8 places in Ireland to see before you die
Published 24/02/2013 | 06:00
Clodagh Finn shares the most stunning sights around the country.
It feels as if you are descending into a mythical underworld as you take the 120 steps down into the water-hewn depths of Doolin Cave in Co Clare, but nothing can really prepare you for the surprise of coming face to face with the largest stalactite in the Northern Hemisphere.
It was rediscovered in 1952 by potholers JM Dickenson and Brian Varley. Speechless, they tiptoed around it, afraid the vibration of their voices would shatter this majestic 24ft specimen that was "poised like the veritable sword of Damocles".
Thankfully, there is no need to worry about that as conservation and safety are big considerations during the 50-minute tours of the cave, which start again at weekends from today. They will run daily from March 17.
For more on the cave, its visitor centre and the nearby nature trail, see doolincave.ie. If you want to make a weekend of it, sample some excellent smoked fish at the Burren Smokehouse (burrensmokehouse.ie) or try some scuba diving in the Atlantic – see Atlanticdivingschool.ie
George Bernard Shaw called it "the most impossible and the most fantastic rock in the world" and he was not exaggerating – do whatever you can to get yourself to Skellig Michael, an island marvel eight miles off the coast of Co Kerry.
This forlorn outpost was once inhabited by 6th-century monks, who chiselled 2,300 steps into the island's brittle sandstone and built a monastery of beehive huts on a lofty perch 600ft above the Atlantic.
Its World Heritage status underlines its international significance, but it does little to capture the experience of visiting the island at the height of summer.
There is something almost sacred about climbing those ancient steps and looking out into the clear blue yonder from the remains of the island chapel.
Boats leave from Portmagee daily in summer. If you can't find your sea legs, the visitor's centre in Portmagee does a great job of bringing the island to life (skelligexperience.com).
On your way home, make sure to drop into the Skellig Chocolate Com pany in Ballinskelligs (skelligs chocolate.com) for outstanding chocolates
Coral Beach, Galway
You won't be the first to be blown away by the coral on the aptly named Coral Beach in Carraroe, Co Galway. Anyone who stumbles on it by chance is mesmerised by the coral underfoot, and there is an overwhelming urge to sieve it through your fingers, like sand, in search of pretty souvenir pieces.
On a bright day, the sea is azure blue and the coral gives a white cast to the sand – you could be in some far-flung tropical island if the exfoliating wind didn't bring you back home with a welcome bang.
Ireland doesn't get much more scenic than this. And all you have to do to enjoy it is stroll along the beach, picking your way through the rock pools on the way.
If you are feeling adventurous, this is an excellent place to go snorkelling.
Visit Carraroe itself, which is famous for the Galway Hooker fishing boats. The peninsula is a walkers' paradise. See ancheathrurua.ie for a selection of way-marked walks and cycling routes.
Island-hopping in the lakelands
It's not that the famous two-faced carved figures on Boa Island in Lough Erne are hard to find, but there is something of the treasure hunt in seeking them out among the gravestones in the overgrown Caldragh burial ground.
They will look just as startled as you are, with their wild, wide eyes and hunched shoulders which, some say, are modelled on pagan deities from the Iron Age. In fact, you could spend a whole weekend on the trail of figures and sculptures among the islands in the Lough.
Devenish is home to a 6th-century monastery, complete with round tower. Visitors can climb to the top of the 100ft tower and take in the views of Fermanagh, a county that is one-third lakeland.
White Island in lower Lough Erne is also worth a visit – take a look at the impressive carved figures at the north wall of the island's 12th-century church.
For more on tours, boat trips and activities on the waterways of Lough Erne, see fermanaghlakelands.com and enniskillen.com
Stacks of adventure
They have been less visited than the moon, but if you're after a unique climbing adventure in one of the most beautiful and remote locations in Ireland, then the 100 or so sea stacks dotted along Donegal's stunning coastline are for you.
Rock climber Iain Miller, the man behind Unique Ascent, says there is huge potential for this fledgling adventure sport and he has spent the past five years exploring the stacks around Donegal and developing up to 500 new routes.
And best of all, people of all abilities will be guided to visit and climb in these places of outstanding natural beauty and solitude.
Here's what those who have done it said: "Standing on a pinpoint summit over 100m above the ocean, 500m from land and 20km from the nearest road can be described as a truly spiritual experience."
Get the Point
Walk along the coastline at Rosses Point in Sligo and enjoy some of the best scenery that Ireland has to offer.
Head towards the pier and look out for the Lady Waiting on the Shore, a monument dedicated to all the local women who waited behind as loved ones went to sea.
Apart from the spectacular views, there is much to see: the ruined Elsinore House, once home to WB Yeats's Uncle Henry Middleton; the Metal Man Light, which has been guiding ships in the narrow waters between the mainland and Oyster Island since 1821; the Old Watch House and Blackrock Lighthouse in the bay.
Back on the unspoilt beach, you might catch a glimpse of people kiteboarding in the powerful waves. If you fancy giving it a go yourself, lsdkiteboarding.com offers lessons at all levels.
See sligotourism.ie for a list of what to do and watch out for upcoming festivals including the international shanty and seafaring festival (rosses pointshanty.com) in June and the Frank Finn Traditional Singing Festival in October (sligotradsingers.ie).
Killarney National Park
I once spotted a kingfisher in Killarney National Park – the blue and orange of its brilliant plummage flashed past in a daze of light and then it was gone.
It's hard to repeat that kind of experience, yet you could spend a lifetime visiting the mountains, lakes, waterfalls and forests tracks in this spectacular expanse of 26,000 acres and never once be disappointed.
The walk to Torc waterfall is wonderful in any weather; there is something about the light dripping through the branches that makes it really special.
But that is only one corner of this singular place.
You're spoiled for choice, from Ross Castle and Inisfallen Island on the lower lake to enduring favourite Muckross House and Gardens, which once played host to Queen Victoria.
Take one of the routes through Tomies Wood and make a short diversion through the native oakwoods to O'Sullivan's Cascade.
But don't take my word for it – go along and make it your own.
For one kayaker, the moonlight paddle on Lough Hyne in West Cork was so memorable that she pledged to replay it in her 'final slideshow' before she died.
You don't have to go that far, but the starlight trip out into the Atlantic is definitely one for your personal annals.
If you are lucky, you might get to see the astonishing bioluminescence, a light emitted by marine life at certain times of the year. It will appear as thousands of tiny lights around your paddle.
Even without that, prepare to see the world from a different perspective – it might be the silhouette of a seabird on the bank, a brilliant orange sunset or the moonlight reflected on the water.
The trip takes two-and-a-half hours, is open to all levels and starts one hour before darkness.
The €45 price includes all equipment.