Ireland is so close to home and so familiar that it’s easy to forget what a fabulous and sometimes quirky holiday destination it is.
It’s really easy to get to – return flights can be had for £60-100 (mine was £90 return in August from Heathrow) and there are departures from a dozen other UK airports. Alternatively, take your car plus two passengers on the ferry from £196 and then there’s my favourite – the rail-sail option from £29 each way. Rail-sail can be a brilliant option – hop on at your local railway station, hop off beside the ferry or super-fast catamaran and you’re in Dublin with no effort at all.
From Dublin, Ireland’s rail network can take you to many popular destinations like Belfast, Galway, Westport, Killarney, Waterford or Cork but be warned departures are a lot less frequent than in the UK. To explore those beautiful out-of-the-way places you’ll need a car, my 5 day car hire cost £186 with “CarTrawler”:http://www.cartrawler.com inc breakdown cover and their £25 full excess cover which saved a fortune on local hire company charges.
There’s so much to see and do in Ireland and it’s surprisingly varied, there’s the glorious wild west coast, the fascinating heritage east coast and the delicious foodie heaven in the south but there are also plenty more hidden gems in the heart of Ireland, that few visitors bother to visit.
Road trips are a delight, that’s not to say that Irish city centres are not as hectic as any other, but out on the open road the volume of traffic seems like 1960s Britain, even the M1 linking Dublin and Belfast was deserted at times. On my first trip to Ireland in the 1960’s the roads were narrow, tortuous and appallingly maintained but now it’s a pleasure to criss-cross the country on excellent roads or turn off and pootle along rural back roads.
If you don’t enjoy driving, there’s a more leisurely way of exploring the countryside – cruising on the River Shannon. The Shannon is in the heart of Ireland, cutting the country in half from north to south, starting in the northern loughs and ending at Limerick in the south west.
There are day trips from Carrick-on-Shannon and Athlone but for a more independent experience of life on the river a 5 day four berth cruiser can be hired from around £400. “More details”:http://www.cruise-ireland.com/boats/boat/13/carlow-class/
But what’s hard to beat is a weeks luxury cruising on the hotel barge the “Shannon Princess”:http://www.gobarging.com/shannon-princess-ii-barge. This was our special anniversary treat a couple of years ago. Just 5 cabins for 10 guests, our own chef, consistently the best food imaginable, a private tour bus, fascinating local guides and enthralling side trips.
Places to Stay
The choice and quality of accommodation is as varied as you would find anywhere. Smart B&Bs appear around every corner and it’s rarely necessary to book ahead. If you did turn up and found them fully booked, owners will invariable ring around the neighbourhood and find someone else with a vacancy.
I have great memories of a self-contained riverside cottage we once rented with a charming stable door, thatched roof and wonderfully aromatic peat fire. A half way house between staying put and exploring is a horse drawn gypsy caravan, which was great fun, idyllic slow travel, but you have to like horses more than I do to really enjoy it. “More information”:http://www.clissmann.com/wicklow.
Apart from a slew of B&B’s littering the countryside, there are smart city slick hotels, the sometimes slightly grubby, although usually charming pub accommodation, along with some exceptionally grand places to stay. On my latest trip I went up-market and stayed at Castle Leslie in County Monaghan.
There are castles galore in Ireland, many of them are grand ruins, some have been converted into splendid chain hotels but very few, like “Castle Leslie”:http://www.castleleslie.com/, are still owned and occupied by their founding family.
Nestled within 1,000 acres of undulating hills, ancient woodland and beautiful lakes Castle Leslie was bought by the Leslie family in 1668 and is one of the last great Irish Estates still in the hands of its original family. Located well off the beaten track, in the heart of Ireland, Castle Leslie is near the village of Glaslough, between Monaghan in the Irish Republic and Armagh in Northern Ireland.
It’s charming with a touch of eccentricity, and that’s not just 99 year old Sir Jack Leslie coming down to join guests for breakfast in his pyjamas and dressing gown.
The Castle hallways and landings are crammed with antiques, statues and family portraits and the bar in the long gallery serves 67 varieties of gin; which makes ordering a G&T a time consuming but enjoyable affair. Rooms are all spacious with unique and quirky designs, from grand four poster beds to a Nursery room, each with some Leslie family theme and historic memorabilia. The castle aims to be an escape from the modern world and an experience of traditional country house living so there’s no TV.
In the Lodge there’s more modern accommodation, a spa, wonderful restaurant, the pub-like Conor’s bar and one of the largest equestrian centres in Europe with 56 stables – 21 miles of bridleways, an all weather gallop and an indoor arena for teaching, training and jumping practice.
Along with a host of traditional country pursuits there are endless miles of gardens and landscape to explore and this castle stay is surprisingly affordable with a two night stay with breakfast and a 5 course dinner from £138.
Something I always enjoy in Ireland, compared to the UK, is that global corporations have not strangled and displaced small independent shopkeepers and businesses – small towns and cities don’t have Britain’s identi-kit High streets with the same old chain stores. Of course there are shopping malls and supermarkets in cities and larger towns but a typical High street is made up of small independent shops and pubs.
So, for a relaxing holiday that’s familiar yet sufficiently different to make it really memorable – Ireland is hard to beat.