Pól Ó Conghaile takes a saunter and a sail around the capital’s gorgeous coastline and discovers hidden beaches, quirky sweetshops and Killiney Bay’s latest A-listers.
The coastal trail
Driving through the industrial sprawl around Pigeon House Road, I'm reminded of Andy Dufresne's escape in 'The Shawshank Redemption'. I have to pick my way past scrapyards, industrial lots, waste treatment facilities and a stinking sewerage pool before emerging into freedom.
Freedom in this case is the Great South Wall, a mighty structure stretching some 2km from the foot of Poolbeg Station into the Irish Sea.
The granite slabs feel like a line dropped into the great gob of Dublin Bay, and the view from the lighthouse at the end is unreal -- Howth, the Big Wheel, Sandymount Strand, the Sugar Loaf and Terminal 2 are just some of the landmarks in my field of vision.
All around me are people who can't believe their luck. Someone snoozes in a front seat. A couple walk in the twinkling sunshine. In one of the windswept nooks, I even spot a swimmer.
The Great South Wall dates from the late 1700s, but remains one of Dublin's best-kept secrets. Above it loom the Pigeon House towers, wearing red and white stripes like a bathing suit.
Details: See discoverireland.ie/ dublin.
The seaside town with a sizzle
There's no shortage of coastal craic in Dublin. Dalkey, Balbriggan and Dun Laoghaire all have the seaside swagger, and the capital itself could even claim to be Ireland's top coastal town.
Howth, however, has a little of everything. A summer saunter along the pier here is one of the great Dublin daytrips, with plenty of little gems to nose out along the way.
Boat trips putter over to the hidden beach at Ireland's Eye, you can buy a bag of fishy bits to feed the seals (though there's something queasy about their obesity) and the smoked salmon at Nicky's Plaice, a fish shop run by a family resident in Howth for 200 years, is a winner.
When you get to the end of the West Pier, watch out for the footprints encased in the granite. Local legend says they were made by George IV when he stepped off his boat in 1821.
Details: howthismagic.com; islandferries.net; nickysplaice. com.
The summer boat trip
Fungi, eat your heart out. Dubliners no longer have to travel to Dingle to see dolphins putting on a show - three bottlenose beauties are the latest celebrities to move into Killiney Bay.
Few locals have got to know them quite like Aaron O'Grady and Breff Kennedy, who sail a 54-foot yacht three times a day from Dun Laoghaire harbour, offering guests the chance to kick back on a luxury sailboat for less than the price of a pair of sailing shorts.
The Dalkey dolphins have taken to following the Explorer as it tacks along Scotsman's Bay. "One-and-a-quarter million people live in Dublin, but hardly any of them use the coastline," says Breff of gosailing.ie.
I get a crash course in sailing theory before seizing the chance to steer Explorer myself.
It's amazing the different perspective you get from the water -- swimmers at the 40 Foot, the sweet harbour at Sandycove. Aaron throws out historical snippets as we go, and a pizza supper is served on the evening sail.
Details: Sailings cost from €35pp. Tel: 087 092 2913; gosailing.ie.
The ocean experience
I meet Des Keaney and Sonja Ewen at Bullock Harbour at 8.30am on a Friday morning. There isn't a cloud in the sky, the tide has peeled back to reveal the squelchy seaweed beneath the fishing boats and the sea is flat as a pancake. It's a perfect day for sea-kayaking.
Des and Sonja run Deep Blue Sea Kayaking, a Dalkey-based company providing taster sessions, skills days and expeditions for all ability levels.
They take me for a paddle along the coast to Dalkey Island, where two seals watch us disembark for a coffee near the ruins of St Begnet's Church.
"They get you much closer to the coastline," Des says of these long, graceful boats. "And you're quiet. You're less likely to scare away the wildlife."
As we paddle, I see terns fishing, cormorants drying their wings, jellyfish floating along in the clear waters and even a peregrine falcon on a rock.
It's incredible to think such wildlife exists just a few hundred yards from morning rush hour. Like Aaron and Breff, Des and Sonja have also got to know the dolphins in Dalkey Sound.
