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Discovering Ireland

Travel Feature

Written by Julie Arnan

Coming from the Emerald City, I thought I knew green. But the Emerald Isle takes verdant landscapes to a whole new level. Ireland bleeds green, pulsing with lush grass and trees dripping with moss. Woolly sheep and sturdy cows graze in pasture paradise, roaming the hillsides past castle ruins and marshy glades. There’s no such thing as “hurry up” in Ireland, and “island time” seems to apply despite the lack of palm trees. Roads twist helter-skelter through the countryside with barely enough room in each lane for a compact rental car, much less the lorries barreling about. Hedges and stone walls line the roads, leaving no shoulder and only rarely offering a place to pull off and snap photos. The lack of suitable stopping points drove me crazy as we zoomed by the gorgeous landscape, though eventually I learned to look more deeply and soak it all into my mind’s eye.

In a land full of castles, why settle for a plain hotel? Many Irish castles have been retrofitted as hotels. They vary in degrees of authenticity and range of modern comforts. Some only resemble a castle from the facade, while others are quirky with a musty sense of time gone by. During our eight nights, we stayed in five different castles spanning the central section of the country. On night one, we braved the dark, rainy roads in our rental car, relearning how to drive—left-handed stick shift, opposite side of the car and road—just hoping Google Maps wouldn’t steer us wrong.

But our efforts were rewarded. There’s nothing like pulling up to a castle at night when it’s all lit up and looming. Cabra Castle, located in Cavan, has a beautiful exterior shape and is popular for weddings. We checked in and wound our way to the back of the castle to our courtyard room. Not in the castle proper, the courtyard rooms are located in renovated outbuildings. Stone walls lent an air of mystique, and the red velvet throw on a massive wooden canopy bed spelled a royal night of sleep—much needed after the long day of travel.

The next morning, after navigating the many passageways to the dining room only to find out we had missed breakfast, we headed outside to explore the grounds. A golf course and a wooded trail spread out in front of Cabra Castle with green fields to the south. It was only later that we discovered the castle is considered one of the most haunted in Ireland.

Midday, we began our two-hour drive to Kilronan Castle for a two-night stay. About 30 minutes before we reached our destination, we stopped at the charming town of Carrick-on-Shannon for lunch. Far larger than the micro-villages lining the roads along the way, Carrick-on-Shannon felt downright bustling. A friend recommended lunch at the Oarsman, a restaurant near the river. With a steaming bowl of mussels cooked in cider (revelation!), thick, fresh bread and a mountain of the world’s best butter, we eased into Irish life with satisfied smiles.

Kilronan Castle is situated on 40 acres adjacent to Lough Meelagh, near the town of Ballyfarnon (a word we repeatedly said just to practice that lovely Irish lilt). The five-star hotel includes many shiny coats of armor in the entry and hallways, a restaurant and bar on-site and a full-service spa on the main level. There’s a great walk through the woods to the lakeshore, and we imagined sitting out on the patio during warmer months (November was a wee bit chilly).

Our journey to Lough Eske Castle took us through Sligo, a working-class industrial town that includes a first-rate food scene, even an officially mapped Food Trail. Looking for a cup of coffee, we visited the Lyons Café & Bakeshop, where aromas of freshly baked bread, pastries and other goodies practically lifted us up the stairs by the nose. Coffee procured, we ordered the signature breakfast sandwich—the MERC (muffin, egg, rashers, cheese). The sourdough bread was perfect with a crisp exterior and soft, chewy, sour interior; the goldenrod-colored egg yolk glowed with country vigor; well-aged cheddar oozed from the sides like lava; and the rashers—country ham—were fresh, sweet and spot-on salty.

We congratulated ourselves on living our best lives for the next hour or so while completing our trip to Lough Eske Castle and then really began to pat ourselves on the back when we walked into this beautiful five-star property. Located near Donegal, the “coolest place on the planet” per National Geographic Traveller, Lough Eske Castle was hewn from local stone and dragged piece by piece behind Clydesdale horses in the 14th century. It has been meticulously restored and updated with gorgeous finishes, a spa and a restaurant, and luxe rooms boasting huge bathrooms with walk-in showers, claw-foot tubs and heated towel racks.

But our day was not for lounging. We had plans to see Slieve League, the tallest accessible sea cliffs in Europe, located more than 50 km west of the castle. The sun sets early in Ireland during November, and we wanted to get there before sunset. It took about an hour and a half to reach the cliffs, winding through stunning seaside landscapes and villages. Plus, we stopped for a bite at Fintra Beach, a beautiful crescent-shaped sandy beach with huge climbable rocks, to put our fingers in the water and play with our drone before we reached the cliffs with their bracing gusts of wind.

