A land of contrasts
Staycations are becoming ever more popular as not only does our offer of céad míle fáilte extend to natives too, but the choice of accommodation and activities available means all tastes are catered for
From majestic mountains, lush valleys, rugged coastlines and acres of green fields to vibrant, cosmopolitan cities, picturesque villages and bustling market towns – Ireland truly is a land of contrasts. Throughout the world we are renowned for our beautiful country as well as our famed hospitality but despite it being my native home, there are still parts of our island that I have yet to discover.
So with the beautiful weather we had this year, I decided to visit some of the places I haven’t been before as well as taking in some of our culture and heritage.
The first port of call on my whirlwind staycation was to Donegal because despite always wanting to visit, I had never been that far north so was actually properly excited when I saw the first sign indicating that I was indeed in the county.
Rolling hills and an expanse of colours welcomed us as we drove almost to the northernmost tip, Donegal Boardwalk Resort in the beautiful Carrigart region. This newly-renovated collection of modern cottages is located right on the coast. As the name suggests, its highlight is a wooden boardwalk – 1.1km of it to be precise, which leads visitors from the resort through the sand dunes before a clearing reveals a spectacular sandy beach for as far as the eye can see.
Traversing the boardwalk is something of a workout in itself, but once there we arrived on to the beach and it seemed as if the world was our oyster – we swam, paddled, walked and played a variety of ball games until the sun went down and then returned to our wonderfully comfortable home-from-home for a quick shower before heading to dinner at the on-site bar and restaurant.
Greeted by Paul, the very affable manager, we enjoyed an aperitif in the bar while being serenaded by a wonderfully talented local boy whose range was very impressive to say the least.
We were then seated at a table overlooking the water and while the food and service was faultless, we marvelled at the fact that anywhere else with such a spectacular view would have either been packed to the gills or too pricey to enjoy – it was a gem of a place.
After dinner with the moon high in the sky, we took a night-time trip along the boardwalk to watch the waves before turning in for the evening.
The next day, the sky was blue and the surrounding countryside basked in its glow. Throwing trainers and jackets in the car we headed off to Glenveagh National Park as we had been promised that the scenery was stunning – and boy is that an understatement.
The drive itself was mesmerising as it took us through a variety of different landscapes in a short distance. Once arriving at the park, we eschewed the frequent bus service to the castle and set off on foot, stopping every so often to take photos.
It was picture-postcard Ireland and I felt a great deal of pride at how beautiful our country looked with the sun glistening off the water and the
mountains covered in a stunning shade of purple heather. After the 3.5km walk, we decided to carry on to the viewing point, which although a steep schlep, was so worth it as the vista from the top was breathtaking.
A few photo ops later, we headed back to the castle and its gloriously maintained gardens where we refuelled with a cup of tea and an ice-cream before retracing our steps to the car park.
All the walking had worked up some hearty appetites and having heard about some locally smoked salmon, we went in search of The Haven Smokehouse, which turned out to be a tiny set-up way off the beaten track. We managed to purchase a couple of packs from the smoker himself and headed back to our boardwalk cottage for a lunch of smoked salmon and local soda bread – bliss.
Over the course of the next couple of days, we visited Hornhead Loop and Ards Forest Park and soaked up the relaxed atmosphere before saying goodbye to this stunning corner of the country.
Having sampled some of Ireland’s finest coastal areas, our next port of call was Kilkenny for a house in the countryside followed by a tour of this bustling medieval city. We checked into Croan Cottages, just 20 minutes outside Kilkenny, under the watchful gaze of the resident pigs, alpacas, goats, dogs, peacocks, hens, chickens and a beautiful calf called Bo – though, thankfully, they were in the surrounding fields rather than our accommodation!
These homely cottages in the grounds of Croan House, which is owned by Francis Nesbit and his wife Niamh, are perfect for anyone wanting a slice of rural life within striking distance of shops, restaurants and lots of culture.
