aran islands ireland

Aran Islands – Galway, Ireland

Windswept Outposts of Gaelic Culture and Language

With an ever-dwindling population (now about 1,500), the trio of wind­blown Aran Islands off Ireland’s western coast is a pocket-sized window onto the hardscrabble life of centuries past. “Three stepping stones out of Europe” wrote poet Seamus Heaney, describing the stark scenario. Pony-drawn carts still outnumber cars here and English is spoken only to the few visitors who come for the moody, heart-stopping beauty that can be interpreted either as starkly romantic or monot­onously bleak.

Against all odds, the islanders have made do with the harsh elements—most notably on Inishmore, the largest island, which is nearly devoid of vegetation. Immortalized a century ago by Dublin-born playwright J. M. Synge (who set his play Riders to the Sea here), the Aran Islands represent, in Synge’s words, “Ireland at its most exotic, colorful, and traditional. The weather often keeps every­body, visitors and residents alike, locked away in the pubs” where the murmur of Irish Gaelic (once steadily vanishing—before a recent revival—save in isolated outposts such as this) and the telling of tall tales will linger on in one’s memories long after the return to terra firma.

A visit to the haunting ruins of the 11-acre Dun Aengus, a 4,000-year-old megalithic cliff fort, is a highlight for those who want to be alone with their thoughts and the haunting cries of wheeling seagulls. The islands, long known for their heavy homespun and hand­made knits (“Irish” sweaters are called “Aran” sweaters in Ireland; each family knitted a dis­tinctive pattern so that if a family member drowned at sea, the body could be identified by its sweater), are a place of idle hours and daylong bike rides.

Robert Flaherty, the American director of poetic documentaries, made Man from Aran here in 1934; it is often shown on the island. The smaller islands, Inishmaan and Inisheer, promise almost com­plete isolation with but a handful of ancient fortresses, churches, rooms for rent, and a couple of simple museums to visit.

shelbourne hotel dublin ireland

The Shelbourne – Dublin, Ireland

In a Class by Itself

Just as the once sleepy Dublin continues its renaissance, so does its favorite old dowager hotel, Le Meridien Shelbourne. Not that it was ever out of style, but showing off its new renovation, the massive reddish Victorian building stands stately once again on the north side of the city’s landmark St. Stephen’s Green (Europe’s largest garden square). Built in 1824, it is the last survivor of Dublin’s great 19th-century hotels.

Steeped in tradition, the Shelbourne holds on to much of its historic grandeur—the Irish Constitution was drafted here in 1922—with public areas replete with chandeliers, glowing fireplaces, and fine art. The Lord Mayor’s Lounge is a great spot for a sumptuous tea: like William Thackeray, who took to the deep armchairs overlooking the green, Dublin’s elite gather here to nibble finger sandwiches, pastries, and scones with thick preserves and cream.

The famous Horseshoe Bar is the only place to be for August’s prestigious Home Show Week, or any Friday night, for that matter. The Shelbourne speaks more of the Dublin of lit­erary legend (think Ulysses) than of the new Dublin, morphing into one of Europe’s trendiest capitals. And though it has for years been a destination for those of wealth and pedi­gree, it remains both welcoming and unstuffy.

patrick guilbaud restaurant ireland

Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud – Dublin, Ireland

Classic Irish with a French Twist

Dublin has every reason to be proud of the French-owned and-run Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud: It is the country’s most acclaimed restaurant and had much to do with launching the image of the Irish capital as something more than a pub-grub-only destination. Lavish, classy, and sophisticated, this is Dublin’s stellar proof that it is evolving into a gastronomic presence to be reckoned with.

At first glance, with its ebullient French owner, chef, and staff, the menu might appear of a Gallic bent. But using the best of the local bounty — Connemara lobster, Dublin Bay prawns, plump Bantry Bay scallops, salmon straight from local rivers, and venison from the out­lying Wicklow mountains—the menu deftly combines an otherwise French cuisine with Irish underpinnings.

After spending his first ten years across town, restaurant owner Guilbaud has happily ensconced his Franco-Gaelic eatery in these new, airy, and elegant quarters on the ground floor of the luxury Merrion Hotel. Composed of four conjoined Georgian townhouses lav­ishly furnished in a period decor, the hotel also features lovely formal gardens of box hedges and fountains.

st patricks day dublin ireland

Pubs and St. Patrick’s Festival – Dublin, Ireland

To Your Health: Slainte!

Traditional or newly cosmopolitan, Dublin’s greatest asset has always been its people, and their gifts of music and gab. The most entertaining ticket in town is a visit to any of the city’s 1,000-some pubs, where the thick oil-black “Dublin gargle” (Guinness) continues to be the national drink and music is almost always a by-product. Dubbed “poetry in a glass” and brewed in Dublin since 1769, the brew was once accompanied by advertising slogans such as “Guinness is good for you!” and still inspires a kind of reverence that has little to do with the bottled stuff found around the globe. To get the head just right, a good bartender will pull it from the tap a little at a time, over two or three minutes.

