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Bunratty Castle at night.

The Shannon region - the perfect place for pleasure

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Bunratty Castle at night.

Before you arrive in the Burren proper, stop off for a walk in Dromore Woods, just outside Ruan. This nature reserve ofrivers, lakes, flooded meadows, peat bogs and reed beds isrich in woodland species. Who knows what you’ll see as youwander?

You should always anticipate the unexpected in theBurren. Consisting of 250 square kilometers of limestone,it’s an environment unlike any other. Here, Arctic,Mediterranean and Alpine plants grow side by side, colorfulflowers growing out of the crisscrossing cracks in the rock.

The Burren, often referred to as Ireland’s rock garden, isan archaeological phenomenon, paradise for walkers,cyclists, and artists. The Stone Age people who lived hereleft behind dolmen structures, single-chamber tombs that areusually made from three or more upright stones. Later inhabitantsleft ancient cooking sites – known as fulachta fiadh –and others built the hundreds of ring forts that still dominatethe landscape.

Exploring all of these attractions would take months, sohere are some highlights. Caherconnell Fort was built morethan 1,000 years ago and occupied as late as the 17th century. It’s been scientifically excavated and developed fortourism. You can follow its stone pathways to the past asaudiovisual displays tell the stories of the lives lived in thefort over the centuries.

Nearby is perhaps the most famous dolmen of all –Poulnabrone. Translated as the Hole of Sorrows in Irish, thisdolmen has stood starkly against the limestone landscapesince at least 3800 B.C.

Feeling invigorated, you should head for the coastal town of Doolin. This fishing village has long been a center for Irishtraditional music. Its three pubs trill to the sounds of jigs andreels every night of the week.

Having spent the evening in the pub, you can spend thefollowing day exploring the great outdoors (or should that bethe great underground?). Aillwee Cave is full of subterranean surprises. Formed by the glacial melt-waters of the last IceAge, the cave boasts caverns, chasms and even a frozenwaterfall. Doolin cave is home to the largest accessible stalactitein the world.

Back above ground, your next stop is one of Ireland’s most spectacular natural vistas – the Cliffs of Moher (featured in the new Harry Potter movie). At 702 feet above the ocean,these sea cliffs offer wonderful views of the Aran Islands and of the valleys and hills of Connemara in the next county.

You may feel energized by these fabulous views. If so,head to Doonbeg for a game of golf on a championshipcourse which is ranked among the best in the world. It alsooffers five star accommodation at the lodge.

And if you’re feeling even more adventurous, take surfinglessons. Lahinch, and indeed the entire Clare coastline, offerssome of the best surfing in all of Europe.

Further down the road, Spanish Point – named after theSpanish Armada which was wrecked off the coast in 1588 –also offers golfing in one of the oldest courses in Ireland andperhaps the best surf break in Clare. You can choose betweenthe two or, better yet, try both.

You can recover from your exertions in the local hostelriesor in nearby Ennistymon. Known for its 16th-century castle and traditional shop fronts, this is a riverside market townwith character.

Once you’ve replenished your energy, you can continueyour coastal meanderings. Take in the sea cliffs. Marvel atthe bird life. Watch out for dolphins and whales. And soakin all the history and scenery until you come to the remoteLoophead Peninsula. With gulls circling overhead andancient monuments to be seen on the horizon, the hubbub ofcity life will feel very far away.

Your journey is now almost over but if you’ve still got timeto spare, pay a visit to Scattery Island at the mouth of the RiverShannon. This has been an ecclesiastical center since earlyChristian times. A monastery was founded here in honor of StSenan in the 6th century. Some of it – several churches and around tower – stands to this day.

Finally, before heading back to Shannon, stop off to visit the Shannon Dolphin and Wildlife Foundation in Kilrush. Here,you can learn all about the huge variety of local wildlife, especiallythe dolphins who are so attracted to the area.

And before you go home, try to catch a game of hurling.Witnessing the clash of the ash is an experience that will never be forgotten and there are few places where hurling is playedwith such passion as Clare.

And, if it truly is a long, long way from Clare to here, whoknows when you’ll get the opportunity again?

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