In June 2017, after 12 years living in Australia, I decided to do what a lot of Irish ex-pats do and return home for a trial period to see how I felt about living ‘back home’. So furniture, camera gear, 2 Aussie moggie cats and all, I packed up and shipped it all back to Dublin.
It was glorious getting back to my original home city after not living there for so long. The Irish ‘Summer’ was splendid (yes I did just write that) and I spent most of the summer horse riding in the beautiful Phoenix Park - one of, if not the largest enclosed public park spaces in Europe and a delight in which to spend a beautiful Summer’s Day - complete with 1000’s of deer and stags pottering about the place which equates to instant Instagram fodder…
However as much as I love my home town of Dublin, its amazing cosy pubs and friendly people and genuine ‘craic’, I have to admit one of my most favourite things to do when I head back to Ireland is to jump in the car and do a 5-6 night road trip ‘down the country’
A lot of the places I stayed in during my trip are featured on two websites
Both these accommodation sites feature historic style properties full of history, old world charm and all of which ooze character.
For this trip I primarily focused my destination on the west coast of Ireland. I call this area of Ireland a ‘mini New Zealand’, in particular the stunning Connemara area in Co. Galway. I find when you go to this part of the world you feel you have left all your troubles behind and know you are going to meet the most friendly and warm people, stand staring at an abundance of jaw-dropping scenery, hear great live Irish music, drink loads of Guinness, eat amazing fresh seafood and local produce and just feel like you’ve escaped the madness of the real world for a few days.
The Wild Atlantic Way drive covers 9 counties and spans half the coastline of southern and western Ireland. It starts in Kinsale in West Cork continuing all the way up to the tip of Co. Donegal covering 2500km in total. It has become a massive tourist draw for Ireland and it stands to its reputation of being one of the most beautiful drives in the world.
I decided to do a bit of this trip in October last and kicked off by spending 1 night in Co. Wickow – also known as ‘The Garden of Ireland”. Thanks to the M50 motorway that you take to drive down from Dublin stunning mountains and lush scenery in about 40 minutes will surround you. Once you hit the area of Kilmacanogue (Pron. Kill-Ma-Can-ique) and see the 2 Sugar Loaf Mountains, you know you have left city life behind. Most people wouldn’t go to Wicklow if heading to the west, but this area of Ireland is one of my most loved and my sister lives there so I had to stop in and say hello! In Kilmacanogue stop off for a look around Avoca Hand weavers, this location is one of the largest of a chain of Irish craft and home wares/foodie shops which is jam-packed with incredible ceramics, clothes, foodie delights and they have a wonderful glass pavilion-style verandah restaurant and café there.
A further 20 mins drive south will bring you to the small town of Rathnew where I stopped off for my first night at Hunters Hotel. Hunter’s is famous amongst Wicklow and Dublin locals for its incredibly maintained gardens, full of the most sublime array of flowers and plants in full bloom in the summer months. It’s a wonderful place even to just stop off at and have afternoon tea or a G&T in the sun. Ireland's oldest coaching inn, the hotel has been operated by the Hunter/Gelletlie family since 1825 and is situated just 5 minutes from Mount Usher Gardens, one of Ireland's most celebrated gardens. Hunter's Hotel has been voted one of Ireland's Top Ten Most Beautiful Hotels by the Good Hotel Guide, 2016.
It’s a delight to stay in, little corridors, wonky floors abundant with old world charm, the cosy bar is a great place to have a pre-dinner drink before settling in for a few hours over dinner enjoying the best locally-sourced produce cooked to perfection in a somewhat traditional yet incredibly homely manner.
With a wonderful cooked Irish breakfast in my belly, I left Hunter’s early the next day and headed south towards Glendalough which is a massive tourist attraction in Ireland. For thousands of years people have been drawn to ‘the valley of the two lakes‘ for its spectacular scenery, rich history, archaeology and abundant wildlife. Glendalough is a remarkable place that will still your mind, inspire your heart and fill your soul.
The Glendalough Hotel is a great place to stay over. Right beside the Monastic site, food is fantastic - some of the best I have had in Ireland and very reasonably priced.
After that is was then onto Dingle, which is a fairly decent drive by Irish standards - 5.5 hours, you can however break it up with a stop over for lunch in the town of Kilkenny, or drive straight to the quaint town of Kinsale in west Cork, which is the starting point of the Wild Atlantic Way.
Dingle is one of my all time favourite towns in Ireland and it’s worth the drive. Situated right at the end of the Dingle peninsula in Co. Kerry. If you drive here from west Cork you will notice a massive change in the scenery as it becomes much more rugged and the coastline is dotted with sandy beaches. The town itself is full of quaint, very authentic pubs, including Dick Mack’s, which is one of the town’s most interesting and dates back to 1899. It’s jam-packed with old world charm and character. Live trad Irish music is often heard pouring out from its walls and the Guinness flows on Tap. Try to nab the snug to sit in if you can. All the pubs and bars and restaurants here thrive on suppling the most amazing fresh seafood. A big pot of fresh mussels with Irish brown bread a pint of the black stuff is essential, to be enjoyed in front of a roaring fire in the evening.
When you are in Dingle a trip around the Slea Head Drive is a must. To do it properly, set aside about 4 hours. The drive is a circular route, forming part of the Wild Atlantic Way, beginning and ending in Dingle, it encompasses a large number of attractions and literally stunning views on the western end of the peninsula.
