The Emerald Island
Ireland has always been an irresistible draw for those of Irish heritage or descent. Although small in size, some 70 million people around the world (over 32 million in the US alone) claim to be part of the massive Irish diaspora (and likely gave rise to the expression “If you’re lucky enough to be Irish, you’re lucky enough”). Countless are the curious who descend every summer on the Emerald Isle to explore their ancestry and roots.
But the country’s longtime reputation for warm hospitality, and animated pubs—where the good-time “craic” and Guinness flow—appeals to everyone. Who hasn’t admired the forty shades of green (the result of all that frequent “liquid sunshine”) across a breathtaking landscape that has starred in classic films such as The Quiet Man and Ryan’s Daughter? Of all Americans traveling to Europe these days, 10 percent of them are heading to Ireland—and many will return more than once. I certainly did.
My most recent trip was part of a guided vacation around Ireland as the host and Global Brand Ambassador for Trafalgar, the established travel company that celebrated its 70th anniversary last year, a trailblazer in Ireland’s early years of tourism (and offering travel to 60 other countries as well). And for as safe and welcoming as Ireland has long proven itself to be for independent travelers, our incomparable travel director, Allie—the very quintessence of Irish charm and cheer—enhanced our road trip experience with her wealth of information and knowledge, infused with enthusiasm and a heartfelt love for her country.
Most visits begin in the capital city of Dublin. With a population of over 500,000, half are under 35 years of age—which might help explain the 750-plus pubs found in the cobbled Temple Bar neighborhood and beyond. (The country’s oldest pub, the lantern-lit Brazen Head, dates back to 1198.) Visitors immerse themselves in the country’s fervent love of beer with a visit to the historic Guinness Storehouse. (The Irish love to imbibe, period. They are also the biggest tea-drinkers per capita in Europe and some say the world.) The 7-story storehouse is one of the country’s most-visited sites, and we gladly joined the millions who have visited to learn about the creamy “black gold” that is one of the world’s most popular and famous brews—operating on this site since 1769. We topped off the Guinness tour with a pint of this “poetry in a glass” from the top-floor Gravity Bar and its 360-degree views of Dublin.
History presents itself everywhere in Ireland, from Dublin’s Trinity College, whose Old Library houses the exquisitely illuminated Book of Kells, which dates to 800 AD, to its rich monastic past and prehistoric ruins. Dublin is the country’s gateway, and from here we struck off to see as much as we could of this small country with a big reputation.
Those pressed for time often leave Dublin for the glorious west coast, visiting its inviting cities and all the don’t-miss attractions along the way. But our well-crafted 10-day Trafalgar itinerary included a wider mix of Ireland’s varied highlights, and we began by heading south to County Wicklow (known as “the Garden of Ireland”), namely the 1,000-acre Powerscourt Estate and its award-winning gardens, Ireland’s most visited.
Continuing on the road to Cork we stopped by evocative Newtown Jerpoint, a lost-in-time 12th-century town with a ruined church at its center—ivy covered and forgotten, if not for its new owners, the O’Connell family, who run this working farm. They welcomed us into their home for a delicious dinner where we shared stories, forged friendships with their comical sheepherding dogs, and before leaving, visited a forgotten cemetery on their emerald-green grassy land where many believe the remains of St. Nicholas (yes, as in Santa Claus) are buried.
We made the obligatory stop at the 500-year-old Blarney Castle, where kissing a stone for some reason promises “the gift of gab” and later unpacked in the picturesque town of Kilkenny before a memorable day spent touring this southwestern corner of Ireland. The Ring of Kerry is one of Europe’s most scenic road trips, part of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way coastline that unfurls past windswept beaches, medieval ruins, and one-street fishing towns, and includes the iconic Cliffs of Moher. Rising some 700 dramatic feet above the pounding Atlantic waves, they were unsurprisingly blustery and misty and as breathtaking as every guidebook has ever described.
The Connemara Peninsula is a rugged realm of mountains, peat bogs, lakes, rivers and sleepy villages—a stunning backdrop for our ride through this romantic and unspoiled corner of County Galway. A stop at the remote Kylemore Abbey included a walk in the walled gardens and a transportive harp concert in the small chapel on the lake.
While all of our hotels were a perfect choice for comfort and location, there was little comparison to the night spent in the jaw-dropping Ashford Castle which we traveled to by small private boat across Lough Corrib, and were greeted by a lone piper upon arrival. The 13th-century castle hotel, elegant and steeped in history left intact after a painstaking turret-to-drawbridge restoration, was once the home of the Guinness family and sits at the heart of beautifully manicured 300-acre grounds.
And just like that it was time to return to Dublin, the end of our Irish adventure drawing nigh. It was a too-brief exploration of tidy and brightly painted towns, white-washed farm-houses, pastures crossed by ancient stone walls, traffic jams caused by road-blocking herds of sheep, delicious farm-to-table lunches and dinners, grand cathedrals, and atmospheric music-filled pubs—and cheerful hospitality and welcoming folks at every turn. I could not have asked for more, but I know that when I return again, I’ll find it.
For more information about Trafalgar Travel, click here.
And don’t forget to check out the book!
About the Book:
The world’s bestselling travel book is back in a more informative, more experiential, more budget-friendly full-color edition. A #1 New York Times bestseller, 1,000 Places reinvented the idea of travel book as both wish list and practical guide. As Newsweek wrote, it “tells you what’s beautiful, what’s fun, and what’s just unforgettable—everywhere on earth.” And now the best is better. There are 600 full-color photographs. Over 200 entirely new entries, including visits to 28 countries like Lebanon, Croatia, Estonia, and Nicaragua, that were not in the original edition. There is an emphasis on experiences: an entry covers not just Positano or Ravello, but the full 30-mile stretch along the Amalfi Coast.
Every entry from the original edition has been readdressed, rewritten, and made fuller, with more suggestions for places to stay, restaurants to visit, and festivals to check out. And throughout, the book is more budget-conscious, with starred restaurants and historic hotels such as the Ritz, but also moderately priced gems that don’t compromise on atmosphere or charm.
The world is calling. Time to answer.