From the dizzy cliffs of Donegal, to sunsets in Baltimore, it’s easy to see why more of us are ‘staycationing’
THEY’RE experiences I wouldn’t trade for anything. I’ve circled the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro in a helicopter. I’ve flown in another high above the concrete canyons of Manhattan, and yet another deep into the Grand Canyon itself, for a champagne lunch in a landscape painstakingly carved by water and time.
I’ve crawled out of my bed at 4am to eat damper bread baked on a campfire as the sun rose over Uluru in the Red Centre of Australia, and traversed that country by train, from Darwin to Adelaide and Adelaide to Perth, crossing the Nullarbor Desert on the world’s longest stretch of completely straight track, 489km of wilderness with not a curve in sight.
I’ve landed on the sea in a floatplane on Whitehaven Bay in the Whitsunday Islands, to picnic almost alone on the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen.
I’ve sat on a bus through the night driving from Singapore to Penang in Malaysia; peered down at Dubai from the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa; sailed from the Pacific to the Caribbean through the Panama Canal; and slept in the shadow of the Pitons in St Lucia.
I’ve climbed through a forest at midnight to one of only two places in the world where the moon is strong enough to make a ghostly white rainbow in the run-off spray of a waterfall, Yosemite National Park in California. I’ve driven off-road through rivers and across glaciers in Iceland, made my way by cable car to the top of Table Mountain in Cape Town, swum in the bath-warm Indian Ocean off Mauritius and the Seychelles.
I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower, the canals of Amsterdam and Venice, the astonishing Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona, the Colosseum and St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Parthenon in Athens, the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, the Malecón waterfront esplanade in Havana, Niagara Falls, the Swiss Alps, the rainforests in Costa Rica and Guyana, rum plantations in Jamaica and the mystical Treasury in Petra in Jordan.
I’ve floated in the Dead Sea, and been stunned into silence by the majesty of the Taj Mahal in Agra, the Pyramids at Giza, and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Just last week, I sat by the marina in Newport, Rhode Island, drinking a beer as the sun set.
These are just some of the highlights of a travelling lifetime that has taken me well over two million kilometres to 71 countries and 20 US states, and I’ve enjoyed every minute. And yet, one country above all thrills me. One country presents landscapes so dramatic, and scenery so majestic, I never tire of it.
I’ve never had to take a plane to get there either, because that country is home. That country is Ireland.
I’m not alone in this love, it seems, because in Spring of this year, we took 1.2million breaks right here, a 15% increase on the same period in 2016, and an impressive 450,000 more trips than just five years ago. When the word was minted, a ‘staycation’ meant that you literally stayed in your own home and slept in your own bed, exploring attractions in the immediate vicinity. Pejoratively, it has come to mean holidays in your own country, and we have taken to the staycation with gusto.
And why wouldn’t we, when what we have here rivals any of the world’s greatest views or holiday experiences?
Three years ago, I drove almost the entire Wild Atlantic Way, starting in Derry and making my way through Donegal, Leitrim’s 4km sliver of Atlantic coast, Sligo, Mayo, Galway, Clare, Kerry and Cork (sorry, Limerick, but I took the ferry from Killimer to Tarbert!). The scenery along the route was startling, from honeycomb sand beaches on the Inishowen peninsula to the dramatic cliffs at Slieve League and the huge skies over the strand at Rossnowlagh.
In Sligo, the brooding hulk of Ben Bulben, and the seaweed baths at Enniscrone, dating from 1912. In Mayo, the 5,000-yearold Céide Fields, the world’s oldest field system, and my favourite view in Ireland, that from the 466 metre Minaun Heights on Achill Island. In Galway, the beauty of Connemara, with its iridescent aquamarine coves, and Clare, where the harsh karst landscape of the Burren is leavened by alpine plants that turn it gentian blue.
In Kerry, the heart-stopping terror of negotiating the narrow road over the Conor Pass before the descent into Dingle, and the views to Skellig Michael, and the Rings of Kerry and Beara that bring you to Cork and on to Mizen Head, almost the most southerly point of the entire island.
And, of course, the seafaring villages of west Cork, not least Baltimore, where one of the greatest pleasures to be had in Ireland is sipping a well-deserved pint at sunset outside Bushe’s bar.
That journey alone easily is among the world’s greatest tourist attractions and it’s not weather dependent. What looks beautiful in blazing sunshine is no less impressive under the gunmetal skies of an approaching Atlantic storm, when charm yields to drama, and the placid becomes genuinely wild, delivering an experience as elemental today as it surely was to those who first saw it millennia ago.
The coast is not the only attraction, though. How many nights in my life have I partied to the sound of traditional music in Westport or Doolin? How many have I passed irresponsibly in the quirky ‘Hi-B’, the Hibernian Bar in Cork City, or the Victorian masterpiece that is the Crown Liquor Saloon in Belfast, or enjoying the best pints of Guinness in Ireland in Mulligan’s in Poolbeg Street in Dublin and Tigh Neachtain in Galway?
And what about the inland waterways? There are few greater pleasures than being on the water on the Shannon, sailing down Lough Derg from Portumna to Dromineer, or simply being beside it, having a coffee and a cake in the Mullicháin Café in St Mullins in Co. Carlow, watching the River Barrow lazily slither around a broad, forested bend.
And, of course, these are just the outdoor attractions. Move indoors and you can enjoy the refurbished National Gallery, Dublin’s artistic gem; or Titanic Belfast, which tells its own tale of sadness in brilliantly interactive galleries that bring the golden age of transatlantic travel, and tragedy, vividly to life; or the Famine Museum in Strokestown, Co. Roscommon, where we are reminded why our people are scattered to every corner of the planet.
So, yes, while foreign travel broadens the mind, it is important to remember what we have on our own doorstep, and it is a delight to find out that more and more of us are doing so now.
Last week, on the final night of a short holiday, I was on a beach in Hyannis on Cape Cod, looking out on the ocean. And, rather oddly, because I was having a great time, I still felt my eye drawn to the horizon. Looking northeast, I found myself thinking of the little island somewhere beyond that horizon, the beautiful rock in the Atlantic we so often take for granted.
I found myself thinking of home. Of Ireland, and that sunset pint in Bushe’s bar.