Four of the best Ireland road trips


By Karen Stride

Photography by DieterMeyrl / Getty Images

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May 2017

Prepare to lose yourself in the glorious greenery on an Ireland road trip – the distances are short, you’ll drive on the left, and the roads are refreshingly empty. The promise of legend, landscape and a warm Irish welcome will exceed all expectations.

Causeway Coastal Route

Best for: Outdoorsy types, looking for scenic landscapes

The journey: approx. 130 miles

Belfast – Derry/Londonderry

Begin in Belfast. Hugging the Atlantic coast, the Causeway Coastal Route has earned its title as one of the world’s great road journeys – hire a car and watch the breathtaking scenery unfold. Only 20 miles out, the towering basalt Gobbins cliff path (reopening on 1st July 2017) clings to the water’s edge and can be walked in good weather. Stop to journey across the striking tubular bridge on foot and navigate your way through walkways carved into the rocks. Follow the coast around to Cushendun Caves and stop at Glenarm for a cream tea or head inland to Glenariff Forest Park’s spectacular waterfalls.

Cross the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge to Carrick-a-Rede Island. This 20-metre journey, suspended 30 metres above the ocean, exposes you to all the elements – but the stunning views of Rathlin Island and beyond make it all worthwhile. Catch your first glimpse of the truly spectacular UNESCO World Heritage site, Giant’s Causeway. The basalt columns (all 40,000 of them) tumble into the Atlantic Ocean, inspiring tales of giants. Lunch in the village of Bushmills, or stop at the Old Bushmills Distillery for a souvenir bottle of their distinctive single malt whiskey. Pause to take in the beauty of Dunluce Castle, as dramatic and distressed as its raw coastal backdrop.

Where to stay: The FitzWilliam Hotel  in Belfast, a boutique hotel with a great location. A luxury theme runs throughout, from the plush accommodation to the trendy cocktail bar and nearby Grand Opera House. Stay at the City Hotel Derry, for an idyllic setting, a stone’s throw from Derry/Londonderry’s historic sights and buzzing city life.

Catch your first glimpse of the truly spectacular UNESCO World Heritage site, Giant’s Causeway. The basalt columns (all 40,000 of them) tumble into the Atlantic Ocean, inspiring tales of giants.

  • Dark Hedges near Armoy, County Antrim. Photo credit: Martin Siepmann.

    The Causeway

    Take the scenic drive to Armoy, looping around Knocklayd mountain, past the dark hedges.£143 pp

    Book your Belfast fly-drive
  • Twilight at Upper Lake in Glendalough Scenic Park. Photo credit: RafalStachura.

    The scenic view

    Take the Wicklow Way through some of the most unspoilt countryside in Wicklow, stretching over 80 miles from south Dublin to nearby Co. Carlow.£129 pp

    Book your Dublin fly-drive
  • Skellig Michael Island. Photo credit: irishphoto.com / Alamy Stock Photo.

    Sets the scene

    The ancient Irish monastery on Skellig Michael created a cinematic backdrop for scenes in Star Wars: Episode VII.

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Game of Thrones® filming locations

Best for: The sights of the Seven Kingdoms

The journey: approx. 220 miles

Co. Down and Belfast – Derry/Londonderry

If you’re a Game of Thrones® fan, the rolling hills and rugged coastline of Northern Ireland may look familiar, with an impressive 25 filming locations based in this spectacular setting. Head southwards towards County Down, to the Tollymore Forest Park – the haunted forest was home to the Wildlings and White Walkers in the series. Amongst its towering ancient redwoods, you’ll be transported back to the early episodes of the hit show – remember when the Starks found the direwolves? Choose one of the hiking trails and let your imagination run wild. Stop at Castle Ward and Audley’s Castle (or Winterfell) and bring the series to life with costumes and archery.

Leave Belfast behind you and head north towards the Antrim Coast. With its green patchwork landscape, the Glens of Antrim leads you to the famous Causeway Coastal Route and on to the quaint village of Cushendun. You’ll recognise the dramatic Cushendun Caves from the episode where Melisandre, the red priestess, gives birth to the shadow creature. The Dark Hedges, near Armoy, set the scene for Ayra’s escape from King’s Landing – this much-photographed avenue of beech trees line the path to Gracehill House.

To find the fictional coast of Dorne, where Jamie and Boran fight the Dornish soldiers, stroll along the sands of Portstewart Strand – one of Northern Ireland’s finest beaches. Mussenden Temple unexpectedly perches on a 120-foot high cliff top above you. Believe it or not, it was built to be a summer library; Downhill Beach, where the characters Melisandre and Stannis Baratheon burned effigies as an offering to the Lord of Light, is also known for its surf, sand and scenic walks. On your way to Derry/Londonderry stop at Binevenagh – steep cliffs and plateau provide unforgettable views of the surrounding villages. You might recall this location from the season five finale, when Daenerys dramatically escapes on her dragon, only to later be captured by the Dothraki.

Where to stay: The Jury’s Inn Belfast, it’s located in the heart of the action but won’t break the bank. With so many shops, restaurants and bars nearby, you’ll hardly be in the hotel.

Plan your trip to Belfast

  • Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. Photo credit: Clearview / Alamy Stock Photo.

