Winter in the west of Ireland

by Emma.Sturgess

Off-season is a great time to head for the west of Ireland, to see Connemara and the Burren unencumbered by summer crowds

‘Of course, the whole place shuts down in winter,’ a local informed us at the bar of one of Ireland’s grandest country hotels. ‘But it’s still worth having a drive about.’ The prospect of a ‘drive about’ Galway and Clare is what draws visitors to the west. In summer, you can add surfing, hiking, golf and riding to the list, but despite a chill wind and a lot of Closed signs, these landscapes have a dramatic, striking appeal in colder months. All you need is a good base camp, where life, and hopefully a real fire, can be found after a lonely day on the road.
 
The obvious choice is also one of the best. The stately Ashford Castle was once part of the Guinness estate and sits on the shores of Lough Corrib at Cong, in County Mayo. In terms of activities, it’s got the lot, including horse riding, falconry, archery and its own golf course, but the location is pretty good, too. The estate is a useful access-all-areas point from which both Connemara and the Burren, the stony and distinctive protected landscape south of Galway city, are an easy drive.
 
Lough Corrib is huge, and both obstacle and delight. To access the rolling hills of Connemara, Oscar Wilde’s ‘savage beauty,’ you head west from Cong along Corrib’s blurred, wibbly northern edge. From here, the N59 loops through to the attractive riverside town of Clifden. Near Connemara National Park, you can cross between the Twelve Bens and Maamturk mountains, or head north to the spectacular fjord of Killary Harbour, with the village of Leenane, quiet in its exuberantly beautiful setting, at its head. Road signs and shopfronts are a reminder that swathes of Connemara are part of the Gaeltacht, where Gaelic is routinely spoken. The landscape may have been filmed and photographed countless times, but there’s so much of it that there’s a wild surprise around a lot of corners. 
 
On the other side of Galway City (where you might fancy the glamour of Ashford Castle’s sister hotel, The G), the Burren is the bane of Irish geography lessons and the delight of days out. Covering 216 square miles along the coasts of Counties Galway and Clare, it’s distinctive for its stretches of grey, fissured exposed limestone, terraced hills and rounded boulders.
 
In summer makeshift car parks at coastal viewpoints like Poulsallagh, where the easily-accessed pavements and cliffs are a big draw, are dangerously popular; drop by before the blue gentians flower in April and you’ll have both safety and peace. Another site adversely affected by heaving visitor numbers is the famous Poulnabrone dolmen, one of around 70 tombs in the area and which looks for all the world like a megalithic smoking shelter. In high season coachloads of visitors stop off to see it on the road from Ballyvaughan to Corofin, but it’s just as eerie in winter sunshine.
 
The shale and sandstone Cliffs of Moher don’t count as part of the Burren, but they’re so near it seems rude not to. At 214m high and 8km long, topped by O’Brien’s Tower and battered by the Atlantic, they offer views to the Aran Islands and back to the Twelve Bens. You can’t miss the cliffs, but if you’re not careful you might miss the new visitor centre, which is sunk into the hillside and topped with a natty grass roof. And yes, it is open in winter. 
 
 

Emma.Sturgess

Give or take the odd stint in restaurant kitchens, I've been a food and travel writer all my working life. I love the thrill of taking off for Las Vegas or peering into the shiniest shop windows in Lyon, but for me there's no place like the UK, and in particular the North's grand cities. I write for The Guardian and Food and Travel Magazine and contribute to many guides and books. 

Covering Liverpool lifestyle, arts and ents stories for the commuter newspaper Metro's North West edition gave me a chance to reaquaint myself with the grown-up side of a city I knew from childhood visits. As a kid, the greatest thrill of a trip to Liverpool was the chance to see Fred the TV weatherman's huge map floating in the Albert Dock like a bizarre waterlily. Now I live close enough to go anytime and am tall enough to see the bigger picture, it's the scale of the place - the sweeping Mersey vista, towering Anglican cathedral and rewarding clamber to the Georgian terraces - that's the real draw. Add the possibility of acquiring a decent flat white - a fairly recent phenomenon - and it all falls wonderfully into place.

My Liverpool

Where I always grab a coffee: Bold Street Coffee strikes a pleasant balance between self-conscious cool (there’s vinyl and turntables behind the bar) and an inclusive vibe. They take their hot drinks seriously.

My favourite dining spot: For sheer mind-boggling, multisensory genius, Marc Wilkinson’s Michelin-starred restaurant Fraiche is a short cab ride over to Oxton, and worth every tick of the meter.

Best place for people watching: Take a seat on Church Street and watch the world and his wife pass by.

Where to be seen: Prop up the curvy blue-lit bar at San Carlo and you’re likely to be sandwiched between celebrities.

Most breathtaking view: The Panoramic restaurant, on the 34th floor of Beetham’s West Tower, has extraordinary views all the way to Wales. It’s glorious at night.

My favourite stroll: Liverpool’s waterfront never seems to be quite finished, but a walk around the Albert Dock, particularly the riverside path, offers historical perspective and cobweb-clearing in one.

The best spot for peace and quiet: St James’ Garden is a sunken green space in the quarry whose stone built much of the city centre. It used to be a cemetery – don’t trip over the gravestones.

Where I’d go on a date: To see something at the Everyman theatre. Shakespeare or a visiting comedian? Depends on the date.

The best shopping opportunities: The Liverpool ONE development keeps attracting interesting new tenants, but for shiny geegaws, don’t forget Chinatown. 

Don’t leave without: Humming a bit of The Beatles.