Wild island: Eight natural escapes in Ireland

Although foreign holidays may be on hold, there's still plenty to explore in Ireland. Here are eight outdoor adventures to top your staycation bucket-list
Wild island: Eight natural escapes in Ireland

A view of grey seals resting on rocks off Cape Clear.

The Covid crisis has placed our yearning for escapes with nature to the top of the staycation bucket-list. 

From whale watching in West Cork to meandering amid the wildflowers of the Burren, we’re looking for wild encounters like never before. 

And across Ireland, the once granola-crunching niche of eco-tourism is now recognised as a trending smart solution for both sustainable rural tourism and raising the PR profile of Ireland’s magnificent native wildlife. 

So where can you venture to go wild? Here are eight great nature experiences across the country, as well as tips for family-run restaurants and accommodations where you can fuel up and hunker down along the way.

Whale watching | West Cork 

The most noteworthy tips for any wildlife-watching trip is to pack some patience and measure your expectations. Last weekend, I did just that, leaving out of Baltimore harbour with one of Ireland’s true eco-tourism pioneers, Whale Watch West Cork. 

A Humped Back Whale, exposed as it dives down below the surface of the sea off the coast of West Cork.
A Humped Back Whale, exposed as it dives down below the surface of the sea off the coast of West Cork.

The six-hour trip aboard the Voyager catamaran skirted us along the coast of Roaring Water Bay to spot several playful pods of common dolphins, a porpoise, grey seals and Ireland’s most common cetacean, a minke whale! Skipper and zoologist Nic Slocum offered plenty of theatrical colour and insights along the way with eco-sensitivity being the excursion’s primary ethos. The trip also typically includes a stop off on stunning Cape Clear. Highly recommended for €55. whalewatchwestcork.com 

Eat: It has to be seafood in this part of the world. If taking a break on Cape Clear, head to Séan Rua’s friendly restaurant on the quay - I enjoyed a tasty crab salad served in a handy recyclable to-go box. 

Stay: Casey’s Family hotel keeps you in the heart of the action in Baltimore - and offers you lesser chance of missing your boat.

Corncrakes | Inishbofin 

One of the most iconic sounds of yesteryear rural Ireland, the corncrake may be scarce on the ground on the mainland, but it’s still very much part of the country soundtrack on Galway’s Inishbofin. 

A corncrake at Inishbofin.
A corncrake at Inishbofin.

And they’re pretty proud about it there, too. The island hosted a popular corncrake festival in 2019 (also slated for 2020) drawing nature lovers and budding birders from across the world. Expert Anthony McGeehan offers tours on the island but if you’re going it alone, there are scenic corncrake breeding areas as you walk east towards the island’s graveyard (hearing one is a great a thrill as a sighting). To get to Inishbofin, you must take the ferry from Cleggan pier, located northwest of Clifden.

Eat: Inishwallah is a, yes, London double-decker bus turned funky food-truck offering organic fare with a Keralan kick. 

Stay: As base camp for the said corncrake festival, the eco-friendly Dolphin Hotel makes the perfect nest for your stay.

Sea Safari | Dingle 

Being home to Ireland’s original eco-tourism symbol, Fungi, it’s little wonder the Dingle peninsula has carved a niche as one of Ireland’s top wildlife spotting destinations. With Jim and Bridget Flannery at the helm, Dingle Sea Safari brings guests aboard zippy rib boats for an adrenaline-soaked 3hr jaunt out from Dingle Bay. 

Flanking the peninsula’s spectacular cliffs and caves, the highlight is reaching Ireland’s most westerly fringe that is the Blasket Islands. Expect dolphins, seals and craic to feature on your Insta-stores, just as soon as you pick up that signal. €55.

Eat: The Fish Box in Dingle serves the likes of delicious prawns, plaice and haddock caught by their very own boat Cú na Mara!

