Poets have often written of Ireland’s emerald hills and sparkling waters, lighting the imagination with depictions of the country’s beauty. To the visitor, however, the words of these poems pale in comparison to the reality. From the wild coastline buffeted by an untamed sea to the rolling pastures with their meandering dry stone walls, North and South, Ireland’s splendour is only truly realised firsthand.
Coast to coast
Many of the romantic notions of Ireland manifest themselves in the stunning natural beauty of Kerry. It’s a mystical, largely unspoilt region despite the number of tourists that flock there to walk the famous Ring of Kerry. The Ring is admired for its beautiful beaches, the finest of which is often agreed to be Rossbeigh, a 2km strand gently lapped by waves. At one end is the wreck of the Sunbeam, a 100 year old schooner that until 2014 was partially buried in the sand. It’s also known for its walking and cycling trails, which are pleasant to use as many visitors choose to explore the Ring by car or coach.
To the west are the Skelligs, two immense rocks rising from the sea, the smaller of which is home to a huge colony of gannets. The larger is open to the public and, almost impossibly, is the location of a monastery that was occupied from the seventh century for around 600 years. It has a remote, weather-beaten feel, and the stone beehive structures of the Christian settlement have earned it a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
If the Skelligs seem strange to the wide-eyed traveller, the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland is wholly otherworldly. Great basalt columns emerge from the sea, built, according to legend, by the giant Fionn mac Cumhaill. In Gaelic mythology he was challenged to a fight by the Scottish giant Benandonner and, having accepted, built the causeway so the two could meet. Fionn then realised his foe was much bigger than him and fled back to Ireland with Benandonner on his tail. Fearful, he asked his wife Oonagh to help him hide, so she disguised him as a baby and when Benandonner arrived and saw the size of the ‘child’, he imagined Fionn to be enormous. Terrified, he fled back to Scotland, destroying the Causeway behind him so he couldn’t be followed.
Today’s visitor needn’t fear an encounter with either giant. Under the watchful eye of the National Trust, tourists can walk out onto the columns, climb the Shepherd’s Steps and follow the cliff top trail for a giant’s eye view of the coast. There’s also plenty of wildlife to discover, from seabirds and seals to living fossils called stromatolites.
A tale of two cities - Dublin
Straddling the grey-green waters of the River Liffey, Dublin is a city that’s renowned for the hospitality of its people, the vibrancy of its nightlife and the prowess of its writers. Joyce, Beckett and Yeats – all were Dublin-born literary giants who featured their beloved city in their work, bringing to life its charms and romances. Beyond the fiction, its bustling streets are home to a populace that is incredibly proud of its heritage and culture – testaments to which are collected around the centre of the city, from the 13th century Dublin Castle to the General Post Office, headquarters of the rebels during the 1916 Easter Rising.
For a family day out, Dublin is full of great activities. A favourite with the kids is Butlers Chocolate Experience, a chocolate factory where they can explore the origins of chocolate, learn about chocolate decoration techniques, see how Butlers’ confectionary is made and, of course, sample the goods along the way. There’s also Dublin zoo, which has a diverse selection of critters from lions and tigers to flamingos and penguins. Visitors can learn about the animals’ habitats and the zoo’s enrichment programme, which provides play items for its occupants.
Dublin is renowned for warm welcomes and a lively social scene, both in the cafés and pubs during the day and the bars and clubs that open into the small hours. There are over 700 pubs to choose from, as well as a dynamic live music scene, with local bands and traditional music performances happening all over the city in various venues.
Belfast Accessible in a few hours from even the furthest reaches of Northern Ireland, Belfast is a city of thriving visual art and maritime history. It’s characterised by the juxtaposition of elegant Victorian buildings with modern architecture, and by the murals, which allude to the political turmoil that has afflicted the city since the 1960s. Depicting the struggles of the past few decades, they adorn the walls of houses and buildings projecting the political standpoints of both Loyalists and Republicans.
Belfast’s docklands, famous for being the birthplace of the Titanic, have seen significant redevelopment recently; the Titanic Experience draws interest from many tourists with its nine galleries that tell the ship’s story from its beginnings in the shipyard to its Atlantic grave. The Harland and Wolff shipyard remains and now turns its attentions to offshore renewable energy.
Over on Queen’s Quay the nautical theme continues in the names of the leisure complex and concert venue: the Odyssey and Waterfront Hall respectively. The former houses cinemas, bars, restaurants and shops, as well as the W5 interactive discovery centre, which has a multitude of exhibits to inspire children from as young as five to take an interest in science.
Belfast has a huge range of festivals that occur throughout the year. They are part of the city’s life blood and great fun to experience. Find a full festival calendar for 2017 at www.belfastcity.gov.uk
Ballyness Caravan Park
Tel 44 28 2073 2393
Designed with conservation in mind and immaculately cared for, this campsite is close to the coast and the famous Giant’s Causeway. Native trees and shrubs are planted in keeping with the natural surroundings and on-site ponds attract wildlife. The hard-standing pitches all have electricity, water and drainage, and there’s a play area for children.