The land of one hundred thousand welcomes
Date Posted: 19/05/2011
With breathtaking scenery, charming people and a captivating culture, Jeannine Williamson discovers a magical destination for groups.
Amazing natural attractions such as the Giant’s Causeway and moonlike landscape of the Burren, sleepy villages where time stands still and cosmopolitan cities are all part of Ireland’s unique appeal.
The distinct geographical regions in Eire, the Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland provide a wide range of experiences for groups. In the morning you can be exploring spectacular coastal scenery, in the afternoon driving through unspoilt countryside and in the evening be in the cultural hub of a city listening to foot-tapping traditional music.
Getting to Ireland is quick and convenient with flights from London and regional airports to Dublin, Belfast, Shannon, Cork, Knock and Derry, plus high speed and overnight ferry crossings. The Irish say a stranger is a friend they’ve yet to meet, and when you take your group to the Emerald Isle you’ll undoubtedly experience the cead mile failte - one hundred thousand welcomes - that Ireland is famous for.
Eire & Dublin
The capital Dublin is an ideal starting point for your group itinerary. In the UNESCO listed City of Literature your members can discover everything from tales of famous writers, such as James Joyce, or drink in history with a trip to the home of Guinness. Build in some time for shopping in pedestrianised Grafton Street and in the evening don’t miss Temple Bar, where cobbled streets are lined with bars, restaurants and live music venues.
That said, natives of Cork boast that the most southerly city is the true Irish capital. Places to visit include the Beamish brewery to find out about Cork’s famous tipple, the 19th century City Gaol where the stories of prisoners have been vividly brought to life, and the beautiful sweep of beach where Ryan’s Daughter was filmed.
Wicklow, dubbed the garden county, is a must for green-fingered groups. It includes the National Garden Exhibition Centre, which is reportedly Ireland’s only permanent garden display with 21 gardens laid out by the best Irish landscape designers and two more due to open this year. In Kildare the Japanese Gardens are acknowledged as the finest in Europe and a visit can be combined with the neighbouring Irish National Stud, home to the aristocracy of the Irish horse world.
The Shannon region takes its name from the river that runs through it and is famous for its impressive landscape that culminates at the majestic cliffs of Moher, where a ranger will meet your coach and provide an onboard welcome and overview of the cliffs and visitor centre. Other remarkable scenery includes the stark karst area of the Burren, north of Clare.
There have been a number of recent refurbishments at the Irish National Heritage Park in Wexford - an attraction covering 35 acres and exploring 9,000 years of Irish history. The park offers special rates for groups and a visit can take in the pretty heritage town of Wexford which, with nearby Waterford, is famed for its sparkling crystal glassware.
Northern Ireland & Belfast
If you’ve never been to Northern Ireland before then do consider taking your group to Belfast. The vibrant revitalised Victorian city has emerged from decades of strife and is an ideal base for exploring the surrounding counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone.
Marvel at Belfast’s architecturally impressive City Hall and Queen’s University before visiting Ulster Museum. Admission is free and your group members will come face to face with dinosaurs, meet an Egyptian Mummy and see modern masterpieces. Other city highlights include the Botanic Garden, close to the museum, with its grand palm house; and the modern Waterfront Hall cultural centre near the city’s historic shipyards. Make time for a drink in the ornate Crown Liquor Saloon, which your members might be surprised to learn is a National Trust property, and if you’re in the city on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday browse around bustling St George’s market, which dates back to the 1890s.
Northern Island boasts a rural landscape of wild craggy mountains, beautiful lakes and sweeping coastline. Popular with coach groups is the Causeway Coastal Route, covering 80 miles between Belfast and the walled city of Derry, the only remaining completely walled city in Ireland and one of the finest in Europe. Stop at the dizzying Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge and see if any of your members want to walk across.
Other attractions include the Navan Centre, exploring the history and legends of the ancient Navan Fort, and the many castles and gardens that can be found in Fermanagh, such as Enniskillen, Balfour and Tully.