Details: From €40pp for a half-day. Tel: 086 820 5627; deepblue seakayaking.com.
The seaside shop
It seems such an obvious idea. Cram your shelves with nostalgic old sweet jars and sell them by the quarter-pound in paper bags.
Yet Malahide's Really Old Sweet Shop has hardly any competition in Dublin, though we are partial to La Crème Bon in the southside's Cabinteely.
I can't help myself, buying a bag of pear drops, apple sours and lemon sherbets for the adults, and filling another with giant strawberries, jelly babies and gummy bears for the kids -- at €1.80 per quarter.
The Wonka-esque dental delights are a real blast from the past, and the shop does slush puppies and cones from an Angelito ice-cream machine too -- though the 99 I try is a bit too melty and not quite creamy enough to rival the ice-cream king of the county, Teddy's in Dun Laoghaire.
Details: Church Road, Malahide. Tel: 01-816 8609.
The beach with a bite
Dollymount Strand has just lost its Blue Flag (Portrane and the Velvet Strand in Portmarnock are Dublin's only Blue Flag beaches). Despite niggling water quality problems, however, the wind along Bull Island is still more likely to stir up a flock of kite-surfers than the billowing litter of old.
It's crying out for a picnic, and I get just that at Moloughney's, a family-run bistro at the business end of Vernon Avenue.
It's a lovely space, peeling back the walls of an old Victorian house to reveal earthy brickwork underneath, and there are several child-friendly touches -- including a box of toy animals under the stairs and ice cream with hot chocolate sauce on the junior dessert menu.
I order a roast vegetable and goat's cheese sandwich (€7.50) to go. It came on a lightly toasted Breton baguette, spilling over with fluffy cheese and tangy pepper, courgette and red onion doused in basil oil.
The chef serves it up in a foil tray, and I head off for a seaside treat.
Details: 9 Vernon Avenue. Tel: 01-833 0002; moloughneys.ie.
The bucket and spade beach
Few visitors think of Dublin as a city by the sea. After a couple of days exploring its coastline, I'm mystified as to why. Sure, there are industrial eye sores and litter black spots.
But its Martello towers and offshore islands look out over some surprising beaches, too.
Take Portrane, near Donabate, where a sandy cove under a Martello tower seems within touching distance of Lambay Island.
Or what about Loughshinny, where I find a sandy beach deserted save for a woman washing a horse and a man painting the old boat house?
Pick of the bunch, however, is White Rock in Killiney. To access this sandy cove, park on the Vico Road, descend a path overgrown with ferns and nettles, cross over the DART line and come down a final flight of steps.
It's a plum spot whose whitish rocks are exposed at low tide, with views that stretch to the Sugar Loaf and tumbling cliffs riddled with wildflowers. Of course, you have to climb back up again, but that keeps away the lazies.
Details: Vico Road, Killiney. See visitdublin.com.
The overnight option
With his silver pony tail and beard, Terry McCoy is a well-known man about Skerries. The long-term partner of Miriam Ahern, he's a pioneering foodie who championed local produce long before we knew our langoustines from our lobster.
The economic tide has turned, of course, but Terry remains in Skerries, running the restaurant and guesthouse at Redbank House with his son, Ross.
As if to drive home the irony of it all, the building once housed a bank, and the McCoys keep their wine cellar in an enormous old safe.
Fresh seafood from Skerries forms the backbone of the menu, which is now serving a three-course early-bird for €25. Spicy haddock, or mussels steamed fisherman-style over white wine, garlic and herbs are two notable dishes, though you can still get Terry's old specialties -- notably chargrilled Dublin Bay prawns (€38) and a lobster thermidor.
Rooms are at the comfortable end of three-star, themed with nautical blues and yellows and feeling like a cross between a boutique hotel and an old school seaside guesthouse.
Right now, it's all about value, Terry says. "We'll make them think twice about going to Portugal."
Details: B&B and early-bird dinner are on special at €55pp. Tel: 01-849 1005; redbank.ie.