Europe’s capital cities can be overwhelming, especially to first-time visitors with kids. You feel stressed from the get-go just trying to fit in all the important attractions. And even if you stay for days, you’ll never have time to see everything. Plus hurrying along city streets surrounded by hundreds of other tourists and trying to keep up with your kids can be exhausting.
When you focus on visiting major cities in Europe, you end up missing those more peaceful venues just beyond the city limits. Most of us need a break from crowds when we travel. Heading off the beaten track not only helps us calm down and savor the moment, it also brings us face to face with amazing sites we might otherwise never see.
During an eight-day visit to the Emerald Isle, husband Peter, son Jasper, and I barely spent a day in Ireland’s capital city and instead explored Dublin’s neighboring counties, where the pace of life slows down, the crowds thin out, and you can get a real feel for what Ireland is all about.
North of Dublin rolling hills welcomed us to County Meath, known as Ireland’s heritage capital. You can spend days, even weeks, wandering around the ancient sites in this verdant region—there’s that much to see.
Climb the Hill of Tara, an evocative setting amid green rolling hills, where the High Kings of Ireland were crowned. At the summit you can see the Central Plain of Ireland and the shadowy mountains that lie beyond. Around you ridges and swirls define ancient earthworks engraved in the ground centuries ago. Or explore Trim Castle, the largest Anglo-Norman castle in Ireland, where “Braveheart” was filmed, and learn about medieval life and times.
But County Meath is probably best known for Bru na Boinne, the palace of the Boyne, one of the world’s most important archaeological landscapes. Here you’ll find the prehistoric passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth. Built in the Neolithic Age (c. 3200 BC), these burial mounds contain passages leading to chambers, where archeologists believe cremated remains of the dead were entombed.
Of the three, only Newgrange allows visitors to walk inside the mound, but you have to arrive early to get a ticket. Newgrange tours were full by the time my family and I arrived, so we hopped back in the car and went to Knowth, where a large burial mound towers over smaller satellite tombs. The guided tour offers insight into the people who built the mounds, why they built them, and how the tombs were used.
Huge rocks create a foundation for the mounds, and many exhibit Neolithic art, carved into the stones: swirls and symbols whose meanings remain unknown. At Newgrange, every year during the winter solstice, a shaft of sunlight pierces the inner chamber, an event that draws huge crowds. Like other World Heritage Sites, such as the ancient pyramids and Stonehenge—both of which this site predates, Bru na Boinne makes you wonder how our early ancestors built these massive structures, even incorporating astronomical events into their rituals.
Our accommodations in County Meath were decidedly not ancient. We stayed in the family-friendly Pillo Hotel Ashbourne with lots of amenities. With Ireland’s penchant for rain, Peter and Jasper found the indoor pool inviting. I took respite at Jule Beauty and Spa, where a therapist gave me an amazing Indian Head Massage that invigorated my face and scalp. We loved Pillo Hotel’s location, close enough to Dublin for a day trip but far enough to enjoy the peaceful countryside.
County Meath is also home to golf, fishing, and numerous hiking and biking trails. Horse racing is also a tradition in Meath, home to the Irish Grand National. If you like to ride, check into opportunities at one of the local equestrian centers.
JOY AND WONDER
The Irish are known for their love affair with horses, so we stopped by the Irish National Stud, a working stud farm located in County Kildare about a half hour west of Dublin on a beautiful estate known as Tully. Tours of the farm offer insight into the high stakes of horse breeding. Stud fees for prized stallion can exceed $58,000.
Besides the breeding facilities, the attraction offers a horse museum and two gorgeous gardens. We loved walking through the Japanese garden, created in the early 1900s by a wealthy Scotsman. Meticulously planned and laid out, the gardens symbolize the life of man, and as you walk along the path, you experience the “journey of the soul from oblivion to enlightenment,” according to the website.
Just to the south is County Wicklow, a region known as the Garden of Ireland. Here nature lovers will find much to appreciate, including miles of hiking trails that wend through the Wicklow Mountains. Nestled in a valley in the heart of the mountain range is Glendalough, a must-see heritage site. In the 6th century, St. Kevin founded a monastery with a group of other monks on the banks of a river. Kevin’s fame as a holy man spread, and Glendalough attracted many followers.