Having played too long, we rushed the rest of the way to Slieve League and parked just as the sun was splashing color across the sky. There is a viewing platform in the parking lot, but we opted to climb the steps of One Man’s Pass to the top. The cliffs are stunning monuments of stone, plummeting 2,000 feet into the roiling Atlantic Ocean—that’s twice as high as the more famous (and crowded) Cliffs of Moher to the south. The cliffs have long been a sacred site. Remains of a Christian monastic chapel and beehive-shaped huts still dot the landscape. With daylight fading, we headed back to Donegal for dinner and then some R&R at the castle.

The next morning we left Lough Eske Castle, regretting that we had only the one night there. But with a three-hour car trip ahead of us, southwest to Clifden, we had to get going. Unfortunately, five minutes outside of the castle, we hit a spot of trouble—a flat tire. And although we had sprung for the full-coverage insurance and roadside assistance, the tire was beyond saving. We needed a new tire or a new car, but neither was available on a Sunday in Ireland when everything is closed. We ended up in Sligo for a night instead of arriving at Abbeyglen Castle for the first of a two-night stay. So we made the best of it and hit up Thomas Connolly Bar, the oldest traditional pub in northwest Ireland. Three pints of Guinness and two new Irish friends later, we retired at the quirky Glasshouse Hotel.

Monday morning, with a fresh tire affixed to our car, we made our way southwest. The second half of the trip was truly breathtaking as the road funneled through lush valleys hemmed in by soaring mountains and dappled with sunlight breaking through the clouds. As we neared the coast, small artisan shops popped up here and there selling handmade knitted items, jewelry and trinkets showcasing the local green marble, and other woolen wares.

Abbeyglen Castle Hotel sits atop a wooded hillside in the seaside town of Clifden. Built as a private home in 1832, the castle also served as an orphanage for nearly 100 years before being abandoned by humans and discovered by local livestock. It was purchased and restored in 1969 and offers quaint countryside charm. The standard rooms are small and reminded me of Grandma’s house; however, we adored our spacious superior room at the end of the hallway with its four-poster canopy bed, in-room fireplace and large bathroom with soaking tub. We laid down on the soft bed for a quick nap that afternoon, lulled to sleep by the hypnotic sound of the creek outside. Surely there were fairies sprinkling us with their glittery sleeping dust because we didn’t wake up until morning, completely missing the complimentary champagne hour and dinner.

Since we had missed our first night at Abbeyglen, we were scheduled to leave the castle and drive toward Dublin that day. But I couldn’t stomach the thought of hopping in the car just yet and decided to venture out on my own—just an auburn-haired Irish lass splashing about the countryside in search of an adventure. It was raining lightly as I walked through Clifden and turned a sharp right along the harbor. The wind whipped my curly mane into a voluminous tangled mess, but I couldn’t have cared less as I inhaled the brisk sea breeze. Thinking I had hit a dead end, I spied a gate nearby on the hillside somewhat hidden by brambles. My route had appeared. I climbed the wooden gate, meant to keep livestock from escaping their pasture, hiking up the narrow pathways that wound around the end of the hillside overlooking the sea. The rain had dissipated with sunrays sabering through the remaining clouds, lighting up the landscape in blinding streaks of gold.

The hillside turned upward through a cow pasture. I kept my gaze downward as I walked to avoid cow patties and ankle-twisting holes. When I stopped to check the time, I looked up and there before me were the ruins of Clifden Castle. I climbed another gate and explored the ruins. Blackbirds were nesting in the open towers and alighted all at once, trading the turrets for a nearby tree. I left by a different road, walking past cows, standing stones and sheep, ending up on Sky Road, which led to Abbeyglen Castle. When I finally returned to the castle, we checked out and took a sunny 11 km drive down Sky Road, which splits into upper and lower sections. The upper section treats drivers to spectacular rugged views of the Connemara area and coastline. The road is also popular with cyclists—and sheep.

On the way toward Dunboyne Castle near Dublin, we stopped to check out the seaside city of Galway. The streets were dressed up for the holidays, and it was fun to peruse the retail offerings of Shop Street. Our final two nights in Ireland were spent at Dunboyne Castle. It lacked real castle charm but wasn’t too far from Dublin by bus.

The next morning, the wind picked up while we waited for our bus to arrive, so we ducked into Broadway Café for a coffee. I stumbled upon a fantastic bowl of Irish oats with cream and topped with berries. Perfectly fortified for a day of traipsing about Dublin, we headed to the big city to be tourists. The Guinness Storehouse tour is definitely worth the 25 euro entry fee, and the Trinity College Library (and the Book of Kells!) had my literary heart beating with inspiration. Yeats, Shaw, Beckett—Ireland has produced poets and storytellers of the highest caliber. After having seen the land of their birth, the imagination muse is easy to picture. Hint: it’s green.

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