The complete guide to Republic of Ireland

From Dublin's uproarious nightlife to the romantic castles of Co Clare, Ireland can claim an incredible variety of attractions for the visitor. Whether on a weekend break or a longer stay, tourists can enjoy historic architecture, beautiful scenery, thrilling music, great food and, of course, the Guinness. Or you can tickle your fancy at the annual Matchmaking Festival.
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HOW DO I GET THERE?

Competition in the sky has not yet eclipsed other ways to get to Ireland, but there are plenty of bargains from many British airports to a wide range of Irish destinations.

The leading airline is Ryanair (0541 569569), which flies to Dublin from most UK airports, with the notable exception of Heathrow. Typical fares are around pounds 60-pounds 100. Ryanair also flies from its base at Stansted non-stop to places such as Waterford, Kerry and Knock. These and other destinations are also served by Aer Lingus (0645 737747) from many UK airports. British Midland (0870-607 0555) flies from London Heathrow to Dublin, while British Airways (0345 222111) serves Cork, Dublin and Shannon from Gatwick, and Shannon from Manchester. Finally, Virgin Express (0800 891199) flies from Stansted to Shannon, Jersey European (0870-567 6676) links Exeter with the Irish capital, and Comed Aviation (0161-489 2864) flies from Blackpool to Dublin.

JUST BECAUSE THE AIR FARES ARE CHEAP, DO I HAVE TO FLY?

No; numerous ferries still ply the waters of the Irish Sea and St George's Channel. Irish Ferries (0990 171717) has 14-day return packages from Pembroke to Rosslare, for a car and two passengers, for pounds 138, and from Holyhead to Dublin for pounds 158. Until 16 December it also offers a five-day return for pounds 89 from Pembroke and pounds 119 from Holyhead. The walk-on fare is pounds 35 from either. Alterna- tively, Stena Line (0990 707070) offers a standard return fare from Fishguard to Rosslare for pounds 138 for up to five people, and pounds 208 from Holyhead to Dun Lao- ghaire. The walk-on fares are pounds 60 from Holyhead and pounds 40 from Fishguard.

HOW WILL I GET AROUND?

If you fancy renting a car, Alamo (0990 996000) has a weekly rate of pounds 98, including tax, insurance and unlimited mileage. With Avis (0870 6060100) a week's rental will cost pounds 125, including tax, insurance and unlimited mileage, but first-time users can take advantage of the introductory price of pounds 108.

If you don't want to travel by car, the options are bus or rail. In Dublin most tourist sites are within walking distance of each other but, for the few that are further out, your best bet is to use the Dublin bus network. A one-day pass costs Irpounds 3.30 (Irpounds 4.50 if you include local rail services). The Dublin Area Rapid Transport also provides a quick rail service along the coast as far north as Howth Harbour and as far south as Bray (a day pass costs Irpounds 3.20).

Bus Eireann (00 353 1 836 6111) provides services in both the south and the north - ask about the Irish Rambler and Irish Rover fares. Irish Rail, or Iarnod Eireann, (00 353 1 836 6222) is the Republic's national railway but, although faster than the bus, the rail system is not as extensive. If this all sounds complicated, buy an Emerald Card. It will cost you Irpounds 105 and will give you seven days unlimited travel on all public transport throughout the island.

WHERE SHOULD I START?

Dublin is the place. Despite being the stag- and hen-party capital of Europe there is a lot more to the city than drunks. One of the best features of the city is its size; relatively small, it is great for walking tours. Make sure you include a visit to Trinity College and the Book of Kells, a ninth-century tome containing the four New Testament gospels and decorated with extensive illustrations. Next, visit Christ Church, St Patrick's Cathedral and Dublin Castle, which are all situated conveniently close to each other. Not far away is Temple Bar, a one-time derelict but now rejuvenated part of Dublin. This warren of streets has lots of funky restaurants, cool pubs and shops.

If you are still on your feet, you will find great examples of restored Georgian architecture. Particularly notable are the Four Courts and Customs House; also the grand squares south of the River Liffey - and, north of the river, their decaying counterparts. The Liffey is crossed by a number of bridges, all with historical significance, and the prettiest has to be the cast-iron Ha'penny Bridge.

Finally, night-time Dublin is for literary and musical pub crawls. Most of these include a visit to Dublin's self-proclaimed oldest pub, the Brazen Head on Bridge Street, but you should probably avoid it unless you are on a hen or stag night. For more information on all these places, contact the Dublin Tourist Information Office at St Andrew's Church, Suffolk St, Dublin 2 (00 353 1 605 7700/7799 or: www.visitireland.com).

WHAT IF I WANT TO EXPLORE FURTHER AFIELD?

County Cork offers some of the most beautiful scenery in Ireland, especially along the Atlantic coast in West Cork. Drive out through the towns of Kinsale, Clonakilty and Skibbereen to the Fastnet Lighthouse on the tip of Mizen Head Peninsula. Built on a small island and accessible only by a suspension bridge, the lighthouse offers breathtaking views in summer or winter. It is open 11am to 5pm in April, May and October and 10am to 5pm between June and September. The rest of the year it is open on weekends from noon to 4 pm. Entry is Irpounds 2.50.

