The Complete Guide To: The east coast of Ireland

Belfast is buoyant, Dublin delightful, and there are natural wonders that stretch from the mountains to the sea
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The Independent Online

Business and beauty?

Yes, in many respects that's the east coast of Ireland in a nutshell. And it's packed with historic appeal, too. This, of course, is an intriguing shoreline encompassing two countries and two capitals: Belfast and Dublin having traditionally been the great commercial and cultural hubs of the island. As a consequence the east offers the principal gateways to Ireland, not only the airports of the two capitals but the island's main ferry terminals as well: Larne, north of Belfast; Dun Laoghaire, south of Dublin; and Rosslare, on the south-eastern tip. Meanwhile, when it comes to scenery the west coast tends to hog the limelight, yet the eastern seaboard is not short on striking attractions; from mountains to beaches, there's a wonderfully rich variety of landscapes. But perhaps best of all is the sense of renewal and rediscovery in the north, with Northern Ireland in buoyant and welcoming mood, particularly following the restoration of the Assembly in May this year.

Show me natural wonder

Rain, sun, howling wind whipping up the sea – whatever the conditions the extraordinary Giants Causeway is an exhilarating sight. Set at the very top of Ireland, this geological phenomenon is composed of about 40,000 columns of black basalt rock that descend into the sea. Weirdly, each column is a near perfect polygonal shape (mostly hexagons, but there are also pentagons and others). The scientific explanation is that the causeway was created by volcanic activity about 60 million years ago, with the resulting lava flow reaching at least as far as Mull in Scotland. However, local lore maintains that the great giant Fionn mac Cumhaill built a highway across the sea to Scotland in order to reach his Caledonian paramour. Access to the rocks is free all year round and at any time, but if you come by car you'll need to pay a parking fee of £5. Bear in mind that this is Northern Ireland's biggest draw and that in summer you'll almost invariably find yourself among large gaggles of people.

Most visitors also head for nearby Bushmills. Here Ireland's (and indeed the world's) oldest licensed whiskey distillery has been in operation since 1608 and now, alongside the distillery business it has become a sort of tourism double act with the Giant's Causeway. There's a large visitor centre from which guided tours are conducted Monday to Saturday 9.30am-5.30pm and Sunday noon-5pm, adults £5.

If you're visiting at the end of August there's a treat in store. This is when the area's historic port town of Ballycastle hosts Ireland's oldest festival. Oul'Lammas Fair is a celebration of harvest time that has an unbroken history of 300 and more years. Serious business is conducted over livestock sales and horse trading while market stalls sell crafts and local specialities such as dulse (dried seaweed).

And for shore drama?

Backed by the glorious Glens of Antrim, the north-east coast is spectacular. The A2 runs along much of the edge of the nine glens, hugging the shoreline and providing panoramic views. On a clear day, you can see as far as the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland.

Fringed with hedgerows of wild fuschia, which right now are vibrantly in bloom, the coast road passes through picturesque-yet-sturdy waterside villages, including Carnlough with its clocktower and Glenarm whose main street is lined with colourful houses. But the A2 bypasses the best bit, the north-easternmost stretch of the Antrim Coast. Head down a narrow lane beyond Ballycastle to the vertiginous cliffs of Fair Head and you'll find yourself in wonderfully rugged country. You have to complete the last kilometre or so on foot from the small National Trust car park (free), which is all to the good since it means you may well have the place to yourself.

There are more National Trust properties slightly further south. Follow the minor coastal road that twists and turns via Torr Head and you'll be rewarded with jaw-dropping vistas. The road leads to Cushendun, a village now owned by the Trust and almost entirely created between 1913 and 1925 by Clough Williams-Ellis. Although not nearly as eccentric as his more celebrated village design, Portmeirion in Wales, here cream-coloured houses with slate roofs look out on to a harbour and beach where seals can sometimes be seen.

Where's the buzz?

Head to Belfast. Granted, the city is unlikely to win very many beauty contests, but today it has a hugely appealing sense of energy and enterprise. Since the 1994 ceasefire it has been regaining a big sense of pride, and – lately especially – enjoying something of a party mood. Large areas of the city have been transformed, too, not least the once near-derelict old docklands. This area was vital in the development of Belfast as a centre for industries ranging from shipbuilding to linen production. Boat tours around the docklands have become increasingly popular. Part of the cachet is the fact that the Titanic was built at the Harland & Wolff shipyard on the River Lagan (they say locally that " She was all right when she left here"). The Lagan Boat Company (028 9033 0844; offers two 75-minute trips, both sailing Monday to Friday at 12.30pm, 2pm and 3.30pm, and both costing £8 for adults.

