Tuesday 15 October 2019

10 great reasons to visit Wexford

Hook Head Lighthouse, voted
Hook Head Lighthouse, voted "world's flashiest" by Lonely Planet.
Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

Sandy beaches, sneaky romantic boltholes and yes, strawberries, make Wexford a very juicy getaway says Pól Ó Conghaile. Here's why...

1. The World's 'Flashiest' Lighthouse

With its black and white stripes and distinctively squat shape, Hook Lighthouse is one of Ireland's most iconic – with Lonely Planet recently deeming it "the world's flashiest lighthouse". But it's far more than a lonely old beacon... guided tours take visitors right inside a structure that has watched over the rocks here for 800 years, there's a homely cafe and art workshops are available for kids. Look out for a whales while you're up there - they've been spotted regularly from the Hook.

Details: 051 397055, hookheritage.ie.

2. Kelly's Café

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Kelly's Cafe, Wexford

“Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what's for lunch.”

Those are the words of wisdom (by Orson Welles) sitting above the pizza oven in Kelly's Cafe. For generations, the Kellys have run one of the best family hotels in the country on Rosslare Strand, and now there's an Avoca-style addition to the Meadows & Byrne Store in Drinagh to match. A wide selection of breakfasts, hot foods, pastries, wines and stone-fired pizzas ticks most boxes, with a nice and crusty Duncannon smoked haddock with potatoes and herb gratin available at €11.50.

My tip? It gets busy at lunch, so time your visit for elevenses or afternoon treats.

Details: 053 916-8800; www.kellys.ie

3. The Saltee Islands

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Saltee Islands, Wexford

If only because they have a prince. A prince!

How so? Well, back in 1920, a ten-year-old boy named Michael Neale vowed to his mother that one day he would own the islands and become their first prince. In a testament to boyhood dreams and adult determination, he went on to buy the Saltees in 1943, and receive his eccentric title in a coronation ceremony in 1956. Neale’s son, Michael the Second, is the prince today, and though the islands are privately owned, daytrips are permitted to Great Saltee between 11am and 4.30pm.

Even if you don’t make land, boat trips from Kilmore Quay give a great sense of the gulls, gannets, puffins and razorbills teeming about the rocky outcrops... and a hot tip from readers is the Saltee Chipper for its scampi - phone ahead to beat the queues.

Details: www.salteeislands.info

4. Hidden Histories

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The key to Dunbrody Abbey, Wexford.

When I asked how to get into Dunbrody Abbey, this is what I was given. Founded in 1160, this is one of the finest examples of a Cistercian abbey still standing in Ireland, so you might expect the site to be strictly overseen. Instead, €3 buys you access - which you gain by taking this key, walking across the road, and inserting it into a chunky old padlock. It's a beautiful experience, miles removed from the queues and polish of Ireland's better-known heritage attractions, and the abbey is a wonderfully atmospheric space to boot. A further €6/€3 gets you into a fab yew tree maze, too. A tip for coeliacs - Greta, who mans the cafe, makes a mean gluten-free brown bread.

Details: www.dunbrodyabbey.com

5. It's JFK Country...

Irish Navy Personnel Lead Communications Operator David Piper, Leading seaman David Shanahan, Sub Lieutenant Ciaran O'Shea and Lieutenant Commander Conor Kirwan on board the L.E. Orla with the eternal flame from John F Kennedy's grave in Arlington Cemetery.

Forget Reagan and Ballyporeen or Obama and Moneygall. Wexford has taken its association with John F Kennedy to a whole other level.

Starting with the Kennedy Homestead in Dunganstown (kennedyhomestead.ie; €7.50), where his ancestors hailed and the President returned for a cup of tea in 1963, continue to the JFK arboretum - with 4,500 trees from all over the world (www.heritageireland.ie; €3) - and finish up at the eternal flame on New Ross's quays. It's as complete a presidential itinerary as you'll find in Ireland.

Don't miss the Dunbrody Famine Ship (dunbrody.com; €8.50/€5) either - a replica 1840s barque telling the story of Irish emigration. A ship like this would have borne Patrick Kennedy, JFK’s great-great-grandfather, to America in 1848.

Details: www.visitwexford.ie

6. Life’s a beach…

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Pól Ó Conghaile at Curracloe, Co. Wexford

The Sunny Southeast does a neat line in long, sandy beaches... and the R742 is one of the most underrated coastal drives in the country. Pick pretty much any turn east off the winding drive and you'll hit a sandy shoreline... Courtown, Morriscastle, Ballinesker, Curracloe and more. Steven Spielberg famously filmed the opening scenes from Saving Private Ryan here, and there's a unique 10km looped walk circling the Raven Point Nature Reserve just before Wexford Harbour.

7. Buried treasure at Dollar Bay...

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Dollar Bay, Hook Peninsula

Not every beach in Wexford is long and sandy. Dollar Bay is the kind of cove you'd more usually associate with the Atlantic Coast, accessed via a tiny bohareen and hemmed in by grassy hills. Best of all are the stories. Treasure was supposedly buried here in the 1700s, when pirates rowed ashore with a cargo of Spanish milled dollars. They were caught and hanged, but the beach has carried a whiff of mystery ever since. "Will we see an X?" asks the four-year-old, and we're off.

8. A re-energised Enniscorthy...

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Re-enacting the Battle of Vinegar Hill

James Joyce may have dubbed it "the finest place in the world," but steady streams of Dubliners driving south have traditionally seen Enniscorthy as something else: a bottleneck.

That should be changing. My experience is of a town that has blossomed in recent years, giving its Strawberry Festival a shot in the arm, running re-enactments of the Battle of Vinegar Hill and pushing its case for an overnight stay more than ever. The jewel in the crown, of course, is the recently refurbished - and at long last re-opened - Enniscorthy Castle (enniscorthycastle.ie; €4). Exhibitions explore the 1916 Rising and the work of local architect Eileen Gray, and there are neat views from the roof too.

Details: www.enniscorthytourism.com

9. Strawberries

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Megan Johnson (7) at Greens Berry Farm in Wexford.

There. We've said it. The roadside stalls are one thing (you know you're in Wexford when...) but my pick of the punnets is Green’s Berry Farm, a shop and café in the outbuildings at the end of a long, pine-shaded driveway outside Courtown. A tub of fresh strawberries topped with whipped ice-cream here is the business.

Details: www.greensberryfarm.ie

10. Plush places to stay...

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Monart (www.monart.ie; one-night spa breaks from €159pp) may get the international accolades, but there are several other sneaky boltholes worth a splash around Wexford.

Dunbrody House (www.dunbrodyhouse.com) has a great '99' offer bundling midweek B&B with an early-bird dinner from €99pp, and its Blue Book colleague Marlfield House (www.marlfieldhouse.com) has B&B from €79pp midweek during the summer months.

If you prefer to stay closer to the action, White's Hotel (www.whitesofwexford.ie) is a four-star with a lobby coffee dock, can-do attitude and decent pool and spa bang in the middle of Wexford town. It has family two-night breaks from €260.

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