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By TODAY Travel Editor
TODAY
updated 5/2/2007 9:19:33 AM ET 2007-05-02T13:19:33

Day two: Ireland
My first trip to Ireland was not by design. For many years, it was almost a mandatory stop for charter flights, because the country made itself open to operators hoping to land American tourists in Europe. And so the jets stopped there.

And that's when I discovered the enduring beauty of this country, especially the southwest of Ireland. And from then on, my trips to Ireland were unabashedly intentional.

Transportation
The two biggest airlines operating out of Dublin are privatized Irish flag carrier Aer Lingus and ultra-low-cost carrier Ryanair. Aer Lingus has competed with Ryanair (which grew up competing for the Dublin-London route) for so long that they’ve been forced to become quite competitive price-wise, and are thus able to offer quite cheap fares, even across the Atlantic, despite the fact that Ryanair doesn’t compete on its international routes — yet.

Dublin has non-stop flights from: Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, NY-JFK, and Newark.

Sample prices:

  • $739 LAX-DUB on United via Philadelphia
  • $506 ($597 w/tax) LAX-DUB nonstop on Aer Lingus
  • $386 ($477 w/tax) JFK-DUB nonstop on Aer Lingus … yes, that is roundtrip fare.
  • $562 ($638 w/tax) EWK-DUB nonstop on Continental

Many travelers like to rent cars when going to Ireland. I'm not one of them, because I don't want to subject myself (or you, if you're anywhere near me) to the terror of driving on the left side of the road. Instead, I recommend the Irish rail system, which is actually quite efficient and fairly inexpensive. Roundtrips from Dublin to Limerick are 41 euros, to Cork are 44 euros, while Dublin to Galway and back is 30 euros. They also offer roundtrips to Belfast for 36.50 euros. (www.irishrail.ie/home/)

Video: Traveling on a budget

Lodging
You can stay in numerous hotels throughout the country, but my suggestion is to try a castle! Ballyhannon Castle in the west of Ireland is a 20-minute drive from Limerick (10 minutes from Ennis). It’s got all the touches of a 15th-century Irish castle, from medieval dining room to a dungeon, plus six-foot thick walls and stone spiral staircases. The castle is surrounded by acres of farmland, and is three miles from the town’s pubs and shops. There are three double bedrooms and one twin room in the castle, and the adjacent Coach House has three double bedrooms and kitchen. My advice: Bring friends, and you can rent the entire castle for two or more nights starting at $1350 (split among seven people), or the Coach House starting at $540. (www.ballyhannon-castle.com/)

Ashford Castle is a world-renowned castle hotel, located about a 30-minute drive from Galway on the shores of Lough Corrib, Ireland's second largest lake. Rooms range from basic accommodations to luxury suites, and there is a spa on site. Nearby activities include fishing, golf, horseback riding and lake cruising. Rates range from $237 to $937. (www.ashford.ie/)

I'm also a fan of a number of Irish hotels, ranging from the Dun Raven Arms in Limerick to the Temple Bar Hotel in Dublin’s cultural hub of the Temple Bar neighborhood. Right outside the door are cobblestone streets jammed with pubs, bars, restaurants and galleries. The hotel has
129 rooms, with mid-week rates starting at $81, and weekend rates (with full Irish breakfast included) starting at about $160. (www.templebarhotel.com/)

For a five-star experience at affordable prices, head to Cork and the Kingsley Hotel. Located in Victoria’s Cross (about a 20-minute walk from the city center) and overlooking the River Lee, the hotel is newly refurbished with large rooms, super-king beds and an on-site spa and health club. Otters restaurant serves Irish food (more than just potatoes — it’s seafood and local game). Take afternoon tea, while overlooking the river at the Sabrona. Special bed and breakfast rate starts at about $200 a night. (www.kingsleyhotel.com/)

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The Burren region on the west coast of Ireland is a quiet area dotted with ancient castles on a landscape made of limestone that has a surprising lunar quality. Just outside the village of Ballyvaughan, stay at the Gregans Castle Hotel, surrounded by a beautiful garden where you can pick up a game of croquet. This area is great for hikes, stopping in local pubs and lots of lively Irish music. Room rates start at about $300 a night. (www.gregans.ie/)

Food
Larchwood House in Cork is surrounded by a three-acre garden cut by the Ouvane River. If you thought Irish food was only potatoes, think again. I can happily report that Irish gourmet food is not a contradiction in terms. The best part about it is that you don’t get gourmet portions — the plates here are huge and hearty. Try the lettuce and rhubarb or carrot and peach soup, sea bream with sesame seeds, loin of lamb with lemon and mint, desserts like warm chocolate cake with caramel sauce and peaches baked in puff pastry. The on-site B&B is available for overnight stays. (Pearson's Bridge, Bantry, Co. Cork, +353 (0)27 66181)

Tides Gourmet Restaurant in Cork offers excellent seafood with a gourmet twist. Try steamed Ballycotton Bay mussels tossed in a coriander, honey and sweet chili cream sauce, creamy seafood chowder or pan-seared fillets of sea bass with a sundried tomato cream sauce. There is also a bar for more casual or early dining. (024-93127, www.tidesrestaurant.ie)

These days you can find anything you want in Dublin — Italian, Chinese, Mexican, American. But what about good Irish food? Sample traditional Irish cuisine with a European twist at Gallagher's Boxty House. What's a Boxty? It's a traditional Irish pancake, cooked on a griddle, filled with a huge variety of ingredients and soaked in a sauce. Try boxty filled with beef, lamb, chicken, cabbage, corned beef or fish, among other options. Irish stew, smoked salmon and  vegetarian dishes are also on the menu, and of course wash it all down with a pint or two of Guinness. (www.boxtyhouse.ie/)

One word of advice: After the boxty experience, schedule a long walk, followed by a longer nap!