Titanic Tours depart from the Big Fish sculpture on Donegall Quay and take in the shipyard and waters where the world's most tragically famous ship was created; while Lagan Tours leave from Lagan Lookout and explore the harbour.

While in Belfast it is also possible to get an understanding of the recent past and what life has been like for the residents. The city's murals and "peace walls" (stone and steel constructions protecting neighbourhoods) are striking and haunting emblems of the sectarianism here and feature on a variety of tours.

Among a number of well-informed guided taxi trips to Shankill and Falls Roads (where there is the greatest concentration of this art), are Black Taxi Tours (0800 052 3914; which cost around £8 per person (for a minimum of three in a group). Walking trips of West Belfast, guided by former political prisoners, are also offered, the three-hour tours costing £8 per adult (028 9020 0770;

Over in the Cathedral Quarter near the centre, you get a stunning sense of the city's regeneration at the wonderfully glamorous Merchant Hotel (028 9023 4888;; doubles from £140 per night including breakfast) that opened last year. Once the headquarters of the Ulster Bank, the building now offers sumptuous accommodation, with antiques, huge bath tubs, and great swathes of curtains.

In fact, good hotels have been springing up all over the city: one of the most popular and reasonable mid-range options is the Malone Lodge Hotel (028 9038 8000; doubles from £109) offering stylish, spacious rooms on leafy Eglantine Avenue near Queen's University.

I want mountains and sea

According to local stories, it was in the Mourne Mountains that St Patrick banished snakes from Ireland. While other areas also claim this distinction, it is widely held that this region was one of the saint's early landing sites – and that he duly converted the local hill folk to Christianity. The picturesque Mournes rise up in a short stretch between the coastal resort of Newcastle and the sleepy village of Rostrevor just above the border with the Republic. This is the high point of Northern Ireland, with Slieve Donard the tallest peak at 850m. Just to the north of Newcastle, fringing Dundrum Bay is a wide sandy beach behind which stretches Ulster's oldest nature reserve, its dune landscape an ideal habitat for wildlife. The Murlough National Nature Reserve is owned by the National Trust and is freely accessible. It is a great place to come bird and seal watching, particularly when you face south, looking towards the mountains. The Mournes, meanwhile, are wonderful hiking territory and offer some coastal paths as well as hillside trails. You can also take a lovely shore-side drive along the A2 from Newcastle, with the road skirting the edge of the mountains.

Can I break for the border?

Before hostilities ceased, the road frontiers between Northern Ireland and the Republic dauntingly and very visibly featured army watchtowers with barrages of security cameras. These days, however, the border is barely marked and you're hardly conscious of making an international crossing. (Indeed, the only immediate change is that speed limits alter from miles to kilometres per hour.)

However, if you're in search of a touch of drama as you enter the Republic from the north, make for the Cooley Peninsula, a place of wild and elemental beauty just below the Mountains of Mourne. This is great walking country, with beaches of shingle and sand to the south, and wooded and heather-tufted hills in the interior. These habitats support a great variety of wildlife – from hares to guillemots, stonechats and razorbills. Legend has it that the giant Fionn mac Cumhaill once roamed these shores but that one night when he lay down to sleep he was transformed into the mountain Slieve Foy which, suitably shaped like a recumbent creature, now provides the backdrop to the pretty fishing town of Carlingford on the banks of eponymous Lough Carlingford.

This is a place packed with history, from Viking landings to Norman invasion and, purportedly, a visit from King John in the very early 13th century. The striking remains of an Anglo-Norman castle, known as King John's Castle (inaccessible due to the danger of falling masonry) stands over the harbour. Elsewhere in this small town there are other impressive medieval buildings, from an old mint, established in 1467, to a gate tower called the Tholsel, fromu uwhich duty was extracted from merchants coming to trade in the town.

What about ancient stones and crosses?

Set at the mouth of the River Boyne midway down the east coast, grey-stone Drogheda at first sight may look a little daunting. But this is a richly rewarding town with a cheerful sense of energy, and it wears its considerable past – from Vikings to near devastation by Cromwell to 19th-century boom – with pride. The Old Drogheda Society runs the excellent local gallery, the Millmount Museum and Martello Tower (open Mon-Sat 9.30am-5.30pm, Sun 2-5pm, adults ¿3.50/£2.50) where there's a gloriously eclectic range of exhibits, from guild banners (of bricklayers, broguemakers and more) to a period kitchen dating back to 1860, complete with settle bed. However the sights in the Boyne Valley just beyond town are the really big draw of this area.

