Spending a week exploring Ireland’s Ancient East once again reaffirmed to me that Ireland is one of the best countries in the world for a road trip. From narrow rural roads to the many stops where I explored and learned, it was all interesting and certainly a fun experience. I have a lot to say and write about the trip which is sponsored by Tourism Ireland, but I thought I would start by highlighting a few moments along the way that meant the most to me. For one reason or another, these experiences stand out, defining for me what it’s like to explore Ireland’s Ancient East.
I’m a dyed-in-the-wool history buff and that’s especially true when it comes to ancient sites. My imagination starts racing whenever I visit important places built thousands of years ago by a people we know so little about. That was my experience visiting Newgrange, the famous neolithic tomb site near Drogheda. More than 5,000 years old, this passage tomb, along with others nearby, sat undisturbed under pastureland for centuries until they were finally rediscovered and presented to the public. Walking into the tomb itself, I couldn’t help but be amazed as I scanned the ornate circular design work carved into the rock, still there after all of these years. Newgrange, along with others nearby, are the best known tombs of this kind in Europe and to stand there in that spot was honestly humbling for me.
All of Kilkenny
Sometimes we just click with certain cities for reasons unknown to us. It could be our moods, the weather or what there is to see and do, but whatever it was I quickly fell in love with the colorful medieval city of Kilkenny. Straddling the banks of the River Nore, the city was bustling with visitors when I stopped for the night, everyone was out and about to enjoy the unusually warm weather. Walking around though I found myself getting lost in the colorful homes and business as well as the fantastic river views found throughout the downtown. There’s a lot to see and do as well, and I tried to do as much as I could in just one short day. Climbing to the top of the Round Tower at St. Canice’s Cathedral, I discovered a new appreciation for the size and scale of Kilkenny, while of course enjoying the views. If you like beer then this is the town for you – Smithwick’s began here and their interactive Experience tour is one of the best food or drink related tours I’ve been on. Add in a massive castle, great food and friendly people and this is one city in Ireland not to miss.
Irish National Stud
Turns out that The Irish National Stud isn’t a guy, but rather it’s the nation’s official home of the thoroughbred horse. It’s also one of Ireland’s most popular tourist sites and I discovered why almost immediately. The sun was out and it was a very warm afternoon as I walked around the paths and paddocks, the weather ideal for a visit to the horse farm. Some of Ireland’s most famous horses were quietly walking around their paddocks and I even saw a few younger horses still with their moms. Regardless of your interest in horses this really is one of those must visit stops for the raw beauty of the farm and surrounding gardens, made all the better by some welcome summer weather. Also on-site are an elaborate set of gardens, leftovers from when the property was a grand estate and carefully maintained and expanded today.
Dinner at Strawberry Tree
I normally don’t consider myself a fine-dining kind of guy and yet, whenever I experience a great restaurant, I almost always walk away impressed. That was definitely the case after an incredible 11-course tasting menu at the organic Strawberry Tree Restaurant at Macreddin Village. The BrookLodge and attached restaurant are a relaxing country retreat where pastoral luxury reigns supreme. I love great properties like the BrookLodge, tucked away deep in the rolling hills and a place where people go to do little more than relax. But it’s also home to Ireland’s only entirely organic restaurant, the Strawberry Tree. Led by a chef with a fierce obsession with seasonality, they even have a full-time forager on staff who treks every day to find the freshest ingredients in the pastures and paths surrounding Macreddin. The results speak for themselves; after a leisurely dinner I was as impressed as I’ve ever been by a food experience. Each course was more surprising than the last and when combined with great service and hospitality, it was the perfect evening.
Meaning the “Valley of the two lakes” in Irish, Glendalough is a popular getaway for a few reasons, namely a certain St. Kevin. A 6th century hermit who actually lived in the caves above the Upper Lake pictured here, a large pilgrimage site popped up nearby in his name a couple of hundred years after his death. Today the chapels and towers are largely in ruin, but make for a fantastic visit. Glendalough also lies within the massive Wicklow Mountains National Park and there are bunches of walking and hiking paths for all levels, even if you just have an hour to spend meandering along the green paths. Spending a couple of hours exploring, this lake was one of the highlights of the walk – I think I was just so surprised to see it that I immediately loved it. But the entire site, from the monastic ruins to the hikes are worth a visit to see and experience a more natural side to Ireland’s Ancient East.