Have the past couple of years led you to conclude that some social distancing may not be such a bad thing after all? Do you now feel an urge to avoid our most crowded attractions? If you feel ill-prepared to face the masses or are simply seeking demurer charms that lie off the beaten path, read on. Ireland is a place of almost infinite variety and unexpected gems. Ample opportunity exists to escape the crowds if you follow the road less travelled to these alternative destinations.
Skip: Giant’s Causeway | Visit: Murlough Bay
Post-pandemic, the Giant’s Causeway remains Northern Ireland’s most visited attraction, and can become infernally crowded. If such isn’t your bag, head further east to a sequestered location where many scenes from the HBO series Game of Thrones were filmed. Immediately, you will realise that the moviemakers fell on their feet here. Murlough Bay is one of Northern Ireland’s hidden treasures: a time-warp realm of idyllic pastures and ancient oaks surrounded by towering cliffs. It remains charmingly unaltered from the medieval period and the perfect place to recreate the 15th century War of the Roses. To explore fully, follow the 4km walking trail from the car park down to the coastline. Swing right along the pristine beach and then return to your start point by way of the Archaeology Path and Back Track.
Skip: Carrick-a-Rede | Visit: The Gobbins
Vertigo junkies, when up north, almost invariably head for Carrick-a-Rede and queue resolutely for their one-minute fix while crossing this swaying bridge. A longer and more memorable adrenaline rush is provided by the Gobbins cliff path at Islandmagee. Billed a white-knuckle experience that will leave visitors “feeling like they are walking on water”, the Gobbins has proven very popular since it reopened in 2016. Constructed in 1902, it consists of a dizzying series of bridges, tunnels walkways and staircases clinging tenaciously to vertiginous cliffs. Offering a close and personal experience of the rugged coast, this proved irresistible to Edwardian thrill-seekers. Still resonating today, the Gobbins is a most remarkable place, offering access to an edgy, unforgettable seascape that otherwise would remain the exclusive playground of seabirds. Admission charge. Booking essential at thegobbinscliffpath.com
Skip: Slieve League | Visit: Horn Head
Slieve League, the queen of Donegal tourism, offers soaring cliffs with patinas of colours that attract shed loads of selfie-seekers. For a quieter time, head north instead to a peninsula that gets its name from two vertigo-inducing fingers of land pointing eternally at a restless ocean. From Dunfanaghy, go west to the small car park for Horn Head. A 30-minute walk takes you over Coastguard Hill with views to the marvellously bleak Derryveagh Mountains, including those noblest of Donegal peaks — Muckish and Errigal. Beyond a Napoleonic watchtower is the high point of the Head, where the cliffs are dizzyingly vertiginous. A hypnotic view to postcard-pretty Tory Island is your reward, while northwards the sea has ground out great meandering bays that amble lazily into Donegal’s deepest heartlands.
Skip: Coumshingaun | Visit: The Sgilloge Lakes
The finest glaciated coum on these islands has recently become a victim of its own popularity. The car park at Coumshingaun, Co Waterford, can be a nightmare with vehicles overflowing on to the busy R676, but there are many other sequestered lakes in the Comeragh Mountains that are much less frequented. For a more subdued experience, insert yourself deep into the mountains east of Ballymacarbry village. From the upper car park of the Nire Valley, follow the blue arrows for the Sgilloge Lake Walk downhill and over a pretty footbridge. After a one-hour ramble of about 3km on an informal track, you will reach one and then another secluded mountain lake. Backdropped by towering cliffs, this makes an ideal location for a family picnic before retracing your steps. Sturdy footwear is required for this walk.
Skip: Westport and Croagh Patrick | Visit: Céide Fields
The south of the county is undoubtedly the happening place for Mayo tourism: Westport, Croagh Patrick, the Great Western Greenway. But meander north along the lonesome road that curls around the Nephin mountains and it’s a different world. Breathtaking views of the north Mayo coast unfurl, followed by a dive into Ireland’s prehistory in a magnificently isolated clifftop setting. Dating back almost 6,000 years, the Céide Fields celebrate the seminal moment that civilisation began in Ireland. It was then humans stopped wandering and settled down to become farmers and builders. An unlikely but spectacular location for Ireland’s biggest Neolithic site, it is now Europe’s oldest known field system. Here, you walk through time on the guided tour and learn how these ancient fields were preserved by encroaching bog. Only rediscovered by a local man Patrick Caulfield when turf cutting, the fields are divided by stonewall divisions which lay buried beneath the peat. Top off your day nearby with a visit to the magnificently wild and windswept viewing point of Downpatrick Head.
