Kylemore Abbey, Connamara

Kylemore Abbey, Connemara

By Jim Ferri

I’ve traveled about Ireland a number of times over the years. It’s one of those special destinations I love, not just for the scenery and experiences but also for the Irish people themselves.

A café on the Aran Islands

A café on the Aran Islands

As with any place one enjoys enough to return again and again, I have my list of special Irish places and experiences I’ve enjoyed. Some of them I’ve only traveled to once, others I’ve returned to several times. Each, however, is magical to me in some unique way.

Here are nine special places outside of Dublin that I enjoy visiting. Have you been to any of them? I’m also certain that many of you have your own special places in Ireland. If you do, I’d enjoy hearing about them in the comments section below.

Powerscourt

Powerscourt in County Wicklow is an estate with possibly the finest formal gardens in Ireland. In fact, they are so well maintained and spectacular it’s almost like being in a mini-Versailles. And it’s only about a half-hour drive from Dublin.

Powerscourt in County Wicklow

Powerscourt in County Wicklow

When you enter the estate it takes several minutes to drive up to the mansion and gardens, and you pass horses and sheep grazing along the way, all part of the panorama of the beautiful Wicklow countryside. It’s an incredibly scenic estate, which also contains a golf course and a Ritz-Carlton that, thankfully, has been tucked away out of sight.

Built in the 18th century on the site of an old castle, it was gutted by fire about 50 years ago but has been partially restored. The house isn’t open to visitors but you can visit a café and some shops selling quality Irish goods.

Connemara

Few places in Ireland seem as desolate and wild as the Connemara Peninsula. It’s a dramatic, nearly treeless land jutting out into the Atlantic, a place of rock, peat bogs, moors, and little streams. For me it’s that desolation and wildness that makes it unique.

The Connemara countryside

The Connemara countryside

Here you’ll find isolated farms and the wild land of Connemara National Park, punctuated by the peaks of the Twelve Bens. Beyond is Kylemore Lough and the beautiful Kylemore Abbey and its Victorian walled-garden. An incredible 19th century building set at the base of a near-vertical mountain, it’s a former Benedictine abbey that’s now a girl’s boarding school.

The little town of Clifden, which anchors it to the rest of the country, is a good place to stop to eat if you’re traveling through.

Bed & Breakfasts

Birdi, owner of my B&B on the Aran Islands

Birdi, owner of my B&B on the Aran Islands

I know Irish B&Bs aren’t one place, of course, but there are numerous ones scattered all over the country that provide a unique experience. They are wonderful places where you interact with ordinary people – the homeowner who’s lived in the area for years, who knows the local gossip, who visits the local grocery weekly – and not some stilted clerk at front desk.

And because the Irish are so accommodating when you’re in their home they treat you as a friend, not as a guest. They want you to be comfortable and they go out of their way to help you along, making suggestions as to where to go and what to do, many times without even being asked. And they always have the best recommendations on good restaurants and a hundred other things.

Galway

Galway has a youthful population and a bohemian spirit and is one of the country’s most lively places to enjoy Irish culture. To get a sense of this you only need to walk through the streets and lanes of the old city and visit its colorful shops and restaurants.

Musicians in a Galway pub

Musicians in a Galway pub

But what really makes the city so magical is its music and pubs. Walk into a pub on almost any evening and you’ll find a lively place reverberating with the sounds of fiddles, banjos, guitars, flutes and assorted other instruments.

Galwegians revel in enjoying themselves and the city has a reputation for artistic creativity. The city has an infectious up-tempo vibe, which is played out every year in a full calendar of events ranging from music and theater to horseracing and a popular oyster festival.

Aran Islands

Weathered and rugged with about 1,100 residents scattered across three islands, the Aran Islands are windswept spits of landscape covered with grass, where ribbons of road dart here and there and stone walls run in every direction across barren hillsides. They’re almost magical and other-worldly, a place where you can get away from the rest of the world, which is why travelers come here. I love them.

An Aran Island village

An Aran Island village

Located off the west coast of Ireland near Galway, the Aran Islands aren’t overrun with tourists because it takes some doing to get to them, which is what protects their fragile beauty. Although you can get to the islands by air, many travelers opt for the less-costly ferry that departs from Rossaveal near Galway.

But it’s not always a smooth sail. “About 20 days every winter it’s so rough you can’t get on or off the island by boat,” an island mini-bus driver told me. “And for another 20 you wish you hadn’t.” I made the crossing in September and even then the ferry rolled back and forth several times in the seemingly calm sea.

Killarney National Park

Killarney National Park

Killarney National Park

For many of us Killarney National Park is one of the most beautiful and serene places in Ireland. It’s an incredibly beautiful area that’s home to 3,406 foot Carrauntoohil Mountain, Ireland’s tallest, as well as to spellbinding lakes and forests. Along with the nearby city of Killarney it’s said to be “the place that launched a billion postcards.”

Take a jaunting car ride through the park and visit beautiful Muckross House, the mansion where Queen Victoria stayed in 1861. (The Queen, by the way, gave six year’s notice of her visit – plenty of time for the house to be redecorated – and arrived with her own bed and a 100-strong entourage). Today the 19th-century house and landscaped gardens are a national treasure.

Belfast

I didn’t know what to expect when I visited Belfast but I fell in love with the place, mainly because of the tour given me by the driver-guide of one of the city’s famous Black Cabs. He gave me insights into the city – including the time of “the troubles” between the Catholics and Protestants – and showed me a city recently reborn.

The Crown Liquor Saloon, Belfast

The Crown Liquor Saloon, Belfast

I was captivated by a visit to Titanic Belfast, one of the most engaging museums you’ll find anywhere, as well as by the Cathedral Quarter, the oldest quarter of the city that centers around St Anne’s Cathedral, an area packed with cobbled streets, superb restaurants and great pubs.

St Anne’s, also known as Belfast Cathedral, is a beautiful church with a 130-foot stainless steel spire lofting skyward through a glass platform above the altar. Another captivating place is the renowned Crown Liquor Saloon with its centuries-old interior, one of the more ornate pubs in Belfast.

The Burren

The Burren is a huge, treeless limestone plateau in County Clare that is actually a unique botanical environment of both Alpine and Mediterranean plants. Although I know that it’s not a place that many travelers come to Ireland to see (unless you’re a botanist, of course), its moonscape-like austerity gives it a unique beauty.

The Poulnabrone Dolmen in The Burren

The Poulnabrone Dolmen in The Burren

What brings many people to The Burren in the first place is the Poulnabrone Dolmen, a portal tomb dating from 3200 – 3800 BC that was excavated in 1986. It is the most famous of the 170+ portal tombs scattered about Ireland. A special analysis of the remains of 22 bodies and various artifacts found in the tomb have provided an insight into the lives of Irish Neolithic people. Signs along the walkway leading to the tomb provide a good explanation of it.

Westport

Shops in Westport

Shops in Westport

Westport in County Mayo is an official “Irish Heritage Town” and quite attractive with tree-lined streets and eye-catching shops. If you want to feel Westport’s charm just walk around the town center where you’ll find many alluring restaurants and pubs, especially along charming Bridge Street. The most famous of these is Matt Molloy’s, a pub named for, and owned by, the flautist of the Grammy-Award winning musical group The Chieftains.

Westport was once voted as “the best place to live in Ireland” and its pretty setting reaffirms it. But go further afield and visit the area surrounding the town including Clew Bay west of the city. There you’ll find 18th-century Westport House mansion, built upon the site of a castle of pirate Grace O’Malley.

If you go:

Tourism Ireland
345 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10154
Tel. (800) 223-6470
http://www.ireland.com

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