With its rich blend of history and Celtic culture, Ireland is a must-see destination for any keen traveller heading to Europe and Britain.
The big smoke of Dublin is an obvious tourist destination for many, but for those looking to get away from the crowds, what are some of the experiences available a little off the beaten track? Join us to have a look at some of the Emerald Isle's hidden gems…
Dalkey Island, County Dublin
Just half an hour away from the hustle and bustle of Dublin lies the ancient island of Dalkey. Only 300 meters off the coastline, these 22 acres of land offer everything that Ireland excels in - ancient ruins to rare natural wildlife and stunning views of the mainland. All of this can be enjoyed in near solitude, far from the main tourist sites.
Dalkey Island is now uninhabited; however, its rich archaeology shows evidence of settlement activity going back 6,000 years. Today, you can still trace the remains of a mighty Iron Age promontory fort, a 7th century church dedicated to St. Begent and defensive gun batteries from the 1800s. The maritime nature of the island was also particularly attractive to invading Vikings and there is some suggestion that they used it as a slave camp.
For those interested in Ireland's natural wonders, Dalkey Island offers a magnificent opportunity to spot some of the country's most iconic coastal birds. Cormorants, collared doves, dunnocks, mallards, razorbills, shelducks and many more species use the sheltered waters to breed and rest. On land you are likely to catch a glimpse of the island's resident goat herd, who have called Dalkey home for over two hundred years.
How to get there
Access to this tranquil offshore retreat can be found in the sleepy seaside town of Dalkey - just 35 minutes on the DART train from Dublin or a similar ETA by car.To get to Dalkey Island there are a number of small boat services available from the main harbour, the most popular of which is Ken the Ferryman. The journey will take around 15 minutes and costs €8 - €10 per person. Note that boats to the island are usually only available in the summer months.
The Aran Islands, County Galway
On the theme of unspoiled Irish islands, you really can't miss out on a trip to the three Aran islands. Set off the coast of Galway in the wild Atlantic sea, inhabitants here still speak the traditional Gaelic tongue and the Celtic way of life is truly visible.
The three Aran islands are:
- Inis Mor Island - This is the largest of the Aran islands and features many of the more touristy locations and niceties, such as B&Bs, bike rental and a youth hostel. With over 50 monuments of Christian and pre-Christian Celtic history to explore, there is a deep sense of tradition and heritage.
- Inis Meain Island - With a population of just 200 people it's the least visited of the three islands. Traditional Celtic life is still very much the way here and offers a true escape from the modern world. More recently, its pristine waters have also become famous for plentiful marine life, making it a popular spot for divers.
- Inis Oirr Island - As the smallest island, Inis Oirr has a distinctive charm all of its own. The strong traditional community has a reputation for musical excellence, which is best experienced in the local pub.
What to see
There is plenty to see and do on the Aran Islands but here are a few activities not to miss out on:
Dun Aonghasa - Set on the edge of towering 300 foot sea cliffs this unique Bronze Age fort dominates the landscape. Recently made a World Heritage Site, the ruins cover a 14 acre area with three huge circular walls protecting it. Located on the Inis Mor Island most people travel here by bike from the pier. Entrance costs €2 and guided tours are free on request.
Tobar Éinne - Still a site of local pilgrimage, Tobar Éinne is a holy well dedicated to St. Edna rumoured to have the power to heal. The well is located on Inis Oirr Island and can be walked or cycled to from the pier.
How to get there
There are several ways to access the Aran islands, the most common and popular being the ferry. The Aran Islands Ferry is available from Rossaveal in Connemara and the Doolin Ferry is located very close to the Cliffs of Moher. The prices and timings of ferries vary depending on where you set off from, and the time of year. Details can be found on the services' websites.
It's also worth noting that booking accommodation and bike hire ahead of time is important as the islands have a limited capacity for visitors.
Rock of Dunamase, County Laois
Tucked away in the lush green farmland of County Laois are the formidable ruins of Dunamase Castle. Clearly a strategic place to build a fortress, the castle is perched upon a rocky outcrop and offers panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. This atmospheric historic site is a must for every ‘Game of Thrones’ fan.
First settled in the 9th century, Dunamese Castle has been fought over by most of the major Irish ruling powers. From an early Christian settlement to Viking pillaging, Dunamese survived to become one of the most important Anglo-Norman strongholds in Laois.
Today you can roam freely around the majestic ruins free of charge. It's easily accessed by car as it is just off the M7 motorway in Laois. Any keen historians can also get in touch with Laois City Council via their website to pick up an audio guide.
If you're interested in finding a truly off the beaten track experience in Ireland, get in touch with your local Travellers Choice agent today.