The Emerald Isle is the perfect destination if you dream of cosy evenings in craic-filled Irish pubs, bracing but deserted Atlantic beach walks, log-fire nights in guesthouses free from the crowds of summer, or even that special Christmas break.
Sure, it can be a chilly-ish time of the year to visit, but off-season pricing on airfare, food and accommodation across the country also makes winter the best value in Ireland. Plus, there is so much to do that the weather can be of little consequence.
Value for money may be reason enough to put Ireland on your list of winter destinations, but throw in the raw natural beauty of places like the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, ranked by National Geographic Traveler magazine as ‘the most beautiful place on Earth’ then it becomes utterly compelling.
Situated on the Emerald Isle’s southwest coast, the peninsula is bounded on three sides by the Atlantic Ocean, its scenery the stuff of wonderful wintertime getaways for families, groups, couples, and any soul who yearns for peace and quiet. No matter where you gaze, walk or drive, the views of the hills and mountains, the rugged cliffs, the secluded strands, gorgeous harbours and inlets, and the ever-present stone field boundaries range from the merely beautiful to the sublime.
Winter is a good time for authentic encounters with the real Ireland and genuine Irish characters. And in and around Dingle town, population 1,000, there’s plenty of opportunity to meet the locals.
Pubs abound. Choose from large and modern, or some where five’s a crowd. A couple of night’s pub hopping is a must. A pint of the black stuff or a warm Irish whiskey, some hearty pub grub and a bit of craic at a traditional music session are a lovely cap to a winter’s day exploration of the peninsula.
Boats crowd the waterfront, where fresh seafood is landed every day. Even in winter you can catch a boat and head out to Dingle Bay to see Fungie, a locally famous dolphin who has lived in the waters outside the town since 1984. Or explore the back streets with all types of shops, pubs, cafes, restaurants, book and craft shops.
A full range of accommodation is available to rent both in the town and in attractive outlying ocean-facing locations. In winter, rates are cut, and rental periods more flexible. Christmas and New Year are especially good times to visit.
Christmas in Ireland
And talking of Yuletide, as winter experiences go it is pretty hard to top spending a Christmas in Ireland encamped at your own cottage or even nestled into a hotel with somebody else taking away the stress of having to prepare a lunch or a dinner to die for.
Sean Leamy, a second generation American from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, spent last Christmas based in a cottage in Westport, County Mayo in the West of Ireland with his family. “We got jokes about being the only Americans in Connemara in December,” he says, “but everywhere we went we were celebrities because we had come to Ireland at Christmas.
“The big bonus was that bustling attractions like the Cliffs of Moher to the south and Yeats country to the north in Sligo were virtually our own. We got real close and personal to the attractions and to the locals.
“Exploring the back lanes of Connemara on Christmas Day, when we were the only car on the road, jamming a massive turkey into our cottage’s tiny oven and the sing-along with the holiday crowd at Matt Molloy’s pub in Westport on St Stephen’s Day, as the Irish call the day after Christmas, was unforgettable.”
In the lead up to this year’s festive season, the Emerald Isle’s newest and biggest event is the 7Up Winter Wonderland, a magical Christmas village set in the picturesque grounds of a park in Dublin, the Irish capital.
This festive extravaganza will run – hail, rain or snow – from 1 December to 8 January 2012 (except Christmas Day). It features Ireland’s largest covered ice rink, a Christmas circus, a giant wheel, top European rides for all ages and tastes, a traditional Christmas market, plus cafes, bars and entertainment. Santa’s Christmas Village is there too, free to enter and excellent fun for all the family.
December is actually a great time to visit Dublin, which is one of the friendliest cities anywhere in the world. Spirits are high, the atmosphere is electric, streets are decked out and heaving. Shoppers bustle along cobbled alleys, stopping for a bit of craic and mingling around the multitude of Christmas markets.
Popular ones are situated in Dublin’s Docklands, Farmleigh House – where Queen Elizabeth II stayed during her recent visit to Ireland – and Fitzwilliam Square, a historic Georgian area in the centre of Dublin. But there are dozens more.
Foodies will love Taste of Christmas, an annual festive food extravaganza taking place between the 25 and 27 November this year at the architecturally spectacular Dublin Convention Centre. Replete with celebrity chefs, tastings of all descriptions, culinary entertainment and inspirational seasonal menus of everything from traditional classics to cutting-edge cuisine, there is plenty to fire the imagination and the taste buds.
And just two hours away in Belfast, capital of Northern Ireland, the food theme continues as the city puts on its wonderful Christmas Continental Market. The fabulous City Hall gardens are transformed into a bustling alpine village providing a great foodie and shop-around-Europe opportunity in the heart of the town famous for giving the world the Titanic.
Northern Ireland’s craft markets and fairs may also hold the answer to shoppers’ Christmas gift quandaries. The province is renowned for its vibrant craft scene and there are literally hundreds of fairs, markets, exhibitions and workshops taking place in the run up to Christmas. They can be a fantastic help in finding that extra special crafty gift.
It’s definitely worth booking an overnight stay and making a break out of a shopping trip, checking out what else is on offer in the area you’re visiting. Christmas shopping breaks in Northern Ireland start at just £79 per person sharing midweek for two nights B&B and one evening meal.
Most Irish hotels are also offering special Christmas season and wintertime packages. If you need it, many can arrange a visit by the rotund red-dressed man from Lapland on Christmas Eve. Log fires, mulled wine and a magnificent Christmas feast are de rigueur.
Even in winter, Ireland rarely gets cold enough to halt outdoor activity. Most things can be done with just a couple of layers of clothing on – and that includes going horse-racing, a big Irish tradition during the Christmas holidays. The biggest festival takes place at Leopardstown Racecourse near Dublin, starting on St Stephen’s Day.
For the truly adventurous, winter mountaineering over the peaks of MacGillycuddy´s Reeks, Ireland’s highest mountain range, is on offer in County Kerry, while Northern Ireland’s landscape, truly spectacular in the winter, provides a picture perfect backdrop for walking and exploring the natural environment in its pristine beauty.
Of course, in the frosty season tours of Irish castles, historic sites and other cultural centres around Ireland can also still be appreciated in cities and out in the country.
“At home we get temperatures down to −11 °F (-24 °C) so a winter in Ireland is really no big deal for us,” says Sean Leamy. “Even on gloomy or wet days there’s sure to be a museum, a castle, a pub, or musical event right next to you. Vacation deals are plentiful in the Irish off season. Go right ahead and take advantage of ‘em.”