From comedy in Kilkenny to a wellbeing break in Wexford - you don't have to go to Dublin to enjoy the best of Ireland

1. Comic turns in Kilkenny

Scene of the much-lauded annual Cat Laughs Festival, Kilkenny City plays host to the stars of the comedy scene from 1 to 5 June. This year's line-up has the cream of international stand-up, including Jimmy Carr and Rich Hall (his 12th visit) and homegrown favourites Ardal O'Hanlon, Dara O'Briain and Deirdre O'Kane. But Ireland's medieval capital is worth a visit any time. It's a delightful warren of historic alleyways and buildingsmade of local limestone, hence its nickname - the marble city.

Where to stay: Mount Juliet (00 353 56 777 3000; mountjuliet.ie) offers huntin', shootin', fishing' pursuits as well as a Jack Nicklaus signature golf course. Doubles start at €298 (£210) per night.

Contact: The Cat Laughs Festival (00 353 56 772 2118; thecatlaughs.com).

2. Party time in Laois

Laois suffers from being on the road to a lot of other places. But those in the know stop awhile to explore its emerald countryside. Originally known as Queens County, one of Laois's major landmarks is the Rock of Dunamase, the ancient fortress on a hill top near Stradbally. Stradbally Hall this year throws its second Electric Picnic, a boutique music festival. Bloc Party, Basement Jaxx and Massive Attack take the stage from 1 to 3 September.

Where to stay: Pitch a tent, or stay at Castle Durrow (00 353 502 365 55; castledurrow.com) an upmarket country house. Two nights' half-board in a double room starts at €270 (£192) per night.

Contact: A three-day pass for Electric Picnic, with camping, is €175 (£125) per person. (electricpicnic.ie)

3. Seek inspiration in Sligo

Another county to suffer from its big-hitting neighbours (in this case Donegal and Mayo), Sligo has been underrated for years. Yet its quiet country lanes and the bracing Atlantic beaches, now attracting an increasing number of surfers, were once a hotbed of creativity and radicalism. This is Yeats country, his childhood home and the inspiration for many of his poems. And it was home too to his friend, the revolutionary Constance Markievicz, who took part in the Easter rising, became the first woman elected to the British parliament - and to take up a cabinet post in the first, illegal, Irish Dail.

Where to stay: Coopershill House in Riverstown (00 353 7191 65108; coopershill.com) offers modern comforts in a Georgian setting, with doubles from €111 (£80) per person per night.

Contact: (sligotourism.ie).

4. Chic grandeur in Meath

Best known for its important heritage sites, including the neolithic passage grave, Newgrange, and the Hill of Tara, County Meath has never registered high on the hip-ometer. But that is set to change with the opening of Bellinter House near Navan in July. This Palladian mansion built in 1750 was the last Irish country estate designed by celebrated English architect Richard Castle. And it's destined to become Ireland's hottest country house hotel, thanks to a trio of Dublin-based bar, restaurant and nightclub owners. Bellinter's Georgian interior has been restored with all hi-tech cons. The 36 "aristo-boho" themed bedrooms, a spa, pools, local organic food and 12 acres of parkland should get them rolling in.

Where to stay: Bellinter House (00 353 1 677 4845; bellinterhouse.com) offers doubles from €270 (£184) per night. Opening rates from€220 (£150) per night are available until 31 August.

Contact: meathtourism.ie.

5. Weekending in Carlow

Just over an hour from Dublin, Carlow is the bolt-hole beloved of well-heeled weekenders. Its agricultural landscape may not have the drama of Co Wicklow, but quiet respite can be found in small pretty riverside villages such as Bagenalstown, Leighlinbridge and Rathvilly. Carlow has also become a destination for garden fans who venture here to Altamount Gardens outside Tullow and the privately owned 17th-century Huntington Castle in Clonegal. Real ale fans should stop off and sample the goods at the awarding-winning Carlow Brewing Company, a micro-brewery on the outskirts of Carlow Town.

Where to stay: Kilgraney Country House (00 353 59 977 5283; kilgraneyhouse .com) in Bagenalstown is a stylish Georgian house well known for its food. Doubles start at €130 (£92) per night, or self-catering apartments can be rented from €280 (£200) for a weekend. Or try the nearby Lorum Old Rectory (00 353 59 977 5282; lorum.com), a rambling manor at the foot of the Blackstairs mountains. Doubles from €120 (£85)per night with breakfast.

