The best place to holiday in Ireland
‘The Irish Times’ is running a contest to find Ireland’s best holiday spot, and wants you to nominate your favourite. Here, some of our writers choose theirs
Where’s the best place to holiday in Ireland? That’s the challenge we’re putting to readers this year. Last year, we asked you where the best place to live was, and you answered in your enthusiastic hundreds. All 32 counties were represented, in pitches from residents of cities, towns, suburbs, villages and townlands. The eventual winner was Westport, in Co Mayo.
The best place to holiday in Ireland can be where you go to relax and do very little, or where you go to pursue various activities. It can be rural and remote or in a busy, much-visited urban space. It could have a view that unfailingly stirs your spirit, or features that keep bringing you back: heritage or culture; high-quality local produce; outdoor activities; speciality shops; or the people who live there.
You can send your pitches from today, by going to irishtimes.com/bestplace and writing a short, passionate pitch. Every week, from the middle of this month, we’ll publish a selection of your pitches in The Irish Times. The winner will be announced at the end of May.
We’re curious about the holiday destinations that you consider to be the best, and we think tourists from abroad will be interested too.
There are four judges, of whom I am one. The others are Eamon Ryan, Green Party leader, Margaret Jeffares, founder of the Good Food Ireland initiative, and Steve McPhelimy, the Derry-based tour guide. We all have different views about what makes a great place to holiday.
For Ryan, “it depends on the level of welcome.” McPhelimy looks for “things to do in a place.” Jeffares seeks “a high-quality food experience, first and foremost.”
One thing this competition is not about is the panel seeking to replicate their own favourite place to holiday. We want to discover yours.
The winning location will receive a plaque or marker from The Irish Times, which will also publish a story about the winning place, and make a short film.
After Westport was judged to be the best place to live in Ireland, the newspaper and the town hosted a community celebration to mark the accolade.
“We have had lots of community groups visiting us since to see how we did it: Tidy Towns committees, chambers of commerce, all sorts of small community projects. Winning has had a major impact on the town,” says Dermott Langan of Westport Town Council.
“The hotels would definitely say bookings are up from the domestic market, and we find that foreign tourists who come hear have all heard about it being the best place to live.”
One of the things that McPhelimy is looking forward to is reading pitches about places “inside the doughnut”. “I have 15 years’ experience as a tour guide and worked with many nationalities. People always ask me what’s in the middle of the country. “One big thing I hope comes out of the competition is that people will let us know what’s special about holidaying in the midlands.”
As a judge, for McPhelimy, “scenery is not enough. There are hundreds of places in Ireland that have great scenery. The other one I don’t think should be a deciding factor is how friendly the people are there. The welcome you get is across the board in this country. It’s not the deciding factor.
“For me, one of the biggest criteria will be things to do in a place. There should be activities for all ages,” says McPhelimy. “Ease of access is also important.”
“Finally, I’ll be looking for affordability. We all know it’s often cheaper to go to Spain for a week than take a domestic holiday. If I’m going off on a domestic holiday and I spend a lot of money on a meal, I also want to have some cheap eating options.”
“The core thing for me is food when I holiday,” says Jeffares. “It’s very, very important to me that I can have a high-quality food experience. I also want to engage with the authenticity of the area and the uniqueness of the place.
“My favourite holiday in Ireland would be to remote places, but this competition is not about what I like,” says Jeffares.
“I’ll be looking for a rounded experience. Does the place tick all the boxes, like food, image and accommodation? Does it have everything a family will need?
“The place that wins will have to be a very clean place and have a feelgood image. I’d hope that it would have some level of environmental awareness. The people living there would be very important, and they would have pride in their place.”
When Ryan goes on holiday, what attracts him to a place is “the level of welcome. If you’re made to feel genuinely welcome, it has a profound impact. A welcome can be the smallest and subtlest of things, but if you start with that welcome, you can’t go far wrong. If you start with a cold welcome, it’s really hard to win people back.
“What I look for is a connection with nature. I don’t need to see a motorway or an out-of-town retail centre. My wife has made me very good at doing nothing for three weeks on holiday, which I could never do before, but I do like a place with things to do, including safe and easy things for kids.
“What I’ll be looking for as a judge is a sense of community in the best place to holiday. What I mean by that is that you can be good as a community at welcoming tourists, even if people have been coming there for more than 100 years.
“There will have to be a real sense of place. It doesn’t matter where that place is. It’s about making the most of what you have, wherever you are are, and revealing what’s special about that place.”
For me, a great place to holiday in Ireland is the one I want to return to again and again. I’ve travelled to all seven continents, and my philosophy has always been that the more you travel, the bigger the world becomes. That’s why I want to see as many new places outside Ireland as possible, and so I rarely go back to any of them. But when it comes to the country where I live, I treasure the familiarity of returning to holiday in places I love.
Who decides? The judging panel
ROSITA BOLAND ‘Irish Times’ journalist and author of A Secret Map of Ireland.
MARGARET JEFFARES Founder of Good Food Ireland.
EAMON RYAN Leader of the Green Party, former minister and tourism entrepreneur.
STEVE McPHELIMY Tour guide and co-owner of Paddy’s Palace hostel in Derry.
Judging will be chaired by Conor Goodman, Irish Times Features Editor; he will have a casting vote if there’s a tie.
Dublin: A vacation from myself
Until a few years ago, Dublin was simply the city I lived in. In fact, I no longer even lived in the city itself, just worked in it, shopped in it, ate and drank in it, and escaped it. I attuned my daily rhythm to the relentless beat of the city’s day; just another blood vessel pumped by the city’s arteries.
