The travel hot list 2010
Pól Ó Conghaile has trekked the four corners of Ireland this year in search of the top hotels, hikes, sights and grub. Here, he picks the best of the bunch.
Best view: Coumshingaun, Co Waterford
Writing the 'Secret Ireland' and 'Life Off the Fast Lane' series for 'Weekend' magazine this year, I've had the privilege of visiting some of Ireland's most sensational sights. Loop Head, Keem Bay and the Boyne Valley were just some of the highlights. But Coumshingaun, a breathtaking corrie lake (pictured above) carved into the Comeragh Mountains, blew everything away. Sheer cliffs, black water, humming bees, panoramic views of Dungarvan Bay -- climbing up and around the lake is like adventuring into Middle Earth. Coumshingaun has it all.
Details: Kilclooney Wood; coillteoutdoors.ie.
Best new addition: The Royal Canal
For half a century, the Royal Canal lay neglected, its bridges crumbling, its towpaths overgrown and its waters stagnant. This year, the amenity re-opened after a €36 million restoration (and dogged lobbying by the Royal Canal Amenity Group).
The canal crosses four counties, and one of the choice spots is the 46th lock at Clondra, where you can pull in your car or cruiser and enjoy the playground, humpbacked bridge and revamped old mills. Perfect for a pint or a picnic.
Details: Clondra, Co Longford; waterwaysireland.ie.
Best pub: Hargadon’s, Sligo
Irish pubs have spread around the world, with barely a city untouched by their paddywhackery. It takes an original to restore the faith, and Hargadon’s does exactly that.
Dating from 1864, its cosy snugs, dispensary drawers and black flagstones are the real deal, and you’ll find framed receipts from the 1900s on the walls, too. Like Morrissey’s in Abbeyleix, it combines the impact of a museum piece with all the chatter and craic pubs were made for. The menu (try the local Lissadell oysters at €9.95) is from the top drawer too.
Details: 4/5 O’Connell Street. Tel: 071 915 3709; hargadons.com
Best city hotel: The Gibson, Dublin
Is Harry Crosbie's Point Village inspired or insane? Whatever about bringing a brand new Big Wheel and four-star hotel to a city gripped by recession, you can't fault the quality. Set behind the O2, the Gibson is big on rock 'n' roll swagger, with highlights including the pop-art collection, a three-storey atrium and the Hemidemisemiquaver Bar, which wraps around an outdoor courtyard strewn with bamboo. The Point Village may be a work in progress, but the Gibson Hotel is the finished article -- and one of Ireland's best design hotels.
Details: Point Village. Tel: 01-681 5000; gibsonhotel.ie.
Best techie tourism: Dublin iWalks
In 2010, Dublin became the first city in the world to develop a mobile app allowing tourists to get information about the city simply by pointing their phone at an attraction. But this wasn't the city's first venture into techie territory. Dublin's iWalk tours, which you can stream on a smart phone or download as a podcast, offer themes ranging from Georgian Dublin to 'Ulysses', Guinness and the city's historic Northside. In a further stroke of genius, the Croke Park iWalk is narrated by Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh. It's tourism 2.0.
Best rough diamond: Leap Castle, Co Tipperary
There are no signposts for Leap Castle. Even if you do find it, the Ryan family may not be there to let you in. If fate is on your side, however, you're in for a treat.
Forget Bunratty and Malahide, the former seat of the O'Carroll clan is brilliantly odd and authentic, a hodgepodge of family home, heritage gem and dilapidated pile dating from the early 1300s (one derelict wing even has a tree growing from the walls).
Creaky floorboards, dusty antiques and a chilly spiral staircase shore up one of the most haunted buildings in Ireland.
Our tip? Call the Ryans in advance.
Details: Leap, Roscrea. Tel: 086 869 0547; €6.
Best foodie find: Gleeson’s Artisan Food & Wine Shop, Roscommon
In her new book, ‘Ireland for Food Lovers’, Georgina Campbell recalls the shortage of speciality foods she found while travelling about in the 1980s. Today, it’s a different story, as a visit to this charming cafe/deli illustrates. All of the food here has a story to tell: gluten-free brownies from Glenamaddy, freshly baked Guinness bread, and Irish farmhouse cheeses. A table next to the wine display makes a cuppa and a sambo (€5) pretty tempting too. I much preferred it to the larger Gleeson’s café and restaurant up the street.
Details: Market Square; 090 662 6954; gleesonstownhouse.com.
Best untouched gem: Mitchelstown Cave, Co Tipperary
In a world where visitor attractions are routinely themed and interpreted, it's no easy task finding one that simply speaks for itself.
Thankfully, Mitchelstown Cave fits the bill. Tickets are sold at the door of a family farmhouse, and visitors enter via a clanking old steel door and dank concrete steps. Then the lights come on and your jaw hits the floor.
No souvenirs, no piped music, no amusements, just a cracking succession of caverns, calcite formations and twinkling crystals that have been millions of years in the making. Awesome.
Details: Burncourt, Cahir.
Tel: 052 746 7246; mitchelstown cave.com; €7/€2.
Best adrenaline: Xtreme Adventure, Co Wexford
Think Courtown is all about beaches, B&Bs and holiday tat? Think again. The new Xtreme Adventure aerial trekking course at Gravity Forest Park is like a visitor from outer space, consisting of rolling poles, spiders' webs, tightropes, a rock-climbing wall and a 200m zip-line. It's well-run, the gear is brand new, and once you put your first step forward, a good 90 minutes of adrenaline rushes is set to follow.
A standout attraction in the south east, and it's wheelchair-accessible, too.
Details: Courtown. Tel: 053 942 4849; gravityforestpark.ie; €15.
