Best rough diamond: Dursey Island Cable Car, Co. Cork
Problem: Dursey Island is separated from the Beara Peninsula (pictured) by a mutinous sound too dangerous for a ferry crossing. Solution? Ireland’s only cable car.
Dursey’s lifeline is so much more than that, however. Licensed to carry 500kg, be it people, dogs or sheep, the 10-minute ride will have you worrying at wobbly cables, wondering at the teeming Atlantic and marvelling at the sheer Irishness of it all when you disembark on an island populated by just six souls.
Local farmers protested this year at new regulations restricting the carriage of cattle on the car, and a working group is currently looking at how it may operate sustainably into the future. Let’s hope it stays – it really is one of a kind.
Details: 027 70054; bearatourism.com; €8/€4 return.
Best boat trip: gosailing.ie, Dun Laoghaire
Whilst everyone else was busy watching the dolphins in Dublin Bay on RTE News, guests of Aaron O’Grady’s 54-foot Explorer were watching the real thing. Operating a state-of-the-art yacht from Dun Laoghaire harbour, gosailing.ie offers not just a spin around the bay, but an informal history lesson, wildlife encounters, practical sailing tips, and the chance to take the helm of the Explorer yourself. The yacht is one thing; the crew’s passion for this underrated coastline is an added bonus.
Details: gosailing.ie, sailings from €35pp (from March 1st).
Best tour guide: Dermot Ryan, Kinsale
Before touring Kinsale with Dermot Ryan this summer, I knew the town as a seafood haven riddled with colourful Georgian and Victorian architecture. Afterwards, I knew it had been visited by the man who inspired Robinson Crusoe (Alexander Selkirk), that Cromwell used its church as a stable, and that seawater flows under the streets at high tide – “so you’re walking on water when you visit.” The hours flew by in the company of this retired teacher who charges just €5 for his tours.
Details: 086 826-7656; kinsaleheritage.com; €5/free.
Best trail: The Great Western Greenway, Co. Mayo
You can imagine how hard this was to pitch. Invest hundreds of thousands in a 42km cycling trail that follows a defunct railway line into the middle of nowhere during a recession? And yet here is the Great Western Greenway, threading a glorious trail from Achill Island to Westport, sparking all sorts of new businesses ideas along the route. Officially opened this June, the trail is family-friendly, largely sealed-off from traffic, and doesn’t require the lungs of Lance Armstrong to complete. It won a European Destination of Excellence Award this year too.
Best B&B: Killiane Castle, Wexford
There is so much to recommend about this 17th century farmhouse – breakfasts laden with fresh strawberries, local cheese and bacon from the farm; drawing rooms with deep carpets, antique pieces and sash windows; grounds laced with a farm walk, tennis court and a cute little croquet lawn. Most of all though, there’s the hostess – Kathleen Mernagh, whose exquisite brand of hospitality was in evidence from the first cup of tea to the final wave from the door.
Details: 053 915-8885; killianecastle.com; three nights B&B from €135pp.
Best city stay: g hotel, Galway
Is Galway’s g hotel poised or is it pretentious? Some find Philip Treacy’s design gaudy and OTT – the hot pink furniture, the moody passageways, the lobby aquarium with its Connemara seahorses – but every time I walk in I get a little boost. Sure, the location is poor. Sure, €4.80 is too much to pay for a cappuccino. But five years after opening, the lounge areas still feel like a series of freshly-minted movie sets, and the service still merits five stars. Worth a splurge.
Details: 091 865200; theghotel.ie; 2B&B +1D from €175pp.
Best country escape: Gregan’s Castle, Co. Clare
There aren’t many awards left for Gregan’s Castle to win this year. AA Ireland Hotel of the Year, Food & Wine Magazine’s Best Restaurant in Ireland and RAI Best Hotel Restaurant are just some of the gongs now weighing down the mantelpieces in the ultimate Burren bolthole. Turf fires, crafted gardens and a cosy bar all swoon around the 21 rooms in Simon and Freddie Haden’s four-star, and Finnish chef Mickael Viljanen surely has his sights set on the one missing trophy: a Michelin Star.
