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Off-season puts Ireland on a different footing

Windy and cold, but easier and cheaper to see

By Steve Holt
Globe Correspondent / December 19, 2010

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DUBLIN — As the winds sweeping the Burren turn colder, the Emerald Isle is by no means lifeless. In many ways, winter is a prime opportunity to see the real Ireland.

The off-season, from November to mid-March, opens up travel opportunities that are rare at peak times. There are fewer fair-weather travelers to trip over and ample vacancies at bed-and-breakfasts and hotels. And winter visitors have a better chance of finding wallet-friendly deals. Not least of all, the pubs are all indoors, have rip-roaring fires, and plenty of warm food and music for wind-weary wanderers.

Last winter, my wife and I jumped on a great last-minute package to Ireland we found online: six nights in late February, a flight from Boston to Dublin, the first night in a Dublin hotel, a car rental, and five vouchers for bed-and-breakfasts throughout the country.

A rare blanket of snow coated the runway as we landed in Dublin. But later that morning, the clouds broke and the city streets were full of life, including a sidewalk book fair and an energetic festival of Russian culture.

Smaller crowds meant no line for the next tour of Kilmainham Gaol, the cavernous former prison that played an important role in the Irish rebellions leading up to independence in 1921. And at Trinity College we could take our time marveling at the Book of Kells, a 1,200-year-old monastic manuscript. Some attractions cut their hours or close in winter, so check before visiting. That’s not so with Dublin’s pubs.

In colder, wetter weather the city’s pubs seemed even cozier. On the weekend, we felt part of a citywide night out. At traditional pubs like The Stag’s Head, patrons sat for hours, playing cards or swapping stories.

Getting out into the country, we saw a different side to the seasonal landscape. In the west, the roiling surf along the blustery coast would have made the best surfers quiver. At the Cliffs of Moher, a bone-piercing wind was a strangely appropriate match for the dramatic scenery.

Regardless of the season, Kerry and Cork are arguably Ireland’s most breathtaking counties. As we climbed the Caha Mountains to Healy Pass on the Beara Peninsula, plump sheep grazed on both sides of the narrow road, even crossing it at points. Descending from the pass with Cork before us, we were reminded just how little of Ireland has been developed.

Pulling into the shadows of a single stone turret amid a canopy of green, we were alone. This was Thoor Ballylee, W.B. Yeats’s summer castle. We were probably the only people who had been there all day. This was our experience at nearly every castle or monastery we visited. A local here, a family on holiday there, but overall the sites were nearly deserted.

Just past Yeats’s place was Kilmacduagh Monastery, built in the 7th century, complete with a church, abbey, round tower, and classic burial ground. As we watched the sun set over the grounds once inhabited by St. Colman Mac Duagh and his order — and ravaged by plunderers throughout its history — the privacy gave us the illusion of being explorers discovering the ruins for the first time.

Unlike in Dublin, at night in the village pubs we were often the only ones drinking. That was true on the night we spent in McCann’s in Doolin on the west coast. Sitting next to the fire in the corner usually reserved for musicians, we switched off watching soccer on a small television and the owners’ daughter toddling around. When the husband came over and talked with us at length, it was a true Irish connection.

Monks Pub was at the right place at the right time. We were headed to Ballyvaughn but a wrong turn put us on a dead-end street with nothing in front of us but Galway Bay and Monks. Having changed a tire that morning and walked to see 5,000-year-old Poulnabrone Dolmen in a snow squall, we were chilled and ready for comfort. Inside, we found two armchairs in front of a hot fire where we spent the afternoon defrosting.

For six nights, we had a private show of Irish hospitality. We picked our room at the Rockcrest House in Kenmare, from which we saw two magical sunsets over the town and distant hills. And in Doolin, Brid Egan at Atlantic Sunset Bed & Breakfast drew us back for a second night with her warmth. On our last night, in Dublin, Springvale Bed & Breakfast was the only guesthouse we shared with others. Drop-ins were welcome at most places before 6 p.m., room selections were ample, and the hosts were usually available to answer questions and offer tips.

We spent our last night at Kennedys pub, formerly a haunt of Oscar Wilde. I breathed deeply and reflected on the beauty we saw during our 580-mile trek across Ireland. With the wind howling outside, a thought came to me: Maybe summertime is Ireland’s off-season.

Steve Holt can be reached at steve@thebostonwriter.com.

If You Go

Where to stay
Croke Park Hotel
Jones’s Road, Dublin
011-353-1-871-4444
Four-star hotel.
Atlantic Sunset Bed & Breakfast
Cliffs of Moher Road
County Clare
011-353-65-707-4080
www.atlanticsunsetdoolin.com
Minutes from Cliffs of Moher.
Rockcrest House
Gortamullen, Kenmare
011-353-644-1248
www.rockcresthouse.com
Every room has a view and a TV.
Springvale Bed & Breakfast
69 Kincora Drive, Clontarf
011-353-1-833-3413
www.springvaledublin.com
Centrally located .
Where to eat
Gruel
68 Dame St., Dublin
011-353-1-6707119
Affordable comfort food with a hipster twist.
The Horseshoe
3 Main St., Kenmare
011-353-64-41553
www.thehorseshoekenmare.com
Fabulous wine list, steaks.
Josie’s Restaurant and Tea Room Glanmore Lake
Lauragh, South Kerry
011-353-64-668-3155
www.josiesrestaurant.ie