The best place to holiday in Ireland
Rathlin Island: My heart beats faster
Rathlin Island lies off the Antrim coast but exists in my mind as a kind of mythical land, shrouded in mist, guarded by fat seals on rocks, the guillemots and puffins and kittiwakes keeping a shrill swooping vigil from spectacular cliffs.
You get there by a short ferry ride, but the 10km distance from Ballycastle is deceptive. You are really floating into another world, leaving behind the humdrum and the tame and the ordinary. Your heart beats a little faster as the whitewashed Manor House and the harbour heave into view. You are going back to Rathlin.
I can’t help getting romantic about the place. I was falling in love when I first visited. It was summer time, and we rented bikes to cycle all over the tiny L-shaped island. It’s just 1.5km wide and 10km long.
That first morning we pedalled up to the cliffs, where we lay on the grass out of breath, watching the all-day bird-colonies cabaret. The West Lighthouse clings like a barnacle to the rocks here. There are no “facilities” to speak of. It’s just you and the birds and the sea and the wind.
We always stayed in room 1 at the Manor House. It’s an old Georgian gentleman’s home owned by the National Trust. Accommodation is modest, but our room looked out to the sea, and the bathroom, by virtue of being at the bottom of a few steps, felt old-world and luxurious.
On rainy days we holed up here with the champagne we’d brought, wearing two jumpers, staring out at the wild water.
The food at the Manor House was always good – the freshest fish of course, cooked to perfection. We haven’t been back since having children, but, looking enviously at the reviews on TripAdvisor, it seems to do tapas now, and sushi, and the reports of both are good. And there’s an award-winning chip shop, Emma’s Chip Ahoy, where you can get freshly caught pan-fried mackerel or crab in a bap.
If you ask, the locals will tell you stories of Robert the Bruce, who, legend has it, watched his persevering spider 700 years ago while holed up in a cave. And more recently there’s the tale of Richard Branson, who ended up here when his hot-air balloon blew off course.
What I love most about the place is the freedom I feel there and the rushing kind of silence that envelopes the harbour at nightfall.
Rathlin Island is the sort of magical place that, once discovered, you want to keep to yourself. Then again, the best things in life should be shared. And this very special place really is one of the best.
Wicklow: Burgers, beaches and sleep
It was a week spent in a mobile home on a beach near Brittas that made me fall for Co Wicklow. I’d bought the week at a dream auction fundraiser, bidding like a lunatic so my children could meet a lot of other children they knew on the beach while mothers flipped burgers and opened bottles of wine, fathers came down in the evenings and everyone slept in sandy bunks.
They loved it, and we started looking for a mobile of our own, but somehow we ended up with a remote farmhouse in the hinterland that’s just a spin away from the N11 but reminds me, on warm still days, of my mother’s home place, in rural Co Monaghan.
It’s hidden away in those tall scraggy Wicklow pines, and when you get there, there’s nothing to do once the fridge has been filled and inspections done for mice.
It took everyone a while to get used to the utter dark at night, but, God, you get a great night’s sleep there.
Early in the morning, pheasants, escapees from a rich solicitor’s estate nearby, stroll and peck in the garden. At first the children said, “But what will we do?” But they adapted.
There’s a hammock and a stream outside, cards and Monopoly inside, and vague promises of day trips: Greenane to play in the maze; Aughrim to mooch by the river; Wicklow town, where the Brittas ladies meet in the cafe, sitting outside in the sun, discussing life.
My favourite day in Wicklow is taking a spin through the back roads. From Roundwood through Moneystown and into Rathdrum, from Barndarrig across to Redcross for a bit of golf and then over hills and down into Avoca, where you can sit by the mill race and eat scones as big as fists.
On those little roads, Wicklow feels more remote than the wilds of Donegal or Kerry, but its trump card is this: on those days when the rain sheets down, and the heating breaks down, you can always pack everyone into the car and bring them back to Dublin.
Beara: Love at first sight
It was the summer of 2005. It was early in the morning. Thanks to the vagueness of the geography of southwest Ireland when viewed from the offices of The Irish Times – “You’re where? Mizen Head? Fantastic. Can you do a story on the Blaskets?” – I had to get from Schull to Dingle in time for breakfast.
Half-asleep, I slipped through a series of sleeping towns. One was in a location so magnificent it penetrated even my coffee-deprived brain. I glanced in the rear-view mirror. “Glengarriff,” said the signpost.
Groggily, I drove on. The road climbed and curled. Mist drizzled on to a surface made slippery by roadworks and loose gravel. Up ahead, something loomed grey and gothic in the half-light. A tunnel? I gritted my teeth and steamed ahead.
Darkness enveloped me. And then I emerged on top of the world. I stared, stunned. Way to the west and far below, a series of rocky peaks stretched on forever, enigmatic and ancient and still. It was like emerging into the foothills of heaven.