Details: 065 707-7005; gregans.ie; B&B plus dinner from €155pp.
Best new arrival: Ballyfin, Co. Laois
2011 has been a surprising year for new openings – from the restored Ard na Sidhe in Co. Kerry to Sandbrook House in Co. Carlow, from restaurants like Mulberry Garden to new activities like Zipit Forest Adventures in Lough Key Forest Park. Nothing compares to Ballyfin, however, which opened in May after almost a decade of restoration (longer than the original build took in the 1820s). With doubles from €750 per night, it’s easily the most expensive hotel in the country, but the details are exquisite, from the 80-foot library to Lady Coote’s original bath, rescued from a stable.
Details: 057 875-5866; ballyfin.com; from €750 per double.
Best free attraction: The Science Gallery, Dublin
Mention science and many of us switch off, but this excellent gallery at Dublin’s Trinity College is all about switching on. A superb space thrashing out scientific issues in imaginative ways, visitors this year could have encountered a ‘carbon barbecue’, prosthetic heads and atomic kitchens, amidst dozens of other wacky displays. The current exhibition explores the future of water, though my little girl will always remember it as the place where she got wrapped in a bubble. Best of all, it’s free.
Details: 01 896-4107; sciencegallery.ie.
Best new frontier: Free-diving, Sligo
Free-diving sounds like some kind of recession-related PADI promotion, but the reality is far more intriguing. It’s the art of holding your breath underwater, and Feargus Callagy of Freedive Ireland is pioneering it as an ocean experience off the coast of Mullaghmore. Forget plummeting to dangerous depths – Callagy’s focus is on the sensation of swimming underwater without the noise and weight of scuba-diving equipment, and he teaches the techniques in pool sessions too.
Details: 086 809-9898; freediveireland.com; half-day courses from €65pp.
Best pub: Ollie Hayes, Co. Offaly
May 23rd, 2011 will never be forgotten in Moneygall. On that day, President Obama rolled into town, shaking hands and kissing babies in a buoyant re-connection with the hometown of his great-great-great grandfather, Falmouth Kearney, who left for the US on the SS Marmion in 1850. Then came the pint of Guinness, which Obama not only knocked back, but paid for (the €50 has since been framed) in Ollie Hayes’ pub. Granted, that pub may not be the most characterful in the country, but its genteel host, surreal collection of election posters, ‘Obama Abú’ stickers and a life-size bust of the 44th President make it a legend regardless. Worth a diversion off the M7.
Details: Main St., Moneygall; 0505 45230.
Best fine dining: Thornton’s, Dublin
I automatically assumed I couldn’t afford to eat at Thornton’s. Then I noticed its €25 lunch menu, served from Thursday to Saturday. I couldn’t believe my eyes. €25 for three courses of Michelin Star food cooked by Kevin Thornton? Diners aren’t short-changed either, with all the slick service, fresh breads and iced water you could wish for. My highlight? A fillet of mackerel with a poached quail egg salad, served with a theatrical puff of smoke. Just don’t ask for chips…
Details: 01 478-7009; thorntonsrestaurant.com.
Best affordable dining: Mourne Seafood, Belfast
The MTV Europe Awards and forthcoming Titanic Festival have giving Belfast a big boost, but the smaller attractions are just as noteworthy. Set in an inauspicious building beside Kelly’s pub on Bank Street, Mourne Seafood sources fresh fish daily (“we just go with what’s caught”) for dishes like Japanese oysters with shredded cucumber and ginger (£7.25/€8.50), or squid and chorizo risotto with roast tomatoes and gremolata (£6.50/€7.60). Everything smacks of the deep – not surprising when you learn that co-founder Bob McCoubrey was originally a marine biologist.
Details: +44 (0)28 9024 8544; mourneseafood.com.