Alternatively, head out to the Rock of Cashel (00 353 62 61437) in County Tipperary. Visible for 20km in every direction, this is a jumble of huge fortifications founded in the fourth century. St Patrick converted the pagan leader here in the fifth century, and the Rock became a symbol of power in the region for the next thousand years. Thick stone walls encircle a 25m round tower and a 12th-century Romanesque chapel. Opening times are 9.30am to 4.30pm (Irpounds 2.50).

DOES GUINNESS TASTE BETTER IN IRELAND?

After considerable testing the answer has to be a definitive yes. The perfect pint, according to legend, is the one pulled closest to the St James Gate brewery in Dublin. To test the quality of your pint, drink it halfway down and then look at the sides of the glass; if there are thick, foamy rings around the inside edges then it is probably a good one. Most Dubliners contend that the best pint is the one pulled at the Guinness Hop Store at St James Brewery, Dublin 8 (00 353 1 408 4800). Admission costs Irpounds 5 and it is open 9.30am-4.30pm Mon-Sat, Sun 12noon- 4.30pm.

As for pubs, John Mulligan's (28 Poolberg St, 00 353 1 677 9249) has a house full of old-time regulars who insist their local has the best Guinness in Dublin. Patrons at Grogan's Castle on South William Sreet. might argue otherwise. As will the regulars at Kehoe's pub on South Anne Street. And remember to order at least two; as the Irish say, "a bird can't fly on one wing".

WHAT ABOUT IRISH MUSIC?

Almost every city, town and village lays claim to having the best musicians in the country playing in their pubs. For some, it may even be true. Dublin, again, is good if you are after variety. Temple Bar has Quays Bar (7 Temple Bar, 00 353 1 671 3922) for traditional music and Fitszimmon's (42 Westland Row, 00 353 1 679 0163) for Riverdance-style jigging. The Brazen Head (20 Lower Bridge St, 00 353 1 661 4303) also has music occasionally, but O'Donoghue's (63 Merrion Row, 00 353 1 661 4303) is the most renowned pub for Irish music.

Cork, Ireland's second city, has Nancy Spain on Barrack street, Mollie's on Tuckey street and An Spailpan Fanac on South Main street for good traditional music. Although full of tourists, especially in summer, Kilarney in County Kerry has some colourful venues for music (O'Connors and Courtney's, both on the High Street, are worth a visit, as are Charlie Foley's on New Street and Kiely's Bar on College street). The diminutive Strawberry Tree on Plunkett street offers some excellent modern Irish folk music and the picturesque port town of Dingle has O'Flaherty's and Murphy's for Irish bands. Dick Mack's, also in Dingle, is a funky little pub featuring impromptu afternoon jam sessions (19 Main Street, Dingle, 00 353 66 915 1960).

Popular venues in the City of Galway include the King's Head on the High Street and Lisheen on Bridge Street. Monroe's Tavern (00 353 91 58 3397), on the corner of Upper Dominick and Fairhill streets, is one of the best music pubs in the county. And, if your ears can still stand it, Doolin, near the Cliffs of Moher in Co Clare, has a few pubs with excellent music. McGann's and McDermott's are good, but O'Connor's is probably the best.

HOW CAN I GET THE GIFT OF THE GAB?

By kissing the Blarney stone. Legend has it that the stone got its powers from an old woman, who cast a spell on it to reward the king who had saved her from drowning. Kissing the stone apparently gave the king the ability to speak eloquently and convincingly. Another popular story is one in which Queen Elizabeth I invented the term after being exasperated by a long-winded speech by Lord Blarney. Whatever the legend, neighbouring Blarney Castle in County Cork is a wonderful example of 15th-century architecture (00 353 21 385 5252, opening hours: Monday to Saturday 9am to 6.30pm, admission Irpounds 5). Its tower house is built atop a solid limestone outcrop and the surrounding gardens are a perfect spot for an afternoon stroll or picnic.

DOES THE 'LUCK OF THE IRISH' EXTEND TO MATTERS OF THE HEART?

Thanks to the Blarney, maybe so. The small County Clare town of Lisdoonvarna is famous for two things - its mineral springs and the annual Matchmaking Festival (contact the Imperial Hotel, Lisdoonvarna, 00 353 72 51103). From the beginning of September to mid-October, aspiring swains descend on the village and, for a small fee, employ the services of a matchmaker to find a mate. Today, it is more about the festivities than the matchmaking. But with all the dancing, drinking and merriment going on there is bound to be a tryst or two. And matchmakers are still on duty to act as intermediary, should you need one.

WILL I HAVE TO SURVIVE ON BACON AND CABBAGE?

