By Jan Swoope

The buildings at the Rock of Cashel in Ireland date from the 12th and 13th centuries
Rock of Cashel

Ireland, the land of leprechauns, Guinness and lush green landscapes, hadn't been on my list of must-see places until friends asked my husband, Jeff, and me if we wanted to go on a hiking vacation across Ireland. The trip, sponsored by Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) Adventures, was a 10-day expedition from the east coast in Dublin to the country's westernmost shores at Dingle.

We've been on many daylong hiking excursions in the Southern Appalachians -- a far cry from the rugged coastlines of the Emerald Isle -- so I was initially worried about whether we were really hiking all the way across Ireland. My questions were easily answered by REI (part of the trip would indeed be covered in a minibus), and we were ready to go.


The four of us began our Irish adventure with a soggy afternoon in Dublin, visiting Trinity College and examining the Book of Kells and the Long Room (library). What a fascinating collection of rare works!

Our accommodations at the Castle Hotel were adequate and included a full Irish breakfast of eggs, ham, black and white pudding, and beans (similar to our pork 'n beans).

Here we met Tim Cookingham, our trip tour guide, and our tour mates, nine other Americans from Washington, California, Colorado, Idaho and Pennsylvania. Tim, an REI Adventure Top Guide award recipient, gave us an overview of the trip and told us what to expect: Some days would be "tennis shoe days" (very few) and other days would be "hiking boot days" (most days). Most of our accommodations would be in bed and breakfasts.


For our first outing, Tim drove us to Bray, outside Dublin, in our 18-passenger bus -- our transport for the trip. Here we had a drizzly five-mile cliff-walk hike, from Bray to Greystones where we were introduced to the prickly, but beautiful golden gorse shrub. Afterwards, rather than hike back to Bray in the rain, we rode on the very efficient Dublin Area Rapid Transit (DART).

The next day, we visited Powerscourt House & Gardens, which boasts a magnificent variety of gardens including Italian terraces and the Walled Garden dating to 1740. Afterwards we were off to Glendalough, the valley between two lakes in Wicklow Mountains National Park where we began our first major hike: nine miles long. It was spectacular to climb over rocky terrain to the summit and along the ridgeline, admiring how far we had come. Note: Walking sticks are recommended.


We drove farther west the next day, and stopped at Avoca Mills, Ireland's oldest weaving mill. We were surprised to learn that most Irish wool comes from New Zealand. We then traveled to the charming city of Kilkenny and had lunch on the grounds of Kilkenny Castle, where we watched school children laughing and playing soccer, and many Irish families enjoying the blue-sky day.

That evening, we bunked in luxury at Auber House in Cashel, a town wrapped in Irish history and vistas. An early morning walk to Castle Rock and Hore Abbey was straight out of a picture book, featuring ancient ruins framed by green grass and sleeping cattle.


We visited Cahir Castle in County Tipperary -- one of the largest and best preserved castles in Ireland, according to our castle guide. It was built in the 13th century, and is located by the River Suir in the town of Cahir. The castle got its name from the word cathair, meaning, "stone fort."

We then drove to the Beara Peninsula, and Tim stopped in Cork at a sports bar to watch the hurling championship game between County Tipperary and County Cork on the television. Hurling is a team sport of Gaelic origin and is the world's fastest sport in terms of team play. We watched but didn't understand it, though we did understand the Guinness.

Castletownebere, the largest Irish harbor, would be home for the next two days as we explored the Beara Peninsula (and the famous McCarthy's Bar where Murphy's had now supplanted Guinness as the beer of choice). We stayed at Summer Hill Bed & Breakfast, which frankly wasn't quite finished so the accommodations were rather spartan.


The next day was glorious! Dursey Island, visited only by way of a rickety cable car, offered a spectacular eight-mile hike with wide-ranging vistas of blue sea and green hills, and frequent encounters with the ever-present Irish sheep. As we ate lunch high above the crashing waves, we saw 30-foot-long basking sharks and watched a dolphin leap out of the sea.

Another incredible experience was a day hiking the pasturelands and hills around the Beara Peninsula homeland of our one-day guide, Paddy, born on St. Patrick's Day in 1953. His land is in an area called Gleninchaquin, a long narrow valley on the northwest side of the Beara Peninsula, formed by the development of glaciers about 70,000 years ago. Paddy identified Irish wildflowers, showed us his home and talked about growing up without electricity.


Next up: Kenmare, a town near the Ring of Kerry in western Ireland. We stayed at Virginia's Guesthouse, atop award-winning Mulcahy's Restaurant. After a very full breakfast, we visited Killarney National Park where we hiked six miles in Molls Gap.

Our final destination was the fishing port of Dingle, where we lodged at the Lighthouse Bed and Breakfast, overlooking the valley towards the Dingle Harbor. Some Dingle dining and entertainment highlights include Out of the Blue, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant with the best seafood I've eaten (they don't open if there's not a "good catch" from the fishermen that day), and Small Bridge Pub, which offers live music; we heard popular Dingle musician Eoin Duignan play the uilleann pipes.

The next day we hiked on the Dingle Peninsula to Ballydavidhead where we had a steep hill climb ahead of us and were met with views of the Three Sisters and the Sleeping Giant land formations in the sea.


After a farewell dinner in Dingle we packed for an early morning trip to Shannon Airport and our flights home. Our final bus ride was punctuated with us all singing songs by The Saw Doctors, a famous Irish rock group.

The Irish use the word "fantastic" to describe their laid-back lifestyle, and that would be the most apt description for our Ireland Coast to Coast adventure -- fantastic!

Note: REI Adventures leads excursions all over the world, from the Appalachian Trail to Antarctica. Several of the hikers on our trips had traveled with REI before, from Patagonia to Machu Picchu to Lake Como. Jeff and I were extremely impressed with the efficiency, the phenomenal knowledge of our guide and the high quality accommodations and meals. We would definitely consider another REI Adventures trip, based on our first experience.

You May Also Like:

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Dublin's Irrepressible Spirit

The Dingle Peninsula Escape to Pure Ireland

Five-Star Ireland: Luxury, Golf & Spas Await


© Jan Swoope

Travel | Vacation Travel Ireland Hiking Adventure: 10 Days From Dublin to Dingle