One of the only European countries bereft of Roman ruins (the empire just never made it this far west), Ireland more than compensates with its own array of prehistoric, Celtic and early Christian sites. Combined with the breathtaking landscape formed by ancient volcanoes and northern coastal climate, Ireland's country and coast are an outdoor-enthusiast's dream. Once you've had your fill of contemporary culture in the cities, hit the road to find monasteries, fortresses, tombs and mysterious stone configurations that predate the Egyptian pyramids, often enhanced by spectacular natural settings.
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For bikers, hikers and kayakers
Positioned just off Mayo's northwest coast, Achill Island is Ireland's largest island, about 13 miles long and 12 miles at its widest point and with a population of about 2,700. The east part of Achill is a Gaeltacht area, and most islanders speak Irish. You reach it via the R319 from Mulrany, which also forms part of the Atlantic Drive, a scenic route around the Corraun peninsula and the island itself. At times it's chaotically bumpy and narrow, but the breathtaking panoramic views are worth the jolts. Five of Achill's curved, white-sand beaches are designated Blue Flag, and the island's haunting, magical beauty and tranquility were described in Heinrich Böll's An Irish Journal. Böll visited regularly in the 1950s and '60s, and the cottage in which he stayed is now used as a residence for artists and writers.
From Achill Sound, the main town just across the peninsula, you can follow the Atlantic Drive by car or, if you are a true adventurer, by bike. Near the southernmost tip of the island you'll find a three-story, 15th-century tower house, known locally as Grace O'Malley's Castle after the legendary pirate queen. Nearby are the ruins of a 12th-century church with attached graveyard, and the holy well of Saint Damhnait. The road then turns north, offering ocean views toward Clare Island, before reaching Dooega beach, a stunning stretch of white sand that's safe for swimming and perfect for picnics.
Outdoor enthusiasts will love Achill. The island offers numerous walks in the mountainous interior and watersports galore, from surfing and diving to sea-kayaking. Novice windsurfers should head to the calmer waters of Keel Lough. Achill Dive Centre (087-234-9884, achilldivecentre.com), based near Keel, runs PADI courses and takes boats to dive sites off the southern coast, while Achill Outdoor Education Centre (098-47253, achilloutdoor.com) in Cashel offers assorted activities in high season and has dormitory accommodation. There's always plenty going on over the summer, including the delectable Seafood Festival in mid July and the Walks Festival in August.
For great walks
The Burren—from the Irish word "Boíreann," meaning a rocky place—stretches across the northwest of County Clare, and the Burren National Park (County Clare; 01-888-2000, burrennationalpark.ie) is the conservation area within the Burren. The vast karst limestone pavement, marked by deep fissures and pocketed by bogs, covers about 150 square miles and reaches all the way to the sea. There is nothing quite like it elsewhere, and the area attracts geologists, hikers and the curious. Although the terrain seems barren and desolate, there is plenty of evidence of past settlers in the form of scattered megalithic ruins. Note that there are no marked trails, and it is important to have a proper map of the area before setting off on a walk. Start any trip at the Burren Centre in Kilfenora, where an exhibition explains the geography and geology of the Burren, shows how people survived the inhospitable terrain, and illustrates that, while the land appears barren, it is in fact a treasure trove of wildlife and unusual vegetation. The history of the many megalithic tombs and monuments is also explained.
The nine Glens of Antrim provide some of Northern Ireland’s most beautiful scenery. Glenariff is known as the “Queen of the Glens,” and Glenariff Forest Park (Glenariff Road, County Antrim; 2955-6001, nidirect.gov.uk/forests), a short detour from the coast road, is a good introduction to its charms. Three trails within the park range in length from half a mile to five miles; the two-mile long Waterfall Trail has a boardwalk following a river through a deep, rocky gorge, past several lovely waterfalls. Elsewhere, there are marvelous views over the other Glens.
The Giant’s Causeway (44A Causeway Road, Bushmills, County Antrim; 2073-1855, nationaltrust.org.uk), is Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site. Legend claims that
the outsized "steps" were built by the Irish giant
Finn MacCool as a path to Scotland, where he wanted to fight another giant. In fact, the hexagonal columns of layered black basalt—which are also likened to a pipe organ—resting on a rocky beach at the base of towering cliffs, are the result of volcanic activity more than 60 million years ago. The Causeway attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year—and deservedly so. It’s an impressive sight.
