Ireland is a great place for getting out and about. Cycling is one of the best ways to appreciate the quiet pleasures of the Irish countryside, while walkers can take advantage of generally free access across much of the countryside and a number of waymarked trails. With over 120 sailing and yacht clubs, plenty of lakes, rivers and sheltered coastline to explore and some great beaches for surfers, there are many opportunities for watersports enthusiasts, too. The North is covered by w, a comprehensive guide to outdoor activities and adventure sports.
Signposted cycling trails in the Republic include the Beara Way and the Sheep’s Head Cycling Route in Cork, and the Kerry Way. Trails in the North, however, are better documented and promoted: for detailed information on the many routes here, the best places to start are w and w. They include the Kingfisher Trail (w or w), which also stretches into Leitrim and Cavan. Other cross-border routes include the recently signposted, 326-kilometre North West Trail, mainly on quiet country roads through Donegal, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Leitrim and Sligo.
Walking and mountain climbing
There are dozens of waymarked walking trails in the Republic, ranging from routes through or around mountain ranges, such as the Wicklow Way, the Táin Trail, the Slieve Bloom Way and the Western Way, to walks around entire peninsulas, like the Sheep’s Head Way, the Beara Way, the Kerry Way and the Dingle Way. The Ulster Way in the North, the oldest and longest waymarked walking trail in Ireland, has recently been redeveloped as a 625-mile circuit of the whole province, taking in the Giant’s Causeway, the Sperrins and the Mournes; it’s now divided into link sections, which can be skipped by taking public transport, and quality sections, and further development is planned. For information on these trails in the Republic, go to w, which also has details of day walks and of the many walking festivals around the country. In the North, w has comprehensive information on all aspects of walking. Some councils and local tourist offices have produced helpful map guides for the main routes too, but you should always get hold of the relevant Ordnance Survey map and carry a compass.
Other walking highlights include the ascents of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo and of Carrauntoohil, for more experienced walkers, in County Kerry, the easily accessible Bray–Greystones walks in County Wicklow and just about anywhere in Connemara, notably the excellent, new Diamond Hill trail in the national park; not to mention walks in the Wicklow and Killarney national parks.
Mountaineering Ireland, an organization that covers hill-walking and rambling, as well as climbing, maintains a compendious website (w). Other useful walking websites include w and w, while w is devoted to rock climbing. Guided walking tour operators are available on w and w.
If you need help in a real emergency on the mountains, call t999 or t112 and ask for mountain rescue (w).
Birdwatching, horse-riding and golf
With a wide variety of migrating flocks, including a large number of rare species, visiting its shores, Ireland is a great place for birdwatching; Wexford Wildfowl Reserve, Cape Clear and Castle Espie are especially fruitful hunting grounds. The best general contacts are w, Birdwatch Ireland in the Republic (w) and, in the North, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (w).
Horseriding, whether over the hills or along the beaches, is also a popular pastime, for both novices and experienced riders, who also have the option of multi-day trails rides. The Association of Irish Riding Establishments (w) maintains standards among riding centres in the Republic and the North and publishes details on its website.
Golf, which was probably first brought to Ireland by the Ulster Scots, attracts huge numbers of visitors every year; the Golfing Union of Ireland, based in Kildare (w), provides details of over four hundred clubs, north and south, with online booking.
Fishing and watersports
There are plenty of opportunities for sea angling and dozens of rivers and lakes for fly- and game-fishing. For information, the best places to start are the tourist-board websites, w and w. Great Fishing Houses of Ireland (w) covers twenty or so specialist hotels and B&Bs.
Ireland’s many sailing clubs include the Royal Cork Yacht Club, established in Cobh in 1720, which is thought to be the oldest in the world. Dozens of regattas, such as Calves Week in Schull, and traditional boat festivals, such as the Wooden Boat Festival in Baltimore and Cruinniú na mBád in Kinvarra, are held every year. The most popular areas for sailing are the relatively sheltered waters of the east coast, especially in Dublin Bay; Cork Harbour and west Cork; Lough Swilly on the north coast of Donegal; Strangford Lough in County Down; and some of the larger lakes, such as Lough Derg in County Clare. For further information contact the Irish Sailing Association (w).
Canoeing and kayaking
Inland waterways and sheltered coasts – notably in west Cork, Dingle and Waterford – also offer canoeing and kayaking opportunities, ranging from day-trips and touring to rough- and white-water racing. The Irish Canoe Union’s website covers courses and clubs in the South (w), while the North has a more comprehensive website, w, that includes canoe trails for multi-day touring. See also w.
Surfing, windsurfing and kite-surfing
There are some superb beaches for surfing (w) and its spin-offs, windsurfing (w for the Irish Windsurfing Association, with a list of providers; w for likely locations) and kite-surfing (w for the Irish Kite-surfing Association, with a list of schools; w for likely locations). For kite- and windsurfing, some of the best spots are: Rosslare, County Wexford; Tramore, County Waterford; Castlegregory, Kerry; Rusheen Bay, County Galway; Keel Strand, Achill and Elly Bay, Belmullet, in Mayo; Lough Allen, Leitrim; and Rossnowlagh, County Donegal. Surfers head for: Garrettstown and Inchydoney, County Cork; Inch and Brandon Bay, Kerry; Lahinch, Clare; Easkey and Strandhill, County Sligo; Bundoran and Rossnowlagh, County Donegal; Portrush, Antrim; and Tramore, County Waterford.
Right in the path of the warm North Atlantic Drift current, Ireland offers some of the best scuba diving in Europe, notably off the rocky west coast. Information is available from the Irish Underwater Council (w) and w.
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