More than Dublin: A Roadtrip Through the Intriguing Irish Countryside

For CheapOAir Miles Away. October 2017

When I told my husband we were going to spend 12 days in Ireland, he was confused. That’s a long time to be drinking Guinness, hanging out in pubs, and partying in Dublin, he thought. In fact, most visitors to Ireland end up spending a majority of their time in Dublin, though some make day trips to nearby castles, churches, and cliffs. We decided to rent a car and drive around the country, exploring some of the most scenic routes and historic accommodations.

The different regions of Ireland are known for their own unique geography, architecture, and cuisine. Here are some of the most interesting places we discovered around the island.

A quick note of caution about driving in Ireland: You need to be comfortable driving on the left-hand side on narrow country roads. Sometimes the roads can get curvy with rocks on one side and no room for passing. Car rental companies lose an average of 700 left side car mirrors per week!

Modern Irish Cuisine in Cork

From Shannon airport, we made our way to the southeastern part of Ireland through Country Cork. Cork City, the second largest city in Ireland, is a university town built on marshlands. We found it full of upscale designer boutiques, international restaurants and cafes, and lots of live music. We drove further east to the village of Shanagarry and stayed at a traditional upscale Irish country farmhouse.

Ballymaloe House is a charming family home surrounded by farmlands, flower and herb gardens, fruit trees, and a granary. The owner Myrtle Allen (now 93), opened one of the first home restaurants in her own dining room serving modern Irish cuisine, a novel concept at the time. Because to serve liquor, she needed to have a minimum number of 11 bedrooms, she moved her family upstairs and opened an inn at her home. Fifty years later, the family still runs Ballymaloe House, serving farm-to-table meals created by Allen, a Michelin star chef. Next door is Ballymaloe Cooking School where students from all over the world come for 3-month intensives.

Rugged Coastlines of Kerry

More country roads lined with thousands of blackface sheep led us from Cork to Kenmare, a picturesque town in County Kerry. Park Hotel Kenmare is one of the oldest five-star hotels in Ireland, dating back to 1897. Dark red hallways, tall fireplaces, antique furnishings, and views of Kenmare Bay really make you feel like you’ve stepped back into the 19th-century. The hotel has walking trails and golf grounds on its premises, but they also organize hiking and horseback riding tours through the mountains at Killarney National Park.

We spent a day driving through misty narrow roads along the rugged coastlines in the Ring of Beara. Even with the occasional clouds and rain, we still stopped to visit sandy coves, beaches, and had lunch at MacCarthy’s, which was the #1 rated Irish pub of 2016. Close by was also the Ring of Kerry, a 120-mile scenic circuit around the Iveragh Peninsula, which beckons visitors to see even more spectacular stone forts, waterfalls, and valleys.

Georgian History in Limerick

Heading north on the Wild Atlantic Way, the famous driving and biking route, we spotted places to kayak, kiteboard, paraglide, swim, and dive. After a brief stop for Murphy’s Irish coffee ice cream at the tourist-friendly town of Dingle, we arrived at Limerick, the third largest city in Ireland. We checked into No 1 Perry Square, a 1830’s Georgian townhouse that overlooks the people’s park and has been reinvented into a charming boutique hotel and spa.

A historic Viking town, Limerick is home to King John’s Castle on the banks of Shannon river. It also offers many venues to watch live Irish dance and music for free.

Majestic Cliffs in Clare

We made our way back to Shannon in County Clare for a luxurious treat at the Dromoland Castle, a majestic castle and the ancestral home of the O’Briens of Dromoland. Surrounded by 400 acres of golf courses, gardens, forests, and a lake, the dark blue limestone castle looked like something out of a fairytale. We ate at the Michelin star The Earl of Thomond’s Restaurant while listening to live harp, and we also learned falconry and archery and took a romantic horse carriage ride at sunset.

In the morning, we drove on to the small town of Doolin and met a local farmer for a guided hike to the iconic Cliffs of Moher, Ireland’s most popular natural landmark. With narrow trails, next to death-defying rugged drops, and gusty Atlantic winds, the 5-mile cliff walk is not for the ffaint-hearted. Most travelers go to the Cliffs visitor center, but the best views are from further away.

Driving through the Burren region was vastly different from other places in Ireland. Abundant with limestone hills, the area is home to three quarters of Ireland’s species of flowers. We found the tucked away Burren Perfumery, a good place to relax with a cup of tea and pick up some homemade perfumes to take back with you. A few hours at the Burren Smokehouse — a gathering place for drinks, pizza, and live music — was an amazing opportunity to interact with the locals.

Victorian Lake House in Galway

The road to Oughterard took us through scenic mountains, rivers, and lakes, arriving in a dense forest. Currarevagh House is the oldest family-owned Victorian country manor inn. We found it on the shores of Lough Corrib, a lake abundant in wild brown trout. Fishing is one of the area’s most popular activities. The Hodgson family still owns and operates the inn, serving traditional Irish meals made from local ingredients. Family portraits and collectibles populated the drawing room and library and the Hodgson offered us boats to explore the lake and Aran Islands.

Chilled Salmon in Mayo

Small villages around Connemara Mountains were perfect stops to snap a few great shots, We also found a few places to rent boats or simply walk along the lakes. Further north in County Mayo, we discovered the Ice House Hotel in the city of Ballina. At the turn of the century,  the iconic building was a salmon storage facility, with wild Irish salmon preserved in ice before being shipped to the markets in Dublin and Liverpool. Now, it’s a funky hotel with 32 spacious modern rooms and panoramic balconies overlooking the river Moy.

In Ice House’s trendy bar, we spied some of the original vaulted coves of the storehouse and ordered samplings of the local gin, on ice of course. Afterwards, we relaxed at the hotel’s Chill Spa, which was equipped with an outdoor cedar barrel sauna and seaweed hot tubs overlooking the river.

At the end of the road trip, my husband was completely surprised to see how the rest of the country was so different from Dublin. We both agreed that, to really understand the culture, people, and geography of Ireland, you need to get out of the big city.

~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away. October 2017

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