Then, one night in my mid 30s, I did what millions of non-Dubliners had done before me: I booked a hotel room for me and my wife and we stayed the night in town. I finished work that evening and, instead of squeezing on to a commuter train and journeying home with my nose pressed into someone else’s armpit, strolled south to my hotel room. The transformation to tourist was instant and surprising.
There was the novelty of leaving a pub and crossing Grafton Street to get to our room. Next morning we got up early to do the things tourists do: wander aimlessly; stroll though St Stephen’s Green; buy a disappointing breakfast somewhere. We blocked the path while figuring out what we’d do next. We let Dublin wash over us rather than push us around. And, in response, the city took on a beauty that had seemed lost but in fact I had stopped seeing.
In recent years, we’ve enjoyed these occasional treats in which we travel hardly any distance to get far from the norm; when our ebb becomes different from everyone else’s flow. Even a night, plus squeezing every last minute out of that noon hotel checkout, is a battery recharge, even though it punches a hole in the bank account.
There is a Seinfeld episode in which George and Jerry take a “vacation from ourselves”. This involves growing moustaches. I’m rubbish at facial hair, so this is the next best thing: a break from Dublin. In Dublin.
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.
Cork city: Bigger, hillier, sunnier
My family moved from Douglas, in Cork city, to Co Kildare when I was six, and the rift made it a mythical place filled with entertaining cousins and indulgent adults. Cork was sunnier. Cork was bigger. Cork was hillier. The people there were taller, smilier and better dressed. The children had a healthy glow. All the chippers had mushy peas. The mushy peas were better than the mushy peas within the Pale.
This wasn’t just my childhood imagination. It was true. Just ask my Cork friends. One shakes his head with resignation every time he has to brave the capital. “I got kicked out of a pub for being from Cork,” he told me sadly after a night proudly drinking Murphy’s. (I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the reason he was kicked out of the pub, but I feel the pain of a Corkonian outside Cork.) “Dublin just isn’t the same,” he said, before getting the train to Cork.
In childhood I regularly went back to visit relatives in the suburbs of Ballincollig or Glanmire or Mayfield, and occasionally we’d take the gorgeous drive to the former family homestead in Coolmountain, near Dunmanway.
“They’re growing drugs,” said an elderly relative darkly of the New Age hippies living there. “Sure they are,” said everyone, rolling their eyes. In retrospect, they were clearly growing drugs. But it was a lovely place to do so.
In my 20s I frequented the city with a touring band. By this stage my regional identity was a bit confused. When asked where I was from, I’d hesitate. “I used to be from Cork,” I once said from the stage in Nancy Spain’s. “You’re always from Cork, boy!” said my disappointed uncle from the audience.
Nowadays, when I go to Cork it’s because I like Cork. I love tramping around the hills and steps of north Cork, looking across the city. I like wandering through the 18th-century English Market, picking up food. (So does Queen Elizabeth, I hear.)
I like the way the Lee splits into two channels that make a confusing island of the city’s centre. I like Cork Film Festival. I like the capybaras of Fota Wildlife Park. I like how a city filled with art, food, opera and jazz is just a drive from some of the most beautiful landscape in the world.
And, more recently, I like to remember that I’m always from Cork.
Sligo-Leitrim: Freedom and ham
Old habits die hard. I haven’t lived in Sligo for 25 years, but I still talk about going home when we pack for the holidays and long weekends. For a few weeks every summer, our base is Dromahair, a village on the Sligo-Leitrim border, 20km from Sligo town. When the car joins the N4, there is a slight relaxation of the shoulder muscles. By the time we reach Carrick-on-Shannon, the phones have fallen silent and heads are lolling on the back seats.
The house has no landline or internet connection, so there’s no point even thinking about working. Instead, you get a little thrill listening to AA Roadwatch’s daily catalogue of traffic jams as the tractor in front forces you to slow down and admire the sight of Lough Gill.
The Xbox never comes on holidays, and the six of us become tourists in our own country. We take picnics to Lough Key Forest Park, which has playgrounds, interactive challenges, a tree-canopy walk and a zip wire.
It’s mandatory to pay at least one visit each to Rosses Point and Strandhill, followed by ice cream, even when it’s lashing rain. When that rain appears, we take refuge in the Funny Bones play centre, in Collooney, or head for Waterworld in Bundoran, which claims to have the fastest water slide in Ireland.
Afterwards it’s obligatory to have fish and chips in Madden’s Bridge Bar. The seafood chowder comes highly recommended at Hargadons in Sligo town. After a lazy lunch, we emerge blinking into the sunlight of O’Connell Street and go around the corner to Kate’s Kitchen to stock up on local produce and treats.
We go to Eagles Flying, in Ballymote, to watch birds of prey swooping past us, occasionally brushing our hair with their wings. We venture deep into the Arigna mines to experience what life was like for the men who worked in the coal mines until they closed, in 1990.
And in the evenings we look enviously at the many local people who arrive home from work shortly after 5pm and head for the beach with the children. It’s a quality of life some of us can only dream about.
But you may have noticed a few references to rain. It rains. A lot. On one memorable holiday it rained every day until we packed up to leave.
But what do the children like about Leitrim? “There’s more freedom, and I love the ham in McGoldricks’ shop,” says the 11-year-old, who spends hours digging holes in a pile of sand behind the house.
“People are nicer in the shops and restaurants, especially if you break something,” says the eight-year-old, who has been known to knock over a glass or two in Dromahair’s Riverbank restaurant.
“They have cool playgrounds everywhere,” says the seven-year-old, who has to climb every obstacle he sees. “Maaha nquey,” says the two-year-old, who hasn’t mastered talking yet. But if she had, she would remark on the pleasure of running into the sea at Rosses Point, fully clothed.None of them mentions rain.