What to see and what to skip in Ireland

PHOTO: The Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, Ireland are seen in this undated stock photo.Getty Images
The Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, Ireland are seen in this undated stock photo.

For many of us, Ireland's appeal is personal: More than 40 million Americans claim some degree of Irish heritage.

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Family roots aside, though, the appeal of the Emerald Isle is universal, thanks to its legendary hospitality, movie-worthy landscapes and cultural richness. The dollar's superior buying power, as well as a bevy of international airfare wars, is making 2017 the perfect year to visit.

If you're a first-timer to Ireland, here are a few ways to make your visit extra memorable.

Skip Summer, Go Shoulder

Yes, the best weather's in summer, which is why travel prices dependably climb from about mid-June through August. But don’t ignore Ireland’s shoulder season -- those slower months in spring and fall -- when the weather is comfortably mild (and often gorgeous) and when tourist crowds thin out. That's when the cost of travel packages out of the U.S. will drop 40 percent or more, making family travel, honeymoons or genealogy trips a lot easier to budget. I wouldn't write off winter, either, when prices totally bottom out. For six years running, I've trekked throughout Ireland in March to catch the thrills of St. Patrick's Day celebrations, and cooler temps and rainfall have never interrupted my travels.

So, who flies to Ireland? Out of the U.S., check out flights from United, American and Delta. Ireland's Aer Lingus flies to Dublin, Shannon and Belfast from several American cities, and even offers nonstop flights from SFO and LAX. Ethiopian Airlines flies nonstop from L.A. to Dublin, too (it uses the Irish capital as a gateway). And from Canada, search fares from Air Canada Rouge, WestJet and AirTransat.

Skip the Hotel, Go for Breakfast

There are close to 1,000 bed-&-breakfasts throughout Ireland. With overnight stays often priced under $80 a night, these are ideal for travelers on a budget. But they're also a great way to feel like a local, since your hosts will inevitably share with you insider tips on unique, off-the-beaten-path places to eat, drink and visit. They take pride on their homemade breakfasts, too, so you'll never start your day hungry. B&B Ireland runs a comprehensive list of options throughout the country. Look for packages from companies like Great Value Vacations, Celtic Tours World Vacations, TripMasters, Friendly Planet and Brendan Vacations that regularly offer packages with B&B stays.

Skip the Hotel, Stay Fancy

If you're into white glove service instead, though, don't fret. Five-star stays abound in Ireland, since many historic castles and estates have been transformed into luxury resorts. The Adare Manor is one of my most memorable stays ever -– a sprawling 840-acre property where guests enjoy golf, archery, falconry and fishing. There are three-bedroom villas here, which families will love, although my own family's stay in the stately main house offered luxe amenities and beautiful views. You can walk to Adare Village, which is teeming with shops, and where breakfast at Market Place Café and dinner at 1826 Adare are a must. (Adare Manor is reopening in the fall of 2017 after an extensive revamp.)

I've also visited and loved Dromoland Castle in County Clare and Mount Falcon Estate in County Mayo. Other properties that always get high marks include Solis Lough Eske Castle in County Donegal, Ashford Castle and Turin Castle, both in County Mayo, and Colmantagh Castle in County Kilkenny.

Come for the Brew, Stay for the Meal

The Guinness Storehouse is easily one of the most popular attractions in Dublin; the famous dark and foamy brew has been crafted at this very spot since the 1750s. Today, this seven-story interactive destination is where you come to learn the perfect pour (the official six-step process requires that you let the stout settle in the glass for 119.5 seconds before you top off) and to enjoy sweeping views from the top-floor Gravity Bar. But make this a meal stop, too. The four eateries here feature a bevy of Irish specialties made with Guinness brews. At the Brewer's Dining Hall, enjoy Beef and Guinness Stew and some Guinness and Chocolate Mousse for dessert. Get a loaf of Guinness Bread to go.

Sip the Whiskey, Taste the Difference

Like Guinness, Jameson Irish Whiskey also is local tradition, and that makes a visit to the Old Jameson Distillery in Dublin a must. I loved the comparative tasting here –- a chance to taste Irish whiskey, which is triple-distilled, against its Scottish (double-distilled) and American (single-distilled) counterparts. The differences in smell and taste are astounding. You can also do a one-hour tour here -– parents, the kids can tag along! -– which ends with a Jameson sipper and your very own Whiskey Taster Certificate.

John Jameson will •whisk• you off your feet

A post shared by Dublin Doors (@doorsodublin) on Mar 10, 2017 at 7:10am PST

Skip the Bar Stool, Do the Crawl

In Dublin, sharing a pint is a must, but don't park yourself at any one pub. Literary pub crawls are a must, because they offer a multisensory history lesson. Irish actors lead you through famous Dublin pubs where native sons like Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats and James Joyce once sipped for inspiration. Along the way, they sing, they tell stories and they act out famous scenes, and, often, they include stops at intellectual hangouts like Trinity College. This is a fun, often-boisterous experience that will have you singing (and sipping) along in no time.

