Europe: Ireland | Emerald Hills, Castles & Cliffs

by Lori Seto

Let's get one thing straight: The Republic of Ireland is not Angela's Ashes meets Riverdance. This richly romantic country offers much more: rolling hills, misty oceanside cliffs, quaint seaside villages, plus grand castles and country manors to pamper you silly. Its symbolic traditions, the genuine hospitality of the Irish people, and the impact of the country's natural beauty make it the perfect resting spot for newlyweds.

Much of the action is situated on the Atlantic coast, convenient to Shannon Airport and national parks, seaside villages, golf courses, and castles. Explore via car along hilly roads that twist and curve through the countryside by day, dine on fresh oysters and salmon and drink in traditional Irish music and pints o' Guinness at a local pub by night.

In A Word: Green

Rain showers are common in Ireland and they keep the rolling hills and meadows swathed in endless kelly green, rendered all the more vibrant next to piercing blue lakes, wildflowers, limestone castles, baahhhing sheep, and the shifting light of moody skies.

Why We'd Go: Eight Features You'll Never Forget

  • Royal digs: Live like a king and queen in one of Ireland's medieval castles. In the fairytale surroundings of Adare Manor, Ashford Castle -- whose slogan is "Excellence Since 1228" -- and Dromoland Castle, you'll wine, dine, and dream in the lap of luxury.
  • Rocky cliffs: For a dramatic setting for your declarations of love, don't miss Ireland's biggest rock stars: the Rock of Cashel (St. Patrick allegedly picked a shamrock here to explain the Trinity) and breathtaking Cliffs of Moher, a five-mile-long sea wall that soars up to 700 feet.
  • Heritage towns: Step back to a time of fairytale thatched-roof cottages and Tudor-style churches in designated Heritage Towns that include Adare, Cashel, and Kinsale. For a complete list of postcard-pretty spots, visit
  • Peninsulas: Explore one of the numerous promontories that jut off the southwest coast of Ireland for breathtaking mountain and coastal views. The Ring of Kerry, a daylong drive that runs along the perimeter of the Iveragh Peninsula, is one of the most popular scenic drives. See also Dingle Peninsula for its unspoiled serenity.
  • Medieval banquets: Feast before a color-soaked pageant of medieval Irish history in music, dance, mime, and rhyme in the hallowed splendor of a 15th-century castle. Best bets include Bunratty Castle, Dunguaire Castle, and Knappogue Castle.
  • Souvenirs: Pottery is a national treasure, and each town has a star craftsman. Visit Magee's in Donegal for Irish handwoven tweeds; browse the narrow streets of Galway for Aran handknit sweaters and Claddagh rings; buy Waterford crystal in Waterford and don't miss the nearby Kilkenny Design Centre, housed in former castle stables and showcasing more than 200 artisans' work. Barren Burren Country offers the Walsh Art Gallery and Craft Workshop in Ballyvaughan, noted for its enamel jewelry of Celtic designs; the Burren Perfumery in Carron, which creates perfumes and bath oils from local flowers; and the Burren Smokehouse at Lisdoonvarna, a small spa town, where you can learn how fresh Atlantic salmon is smoked.
  • Parks: Get drunk on the fresh air and scenery of Killarney National Park (dotted with lakes, streams, and the 10,000-acre Muckross Estate, Connemara National Park (think ethereal glacial lakes, mountains, and boglands), and the Burren (a scenic rocky park and nature preserve that is home to large colonies of birds -- including the incredibly cute puffin -- and wildflowers at their peak in late May). Explore the world beneath the Burren at Ailwee Cave, in Ballyvaughan, a 3,415-foot cave formed millions of years ago. Visit the nearby Burren Gold Cheese-making shop when you emerge.
  • Sports: One of the best ways to experience the emerald isle? Take your pick of outdoor activities. Ireland boasts 300 inland and 36 seaside golf courses (Portmarnock, Ballybunion, Lahinch, Killarney, Royal County Down, and Royal Portrush are among the best); 27 different "Waymarked Ways" hiking trails covering 2,750 kilometers; and numerous riding stables for trots along the coast or over lush green glens. You can even snorkel or scuba dive in the Atlantic during warmer weather! Feeling lazy? Sit back and watch the national sports of hurling (not the New Orleans variety) or Gaelic football.

Pucker Up: Best Place to Kiss

Visit the 15th-century stronghold of Blarney Castle to find -- and smooch -- the legendary Blarney Stone and be empowered with the "gift of gab." Queen Elizabeth I reputedly added the word "blarney" to the vocabulary when she said, "This is all Blarney; what he says, he never means," a diss on then Lord Blarney Cormac MacCarthy's empty promises.

Where To Stay: Romantic Rooms

    Many tour companies exist to help plan self-drive vacations; visit the excellent Ireland Vacation website for a well-organized selection of luxury tours, themed vacations, and golf programs. Most rates include the car, basic insurance, accommodations (ranging from B&Bs to castles), breakfasts, service charges, and taxes. Some include dinners, spa treatments, transfers, pre-booked tee times, greens fees, and trip cancellation insurance. You can even opt for a chauffeur!
  • Looking for leads on the royal treatment? Ireland's Blue Book is an association of castles, manor houses, country homes, and restaurants with accommodations.
  • Budget Love Nests: Let serendipity and cheap but charming family-run digs be your guide. The extremely helpful Irish Tourist Board, (800) 223-6470, will send you a comprehensive Bed & Breakfast guide (simply phone from the road to check room availability and get directions) or you can search for and book rooms in advance at the Town & Country Homes website. Note: Not all B&Bs accept credit cards. To avoid carrying a wad of cash, buy a handful of B&B vouchers from a travel agent before you go and redeem them along the way. (Hint: Buy a few less than you think you'll need so you can splurge on a castle or hotel when the mood strikes.)

When to Go: Ireland At Its Best

  • Best weather: May to September; short showers common throughout the year (don't forget an umbrella or slicker)
  • Best prices: Mid-September to June (some accommodations closed October through March, especially in west and northwest Ireland)
  • Festival highlights: The big daddy is St. Patrick's Day in mid-March. Enjoy also the Roaring '20s Fest in Killarney in mid-March; Pan Celtic International Fest the last week in April; Murphy's Mussel Fair in Bantry the second week of May; Fleadh Nua ("fla-nooa"), a festival of traditional Irish music and dance, in Ennis in late May; Murphy's Cat Laughs Fest, an international comedy festival, in Kilkenny the first week of June; Strawberry Fair in Wexford in late June; the Galway Arts Fest during the last two weeks of July; Kilkenny Art Week the last week in Aug; Oyster Fest in Clarenbridge in early Sept; Arts Fest (mid-Sept.) and Gourmet Fest (first weekend in Oct.) in Kinsale; Oyster Fest the last weekend in Sept in Galway; Cork Film Fest (second week in Oct.) and Jazz Fest (last weekend in Oct.)
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