Adventure activities and personal challenges take on a whole new meaning set against Ireland’s jewel of a landscape. Untamed, wild, rugged and pristine, the Emerald Isle offers every kind of easy-going or adrenalin-pumped activity holiday you could imagine, alongside a host of unique characters, spontaneous fun and authentic Irish experiences. The kind you’ll talk about for a lifetime.
It’s a country that at every turn encourages you to switch off from the nine-to-five and flick on your playful side. Magnificent mountains, coastlines, islands, lakes, beaches and forests offer endless possibilities for action and activity - and Ireland is loaded with brilliant outdoor experiences, adventure centres, facilities, guides, experts and unique opportunities.
If you decide to ‘get out there’, ‘just do it’ or ‘give it go’ the Irish people will treat you like a long lost friend, pick you up if you fall and give you a massive cheer - and maybe a pint of stout or two - when you fulfil your dream.
Adventures on land
Ever pictured yourself galloping on the beach on a white horse, wind in your hair, taste of salt spray on your lips? Well it’s there for the taking along the likes of Strandhill on the gorgeous Atlantic coastline at Sligo in the West of Ireland.
Few countries revere the horse as much, so Ireland is perfect for energetic and even laid-back equestrian activity over beaches, bogs, forest and mountain trails. Worry not if you have no time served in the saddle, equestrian centres across the island will be happy to take on beginners and you can still make that beach.
Or give caving a go and enter the rarely seen world of stalactites, stalagmites, underground streams and bizarre rock formations. There are well over 50km of caves in Northern Ireland, the longest stretching to 7km. Corralea Activity Centre in the beautiful lakelands of County Fermanagh can take you into them, and offers range of residential self-catering or day visitor activities like water trampolining, wind surfing, canoeing, archery, climbing, orienteering and cycling.
Below ground you get an exhilarating day exploring horizontal spaces, twisting and turning through tunnels, sliding on your belly, paddling through water. If that’s too much, an underground boat trip at the nearby and mind-blowing Marble Arch showcaves, a UNESCO-recognised Global Geopark, is an alternative way to satisfy your subterranean curiosity - and earn a cup of coffee at the visitor centre to finish off.
Another adventure travel company, Extreme Ireland, can take you on a canoeing exploration down the River Barrow through the middle of the country or sea stack climbing off the coast of Donegal - highly unusual and superb for anyone with an adventurous streak.
And talking of climbing, many come to Ireland to conquer the country’s highest mountain, Carrauntoohil in County Kerry, a difficult but not impossible task. A guided climb will help, and at the same time provide entertaining insights into the region’s rich history and archaeology, folklore and myth. One of the best is Con Moriarty of Hidden Ireland Adventures, a recognised authority on the Kerry area. He’ll show you some serious outdoor activity along with great places to stay, good food and craic along the way.
You can also experience the real Ireland through more carefree and gentle walking, hiking and cycling breaks. A staggering array of opportunities is available everywhere in all four corners of the country. The Great Western Greenway, County Mayo and the Strangford Lough Trail, County Down - both featuring landmarks connected to St Patrick - are two of the finest.
If you want to jump in or even just dip your toe into water sports adventure, a nation surrounded by ocean, peppered with expansive lakes and etched with a multitude of attractive rivers ticks all the boxes. Fishing, sailing, cruising, surfing, diving, wakeboarding, water-skiing, windsurfing - it’s all there. As is whale watching.
Seeing a whale in the wild is still one of the greatest thrills in nature and Ireland is one of the best places in Europe to do it. Year after year, minke, fin and humpback whales, along with several species of dolphins, return to feed in West Cork´s rich waters. Weighing in at 70 tons, fin whales are the world’s second largest animal. It’s the variety and frequency of sightings that puts Ireland on the map for enthusiasts.
Among the commercial operators who can take you whale spotting is Nic Slocum, of Whale Watch West Cork. “We don’t promise whales and dolphins every time, because they are unpredictable creatures,” he says, “but for anyone interested in wildlife, there is an abundance of things to see. The marine coast is spectacularly beautiful here.”
Of course, the adventure sport of the moment is coasteering, a mixture of traversing, swimming, climbing, scrambling, and jumping off a coastline. Ireland offers brilliant facilities for coasteering and the number-one place is along the stupendous Causeway Coast in Northern Ireland near to the famed Giant’s Causeway.
Hook up with adventure operator IrishC for serious coasteering fun there - its instructors offer to ‘blow your mind and work your body’. They have various packages including two nights’ accommodation and a full day coasteering and coastal exploration. All necessary water sports gear supplied.
Still in the water, think surfing for a good way to get fit, get adventurous and have oodles of craic. Ireland is awash with great places to surf. September to May is widely regarded as the best time to ride the waves, and Bundoran in rugged County Donegal is widely regarded as the country’s surfing Mecca. A former European Surfing Championships host, the town has an extensive beachfront, plenty of surf schools, annual festivals, plenty of good waves and great night life.
Portrush in County Antrim is similar. All three of its beaches received a Good Beach Award for 2011. To achieve this, beaches must be 20 times cleaner than the European standard. Portrush Open Surf Championships take place from 25-26 September and there is a great range of self-catering accommodation in the town.
If you’re game enough to sign up for the modern types of adventure and endurance races every kind of ‘thon’ is organised amid the Emerald Isle’s fantastic scenery - triathlon, duathlon and aquathon - as well as your regular, traditional and so-called ‘ordinary’ mara ‘thon’. Then there’s your sprint-tri, Olympic tri, Ironman and half Ironman events.
Races feature running, cycling, swimming, kayaking and climbing, but other challenges like navigation, abseiling, shooting or even horse riding might get thrown into the mix too.
Combining a holiday with a personal challenge race where the emphasis is on getting over the line, beating personal best times, keeping fit and healthy (OK, so you might sneak a win too) is proving very popular. They offer a chance for friends to get together to go as a group too - a fantastic way to experience Ireland.
Among the best-known adventure races is Gaelforce West, which sees 3,000 competitors every August and WAR - the Wicklow Adventure Race in September. The autumn also sees the Achill Roar (10 Sept), the Killarney Adventure Race (8 Oct), and Sea2Summit (12 Nov) in Westport, while the Ironman Ireland 70.3 event takes place in Galway (4 Sept).
The Dublin Marathon (31 Oct) is of course urban, but the 10,000 runners still get lovely views of the city’s historic Georgian architecture and fantastic spectator support. It’s known as the ‘friendly marathon’ due to the volume and goodwill of the onlookers that line the route.
Cousin of the marathon, the cycling sportive, also saddles up in Ireland and dozens take place all over the country. This year’s Giant’s Causeway Coast Sportive (17 Sept) offers three routes taking in the Giant’s Causeway, passing Bushmills (the world’s oldest whiskey distillery) and Bushmills Inn, then along coastal roads beside glorious Whitepark Bay and the famous Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. Cyclists can take in breathtaking views out to Rathlin Island and the Scottish Mull of Kintyre further in the distance.
That’s if they resist temptation and manage to get past Bushmills.