Fly to Belfast and transfer by coach to the four-star Europa Hotel, a city landmark and where we stay for three nights. Some dates will stay at the brand-new four-star Grand Central Hotel.
Northern Ireland's capital is a true city on the water, built on the banks of the River Lagan, which snakes inland from the historic harbour. The port has played a huge part in Belfast's prosperity and, during the early 20th century, the industrious city boasted the largest shipyard in the world and had the honour of being the world's largest linen producer. The second half of the 20th century was less than smooth sailing for Belfast, and some sombre markers of struggle over Northern Ireland's constitutional status are still visible, including the political murals on Falls Road and Shankill Road, and the vividly decorated walls of the Peace Line, built to separate the opposing communities. The 21st century marked a fresh start and Belfast has reinvented itself as a city of culture, developing hubs of art, culture and education in the Cathedral Quarter and Queen's Quarter, and a smart shopping area around Victoria Square. It has also undergone tremendous waterfront regeneration in the Titanic Quarter. First though, a city tour of Belfast ensures that the main sights are seen, including the columned City Hall, the red-brick Victorian-era Grand Opera House, and the charming CS Lewis Square, complete with bronze sculptures of ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ characters. You may wish to visit The Entries, a collection of narrow alleyways where guitar-strumming buskers congregate on the doorsteps of some of the city's oldest pubs. Perhaps seek out an atmospheric pub for a lunch of locally sourced seafood or flavoursome farm-to-fork burgers, bangers and Ulster beef. The afternoon brings a tour of the Titanic Experience, telling the story of surely the most famous ship in history and one built in Belfast's world-leading shipyard. The striking modern museum shimmers on the site of that very shipyard, where the original Harland & Wolff cranes are a lasting reminder that conjures the clink and clang of the harbour's heyday. Inside the museum's four jutting aluminium-clad 'hulls', nine interactive galleries take us on a journey ‘to the depths of the ocean, to uncover the true legend of Titanic’. Afterwards we can walk the decks of the Titanic's original tender ship, the SS Nomadic, and explore some of the Titanic Quarter's other attractions, including HMS Caroline, one of the last World War I floating battleships in the world.
Today we embark on an epic road trip along the famous Antrim Coast Road. As we travel north we're met by an ever-changing landscape, from verdant farmland to dramatic coastal cliffs that plunge into the fickle waters of the North Channel. This diversity is demonstrated perfectly as we pass through the Glens of Antrim, which vary from endless deep-green grasslands to windswept wooded valleys. Once completely isolated and among the last in Northern Ireland to speak traditional Gaelic, you may wonder how the countryside communities ever managed to eke out their living from the land. The many abandoned cottages that dot this beautiful but largely wild landscape come as little surprise. From Ballycastle, where Rathlin Island can be seen across the water towards Scotland, we drive along the 'Causeway Coast' to the magnificent Giant's Causeway. You'll be following in the footsteps of giants at this truly amazing natural landmark, according to the legend of Finn McCool, who is said to have built the huge hexagonal-shaped basalt columns as a bridge to Scotland. We learn about the unbelievable mythology of the Causeway, as well as its volcanic origins, which are every bit as fascinating. Then it's on to the Bushmills Distillery for a tour and a tasting of the warming 'water of life' at Ireland's oldest working whiskey distillery, which dates back to 1608. Connoisseurs will note the smoothness of Irish whiskey – less smoky than Scotch and slightly less sweet than Bourbon. It certainly has that warming effect and doesn't take many glasses to tease out the Irish 'craic'. Those enamoured by Bushmills Whiskey – which is handcrafted from grain to glass onsite – can treat themselves to a bottle to toast this Irish adventure.
This morning we head south across the border to Dublin, a vibrant riverside capital with a compelling history going back to its time as a Viking settlement, through its Georgian heyday as one of the finest cities in the British Empire, and on to the fun-loving, quick-witted cosmopolitan we see today. We see the main thoroughfare, O'Connell Street, busy with rushing Dubliners and travellers admiring the rousing bronze statue of Irish revolutionary Jim Larkin, the modern Spire of Dublin which pierces the sky at 150 metres tall, or the columned General Post Office building, an unlikely mix of Georgian and Greek architectural styles. Crossing the Liffey river on the O'Connell bridge, we come to the vast Trinity College campus and some of the oldest buildings in the city, including Saint Patrick's Cathedral, the largest church in Ireland, and the Dublin Castle complex, a medieval tower sandwiched between an intricate Gothic chapel and imposing red-brick state apartments. During your free time here, it's worth seeing the interior of Saint Patrick's. The vaulted ceiling, colourful tiled floor and regimental flags that festoon the choir make it easy to imagine yourself in a grand medieval banquet hall. Perhaps explore the city's Georgian squares and pretty parks, such as Saint Stephen's Green, a peaceful oasis at the end of busy shop-lined Grafton Street, or pay a visit to the home of the 'black stuff', the Guinness Storehouse. Don’t miss the opportunity to view the 1st-century Book of Kells, the world’s most famous medieval manuscript, at Trinity College. We later continue to Galway, where we stay for two nights at the four-star Menlo Park Hotel. Dinner is included this evening.