This month marks the centenary of the launch of the doomed luxury liner Titanic, built in the Belfast shipyards of Harland and Wolff. It coincides with the opening of the new TITANICa exhibition at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, County Down, that features more than 500 original artefacts exploring why the Titanic and its sister ship Olympic were built in Belfast. The living history museum offers discounted admission for groups of 15 or more.
In 2012 a host of events will take place to commemorate the Titanic’s maiden voyage, with the main focus being the opening of Titanic Belfast, a striking £97 million building shaped like a ship’s prow in Belfast’s historic dock. Due to open next April, the month the ship sailed, it will be the world’s biggest Titanic visitor attraction packed with dramatic and interactive displays uncovering the stories of Belfast and the Titanic. In the meantime groups can find out more about the liner at Cobh Heritage Centre in the picturesque harbour town outside Cork that was Titanic’s last port of call.
New virtual tour of Dublin
GTOs planning to visit Dublin can take a virtual tour of its cultural gems and put together an itinerary. A new website enables users to visit the top museums, galleries and historic buildings through video, photographs and interviews. Among the attractions are Trinity College, the Irish Museum of Modern Art, James Joyce Centre, GPO building and City Hall. www.dublinculturetrail.ie
Top three sights
1. Giant’s Causeway: This geological phenomenon on the Antrim coast was caused by volcanic eruptions, though some say the basalt columns were the work of a giant called Finn McCool.
2. Guinness Storehouse: Ireland’s most visited attraction explores more than 250 years of history and ends with a drink in the Gravity Bar with great views over Dublin. Group benefits include fast-track entry, exclusive tours and the chance for your members to try pulling a pint.
3. Ring of Kerry: The 105 mile circular route in the south-west takes in some of Ireland’s most spectacular scenery with plenty of group-friendly attractions along the way.
Eat: Traditional Irish food is simple and tasty. Try Irish stew made with lamb, potato cakes, champ - mashed potato mixed with spring onion - and freshly baked soda bread served with smoked salmon, Dublin Bay prawns or oysters. In recent years Ireland has also undergone a gourmet revolution with young chefs turning home-grown ingredients into sophisticated cuisine.
Drink: It’s said Guinness tastes better in Ireland than anywhere else, so test the theory with a drop or two of the famous stout that’s always poured slowly and often served with a shamrock shaped into the creamy head. Or taste the spirit of Ireland with a glass of whiskey, known in Gaelic as the ‘water of life’.
Try: Kissing the Blarney stone. Every year more than 300,000 people kiss the legendary stone at Blarney Castle in County Cork in the hope of being blessed with the gift of eloquence. At one time visitors were held by the ankles and lowered head first over the battlements. Today you lean backwards holding on to an iron railing with the help of an attendant.
Go: Ireland is a year-round destination with a mild, temperate climate that’s much the same as England. The majority of festivals and events take place from June to September, but book early if you plan to go on St Patrick’s Day - 17th March. Remember, there’s a reason for the lush, green landscape so always advise your members to take an umbrella and rain coat.
Flight time: 1hr to 1hr 20min from London to Dublin and Belfast.
Ferry time: From 1hr 45min high speed catamaran service from Stranraer to Belfast to 10hr overnight crossing from Swansea to Cork.
Time difference: GMT.
Currency: Euro £1= €1.16.
Red tape: UK citizens do not require a passport to enter Ireland, but most air and sea carriers now require formal identification with a photograph so check before travelling.
Did you know?
• The Department of Irish Folklore at University College Dublin has over 100,000 tales, myths and legends on record, the largest collection of its kind in the world.
• At 240 miles in length, the River Shannon is the longest river in the British Isles.
• Northern Ireland has its own unique Ulster-Scots culture that is often expressed through dancing accompanied by the drum, fiddle, fife and flute.
Image credit - National Trust & Joe Cornish