Contact: For Altamount Gardens telephone 00 353 503 59444; heritageireland.ie), Huntington Castle (00 353 54 77552; southeastireland.com). Carlow Brewing Company (00 353 503 34356; carlowbrewing.com).

6. Hit the rocky road in Offaly

Restrain yourself from making the mad dash westwards to Ireland's premier peaks in Kerry and Connemara. County Offaly offers some fine walking within easy reach of Dublin in the Slieve Bloom Mountains. A well-maintained circuit - the Slieve Bloom Way - provides a challenging three-day trek. Starting at Glenbarrow, you cross mountains and valleys, enjoying spectacular views across the surrounding counties. And there are pretty urban landscapes to explore here, too. The old town of Birr has a Georgian heart. And its fine castle, owned by Lord and Lady Rosse and dating back to Norman times, is home to a 19th-century telescope that was once the largest in the world. This tradition of record-breaking continues in its elegant parkland, where visitors can admire the tallest box hedges in the world.

Where to stay: The Spinners Town House and Bistro (00 353 509 21673; spinnerstownhouse.com) offers 13 rooms within five Georgian town houses, revamped in chic contemporary style. Doubles from €40 (£28) per person per night, including breakfast. Kinnitty Castle (00 353 57 913 7318; kinnittycastle.com) is a luxurious and historic castle hotel offering 37 bedrooms, with prices from €140 (£100) per person per night, including breakfast.

Contact: Slieve Bloom Way (slievebloom.ie), Birr Castle Demesne (00 353 509 20336; birrcastle.com).

7. A new you in Wexford

Few people need a reason to visit Wexford. This coastal county has been pulling the crowds to its established seaside resorts and Blue Flag beaches for many years. And the Ring of Hook drive - named after Wexford's celebrated Hook Lighthouse, one of the oldest in the world still in operation - takes the more adventurous into pretty towns and villages such as Ballyhack and Campile and past fine heritage sites such as Tintern Abbey. But this year the big draw is the Monart Spa in Enniscorthy, which promises to offer thoroughly 21st-century pleasures in the setting of 18th-century Monart House. Adults are invited to partake in its wellbeing programme, which offers a comprehensive selection of treatments, from inch loss to post-surgery recovery.

Where to stay: A two-night b&b break at the Monart Spa (00 353 53 923 8999; monart.ie) costs from £395 per person, based on two people sharing, with one dinner plus access to the spa, classes and gym.

Contact: County Wexford Tourism (wexfordtourism.com).

8. Just float away in Cavan

Guide books are unkind to Cavan. Only the hill-walking pleasures on its western edges are given much attention. Yet this is Ireland's "Lake District" - with one for every day of the year, so they say. Guaranteed to bring out the sailor in you, its watery bounty is best seen from the deck of a cruise boat. And, if you still doubt the county's potential credentials, ask yourself why a major hotel group such as Radisson SAS has decided to transform a large country pile, the Farnham Estate, into a wellbeing centre. Due to open next month, with the spa - reputedly the largest in Ireland - opening the following month, it will feature 158 bedrooms and, this being Ireland, an 18-hole golf course.

Where to stay: Radisson SAS Farnham Estate (00 353 49 437 7700; radissonsas.com/cavan), roomsstart from €200 (£142) per person, with half-board.

Contact: Carrickcraft (028 3834 4993; cruise-ireland.com) offers three-night short cruises from €450 (£321) for a boat sleeping four. Cavan Tourism (cavantourism.com).

The best battlements

Waterford is famous for its hand-cut crystal - yet it's also a favourite seaside haunt, has stunning mountains, and a cosmopolitan city. To stay at Lismore Castle (above), a group of up to 12 will pay €3,900 (£2,785) per night (00 353 58 54424; lismorecastle .com). Or, self-cater at Salterbridge Gatelodge, near Cappoquin (irishlandmark.com) from €327 (£233) for a weekend. Contacts: waterfordtourism.org and tourismireland.com.

The best racing trip

By now, tickets to September's Ryder Cup, taking place at the super-exclusive K Club in Straffan, will be virtually impossible to get. But Kildare is also home to the Irish bloodstock industry. Horse-racing fans can stay at Martinstown House (00 353 45 441 269; martinstownhouse.com), from €200 (£142) a night. Contact: Curragh Racecourse (00 353 45 441 205; curragh.ie); Irish National Stud (00 353 45 216 17; irish-national-stud.ie).

Additional research by Ambur Beg

Comments