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

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