In the fourth part of his series exploring the hidden treasures around our new motorways, Pól Ó Conghaile has 10 fabulous detours from the M9. Photography: Ronan Lang
The M9 is the main driving route from Dublin to Waterford.
The Knocktopher to Waterford section of the motorway opened in March, and the final section (a 40km stretch from Knocktopher to Carlow), is scheduled to open before the end of 2010.
Linking up with the new N25 Waterford bypass, the finished M9 (measuring approximately 120km) should bring Waterford to within a two-hour journey of Dublin.
There are currently no tolls on the M9.
The M9 passes through Kildare, Carlow, Kilkenny and Waterford.
The speed limits
There is a 120km/h limit on the M9.
Along the N9 sections, the limit is 100km/h.
Kilkenny City, Jerpoint Abbey, Woodstock Gardens, Carlow's Garden Trail and the new Waterford Crystal Visitor Centre are all accessible from the M/N9.
Log on to discoverireland.ie for more sights and activities along the route.
The bypassed town
Its heyday seems long gone, though the Quaker legacy is preserved in a small library and museum in the old Meeting House (with a room devoted to the Quaker diarist Mary Leadbetter) and a Shaker store stocked with charming doll's houses (a furniture showroom is out back).
It's a peculiar place that can feel a little left behind, but if you give it time -- and swot up on your Shackletons and Leadbetters -- Ballitore gets under your skin.
Details: Exit the M9 at Junction 3, taking the R747 and the N9 towards Crookstown. Ballitore Library and Quaker Museum (059 862 3344) opens noon-5pm (Tuesdays-Saturdays).
A stop for the kids
Coming face to face with a Mexican boa constrictor is the last thing I expected on the M9, but that's exactly what happens at Reptile Village, the mini-zoo in Gowran, Co Kilkenny. Alice, the said snake, made a cameo appearance at last year's Rose of Tralee, but I'm a far squirmier perch.
Not that snakes are thrown at you when you walk in. Reptile Village has an educational brief, and visitors are led through a collection ranging from monitor lizards to Florida alligators, setting them at their ease before the touchy-feely stuff begins. By then, your preconceptions will be dashed, and Alice awaits.
Details: Exit the N9 at Gowran. The Reptile Village (056 772 6757; reptilevillage.net) is 100m off the R702 outside the town. Entry costs €8.90/€5.70.
The lunch break
Carlow's Visual Centre for Contemporary Art is a stunning building, a series of glass boxes that seems to suck in sunlight during the day and glow in the evening. I'm not surprised to find quality art here. What I am surprised to find, however, is quality food.
Lennons@VISUAL is the successor to Lennon's Café, Ross and Sinéad Byrne's popular eatery on Tullow Street, and a serious upgrade. I like the floor-to-ceiling windows (looking out on Carlow Cathedral); the black, reflective surfaces on to which specials are written; the hang-ball lights suspended like nests from the ceiling; and the flowering chive used as centrepieces. Its name is passé, but Lennons@VISUAL is a classy space.
I order smoked haddock and leek potato cakes, served with salad and wedges (€12). It's a super-tasty dish. The fishcakes glisten, their crumbed shells cracking under my fork to reveal a soft, fluffy filling. The salad, a splash of mixed leaves with piccolo tomatoes, red onion, grated carrot and indigo-coloured chive flowers, is refreshing. A takeaway cappuccino (€2.75) is no problem either. I leave a happy camper.
Details: Exit the M9 at Junction 4 or 5 for Carlow. Lennons@VISUAL (059 917 9245; lennons.ie) is located in the Visual Centre on the Old Dublin Road.
The scenic detour
The M9 is the fastest route from Dublin to Waterford, but you'll find a slower pace in the beguiling villages threaded along the River Nore in Co Kilkenny. Leaving the motorway at Knocktopher, I head through Thomastown towards Inistioge, passing an angler up to his waist in waders, and pull in at a lay-by overlooking Grennan Castle. The squat, 12th-century wall-keep is a reminder of the area's Anglo-Norman heritage.
At Inistioge, I grab a scone (80c) at the Circle of Friends café and munch it at the crossroads, watching life go. Knitted into the hills and bursting with flower-boxes, Inistioge's tree-shady square and 10-arch bridge (best viewed from a height, at the entrance to nearby Woodstock Gardens) make for a gem of a village.
Details: Exit the M9 at Junction 10, taking the R448 for about 8km (5 miles) towards Thomastown. Continue along the R700 to Inistioge.
