It seems that Irish eyes really are smiling since there's never been a more enticing time to book a trip to this gem in the north Atlantic. Roughly 9.5 million tourists are expected to visit Ireland this summer, with approximately 2 million of them from North America. The latter estimate is up 7 percent from 2017, thanks to a strong dollar, more airline seats and draws such as historical sites, breathtakingly beautiful countryside, shifting colors of green, and a boom in movie tourism that highlights the Emerald Isle.
It's no secret that the Irish countryside is dotted with scores of ancient castles, a few even pre-dating the Viking era. Lesser known is that some now serve as unforgettable hotels.
My favorite from a week-long road trip last summer was Ballycarbery, a 15th Century ruin off the beaten path in County Kerry in the southwest corner of Ireland on the Iveragh Peninsula. When my two teenage children and I parked our car off a narrow, one-lane road and walked to what’s left of the ivy-coated castle, we had it entirely to ourselves for exploration.
Because Ireland is a relatively small country, roughly the size of Indiana, it’s easy to get around. In fact, you can drive from Malin Head in County Donegal on the northern tip of the island to County Cork’s Mizen Head in the south in less than eight hours. (Just remember to stay on the lefthand side of the road. Fortunately, I had my kids along to remind me.)
Though travelers can fly into Shannon on the west side of the country, we landed in Dublin, the Republic of Ireland’s capital city, and picked up a Hertz rental car. (Pro-tip: sign up in advance for a free mobile Hertz Connect 4G Wi-Fi device. Another tip: choose a small car because many of Ireland’s backroads are quite narrow.)
We spent two days in Dublin before we hit the road on our way to Portmagee, the jumping off point for boats to Skellig Michael, a tiny, precipitous island that’s a bird sanctuary and home to a restored 6th-century monastery that has been used in two Star Wars movies. It’s only five hours by car, but we took a slow route down the wild Atlantic coast, stopping to go horseback riding, hike, bicycle and even scuba diving (me anyway) off the northern coast of the Dingle Peninsula.
First, though, we checked out Dublin and took a boat ride on the River Liffey, walked across the cast-iron, pedestrian Ha’Penny Bridge and toured the Long Room at Trinity College, home to the famed Book of Kells.
We also did a guided food and history walk that included stops at several pubs in the hip Temple Bar district and then, before leaving the city, went on a bicycle tour led by a former school teacher that included details of the city’s revolutionary history.
If you want to stay in the heart of Dublin’s nightlife, consider Handel’s Hotel Temple Bar, or for something more sedate, the boutique Roxford Lodge. The City West Hotel, outside Dublin and just a few blocks off the Luas light rail line, is set on 240 acres of rolling parkland and is less than 20 miles from the airport.
My Irish relatives say Galway, population 80,000, is their favorite destination. Nicknamed the “City of Tribes,” Galway is two hours from Dublin via the M4 and M6 motorways.
The city has a growing craft beer scene, restaurants serving delicious seafood, and a beautiful bay into which the River Corrib flows. Check out the Spanish Arch, a section of the old town’s medieval wall, then take a short walk to the Galway City Museum to learn about the city’s archaeology and history. For a quiet stroll, head for Nun’s Island. Also worth a visit is the Galway Cathedral, which was dedicated in 1965 and has been described as one of Europe’s more attractive modern cathedrals.
When you get hungry, try McDonough’s for its seafood, to say nothing of its fish and chips. Another tasty option is Ard Bria for breakfast, lunch or brunch. Or the Cupan Tae Room. And if you’d like to hear traditional Irish music, as well as sample good food, check out Tigh Neachtin’s.
When nighttime arrives, suggestions for bedding down include the Park House Hotel, centrally located in the city’s Latin Quarter.
It’s about a three-hour drive from Galway to the town of Dingle on the south side of Dingle Peninsula, via the M18 and N21 motorways. Alas, the town can be overcrowded with visitors, but it’s still worth a drive out to Sleahead on the narrow R559 for the views of the Blasket Islands.
Continue north, and you’ll find equally stunning vistas across Smerwick Bay, which was named by Vikings and means “butter bay,” in Norse tongues. It’s only a short distance from there to the diminutive Gallarus Oratory, a 1,000-year-old Christian church.
We chose the quieter, northern side of the peninsula and stayed in the village of Fahamore, 20 miles north of Dingle over 1,500-foot Connor Pass. Later, we enjoyed horseback riding with O’Connor’s Trekking on among the dunes and on the beach of Brandon Bay, dined on Cromane mussels and crab claws at Spillane’s and heard Irish music at Ned Natterjack’s in nearby Castlegregory.
We recommend scuba diving off the Magharee Islands with Waterworld Watersports in seas beloved by the late Jacques Cousteau, or hiking around a lake in the Glanteennassig Forest in the Slieve Mish Mountains. (For the more adventures, why not try surfing or boardsailing lessons with Jamie Knox Watersports.)
We continued south about 60 miles to the little village of Port Magee on the Iveragh Peninsula via N70, where we caught a boat to Skellig Michael, where monks lived in stone, beehive-like “cells” or “oatories” from the 6th to the 12th centuries. Home to thousands of cute puffins, gannets, and other nesting birds, the island is an avian preserve, as well as a mecca for Star Wars fans, who gladly trek up hundreds of precariously steep steps to get to the sites where many scenes from “The Force Awakens” were filmed.
For a bite in this tiny (one street) village, try the Moorings Restaurant for seafood, which is open in the warmer months, or the Bridge Bar for fish and chips. For lodgings, consider the Waterfront or the Uisce Beatha b&bs or the Moorings, which also has rooms.
It was on the drive back to Fahamore that we came upon Ballycarbery Castle, which was once home to the legendary MacCarthy Clan. We crossed the Valencia River on a small bridge, turned left on Castlequin Road and saw the remains of the castle by the water.
We clambered over ruin stars to the ramparts and could only imagine what life was like here 600 years ago. Better yet, when we returned to our car, a shepherd presented my daughter with a lamb to hold, much to her delight. I, of course, tipped him. It seemed here that good cheer, as well as luck, really is spread in abundance.
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