This morning we travel north along the world-famous Wild Atlantic Way, which spans the entire length of the spectacular western coast, to Connemara National Park. This 7,000-acre wilderness is a dramatic patchwork of bogs, heathlands, grasslands and woodlands, nestled at the feet of multiple mountains ranges, including the Twelve Bens and the Maamturks. Look out for the hardy Connemara ponies that have adapted to the unyielding terrain. Together with Galway, Connemara sits in Ireland's unspoilt western province of Connacht. The connection with traditional Irish culture is unwavering here, and Connemara has the largest proportion of Gaelic-speakers in the country. We stop to discover the incredible story of Kylemore Abbey, set in a 19th-century castle commissioned by a wealthy financier from Lancashire to prove what could be achieved in the wilds of Connemara. Today the abbey is run by the Benedictine nuns who settled here in 1920 after their home in Ypres was destroyed in the Great War. Explore the beautifully restored abbey and the wonderful Victorian Walled Garden, an oasis of ordered splendour. We then return to the colourful harbour city of Galway, which grew from a tiny foothold to an exuberant urban epicentre. We take a walk through this friendly, festive city, where a folk vibe still shines through in the handicrafts sold in brightly painted shops and markets, and the animated soundtrack of Irish music is often accompanied by devil-may-care dancing. There’s free time to stroll the lush canal path from the Spanish Arch to the city's blue-domed cathedral, where large trees ensure an ever-changing colourscape and the waterside houses have an almost village feel. It's worth pausing at the cathedral to admire the window roses before crossing the river to explore the maze of bustling streets that lead to the manicured lawns of Eyre Square. An evening listening to traditional Irish music in the painted pubs of the raucous Latin Quarter is a must, and the cobblestone alleys here become a stage for buskers.
It's back onto the Wild Atlantic Way this morning, heading towards the Cliffs of Moher. The landscape here is wonderfully romantic, with beautiful little bays and beaches backed by green countryside, dotted with castles, towers, old mills and manor houses. At around the halfway point you'll be struck by the contrast of the Burren region's stretch of limestone coast, where a karst landscape of glaciated limestone turns green to grey, and occasional stone sculptures create an almost-neolithic feel. The nearby Cliffs of Moher rise up 214 metres out of the Atlantic, and it's incredible to think they sit literally on the edge of Europe with nothing but 2,000 miles of ocean between them and Canada. From the soaring cliffs we continue to Bunratty Castle, the most complete and authentic medieval fortress in Ireland. The 15th-century tower house is a fine example of Norman architecture and its impressive grounds reveal a fascinating highlight – the Bunratty Folk Park, a fascinating recreation of a 19th-century village with buildings and streets painstakingly recreated and furnished as they would have appeared during that time. Take in the impressive array of farmhouses, village shops and ivy-clad cottages, from the poorest single-room dwelling to a fine Georgian residence for the gentry – there’s even a charming pub in the style of a traditional bar, but with modern facilities, of course. We then drive south to Killarney, where we stay for two nights, with dinner, at the four-star Lake Hotel on the shore of Loch Lein.
We spend the day exploring the Ring of Kerry, legendary for its wild beauty. Every twist and turn transports us through an ever-changing landscape, from white-sand beaches flanked by craggy cliffs, to glassy mountain-backed lakes and dense forests with dramatic views of the Atlantic. The breathtaking route is dotted with picturesque towns, villages and places of interest along the way, perfect for a stop to refresh ourselves and maybe enjoy a lunch of freshly caught seafood. Kenmare is the jewel of the Ring of Kerry with its picture-postcard buildings, while Waterville is an idyllic coastal village that was the preferred holiday spot of Chaplin in the 60s. After a day of awe-inspiring views, we return to the hotel to relax and enjoy the final evening of our stay.
Transfer to the airport for your return flight.