There's some competition, but for me it's Dun Aengus, a massive semi- circular ring fort lodged on the cliff-torn coast of Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands. Its massive battlements fan out from the cliff's edge in concentric semi-circles, like some huge stone crop circle that's been sliced in two. It's not known whether this is its original design, or whether its mirror image has been demolished by the elements, crashing into the ocean over the last 2,000 years. The island itself is formed of limestone pavementing, a huge tilting stone plate, split and grooved as if scraped by a giant's thumbnail. The setting is spectacular: with the mountains of Connemara across the sea to the north, and the coast of Clare a shimmering ribbon to the southeast. On a clear day there can be no finer place to stand than here, with the fresh sea air on your face, the rock island lying before you, and the suck and pound of the waves below.
Ireland is a great place for encounters, but my very best was meeting Albert, who runs An Bothan Scoir, a cottage museum in Cashel. The celebrated Rock of Cashel nearby may boast a superb clutch of medieval churches, but for Albert the Bothan Scoir tells a history that's just as important - that of the common people, At first glance it seems a simple enough dwelling, but step by step Albert uses the illogicalities of its design - it has no chimney, no windows, a half door, an odd jamb wall - as teasers to elicit an understanding of why the cottage is the way it is, a merry quiz that somehow always leads back to punitive legislation from Westminster. Why my best encounter? Because of the wit and warmth of Albert's patter and the sheer glee with which he unravels a tale. Not a shred of nationalist anger, just a delight at being able to put the record straight. There were times when I'm not sure that history wasn't being richly embellished, but one thing's for sure: he told me he'd had Nancy Reagan in his tiny one-roomed dwelling for three hours, and somehow I believe him.
Most memorable meal
This was at Peter's Place in Waterville. Actually, it's a hostel, not a restaurant, but on occasion food has been known to appear. On this occasion four lobsters, steamed, cracked open in the yard and flung in a wok with red and yellow peppers, spring onions and a sauce of cream and Irish whiskey. The dish was superb, and made somehow all the more enjoyable because it had been rustled up for a cocky backpacker who, upon demanding Peter demonstrate his notorious culinary skills, had, over three days, been cajoled into rising at dawn, putting out in a boat, pulling in the pots and sharing his briny booty with everyone in the place.
The famous "cellophane sandwich", available nationwide. Generally found in tourist bars off-season, oddly glamourless places where tourist bars somehow shouldn't exist; a bus route may be involved. Made from the kind of white sliced bread more generally associated with a picnic in an Austin Allegro, these toasted sandwiches come in cheese, ham, tomato, or any combination of the three, in a hermetically sealed cellophane wrapper crisped until brown. Whether or not they are prepared by peoples of this earth, you can rest assured they have come into contact with no human hand whatsoever. They take 20 seconds to order, two minutes to arrive, and a lifetime to forget.
The Quay Co-op, Cork. It's my favourite as much for the ambience as the food, which is vegetarian and vegan. A place of faded elegance, with a huge open fire and large sash windows overlooking the inconsequential bustle of Grand Parade, it's decorated with the vibrant artwork so typical of the county. Tucked away up a rake of wonky stairs above the Co-op's wholefood and second-hand bookshop, it serves as the hub of a great deal of the political activism in this part of the world. Whatever the time of year, there's always a sense of quiet purpose. It's a great place to unwind and feel you've actually arrived in the laid-back southwest.
Most towns in Ireland of any size have a tourist office with B&B listings, and for a pounds 1-pounds 2 fee they will reserve a room for you - expect to pay from pounds 14 per person sharing in high season. Alternatively, it is easy enough to book accommodation yourself with the aid of the "Rough Guide to Ireland".
Flights to Dublin, Cork, Shannon, Galway and Belfast are available daily from major British airports. Ryanair (0541 569569) has return fares to Dublin from Liverpool and Bristol from pounds 49, from Manchester and Birmingham from pounds 59, and from Gatwick from pounds 69. Two people can travel to Dublin return for pounds 89 (pounds 99 from Gatwick) - the offer lasts until 31 March, 1998. For fly-drive deals, it's worth checking out Aer Lingus (0181 899 4747): seven days' car hire costs pounds 133-pounds 217. Stena Line has a four-hour Holyhead-Dublin crossing (a car and five passengers costs pounds 240) and a ninety-nine minute Holyhead-Dun Laoghaire HSS service (a car and five passengers pounds 223-pounds 400; tel 0990 707070).
For comprehensive listings call the Irish Tourist Board (0171 493 3201).
Margaret Greenwood co-wrote 'The Rough Guide to Ireland'. Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter 'Rough News', published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.Reuse content