The End of the Rainbow: Why Ireland Beckons


by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 3/13/15


Sheer numbers help explain Ireland’s travel appeal: more than 40 million Americans claim some degree of Irish heritage.  Genealogy travel, in fact, helped lure 1.2 million of them to the Emerald Isle just last year.  And, on the heels of a steadily improving economy, Ireland expects to set a new visitor record in 2015 – more than 7.7 million guests from around the world.

Spotted on the road from Dublin to Western Ireland
Travelers to Ireland will find that the rumors are true: the people here are remarkably friendly, the culture is fascinating, the scenery is spectacular and craic – that’s the word Irish use to describe a good time – is pervasive.

This is also a country where tradition reigns supreme, from Irish music, which is vibrant and personal, to Ireland’s pubs, where locals gather for conversation as much as a pint.  Tradition may be at its most glorious during St. Patrick’s Festival – a week-long fete here, not just a day – where wearing green is mandatory.  In Dublin, the feast culminates on March 17th with a mardi gras-style parade through city streets that easily draws a green waft of 700,000 revelers.

Travel to Ireland has become increasingly easier, with direct flights from all major U.S. cities.  Out of L.A., outbound travel will likely include an east coast stopover before an overnight flight across the Atlantic.  AerLingus flies nonstop to out of SFO.  And direct flights are easy to nab from New York, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, DC, Orlando, Philadelphia and Charlotte.  Three international airports to choose from allow for strategic arrivals: Dublin to the east, Shannon to the west and newly expanded Belfast to the north.

Driving is the best way to see Ireland
(once you figure out how to drive on the left)
Getting around by bus or train is easy, but the best way to appreciate the breathtaking beauty of Ireland is from behind the wheel.  Roads are well maintained (have change handy for the occasional toll) and signs abound.  It’s the willingness to drive off the grid, though, and to make unexpected turns that often reveals the landscape’s best gems, from castle ruins to rolling farms to sweeping shores.  Anywhere you want to go is usually no more than two hours away; from Dublin, a two-hour drive will put you as far north as Belfast.  The left side of the road is for driving, the right lane is for passing.  Seatbelts are the law.  And distances are shown in kilometers (except for Northern Ireland, which measures in miles).


The 5-Star Adare Manor
Ireland is home to hotels that fit all budgets.  But this is the land of B&Bs.  More than 1000 certified bed-and-breakfasts throughout Ireland offer guests a uniquely affordable option and innkeepers provide insider perspectives on local things to see and do.  There are also hundreds of castles and historic houses here, many of which have been transformed into 5-star hotels where sprawling grounds match a white-glove approach to hospitality.  The 19th century Adare Manor in County Limerick, cradled by a championship golf course and family-friendly villas, and the Ashford Castle in County Mayo, with a history that stretches back 700 years, are traveler favorites.

Here’s a quick geographic look at some of Ireland’s traveler treasures.

Dublin
The rich history of the Republic of Ireland’s capital city, located on the eastern coast, is buoyed by contemporary flare. 

The River Liffey flows through downtown Dublin, and its bridges offer perfect vantage points.   Shoppers delight in hot spots like Temple Bar, on the river’s south banks, and lively O’Connell Street.  Nearby, the Grafton Street promenade is a retail haven and a hub for spontaneous music-making; U2’s Irish-born Bono has held impromptu acoustic sets here.

The River Liffey flows through Dublin
Imbibing is a favorite pastime here, and a tourist draw.  The Guinness Storehouse, where the legendary dark and frothy beer has been brewed since the 1750s, is a seven-story interactive attraction where visitors learn to pour the perfect pint, savor Guinness-infused cuisine and enjoy sweeping views from the top-floor Gravity Bar.  At the Old Jameson Distillery, side-by-side comparative tastings against Scotch and Bourbon reveal why Ireland’s triple-distilled approach generates such a beautifully smooth spirit.

The Poolbeg Lighthouse in Dublin Bay, spotted on the ferry ride to Howth
The evening pub crawl is a multisensory history lesson.  Actors lead travelers through famous pubs where native sons like Oscar Wilde and James Joyce once sipped for inspiration.  Song, storytelling and reenactments, along with stops at intellectual hangouts like Trinity College, create a literary lesson unlike any other.  Works by William Butler Yeats will likely feature prominently in 2015, as Ireland celebrates what would have been the Nobel Prize-winning poet’s 150th birthday. Be ready to share a pint at every stop.

