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Explore the Emerald Isle

There’s far more to Ireland than the Guinness factory, leprechauns and sheep. Like the breathtaking coastline with its tranquil villages and jagged cliffs. The stunning natural beauty, and even the way the lush green grass glistens after the rain. It’s not called the Emerald Isle for nothing.

Carrick-A-Rede

If you’re afraid of heights, don’t look down. It’s a 30-metre drop from the rope bridge to the choppy sea and ragged rocks below. Nice. Best look directly ahead at the island across the 20-metre-wide chasm. Even close your eyes for a moment if you absolutely have to, but don’t turn back – the views from the island are spectacular.

This is Carrick-A-Rede, which literally means “the rock in the road” – the road being the sea route for Atlantic salmon on their westward journey past Carrick Island. For over 350 years that grassy rock has been a favourite spot for fishermen and it was they who erected the first bridges between the island and the mainland.

Previously little more than a single-rope handrail with sparse slats, the structure now features a rope railing on either side and closely-spaced planks wide enough for a single person. But as the wind blasts your face, the suspension bridge bounces under your feet and the waves crash below, you’re thankful that you weren’t a local fisherman in the 1800s.

The island itself doesn’t offer much more than grass and rocks – and awesome vistas of the grey coastal cliffs and Sheep Island across Larrybane Bay. The views along the mostly-flat one-kilometre walk between the reception and the bridge are also worth writing home about, and help take your mind off the steep climb as you head back towards your car.

> Situated on Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast, the Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge is a one-hour drive from Belfast (closer to two hours if you take the winding but tranquil coastal drive through villages with names like Ballygally that are the epitome of quaint). It’s a 10-minute drive from Giant’s Causeway.

Giant’s Causeway

The name kind of gives it away, but legend has it that the Causeway, some 38 000 hexagonal columns of basalt stretching into the sea like a rocky highway, is the work of a giant. Seemingly a bit of a show-off, Finn MacCool built a pathway of stepping stones across the sea to Scotland so that he could pick a fight with his rival, Benandonner.

As usual, the truth is less enchanting than the legend, as geologists rather reckon it’s the result of intense volcanic activity 60 million years ago, with the cooling of lava causing the formation of the regular sided columns.

But whatever the origin, it’s one of those magical places that can’t quite be captured in photographs. Like the Grand Canyon, you’ve got to clamber over the rocks, feel dwarfed by the rock faces and shoulder your way through American tour groups to really appreciate it.

There’s a shuttle bus that will take you down the steep tarred road to the main causeway structure, but the best way to experience this World Heritage Site is by following the cliff path to the right of the visitors’ centre. From there you get an overall view of the Causeway’s columns, packed together like honeycombs, which form stepping stones running from the cliff foot and disappearing in the sea. Take the steep Shepherd’s Steps (149 of them) down to the Giant’s Organ – and pose for pictures in front of the 12-metre-high columns that bulge out of the mountainside like, um, organ pipes.

Head further along the flat mountainside pathway to its end at Port Reostan where you’re rewarded with a giant amphitheatre that’s all green grass, more enormous columns and the Giant’s Eye (which you need a bit of imagination or some of Ireland’s finest malt to spot). It all makes for quite an intimidating sight.

Pass the Organ again on the way back, but take the branch that leads down to the coastal path, past the Giant’s Boot and Gateway to the main Causeway, and all the Americans.

Take your time exploring the nooks, crannies and “Wishing Chair” of the geographical landmark that made its way onto a Led Zeppelin album cover, but spare some energy for the slog up the tarred road back to the prerequisite curio shop and tea room.

> The Giant’s Causeway is 15km west of Ballycastle and 12km east of Portrush.

Glenveagh

“Mind the midges,” warns our guide Sean Mullan, as we take the one-hour walk through the exotic gardens of Glenveagh Castle, nestled in 16 540 hectares of high mountain peaks like the Errigal; ice-carved cliffs such as Bingorm; the still waters of Lough Veigh; swampy valleys of oak and birch woodland; and deep peat bogs. The bugs may buzz with all the vigour of a leprechaun guarding his gold, but with such natural splendour on offer, who really cares?

The beautifully-kept area we’re walking through features a dazzling array of plants from places like Tasmania, Chile and Madeira, arranged in areas such as the formal Italian garden and terrace, Walled Garden, raised Viewing Garden, neo-Gothic conservatory and central Pleasure Grounds.

Fountains, pots, urns and statues, from as far afield as Bali, heighten the lavish appearance of the gardens, fit for the four-storey castle originally built in the 1870s to resemble Queen Victoria’s Scottish retreat, Balmoral.

A tour of Glenveigh Castle’s lavish interior – complete with stag heads, formal Red Room study, 1840s Irish harp in the music room and mahogany four poster bed in the master bedroom – reflect the “big house” lifestyle that saw its last owner Henry McIlhenny invite guests like Greta Garbo for weekends of deer-hunting, afternoon teas and evening soirees.

You’ve got to be a little more adventurous to tackle the national park’s walking trails which range from a leisurely two-kilometre stroll over an undulating, grassy track to a two hour walk alongside Lough Inshagh that offers sightings of the park’s red deer, badgers and foxes. The Golden Eagles, reintroduced in 2000, aren’t as easy to spot but, regardless of the trail you choose, be sure to bring some waterproof boots for the muddy terrain and warm clothing for the inevitable rain.

> You’ll find enough in the park to keep yourself busy for a full day, but instead of spending the night in nearby Letterkenny, take a quick 50km drive to Harvey’s Point Hotel outside Donegal Town. Surrounded by woodlands and situated on the shores of Lough Eske, it’s the kind of country retreat where you’d find James Bond relaxing after a mission. Wood panelling and chandeliers abound from the corridors to the reading room; you eat your meals in a dining hall with panoramic views of the lake; and a golf cart is almost a necessity to get from one end of your room to another. Still not convinced of the venue’s prestige? It has its own theatre and helicopter pad.

  • This article originally appeared on iafrica.com.

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