The Celtic Camino… Waterford & Tipperary
Spain’s Camino de Santiago is one of the world’s great walking routes, stretching 800km from St. Jean-Pied-du-Port to Santiago de Compostela. There’s just one problem, however. It’s in Spain.
Don’t abandon hope. Over St. Patrick’s weekend, a hardy huddle of Irish walkers hiked along what one of the leaders, Kevin O’Donnell, has been calling Ireland’s Camino.
St. Declan’s Way was once a pilgrimage route linking Ardmore, Co. Waterford with Cashel, Co. Tipperary, and the Knockmealdown Active Group tackled the 64km section from Ardfinnan to Ardmore over three days.
It’s too late to join them for that trip, but the group is already talking about further outings over the summer months. And with scenery ranging from the River Blackwater to the Knockmealdown Mountains and Ardmore’s round tower, you can bank on a growing number of pilgrims, too.
Details: 086 354 1700; kilmaneen.blogspot.com; €145pps.
The scenic drive… Beara Peninsula
The Ring of Kerry is very much the Kingdom’s beaten track, but there’s far less traffic – and the scenery is just as spectacular – one peninsula to the south.
Starting out from Kenmare, follow the R571 through Ardgroom and Eyeries, with the rugged Caha Mountains to your left and the Atlantic Ocean to your right. After Eyeries, you can take the Healy pass over to Castletownbere, or continue along the corkscrewing R575 to Allihies (pictured, above), Garinish beach, and the rattling cable car connecting Dursey Island with the mainland.
You may have to queue up with several different species to get onto the carriage (it takes 500kg worth of people, dogs or sheep), but you’ll be telling the story for years.
Details: 027 70054; bearatourism.com.
The return visit… Dublin City
Been a while since you visited Dublin? Spring is the perfect time to re-acquaint yourself with the capital. In April and May you’ll find the National Botanic Gardens coming into bloom (free), there’s an exhibition by photographer Sebastião Salgado at the Gallery of Photography until April 1st (free), and Dine in Dublin Restaurant Week runs from March 26 to April 1st.
Gone are the days when ruinous rents meant shops exactly like any other European city, too. Thriving scenes like those on South William Street, at the Dublin Flea Market, or around Cow Lane and Smock Alley, have brought a whole new dimension to the city. Access is improving too. The M8 motorway takes less than three hours from Cork, and the intercity train has online fares from €37 return.
Details: visitdublin.com; dineindublin.ie; irishrail.ie.
The new kid… South Armagh
Can South Armagh, a region defined for so long solely by its Republicanism, really be making a tourism breakthrough? The answer is yes. Or at least, it will be, if you visit.
Lying halfway between Dublin and Belfast on the M1, a spin along the rural roads here offers a real insight into the unspoiled countryside of Northern Ireland. Gone are the watchtowers, the checkpoints, and the constant hover of helicopters. Enjoying a new lease of life are villages like Forkhill and Mullaghbawn, ancient court cairns and the 3,500-year-old Ballykeel dolmen.
The Ring of Gullion, of course, is an area famed for its folklore and legends (it was here that Cú Chulainn killed the hound that made his name). Crossmaglen is slowly becoming known for its trad, and you can make a stopping stop in Newry or Dundalk on the way home.
The weekend break… Wexford
There’s more to Wexford than summertime strawberries and sunshine. In fact, Ireland’s south easternmost corner makes a great weekend escape at any time of year.
Start with Wexford town itself – where close-knit medieval streets manage to squirrel away both the 13th century Selskar Abbey and a state-of-the-art opera house (grab a cuppa and a view in its Sky Café). Heading west, deep-sea fishing charters can be taken out of Kilmore Quay, and a tour of the Hook Peninsula includes not just the iconic lighthouse, but the Passage East ferry too.
Then there’s the northern part of the county, ranging from the Dunbrody Experience in New Ross to bluebells at the JFK arboretum and a surprise cathedral designed by Pugin in Enniscorthy. All of this, without even starting on the sandy coastline south of Courtown…
The lake country… Lough Derg
Lough Derg is a different beast in rain and shine. On a bad day, with rain hammering down, the twin towns of Killaloe and Ballina look like they’re holding hands before boarding the Ark. On a good day, the mix of sunshine and sailboats could be nature’s own regatta.
Whatever the weather, there’s lots to do. Watersports enthusiasts can sail and kayak at the University of Limerick Activity Centre. Heritage fans can check out the ring fort at Beál Boru, or Inis Cealtra – the holy island near Mountshannon Harbour. Portumna Forest Park is fun for families.
You won’t go hungry either – Larkin’s in Garykennedy, the Derg Inn in Terryglass and Goosers in Ballina all do the kind of pub grub that puts toasties in cellophane to shame.
The coastal drive… Sligo Bay
So Fáilte Ireland is looking to develop a Wild Atlantic Drive – a monster route stitching several coastal routes together into a scenic experience to rule them all. No better place to do it. From the wilds of West Cork to the desolate reaches of Donegal, the western shoreline is an absolute stunner.
Finding time to drive it is another matter. That’s why I recommend Sligo Bay as a taster – it’s long enough to give a flavour of the coastline, but short enough to stop bums going numb.
Think of Mullaghmore Head, with its crashing waves, curving beach and the spooky spectre of Classiebawn Castle. Think of Ben Bulben, perched like a giant loaf of bread on a shelf above Sligo town. Think of surfing at Enniscrone. Best of all, if you want to keep driving, you can continue north to the Slieve League Peninsula, or west to Belmullet and Erris Head.
Details: sligotourism.ie; errisbeo.ie.
The foodie frolic… West Waterford
Cork may be the culinary capital of Ireland, but there are challengers to the throne – not least its near neighbour, West Waterford. Visitors here can walk the Comeragh Mountains or drive the Copper Coast happy in the knowledge that they can stuff their faces with good local grub afterwards.
This year’s Waterford Festival of Food takes place in Dungarvan from April 12th-15th. If you’re too hungry to wait for the festival itself, however, Paul Flynn of The Tannery is holding a public conversation with Ross Lewis in Dromana House, Cappoquin, on March 25th at 5pm.
Dromana is where Lewis sourced his wild salmon for the Queen’s state dinner in Dublin Castle, and his recollections from the banquet will be followed by a dinner cooked by Eunice Power. Comeragh mountain lamb, Dungarvan Brewing Company beer and, of course, wild Blackwater salmon, will all be on the menu. Tickets cost €60pp.
The Wilderness Therapy … West Clare
Spring is the perfect time to travel in Ireland. The tourist throngs have yet to descend, there’s a grand stretch in the evenings, winter chills have (theoretically, at least) eased off, hotels are cheaper to book, and believe it or not, it brings less rainfall than other seasons.
Spring is also one of my favourite times to visit West Clare. May is when the Burren sprouts its spectacular carpet of wildflowers. The surf is rolling in onto beaches like Spanish Point and Lahinch, without the summer crowds. You can drive to the tip of Loop Head whilst barely encountering another vehicle, and the queues are manageable at Naughton’s in Kilkee.
Now’s the time to bag a bargain, too. Fáilte Ireland has just launched its spring special offers brochure, and luxury hotels are still doing deals: Dromoland Castle has dinner, bed and breakfast from €160pp, for example; Gregan’s Castle has the same package from €149pp.
Details: discoverireland.ie/specialoffers; dromoland.ie; gregans.ie.
This feature originally appeared in The Irish Examiner.