Thursday, March 11, 2010
Irelands Best & Best Kept Secrets
With its endlessly green hills, dramatic cliffs, infectious music, and welcoming good nature, Ireland is hard to beat as a vacation destination. As St. Patrick's Day approaches, what better time to take a tour of Ireland's (and Northern Ireland's) best attractions, not to mention a few of their best-kept secrets?
Consistently voted one of the most beautiful places on earth, the Dingle Peninsula wins the hearts of so many with its lush landscape, which includes narrow cliff-side roads, mountain ranges, and sandy beaches. Jutting 30 miles into the Atlantic Ocean from Ireland's southwest coast, the peninsula offers unmatched sightseeing, surfing, swimming, and walking trails. The small market town and fishing port of Dingle provides a great place to listen to live music, grab a pint, and rest your head for the evening.
Mussenden Temple and Downhill Demesne
Located in Downhill Demesne near Castlerock, the Mussenden Temple is precipitously perched atop a 120-foot cliff edge overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Originally built in 1785 as a summer library, the temple forms part of the estate of Frederick Augustus Hervey, Bishop of Derry and Earl of Bristol, and its dramatic setting offers unparalleled views of the surrounding area. Visitors are welcome to explore the 18th-century ruins of the mansion, take a cliff-side walk, stroll along the gardens, or learn about 17th-century life in one of Northern Ireland's oldest surviving buildings, the Hezlett House.
The only World Heritage Site in Northern Ireland, the Giant's Causeway is one of the world's truly must-see destinations. Once said to have been built by giants, the 40,000 or so hexagonal columns were actually formed by volcanic eruptions. The legends that surround this area run deep, however, and visitors may get swept up in the myths of massive men and shipwrecks—Girona of the Spanish Armada foundered here in 1588—by walking among the stones.
With more than 100 square miles of natural limestone in County Clare offering ancient stone structures, grassy fields, caves, and jagged countryside, the Burren is an explorer's dream. Among the top sites to see while visiting are the Ailwee Caves, a two million year old cave system; the Poulnabrone Portal Dolmen, an ancient stone tomb dating between 2,000 and 2,500 B.C.; Leamaneh Castle, with its 15th-century residential tower and 17th-century fortified home; and Caherconnell Stone Fort, a nearly perfectly preserved structure dating back between 400 and 1200 A.D.
About an hour south of Dublin, Glendalough, or Valley of the Two Lakes, houses the ruins of what was once one of the leading monastic settlements in Ireland. A hermit monk named Saint Kevin founded the monastery before his death in about 618. The settlement flourished for the next 600 years. Today, visitors can explore stone structures, churches, a cathedral, a round tower, and a cemetery.
Cliffs of Moher
One of the most photographed places in Ireland, the Cliffs of Moher ascend more than 700 feet above the water and cover nearly five miles. The dramatic cliffs are home to several species of sea birds, including the only mainland colony of Atlantic Puffins, Razorbills, and Choughs. Visitors are welcome to climb the stairs leading to O'Brien's Tower, which provides panoramic views. On a clear day, you may even catch a glimpse of the Aran Islands.
Ring of Kerry
Medieval ruins, sandy beaches, lakes, mountains, a lush forest, and a jagged coastline all call the Ring of Kerry home. Part of the Iveragh Peninsula, it's 110 miles of pure beauty. The drive takes place in County Kerry in southwestern Ireland, and begins and ends in the town of Killarney, which makes a good base camp for a trip. It's easy to travel the circuit in one day, but to see some of the sites off the beaten path, such as Valencia Island and the Gaeltacht area around Portmagee, requires a bit more time.
Located in Galway Bay, the three Aran Islands provide a perfect glimpse into some enduring Irish traditions—Gaelic is still spoken and most people get around by horse and buggy or bike. The largest of the three islands, Inis Mor, is the most well-known and offers the greatest amount of modern-day conveniences. Inis Meain, or the middle island, is the least visited and clings proudly to its Irish cultural tradition. On a clear day, Inis Oirr, or the East Island, provides unparalleled views of the Cliffs of Moher.
Just eight miles off the coast of Portmagee and towering more than 700 feet above the water, you will find the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Skellig Michael, which houses a well-preserved sixth century monastic settlement. Visitors are welcome to walk in the footsteps of the monks who once inhabited this island by climbing the 670 steps leading to the now abandoned beehive-shaped huts. Puffins make the island their home in the late spring, while gannets consume every ledge on the nearby Little Skellig.
Once briefly named "Queenstown" in honor of a visit from Queen Victoria in 1849, Cobh reverted to its original name in 1921. Located on the Great Island in Cork Harbor, the town's streets climb a hill crowned by a cathedral overlooking the water. As the embarkation point, including the Titanic's last port of call, to America, Cobh was the last glimpse of Ireland for many people.
Article Appeared in USA Today Newspaper