That was my first view of the Caha Mountains, and it was love at first sight. Subsequent forays on to the Beara Peninsula – mostly on foot, often on the 220km Slí Beara walking trail, once by sitting still for a whole weekend at the Dzogchen Beara Buddhist retreat – have cemented the relationship.
I’ve tramped to standing stones and wedge tombs, scrambled far above the zigzags of the Healy Pass Road, wandered into the mysterious “land of a thousand lakes” east of Glen Lough Mountain. Eaten an apple on the slopes of Hungry Hill. And I haven’t discovered the half of it.
Like all love affairs, this one has its ups and downs. I have regular tiffs with Glengarriff – something to do with the piped Irish music in those sheepskin-bedecked touristy places on the main drag, perhaps – and swear I’m never going back, only to be drawn by the irresistible double lure of a bowl of chowder in the bar of Casey’s Hotel and a stroll among the oldest oak trees in Ireland, at Glengarriff Nature Reserve.
What else is there to do? You can island-hop: take the ferry to garden-heaven Garinish, drive to Bere Island, catch the cable car to Dursey. You shouldn’t miss the witty sculpture garden known as the Ewe, with its whimsical ecomessages.
The tiny, perfectly formed Adrigole Arts craft shop; the gorgeous Sarah Walker Gallery; the copper museum at Allihies. Have lunch at Manning’s Emporium, by the sea at Ballylickey; buy wine and olives for later.
At Murphy’s Restaurant on the pier at Castletown Bere, the fish is so fresh it practically strolls in the door and says hello.
And if you fancy a spooky early-morning drive, you know where to go.
Newcastle: Let your hair down
If you like dodgems and licking a Mr Whippy ice cream as you stroll along the prom, you’ll love Newcastle in Co Down. It offers the traditional seaside experience: sweet and salty. In recent years the town has been spruced up; the new maritime-inspired promenade has crow’s-nest lamp posts, public art and decked walkways. Knickerbocker glories and banana splits have been displaced by tapas and bagels.
Yet Newcastle retains the slightly transgressive, pleasure-seeking vibe that is the hallmark of the true seaside town. It’s the kind of place you can let your hair down.
But the town’s true glory is the Mourne Mountains. They rise magnificently over Newcastle, giving you something to stare at as you eat your candyfloss. These are kind, friendly mountains, in the spring and summer anyway, which makes them perfect for a walking holiday. Most are small enough to climb easily, even with children, but not so diminutive that they’re not worth bothering with. You can rent a cottage on the hills, or even camp.
The Mournes are endearing in their beauty, smooth flanks dotted with bog cotton and curly-horned sheep, criss-crossed by drystone walls and cold, clear streams. From Slieve Binnian, the views over Silent Valley and the Irish Sea are incredible. All you can hear is the sough of the wind and the hum of bees in the heather.
If mountains aren’t your thing, try shady walks in Tollymore Forest Park, or Murlough Nature Reserve, a 6,000-year-old dune system owned by the National Trust. Royal County Down golf club, dating from 1889, is one of the oldest in Ireland.
For relaxation, choose from the swanky Slieve Donard spa, with its hushed treatment rooms and “hot vitality pools”, or the more down-to-earth Soak Seaweed Baths, housed in a Victorian seafront house, where you can also rent an apartment.
And there are always the slot machines.
Clifden: Like nowhere else
Without wanting to sound like an extra from The Quiet Man, some of my most treasured holiday moments involve a cottage without electricity in Clifden. Heated by damp turf and illuminated by candlelight, we ate simple food cooked on a wood-fired stove and laughed a lot as we took for granted our youth, the sunshine and our good fortune at finding ourselves in the beating heart of a unique part of the world.
The only problem with Connemara is Dubliners. For a few weeks in summer, the narrow roads around Clifden are overrun with high-end cars with their telltale registration plates. But time your visit right and Connemara is like nowhere else.
When the sun shines there, the sky seems bluer than anywhere else. When it rains – and it does – it is definitely blacker. Swims in the emerald water that washes over the white strands of Dog’s Bay and Gurteen are more invigorating, and walks across the damp green hills, speckled with yellow heathers, are more bracing.
There are few places in Ireland where you can fish for wild salmon or trout in the morning, hillwalk before lunch, swim in the afternoon and then take a ferry to an island to eat fresh lobster.
Everyone knows about the Aran Islands, and with good reason, but Inisbofin beats them. Small and ruggedly beautiful, it is loved by botanists, geologists, environmentalists, beach anglers and anyone who likes a pint of stout with friendly strangers.
There is the Sky Road. Shorter and less well known than the Ring of Kerry, and all the better for it. Less famous again, the Connemara Loop, which circles the northwest, is even more satisfying. It starts in Letterfrack and takes you through sweeping valleys along the coast, where you pass Lettergesh and Glassilaun, two of the country’s best beaches. From there it is on to Leenane, through Inagh Valley and past Kylemore Abbey. Before you can say, “This is the most beautiful, most unspoilt place on earth,” you will be back in Letterfrack.