Nine looped winter walks around Ireland (with a great meal at the end)
Build up an appetite walking these trails, which all have a great restaurant to refuel in afterwards
Hiking in the outdoors is a great way of staying in shape, and a well-proven gateway to a healthy and positive lifestyle. At summer’s end however, many of us will retreat to the fireside until spring comes calling again. Sure you’d be crazy to go walking off-season in the great outdoors with those cold abbreviated days, mist shrouded hills and winter storms, right?
Wrong! Winter hiking doesn’t have to be all heroics and hardship, for we now have a multitude of low-level and waymarked trails around Ireland ideal for those who enjoy a winter ramble, free from the danger of becoming lost or benighted. And the good news is that many of these are located close to some of our finest pubs and restaurants to refuel in afterwards.
For a memorable day in the lead up to Christmas, book in advance at one of the award-wining restaurants listed below (winter opening times and dates may vary). Work up an appetite on the looped walk, ending with a relaxing meal and a drink for the perfect winter’s day out.
Leafy Loop/Durrow Castle, Co Laois
Start from Castle Durrow Hotel by following the green walking arrows along the winding paths of the Leafy Loop, which consist of rustic lanes, riverside trails and woodland tracks. You will encounter mixed woodlands, open farmland and magnificent views. The 23km route takes around five hours to complete and makes a full 360-degree circuit of Durrow village.
There are abundant opportunities to go a la carte with your route. You can make your outing shorter by returning directly to the village at several points along the way, should you get hungry or tired. Your reward for the walk is a splendid meal in the old world elegance of the Castle Durrow restaurant, which offers splendid views of the renowned walled gardens. castledurrow.com
Rock a Thorabh Loop/Aherlow House, Co Tipperary
From the car park of the Aherlow House Hotel, this trail, which takes around two hours to complete, follows woodland paths through the Glen of Aherlow Nature Reserve. Follow the red arrows for the Rock a Thorabh Loop, past the splendid viewing point beside the Christ the King statue. Continue along the forest roadway, and after a right turn ascend to reach a substantial rock outcrop. This is Rock an Thorabh (the rock of the boar), which offers a wonderful viewing point for the Golden Vale, Tipperary Town and the Slievefelim Hills.
Continue following the arrows to reach a public road. Cross the road but ignore the arrows pointing left. Instead, walk down the driveway of the Aherlow House hotel for a splendid finish to your day in the Tree Tops Restaurant. aherlowhouse.ie
Wood Loop/Monks Pub, Co Clare
Want to get close and personal with the Burren without the challenge of crossing unforgiving limestone? If so, this almost entirely level walk traversing minor roads, green lanes, woodland tracks and field systems is just for you. Taking around two hours, it offers splendid views of the Burren’s uniquely folded limestone layers and the surrounding terraced hills. Starting from Ballyvaughan, the route traverses a nearby valley, passing close by the splendid Aillwee Cave that, if you have enough time, is well worth a visit.
Afterwards, follow the arrows back to Ballyvaughan to sample fresh Atlantic seafood by the fire in the internationally renowned Monks Restaurant. monks.ie
Muckross Lake Loop/ Muckross Park Hotel, Co Kerry
Located at the heart of Killarney National Park, the five-star Muckross Park Hotel is ideally situated for a wide variety of easy but achingly beautiful trails. My favourite is a 3.5 hour ramble that brings you across the N71 to Muckross House, where you pick up waymarkers for the Muckross Lake Loop. The unchallenging trail then meanders out to the Muckross Peninsula, which separates Muckross Lake from Lough Leane.
