Don't have weeks to explore Ireland? Here’s an alternative.
In a whistle-stop tour of Ireland’s west coast, certain key landmarks stand out as particularly worth a visit.
Kerry is a simply breathtaking county. The mountainous landscapes, exquisitely carved out during the last Ice Age, rival even Norway's beautiful vistas, but the county is best known -- at least among tourists -- for its picturesque towns, such as Killarney, Kenmare and Tralee.
Perhaps the surprise highlight of a trip to Kerry would be a voyage out to Skellig Michael, an ancient monastic settlement built on a rock that protrudes out into the Atlantic Ocean and, despite safety concerns, is a UNESCO heritage site that could rival even the best.
Climbing the winding staircase and being rewarded with a stunning vista over the Atlantic -- where the next landmass is America -- it would be hard not to have some thoughts about how we live today (“how selfish we’ve become in life,” mused one visitor on travel website tripadvisor.co.uk, presumably moved by the site’s relative scarcity in comparison to our lavish lifestyles).
Within Killarney, there’s enough to do to occupy yourself for an entire holiday, and it’s a place where any visitor to the West of Ireland simply has to stop by. Within Killarney, Muckross House and Gardens, a formidable Victorian mansion, warrants a mention as a must-see and as one of the country’s leading stately homes.
For those with green fingers, or even green “eyes,” the Killarney National Park, a magnificent 24,000 acre expanse of lake and mountain, is certainly worth seeing. It’s a natural habitat for deer and the Meadow Pipit bird, as well as many other fascinating creatures.
The park is also host to the Killarney Lakes, which seem to have a magnetic attraction for visitors to the region. The lakes are beautiful and the site alone makes the journey worth it!
Within Kerry, there’s the chance to visit some of the country’s few remaining Gaeltachts, which are traditional Irish-speaking areas.
The Gaeltacht of Kerry is represented by six towns or villages -- Baile an Fheirtéaraigh (Ballyferriter), Baile na Sceilge (Ballinskelligs), Ceann Trá (Ventry), An Daingean (Dingle), Dún Chaoin (Dunquin) and An Fheothanach (Feothanach), and while one could find something unique to do in each of them, a trip to An Daingean (Dingle) is a particular favorite among tourists seeking a more traditional Ireland, which is becoming harder and harder to find among the increasingly westernized cities.
If you’re traveling by car, the Ring of Kerry also ranks as an essential. The Ring is a 170 kilometer circular road which starts in Killarney and continues its route around the beautiful Iveragh Peninsula, passing through some beautiful towns and sites on its way. It can be cycled (for the unbelievably fit) bussed or driven.
Between Kerry and the further western seaboard is the Burren, which is one of Ireland’s most iconic landscapes. It’s a landscape of limestone, which to all but the biggest geography buff might sound boring, but it has many features that make it interesting to everyone.
Unique plants grow in the Burren that don't grow anywhere else in the world (as such landscapes and conditions are incredibly rare), while the Burren Outdoor Pursuit Center caters for whatever adventurous whims you may have -- popular activities include climbing the area’s rock faces.
Continuing up the West Coast, one hits some slightly more sparsely populated and equally beautiful countryside, but there’s not much point stopping anywhere along the way until you come to Limerick, which is Ireland’s third largest city, with a population, including suburbs, of about 90,000.
Limerick City, the province of Munster’s second city, was the literary home of Frank McCourt’s "Angela Ashes," and a popular walking tour of the main sites from the novel is run daily, while the city itself is a bustling metropolis packed full of shops and sports. Limerick is also strategically placed as a venue from which to take day tours to some of the west’s other natural beauty spots.
Barratt Tours, based in the city, offers excursions to the Cliffs of Moher, some of Ireland’s most beautiful and impressive cliff faces -- in fact, they are the highest cliffs in Europe. More recently, though, they’ve come to be associated with big wave surfing. And although surfing is taking off all around, the kind of waves found at breaks like Aileens and beyond, located around the western coastline, are best left to be ridden by the professionals!
Continuing further up the coastline one moves into the rugged Connemara, which is another Irish place-name traditionally associated with Gaeltachts and all things Irish culture.
Perhaps one of the most memorable sites to visit on a tour of Ireland would be a trip to the Aran Islands, a cluster of three islands located at the mouth of Galway Bay. They are accessible by boat and in the summer can be reached by airplane, traveling on Aer Aerann Islander, which was how Aer Arran, one of Ireland’s three main airlines, began operations.
Continuing along the west coast, there’s Sligo and Galway. As tourists won’t likely have time to do everything from Mizen to Malin Head (the two extremities of the country), one may have to be selective.
Although they’re both beautiful towns, Galway holds more in the way of things to do and see for tourists, with its beautiful and famous Galway Bay (immortalized in a song of the same name) as well as its many pubs and nightclubs. It’s a university town, so there's be plenty in the way of cheep fun to be had by residents and visitors alike.
Many visitors to the island of Ireland tend to see either the south (Republic) or the north (Northern Ireland). While this is understandable because of the geographic chasm separating the two separate countries, if you have the time and money to see both you’d be well advised to do precisely that.
There are no border formalities whatsoever. In fact carefully observing certain signs (such as the road signs changing color) is really the only way of knowing that you’ve crossed the land border.
Belfast is the largest city in the North and is accessible -- besides by road, of course -- by two airports, with domestic airline Aer Arran offering regular and often cheap flights between Belfast, Cork, Dublin, and Kerry (Farranfore).
Belfast is a bustling and up-and-coming town. While there, which is somewhere between Cork and Dublin in terms of size, don’t forget to check out the many Titanic sites scattered around the city. The doomed ship was built at Belfast’s famous Harland and Wolff shipyard before hitting an iceberg on its maiden voyage to America.
Another worthy attraction is the Belfast ghost tour. Like almost all cities, it seems, Belfast has another world of the half-living to it. I’ve never been on it, but it looks pretty creepy to say the least.
Belfast even has its own ice hockey team, the Belfast Giants. They’re playing the Boston Bruins at the custom-made Odyssey Arena soon.
There are also many worthwhile tours of The Troubles in Belfast. Black cab tours, taken in local taxis, or else formal bus and walking tours, take you through some of the city’s historic trouble spots, and you can get a great feel for what it would have been like living in the city when The Troubles were at their worst.
The North, as many Irish call it, is replete with different attractions, and beaches and surfing figure surprisingly highly on the list. Bundoran is located in Co. Donegal, one of the three counties in the north of Ireland which belong to the Republic, and it has a long association with surfing and fun by the sea.
Before I end my series on why to visit Ireland, I’d like to add that 5,000 words are simply not enough to list all the thousands of attractions in Ireland.
Anytime the Irish leave Ireland -- whether for work, emigration, or just on vacation -- they realize just how much they miss their homeland. Having spent only six weeks in Manhattan, it’s more clear to me than ever before just why tourists value our greenery, clean air and openness back home.
I’ll finish as I started by saying that the time is indeed ripe to visit Ireland, so go book your flights now!