Will 'The Gathering' lure you to Ireland this year?

It certainly inspired Mark C O'Flaherty to attempt an epic road trip

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The Independent Travel

Despite numerous childhood summers spent with family in Dublin and assorted verdant counties, I'd never felt like I'd "done Ireland". Though my parents relocated to London before I was born, it was always clear that the Old Country still represented "home" to them.

With 2013 being marketed as "The Gathering" in Ireland, a year-long festival with events happening across the country, anyone with any connection is being encouraged to visit. I'd often brought up the idea of circling the landmass, Dublin to Dublin, with my partner. (No hitching, me navigating, him driving, sans fridge or other literary props in the luggage.) This seemed as good an opportunity as ever to do it, albeit in 10-day, corner-cutting fashion. So off we went.

Our starting pistol was the mad palimpsest chaos of Francis Bacon's painstakingly reconstructed studio – perfect in every forensic detail, down to the last discarded champagne bottle – at Dublin City Gallery. If you only have half an hour in the city, spend it here, particularly the room devoted to Sean Scully's modern, abstract, architectural oils.

We had dinner on the River Liffey – a suitably heavy and delicious Celtic plate of pork with potato dumplings – at one of my most-visited restaurants, the Winding Stair, above the bookshop of the same name. That night we stayed at my favourite B&B, Number 31, the modernist mews home of architect Sam Stephenson – complete with sunken lounge – adjoined via a garden to a grand Georgian townhouse. This is a superbly modern version of bed and breakfast. Hosts Linda and Noel are always "on" with their chat and hospitality, and breakfast in the white-on-white dining room with its Vitra chairs, is a gem. Noel announces the dishes with the kind of heavy brogue and flourish that absolutely thrills visiting Americans: "Full Irish; mushroom fritt-aah-ta, and not forgetting the little bowl of … porridge!"

On we drove, over the border, to the "magic road". This was something I'd wanted to experience since I'd heard of it, via 1970s episodes of Blue Peter, and it didn't disappoint. We drove from Dundalk on the R173 towards Carlingford, turned left at a Texaco, on to a T-junction, right and immediately left, to the bottom of the first significant hill. There we stopped, released the handbrake, and the car rolled backwards up the hill. Even after we'd picked the illusion apart, it was still amazing, and demanded numerous video clips.

In Belfast we stayed at the Merchant Hotel, where an old banking hall has been converted into an impressive dining space with soaring stucco ceilings, columns and swish (if slightly careworn) red velvet chairs. I'd expected the Merchant to be all show, but the food – contemporary, French-influenced and a little fancy – was seriously good. The bedrooms are comfortable, although the intended Helmut Newton vibe comes across a little bit Designers at Debenhams.

During the day, in a contrast so stark that words can't do it justice, we took a Belfast Black Cab Tour of the city's political murals in the sectarian districts. After decades serving as a backdrop to the Troubles on news reports, these are still foreboding icons of violence. I photographed the Bobby Sands mural on the side of the Sinn Fein HQ and accidentally caught a large figure entering the building. "That was 'Big' Bobby Storey," said Patrick, our guide. "He spent 20 years inside and engineered the big Maze Prison escape."

We continued on our journey counter-clockwise, stopping at Giant's Causeway, whose hyper-graphic, super-modern new visitor centre echoes the famous rocks through its architecture. It seemed strange and thrilling to be allowed to clamber over these basalt columns at the water's edge – as if we should have been allowed to view them only from a distance – and stranger still that they should be a natural formation: so perfectly layered into geometric shapes and steps, with bands of jet black and sandstone colouring that seem profoundly contrived.

We drove into Derry to stay the night at what – during online research – had looked an idyllic B&B, surrounded by fields and lambs. As we drove in, we failed to notice the huge sign painted on the side of the house: "BELIEVE ON THE LORD JESUS CHRIST AND THOU SHALT BE SAVED." We certainly didn't miss the evangelical art and trinkets in the chintz-filled hallways inside. "And is this … your … son?" asked the landlady, clutching, politely, at obviously unfeasible straws, as my partner locked the car door. While uneventful, this would not be a relaxing stay, for host or guests.