By the middle of the prosperous 18th cen­tury, Dublin could count 2,000 alehouses, 300 taverns, and 1,200 brandy stores. Who serves the best stout in today’s Dublin, where Guinness accounts for seven out of every ten pints of beer consumed? Start with a creamy pint of what James Joyce called “the wine of Ireland” at the lantern-lit Brazen Head, known as the oldest pub in town. Born as a coaching inn in 1198 and licensed as a pub in 1661, it has added a few new rooms that might have less character than the original ones, but offer live music as compensation.

Doheny & Nesbitt, a mere 130 years old, is a handsome Victorian specimen of carved wood, etched glass, spit-and-polish pride, and “snugs”—small semi-partitioned nooks where women could be served in the old days. Few wind up their pub crawl with the same impression as the acerbic Yeats, taken by a friend against his will to a local bar: “I’ve seen a pub. Now would you kindly take me home.” Poor Yeats would not have fared well during the annual March fanfare that fills the pubs and streets of Dublin in celebration of the world’s most famous Irish icon.

No other figure, sacred or profane, living or dead, is associated as closely with Ireland as its venerated patron St. Patrick. Born in Scotland and brought to Ireland as a slave in A.D. 432 (and never proved to have actually rid Ireland of serpents, as folklore goes), he is beloved among both the Irish diaspora and the Irish of the Emerald Isle itself.

March 17 is dear to every heart in every town, but the home of the largest annual celebration is Dublin and its pubs. While a number of U.S. cities hold large parades that are treasured by the Irish-American (and Irish-for-the-day) community, foreign celebrations pale in comparison to Dublin’s: it’s a four-day festival that has experienced the same zeal of renewal that much of the city’s arts and cultural scene has enjoyed within the last few years. The parade that proudly marches down O’Connell Street is still the holiday’s grand centerpiece, with drill teams, floats, and delegations from around the world.

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The Book of Kells – Dublin, Ireland

The World’s Most Beautiful Tome

Ireland’s oldest university, Trinity College, is home to the 9th-century illumi­nated Book of Kells. Founded in 1592, Trinity (familiarly known as TCD, Trinity College, Dublin) boasts an impressive roster of alumni that includes Jonathan Swift, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, and Samuel Beckett. But its most important role today is as privileged custodian for this early medieval manuscript, the most impor­tant—and the most beautiful—work of art to survive from the early centuries of Celtic Christianity. Each page is magnificently dec­orated with elaborate patterns and mythical animals, influenced by the hand-wrought met­alwork traditions of that period.

The illumina­tion is unlike any other in the intricacy, complexity, and variety that cover every one of its 680 pages, rebound in the 1950s into four separate volumes. Such fanciful illumination by the scribes and monks of the monastery of Kells was called “a work not of men, but of angels” by a 13th-century chronicler.

The Book of Kells is housed in the ground-floor Colonnades area of the college’s Old Library, built in 1712 and enlarged in the 19th cen­tury. It still suffers from lack of shelf space to accommodate the quarter of a million volumes stacked floor-to-lofty-ceiling. It is one of eight buildings on the 40-acre site that collectively hold more than 4 million volumes: Trinity College has received one copy of every Irish or British book published since 1801.

bloomsday festival dublin ireland

Bloomsday – Dublin, Ireland

A Wandering Homage to James Joyce, Dubliner Extraordinaire

In 1922, at the age of forty, revered Irish novelist James Joyce published his masterwork, Ulysses, which details a single memorable day in the life of Leopold Bloom, Irishman, Jew, and modem Odysseus. Today the quirky citywide Bloomsday festival celebrates that one day—June 16, 1904—with wandering Joyceans following Bloom’s every footstep and seeking to relive the sights, smells, and sounds of turn- of-the-century Dublin.

With much of the city little changed since then, this is not such a stretch. Davy Byrnes, the famous “moral pub” mentioned in Ulysses, is a case in point, drawing writers and poets since 1873 and still going strong. Devout Joyce lovers from Dublin and abroad, often dressed in Edwardian garb of boater hats, waistcoats, long skirts and parasols, retrace Bloom’s day by ordering Gorgonzola sandwiches, sipping (much) Burgundy wine and Guinness stout, and buying cakes of lemon soap.

The James Joyce Center, focal point for the popular ten-day festival (but one of many organizations involved), offers an extensive roster of activities such as lectures, walking tours, readings, and reenactments of the best-known scenes from Ulysses.

