Irish Roads Less Traveled

Shun the tour groups and big hotels -- rediscover the luck of the Irish by following a greener path.
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Thinking about a trip to the Emerald Isle? Not surprisingly, so is everyone else -- the lush countryside has stunning castles and ruins, and the views of the verdant hills dotted with sheep, thatched cottages and small towns are nothing short of breathtaking.

Ireland has seen robust growth in tourism since the calming of "The Troubles" in the mid-1990s, as the locals call the country's sectarian conflict.

But how to avoid the countless chartered buses, overflowing with tourists who infest scenic spots just long enough to take a picture and then return to their bland hotels? There are two ways to ensure a memorable Irish trip: rent a car and stay in charming Irish bed & breakfasts.

Finding accommodations, even from overseas, is simple --

Gulliver Ireland is a great place to start. There are countless unique options throughout the country, whether you stay in B&B's, boutique hotels or even college dormitories when school is not in session.

Left Is Right, Right Is Wrong

The best way to take in the scenery is to drive yourself. Getting around by car is not difficult, as long as you have a map -- the only challenge is driving on the left side of the road, if you're not already accustomed to it. (It took about two days to get completely comfortable with this change.)

Most flights to Ireland land at Dublin's airport, just a quick cab or train ride from the city center. Here, you don't need a car, and frankly, don't want one. It is a very busy, modern European capital with its own hectic pace -- and learning to drive on the left side of the road for the first time is not something you want to do in this environment. Besides, cabs are plentiful and reasonably priced, with talkative drivers ready to offer sightseeing advice.

While Dublin is absolutely worth your time as a tourist, there are extensive resources devoted to exploring this busy city. So let's explore the paths less traveled.

The Journey Begins

My first stop was Cashel, a small town a few hours drive from Dublin, for a trip to the spectacular

Rock of Cashel.

Steeped in Irish history, the Rock is an imposing fourth-century fortress and cathedral at the top of a windswept hill, offering a commanding view of the countryside. In the fifth century, St. Patrick converted the pagan king Aenghus to Christianity here, and in 977 it was the site of the crowning of Brian Boru, the first king to extract tribute from the other kings of Ireland.

Like all the B&Bs I stayed in,

Joy's Rockside House was quite comfortable, and the complimentary breakfast was superb. When I realized that one of the bedroom windows provided a view of the fortress, and the other a pasture with sheep and chickens wandering about, I truly felt I was in Ireland.

The next day, after a brief stop in the quaint town of Cahir to see a

13th century Norman castle, it was off the seaside town of Kinsale, the "gourmet capital of Ireland."

Kinsale is a colorful, lively bay town with excellent restaurants -- a great place to use as a base when exploring the surrounding southwestern countryside or even as a low-key alternative to staying in Ireland's second largest city, Cork. My B&B here was the fine

Gallery Guesthouse.

A drive into the country yielded the evocative

Drombeg stone circle (a monument dating from around 153 B.C.), incredible views of the Irish Sea, and, farther along the coast-hugging road, the haunting ruins of

Timoleague Abbey.

The picturesque village of Timoleague is situated at the edge of a long inlet and is dominated by the ruins of this 13th-century abbey. Wandering around the ruins and looking out of its destroyed windows at the unspoiled landscape, you get a feel for what the monks who settled the area must have seen.

Head out on the Highway

In southwest Ireland, the many outcroppings of land that jut into the sea are referred to as "heads." The diminutive but dynamic port town of Baltimore is a gateway to many of these heads, which continue west and north up the Atlantic coast.

Baltimore looks out onto Roaringwater Bay and Carbery's Hundred Isles. A castle overlooks the harbor, both of which were once holdings of the O'Driscoll clan, who controlled this area and all fishing rights to its rich waters.

Here, you can take a thrilling climb up a bluff for a spectacular view of 300-foot high cliffs, dozens of islands, blankets of wildflowers and the crashing sea below you -- an unforgettable spot for a picnic or photos.

To watch Sean Driscoll's video take of this column, click here

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Farther along the southern coast is the must-see Mizen Head, the most southwesterly point in the country, and the last homeland view many Irish emigrants had before sailing to America.

Mizen Head has the award-winning Maritime Museum, but the main attraction is the point itself. The walk to the tip offers spectacular views along soaring cliffs, with the Atlantic Ocean swirling hundreds of feet below. Sharp-eyed observers can spot dolphins, whales, seals, gannets, kittiwakes and many other types of seabirds, as well as copious flowers clinging to the rolling hills.

Heading north up the coast are yet more beautiful outcroppings surrounded by bays. Taking as many secondary roads as possible made the drive slower, of course, but the views were the payoff. Coming over a rise while driving on the narrow Goat's Path road, with beautiful Dunmanus Bay behind me and Bantry Bay glimmering ahead, made it worthwhile. You can't get views like that on major highways.

Kerry vs. Dingle

Being a little short on time (I was driving slowly, remember?), I had to skip the Ring of Kerry, a 170-kilometer road encircling the Iveragh peninsula. That, however, proved a wise choice.

The ring of Kerry is famous for two things: its beautiful views of the Irish countryside and ocean, and being absolutely choked with tourists on gigantic tour buses. The traffic is so congested that during the summer the buses follow the road in an counterclockwise direction; it's recommended that if you're driving you should take the road clockwise in order to avoid the inevitable delays caused by these vehicles on the narrow roads.

Pressing onward, the town of Dingle was next, where I stayed at the charming

Captain's House B&B, right off the main street.

It was there that I learned about the Ring of Dingle -- a much less-traveled road than the Ring of Kerry -- which goes around the Dingle peninsula, and it did not disappoint. The Dingle peninsula has more than 2,000 monuments dating from the Mesolithic period (more than 6,000 years ago) up to more modern castles and churches. Sites include ring forts, Stone Age petroglyphs, stone beehive huts and early Christian churches with mixtures of Christian and Irish pagan symbols. And if the archeological sites don't wow you, the views at Slea Head near the Blasket Islands will.

Want Moher?

No trip to western Ireland would be complete without seeing the Cliffs of Moher. On the drive up to the city of Galway I again took the coast road through small towns and fields embracing the sea until I reached the famed cliffs.

Towering over 750 feet high and stretching for nearly five miles, the cliffs are an astonishing natural wonder. Gulls circle below as the waves crash against the rocks, and the ruins of an ancient tower loom in the distance.

Galway was the final stop, and being a major Irish city, it was only possible to avoid the major highways for so long. Arriving in the busy urban center, it felt like entering a different world after the quiet green expanse of the countryside -- but the excellent

Petra House B&B offered some respite.

Although Galway may be a bustling city, just to the north is the arresting landscape of Connemara and the Burren, an area covered with cracked sheets of gray limestone, full of caves, and often festooned with wildflowers such as gentian, orchids and bloody cranesbill. The Burren rewards visitors with dozens of megalithic tombs, Celtic crosses and a ruined cistercian abbey from the 12th century,

Corcomroe.

Driving through Ireland and staying in B&Bs is an outstanding way to experience the country, satisfying you with dazzling scenery uncluttered by multitudes of day-trippers: These are things a tour bus and a fancy hotel chain just can't provide.

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