Best gardens… Killruddery, Co. Wicklow
You can foist all the awards you like on an attraction, but the only one that really matters is the one dished out by customers themselves: the return visit. This year, our family invested in a season ticket to Killruddery Gardens. Why? Because the Bray oasis is perfect for a wander, there’s a decent cafe in the old ornamental dairy, you can play endless games amongst the bay hedges, cypress trees and rolling slopes, and views stretch as far as the Sugar Loaf. It’s no surprise that the Earl of Meath’s home has hosted film shoots ranging from Camelot to The Count of Monte Cristo.
Details: 087 419-8674; killruddery.com; €5/free.
Best adventure: Night-kayaking, West Cork
Sea-kayaking is a gem of an activity by day. But just wait till you try it by night. I paddled out into a glassy Castlehaven Bay with Atlantic Sea Kayaking this autumn, watching the sun set and the constellations appear in the darkening skies above. But the real wonder was below – shoals of bioluminescent plankton that glowed brighter and brighter as night fell. It’s a mesmerising phenomenon, an aquatic northern lights – and definitely one for the bucket list.
Details: 028 21058; atlanticseakayaking.com; €45pp for 2.5 hours.
Best breakfast: Castlewood House, Co. Kerry
When people recommend Helen and Brian Heaton’s Castlewood House in Dingle, ‘breakfast’ is one of the first words from their lips. Little wonder. Served in a bright and airy room that’s more boutique hotel than B&B, buffet highlights include a medley of homemade breads, local cheeses and a stunning range of stewed fruits (think oranges in caramel, pears poached in orange juice, or plums in star-anise syrup). Hot breakfasts cooked to order by Brian range from homemade pancakes with maple syrup to a vegetarian Full Irish, and the coffee is full of perk. Yum.
Details: 066 915-2788; castlewooddingle.com; B&B from €45pp.
Best picnic spot: Kilsheelan, Co. Tipperary
Like many of the best travel experiences, this one came along by complete chance. Driving from Carrick-on-Suir to Clonmel, I spied a leafy lay-by outside Kilsheelan. Parking the car, I followed a set of stone steps down to a gathering of picnic tables under the shade of several ash trees. The River Suir flowed past a Norman motte, and an old stone bridge arched over the water. Bliss.
Details: Kilsheelan, Co. Tipperary.
Best old favourite: Dublin Literary Pub Crawl
Yes, it sounds cheesy. But Dublin’s Literary Pub Crawl is also clued-in, passionate and bloody good fun, as I found over a brilliant couple of hours this spring. Trained actors lead groups on a trail of pubs like the Duke, O’Neill’s and Davy Byrne’s, evoking Joyce, Behan and Kavanagh with a peppering of pizzazz, lots of quirky anecdotes, more than a drop of drinking lore, and plenty of time set aside to quaff and chat along the way. A 22-year-old institution, and deservedly so.
Details: 087 263-0270; dublinpubcrawl.com; €12/€10.
Best natural attraction: Omey Island Causeway, Connemara
There are as many natural wonders in Connemara as there are stars in the sky, but even so, the tidal causeway linking Claddaghduff and Omey Island is a standout. Driving over the squelching sands here was as much a sensation as a route from A to B, and the island road I linked up with took me to a deserted beach strewn with sandstone boulders, rock pools, an upturned currach and wild Atlantic views. See it at its finest during the annual horse races in July.
Best adrenaline: Coillte’s Mountain Bike Trails
Five years ago, asking the average punter to locate ‘Ballyhoura’ on a map would have been akin to asking the average American to locate Iraq. That’s changing, largely because of the awesome mountain biking network now braided into the Ballyhoura Mountains – where loops ranging from a 6km taster trail to a 51km bone-shaker allow bikers to squeeze as much or as little adrenaline as they please from the technical single-track and old forest roads. Ireland’s newest mountain biking trail opened this May, a fast and funky 8km loop at Ticknock in the Dublin Mountains (pictured). It’s another inspired use of a free natural resource. Kudos to Coillte.
Details: 063 91300; ballyhouramtb.com. Parking costs €5.
This list originally appeared in The Irish Independent.