    Tour the Causeway by car

    The Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge is sure to get your pulse raising. Swaying in the wind, it’s suspended 30 metres above the ocean, linking Carrick Island to the mainland.£143 pp

    Book your Belfast fly-drive

Wild Atlantic Way highlights

Best for: Adventurers ready to tackle Ireland’s wild side

The journey: approx. 450 miles

Dublin – Cork – Shannon

Wild by name, wild by nature – this windswept road trip highlights Ireland’s natural beauty. Head out of Dublin and start your road trip on Cork’s scenic headland to soak up the views from the Head of Kinsale, a 17th century lighthouse that juts more than two miles into the ocean. Stop to sample the gourmet delights of colourful Kinsale, on the way down to Ireland’s most south westerly point, Mizen Head. Cross the impressive Mizen Head Bridge, which straddles a deep chasm full of crashing Atlantic waves. Catch a glimpse of the Fasnet Lighthouse and migrating whales if you’re lucky. Next stop is Dursey Island – accessible by Ireland’s only cable car. The crossing itself may get your pulse racing, but you’ll be sure to find serenity on the other side – amongst the sheep.

Catch a boat to UNESCO World Heritage site Skellig Michael, 7 miles southwest of Valentina Island. Climb 600 steps of a 1000-year-old stairway to see the remains of a well-preserved monastic site. This spectacular setting is now a haven for wildlife, and twitchers, so be sure to bring your binoculars. The nearby Blasket Islands, off the Dingle Peninsula, also provide an opportunity to get up close to nature.

Be captivated by the powerful swell of the Atlantic Ocean at the Loop Head Peninsula. Drive along to the western point to see the lighthouse, a lookout with unforgettable views. And head to the end of the peninsula to see the word ‘EIRE’ written in large white letters on the grass – a signal to old World War II pilots – and perhaps a bottlenose dolphin if you’re patient.

Extend your trip:

This epic coastal drive stretches an impressive 1550 miles, the length of Ireland’s Atlantic coastline – making it the world’s longest defined coastal touring route. Continue your journey right up to Malin Head in County Donegal, past Glencar Lake and across the mesmerising Yeats country in County Sligo.

Where to stay: The Macdonald Kinsale Hotel & Spa  is a perfect starting point for a journey up the Wild Atlantic Way. The Shelbourne Dublin, for timeless elegance that knows no bounds. Housed in a 200-year-old building, this luxury hotel won’t disappoint. Enjoy a scenic setting, with Kinsale town and the Old Head nearby. Park Inn Shannon  is a budget-friendly stay, close to the airport.

Start planning your trip to Ireland

  • Newman's Mall, Kinsale, County Cork. Photo credit: Ian Dagnall / Alamy Stock Photo.

    Café culture

    The well-run independent cafes in Kinsale pride themselves on their ever changing menus, inspired by fresh, local artisan products.

    Book a stay in Kinsale
  • Sculpture ‘To the Skellig’ by Eamon Doherty at Cahirciveen, County Kerry. Photo credit: David Lyons / Alamy Stock Photo.

    The Beara Peninsula

    Skellig Michael became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996.£129 pp

    Book a Dublin roadtrip
  • Portrait of a Puffin on lichen covered rock. Photo credit: Mark L Stanley.

    The Loafing rock

    Puffins can be spotted from April to mid August, mainly on the Skelligs.

    Book Dublin car hire

The best of Ireland’s Ancient East

Best for: History lovers seeking something different

The Journey: approx. 330 miles

Dublin – Co. Wiklow – Co. Kilkenny – Co. Tipperary – Dublin

Discover the unexpected whilst touring Ireland’s Ancient East, as 5,000 years of history emerges from the verdant landscape beyond Dublin. Watch as majestic stately homes rise from the rugged wilderness of the countryside, as the scenery morphs from mountain to glen – with the rolling waves of the Atlantic never far behind. Just a short drive from Dublin you’ll be greeted by the immaculate Powerscourt Estate and Gardens. Its manicured gardens provide a striking contrast against the rolling hills that surround it.

Tour the mountain pass of Sally Gap – a film favourite for its striking contrasts of wild beauty, familiar greenery and hues of purple heather and yellow gorse. Nestled in Glendalough Valley, Wicklow’s National Park houses the 6th century monastery, but you can get closer to nature by following one of the walking trails. In the heart of the Garden Vale sits one of Ireland’s most famous sites, the Rock of Cashel. Learn the gory tales that haunt the “rock”, a spectacular group of ancient fortifications with a timeless view. Pop into the heritage town of Cashel, in the heart of Tipperary, for more local history. Drive on to Emo Court, a neo-classical mansion with truly spectacular gardens. Or opt for the wilder setting of Slieve Bloom Mountains Nature Reserve – an area of conservation which is known for its mountain blanket bog and rarely spotted wildlife.

Pass the Tullamore D.E.W Distillery, famous for its triple-distilled, triple-blend and triple-matured whiskey, on to Castletown House, one of Ireland’s finest houses. The approaching tree-lined avenue perfectly frames this splendid property – if the walls could talk, they’d have a few tales to tell. Your historic tour concludes in Trim at Ireland’s oldest Norman castle. The site of many ancient conflicts, and the filming location of Braveheart, the beauty of this imposing fortress has stood the test of time.

Where to stay: The stylish Conrad Dublin, for luxury accommodation in the heart of Dublin – with the shops of Grafton Street on your doorstep.

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