A few kilometres north of Drogheda is the monastic site of Monasterboice (open during daylight hours, admission free). Although the original monastery no longer exists there is a peaceful churchyard here with two particularly tall and finely decorated Celtic crosses dating from the 10th century. Nearby is a round tower, built as a lookout point for Viking longships.

To Drogheda's south-west, meanwhile, are the amazing Neolithic monuments of Bru na Boinne. These largely consist of stone burial chambers, the three most important of which (Knowth, Newgrange and Dowth) are linked by passages. There's much debate about how the monuments were built, nevertheless the sheer scale of the constructions reflect an astonishingly advanced civilisation. Access to all 40 or so monuments of the site is through the Bru na Boinne Visitor Centre which is open daily 9am-7pm (until 5.30pm from October), adults ¿2.90 (£2). With great crowds descending pretty much hourly in the summer it is best to get here early.

It was near the tombs, about 5km from Drogheda, that the Battle of the Boyne took place in 1690, when King James II was driven out of Ireland by his son-in-law William of Orange. The fighting was swiftly over, but the battle still has significance today in Protestant celebrations and Orange marches that take place on 12 July. The battlefields are open daily May to September 10am-6pm, free.

I'd like urban elegance – with party spirit

Dublin offers a compelling mix of graceful architecture and vibrant street culture – this is a city where about half the population is less than 30 years old. The best way to approach the capital of the Republic is by ferry: it is from the sea that you take in its striking, geographical setting on a wide bay with the Wicklow Mountains gently looming to the south. The fine Georgian centre of the city is some way back from the bay, but former maritime importance is reflected in the magnificent old Custom House (now a local government office), built in 1791 and probably still the grandest of the city's buildings.

It is to Custom House Quay that Vikings will be returning to Dublin this summer. A replica longship, built at the Roskilde Ship Museum in Denmark, set sail from Scandinavia on 1 July and aims to arrive in the city on 14 July. The Sea Stallion will remain outside the Custom House for a two-day celebration before being transferred to the National Museum at Collins Barracks where it will form the centrepiece of an exhibition on shipbuilding, and will be on display until June next year (Tues-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 2-5pm; free).

Summer celebrations also include the Temple Bar Diversions Festival, in the city's hippest area on the south bank of the River Liffey. It runs until the end of August and features open-air film shows, concerts, opera, and circus acts on Sundays (00 353 1 677 2255; St Stephen's Green, in the city centre, has also been in party mood. After months under tarpaulin, Dublin's landmark Shelbourne Hotel (00 353 1 663 4500;; doubles from ¿208/£149 including breakfast) reopened earlier this year after an ¿83m revamp, including a large extension. Great care, though, has been taken to retain the character and appeal of the legendary Horseshoe Bar, haunt of many of Dublin's literati. Nearby the chic boutique Dylan (00 353 1 660 3000;; doubles from ¿240/£171 without breakfast) at Eastmoreland Place opened last September and continues (discreetly) to have the most sought-after rooms in town.

And for a good beach?

The south-east is the sunniest and driest region of Ireland, and as if in kind-hearted response the Wexford coast presents very generously long reaches of golden sands. Head south of Courtown or north of the village of Rosslare (set a few kilometres above Rosslare Harbour) for particularly fine stretches.

Should beach life pall, there's much more on offer. The old harbour town of Wexford that punctuates this part of the coast provides a good gateway to two absorbing sights. At Ferrycraig to the west you can walk through the early history of Ireland: the Irish National Heritage Park (open daily 9.30am-6pm; admission ¿7.50/£5.35) contains a collection of recreated settlements from 7000 BC to the arrival of the Normans in the 12th century. You stroll through the subtly landscaped open-air museum looking into reed-topped homesteads, farms, an early monastery and more.

Meanwhile, just north of town are the intriguingly named Wexford Slobs – so-called from the Irish "slab" for marsh or mud bank. Much of this wetland area is now a thriving bird reserve where you can see an enormous variety of species from tern to teal and godwits. This is a particularly striking place to visit in the autumn when thousands of wildfowl arrive to spend the winter here, the Slobs being especially renowned for harbouring about a third of the world's population of Greenland White-Fronted geese. The Wexford Wildfowl Reserve visitor centre is about 8km from Wexford and is signposted from the Castlebridge Road, open daily, 9am-6pm or 10am-5pm in winter, admission free.

Where can I find out more?

Tourism Ireland covers the entire length and breadth of the island, north as well as south: 0800 039 7000;