America’s obsession with Ireland runs deep. Some travelers flock here to trace their Irish ancestry, now simplified thanks to a new emigration center. Others come for the country’s rich literary history and famed whiskey. My own introduction to Ireland had less noble roots: When I was 12, I saw an Irish Spring commercial that had been filmed in the Gap of Dunloe. The landscape was shockingly green, the salesman’s pitch ever so lilting. I was enamored.
Decades later, I made it to the Gap of Dunloe as part of a two-week road trip. It was more beautiful than I ever could have imagined, and I couldn’t wait to return. Fortunately, getting to Ireland has never been easier. Aer Lingus, the country’s national carrier, now offers 16 direct transatlantic routes from North America, and the fares are so competitive you can spoil yourself in business class. I impulsively booked a five-day trip and vow to cram in as much sightseeing as possible.
My first stop upon touchdown in Dublin is the Shelbourne, a grand dame with five stars to her name. The guest list of this 196-year-old hotel, which recently got a €40-million revamp, reads like the Hollywood Walk of Fame: Greta Garbo, John Wayne, the Kennedys. It’s a treat to take afternoon tea in the sumptuous Lord Mayor’s Lounge and sample a dram or two off a whiskey trolley in the Constitution Suite, where Michael Collins drafted the Irish Constitution. My favorite space, however, is the intimate 1824 Bar, a sophisticated boîte with a painting of Bono riding a flying horse behind the bar.
The Shelbourne sits adjacent to St. Stephen’s Green, one of Dublin’s most beloved green spaces. Last time I was in town, I zipped from here to the chilling stone-breakers yard at the centuries-old Kilmainham Gaol, where leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were executed. I ended the night with a pint of Guinness and traditional Irish music at the storied Cobblestone pub.
This time around, I go from St. Stephen’s Green to Trinity College’s utterly Instagrammable Old Library Long Room to the Christ Church crypt. At Marsh’s Library, the country’s oldest public library, I browse books once checked out by Bram Stoker. At the National Museum of Ireland, I’m enraptured by the well-preserved remains of a 2,300-year-old warrior exhumed from a bog.
Skipping past the tourist-clogged pubs in the Temple Bar neighborhood, I wander through the small but well-edited National Photographic Archive and explore the Irish Film Institute, a cultural hub housing a cinema, cafe and shop. The farther I am from the bars, the better the shopping gets. At Scout, I find beeswax candles and cozy wool scarves. At global Indigo & Cloth, I peruse racks hung with fashionable Danish raincoats and edgy Japanese menswear. My final stop is Locks, an eatery whose house-baked Guinness bread with smoked trout butter is eye-rollingly good.
The next morning, I grab a taxi out to Howth, an outer suburb known for its epic seaside hikes. Despite the ominous forecast, I’m determined to find another Irish Spring moment. The five-mile Howth Cliff Walk comes close, but it’s steep and rocky, with drop-offs that plunge straight into the roiling Atlantic Ocean. For the first half hour of my hike, it’s mostly me and the wildflowers clinging for dear life as the wind whips us both off-balance. The views are mesmerizing and the solitude so tranquil that I nearly leap out of my skin when I encounter another hiker.
And then the temperature drops precipitously and a blanket of fog rolls in. The drizzly gray sky turns hateful and squally, and the winds swell to a howl. The rain moves in sheets off the ocean, a development for which I am woefully underdressed. Out of the corner of my eye, I spy a magpie who’s silently judging me like some rogue character from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale.
Just get back to town, I urge myself. Watch your step. You’ll be there before you know it.
Then I see them: three shadowy figures emerging in the distance. So this is how I die, I think to myself. Just kidding. It’s an older couple walking a Pomeranian.
“You shouldn’t be up here in this weather,” they warn me.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” I laugh, wiping my hair out of my eyes.
In big-hearted fashion typical of the Irish, the couple tips me off to a shortcut that shaves 20 minutes off my walk. They also give me a shortlist of their favorite restaurants, pubs and tea rooms in town. Half an hour later, I’m safely back in Howth, inhaling a piping-hot box of fish and chips from Beshoff Bros, their top recommendation.
My final two nights in Ireland, I head up to County Donegal, three hours northwest of Dublin, and check into Lough Eske Castle, a private residence turned five-star hotel with a dramatic stone entrance and a storybook tower. The suites are princely, with deep soaking tubs and panoramic views of the meticulously groomed grounds.
Still sore from my ambitious hike, I head straight for the organic spa and swimming pool tucked inside the former conservatory. An hour later, my back is rejoicing and I’m ready for a drink. The newest addition to this 43-acre estate is the Father Browne Bar, a subterranean pub lined with hundreds of photographs snapped by Father Francis Browne himself, one of Ireland’s most important 20th century photographers.
The next morning, I awake rested and ready for another adventure. Lough Eske is situated just off the Wild Atlantic Way, a 1,600-mile route traversing three provinces along Ireland’s western coast. Having road-tripped here before, I know how treacherous these country routes can be: skinny as snakes and hemmed in by ancient stone walls. (I spent most of my last vacation here white-knuckling the steering wheel, certain I was always just inches away from losing a side mirror.) This time, I’m happy to leave the driving to a professional. Not only is Michael Gallagher capable and cautious, he’s also brimming with historical trivia and Irish quips.
We traverse a short leg of the Wild Atlantic Way from Donegal to Sliabh Liag. At the Donegal Equestrian Centre, I saddle up a mind-mannered Irish cob named Benson for a magical ride along Tullan Strand. We amble through swaying grass down to Fintra Beach, a crescent of sand flanked by moss-covered sea arches (or “fairy bridges,” as locals call them).
The landscape along the rest of the drive is so spectacular, Gallagher pulls over every few miles so I can document it. Muckross Head, in particular, is stunning because the rocks are perched so perilously close to the crashing ocean. We also stop at Studio Donegal in Kilcar, a decades-old mill. Upstairs, weathered craftsmen hunch over clanking looms, weaving the tweed that has made this region world-famous. Downstairs is a shopper’s paradise, stocked with dapper jackets, hats and throws.
If I left Ireland now, I’d be happy. But I have one more stop, and Gallagher assures me it’s a doozy: Sliabh Liag, the tallest sea cliffs in Europe. At nearly 2,000 feet, it’s more than 2.5 times the height of the Cliffs of Moher. I almost pop a lung on the hike to the summit, but the awe-inspiring vista is well worth it — all silvery ocean and rolling green, just like the commercials promised.