Within 30 minutes of setting foot on Irish soil, we piled into a rental car. My mom had assured us it would be a full sized vehicle. Instead, it turned out to be a compact clown car. My parents, my brother, and I nestled ourselves in between all of our luggage while my patient husband navigated us along the two-way, one-lane, zero-visibility roads out of the Shannon airport and towards the Cliffs of Moher.
As we drove over the rolling emerald green hills, each member of my family took turns pointing out the sheep that dotted the landscape (note: there are thousands of sheep that dot Ireland’s landscape, but in my family, we feel the need to get excited about every single one of them) (MC: Every. Single. One.). My dad made his usual dad joke that we belonged in Chevy Chase’s Christmas Vacation. My brother Tim groaned about leg space if he wasn’t sound asleep. My mom repeatedly lunged for the handle above her car door whenever there was an oncoming car, stop sign, bend in the road, or even just a generally straight, flat, safe stretch of road, as if we were about to drive off the side at any moment, even though Mike is an excellent driver. And I sat in the passenger’s seat on the ‘wrong’ side of the car, calling out directions so that Mike could hear me over the cacophony that results when my family is together. My dad was probably right – we did belong in a Chevy Chase film.
But as we wound our way past villages with adorable names like Ballyalla and Clarecastle, and towns with names that I found a bit harder to pronounce like Inagh and Ennistimon, the ‘family bonding’ died down and a calm settled over us. The rain pattered on our windshield, the temperature gauge plummeted. The towns grew smaller, and soon, we only passed the occasional cottage until we reached the small village of Liscannor. The vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean opened up below the towering Cliffs of Moher, with our car teetering on the edge.
Why did we go to Ireland in the winter?
Two years ago, my family decided to come visit us in the UK for New Year’s. We wanted to show them around London, but we also wanted to escape the crowds and leave the city for New Year’s itself. We looked at renting a cottage somewhere in the English countryside.
Then my mom happened upon an idyllic cottage in Ireland listed on VRBO – it boasted about it’s roaring fireplace, lack of cell service, proximity to cozy village pubs, and it was perched right at the edge of the Cliffs of Moher, on the Wild Atlantic Way. My mom was sold by the thought of reading books in front of a fire. My dad couldn’t wait to drink a Guinness in an Irish pub. Tim, Mike and I immediately started researching coastal walks that we could do from the house.
The trip certainly lived up to each of our expectations. So what did we do there to make the trip so memorable?
Stay in Doolin, the birthplace of Irish music
If you like hot fish ‘n chips, beer fresh from the tap, salty air, and breathtaking views, then a visit to Doolin, Ireland should be in your future. The bucolic village is a nest of brightly colored cottages in County Clare. It sits on the Wild Atlantic Way, a 2,500 km long coastal trail on the west coast of Ireland, between two geologic marvels – the Cliffs of Moher and the Burren. And if all of that hasn’t sold you yet, it’s also the birthplace of Irish music. Folk tunes can be heard nearly every single day of the year, even in the darkness of winter.
Before checking into our cottage, we made a beeline straight for the pub called Gus O’Connors in the village center. My dad, whose ancestors are originally from County Clare, appeared right at home as he ducked his head and entered the cozy establishment to order his first pint of Guinness on draft. The wafting aromas of steak and ale pie, bangers and mash, and sausage rolls floated out of the kitchen. The sounds of accordions and fiddles drifted through the Christmas decorations and over to our little corner where we made ourselves at home repeatedly over the next seven days.
Stand on the edge of the Cliffs of Moher
As I mentioned earlier, our cottage was literally overlooking the edge of the Cliffs of Moher, which was pretty epic. At night, the wind shook our peat-fire-heated cottage so loudly that I felt like we were in that cabin in the first Harry Potter where Vernon Dursley drags the whole family to get rid of the Hogwarts letters, and Hagrid finds them in the storm. Which isn’t an image too far off the mark, because scenes from Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince were filmed at the Cliffs of Moher.
The Cliffs are one of those world wonders that you have to see in person to really appreciate just how magnificent Mother Earth is. The successive cliffs tower hundreds of feet above the Atlantic Ocean with no fence to stop a human (or cow or sheep) from being blown off the edge. Emerald green grass runs right up to the edge, and birds soar overhead. If you bend down to look at the shale and sandstone bedrock (carefully, don’t fall!), you’ll even find fossil traces of marine life that lived millions of years ago.
