A Magical Vacation to Ireland's Countryside

Lara Leibman and her trained hawk, Inka

As my Aer Lingus flight descended into Shannon, the most extraordinary landscape came into sight. This was just my first glimpse of the vivid and myriad hues of green that exist in this beautiful country. 

While I had been to Dublin previously, I’d decided to explore the Irish countryside this time, especially as it was summertime and the weather was bound to be warmer. Brendan Vacations, a preferred Frosch partner, ensured that each day featured something special that now serves as a lasting memory. The contributions of my driver, a member of Brendan’s chauffer / guide service, played a large role in the success of my trip. His knowledge of Irish history was impressive and I was very comfortable throughout the lengthy drives that are an integral part of seeing the Irish landscape.

My first stop was Ashford Castle in County Mayo, which has witnessed an enormous change. Once owned by the Guinness family, the castle was bought in 2013 by the Tollman family, which owns Red Carnation Hotels. The company reopened its doors in April 2015 after a two-year, $70 million restoration; it also added a cinema, billiards room and cigar terrace. The Cottage is secluded and romantic for a couple looking for a getaway. Following its renovation, Ashford Castle is certainly one of the most luxurious resorts in the world.

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The Ring of Kerry in County Kerry is a 106-mile tourist trail that runs through some of the best scenery in Ireland.

The estate has one of the largest equestrian centers in the country; there’s also fishing on Lake Corrib and Ireland’s first school of falconry. Tree climbing, ziplining, clay-pigeon shooting, archery, cycling, horse and carriage rides, horseback riding, wine tastings, hiking and kayaking are just a few of the other activities available, in addition to its spa. I had the most unbelievable experience with my trained hawk, Inka, as I learned how to engage her so she would land on my arm in search of little morsels of food. 

With three restaurants to try, there was no need to go off-property. The food was delicious at George V Dining Room, Cullen’s at the Dungeon and Cullen’s at the Cottage

From Ashford Castle, I set out to Connemara, a terrain that is wild, rocky and grassy with the Twelve Bens mountains and a lake in the background. There were sheep grazing everywhere, and stone walls and houses with pretty Irish gardens dotted the landscape. I visited a lovely little town called Clifden, which is also the only town in Connemara. 

From Connemara, I went to Kylemore Abbey and its Victorian Walled Garden in County Galway. Kylemore is home to a community of nuns of the Benedictine Order who came in 1920 after their Abbey in Belgium was destroyed in WWI. They settled at Kylemore and opened a boarding school for girls and restored the Abbey, Gothic Church and Garden. Today, 12 nuns remain in residence, but the school has closed. As directors of the Kylemore Trust, these Benedictine nuns continue with their daily life of work and prayer, supervising the administration, business, farming, handmade crafts and welcoming guests. It is a beautiful spot to visit for tea or lunch. 

In County Galway, I also stopped at Moran’s by the Weir for some Galway Bay oysters, chips, fish chowder and prawns. Ireland has some of the best fresh seafood, and I certainly had my fill on this trip. After lunch, I strolled through Salthill, a quaint seaside town just outside Galway City.

Next was the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. The cliffs rise to a maximum height of 702 feet and extend to five miles over the Atlantic Ocean on the western seaboard of County Clare. Ireland’s largest surfing wave is at the base of the cliffs called “Aileen’s” by surfers and is featured in surf movies “Sea Fever” and “Waveriders.” 

The Cliffs of Moher are located at the southwestern edge of the Burren region in County Clare. They rise to a height of 702 feet and extend to five miles over the Atlantic Ocean.

As it had been a bit chilly and windy at the Cliffs, I popped into Dromoland Castle in County Clare for a spot of tea on the way back to Ashford Castle. Located eight miles from Shannon Airport, Dromoland is another beautiful castle in Ireland, set on the shores of Lough Dromoland and surrounded by 450 acres of scenery. 

Saying goodbye to Ashford Castle was difficult, but it was time to move on to Killarney. The Ring of Kerry in County Kerry has 106 miles of beautiful scenery. The weather held up, which allowed me to fully absorb the blues of the sky and sea, combined with the different shades of green in the countryside and forest along the way. During the drive, I also saw picturesque towns like Kenmare (population: 1,500) and Sneem (population: 500). 

My guided hike through Killarney Park was another highlight. From a hike up to the Torc Waterfall or Torc Mountain to visiting the little beach, taking a boat ride across the lake or a ride in a jaunting car (Killarney Park’s version of a horse and carriage ride), the beautiful park has something to appeal to everyone. Breathing the fresh air during our two-hour hike was invigorating; I only wish I’d allocated more time to be in the park. While based in Killarney, I recommend staying at Killarney Park Hotel, which is centrally located in the town.

The Dingle Peninsula was another highlight. Dingle (population: 1,500) has the largest number of pubs per head of population in any town. It’s a fishing village where I had some more wonderful seafood (mussels and salmon), which I topped off with some of the best homemade ice cream at Murphy’s. As I was in Ireland, I felt it was most appropriate to try two flavors, Bailey’s and honeycomb; both delicious. 

Ballyfin reopened as a five-star hotel in County Laois after years of renovation. Spread over 614 acres, the hotel has just 20 rooms.

En route to Dublin, I stopped for a quick visit to Blarney Castle in County Cork. Alas, I did not wait in the long line to kiss the stone, but if this is a “must see / do” for you, get there at the crack of dawn to line up. Driving the town of Ardmore brought me to a delightful hotel, Cliff House Hotel. This Relais & Châteaux property is located in County Waterford. All 36 rooms have sea views; many have terraces or balconies. I don’t think I’ve ever had such wonderful sticky toffee pudding as I had that day for lunch at Cliff House; no wonder the hotel has a Michelin Star restaurant. After long drives and exploring the countryside, nothing was better than a stay at this warm, cozy property where you can sit by the rocks or on the terrace and read a book as you gaze out at the sea. 

In Dublin, the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin was on my list, along with a drive to Howth Head for the spectacular views of Dublin Bay and the Dublin Mountains. My stay at The Westbury could not have been nicer, with its central location on Grafton Street, all the best shopping is nearby, as well as some great restaurants.  

My final stop was Ballyfin in County Laois, which only opened as an exclusive hotel in May 2011 after years of restoration. With only 20 rooms, Ballyfin has beautiful art and furnishings. Set amidst 614 acres, it is remote and peaceful and was the perfect ending to my journey.

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