Travel: Rough Guide - Ireland: Time-worn, wind-bitten and totally wonderful

Margaret Greenwood, co-author of `The Rough Guide to Ireland', recalls baths, bogs, bones and a bodega

Best chill

Well, steam actually. The Edwardian bathhouses at Enniscrone retain their original gnarly brass plumbing and time-worn elegant tiling. A cheery, rude-cheeked boy prepares a deep steamy bath filled with slimy green and brown seaweed, hands you a towel and gives you an hour in which to soak. Taking a good book along seems like a good idea, but in fact the vastness of the bath and the highly salty water make it impossible to lounge, and compel you to enjoy the delights of horizontal flotation. There is nothing for it but to empty your mind and drift. After an hour, you are expected to scoop the seaweed into a bucket, empty the bath and tug a rusty chain to unleash a torrent of ice-cold fresh water from above. Expect to emerge wholly energised, with every pore tingling, and repair to the tea room.

Best walk

There is plenty of competition here, but a firm favourite has to be Errisbeg "mountain" near Roundstone, County Galway. Despite a summit of a mere 298m, the climb affords panoramic views and a sense of place that is hard to beat. Take the fuschia-spattered lane alongside O'Dowd's restaurant. All around is the bleak, wind-bitten bog landscape so typical of Connemara. A short climb brings you to the summit, throwing the surrounding wilderness into a grand new perspective.

To the north, the view sweeps across uninterrupted bog as far as the jumbled heights of the Twelve Bens, to the south the coast fragments into sodden patches of spartan land threaded together by ancient tracks and settlements; from here right round to the west, the coastline is deftly sketched by a series of white beaches, the sea a brilliant turquoise at the shoreline.

Worst museum

Tucked away on the West Cork coast, an old woman runs her own museum in which she claims to have the bones of Cromwell, dinosaurs' teeth, a piece of the True Cross and O'Carolan's plectrum. None of this would matter very much were it not for the fact that the cottage which houses the entire collection is in such an advanced state of decay that the stench is all but overwhelming. Within minutes you find yourself practising shallow breathing and trying to remember some basic t'ai chi earthing techniques.

The old bird has it off to a fine art: you enquire as to the contents of her museum and mysteriously three quid whisks its way from your purse into the folds of her copious bosom; before you know it she has you in a one-way loop of detritus. None of the locals will warn you against visiting, I suspect because they all fear libel suits. Can I tell you where it is? Turn left at Bandon and follow your nose.

Best museum

Housed beside the river in Limerick's newly renovated Palladian Custom House, The Hunt Museum is home to a stunning collection. Not only does it display some fine Irish artefacts - the massive Late Bronze Age Ballyscullion cauldron and the beautiful eighth-century Antrim Cross are a couple of my favourites - but there is plenty in the museum from further afield, and a great deal of it is really quite surprising. The Beverley crosier is as exquisite a piece of English medieval carving as you will find anywhere, and for some reason, Charles I's seal is here too, along with Mary Queen of Scots's reliquary with its poignant details showing nails and hammer, the symbols of Christ's Passion.

Best bar

Situated in the heart of the city of Cork, Coal Quay has all the appeal of a shabby old overcoat that has been left out in the rain. But this forgotten laneway is home to Bodega, arguably the finest new bar in the south of Ireland. A cavernous old stone warehouse has been transformed into a powerful design statement: huge ancient mirrors and masses of potted palms give it a formidable grandeur, like some strange cross between Milan railway station and a Victorian imperial hotel. Yet Corkonians of all walks of life seem totally at home in Bodega, which somehow manages to be both stylish and wholly unpretentious.



Getting there

Flights to Dublin with Aer Lingus (tel: 0645 737717) start from pounds 69 return. Flights to Cork start from pounds 119 return. Flights to Dublin with British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) start from pounds 69 return, and to Cork from pounds 79 return. Aer Lingus fly-drive deals offer car hire from pounds 18 per day.

Ferry crossings for a car with five passengers from Holyhead to Dublin with Irish Ferries (tel: 0990 171717) start from pounds 129 for a five-day return. Stena Line (tel: 0990 707070) offers crossings for a car plus five passengers from Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire from pounds 174 for a five-day return.

By coach, London to Dublin with National Express Eurolines (tel: 0171- 730 8235) costs from pounds 29 return.

Where to stay

Accommodation is plentiful, but book in advance for July and August. For the Republic, call Bord Faille (tel: 0171-493 3201). For the North, call Northern Irish Tourist Information Centre (tel: 01232 246609).

Activity holidays

Rambling with a Donkey holidays are available from Slattery's Travel (tel: 0800 515900). A seven-day package including return flights, b&b and donkey costs from pounds 320 per person. Horse-drawn caravan holidays start from about pounds 230 per person per week.

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