After the Crawl, Go Country

If you want suds with a view, Rural Tours will whisk you to the Irish countryside on pub tours with a pastoral twist. Nighttime guided tours into the Dublin Mountains take place year-round and include three stops. In the summer, their guides lead comprehensive, thirst-quenching, nine-hour pub treks into the Wicklow Mountains, with stops at locals' faves like legendary Johnny Fox's; you’ll be doing plenty of eating on these tours, too. Rural Tours offers pick-ups and drop-offs at Dublin Airport, too, and will customize any countryside pub tour to also include experiences like paintball, clay pigeon shooting and Irish dancing –- perfect for birthday and bachelorette parties.

Skip the Tour, Just Drive

Then again, the best way to discover all of Ireland's sweeping beauty is to just drive. This is how I've toured this beautiful country over the years –- renting a car and (after giving myself enough time to acclimate to driving on the right and on the opposite side of the street) letting the road be my guide. Getting a GPS is a must; although some of your best finds happen when you get lost on any twisting country road, satellite navigation definitely helps get you back on track. And you'll quickly find that nothing is ever too far way. From Dublin, I've made it to Ireland's west coast in about two hours -- and the drive is beautiful, speckled with castles and rolling hills. Here, hop on the Wild Atlantic Way, the longest designated driving route in the world, which takes you through charming villages, dramatic coastlines and selfie-worthy landmarks like the Cliffs of Moher.

County-Hop

My friend Hilary Solan, a publisher based in Travelzoo's Chicago office, says that Ireland's geography makes it approachable for travelers on the go. "With its small size, it's easy to cover a lot of ground in a weeklong visit," she says. She suggests mapping your travels by county. The 110-mile drive through County Kerry in the southwest, for example, is dotted with "churches dating back centuries, lovingly restored B&Bs, small villages, pristine beaches and heritage centers welcoming visitors all year round." County Donegal in the northwest is home to Glenveagh National Park, where the exotic gardens and 19th-century castle are free to visit. Visit craft stores and pottery shops in County Kilkenny and the Twelve Bens mountain range in County Galway. And a visit to County Cork will bring you to famous Blarney Castle, although kissing that famous stone requires some skill. “Visitors must lean over the edge of the castle while being supported by the waist by an employee," Solan says.

Go North

A lot of visitors don’t realize this -- Northern Ireland is part of the UK, separate from the Republic of Ireland. The oft-strained history between these two regions is well-known but, these days, the sense of unity and even mutual comradery is more obvious than any of us can probably remember.

The drive north from Dublin to Belfast, actually, is basically seamless; you'll only notice you've crossed into another country when you need to start spending British pounds rather than euros. Once you're here, play golf on some of the world's premier courses and visit historic towns like Armagh, where St. Patrick established his first church and where the town library keeps the first-ever copy of Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" (complete with the author's handwritten notes). Make time for the Giant's Causeway, the 40,000 polygonal basalt columns produced by millions of years of volcanic activity (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site). And Titanic Belfast is a must.

A tribute to this city's fascinating maritime history and the world's most famous ocean liner, this nine-gallery interactive experience is one of the most spectacular exhibits I've ever visited.

Skip the Car, Take the Train

My colleague Annie England, a producer based in Travelzoo's Chicago office, described herself as a "subway-riding, taxi-hailing native New Yorker," so when she visited Ireland recently, she had "no desire to drive a car through winding country lanes on the left side of the road." England opted to travel the county by rail, instead, which didn't skimp on sweeping vistas and came with an unexpected bonus. "I hadn't anticipated the conversation with (the famously friendly) Irishmen and women," she says. "After spending the two-and-a-half hour train ride from Dublin to Cork chatting with two women, I knew where to get a cab at the train station, how to get to Blarney Castle the next day, and a little bit about the revitalization of the Irish language." She suggests booking tickets and reserving your seats ahead of time and adds that "trains between major cities run almost hourly."

Skip the Movie, Play Location Scout

The secret's out: its gorgeous terrain makes Ireland a favorite backdrop for many of your favorite movies and TV shows. HBO's "Game of Thrones" films throughout Ireland, including Castle Ward in County Down, whose Gothic architecture and sunken gardens become Winterfell onscreen, and the abandoned Maghearamorne Quarry in County Antrim, also known as The Wall and Castle Black. Among the most recognizable locales are the beech-covered roads near the village of Amoy, known as the Dark Hedges; you'll think King's Road and King's Landing right away. Companies like McComb's Coach Travel offer highly-rated tours.

My colleague Megan Mitchell, a Travelzoo publisher, says the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Skellig Michael in County Kerry. Vikings once visited here and, in the 6th through 8th centuries, a small group of Christian monks retreated to this isolated island. "But it wasn't until 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' that the island welcomed one of its most famous visitors to date, Luke Skywalker," says Mitchell. This breathtaking site is accessible only by boat and several companies offer tours, but, she adds, "travelers should note, this trip isn't for the faint of heart."

Gabe Saglie is Senior Editor for Travelzoo, which features exclusive deals on Ireland vacation packages, places to stay and things to do at www.travelzoo.com.
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