1. Dalkey Island, Co. Dublin
A little uninhabited island 300 metres off the eponymous Dublin suburb might just be your perfect Irish hideaway – for a few hours, at least. You can simply bask in the peace and quiet or indulge in fishing, sailing and bird-watching – Dalkey Island is a real treat for nature lovers. This little gem of an island, though, will also thrill history buffs. Its main inhabitants may be wheatears, wild goats, rabbits and seals now, but the earliest human settlement here dates back to the Mesolithic period. Some of the intriguing sights you’ll spot on your explorations are the Martello Tower and the ruins of St Begnet’s Church.
When you arrive in Dalkey’s Coliemore Habour look for Ken the Ferryman, who makes the short trip to the little island 7 days a week. The kids will love it, too – just make sure you bring along a bag with drinks and snacks!
2. Great Western Greenway, Co. Mayo
If you’re looking for an active getaway this spring, look no further then the Great Western Greenway, a scenic cycling route connecting mainland Mayo to Achill Island. Suitable for all the family, this is by far one of the most picturesque cycling routes in Ireland.
The trail is 42 kilometres long and runs along the coast of Clew Bay, past the towns of Westport, Newport and Mulranny before finishing up on the beautiful island of Achill. If you still have some energy left, you can use it cycling around the island and stopping off at one of Ireland’s best hidden beaches in Keem Bay. Book yourself into the Mulranny Park Hotel or, if you are on a backpacker’s budget, try Teach Cruachan B&B instead.
Achill is heaven for adventure lovers, be it hiking, cycling, kayaking or surfing – there are activities to suit all tastes. Be sure to walk up to Kildavnet Castle if you have time and, if the sun is out, head to Keel Lough for a perfect sunset.
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3. Doonagore Castle, Co. Clare
If driving down the Wild Atlantic Way tickles your fancy, why not head to the beautifully remote and picturesque Doonagore Castle in County Clare? This 16th-century castle and round tower is located just 1km north of the village of Doolin, famous for its big waves and even bigger live music sessions! The castle has a prime position overlooking Doolin Harbour and the wild Atlantic Ocean. While privately owned, you can get close enough to the castle to walk around and take pictures but you cannot enter inside.
Other nearby attractions to keep you occupied include the Cliffs of Moher, Doolin village (where there are trad music sessions 7 nights a week), The Burren Way and a great walk down in Kilkee called the Loop Head Walk. If you want to go out on the water, sign up to a dolphin-watching tour which take place between May and August and also stop off at Scattery Island, where you can see the remains of an 8th-century monastery.
4. Benbulbin, Co. Sligo
Why Sligo is one of the least visited counties on the Wild Atlantic Way is a total mystery considering how much it has to offer the visitor. One incredible natural attraction is the dominant Benbulbin Mountain. Whether looking at it while driving by, from the comfort of a nearby beach or having hiked to the top, Benbulbin is one of the most unique natural landmarks in Ireland. With a striking resemblance to Table Mountain in South Africa, this mountain stands 526 meters tall making it a challenging but far from impossible hike.
Sligo has so much to offer the inquisitive visitor, from the best waves for surfers to intimate retreats, such as Voya Seaweed Baths in Strandhill, which are sure to sooth body and mind. One thing you must do in Sligo is a pub crawl – it’s home to some of the nicest pubs in the country, many with panoramic views of the beach or ocean. It’s also been nicknamed the “adventure capital of Ireland” as it’s a haven for surfers, hikers, divers, sailors and kite surfers! Whatever sort of adventure tickles your fancy, you’ll find it in Sligo. Treat yourself to a stay in the luxurious Castle Dargan Hotel and be sure to pamper yourself with some spa treatments.
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5. Lough Hyne, West Cork
Sea kayaking on Ireland’s only sea water lake is a unique experience in itself. Sea kayaking at night is even more incredible and an experience you may never forget. Lough Hyne, located in West Cork between the towns of Skibbereen and Baltimore, was designated Europe’s first Marine Nature Reserve in 1981 and today it remains one of the most important marine habitats in Europe.
Besides sea kayaking, there are also lots of great outdoor activities to do on or near the lake. The lake’s small size and highly oxygenated, yet warm seawater means that it is home to a huge variety of plants and animals that are not found anywhere else in Ireland.
Hiking the forest and hill beside the lake affords visitors panoramic views of the lake, the Atlantic Ocean and many of the 100 Carbery Islands dotted around this part of the Cork coastline. One of the most popular places to stay in the area is the family-run Casey’s of Baltimore. It has panoramic views of the harbour and is just a short walk away from the small, but lively fishing village of Baltimore. From here you can also take ferries out to nearby islands, such as Sherkin and Cape Clear.