Located in a beautifully restored Georgian town house, the center’s archives, exhibits, and reference library are open year-round. Erratically scheduled but worth checking out: the chance of accompa­nying Joyce’s nephew on a walking tour of neighborhood sites in local “Joyce Country.”

glenveagh castle national park ireland

Glenveagh National Park – Donegal, Ireland

Majestic Wilderness in the Island’s Northernmost Fringe

Rural, isolated, rugged, and always breathtaking, Donegal—Ireland’s northernmost county—has a distinctive, top-o’-the-world feel. Its 230-plus miles of sea-torn, largely uninhabited coastline define the northwestern comer of Ireland that faces the open sea toward Iceland. Slieve League, the tallest sea cliffs in Europe, are its dramatic highlight. But like a microcosm of Ireland, it also includes heather- covered moors, peat bogs, and the island’s steepest mountains.

A corner of Ireland that the bus caravans of Waterford shoppers and Blarney-kissing tourists never allot the time to visit, independent Donegal still clings proudly to Gaelic, Ireland’s native language (it is the largest area where it is still widely spoken), and ancient customs. Deep within the county, far from its distinctive coastline, is Glenveagh National Park, considered Irelands most beau­tiful (the concept of national parks is still rather new to Ireland) and one of the country’s most important natural attractions.

The park itself is closed to traffic, but a jitney from the Visitors’ Center provides drop-off service at Glenveagh Castle, built in the 19th century, whose impor­tant exotic gardens flourished under its American owner, who left it to the Irish nation in 1983. Beyond the 4 acres of cultivated gar­dens of flora brought from Chile and Tasmania, the Far East and the Himalayas, the park grad­ually reverts to a wild lonely loveliness that takes many visitors by surprise.

st davids cathedral wales

St. David’s Cathedral – St. David’s, South Wales, Wales

Wales’s Greatest Religious Monument

People still flock here in the thousands the way they did in the Middle Ages when St. David’s Cathedral was one of the British Isles’ most popular pilgrimage spots. Small by English standards, the medieval cathedral dedicated to Wales’s patron saint is the largest in the country, overwhelming what is officially Britain’s smallest city (the presence of a cathedral designates the village as a city despite its size). St. David founded a monastic community in this coastal comer of south­western Wales around A.D. 550 that grew to great importance.

The cathedral, begun in the 12th century, is believed to stand on that site, flanked by the once magnificent Bishop’s Palace; then boasting lavish apartments, it now sits quietly in glorious ruins. Together they constitute Wales’s most sacred site, and one of its most visually evocative—the setting is a remote and tranquil part of the valley of the River Alun barely inland from the coast whose jagged terrain protected it from marauding pirates. A number of ecclesiastical buildings grew up in the shadow of the cen­terpiece cathedral. Dating back to 1860, the Choir School is one of the more recent, and is the site of today’s Warpool Court Hotel, whose manicured lawns lead down to the Irish Sea.

It is all part of the 250 miles of unspoiled coastline whose inlets, coves, and huddled bays make up the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, one of three national parks that cover Wales’s most scenic landscape and the only one in Britain to include its balmy coast­line. Its 182 miles of marked serpentine footpaths provide excellent walks in the com­pany of wildflowers and seabirds.

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The Trossachs – Callander, West Highlands, Scotland

Where the Lowlands Meet the Highlands

The heather-clad hills of the Trossachs and their centerpiece, Loch Lomond, the largest and most famous of Scotland’s fjordlike lakes, have enthralled travelers since novelist Sir Walter Scott’s writings first popularized the area in the early 19th century. Here the Lowlands meet the Highlands of the north and west in an area rich in history thanks to Rob Roy (Red Robert), a real-life 18th-century Highlander, cattle dealer, and outlaw who became a Scottish folk hero akin to England’s Robin Hood. In addition, there is Stirling Castle, the country’s most significant strong­hold—whoever held Stirling controlled the Scottish nation.

Dating to the Middle Ages and second only to Edinburgh Castle in grandeur, it was the residence of Mary, Queen of Scots, as an infant monarch. Just north of Glasgow, the Trossachs envelop visitors in the sort of pristine wildness usually associated with the Highlands farther north. The “bonnie, bonnie banks” of Loch Lomond (dotted with thirty-some tiny islands) are bonnie indeed, but Sir Walter Scott also favored the fresh­water beauty of Loch Katrine.

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Altnaharrie Inn – Ullapool, Scotland

Gourmet Meals on the Banks of Loch Broom

You’ll leave the world behind when you step on the private launch that brings you to this remote 17th-century sheep drover’s inn on the steep shores of Loch Broom. Altnaharrie’s otherworldly loveliness is due in part to no TV, no phones, and a generator that shuts down at night. There are just eight simple bedrooms of great charm to accom­modate the worshipful food lovers who come from all over to partake in the artistry of Norwegian-born chef Gunn Eriksen.

A remark­able meal begins as you sit at a table where wildflowers are folded into your napkin. There’s no choice in the set five-course menu, but you’ll be happy to leave the evening in the masterful hands of the chef who relies entirely on whatever is available from the local waters and suppliers. She has achieved celebrity status by not adhering to strict gastronomic conventions; the success of each inventive dish derives from delicate and simple flavors. Breakfast is as much a joy as the evening’s repast was a masterpiece.