10 of the best activity holidays in Ireland

Climb the highest mountain, Carrauntoohil, County Kerry

Standing at 1,039 metres in the middle of the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks range, Carrauntoohil is the tallest mountain in Ireland. The range spreads out across 100 sq km in the heart of the Ring of Kerry, adding drama to the Iveragh peninsula’s wild, beautiful landscape. Start the Carrauntoohil ascent from Cronin’s Yard, a car park with services south of touristy Killarney. There are several ways to the top, but the exhilarating Devil’s Ladder (12km return) is the shortest and most popular.

Walkers above Lough Gouragh on the ascent of Carrauntoohill

Walkers above Lough Gouragh on the ascent of Carrauntoohill. Photograph: Gareth McCormack/Alamy

A metal cross marks the summit, where the hardcore climber is rewarded with a panorama of peaks, lakes and farmland stretching to the Atlantic. If time and weather permit, detour to Lough Cummeenoughter, Ireland’s highest lake (707 m), for a refreshing swim, with the mountains towering above.
Kerry Climbing offers training and a guided tour of MacGillycuddy’s Reeks from €65pp

Cruise the River Shannon, Midlands

The Shannon waterfront at Athlone in spring.

The Shannon waterfront at Athlone in spring. Photograph: Alamy

The Shannon cuts through 360km of the gentle, lush Irish heartland, making it the longest river in either Ireland or Great Britain. For an easy pace, hire a river cruiser, focus on the mid-section, and navigate to a backdrop of medieval abbeys, rural villages and rolling hills. Take a day to explore pretty Carrick in County Leitrim, with its diminutive Costello Chapel, reputedly one of the smallest in the world. Set sail along a narrow strip of river that opens on to Lough Ree, a wide lake sprinkled with islands. Further south, Athlone oozes medieval charm with its narrow lanes and atmospheric Seán’s Bar – Ireland’s oldest tavern. On the final stretch, moor the boat to discover the ruined monastery of Clonmacnoise, with its high crosses, round towers and ancient churches. It first appears over the river reeds like an Irish Avalon.
Emerald Star offers a cruiser to be picked up in Carrick, for a 160km chug south to Portumna, from €539 for a week in March for two people,

Cycle the Great Western Greenway,
County Mayo

People cycling on the Great Western Greenway, in County Mayo

People cycling on the Great Western Greenway, in County Mayo. Photograph: David Hunter/Alamy

Curving around County Mayo’s Clew Bay, the Great Western Greenway is 42km long, making it the longest off-road cycle trail in Ireland. Starting from the tree-lined Georgian streets of Westport, head north along the abandoned railway route (it last serviced the area in 1937). A large, seven-arched viaduct heralds the approach to handsome Newport, where it’s time to take a break at Kelly’s Kitchen, one of the finest artisan cafes in north County Mayo. From this point, the trail is full-on coastline, with views of the bay and its many islands. Leaving Mulranny, with its wide golden sandy coves, the route leads cyclists over a swing bridge and off the mainland to Achill Island, and the end of the Great Western Greenway. Tip: don’t miss the stunning Keem beach on Achill’s western shore.
Greenway Bicycle Hire in Newport offers bike rental and a shuttle service back to Newport for €30 a day

Tour the musical heartland, County Clare

Fiddle and Irish music fans from around the world, including Japanese play in a small village pub

Photograph: Paul Quayle/Alamy

Start a tour of Ireland’s most musical county on the road most travelled. Once a remote fishing village on the rugged west coast, Doolin is full of traditional Irish music pubs, such as Gus O’Connor’s, McDermott’s or McGann’s, which have lured visitors by the busload as they pass by on their way to County Clare’s Cliffs of Moher. To snag a serious trad music session, head east to the banner county’s rolling lake lands, where the beat of the bodhrán is hard-wired into the locals’ DNA. Pepper’s Pub in Feakle has been entertaining guests for centuries and attracts internationally recognised performers such as Sharon Shannon and flautist Matt Molloy, while the county town of Ennis holds frequent musical festivals (or fleadhs). On most evenings, Bunratty Castle in south County Clare offers a feast of traditional ballads with a four-course banquet (adult €63, child €35).

Walk the Garden County, Wicklow

Glendalough medieval monastic settlement, on the Wicklow Way.

