High kings and high crosses, rollercoasters and razor clams, beaches and battlefields, garden trails and greenways - I love a holiday that caters for everyone in the family. Make it a short drive from home and it's even better: 30 minutes from Dublin? Yes, please.
Many of us will have made the day trip to Newgrange - Brú na Boinne - but driven straight home afterwards. Guilty as charged here, until I realised the error of my ways. Offering 5,000 years of history in one immense vale, the Boyne Valley stretches from the cliffs of Clogherhead to the cairns of Loughcrew, covering much of Meath and the south of Louth. Even 24 hours throws up a brilliant break.
Like everywhere, lockdown hit hard. But Olivia Duff, co-proprietor of the Headfort Arms Hotel and food producer at Maperath Farm, is optimistic. "We all need to look for new opportunities as the business model of old is unlikely to return. Survival requires pivoting and innovation, and it's been great to see many local businesses come together in ways that would never have happened before."
Her optimism is underpinned by the sheer volume of unique attractions in the area. Here, monastic ruins vie with museums, Tayto Park with Trim's Blueway, galleries with Girley Bog. History runs deep, as do mystery and mythology. If you want your holiday with a side of magic, the Boyne Valley takes some beating.
Paddle along the leafy Boyne Canal in a traditional Irish currach, passing through the site of the Battle of the Boyne. En route, guide Ross Kenny will regale you with a fun mix of battle history, Irish mythology and behind-the-scenes tales from Game of Thrones. Both he and the boat starred in the blockbuster series, with Ross teaching many of the stars how to row. Suitable for all ages, the relaxing trip lasts 90 minutes. Prices from €25 per person. boyneboats.ie
Been honing your gardening skills during lockdown? Then you'll enjoy the wealth of world-class gardens to inspire a little landscaping love (and even some orchard envy). The Boyne Valley Garden Trail offers 11 historic gardens to visit, plus an additional 11 that can be visited by appointment. Oldbridge House, impressive Loughcrew Estate and Killineer House & Gardens get my vote, but do check opening hours ahead of visiting. boynevalleygardentrail.com
Walking Clogherhead, Co Louth this afternoon... looking south towards the Boyne estuary and Skerries. You donât have to go west for views, you know 😉 #BoyneValley #IrelandsAncientEast pic.twitter.com/V4QUMp10tw— @poloconghaile (@poloconghaile) October 17, 2018
Make for the Louth coast and the pretty fishing village of Clogherhead. Give yourself an hour or two to stroll the beautiful cliff path from Port Oriel south towards Clogherhead Beach, or in reverse. Looking north, you'll spy the Mourne Mountains, 30km away, and Lambay Island to the south. The busy little harbour of Port Oriel often attracts seals and you'll find a popular fish shop selling good takeout coffee at the trailhead.
Named one of the world's best food destinations in 2019 by National Geographic Traveller, the Boyne Valley's exceptional local produce is highlighted under the Discover Boyne Valley Flavours umbrella. To experience the wealth of produce in one sitting, book a table at Brabazon at Tankardstown House, where head chef Johnny Sarkozi weaves his culinary magic on a seasonal fine-dining menu. Currently, you'll find delicious local rabbit, free-range pork, beef, lamb and langoustines accompanied by foraged treats like wild summer berries, elderflowers and estate honey. boynevalleyflavours.ie; tankardstown.ie
Causey Farm, a success story with hen parties and overseas visitors, required reinvention when business dried up. Cue the Causey Farm Ice Cream Adventure, a new socially-distanced farm trail experience, combining farm animals, games and puzzles with giant bubbles and acres of space. A big hit with younger families, there's an ice-cream cone to enjoy en route, plus the Cow's Lick Ice-Cream Parlour at the end serving ice cream, waffles and crepes. €11pp; causey.ie
Listoke Distillery and Gin School became a national news story back in March when it was the first Irish distiller to produce hand sanitiser in its distillery. The sanitiser smells gorgeous, but it's the excellent Louth gin we're here to rave about. Hand made and bottled in small batches, the Listoke 1777 is made using water from the well on Listoke Estate. You'll find notes of jasmine, cardamom and rowan berries, making it a good choice for a G&T or Negroni. listokedistillery.ie
Brú na Boinne (aka Newgrange) may steal the headlines, but Ireland's largest group of Neolithic passage tombs lies further west along the valley at Loughcrew in Meath. Dating from 3,300BC, the megalithic cairns are collectively known as Slieve na Callaí (meaning Witch's Hill), which may refer to a Celtic goddess.
8. €€€ Elegant, luxurious and meticulously maintained, Tankardstown House and Gardens is a dream Blue Book country house with immaculate grounds, exquisite food and lovely, laid-back vibes (plus, it's dog friendly!). tankardstown.ie
9. €€ Ideal for family breaks, four-star Dunboyne Castle feels more country manor, with spacious bedrooms in the modern extension, popular Seoíd spa, pool and a good range of dining spaces. dunboynecastlehotel.com
10. € A family hotel for almost 50 years, the Headfort Arms majors in old-school hospitality. Food is of a superior quality and there's always a buzz. headfortarms.ie
“The Ramparts is a 16km walk from Navan to Stackallan (8km each way). It’s a stunning River Boyne walk or cycle. Lovely stops for picnics.” — @CorriganSays
Next Saturday, we’re off to Dublin. Let us know what you love about it at #IrelandUnlocks, tweeting @Indo_Travel_ or @indoweekend, or email email@example.com!
NB: See discoverboynevalley.ie, boynevalleyflavours.ie and irelandsancienteast.com. Opening dates and prices all subject to public health guidelines and change.
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Its cliffs are Ireland’s cover star. The hero image that, no matter how ubiquitous, still leaves you reeling — from the raw power of nature to the surprising emotional connection. Like all cover stars, however, their brightness can blind you to the surrounding beauty.
I’ve explored a lost town in Kilkenny. I shot one of my favourite Irish photos there. I’ve eaten Michelin-star meals in two different restaurants, and walked into the earth to find one of Ireland’s darkest places. Each time, I could have been home in time for tea.
It’s strawberries and southeastern sun. It’s opera and hurling with heart; a storied lighthouse and sandy beaches stretching as far as the eye can see. It’s rolling farmland, ghost stories on the Hook Peninsula, and wolfing down chips at Kilmore Quay.