It is hard to believe, but despite taking numerous trips to the UK and Europe, I had never been to Ireland -- and that needed to change. This New Year's, rather than head to a sunny destination, where hotel prices and airfare were exorbitant, I decided to book an eight-night stay to explore the Emerald Isle. I wanted to enjoy the famed countryside, medieval castles, and the newly vibrant cities of Dublin and Belfast. Also, I wanted an overseas destination that -- in winter -- would not be freezing cold. Ireland fit the bill perfectly.
I wanted to experience the northern coast of Ireland as well as the west. For the north, this meant starting my experience in Belfast: a small, lovely city with a handful of attractions. While Belfast boasts a nice mix of bars, some decent restaurants, the Titanic Museum (on the site where the ship was built), and the outdoor peace murals (commemorating those who died during the Northern Ireland civil war period of conflict between loyalists -- to the UK -- and secessionists), one can explore these in a day or two. The Benedicts of Belfast, Hilton, and Europe Hotels all are good options in Belfast. I chose to stay at the Benedicts and, while the rooms are basic, the location is great, and the hotel boasts a very popular Irish bar and restaurant which comes alive most evenings. So one does not need to go far to experience traditional Irish music, dance, and beer. It draws both locals and tourists, and is great fun (or craic, as they say there).
While in Belfast, I highly recommend a visit to the North’s Antrim Coast, the Ropes Bridge, and Giant’s Causeway. It's possible to arrange a day tour, as I did, and spend your time visiting these sites. I loved the countryside and its lush, rolling hills. The Giant’s Causeway is a field of stupendous lava columns formed about a million years ago that seem to rise out of the sea. The benefit of visiting these sites with a bus tour is that one can enjoy the scenery without having to drive. On the other hand, if you love to hike, then you may want your own car in order to stay longer at Giant’s Causeway and spend hours hiking around the georgeous coastal trails. (A car tip: You may want to rent an automatic, as the Irish drive on the left side of the road and shifting gears becomes difficult.) Later that same day, I bounced around some bars in Belfast, and spent the day chatting with the supremely friendly locals, who aren't shy to welcome any American into their pub.
After driving just under three hours from Dublin to Galway (it is a straight shot across the country), I stopped off for a couple of hours to walk this charming town. By late afternoon, I went to Ashford Castle for afternoon tea. This is a lovely property and a perfect way to end a long day of car travel, but make certain to reserve ahead. By nightfall, I ventured on to Dromoland, a luxury castle hotel where I stayed for two nights. If you want old-world elegance with modern conveniences, then Dromoland is ideal. I was in the main house (which I suggest), which is where the drawing rooms, restaurant, and bar are located, along with the spa. My recently renovated room boasted a living room, separate bedroom, dressing room, and extraordinarily spacious bathroom. The staff was friendly, the food was terrific (I had breakfast, dinner, and afternoon tea), and there are a plethora of activities on site from walking trails, to falconry (as one might expect at a castle!), archery, and clay pidgeon shooting. And while the castle offers everything you need, one would be remiss not to venture off the property for at least one evening. I had dinner in a traditional pub about 15 minutes away, at Durty Nelly’s. (I got used to the funny names of the pubs. In Belfast, one of my favorites was Dirty McNasty’s.) The food at Durty Nelly’s was very good and the live music entertainment was a treat; a very typical Irish evening.
After my first night at Dromoland, the next day I went to visit the Cliffs of Moher (Tip: Bring a windbreaker and wear boots in case of muddy walking conditions). The soaring cliffs are gorgeous, and one can see forever on a clear day. I also drove through some quaint towns in the Burren. This region is known for excellent biking and walking trails.
After a couple of days in the west of Ireland, I drove back to Dublin for four nights. For a smart splurge, stay at The Merrion. This boutique hotel is made up of several townhouses and here, one experiences the graciousness of Irish hospitality. The only drawback is that the drawing room is not large, so if you wish to have tea, be sure to reserve a place in advance. Also, I suggest a room in the garden wing, but request a room with a view as not all "garden wing" rooms actually look out onto the garden. The Shelbourne is another good choice in the luxury category, and a good value pick is the Fitzwilliam Hotel. Dublin is perfect for a long weekend stay, as most of the city is walkable and most sights can be seen in a few days. I enjoyed exploring Trinity College, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Kilmainham jail (this is especially important so as to understand the history of Ireland and its independence movement from Britain), the Guinness Storehouse (take the tour; and try the beer -- it's lighter than you'd think!), and then the Temple Bar neighborhood at night (many of the interesting pubs are located here). For dinner, of course, there are a myriad of Irish pubs to consider. But note that the French influence dates back many years from when the French aided the Irish separatists. So there is a current of excellent French-Irish spots to explore. Try the one Michelin-star restaurant, L’Ecrivain (amazing food). And for other options consider Fade St. Social (for tapas), Il Vicoletto (terrific Italian), and Shanahans or F.X Buckley (less formal) for delicious steak.
I don’t think anyone can have a bad time in Ireland. It is just the right mix of city and country scenery, with wonderfully friendly people to welcome tourists to its beautiful land.