6. Kerry International Dark-Sky Reserve
A hopeless romantic, an astronomy buff, or simply an avid stargazer? Kerry International Dark-Sky Reserve, Ireland’s first International Dark Sky Reserve (IDA) and the only Gold Tiered reserve in the Northern Hemisphere, according to their official website, is ideally nestled between the Kerry Mountains and the Atlantic ocean. Hence, it offers a unique opportunity to experience a star-studded nightscape away from the effects of urban light pollution. Here you can revel in the glory of the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy with the naked eye.
The surrounding landscape is dotted with picturesque villages, such as golfers’ paradise Waterville and the quiet fishing village of Kells, lakes like Lough Currane and other natural attractions like Derryane Beach and Valentia Island. There’s plenty more hidden gems to discover in the area. Day or night, the Ring of Kerry and South West Ireland are a real treat!
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7. Cape Clear Island, Co. Cork
Us Irish all have our favourite islands. Some prefer those off the North coast, such as the hidden gem that is Rathlin Island. Others prefer the Aran Islands, or Clare Island or even those small secret spots off the coast of Dublin (like Dalkey).
One island that is loved by anyone who has visited is Cape Clear Island off the west coast of Cork. This primarily Irish-speaking haven is home to one pub (there used to be two but sadly one closed!), one shop, a club house, a church and an Irish language school that runs each summer. Cape Clear is the southernmost inhabited part of Ireland, which makes it a real escape from the rest of the mainland.
Activities on the island include long walks, sailing, kayaking, visiting the goat farm and eating some delicious goats milk ice-cream made by a blind but talented ice-cream maker, and exploring the island in search of a wide selection of birds to spot. For those looking for a unique experience, try staying in the traditional yurts on the island, a memorable glamping experience! The island also plays host to an annual Storytelling Festival each September, which attracts accomplished storytellers from around Ireland and abroad. There are also traditional ceili’s, sing-songs and a great festival atmosphere throughout the weekend, usually the first in September.
8. Bantry House & Garden, Co. Cork
Just over an hour away from the photogenic town of Kinsale, near the end of the Wild Atlantic Way, lies the dreamy Bantry House. This elegant 18th-century mansion surrounded by magnificent gardens has belonged to the White family for an impressive two-and-a-half centuries. The estate offers panoramic views of Bantry Bay and a sumptuous display of antique furniture, tapestries and other rare works of art for those wishing to roam further into the mansion’s cinematic interiors. The house is still lived in and the estate is gradually being restored, giving out more of a warm, homely feel than the air of flawless grandeur.
On a bright summer’s day you’ll enjoy a stroll around Bantry House’s elegant gardens while, if you manage to visit in May, you’ll be rewarded with the lush colours of wisterias circling the fountain. Traditional English tea is also served in the Bantry tearoom in the west wing (€30 per person, ticket-holders only).
9. Poolbeg Lighthouse, Dublin
Looking to escape Dublin’s hustle and bustle? Just a half hour’s drive away from the Irish capital the eye-catchingly red Poolbeg Lighthouse is waiting to be discovered. Grab a hot chocolate to go from McHobbs coffee truck and start the 20-minute walk along the sea wall – one of the longest in Europe. Uninterrupted views of Dublin Bay, Dublin Port and Howth from the 19th-century lighthouse (which replaced the original 1768 construction) will make your soul soar. The laid-back 4klm-walk to the lighthouse is a delight under blue or cloudy skies – but better make sure you wear a warm hat on a windy day! As far as free, off-the-beaten-path attractions in Dublin go, this one ticks all the right boxes.
Tip: Consider hiring a bike and cycling along the South Wall. It’ll take you about 45 minutes from Dublin City centre.
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10. The Shannon Blueway, Co. Leitrim
This part of Ireland is affectionately known as “The Lake Lands” and everything worth doing takes places out on the water. Spending a few days cruising down the River Shannon is one of the most relaxing holidays you will ever have. The boats move at a snail’s pace, barely breaking the surface of the water, and you will have to learn patience as you queue up and wait for the locks to be opened for you throughout the day.
Riding along quiet canals and waterways, with nothing but the wind and the sound of birds to entertain you is a whole new experience and will make you feel as if you could not be further from the hustle and bustle of Ireland’s main cities. For a night out, Carrick-On-Shannon always delivers, with a whole collection of pubs and clubs to suit every taste. If budget isn’t an issue, checking into Lough Rynn Castle is a must. If a stay is outside your current bank balance, then a simple visit during the day to walk around the castle and gardens is also a good option.
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*Updated February 2019. Information correct at the time of publication but may be subject to change.