Activities
One distinguishing Irish activity Matt didn't cover is the annual Matchmaker Festival. This festival is Europe’s biggest singles event located in Lisdoonvarna, and it is one of Ireland's oldest traditions. It starts on August 31 and ends on October 7. Over 40,000 singles attend from around the globe. There is dancing, night clubs, speed dating weekends, horse races, prizes and competitions. (www.matchmakerireland.com/)

The Wee House of Malin
The Wee House of Malin is actually a cave off the beach at Malin Head — legend has it that it was the home of St. Muirdealack, who also built a church in that area that is only partially standing today. It is also said by the locals that the cave was a hiding place for the priest and local Catholics to secretly have Mass during the Penal Days of England in Ireland.

Mount Usher Gardens
The Mount Usher Gardens are located in Ashford village. They are open daily from March 10 to October 31. The admission is about $9 for adults and about $8 for children. What I found particularly interesting is that despite its size, the Gardens are home to approximately 5,000 different species of plants, shrubs and trees. (www.dublingardens.com/mount_usher.html)

Jerpoint Abbey
Jerpoint Abbey is located on the road between Kilkenny and Waterford, near the village of Thomastown. Founded in the 12th century, there are ruins from the 14th and 15th century including the outlines of the cloister and some unbelievably beautiful sarcophagus. It is said that the remains of St. Nicholas, the ancient Bishop of Myra in Turkey, who was the original Santa Claus (ok, how many places claim to have the “original” Santa Claus? Let's just say this one's ... old), were moved to Jerpoint Abbey by Crusaders who reburied him here in a tomb that now is marked by a broken slab decorated with the carving of a monk.

The Megalithic Passage Tombs
The Megalithic Passage Tombs of Newgrange, Knowth, Dowth, Fourknocks, Loughcrew and Tara are located in the present day County of Meath on the east coast of Ireland. The Boyne Valley Mounds at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth were built around 3200 BC making them older than the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt. The Megalithic Passage Tomb at Newgrange is a kidney-shaped mound that covers an area of over one acre and is surrounded by 97 kerbstones, some of which are richly decorated with megalithic art. The 19-meter long inner passage leads to a cruciform chamber with a corbelled roof. It is estimated that the construction of the Passage Tomb at Newgrange would have taken a workforce of 300 at least 20 years.(www.knowth.com/)

How expensive is a tour through Ireland? It's still surprisingly affordable.
One ten-day tour is run by Authentic Ireland. (www.authenticireland.com/)

Cost:

  • $780 per person (low season)
  • $825 per person (mid season)
  • $930 per person (high season)

Destinations: Dublin, Silgo, Boyne Valley, Kilkenny, Killarney, Dingle and Bunratty

On this tour, you will visit ancient dolmens and stone circles, the Cliffs of Moher, Ailwee Caves, Dysart O'Dea Castle, the Boyne Valley, which is home to one of the oldest burial grounds, the 12th century Kilkenny Castle, St. Canice's Cathedral, the Black Abbey and the Dingle Peninsula, which has one of the world’s largest collection of beehive huts.

Brendan Worldwide Vacations offers a six day trip through the country. (www.brendanvacations.com/ireland.asp?id=3)
 
Cost: from $650 (land only)

This escorted tour takes you to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Trinity College Library and the Book of Kells, Blarney Castle and Blarney Woollen Mills, the Ring of Kerry, where you will meet a farming family and watch them carry out their everyday chores, the Cliffs of Moher, the Rathbaun Farm and the Rock of Cashel, an impressive pre-Christian settlement.

On this tour, you can choose to spend your last night in Ireland at a historic castle. (My advice: Do it.) The Dromoland Castle is a Renaissance structure built in the 16th century, and it was once the royal seat of the O'Brien clan. It sits on a 375-acre estate and boasts woodcarvings, stone statuary, hand-carved paneling and fine antique furnishings.

Your stay at the castle includes a full Irish breakfast and transfers to Shannon Airport on day six. A single room price costs $210 (November 1 to March 31), $435 (April 1-31), $575 (May 1-September 30) or $435 (October 1-31).

Golf
You can't talk about Ireland without talking about golf.

Ballybunion Golf Club is a private members golf club founded in 1893. Tiger Woods, Greg Norman, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els have played it. And so can you. Outsiders can play either one or both of the championship courses throughout the year.

Located on the Shannon estuary, this seaside links course is virtually treeless and has sharp contours throughout. In fact, the contours on the fairways and on the greens are what make it a particularly challenging experience. You get treacherous uphill, downhill and sidehill shots, The 11th, a 446-yard, par 4, perched right on the seaside cliffs, is one of the tougher holes you can ever play. (Ballybunion, County Kerry, Ireland, www.ballybuniongolfclub.ie/index.htm, +353 68 27146)

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