Afterwards, it’s on by the water’s edge for a full circuit of the inner lake including the natural woodland at Reenadinna. This is a good place to spot Ireland’s last surviving herd of wild red deer. Then, it is back to the hotel for superb food in the Yew Tree Restaurant, or beside the open fire in Monks Bar. muckrosspark.com
Ardmore Cliff Walk/Cliff House Hotel, Co Waterford
Casual strollers will love this undemanding 90 minute stroll for the spectacular coastal views and sense of reconnecting with history. Starting from the Cliff House Hotel, continue past the early Christian Church and Well of St Declan. Beyond, the cliff-top path meanders spectacularly around Ardmore Head, with great declivities falling left to the wreck of the Sampson crane ship, which foundered in 1988. Rounding Rams Head, you will be rewarded with a photogenic vista over Youghal Bay to the east Cork coastline.
Head inland next to explore St Declan’s Monastery. Occupying a striking location, the most prominent landmarks are the 30m high round tower and the now roofless Cathedral. Afterwards, it is short ramble back to Cliff House for your meal in the Michelin starred restaurant with views over the darkening ocean to the twinkling lights across the bay. cliffhousehotel.ie
Baylough Loop/Old Convent, Clogheen, Co Tipperary
From the Old Convent, take the footpath south to a parking place on the right. Follow the walking arrows for the East Munster way uphill, but when the arrows point left, continue straight ahead to the breath-taking corrie lake known as Baylough where tradition holds is the watery grave of a local witch named Petticoat Loose. Return by following the arrows for Tipperary Heritage Way through the lovely mixed woodland of Loughglenbridge.
Rejoin the East Munster Way here and go left. Soon you will be back in the elegant surroundings of the Old Convent, after a bracing two hour walk and anticipating the eight-course Irish Artisan Tasting Menu, served at 8pm. Outside the Christmas period, the Old Convent is open at weekends only. theoldconvent.ie
Commons Loop/ Ghan House, Co Louth
From Ghan House, recently voted Leinster’s Country House Hotel of the Year, walk the short distance to Carlingford Tourist Office. Here, you pick up the green arrows for the Commons Loop, which should take around 90 minutes to complete. The first part of the walk ascends onto the foothills of the Cooley Mountains. The route then crosses the lower slopes of Slieve Foye with memorable views along the coast and across Carlingford Lough to the dreamy outline of the Mourne Mountains. Finally, it sweeps downhill towards the village and the promise of gourmet food in the multi-award-winning restaurant at Ghan House. ghanhouse.com
From Ashford Castle follow the rich waters of the Cong river upstream to pass a pretty footbridge which appeared in The Quiet Man movie. Continue through Cong Woods, which was once part of the 26,000 acre Ashford Estate owned by the Guinness family. Following the red walking arrows beneath a canopy of green you will come upon Pigeonhole Cave, where a subterranean river that drains from Lough Mask into Lough Corrib is reputedly the abode of a fairy trout. Afterwards, the trail meanders past a ruin known as the priest’s house before continuing by a woodland path skirting the Ashford Castle estate.
Reaching the Cong river, a right turn leads you back to the castle after a relaxed stroll of around 90 minutes. Finish the day in style with afternoon tea in the Connaught Room while enjoying grand vistas over Lough Corrib. ashfordcastle.com
Cliff Path Loop/ King Sitric, Howth, Co Dublin
The late Gay Byrne once said that it was walking in Howth that kept him sane in the turbulent media world, and it is easy to see why. Part of Dublin, but also removed from it, Howth offers a wonderful selection of spectacular walks for all abilities. For a lovely pre-meal ramble, follow the green arrows for the Cliff Path Loop from the village to reach a well-trodden trail offering spectacular coastal views of Lambay Island and Ireland’s Eye.
After 3 km, you have a choice to continue on the more challenging, but rewarding, Bog of Frogs Loop. Most likely however, you will ascend by the green arrows to the summit car park, from which a downhill trail returns you to the village after a memorable 90minute outing. Howth abounds with high quality places to eat, so you’re spoiled for choice. My personal favourite is the King Sitric, recently named Georgina Campbell’s Irish Seafood Restaurant of the Year. kingsitric.ie
John G O’Dwyer’s latest book, Wild Stories from the Irish Uplands, is published by Currach Books
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