Irish cooking once had a well-deserved bad reputation but, thankfully, all that has changed. Nowadays, like most of us, the Irish are health -conscious and that means plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as fresh fish, meat and poultry. Irish stews are still a hearty - and usually tasty - meal served throughout the country and, in the west, salmon and trout are increasingly popular in many restaurants. Irish bread has a good reputation, especially the delicious soda bread. And, if too much of a good thing gets you down, most urban centres have a variety of ethnic restaurants to satisfy any cravings for something different.

WHERE SHOULD I STAY?

For a bit of atmosphere you could do a lot worse than the Harbour View Farmhouse at Bere Island, Beara, County Cork (00 353 27 75011). The 100- year-old farmhouse (rooms from Irpounds 16 per person) is set on an out-of-the- way island with views of Berehaven Harbour and good mountain walks close at hand. For more accommodation ideas, contact the Tourist Board Information Line (0171-493 3201) or visit www.ireland.travel.ie.

If you want a romantic splurge, book in at one of Ireland's castles. The Ashford Castle in Cong, County Mayo is a five-star hotel which was once the country estate of the Guinness family. The castle is set among the beautiful background of County Mayo's mountains and lakes - an area which provided the scenery in John Ford's 1951 film The Quiet Man, starring John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara. Rates start at Irpounds 133 for a double, (tel: 00 353 92 46003, fax: 00353 924 6260).

Dromoland Castle in Co Clare sits among 400 acres of undulating countryside and, with an 18-hole golf course, horse riding, fishing and a health centre all on site, it is a great place to pamper yourself. Winter Rates start at Irpounds 150 for a double (00 353 61 368 144 or www.dromoland.ie). Ballinlacken Castle, also in County Clare, is near the matchmaking town of Lisdoonvarna, the Cliffs of Moher and the Aran Islands. Rates start at a down-to-earth Irpounds 33 for a single and Irpounds 40 for a double (00 353 65 707 4025).

If this sounds too grand, then contact the Town and Country Homes of Ireland for details of B&Bs and hotels (tel: 00353 72 220222, fax: 00353 72 022218).

WHAT SHOULD I BRING HOME?

A visit to Ireland would not be complete without coming home with a bottle or two of Irish whiskey (Paddy's, Jameson and Powers are all very good) and the strength of the pound against the punt will take away all feelings of guilt. Make sure your shopping list includes an Aran sweater from the eponymous islands. If you are planning to visit the Aran islands then wait to buy until you are there but, if not, they are available all over the country.

Crystal is another well-known Irish export, Waterford crystal being the most famous. Tour the factory and see the crystal being made, from the blowing of the glass and molding to the etching and polishing (Waterford Crystal Ltd, Killbarry, County Waterford, 00 353 51 373311, open April to October 8.30am to 4pm, November to March 9am to 3.15pm, admission Irpounds 3.50).

County Donegal is renowned for its tweeds, either bought in lengths or as finished items of clothing, and, in the north, the County Fermanagh village of Belleek is the place to buy fine bone china. Finally, the vibrant green of Connemera marble makes it popular among jewellery makers, often shaped into intricate Celtic designs.

IS THE REPUBLIC SAFE TO VISIT?

Ireland is safer than most European countries. However, with a surge in the drugs trade in recent years the crime rate has been on the increase. Dublin, in particular, has its fair share of pickpockets and bag snatchers. Car break-ins are common, as is bicycle theft. Take the usual precautions - never leave valuables unattended, or visible in an empty car, and make sure bicycles are locked up - and you should be fine.

WALKS IN THE WILD

The Burren (Co Clare)

Great slabs of grey limestone are the key feature of this windswept part of Ireland's west coast. Formed from the remains of sea creatures, built up over the millennia and left barren by glaciation and deforestation, the area is today a rambler's dream. During spring and summer the craggy land is full of brightly coloured wild flowers, the richest concentration in Ireland. The area, although sparsely inhabited, has supported communities since the Neolithic and Bronze ages. Their legacy is the 65 megalithic tombs - wedge-shaped stone boxes about the size of a double bed - and several Iron Age ring forts. Burren National Park (www.clarenet.ie/burren or e-mail: burrentreasure.ennis@ tinet.ie), although small, has the finest examples of rock outcrops, tombs and wildflowers.

Glenveagh National Park (Co Donegal)

This park consists of 14,000 hectares of the wildest, most rugged country in Donegal. The wildlife includes red deer, hares, foxes, badgers and all kinds of birds. You can climb Slieve Snaght, the highest peak (686m) in the surrounding Derryveagh Mountains, but only during the summer months. If you're visiting later, the 24km Glenveagh Park walk can be done up until late autumn. With lots of migrating birds and the myriad brilliant autumn colours it's a great time to visit.

Wicklow Mountains (Co Wicklow)

Located on Dublin's doorstep, the Wicklow Mountains are a beautiful destination for a day trip or, if time and weather permit, a walk along the 132km Wicklow Way (details: The Mountaineering Council House of Sport, Longmile Road, Dublin 12, 00 353 1 450 9845). The walk will take you through a varied landscape of waterfalls, lakes, mountain tarns, forests and open moorland. From the lakes of Glendalough in the valley to the blanket bog of the highlands it's a part of Ireland you probably will not forget.

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