Stay: Inch Beach Cottages located at the gateway to the peninsular play a strong eco-game and are members of the Corca Dhuibhne Glas Scheme.

Cliff Cruise | Doolin 

Few places on Ireland’s mainland can out-sing the cacophony of birdlife experienced along the Cliffs of Moher. While most tourists enjoy the wonder from terra firma, grabbing a cruise along the Banner coastline offers a sheer thrill.  

Literally. The Garrihy family’s Doolin2Aran Ferries offer family-friendly cruises along the coast, where passengers are brought up-close to the cliff’s epic bird colonies (from puffins to guillemots) and the gargantuan Atlantic sea stack, An Bhreannan Mór. The business is also part of the stellar Burren Ecotourism Network while I’m told their flagship Star of Doolin cruiser is the newest and fastest ship on the Wild Atlantic Way. Go lower emissions! €15. 

Eat: Family-friendly Stonecutter’s Kitchen offers hearty homemade fare while garden swings and toad-stools will appeal to the kids post-dessert. 

Stay: Doolin Hotel must rank as one of Ireland’s greenest hotels with initiatives from harvesting rainwater to growing their own veggies.

Eagles | Lough Derg 

With the release of ten more chicks into the wilds next month, the future and fortunes of the white-tailed eagle in Ireland is hopefully looking bright. The shores of Lough Derg along Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands is one of the areas where the raptors have flourished, with a pair currently said to be nesting on the Tipperary shores of the lake. Seeing the birds fly overhead is a sight to behold and given their size, they’re impossible to muddle with anything else. If it’s a golden eagle you’d like to add to your photo reel, you’ll have to venture further north, and head to Glenveagh National Park in Donegal to see them soar.

Eat: The Lough Derg Inn in Terryglass offers great Tipperary gastro grub with a scenic setting to boot. 

Stay: To really feel at one with nature, pitch up at Lakeside Holiday Park in the Clare village of Mountshannon.

Yew Forests | Killarney  

Although it’s one of Ireland’s great wildernesses, Killarney National Park is perhaps lesser known for being home to one of Europe’s few remaining yew forests. The Reenadinna Woods loop is a 6km trail near Muckross House which sweeps in lakeshore and mountain views before shrouding walkers with the gnarled fairytale woods that give the trail its name. While Sika deer are a common sight in the park, you hopefully won’t spot too many here as they’re fenced out to protect the flora!

Eat: The Porterhouse is a great spot for local beers and fare from Kerry lamb to vegan plates.

Stay: Slieve Bloom Manor is an eco-friendly B&B favouring local breakfasts and litter-free packed lunches.  

Atlantic Shores | North Mayo 

Wild Nephin Ballycroy National Park.
Wild Nephin Ballycroy National Park.

Bartragh Island, an uninhabited island on the Moy Estuary is home to a large seal colony that live on the sandbank on the left as you go towards Killala Bay. The island is reachable by boat, kayak or even on foot during low tide! Elsewhere in the region, Kilcummin Peninsula is a known spot for dolphin and minke whales or you can simply bring your snorkel for Kilcummin pier. 

Looking for even greater wilds! Get your boots on and visit Ballycroy National Park.

Eat: The On The Way café in Killala where makes everything from scratch (try the homegrown organic salads)! 

Stay: Brigown is a homely B&B on the quay in Ballina where ban an tí Marjorie runs informal baking classes in her kitchen.

Wildlife Walk | Wicklow 

  The Garden of Ireland has its definite wild side. Amid its infinite trails, Wicklow Mountains National Park has a family-friendly marked “mammal tracks and signs” walk where you spot deer and feral goats and trace the paw prints of badgers and native red squirrels.

Eat: There’s something in the hummus. Stock up on your picnic supplies at The Happy Pear in Greystones and you’ll be well fuelled to tackle one of the park’s more challenging tracks. Stay:

Stay: You’ll keep spirits high and carbon footprints low with a cosy stay at Glendalough Camping.

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