Landmarks like St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Dublin Castle are not to be missed.  And for an easy day trip, visit the quaint fishing village of Howth; set on a sweeping bay and easily accessible by bus or rail, sea-to-table dining here is superb.

The North
Though mostly seamless, a visit to Northern Ireland is a trip across the border into the United Kingdom.  Pay with British sterling here, not Euros, and notice myriad cultural differences.  But classic Irish hospitality is very much alive and well here, too, as well as quintessential countryside imagery.

The new Titanic Belfast intercative museum is spectacular
Belfast, the capital, is in throes of a renaissance, with visitor numbers climbing quickly.  This ship-building epicenter pays homage to its most famous vessel with Titanic Belfast, a brand new interactive museum that brings visitors on board and takes them through dining halls, first class quarters and, in dramatic fashion, even the Titanic’s final underwater resting place.

Fans of the hit HBO show Game of Thrones are now flocking here, too.  Many of the show’s interiors, like the Throne Room and the Sept of Baelor, are filmed at Belfast’s Titanic Studios.  But it’s the dramatic natural setting along the dreamy Causeway Coastal Route that brings the show’s magical worlds to life, including the Cushendun Caves, Cairncastle and Ballintroy Harbour.  The Dark Hedges, in County Antrim, is a striking, brooding avenue of arched beech trees that becomes the treacherous King’s Road in Westeros.

Continue the drive to the Giants Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; the tens of thousands of interlocking rock columns that jut from the ocean’s edge stem from ancient volcanic eruptions and create an awe-inspiring panorama.

St. Patrick founded one of his first churches at this site in Armagh
Northern Ireland’s County Down is home to some of Europe’s greatest golf courses, including Hollywood Golf Club, which served as the early training ground for world superstar Rory McElroy, and Ardglass, with holes set on the edges of towering cliffs.

The tiny town of Armagh is where St. Patrick established one of his very first churches and where the Public Library keeps the original copy of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, complete with notes handwritten by the author.

The West
The Wild Atlantic Way, along the stunning western shores of Ireland, is the longest designated driving route in the world.  Getting lost while driving should be a goal, for the untouched geological wonders it has to offer.  Breathtaking visuals abound here, from the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal to Kinsale in County Cork.  The crowning jewels here are the Cliffs of Moher, chiseled crags that tower 400 feet above the sea.  Hike along the edge with care, but do venture forth for some of the most spectacular coastal visuals on Earth.
 
The views from atop the Cliffs of Moher are breathtaking
 
The villages that dot the west are boutique snapshots of this land’s historic past.  Adare Village wows with its curvy streets and pastel-façade homes; Market Place Adare for breakfast and 1826 Adare Restaurant for dinner are a must.  In Limerick, along the River Shannon, the 13th century King John’s Castle welcomes visitors into its historic halls, as well as a brand new 3-D interactive experience.
 
King John's Castle in Limerick dates back to the 13th century
In Galway, where labyrinth cobblestone streets ooze medieval character, it’s the festivals that beckon year-round, from the Early Music Festival in May to the International Oyster and Seafood Festival in September.

The South
Festivals and fairs are part of the cultural experience in southern Ireland, too.  In the historic fishing town of Kinsale, the annual Gourmet Festival draws thousands of foodies every October. 

In Waterford, the world-famous namesake crystal factory offers tours.  The former Viking town of Wexford is home to a popular horse racetrack.  And in the southwestern city of Killarney, visitors can visit a 15th century Friscan friary and catch a match of Gaelic football.

Cork City is the third biggest city in Ireland, a bustling epicenter full of cathedrals, landmarks and breweries.  There’s a museum dedicated to Cork’s history in butter production and export.  The English Market is one-stop shopping of totally local fare, from produce to cheeses to meats. 

And for the adventurous, Wicklow Mountains National Park offers several hiking trails; this is also a perfect spot to unplug amidst beautiful lakes and serene landscapes.


For more information on travel to Ireland, visit www.ireland.com, and for a comprehensive online list of exclusive Ireland deals and tips, go to www.travelzoo.com/destinations/ireland.


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