The next morning, after an uncharacteristically hasty breakfast, we crossed the border to Donegal, for a day and night at Lough Eske Castle, a favourite weekend destination of families, stressed urbanites and wedding parties. Rain sadly scuppered the promised boat trip and countryside walk, but the Castle is as much a modern spa resort as a landmark, so we swam in the indoor pool instead. A grill-style dinner – seated in a grand, gold velvet booth – was, McCain-style chips aside, top stuff.

We drove on via Knock, where back in 1879, in the south gable of the parish church, Our Lady, St Joseph and St John the Evangelist are reported to have put in an appearance. A whole industry has evolved around the sighting. The extraordinary kitsch of the gift shops and the five-for-€2 Virgin Mary-shaped holy-water bottles for sale in every shop from the car park to the Marian Shrine should be a compelling enough reason to visit for non-believers, and certainly fans of Father Ted. If time had allowed, we would have stopped in the Burren, at the building which served as the Craggy Island Parochial House, and whose opportunist residents now offer afternoon tea by appointment.

Galway is – and I can't stress this enough – best avoided at weekends. It's a beautiful town of brightly coloured, flat-fronted buildings, gorgeous pedestrian streets and bridges over rushing water. But for 48 hours from Friday night, it's invaded by shrieking hens in pink stetsons and abandoned, bewildered stags with unfortunate dark patches down the front of their jeans. There was a time when my tyrannical, apparently all-powerful ancestors weren't so popular here either. A plaque, above the western gate of the city, read: "From the ferocious O'Flahertys, good Lord defend us." The partially ruined ancestral O'Flaherty home, Aughnanure Castle, is a short drive away in beautiful countryside and well worth a visit.

Away from the stag and hen parties, there's another, better Galway to be found. We had cheese and wine upstairs at Sheridan's Cheesemongers, perused the Gaelic fiction in Charlie Byrne's Bookshop and enjoyed a top-notch dinner of pork belly and monkfish at Artisan, a contemporary Irish restaurant above the snugs and stouts on tap at buzzy Neachtains. We crossed the water for a fantastic evening of fiddles and live folk upstairs at the Crane Bar, and the next night dined nearby at what would be our key foodie discovery of the trip: Kai. With its recycled wood furniture, industrial design touches and splashes of citrus wood and textiles, this could be the best restaurant in east London. It's Dalston without attitude, and with infinitely better food: hake with chorizo and white-bean stew; elderflower jelly and candied Sicilian lemons with cow-shaped cookies. This is food that sings.

After two nights at the Forster Court Hotel in Galway – one of those ticks-all-the-boxes three-star hotels that makes you realise that turn-down is never worth an extra £50 – we journeyed south, to the Cliffs of Moher. I'd been told how wild and transporting this landscape would be, and the view from the clifftop down to the water is certainly humbling, and a little terrifying, but the £6 charge per person at the car park – apparently to help pay for a visitor's centre – is annoying, and essentially privatises an area of outstanding natural beauty. I got out of the car before the car park and instantly halved the price of our access.

The most memorable scenery we encountered on our trip was around the Dingle Peninsula. We'd spent an evening in Dingle itself, drinking in Dick Mack's which, with its pianos, boozers in trilbys and shelves of knick-knacks, is the handsomest pub I've ever supped in. We had fresh-off-the-boat seafood with pesto and cheesy polenta at Out of the Blue and spent the night at Castlewood House, a tremendous B&B whose rooms are as plush as any five-star hotel, with an à la carte breakfast menu to match.

Then we drove south west around the jagged coastline, past tiny pubs that double as hardware stores, stopping at the historic Famine Cottage at Slea Head Drive, and further around to the bays where surfers make their way out to sea from what look like golden Caribbean beaches. The sun was shining bright, so we parked up, sat on the rocks overlooking the coast and then paddled in the gentle, clear Atlantic wash.

Heading east, we fell in love with Cork, a buzzy, upbeat, cosmopolitan student town. From our base at the River Lee Hotel, a slick, glass-and-steel waterside hotel, we visited an exhibition at the nearby, architecturally striking Lewis Glucksman Gallery – part of University College – ate outstanding and inventive vegetarian food at Café Paradiso and went on a miniature pub crawl. Heading further east, we reached the Cliff House Hotel, which has come to embody the ultimate, luxe Relais & Chateaux long-weekend break for Dubliners, largely for its dining room, customarily introduced by reception upon arrival as "… our Michelin-starred restaurant".