Today the ruins provide only a glimpse of what the monastery would have been like in its heyday. After St. Kevin’s death in 618, the site remained a holy place and even today continues to attract pilgrims. Now visitors discover a haunting site where the ruins of a cathedral, a round tower, smaller churches, and the priest’s home remind us of a different time.
Gravestones are everywhere, and as Peter, Jasper, and I walked around, it was hard not to think about the centuries separating us from the simpler times of St. Kevin. I wished we had time to follow some of the hiking trails that branch off from Glendalough, including one called St. Kevin’s Way that follows the route of the saint.
Our stay in County Wicklow commenced at the Powerscourt Hotel in Eniskerry, a luxury property with a neo-classic Palladian exterior and a Georgian-inspired interior. In a wooded setting next to Powerscourt Estate, the hotel overlooks Sugar Loaf Mountain, a view I never tired of seeing from the balcony of our suite.
Of course, inside the décor was equally inviting. Our plush accommodations featured a spacious living area with comfy chairs, a settee, oversized desk and dining table, as well as a master bedroom with a kingly featherbed and an exquisite bathroom. It was difficult to leave this lovely suite to continue our explorations, but we wanted to see nearby Powerscourt House and Gardens.
Described as one of the most beautiful country estates in Ireland, Powerscourt Estate covers over 1000 acres, on which tended gardens, terraces, fish ponds, statuary, and tree plantations undulate in all directions. Peter, Jasper, and I decided to skip the house tour and spend our time wandering the grounds, where we discovered beautiful vistas with every step.
Back at the hotel, Peter and I went for a swim in the stunning black marble pool inlaid with Swarovski crystals. Surrounding the pool are comfy lounges, where you can lose yourself in the mystical magic of the place. Another mystical experience awaits in the hammam, a circular steam room with a large crystal in the center which emits a stream of steam. Decorated in exotic tiles, the steam room is a place to let life’s stresses ooze out while peace and tranquility enter in.
The adventure continued that night when we dined at the hotel’s signature restaurant. Peter and I had to convince Jasper, who’s a meat-and-potatoes fan, to partake in the evening’s prix fixe menu, a multi-course journey into a selection of gourmet dishes that Jasper had never even dreamed of: foie gras mousse; salmon boudin, loin of venison with wild boar black pudding, and a trio of creamy sorbet for dessert. Delish!
There’s plenty to do in County Wicklow, thanks to its proximity to the Irish Sea. Brittas Bay, known as one of Ireland’s finest white-sand beaches, features high dunes along the bay’s edge, where a variety of wildlife—from swans to butterflies—delight visitors. Surf fishing is a popular sport in summer, and the local catch includes codling, dab, dogfish, and coalfish.
Another recommended hotel in County Wicklow is the Druids Glen Hotel and Golf Resort in Newtownmountkennedy. The resort offers spacious accommodations, an indoor pool, health club, and spa. Golfers will enjoy its close proximity to championship courses, and kids will love the family-friendly amenities. But most of all, Druid Glen’s setting among lush rolling hills offers visitors the chance to enjoy a peaceful escape from the cares of daily life along with a perfect base from which to explore this beautiful region.
While Jasper chilled at the hotel, Peter and I spent our final night in Ireland at Taylor’s Three Rock, where we dined on a four-course meal while enjoying Irish music, dancers, and comedy. Located on the southern edge of Dublin, Taylor’s Three Rock does a great job of giving visitors a taste of authentic Irish cabaret in a cozy environment that resembles the inside of a thatched-roof cottage.
In fact, Peter decided the evening’s show was the highlight of his visit. As for me, choosing a favorite attraction in these three counties surrounding Dublin is too hard. I loved everything we did. Enjoying yourself in Ireland is easy, I think. There’s so much to see and do, and everywhere you go friendly folks welcome you with warm smiles. But make sure you venture off the beaten track—where the real Ireland lies waiting.
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