Summer 2018 was the perfect opportunity to plan a holiday in Ireland and we more than made the most of it. 

Ireland – the land of a thousand welcomes is also a land of contrasts. We are blessed with majestic mountains, lush valleys, rugged coastlines and acres of green fields. But we also have vibrant, cosmopolitan cities, picturesque villages and bustling market towns – every day and every mile bring something different.

Despite this beautiful part of the world being my native home, and the fact that it doesn’t take a day to get from one end to the other, there are still parts I have yet to discover – so with the beautiful summer we’ve just enjoyed and the fact that Ireland was once again voted as one of the best places in the world to visit, I decided to rectify that by doing a little exploration.

The first port of call on my whirlwind staycation was to Donegal. I had never been that far north so was properly excited when I saw the first sign indicating that we had crossed the county border.

You can find your perfect Irish travel experience with IrishCentral tours here. 

Rolling hills and an expanse of colors surrounded us as we continued north (almost reaching the most northerly point) – to Donegal Boardwalk Resort (www.dreamireland.com) in the beautiful Carrigart region.

This newly renovated collection of modern cottages is located right on the coast and as the name suggests, its highlight is a wooden boardwalk—1100m of it to be precise—which leads visitors through the sand dunes before a clearing reveals a spectacular sandy beach for as far as the eye can see.

Read more: What towns to visit along the Wild Atlantic Way

Donegal. Image: iStock.

Donegal. Image: iStock.

With the beach almost to ourselves, we swam, paddled and soaked up the rays until the sun went down and then made an exhilarated return to the house for a quick shower before dinner in the on-site restaurant.

With views over the water, we enjoyed a fabulous meal followed by a short moonlight stroll on the sand before heading back to our cozy bed under the eaves.

The next day, the sky was blue and the surrounding countryside basked in its glow so we headed off to Glenveagh National Park (www.glenveaghnationalpark.ie) as we had been promised that the scenery was stunning – and boy, was it.

This was picture-postcard Ireland and I felt a great deal of pride at how beautiful our country looked as the sun glistened off the water and the mountains glowed with a stunning shade of purple heather.

Indeed for the rest of our Donegal visit the scenery just got better and better and over the course of the next couple of days, we visited Hornhead Loop and Ards Forest Park – soaking up the relaxed atmosphere before reluctantly saying goodbye to this glorious corner of the country.

Our next port of call was further down the coast to Sligo and a hidden gem which offered the perfect escape from reality.

Ardagh Suites (www.ardaghsuites.com) is a row of beautifully restored cottages which many years ago housed farm animals. The thick walls, beamed ceilings and authentic half-doors offer a traditional twist to these gorgeous houses which sleep two to seven people. There is so much to do in the area with beaches for swimming, rivers for kayaking, woodland to explore and the nearby Lough Key (www.loughkey.ie) offers treetop adventures, Segway tours, children’s play areas, the indoor Boda Borg puzzle adventure and lots of space to walk, play, cycle, have a picnic or just laze about. Wildlife enthusiasts will also be enthralled by Eagles Flying (www.eaglesflying.com), the sanctuary where birds of prey live happily alongside creatures of the four-legged variety.

Sticking to the west coast, we made a short trip southwards to the coastal town of Westport which has long been known for its wide choice of restaurants and bars set against a beautiful scenic backdrop. Westport House (www.westporthouse.ie) was the first stop to enjoy some history and culture and let the kids have a blast on the mini theme park, zip wire and zorbing within the grounds.

Read more: 11 places in Ireland you have to visit

Anyone looking for atonement can make the famous pilgrimage up Croagh Patrick while in the area, but being pure of heart, we eschewed penance for a boat trip around Killary Fjord, which is also a must when visiting the area as the landscape is breath-taking, the wildlife plentiful and young captains will receive a certificate for their seaworthiness. There are plenty of places to stay in and around the town but Harbour Mill (www.theharbourmill.com) on the quayside is in a great location and offers everything needed for a family break.

