5 Must Make Stops in Ireland
I visited Ireland last June with my mom. I was interested in buying a Groupon through Great Value Vacations (this is currently the most similar to the option I chose) and told my mom I was thinking of going whether or not I had someone to go with. She didn't like the idea of me going alone so she decided to join me and I'm so glad she did because we had an unforgettable trip. It had been awhile since I had spent that much time with my mom, our last mother-daughter trip was in 2009 when we visited Grand Cayman, so it was really nice to be able to bond with her.
It was my first time in Europe and my first time buying a vacation package and while I love planning trips and being in full control of my itineraries now, when I booked my Ireland trip I really liked the luxury of paying one price and having someone else take care of everything for me: the airfare, rental car, and the hotel, or in this case castle, stays. This left me to plan our stops en route from castle to castle, which is my favorite thing to plan anyways!
Most of the castles we stayed at were within two hours of each other but we made so many stops that our days were often pushing twelve hours! In addition to reviewing my favorite stops in Ireland I am also going to review a couple places we went that I didn't feel were worth it unless you happened to be in the area. But, for the sake of giving you the most information possible I am going to include them in this post as well.
1. Slieve League
My personal favorite place we visited in Ireland was Slieve League, located in County Donegal on the Atlantic coast just west of Northern Ireland. Towering at an impressive 1,972 feet (609m), Slieve League is home to the highest sea cliffs in Europe. The cliffs are nowhere near as famous as the Cliffs of Moher but are over three times as tall. I was completely fine with Slieve League's more under-the-radar reputation because it meant less tourists to crowd the area!
Getting to Slieve League is a journey itself; the road winds its way through the Irish countryside and there are a few one-lane roads situated right on a cliff that get your adrenaline pumping. Parking at Slieve League is also tricky as there are only a handful of spots available and most of them are occupied by tour buses. However, we hit the parking spot lotto and arrived just as someone was leaving. If we hadn't snagged that spot we would have had to park a few miles back the way we came and walked back up, which would have been miserable in the cold and rainy conditions we were facing.
There is a hiking path that will take you along the ridge of Slieve League but it's not advised to hike in misty weather or when the path is muddy, both of which were present the day we visited so we did not take the path very far up the mountain. We still were able to explore the lower area for about an hour before the mist turned to rain and we decided to leave.
Carrick-a-rede is located in Northern Ireland and is famous for its fear-inducing rope bridge that links the tiny island of Carrick-a-rede to mainland Ireland. The bridge was built in 1755 by fishermen who used it to easily access their salmon nets. It swings nearly 100' (30m) above the ocean and rocks below. Today tourists use it to overcome their fear of heights and get better views of the Irish coast. While most tourists flock to the bridge and patiently await their turn to cross it my mom and I found the most enjoyable spot in Carrick-a-rede was the land to the left of the parking lot. Virtually no other tourists headed this direction and we were able to explore the picturesque coast in peace and quiet.
Fee: £5.90 per person to cross bridge, no fee for parking and exploring other areas
3. Giant's Causeway
We visited Carrick-a-rede and Giant's Causeway the same day. They are located only 15 minutes from each other and make for a perfect day's worth of exploring. Like Carrick-a-rede, Giant's Causeway is a tourist hot-spot so if you are looking for solitude this is not the place to find it. That being said, Giant's Causeway is unique enough to warrant a visit despite the number of visitors it sees daily. Once you park and pay your entrance fee you have the option to wait for a bus to drive you down to the main attraction or you can walk there. It's only about a fifteen minute walk so we chose that option. We both picked up an audio headset and listened to the audio tour as we walked. There are two stories as to how the formations at Giant's Causeway came to be and thus there are two different audio tours you can choose from. First, is the geologic explanation of the perfect hexagonal basalt columns forming from volcanic activity in the area nearly 60 million years ago. The second is a legend that explains how the columns are remnants of a causeway built by an Irish giant years ago.
Fee: £9 per person
4. Glendalough Valley
Glendalough Valley is located in Wicklow Mountains National Park just an hour south of Dublin and is the perfect spot for a day trip. There are 9 hikes of varying lengths and difficulties in Glendalough. I wanted to get the best view of the valley so I opted to do the 9km Spinc and Glenealo Valley or White Route (see in depth descriptions of all 9 walks here). Since my mom was only a month away from having her hip replaced at the time and walking uphill was painful for her, she waited near the visitors center as I headed off on my hike. I told her I would be gone only a couple of hours not realizing the hike would take twice as long. As I was slowly making my way along the trail and pausing often to take pictures and just enjoy the sights my mom was worriedly pacing the visitors center lawn wondering when she should contact the park workers and let them know her daughter was missing! She was so relieved when I got back and I felt awful hearing all of the worst-case scenarios playing on repeat in her mind. After that we decided not to split up anymore.
5. Cliffs of Moher
The Cliffs of Moher, located on the western shores of Ireland in County Clare, are arguably one of the most famous sites in Ireland and after visiting them it is easy to see why. The cliffs rise up to 700' (120m) above the Atlantic Ocean and offer stellar views of the Aran Islands and Galway Bay. While this is another incredibly busy tourist spot most of the action is centralized around the visitor center. Paths branch out in both directions from the visitor center and the further you travel down these paths the more sparse the crowds become. A half kilometer down and you're practically alone! The trails along the cliffs have no rails so a steady foot and caution is a must. We enjoyed spectacular views from a safe distance, although my mom and I may have differing opinions of what a "safe distance" is, but we both lived to tell about it!
Fee: €6 per person
Places to Stop if you are in the area:
1. Powerscourt Waterfall and Gardens
Powerscourt is located about an hour south of Dublin so my mom and I headed there immediately after landing in Dublin at 5am. We arrived to the Powerscourt entrance gate by 8am only to find the gate locked and closed until 9:30am. This is the first time I have seen a waterfall close at night. Another young man was waiting at the gate and joked about how they must turn the water off.
Standing at 398' (121m) Powerscourt is the tallest waterfall in Ireland and is set in a landscape that is exactly what I pictured Ireland to look like: an incredibly green wooded area with a gentle creek running through the forest. It was a beautiful spot but I don't think it was worth the fee.
Located 5km from the waterfall is the Powerscourt Garden, which is a stunning plot of land in Enniskerry. The estate has a path that takes you through a forest, gardens and around a pond. It is situated on a hill so the views of the surrounding countryside are very nice.
Fee for waterfall: €6
Fee for gardens: €9.50 per person
2. The Dark Hedges
After being featured in TV shows like Game of Thrones, the Dark Hedges are growing in popularity and I knew I would be so upset with myself if I was in Ireland and didn't see the Dark Hedges for myself. The Dark Hedges were planted in the eighteenth century by the Stuart Family who hoped the Beech trees lining the road up to their estate would impress visitors.
The road proved hard to find despite using our GPS to locate it. We were turned around twice and thankfully a helpful man pointed us in the right direction. There were only a few other groups visiting the Dark Hedges when we were there and a majority of them pulled up, parked, got out, snapped a few quick pictures, and immediately left. Having driven a couple hours to get there we got out and walked the length of the road. While I will admit it is eerily beautiful I don't think it was worth the hours we took out of our day and miles we drove out of the way to visit.
Bottom line for these two spots: if you are in area definitely stop by, but if you have to spend half of your day getting there it's not worth it.