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A taste of the best of Ireland

The visits of the British and US heads of state are big news, but you don't have to be a VIP to enjoy some hidden Irish gems, says Aoife O'Riordain

What's the attraction?

With the Queen (accompanied by David Cameron) embarking on her first state visit to the Republic of Ireland, and President Obama hot on their heels next week, the Emerald Isle is having a VIP-visitor moment. Her Majesty's four-day itinerary highlights some of the Republic's better-known tourist attractions including the Rock of Cashel, the National Stud, the Guinness Storehouse, Trinity College, Cork's English Market and Dublin Castle.

President Obama's visit will be rather shorter, as he pops into the small village of Moneygall, Co Offaly, to trace his ancestors, visits parliament, and gives a public address at an, as yet, unconfirmed location in Dublin. But away from the pomp and presidential cavalcades, there is plenty to discover in Ireland that's a bit more off the beaten track, as well as new attractions to interest the returning visitor. And if you need a financial incentive, the Irish Government has announced a 4.5 percentage-point cut in VAT on tourism-related goods and services, such as hotels and restaurants, from 1 July.

Irish indulgence

The Queen's visit to the Guinness Storehouse notwithstanding, there is more in Dublin than the black stuff. The capital enjoys a burgeoning foodie scene; curious gourmets eager to learn more can join food writer Eveleen Coyle and her niece Pamela on one of their regular tasting trails around the city. Fabulous Food Trails (00 353 1 497 1245; www.fabfoodtrails.com) tours provides ample opportunity for participants to taste their way through shops, cafés and restaurants with noteworthy credentials. You will be introduced to specialities such as Glebe Brethan, a gruyère-style cheese made in Co Louth from the milk of Montbeliarde cattle. New itineraries for 2011 include a trail around the picturesque fishing village of Howth on the north side of Dublin Bay; and in June, a trail in the gourmet hotspot of Cork. Two-and-a-half hour tours cost €45 per person.

Cultural highs

Twenty years after its stint as European Capital of Culture, Dublin is once again set to become a more prominent player on the international art scene with the launch of the ambitious, large-scale festival, Dublin Contemporary (00 353 1 678 7920; www.dublincontemporary.com) from 6 September until 31 October. Borrowing a phrase from WB Yeats, the theme for the inaugural festival is "Terrible Beauty – Art, Crisis, Change & The Office of Non Compliance". It will be an exploration of Ireland's current woes interpreted by both well established and emerging artists from Ireland and beyond, including James Coleman, Richard Mosse, Wang Du, Dexter Dalwood and Jim Lambie.

Historic homestays

Celebrating its 25th anniversary later this year, Hidden Ireland (00 353 98 66650; www.hiddenireland.com) is a collection of privately owned historic properties that offer a traditional Irish country-house welcome that is more private house than hotel. A new addition for its anniversary year is Clone House in Aughrim, Co Wicklow. This Georgian property has four guest rooms and is set in a picturesque corner of the "Garden of Ireland". Doubles from €120, including breakfast.

Easily the most luxurious hotel to open in Ireland for some time, Ballyfin (00 353 5787 558 66; www.ballyfin.com) is a beautifully restored Regency mansion 90 minutes south-west of Dublin. It opened earlier this month. Doubles start at €950 per night, full board.

Literary larks

Boutique festivals are alive and thriving in Ireland, as the quirky Flat Lake Festival ( www.theflatlakefestival.com) testifies. This literary and arts festival was dreamt up by Kevin Allen, brother of Keith, but has plenty of music thrown in for good measure – his niece Lily took to the stage at a previous festival. It will be held in the grounds of the stately Hilton Park in Co Monaghan from 3-5 June and highlights this year will include appearances by literary heavyweight John Banville and The Independent's Robert Fisk. A weekend ticket with camping is available online for €75 per person.

Find some family fun

The Liss Ard Country House (00 353 28 40 000; www.lissardestate.com) and Liss Ard Lake Lodge are set on a 200-acre estate close to Skibbereen in west Cork. This year, Liss Ard reopens following an extensive renovation in partnership with Nigel Chapman, who was a founder of Luxury Family Hotels. Originally available to rent out only as a retreat, Liss Ard has hosted musicians such as Van Morrison, Patti Smith and Lou Reed. It has now been re-invented as a family getaway, with activities such as cycling and kayaking included in the price. The extensive grounds are also home to the "Irish Sky Garden", a huge earth and stone work called "The Crater" by internationally renowned American artist James Turrell. Throughout May and June, three nights costs €300 per room, based on two sharing, on a full-board basis for the first two nights and B&B on the third. Up to two children under 12 stay

in their parents' room for free. From 2-4 June, the estate is hosting the Cork X Southwest Music and Arts festival ( www.corkxsouthwest.com; €95).

Walk this Way

In March, Co Donegal's Bluestack Way, Glencolmcille and Slieve League walking trails became part of the International Appalachian Trail ( www.iat-sia.com), a 2,000km walking route that already stretches along North America's eastern coast. The international trail hopscotches across the Atlantic and follows a route through countries that share the same geology with the North American trail – such as Greenland, Iceland, Ireland and Scotland – with plans to extend the route as far as Morocco's Atlas Mountains. Sections of each of the three Irish trails combine to form this moderately challenging route that traverses the dramatic scenery from Slieve League in Co Donegal to Ballycastle in Northern Ireland.

The final details of the route are still being finalised, but for a taste, try the 65km (40-mile) Bluestacks Way, which starts in Donegal Town and finishes in Ardara, skirting the edge of Lough Eske along the way ( www.walkireland.ie).

Inntravel (01653 617 001; www.inntravel.co.uk) has introduced the new self-guided walking itinerary "Ireland's South-West: Cork's rugged coast and Kerry's Lakes". The seven-night itinerary takes in some of Ireland's most unspoiled scenery on the Sheep's Head and Beara Peninsulas. Prices start at £685 per person, including B&B, route notes and hire car, but excluding flights.

On your bike

Co Mayo's Great Western Greenway ( www.discoverireland.ie) has just won an Eden award, which marks it out as a European Destination of Excellence, for its sustainable tourism practices. The longest of Ireland's off-road cycling trails, this 18km route follows a disused railway track from Newport to Mulranny, cutting through a scenic swathe of the West of Ireland's rugged landscape with Clew Bay to one side and fabulous views of the Nephin Beg mountain range on the other. Clew Bay Bike Hire (00 353 98 248 18; www.clewbay outdoors.ie) offers bicycle hire from €20 per day and can pick up and collect along any section of the route.

What Google will tell you...

When the Queen visits the Guinness Storehouse's Gravity Bar she will be standing in the highest bar in Ireland, 46 metres above the ground, with spectacular views of the city and beyond ( www.dublintourist.com).

What Google won't tell you... until now

Cobh, the main port in Cork's harbour, provides perhaps the most user-friendly cruise mooring in Europe: it is one minute from the gangway to the fascinating Queenstown Story exhibition; two minutes from the train station; and four minutes from the nearest pub.

Who said that?

"Two years into my presidency, some are still bent on peddling rumours about my origins. So today I want to put all those rumours to rest. It is true – my great-great-great-grandfather really was from Ireland. It's true. Moneygall, to be precise. I can't believe I have to keep pointing this out." President Barack Obama on St Patrick's Day, 2011