On the only sunny day we had while in Ireland, we hiked the 10 km from our cottage down to Hags Head, along the main Cliffs of Moher coastal walk. Walking this path is the best way to see the Cliffs if you can manage – the walk has you away from the road, teetering right on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. A word of caution: wear wellies!
Pay a visit to Doolin Cave because geology rocks!
In addition to idyllic pubs and traditional music, Doolin is also home to the world’s THIRD largest stalactite (aka large rock formation hanging from the ceiling)! That’s right, I’ve been holding out the best bit of news about the Irish west coast until this point in the post (MC: oh joy.)
As soon as I heard that there was a geologic museum housing fossils and the world’s third largest stalactite (seriously…wow!), I had to drag the rest of my family there. I think they all found it more enjoyable than they cared to admit – because what isn’t to love about an underground tour through a cave that showcases a hanging limestone formation that’s 7.3 meters long?!
It was discovered in 1952 when two explorers were visiting Lisdoonvarna, and happened upon a stream disappearing beneath a cliff face. They were curious about where the stream led. So, as one does when one happens upon a creepy opening in the earth, they removed some boulders and crawled through a claustrophobia-inducing hole in the bedrock for 500 meters. They finally reached Doolin Cave, which opened right up into an expansive cavern, and showcased the stalactite that still stands there today (MC: not trying to be nitpicky but technically it’s hanging, not standing. Stalagtites vs. stalagmites is perhaps the only thing I remember from 3rd grade).
And to round out your geology-centric day, make sure to also pick up some fossils for your home at The Rock Shop in Liscannor, only a few minutes’ drive down the road from the cave.
Talk to some cows, and get very wet, at The Burren
You can’t go to the Cliffs of Moher without also visiting The Burren. Nearly all of County Clare is part of this designated National Park. The park is comprised of a unique geologic landscape (more rocks!!): rolling hills of pavement-like limestone. The rock is columnar, with wide cracks in between large pieces of limestone where glacial and weather erosion have worn down mud deposits and left the rest of the rock intact (MC: maybe we should go back to being excited about seeing sheep again…). It makes for a beautiful view, so unique that you almost feel like you’re on another planet.
To see The Burren in its most exposed areas, we took a day trip to Galway from Doolin, and drove the long way around the coast. At most points during the 70 km drive, we were the only car on the road, except for a few tractors towing bales of hay and grass. Despite the cold, I spent most of the drive with my head out of the window taking photos. And of course, my dad insisted we stop every time we saw a large heard of cows so we could say hello and take photos of them.
The Burren doesn’t just run along the coast – it also extends inland. To see this change in landscape, we went for a day hike outside of Lisdoonvarna. Our hike through the mossy fields, past roaming cows and over ancient rock walls, gave us a glimpse into the lush ecosystem of The Burren. It also reminded my dad and Mike why all Irish people always wear wellies – you never know when you’re going to have to ford a stream!
Climb Mangerton Mountain in Killarney National Park
If there’s one thing I could change about our first trip to Ireland, it would be to spend more time in Killarney National Park. My mom knows that Tim, Mike and I all love hiking. So as a Christmas present, she and my dad arranged a day trip for the whole family to Killarney National Park to climb Mangerton Mountain with a local guide and her husband. The day trip required a 4:30am wake up to make an early morning ferry across the straight separating County Clare from County Limerick, but I would argue the wake up was worth it (Tim probably (most definitely and aggressively) disagreed at the time).
Led by our guides, a local couple and their trusty black labrador, we wound our way up into the park where we quickly found ourselves totally alone. I’m sure my dad probably partially wished he was back in Gus O’Connors, sitting next to the fire with a pint of Guinness, but the hike made for a perfect family bonding day and a successful hike to Mangerton’s peak. Our fish ‘n chips that night were certainly well-earned!
We’re heading back to Ireland for the holidays this year, this time to the even-more-remote County Donegal in the northwest and to Dublin. Let us know if you have anything you think we shouldn’t miss!