Sights for bored eyes

Sat, Feb 9, 2013, 00:00

Irish tourism has had a makeover, with all sorts of new attractions on offer, writes JOHN G O'DWYER

Time was when we thought we’d get instantly wealthy by selling bits of Ireland to each other on an endless national merry-go-round and then building cash-cow hotels with the proceeds. Unsurprisingly, many of these are now as eerily unpopulated as lounge bars on Good Friday. Slowly, the realisation is dawning on us that maintaining a vibrant tourism industry requires elbow grease. No longer is it possible to rely exclusively on the old, inexpensive stalwarts of people, place and pace to fill Ireland’s over-abundant bedrooms.

The once immutable face of Irish tourism is being given a makeover as we belatedly reach into our pockets to create world-class experiences. From the Burren to Belfast and Waterford to Westmeath, visitor attractions are springing up. So now is a great time to put that overseas break on hold and experience instead what is new and captivating in the Irish landscape.

Crumlin Road Gaol, Belfast

A working prison until 1996, it has been intertwined with Northern Ireland’s troublesome history since 1846. The recently re-opened gaol offers guided tours that are vivid with characterisation and dotted with references to household-name politicians who spent time inside as “guests” of the Queen. The visit to the eerie underground tunnel, which conveyed prisoners to the now burned-out courthouse, is memorable. Most emotional is the condemned cell and execution room, where the original rope is still in place as an ongoing testament to the barbarity of capital punishment. crumlinroadgaol.com; adults £7.50, concession £5.50, family £22.00.

Waterford Medieval Museum

Located between Cathedral Square and the Bishop’s Palace, Waterford’s new medieval museum recreates life as it was in the city during the Middle Ages. Several medieval structures, including the unforgettable Chorister’s Hall, are integrated within. Along with Reginald’s Tower and the Bishop’s Palace, the museum provides a compelling experience, with live actors playing medieval characters. waterfordtreasures.com/medieval-museum; adults €5, senior/ student €4, family €10.

Causeway Visitor Centre, Co Antrim

When a major new visitor centre was proposed for the Giant’s Causeway an immediate hullabaloo arose between creationists and geologists about its origins. Are its unique basalt columns the result of a volcanic explosion? Were they created by the almighty? Or perhaps built by Fionn Mac Cumhail as a path to Scotland?

The controversy ended with all explanations being offered in the visitor centre, which has been seamlessly integrated with the surrounding landscape. Inside, the centre offers interactive information on the area’s abundant myths, rich history and unique geology. nationaltrust.org.uk/giants-causeway; adults £8.50, children £4.25 (Giant’s Causeway remains free of charge).

Tralee Bay Wetlands, Co Kerry

Kerry has been given a great geographic hand and its citizenry have long been renowned for playing it to full advantage. The latest innovative ace they’ve played is the Tralee Wetlands Experience, which is accessed via the eco-friendly visitor centre. Here, the diversity of the Tralee Bay ecosystem is explained using interactive displays, audiovisual presentations and hands-on activities. Also included is a safari boat trip through the wetlands and access to a 20m high viewing tower with panoramic views of Tralee Bay. discoverireland.ie; adults €6, children €4, OAP/student €5, family €20.

Skyline, Croke Park, Dublin

If your unfulfilled ambition was to reach dizzy heights in Croke Park, fear not, for you can now reach greater elevation in the stands above. The Skyline tour takes participants 44m upwards to the roof of the stadium, on a great 0.6 km panoramic walk offering superb views across Dublin. One section takes you you directly above the pitch, but vertigo sufferers needn’t worry – this is avoidable. After a memorable and breezy experience, explore the lives of GAA greats, past and present, in the well laid-out stadium museum. skylinecrokepark.ie; adults €25, children €15, concession €20, family €65.

Awesome Walls, Dublin

A retail park just off the M50 isn’t exactly where you’d expect to find one of Ireland’s most adrelenin-rich visitor attractions, but Awesome Walls is the place to go for a buzz. Awesome in the sense that it’s enormous size makes it one of the largest indoor climbing centres in Europe, it has facilities for both roped and unroped ascents. Don’t think this is only for those who habitually eat nails for breakfast, though. Climbing is a captivating sport that can be enjoyed at all levels of accomplishment, and children are almost guaranteed to love it. awesomewalls.ie; adults €10, concession €9, junior €8.

Titanic Belfast

Located in a weirdly attractive building, amid industrial surroundings in the old Belfast docklands, Titanic Belfast comes alive only when you’re inside. Then the exhibits draw you in by using special effects, reconstructions and interactive features. It avoids the pitfall of Titanic fatigue by recounting the history of the great ship, from construction to catastrophic demise, through the lives of those involved. The tour ends poignantly with the aftermath of the sinking and the rediscovery of the wreckage. titanicbelfast.com; adults £13.50, children £6.75, concession £9.50, family £34.

Doolin/Hag’s Head coastal walk, Co Clare

Closed in 2001 by foot and mouth disease, southern Ireland’s finest coastal path is set to reopen in May. Offering 12km of ocean-front scenery starting from Hag’s Head, your steps will flow sublimely into each other as above it all you traverse great clifftops that amplify the sound of the restless waters below.

Once past the busy Cliffs of Moher, welcome solitude returns above the great eminence of Aill Na Searrach, from where an insanely colourful mix of ocean and Burren is your backdrop as you descend into Doolin. The walk takes about three hours to complete. Park in Doolin and then get a friend or a taxi to drop you off to the walk start point at Hag’s Head. Refreshments are available enroute at the Cliffs of Moher.

Athlone Castle, Co Westmeath

Athlone town has much to offer. To complement its location on the River Shannon, Athlone Castle has had a major facelift, transforming it into a state-of-the-art, multisensory experience. Eight exhibitions follow a chronological and thematic sequence, telling the story of Athlone’s turbulent past and providing hands-on fun that will appeal to children and adults alike. athlone.ie/athlone-castle; adults €8, OAP/students €6, children €4, family €20.

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