As the song goes, “if it’s music you want, you should go to Clare” and indeed we did – firstly because it’s my home county and secondly because there are still so many places I haven’t visited since I was a child – Cliff of Moher (www.cliffsofmoher.ie), Aillwee Caves (www.aillweecave.ie), Craggaunowen Crannog site, Bunratty Castle and folk village, Holy Island, the Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival - and then in search of music to Doolin, the Willie Clancy Festival in Miltown Malbay, the Feakle Music Festival and to Ennis, which this year hosted the Munster Fleadh and for the past two years was home to the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil.

Known as the boutique capital of Ireland, the cobbled streets of Ennis are a great place to explore with loads of individual shops selling clothes, artisan food, top-notch wines, local arts and crafts and much more. There are also a plethora of great restaurants and cafes including Cloister (www.cloister.ie), Passatempo, the Town Hall and Rowan Tree Cafe Bar (www.rowantreeecafebar.ie) and visitors can stay in the center of the town in a choice of hotels including Temple Gate Hotel (www.templegatehotel.com) and Old Ground Hotel Ennis (www.oldgroundhotelennis.com) and take in a relaxed walking tour of the area with Ollie’s Tours (www.olliestours.com).  

The Fleadh in Ennis. Image: Tourism Ireland.

The Fleadh in Ennis. Image: Tourism Ireland.

It was good to be back, but having explored a sizeable chunk of the west coast, it was time to head east to Kilkenny for a house in the countryside followed by a tour of this bustling medieval city.

We checked into Croan Cottages (www.croancottages.com) under the watchful gaze of the resident pigs, alpacas, goats, dogs, peacocks, chickens and a beautiful calf called Bo (who incidentally, were in the surrounding fields rather than our accommodation).

These homely cottages 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, we headed for the city (just 20 minutes away) where we picked up a Medieval Mile Pass which allows visitors access to all the main sights – Kilkenny Castle, the Smithwick's Experience, Rothe House, the Medieval Mile Museum, St Canice's’ Cathedral and Round Tower and lots more.

Kilkenny Castle. Image: Tourism Ireland.

Kilkenny Castle. Image: Tourism Ireland.

The city has just won the accolade of Ireland’s Top Foodie Destination and the combination of fantastic eateries, traditional bars and a wealth of beautifully preserved historical buildings makes this the perfect place to experience both modern and ancient Ireland.

So having whetted my appetite for bright lights, the next port of call had to be Dublin town where we checked into the sumptuous Merrion Hotel (www.merrionhotel.com) in the heart of the city for an indulgent 24 hours of fantastic food, culture and stunning surroundings.

It is located just a stone’s throw away from the National Gallery so 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 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 lovers retreat. The homely (albeit extremely elegant) atmosphere of the two lounges is the perfect place for afternoon tea and after a selection of teas (coffee, juices and champagne also offered), delicate sandwiches and cakes, we were treated to pastries inspired by some of the artwork gracing the walls.

Then sated by culture and cake, we strolled up to St Stephen’s Green and then on to Grafton Street for a bit of retail therapy before heading back to our palatial room, to unwind before donning our glad rags and making our way to The Garden Restaurant for dinner which was superb as the staff, food, wine and delivery were second to none.

Although brief, The Merrion 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 (for now) and having enjoyed wonderful food, accommodation, culture and scenery where would I recommend?

Well, I have to say, I would choose all of them – and much more besides.

There is so much to see in our unique country, from the wilds of Connemara and the beauty of Kerry to the hidden past of the East coast and of course, the stunning Wild Atlantic Way.

I think everyone should pencil in some 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.

And now, I’m off to plan my next jaunt – happy exploring.

  • Dream Ireland has properties in every corner with everything from modern houses overlooking a river in Kerry to old cottages by the sea in Donegal. Prices for all options vary depending on location and length of stay. www.dreamireland.com
  • A Medieval Mile Pass for all of the attractions of Kilkenny costs €39 – www.kilkennychamber.ie/medievalmile
  • Art Tea at the Merrion Hotel costs €49pp (or €63 with a glass of Ruinart NV). B&B costs from €405 per room: www.merrionhotel.com

Have any more recommendations for us? Leave them in the comments section, below. 

You can find your perfect Irish travel experience with IrishCentral tours here. 

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The Irish countryside along the coast. Getty