The following day, after the tranquillity of the countryside, the city streets were buzzing with tourists from every corner of the globe and yet, because of its size, the atmosphere was calm, relaxed and friendly. We picked up a Medieval Mile Pass, a new incentive from Kilkenny Chamber, which allows visitors access to all the main sights in the city – the castle, the Smithwick’s Experience, Rothe House, the Medieval Mile Museum, St Canice’s Cathedral and Round Tower and much much more.
The little booklet is a must for anyone visiting the town as it also offers discounts in various restaurants and shops and the chance to enjoy a cycling tour, a road train trip and even a ghost tour in the evening.
I had been to Kilkenny many years ago, but either it has been given a new lease of life or I didn’t pay it enough attention before, but it was fabulous and we loved every minute of our time there. Both cosmopolitan and distinctly Irish at the same time, it proved to be the perfect place for a weekend away and perhaps next time, I will stay overnight in the centre in order to sample the undoubtedly quality nightlife.
Having whetted my appetite for the bright lights of the city, where else could we go for our next stop other than our wonderful capital city? We checked into the sumptuous Merrion Hotel in the heart of Dublin for an indulgent 24 hours of fantastic food, culture and stunning surroundings.
Just a stone’s throw away from the National Gallery, after depositing our bags, we ambled over to enjoy some of the treasures on display.
Free of charge, the collection of artwork is fantastic and you could lose yourself for hours in quiet contemplation undisturbed by the metropolis buzzing outside the door.
After viewing all three floors – my favourites being Jack Yeats and the Impressionists – we floated out of the gallery on a cloud of culture back to our gorgeous hotel where an Art Tea awaited.
Boasting the largest private art collection in Ireland, the Merrion is the perfect art lover’s retreat.
The homely, albeit elegance personified, atmosphere of the two lounges is the perfect place for afternoon tea and after a selection of teas – coffee, juices and champagne are also offered – delicate sandwiches and cakes, we were treated to a selection of pastries inspired by some of the artwork gracing the walls.
Details of all the paintings and sculptures have been put together in a complimentary booklet, for visitors to take away and peruse at their leisure – usually accompanied by the extra cakes and pastries not consumed during the tea.
Speaking of which, after almost two hours relaxing over tea and cake, we took a quick stroll around Stephen’s Green – Grafton street is also minutes away but in our cultural zen-like state, we eschewed the shops in favour of greenery – before heading to the leisure centre for a few gentle laps of the pool.
Later on after lounging in our palatial room, we somewhat reluctantly left its splendour to meander downstairs to The Garden Restaurant for dinner. It was well worth the effort as the staff, food, wine and delivery were second to none.
After a dreamless sleep in a Princess and the Pea-sized bed, we were treated to a delicious breakfast – I know, more food – before a quick scout around the shops. I didn’t last long and then it was time to bid farewell. Although brief, our stay in the Merrion was faultless and managed to achieve something which many five-star hotels don’t – superb service combined with a really, relaxed and friendly atmosphere.
So my whistle-stop tour of contrasts was over and having enjoyed wonderful accommodation against the glorious backdrop of the Donegal coastline, followed by a town and country combo in Kilkenny and finishing up with a short burst of pampering in Dublin, which one would I recommend?
Well I have to say, I would choose all of them – and much more besides. Along with these three gems, there is so much to see in our beautiful country, from the wilds of Connemara and the music and scenery in Clare to the hidden past of the east coast and of course the stunning Wild Atlantic Way.
So I think we should all pencil in at least one weekend of exploration over the coming year – pick somewhere you’ve never visited before and just go and see it. I can be fairly sure you won’t be disappointed.
For now, I’m off to plan my next jaunt – happy exploring!
Kilkenny Castle is part of the new Medieval Mile ticket and tour
Clockwise from left: Arlene in the Merrion Hotel; the friendly neighbours in Kilkenny; in the stocks at Rothe House; and Croan Cottages