The Cliff House Hotel is absolutely worth crossing the Irish Sea for, but I found the food – though meticulously presented with appropriately "fayne dining" service – overwrought. Most guests seemed to love it, but it seems a slightly dated idea of contemporary cuisine, as if Pierre Gagnaire or Simon Rogan had never happened. The hotel itself is seriously luxurious though, and when the sun shines, drinks on the terrace over the water make you feel as if you're on the coastal outskirts of Sydney. The bedrooms are faultless, with wonderful bathroom perspectives out on the sea.

On the final leg of our journey, we stopped at the Tannery in Dungarvan, run by Ireland's best-loved celebrity chef, Paul Flynn. His approach is modern, muscular fine dining, and the results are nothing short of brilliant. After a brief tour of the state-of-the-art kitchens in which he offers classes, and a look at some guest bedrooms, I added "week-long cookery course at the Tannery" to my bucket list.

The artist Sean Scully would bookend our trip: we finished with an afternoon "Art Tea" at the Merrion Hotel in Dublin, still the last word in classic five-star luxury and sneaked a look at the collection of priceless Scullys hanging on the walls of the adjoining Patrick Guilbaud restaurant. Each afternoon, the Merrion serves dainty but hallucinatory-looking cakes inspired by the likes of J B Yeats and William Scott in its main lounge. The hotel, just around the corner from the well-known statue of local boy Oscar Wilde, and the swans that nest on St Stephen's Green, is every yard of plush upholstery and inch of lofty Georgian bedroom ceiling a landmark of classic, genteel Dublin grandeur.

You can experience the city, and indeed the country, in so many different ways, but you could do worse than doing at least some of it with a proper teapot, a tray of fancy 19th-century-themed patisserie and a touch of Wildean fantasy.

Getting there

Mark C O'Flaherty travelled with CityJet (0871 66 33 777; cityjet.com) which flies daily from London City to Dublin from £89 return. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com), Aerlingus (0871 718 2020; aerlingus.com) and BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) also fly from a range of airports. Ferry options include Irish Ferries (08181 300 400; irishferries.com) and Stena Line (0844 770 7070; stenaline.co.uk) from Holyhead.

Staying there

Unless indicated, rates include breakfast.

Castlewood House, Dingle (00 353 66 915 2788; castlewooddingle.com). Doubles from €90.

Cliff House Hotel, Ardmore (00 353 24 87800; relaischateaux.com). Doubles from €220.

Forster Court Hotel, Galway (00 353 915 64111; forstercourthotel.com). Doubles from €69.

The Merrion Hotel, Dublin (00 353 1 603 0600; merrionhotel.com). Doubles from £145.

The Merchant Hotel, Belfast, pictured (028-9023 4888; themerchanthotel.com). Doubles from £160.

Number 31, Dublin (00 353 1 676 5011; number31.ie). Doubles from €152.

River Lee Hotel, Cork (00 353 21 425 2700; doylecollection.com). Doubles from €108, room only.

Solis Lough Eske Castle (00 353 7 497 25100; solishotels.com/lougheskecastle). Doubles from £144.

Seeing there

Belfast Black Cab Tours (07990 955227; belfastblackcabtours.co.uk).

Cliffs of Moher, Co Clare (00 353 65 708 6141; cliffsofmoher.ie).

Dublin City Gallery (00 353 1 222 5550; hughlane.ie).

Famine Cottage, Slea Head Drive (00 353 66 915 6241; famine-cottage.com).

Giant's Causeway (028-2073 1855: nationaltrust.org.uk/giants-causeway).

Eating and drinking

Artisan, 2 Quay Street, Galway (artisangalway.com).

Café Paradiso, 16 Lancaster Quay, Cork (cafeparadiso.ie).

The Crane 2 Sea Roadd, Galway (thecranebar.com).

Dick Mack's, Greene St, Dingle (dickmacks.homestead.com).

Kai, Sea Road, Galway (kaicaferestaurant.com).

Out of the Blue, Waterside, Dingle (outoftheblue.ie).

The Tannery, 10 Quay St, Dungarvan (tannery.ie).

The Winding Stair, 40 Ormond Quay, Dublin (winding-stair.com).

More information

ireland.com; thegatheringireland.com