Skip the touristy Ring of Kerry and head north to County Clare, a 1,215-square-mile patch of Ireland’s West Coast. The under-the-radar destination has emerald green expanses, craggy cliffs, pristine beaches, centuries of history, and, of course, endless pints. Pack your hiking shoes and dog-eared Maeve Binchy novel, and get your arse there.
Fly into the tiny-but-efficient Shannon airport, about an hour’s drive to the Atlantic. You’ll want a car, and it’s worth investing in a good map (we love OSI’s Complete Road Atlas of Ireland), though if you do get lost, locals are happy to point you in the right direction — and ask you in for a cup of tea.
The Lodge at Doonbeg is a luxury resort (country manor suites with private kitchens and fireplaces), golfer’s paradise, and five-star spa (ask for Ger, a masseuse who’ll read your aura). Intimate 18th-century country home Moy House has just nine rooms, plenty of personal touches (scones at teatime, spare wellies, and walking sticks for exploring the property’s fifteen acres), and stunning ocean views. Or try charming Gregans Castle Hotel, a cozy Georgian manor with 19th-century fireplaces and sweeping views of Galway Bay, just outside Ballyvaughan in northern County Clare.
Fun fact: The size of an Irish town is measured by the number of pubs rather than people. Whiskey’s the word at cozy O’Loclainn’s (Main Street in Ballyvaughan) — order house specialty Green Spot Pure Pot Still. In Lisdoonvarna, sample chef Aidan McGrath’s riffs on traditional pub fare (rib eye with field mushrooms, blue cheese, and onion marmalade) at Wild Honey Inn. Food pilgrims and locals alike rub elbows at Vaughan’s for the county’s best fish and chips and twice-weekly traditional Irish music and set dancing.
Burren Perfumery sells creams, salves, and soaps made from local herbs and flowers (our picks: soothing honey lip balm and neroli and orange body lotion). Even the locals wear thick Aran Islands sweaters with intricate patterns that once helped identify sailors lost at sea. If you can’t make it out to the islands, Kenny Woollen Mills in Lahinch has an excellent selection. Guinness to go never tastes the same; instead, go for Irish whiskey. Jameson Redbreast is a 12-year-old blend with a nutty nose and licorice-like finish. Or take the sober route with Butlers Chocolates.
Peer at puffins on the Cliffs of Moher, which rise 702 feet above crashing Atlantic waves. Trek from the visitors’ center out to Hag’s Head or explore by boat. Chug pints in Doolin, a three-pub village renowned for traditional Celtic music; Gus O’Connor’s is the favorite. Just outside town, the Doolin Cave houses a breathtaking stalactite. You have to descend dozens of stairs and creep along a damp tunnel to get there, but it’s worth it.
Transport yourself to the dark side of the moon by visiting the Burren’s sprawling, Ice Age-era landscape, best appreciated on foot. Sign up for a half-day hike with Heart of Burren Walks. Knowledgeable tour guide Tony Kirby teaches you about local flora and fauna, history, poetry, and peppers in bits of craic (humor). Surprisingly, Ireland’s West Coast is a surfer hotspot. Rent a wetsuit and brave the waters at Lahinch Surf School (suits and boards are included in a two-hour lesson). Have fun, oul’ one.
Photos: Multisanti / Flickr; Courtesy of Moy House; Courtesy of Vaughan’s; Mikebaird / Flickr
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