The shopping break
When I pull into Arboretum, Leighlinbridge's gigantic lifestyle and gardening emporium, I'm overawed by the sheer volume of plants, gardening equipment, pet accessories and kitchenware on display. The labelling is idiot-proof, however (eg 'Easy Care', 'Tough as Old Boots') so I round up a couple of presents without much trouble. I grab a potted sunflower (€4.99) and a floribunda rose bush (€8.99) from the garden centre, and pick up a pot of Helen Gee's summer berry jam (€3.95) in Mulberry's Cafe. Fifteen minutes later, I'm back on the road.
Details: Exit the N9 at Leighlinbridge, Co Carlow. Arboretum (059 972 1558; arboretum.ie) is just off the N9 on the Kilkenny Road.
I remember Crookstown as one of the busiest service stops on the N9, but when I pull in this summer Saturday, it's like a ghost station. A trickle of cars slips past the pumps; a flickering TV sits atop some shelves. There's an eerie air of limbo. This isn't a bad fuel stop.
Flanking the Spar are Nolan's butchers (with a barbecue special pinned to the window) and Gorry's pharmacy and, inside, I find an ATM, a photocopier, grocery aisles and a cheerless deli selling pies from €1.78. The toilets just about pass muster (for a man, anyway), with a full soap dispenser, a working hand dryer and a bit of natural daylight. It's about as much as I've learned to hope for on Irish roads.
Details: Exit the M9 at Junction 3, linking with the N9 towards Crookstown. The service station (059 862 3208) is about 6km (3.5 miles) from the motorway.
A stop to stretch the legs
It's pouring rain when I pitch up at Castlemorris Woods, but that just makes the oak, birch, beech and ash trees seem all the more lush. Two walking loops have been developed here, marked with red (6km) and green (3km) arrows, so there's no danger of biting off more than you can chew.
Both kick off at the old gate lodge, where the words 'Castle-morris Woods' are carved in red lettering into a cute, wrought-iron gate. It echoes the care and attention to detail Trail Kilkenny put into their routes, none of which cost a bean.
Details: Exit the M9 at Junction 10, following the R699 and R701 for 5km (3 miles) towards Carrick-on-Suir. For Castlemorris Woods, turn right after Newmarket (trailkilkenny.ie).
The en route activity
Set up last year to promote professional crafts, you could easily lose a day on the 'Made in Kilkenny' crafts trail, pottering between the ceramics, furniture, glass, jewellery, basket-weaving and other handmade enterprises scattered around the county.
I stop off at Earthworks in Thomastown, where Karen Morgan and Caroline Dolan craft ceramics in an old mill on the River Nore. Standing by the toasty warmth of the kilns, Karen tells me about her recent appearance on Dragons' Den (she won a €40k investment from Niall O'Farrell). It's pure cottage industry -- her porcelain and Caroline's earthy stoneware are for sale as lamps, bowls, kitchen and giftware in the shop next door.
Details: Exit the M9 at Junction 10, taking the N9 to Thomastown. Earthworks (056 772 4714) features on the Kilkenny Crafts Trail (056 775 2111; madeinkilkenny.ie).
The hidden gem
Leaving Castlemorris Woods, I spot a tiny churchyard outside Newmarket, and swing by to investigate. It's Aghaviller monastic site, and it's full of gentle surprises. I find a stumpy round tower set on a square base (highly unusual in Ireland), examine wildflowers spurting through its stones, and step into a moody, 12th-century church.
Let your eyes adjust to the darkness here, and you'll spot a secretive stairwell leading up to a residential floor added in the 15th century. There's a fine old flat-arch fireplace and an unexpected vista over the Kilkenny countryside.
Details: Exit the M9 at Junction 10, following the R699 and R701 for around 6km (3 miles) towards Carrick-on-Suir. Aghaviller is just outside Newmarket, off the R701.
The overnight suggestion
Martin Marley and Bryan Leech share a design background -- something you sense even before entering their elegantly idiosyncratic Kilgraney House. The exterior of this old sheriff's residence (it dates from 1820) is treated with a lime render containing sand from Wexford's Curracloe Beach. The result is a soft, almost burnt-apricot effect.
Inside, the revelation continues. Kilgraney was burned down in 1920, so lots of the design features date from then, contrasting nicely with Georgian picture rails and sash windows. Then there are the hosts' own creations: the laminated coconut-shell table in the foyer, for instance, or the buxom wicker chairs they dub 'Marilyns'. Kilgraney has eight bedrooms, spread across the house and two outbuildings, and also includes an aromatherapy spa, an art gallery and a spread of gardens that have found their way onto the Carlow Garden Trail. And that's not even starting on Bryan's table d'hôte menus... this is fun and classy, a one-of-a-kind country house.
Details: Exit the N9 at Bagenalstown, taking the R705 towards Borris for about 7km (4.5 miles). Kilgraney House (059 977 5283; kilgraneyhouse.com) has B&B from €65pp and dinner from €52pp. B&B plus dinner is from €115pps.