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Ireland Outdoors

The Skellig Islands
Ireland Outdoors
Walks along dramatic cliffs above the churning Atlantic, surfing from beautiful beaches, playing golf on legendary courses, exploring ancient ruins and tombs: These are just some of the reasons you’ll want to be outside in Ireland, rain or shine.
By Ryan Ver Berkmoes, AFAR Contributor
Photo by Kristen Deveney
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    The Skellig Islands
    The Skellig Islands
    Ireland has plenty of islands, especially in the west, including the stalwart Skellig Islands: Skellig Michael and Little Skellig, both off County Kerry. The former is home to a 6th-century monastery built by monks who thought this was the western edge of the world. The monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today—weather permitting—you can take a boat and revel in the islands’ desolation and magnificent birdlife; Small Skellig has the second largest colony of gannets in the world, 27,000 pairs strong. The islands were used as a filming location for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
    Photo by Kristen Deveney
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    Surf's Up, Get a Wetsuit
    Surf's Up, Get a Wetsuit
    Yes, the Atlantic is very cold. And yes, you’ll need a good, thick wetsuit. That said, surfing in the Emerald Isle is some of the world’s best. Irish surf culture started with a handful of hardy pioneers in the ’60s; now you’ll often find the best breaks mobbed on a weekend. Lahinch in County Clare has long waves that break right off shore. On land, there are surf schools, gear rental places, and plenty of good cafés if you simply want to watch. If Lahinch gets busy, vast swaths of coast don’t; County Sligo has secrets awaiting your discovery, while County Donegal offers myriad breaks—including championship waves at Bundoran, and constant breezes for windsurfers.
    Photo courtesy of Jonathan Hession/Tourism Ireland
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    Ireland Is a Hole in One
    Ireland Is a Hole in One
    Golf is hugely popular in Ireland, with hundreds of golf courses dotted around the country and the sport enjoying a treasured place in Irish culture. Visitors can have both challenging and enjoyable rounds on courses that are much closer to the Scottish ideal—terrain that hews to the natural landscape—than the idealized and ultramanicured courses most commonly found elsewhere. Dublin’s popular Portmarnock Golf Club meanders through natural grassy bluffs. In County Clare, Lahinch Golf Club was laid out in 1894 and makes full use of its oceanfront dunes.
    Photo courtesy of Tralee Golf Course/Ireland Tourism
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    An Island Laced with Great Hikes
    An Island Laced with Great Hikes
    Hit the trail with a small pack and poncho (it will rain), and Ireland is literally your oyster. That is to say, on many hikes you can pause to enjoy fresh ones before returning to the trail. Long-distance paths crisscross the counties and are well marked. In addition, tour companies will carry your bags from one quaint country guesthouse to the next, leaving you free to revel in the countryside unencumbered. Long-distance journeys can last two to 10 days or more. In County Mayo, the 18-mile Bangor Trail covers some of the most desolate terrain in Ireland and inspires solitary awe. The Beara Way in County Cork is a fine combination of mountain vistas and beautiful coasts, while the Wicklow Way takes in 80 miles through the “garden of Ireland.” Hiking in Northern Ireland’s Mourne Mountains gives a mix of coastal and mountain views.
    Photo by Brigitte Merz/age fotostock
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    The Haunting Connemara Peninsula
    The Haunting Connemara Peninsula
    Surrounded on three sides by water and with a profile that looks like an ink spot, County Galway’s Connemara Peninsula is small but offers every sort of outdoor adventure. Near the main town of Clifden (one of Ireland’s most atmospheric villages), the fabled Sky Road offers walkers great views, or you can let a horse carry you across the shimmering beaches. At Killary Harbour, you can don scuba gear to see the rich marine life in the Atlantic. There are more walks in the legendary (and possibly haunted) peat bogs inland of Roundstone, though you may want to fantasize you’re lost and can’t be found when walking amid the crystal-clear streams, little lakes, and hilltop views of Connemara National Park.
    Photo courtesy of Chris Hill/Tourism Ireland
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    Hooked on Ireland
    Hooked on Ireland
    Trout, pike, salmon, and more can be found in Ireland’s crisp, clear, and fresh waters. If you want to drop your own line, you won’t need a license for most species. Prefer to let someone else do the catching? Every county has markets where you can try the nation’s famous smoked salmon, and when you’re near the coast, you’ll find no end of shops, pubs, and restaurants stocked with Ireland’s swimming bounty. Trout-filled mountain streams lure fly-fishers, many of whom stay at countryside resorts catering to their pursuits. You can hire a guide and take to one of the lakes, such as Lough Corrib, which straddles counties Mayo and Galway, or you can probe Atlantic inlets for salmon aboard a charter boat.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    The Fabulous Aran Islands
    The Fabulous Aran Islands
    Just getting to the fabulous Aran Islands is an adventure. Planes make the short run from County Galway, swooping down to one of three short landing strips, or you can take a ferry over the often-lively swells from Doolin or Connemara. Either way, you’ll understand how these three islands have stayed isolated in plain sight of the mainland. Winds have stripped the islands down to harshly striated bare rock; animals graze on grasses grown on soil made from seaweed. Each of the islands offers plenty of walking and biking options. The largest, Inishmore, has the must-see fortress Dún Aonghasa, while the smallest, Inisheer, offers near-solitude. The third, Inishmaan, is a nice combination of quietude and ancient attractions.
    Photo by Ryan Ver Berkmoes
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    The Unique and Moonlike Beauty of the Burren
    The Unique and Moonlike Beauty of the Burren
    If the striations in the Burren’s rocks look familiar, it’s because they are the texture of one great geologic eruption that left a granite trail from County Clare across the ocean to the Aran Islands. Most people are immediately struck by the sheer beauty of the Burrenmoonlike is a common descriptor. But look closer and you’ll find much more: tiny crevices with rivulets of water feeding orchids found no place else on earth and megalithic tombs such as Poulnabrone, which offers mysteries the equal of Stonehenge. You can explore this wildly unique region on foot or by mountain bike, and many excellent tours are offered. Come nightfall, you can stay in atmospheric local villages such as Ballyvaughan or Kilfenora.
    Photo by Vidler Steve/age fotostock
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    Tough Ponies and Elegant Thoroughbreds
    Tough Ponies and Elegant Thoroughbreds
    Horse-drawn carts used to provide vital transport for both people and goods in Ireland, and even today, horses remain close to the Irish heart. Horse fairs are still an important feature of country life. Tough ponies and more elegant thoroughbreds are bartered and sold; you’re in for a treat if you happen to see such an exchange. You can ride Irish horses nationwide: across beaches, over moors, through forests, and in parks. Many farms offer pony rides for kids. Or you can delve deep into horse country in County Kildare and learn all about the Irish obsession with racing at the aptly named Irish National Stud & Gardens, a thoroughbred horse breeding farm that also features a museum about horses in Ireland.
    Photo courtesy of Holger Leue/Tourism Ireland