Skip: Italian Gardens on Garnish Island | Visit: Barley Lake
Renowned for its natural beauty and site of Ireland’s oldest purpose-built hotel, Glengarriff has been a holiday hub since the 18th century. These days, most tourists content themselves with visiting the attractive Italian Gardens on Garnish Island in Bantry Bay or strolling the local woodlands. Few aspire to visit the once busy Barley Lake — a stunningly attractive but now little frequented curl of water secreted high in the Caha Mountains. In past times, visitors staying in local hotels would, on sunny days, take excursions to Barley by horse-drawn cars. Upon arrival, they would enjoy a formal picnic by the lakeshore. These organised picnics have long gone, but you can still gain access by an unforgettably steep and challenging drive. This rises left from the Kenmare Road and is followed by a short walk. On a good day, it remains the perfect place to recreate the old Victorian tradition of a lakeside repast.
Skip: Inishmore and Inisheer | Visit: Inishmaan
Inishmore and Inisheer are such captivating islands they have become victims of their own popularity. On busy weekends they experience tidal tourism at its most frenzied, with waves of day-trippers arriving about noon and departing a few hours later. If this isn’t your bag, head for the less populated but genuinely Irish-speaking Inishmaan. In the quietude for which it is renowned, you can ramble the easy Lúb Cill Cheannannach. Then visit the Dun Feearbhaigh fort and the improbably huge Dún Chonchúir, offering a 360-degree panorama from atop its astounding stonewall defences, which you will probably have to yourself. And if you are feeling adventurous, you can hike the uninhabited south coast, visiting Cathaoir Synge as you return. It was on Inishmaan that playwright JM Synge found inspiration for his great drama, The Playboy of the Western World. But don’t try to do it all in a day. To capture the special ambience, Inishmaan requires at least an overnight stay.
Skip: Newgrange | Visit: Loughcrew
Newgrange is undoubtedly the superstar of Irish prehistoric tourism, but access to the claustrophobic burial chamber is restricted. Of necessity, the whole experience is highly controlled. Visitors must book well in advance and then take a shuttle bus to the site. If this is off-putting, then its more demure cousin near Oldcastle, Co Meath, sings of greater freedom. It offers a short, scenic 20-minute climb to an airy upland filled with echoes from the Neolithic past. After a 20-minute climb, you can roam among 30 passage tombs, spread out across three hilltops. Here, it only takes a little leap of imagination and Stone Age farmers are tending their flocks in the plains below. The undoubted show pony of the site is Cairn T, where rays from the rising sun fill the chamber during both the spring and autumn equinoxes. Cairn T is closed at present, however, but the view from outside and the many antiquities to explore provides ample compensation.
Skip: Gallarus Oratory | Visit: Kilmalkedar
Gallarus Oratory wasn’t built with a view to social distancing. The only intact example of an early Irish oratory, it measures just 5m by 3m and so space is at a premium, particularly when tour groups are about. If this isn’t your cup of tea, follow the signs for 3km along the Cosán na Naomh pilgrim path to Kilmalkedar, the most important Christian site on the Dingle Peninsula. Here, a 12th-century church with earlier inscriptions in Ogham and Latin is thought to have been the model for Cormac’s Chapel in Cashel. You may find such details unimportant, however, for the real attraction is how this place resonates with mystery and stay-awhile charm. It ticks all the right uncommercial, unpackaged boxes for definition as a place apart. Kilmalkedar is the perfect location to linger awhile and get in touch with the past, particularly as the evening sun drops over the western ocean.
Skip: Cliffs of Moher (Co Clare) | Visit: Fogher Cliffs (Co Kerry)
Expensive for parking and regularly overcrowded with queuing at peak times, the Cliffs of Moher can sometimes seem a hyperactive anthill. Moher is indeed awe-inspiring, but Ireland is replete with many other enormous declivities such as the Fogher Cliffs on Valentia Island, Co Kerry. Falling away from the island’s highest point on Geokaun Mountain, the great rock faces tumble 200m to the ocean. For a modest fee, you can walk or drive to the summit, where information panels cover such diverse subjects as local history, wildlife, mythology and seabirds. In this serene location, you won’t need sharp elbows to gain the best vantage point while partaking of the vast 360-degree panorama encompassing the Skellig Islands, Dingle Peninsula, Blasket Islands and the towering Kerry Mountains.
John G O’Dwyer’s latest book, 50 Best Irish Walks — Easy to Moderate, is available in bookshops and from currachbooks.com