Ireland’s little secret (I highly doubt enough people are going to read this for me to ruin it).

Co. Sligo

Sligo - …is the childhood home of Kian from Westlife. Don’t know why that’s relevant. The county is also a surfing hotspot.

Co. Donegal

Donegal – This county town is heralded by some as the most beautiful place on earth. It’s not, but the castle is pretty cool I suppose.

Glenveagh National Park – Now this is beautiful! The most northerly of Ireland’s National Parks, Glenveagh is situated in a remote and rarely visited part of the country, which only adds to its charm. One is reminded of Scotland, up here.

Letterkenny – For anything close to nightlife in County Donegal you’ll have to go to Letterkenny, the biggest town in the region.

Malin Head – The northernmost point of Ireland.

Co. Derry

Derry/Londonderry – Into Northern Ireland now and speaking of troubled pasts, nowhere’s had it harder than Derry. The city is divided along the river into catholic and protestant halves. Both sides contain fascinating murals that tell their story of “the troubles”, and the historic walled city is full of cool shops, cafes and pubs to suit all tastes. With the new Friendship Bridge and its upcoming status as the first UK City of Culture (2013…it would be ’13 wouldn’t it), Derry is looking like one to watch. The best hostel in Derry has to be Derry City Independent Hostel!

Co. Antrim

Giant’s Causeway – Needs no introduction. It’s a beach made of naturally formed hexagonal slabs of rock. Definitely worth a look.

Bushmills – Right next to the Giant’s Causeway is Bushmills, which is home to the very reasonably priced Whisky distillery of the same name. I’m a huge fan over Bushmills and I’ll take it over Jameson any day of the week. (The Jameson distillery’s in Dublin, if you must know.) Plus they have a restaurant serving good, cheap Irish grub.

Ballymoney – As a motorcyclist, this otherwise unimpressive town was an important stop for me. Ballymoney houses the graves and memorialsfor the Dunlop brothers, Joey and Robert, two fantastic riders who both died on the back of a cycle.

Glens of Antrim – Probably the best shot Northern Ireland has at what you might call scenery, the coast road and the glens themselves are quite attractive, I suppose. It's no County Kerry though.

Co. Down

Belfast – Finally we get to Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland. This city could not be more of a cross between a British and an Irish city. There’s loads to do, from the Botanical Gardens and museums to the Titanic Quarter – where the Titanic was built and first docked – not to mention an epic nightlife!

So that’s that then.

Enjoy your trip, and feel free to subscribe to Notes fromthe Road for more travel ideas, tips and stories.

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