Glendalough medieval monastic settlement, on the Wicklow Way. Photograph: Chiara Salvadori/Getty Images

The Wicklow Way, 131km of unblemished countryside that crosses mountain streams, glacial valleys, forests and ancient monasteries is a near-Hobbit experience, only without the orcs and wizardry. The route is manageable for veteran and novice hikers, and highlights include the splendid Powerscourt Estate (adult €6, child €3.50) and garden before it ascends into the mountains, where the terrain feels alpine. There are plenty of eating options along the way, especially in the charming village of Roundwood. The trail descends into romantic Glendalough, which means the valley of two lakes, cradling one of Ireland’s most famous monastic sites, with a 1,000-year-old round tower, ruined cathedral and small church. The walk continues via forest paths and vast valleys, with heather and gorse in abundance, towards the tumbling hills of south-west Wicklow.
Extreme Ireland has a seven-day self-guided trip for €599, including accommodation and bag transfers

Dursey Island cable car, Beara peninsula, County Cork

Dursey Cable Car, Ballaghboy

Dursey Cable Car, Ballaghboy. Photograph: Joana Kruse/Alamy

Ireland’s only cable car crosses a wild ocean inlet to connect the mainland to the tiny island of Dursey. The reef 30 metres below is mostly submerged in waves that crash against the jagged coast, offering a gripping view of one of Ireland’s most southerly points. Despite the Beara peninsula’s spectacular scenery, it doesn’t get the tourist footfall of its neighbours in the Ring of Kerry or Dingle, making it a joy to explore. Dursey Island is consequently even further off the tour bus radar, providing unhurried rambling opportunities along its 14km loop trail with little company other than whales and dolphins – often visible from the shore – or rare butterflies and birds. Don’t expect nightlife or gourmet restaurants, as the island has very few human residents.
Dursey Cable Car, adult €10 return, child €5, cash only,

Drive the far north, Inishowen peninsula, County Donegal

A sheep looking down towards the road at Mamore Gap, Clonmany

Mamore Gap, Clonmany, Donegal. Photograph: Paul Shiels/Alamy

If the Wild Atlantic Way, a 1,600-mile drive that hugs Ireland’s western coast from Cork to Donegal, is too demanding, loop 100 miles around the Inishowen Peninsula. Its 100 Scenic Tourist Drive offers plenty of secret sandy coves and cliff-top drama in just a day or two. The signposted trail heads north from the southern end of Lough Swilly to Buncrana, the last town before Donegal’s bleak and beautiful wilderness. Follow the twisting Mamore Gap for a sweeping view of the north coast before taking a well-earned breather on the Five Fingers sand dunes. Banba’s Crown at the very pinnacle of Malin Head, mainland Ireland’s most northerly point, offers visitors out-of-this-world views (with the occasional glimpse of the northern lights) – which drew Star Wars film crews to capture its uninterrupted ocean scenes for the Last Jedi.

Sea kayak the Copper Coast, County Waterford

Kayaks in the harbour at Boatstrand, Copper Coast, County Waterford.

Photograph: George Munday/Alamy

Spectacular blow holes, sandy coves, deep-water caves and sea stacks are just some of the magnificent curveballs the Copper Coast geopark throws at the keen kayaker. The sea route links the County Waterford towns of Tramore and Dungarvan along the 25km of dusky gold shoreline. The area gained its name from its once-thriving copper mining industry. Chimneys from the disused mines protrude from the cliff edges as if to remind visitors of its industrious past. Guided by experienced locals who know the history and seascape of the coast, the kayaks might be joined by the occasional dolphin.
Pure Adventure offers a three-hour guided sea kayak trip, adult €49, child €39, including all equipment

Paddle a currach, Boyne Valley, County Meath

Family on trip with Boyne Boats

In 1690, more than 60,000 troops gathered in the Boyne Valley for a battle that would shape the balance of power between Catholics and Protestants across Ireland for centuries. You can, of course, explore the area by car, but a trip aboard a currach, a traditional Irish boat with a wooden frame, sealed with hide, is a great way of immersing yourself in history. Passengers help paddlealong the narrow, newly restored Boyne canal on a 90-minute interactive waterway experience from Oldbridge, near Drogheda, as they learn about the valley’s druid history and local landmarks. The currachs were used in Game of Thrones in scenes involving the Ironborn.
King’s Tour Boat Adventure, adult €20, child €10, 1½ hours,

Aran island hopping, County Galway

A mother and son bike around Inis Oirr Island

A mother and son bike around Inis Oirr

These Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) outposts have drawn visitors to their craggy, windswept shores ever since playwright JM Synge documented their savage beauty in Riders to the Sea in 1902. The recently introduced rapid ferry service has been a game changer for the islands, offering visitors an opportunity to hop from one to another. The Doolin2Aran Ferries mid-morning service from County Clare on the mainland arrives at Inis Mór, the biggest island, in time for lunch. Afterwards, climb Dun Aengus, a 3,500-year-old hill fort 100 metres above the sea. Next morning, set sail, with Connemara’s 12 Pin Mountains constantly in view, to Inis Meáin, the least-visited Aran Island, before taking the late-afternoon ferry to Inis Oírr. Spend the night on arguably the prettiest of the three islands, with its sandy beaches, drystone walls and dramatic views of the Cliffs of Moher. It’s worth booking the combined ticket to include the one-hour tour below those stunning cliffs (adult €15, child €10).
Inter-island tickets €15/€10 one-way,


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