For great hikes
About eight miles from the Kerry coast, amid the choppy Atlantic waters, lie the Skellig Islands, their jagged peaks visible for miles. These are among Ireland's most fascinating islands, and the uncertainty of visiting them, due to the unpredictable sea conditions, make them all the more mysterious. The smaller of the islands, Little Skellig, is a bird sanctuary and cannot be visited—though boats usually pass near enough that you can see some of the 27,000 pairs of gannets that nest on the island's rocky cliffs. The larger island, Skellig Michael (or Great Skellig) can be visited: it's famous for being one of Ireland's earliest monastic settlements, dating from the seventh century, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The monastic remains are astoundingly well preserved, considering their age and the extreme conditions. At the top of a flight of 670 steep steps is a cluster of small beehive huts (clochans), a refectory and a church. The monks constructed the huts so that rain would not penetrate the thick stone walls, and angled them in such a way as provide shelter from the harsh Atlantic winds. The buildings have stood on the summit of Skellig Michael for over 1,300 years, housing the monks until the 13th century, allowing them to live off fish from the sea and to trade with passing ships. The journey to Skellig Michael takes over an hour, and can be grueling if the sea is choppy, so be prepared. Sturdy walking shoes and water are essential, and vertigo-sufferers or the unfit should not attempt the perilous climb to the peak. Boats depart from various points: Ballinskelligs with Ballinskelligs Watersports (066-947-9182, closed Nov–Mar), Portmagee with Skellig Boat Trips (066-947-2437, closed Nov–Mar), and various other operators on Valentia Island. Book at least a day or two in advance.
The dramatic beauty of the Mourne Mountains, covering an area 15 miles long and eight miles wide, between Newcastle and Newry in County Down, has captured the imaginations of artists for centuries; C.S. Lewis was inspired by the towering peaks and sweeping valleys when describing the magical landscape of Narnia. It’s now an Area
of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and owned in part by the National Trust.
These granite mountains are characterized by sharp peaks and ridges, dark mysterious valleys, racing rivers, tranquil lakes and acres of yellow gorse, and offer some of the best hiking in Ireland. Slieve Donard (2,789 feet) is the tallest of the peaks, and can be accessed by a trail that starts three miles outside Newcastle on the coast road near Bloody Bridge. The six-mile route follows a tumbling river, where locals lounge in pools on summer days. It’s not a difficult climb, though steep in places, and there are sweeping views from the summit. The most famous—and challenging—walk is along the Mourne Wall, a drystone granite wall that forms a 22-mile circuit of the mountains, linking all the key summits.
The Mourne International Walking Festival (mournewalking.co.uk) in June is a marvelous time to visit, with organized walks in both the
lower and upper mountains. The festival alternates between Newcastle and Warrenpoint, and is
suited to all levels of hikers. The tourist office in Newcastle (10–14 Central Promenade; 4372-2222, downdc.gov.uk) can also provide maps and information on hiking.
For exceptional vistas from ancient sites
On the south coast in County Waterford lies Ardmore, the site of an early Christian settlement—possibly the earliest in Ireland: St. Declan reputedly set up a monastery here 30 years before St. Patrick came to the country. The ecclesiastical remains are located on a hilltop overlooking the town; here, St. Declan's Cathedral and a 30-foot-high Round Tower stand within the graveyard where, it is said, St. Declan is buried. Just outside the village, as the hill rises toward the western headland, the ruins of St. Declan's church and well can be explored too. Visitors should be sure to take the three-mile hiking trail that starts just past the Cliff House Hotel—but note that it's definitely not for vertigo sufferers. It leads over Ardmore and Ram Head, past a shipwreck and up to the remains of St. Declan's Cathedral and Round Tower, with stunning views to the east and west. Maps and details of the trail are provided in the Ardmore Tourist Information Centre (024-94444) in the village or Dungarvan Tourist Information Centre (058-44000).
This spectacular set of buildings known as the Rock of Cashel (Cashel, County Tipperary; 062-61437, heritageireland.ie), set high on a limestone outcrop, is one of Ireland's most visited attractions. From the foot of the hill it's a five-minute walk uphill to the site. Originally a castle, the Rock of Cashel was gifted to the church and became a powerful religious center until the 17th century. The site was added to over the years, and includes a 12th-century round tower, the High Cross and Romanesque chapel, a 13th-century Gothic cathedral, a 15th-century castle and the restored Hall of the Vicars Choral. There's an audio-visual tour, or an informative guided tour, which runs hourly and lasts about 45 minutes.
For more Ireland travel ideas visit ireland.com/goodtimes