Best hidden gem: Fore, Co Westmeath
Fore is home to the largest set of Benedictine ruins in Ireland, but hardly anyone I mention this to has heard of it. The monastic site was founded by St Fechin in the 7th century, but it's the sideshows that make this one worth a detour.
Check out the Holy Tree, hung with rotting socks, bibs and shinguards. Step inside the anchorites' cell (you can get the key from the local pub). Fore even has its own seven wonders, including a tree that won't burn, a monastery built on a bog and water that won't boil. It might even cure your warts...
Details: Free. Tel: 044 966 1780; discoverireland.ie/westmeath.
Best museum: The Munster Experience, Limerick
Small is rarely beautiful when it comes to rugby. But this little shrine, tucked away inside the cauldron of Thomond Park, is an exception to the rule. Who needs the 'Mona Lisa' when you've got the picture of Padre Pio that Paul O'Connell kept in his sock in the 2006 Heineken Cup Final? Who needs the Louvre when you've got video footage from Munster's miracle matches, the opportunity to test your lineout throws and, erm, Anthony Foley's gum shield?
Afterwards, a stadium tour takes in the dressing rooms and hallowed turf itself.
Details: Tel: 061 421100; thomond park.ie; €12/€10.
Best beach: Keem Bay, Co Mayo
Ireland has thousands of kilometres of coastline and no shortage of smashing beaches. For me, three stood out this year: Silver Strand in Wicklow, Nuns' Beach in Ballybunion and Keem Bay on Achill Island. All are small and secretive, cutting sandy curves out of cliff-heavy coastline. All would fight their way on to any 'best of' list too.
Pressed to choose, I'd go for Keem Bay. One of five Blue Flag beaches on Achill, this old basking-shark fishing spot is superbly remote, fed by mountain streams and shaped like a perfect horseshoe. It's worth a very long drive.
Details: Achill Island; see achilltourism.com.
Best family hotel: Mulranny Park Hotel, Co Mayo
In a year of zombie hotels, Mulranny Park had the human touch. It also understands what makes families tick. Alongside quality clubs for little people and a woggle-strewn leisure centre, there are extra touches such as kids' magazines in the rooms, footstools to help the little ones reach check-in, and healthy menus they can assemble themselves. When it opened as a railway hotel in 1897, the Mulranny Park wowed guests with comforts such as electric lights and hot water. The luxurious tradition continues apace, and the Nephin Restaurant is a classy dining spot, too.
Details: Mulranny. Tel: 098 3600; mulrannyparkhotel.ie.
Best country house: Ballyvolane, Co Cork
Right now, Justin and Jenny Green's Ballyvolane House is the standard-bearer for country houses in Ireland. Dating from 1727, everything about it oozes quality. Italianate interiors are full of touches such as painted door panels and a mahogany-panelled bathtub; a gander around the grounds throws up a massive walled garden, croquet lawn and dainty laburnum arch, and there's none of the dust or dilapidation that can compromise other country houses. If that doesn't hook you, Ballyvolane's fishing rights along the River Blackwater will.
Details: Fermoy. Tel: 025 36349; ballyvolanehouse.ie.
Best fine dining: Cliff House, Co Waterford
In these austere times, fine dining seems rather a luxury. Factor in the food and the talent in the kitchen, and Martijn Kajuiter's tasting menu at the Cliff House Hotel begins to look like serious value for money.
Kajuiter holds Ireland's only Michelin star outside Dublin, and courses such as Bantry Bay salmon (smoked under a bell-jar on the plate) and Skeagh-anore duck (with a medley of garden onion textures) are as close as it comes to edible theatre. It's fussy sure, but when flair and flavour combine to hit the sweet spot, you'll be reduced to a helpless giggle.
Details: Ardmore. Tel: 024 87800; thecliffhousehotel.com; €85pp.
Best garden stroll: Coole Park, Co Galway
One of the topics that has cropped up on Twitter lately is 'Positive Ireland' (#positive ireland), a stream of tweets saying bright things about a country in dark days.
Coole Park is a perfect fit. The woods and walled gardens of Lady Gregory's old estate are braided with 6km of nature trails, the highlight of which is a beautiful copper beech known as the autograph tree. Step through its tent-like foliage and you'll find the carved initials of visitors such as Yeats and Shaw gradually being reclaimed by a bulging bark. And another plus: Coole Park is free.
Details: Gort. Tel: 091 631804; coolepark.ie.
Best guided tour: Arigna Mining Experience, Co Roscommon
Some tour guides are summer jobbers. Others recite from a script. At Arigna, on the other hand, visitors are led by bona fide miners who once made a living squashing their bodies into treacherous gashes inside the mountain. The 40-minute tour offers a first-hand insight into life in the old coal mines, an unimaginably dangerous environment in which miners were paid by the ton. "There was no slacking here," as my guide, Maurice Cullen, put it. It's a brilliantly personal experience; one that delves as deeply into the miners as the 350 million year-old geology of the area.
Details: Tel: 071 964 6466; arignaminingexperience.ie; €10.
Best drive: Slieve League Peninsula, Co Donegal
Donegal Bay has hosted its fair share of international cruise ships over the years, but remains largely ignored by staycationers. This is probably down to its remoteness and soggy weather, but the flipside of a visit is that you get a peninsula to yourself. From Donegal town (the Oxford to Bundoran's Blackpool) to Fintra Beach and Killybegs, the coastal drive here stretches all the way to the Slieve League cliffs. Plunging some 600ft into the Atlantic, it's the west coast at its most elemental, a slice of God's Country.
Details: discoverireland.ie/ northwest.