Wicklow is the wildest place I know in Ireland. I’ve lived here for over 10 years, in Greystones, the last stop on the DART commuter train from Dublin. When I want to get off the grid, it doesn’t take long. I can hop on the cliff walk to Bray, or tramp through valleys gouged out by the last Ice Age. I can head out in blazing sunshine and end up pelted with hailstones on the Sugarloaf — a short, sweet quartzite stump with stunning views of Dublin Bay. Or I can just get in the car and drive.
You don’t need the Wild Atlantic Way to see Ireland at its most elemental. In County Wicklow, nature and space echo in place names like Poulaphouca (‘hole of the ghost’), Devil’s Glen (site of a cool woodland sculpture trail) and Avoca, where the BBC’s Ballykissangel was filmed. Skip the city, but stay close. Four wheels and two nights will give you a reboot right on Dublin’s doorstep.
Start by heading south on the M50, the capital’s orbital motorway, before taking Exit 12 onto the R115. It doesn’t take long for the roads to narrow, as they twist and turn and rise gradually before delivering you to the Sally Gap, a mountain pass close to the source of the River Liffey. Here, the temperature drops and phone signals waver. Boggy browns are dotted with deep, springy clumps of purple heather, the home colours of the Wicklow Mountains.
Drive on until you come to Glenmacnass Waterfall. Pull in to marvel at its form, its silver locks gushing down the granite rocks, before continuing south towards Glendalough, the Early Christian site at the heart of Wicklow Mountains National Park (in Irish, the name means ‘glen of two lakes’). It gets busy at peak times here, but off-season or midweek, you can mosey around the monastic husks in relative peace, or take one of several waymarked trails. Its founder arrived in the sixth century and slept in a cave. ‘St Kevin’s bed’ can still be seen today.
If you detour on the R759 until you glimpse dramatic views of Lough Tay — at the foot of a valley — look for the contrast between its peaty black depths and shoreline of white sand. It’s a dead ringer for a pint of Guinness.
There are peachy places to stay squirrelled away in the terrain. I’m thinking of retreats like BrookLodge & Macreddin Village, home to the first certified organic restaurant in Ireland, or Wicklow Head Lighthouse, an 18th-century tower restored by the Irish Landmark Trust (imagine staying during a storm). There are five-star resorts like Druids Glen and Powerscourt Hotel Resort & Spa, or storied boltholes such as Hunter’s Hotel, in Rathnew, a former coaching inn with a ravishing little garden, old-school Sunday lunch and centuries-old memories etched into the windows. Literally.
In places like these, it feels like the wilderness has been tamed. Wicklow is also home to a smattering of mansions and gardens that contrast sweetly with its ruggedness — places like the Elizabethan-Revival Killruddery House; Mount Usher Gardens, along the River Vartry; or the Richard Cassels-designed Powerscourt House, with its posh shops, cafe and Italianate gardens.
We moved here because we couldn’t afford to buy in Dublin. Now I wouldn’t move back. We’ve one foot in the city, one in the country — the same reason it works for a weekend break. When you settle down for the evening, sup a Wicklow Wolf craft beer, or a Glendalough gin, with its local, seasonally foraged botanicals. Savour it. City life feels far away.
Published in the March 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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