The Famine House Cottages on the drive are a must. It’s a moving experience which offers a a real sense of what it would have been like to live during the Great Irish Famine in the 1840's in total poverty. Any visitor to Ireland really should experience this to understand the Irish and their history. The elevation of the sight gives a fantastic panoramic view of nearby prehistoric Dúnbeg Fort, Dingle Bay, South Kerry and Skellig Rocks (Star Wars location) on a clear day.
On leaving Dingle I headed north towards Co. Clare to my next hotel destination, I stopped off – as is mandatory – to have another look at the stunning Cliffs of Moher in Lislorkan. These cliffs are one of Ireland’s most visited natural attractions and well worth visit.
A fun thing to do a little inland from the cliffs, is take a trip to Father Ted’s House… or Glanquin House as it’s less famously know as… This is the property used in the hugely popular TV comedy show. It’s a family owned house and organic farm. The exterior was only used in the programme but you can stop off, have afternoon tea inside and join in a guided walk of the Burren region where they take you to famous locations featured in the show.
This is a gem of a guesthouse to stay in, situated in the heart of the Burren region of Ireland. Owned and run by Mark Helmore who is a truly splendid chap, full of knowledge on just about anything and who is insanely warm and friendly.
Built in 1788, the Georgian Villa offers fine views over Galway Bay. It feels really secluded but it’s only a 20 min walk to a good pub – Linnane’s Lobster Bar – which serves the best crab claws I have every tasted.
The house offers two bedrooms to choose from, both beautifully and tastefully presented offering warmth and total comfort. There is a cosy sitting room in which there is a generous honour bar and breakfast is cooked by Mark which is sumptuous and super tasty including a selection of jams Mark makes himself. Dinner is available too if requested.
After leaving Mount Vernon I made my way past Galway city and headed out into the iconic Connemara area of Co. Galway. This is a bucket list area of Ireland and quite like nowhere else on the planet; its scenery is truly remarkable and quite jaw dropping on a lot of occasions.
I chose to drive the scenic coast route and arrived at my next hotel around 7pm. The drive from Screebe to Cashel House Hotel as the light was fading is just another one of those outrageously scenic ones and not to be missed.
Cashel House Hotel, which overlooks the majestic Cashel Bay on the west coast of Ireland. This is a 19th century gracious country home nestled in the heart of Connemara and surrounded of 50 acres of gardens and woodland walks
The bedrooms and suites are individually decorated and furnished with antiques presenting a charming chintzy country house style.
I enjoyed a few pre and post dinner drinks sitting in front of the fire in their super cosy sitting room and enjoyed yet another wonderful meal of local produce and Connemara lamb. They serve dinner in a large glass conservatory style room, which is super elegant and grand.
Next morning I took advantage of pottering about their gloriously enchanting flower and herb gardens, which are secluded and a joy to meander around. Full of little hidden pathways and nooks and crannies, they were extremely peaceful and a lovely highlight of the property.
After a leisurely drive through Connemara’s coastline stopping off in Clifden for lunch, and then heading back inland to see more of the countryside’s visual delights, I headed towards my next hotel…
Delphi Lodge is a stunning 1830’s, 13-bedroom country house, fishing lodge and hotel set in quite possibly, the most spectacular setting I have seen in Connemara. The drive there from Maam Cross via the small town of Leenaun, it achingly beautiful, serene and rugged. It is surrounded by the tallest mountains in Connemara and overlooks the lakes and rivers of the Delphi Valley famous for their salmon and sea trout fishing.
I stayed here for two nights. The house is incredibly beautiful and cosy and the bedrooms are same. Their approach at Delphi Lodge is that you’re not coming to stay in a hotel, rather in their ‘home’ so as such their gourmet dinners, which are lavish and insanely well prepared, cooked and presented are set around a communal dining table, complete with candelabras and flowers. You dine with fellow guests and there is a wonderful sense that you are a guest at a house party. Both the large sitting room and cosy library have fires roaring from early morning.
The following day I checked out of the lodge and packed up and made my way to a place I had wanted to visit for years due to a close childhood friend raving about spending many a summer’s holiday there as a kid – Achill Island.
It’s a 2 and half hour’s drive so you can do it at a leisurely pace. I stopped off in Westport on the way, which is great buzzy town full of shops and restaurants and cosy bars and has a wonderful vibrancy about itself.
Achill sound and Achill island really does feel so remote. The island itself is made up of 87% peat bog so driving onto it does feel a little moon-like. There is very striking scenery at the beautiful sandy and expansive Keem Beach across the water which really reminded me of it’s similarities to parts of New Zealand, but on a slightly smaller scale.
More fresh seafood consumed and another pint in and it was onto my final hotel of this journey. From Achill it is just over a 1 hour drive back to the area of Enniscoe ion Co. Mayo and the next and possibly, most beautiful hotel of them all Enniscoe House which sits on the edge of the expansive Lough Conn.
ENNISCOE HOUSE, CO MAYO
A family estate since the 1650’s, this is a house, which dates from the 1790’s. Susan is your host and head chef and is wonderfully welcoming. From the second you drive up the impressive avenue the to walking through the over-sized front door into the magnificently grand hallway, you know you are going to experience a piece of heritage during your stay.
Their 6 bedrooms are large and very fine in their grandeur, each of which has their own story. The one I stayed in made me immediately feel upon walking into it that I had been transported back in time and was in a Jane Austin novel… compete with canopy bed and fine views over the expansive parkland and lake.
Drinks are enjoyed in the remarkable drawing room in front of a blazing fire where you can meet and chat to the other guests, then it’s into the intimate, yet very sumptuous dining room for a feast of great food freshly prepared by Susan and sourced from the richly stocked organic market garden in the grounds of the house.