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County Offaly, Ireland

Central Ireland tends to be overlooked by tourists, which is a shame. Granted, it doesn't have the dramatic scenery of the coastal areas, or the sheer amount of things to do as Dublin does, but it still has a lot to offer if you're willing to step off the typical tourist trail. The villages are just as pretty, and the people are just as friendly, as you would find in the more frequented destinations.

Gads, I think I just channeled Rick Steves. I'll try not to do it again, I promise. Moving on…

The Accommodation: Kinnitty Castle, Kinnitty

Of course I'll stay in a castle if I can manage it – I call myself "The Diva" for a reason. Some of the castles haven't had the atmosphere I wanted, and some of the rooms could just as easily have been in a Ramada or Mariott as a castle hotel. Thankfully, that wasn't the case with Kinnitty Castle. I loved it there; if I'd only had a tiara and a flowing gown, I could have played medieval princess throughout the length of my stay.

The castle itself was built in 1209, and the decor has been done to suit such a time period. Suits of armor and tapestries adorn the public rooms, and furniture in the guest rooms is simply massive. Even the bathrooms have a medieval "feel" to them, without missing any of the modern conveniences.

If you need a tipple, the Dungeon Bar is right downstairs. (Sadly, it was closed during my stay, so I can't even provide a review.) For more relaxation and pampering, make an appointment at the Gate Lodge Spa for a massage, hydrotherapy session, manicure/pedicure or other treatment.

And the grounds… oh, the grounds. There's a keep. A carved stone Celtic cross up front. A standing stone circle out back. And plenty of wooded areas to have a ramble through when the mood strikes.

Room rates are actually quite reasonable compared to other hotels, though if you're on a budget a B&B is probably a better choice for your pocketbook. The hotel has a number of short break special offers, which typically include dinner as well as breakfast, and some good specials can be had in the off-season.

Recommended Activity: If you have any interest in birds whatsoever, make an appointment for one of the falconry programs with the Falconry Center of Ireland. The choices have changed a bit since my visit, but it looks like what I did is comparable to the Basic Handling option now. My companion and I had a wonderful morning with a charming man named John who come out to the castle with five of his birds and spending about three hours with us, talking about each of the birds and their lives, temperaments, eating habits and the like, and both of us being able to hold and pet the birds while grinning like idiots and asking all sorts of questions.

I hadn't researched anything about Kinnitty Castle before I went, so the falconry wasn't at all pre-planned. It may be the best $65 or so I've ever spent, and the morning was one of the highlights of my visits to Ireland.

Where to go/What to do

Birr Castle

Home of the Earls of Rosse, Birr Castle itself is not open to the public, but an admission fee does get you access to the massive gardens and the Historic Science Centre. At least you get a good view of the outside of the castle from the gardens.

The science center primarily displays information on the contributions of the Third Earl to astronomy. He had a pair of telescopes built on the grounds of the castle to observe the night sky. The largest, the Leviathan, was the largest telescope in the world at the time of it's construction (mid 1800s). He made significant contributions in lunar observations and to our understanding of nebulae.

The gardens in Birr hold the world record for the tallest box hedges in the world. You could easily spend a few hours exploring all the different areas of garden on the grounds. One of the nice things about going to Birr was that while admission and the scientific center closed at 7 pm, once inside the gardens, you can stay as long as you like (within reason, I'm sure). So you may wish to do the rest of our sightseeing in the area during the day and still have the chance to do a good tour of the gardens done during the evening. (In September, I was able to stay until about 8:30 p.m. or so, and it was still light out when I left.)

Clonmacnoise and West Offaly Bog Train

It's not glamorous, but peat is such an important resource, you should have some understanding of just what it is and how it came to be to get a more complete picture of traditional Irish life. The Clonmacnoise and West Offaly Bog Train is run by the government's Peat Board; Ireland still gets about 10 percent of its electricity from power plants running on peat.

It's an interesting little train ride - about 45 minutes or so. There is a stop pretty early when you have the chance to use a slane (sort of like a shovel, but square) and cut a couple of slabs of turf in the traditional fashion, as well as see some of the preserved wood that's been found in the bog. Then you board the train again to view the peat bogs and see the modern machines at work.

With all the peat that's still being harvested, careful management of Ireland's bogland is becoming a priority for the Peat Board. Sections of the bog are now left alone for conservation, so you have the chance to see the heather and other plants that makes their homes in the bog.

After your train trip, you can stop into the gift shop. It may sound odd to buy souvenirs from a place that basically deals in partially decomposed organic matter, but they do have some nice items. I picked up a lovely candle holder made from bog wood and a little cottage-shaped incense burner that came with little blocks of peat to burn. Much as I didn't care for the smell of burning peat when I first arrived, it has since grown on me, so it comes in handy when I start pining for Ireland.

Clonmacnoise

A monastic settlement founded in 548 AD on the Shannon river, Clonmacnoise has several buildings in various states of ruin and a slew of Celtic crosses.

There's a rather impressive interpretive center with an audio visual show and displays depicting life in the monastery through the ages. Many of the oldest Celtic crosses have been moved inside as well, since Mother Nature and pollution have not been kind to them. Replicas of the crosses have been placed in the originals' positions.

One thing that really surprised me is the placement of graves that are 50 or 60 years old amongst those that are several hundred. In that almost 1500 year old sacred site, I found a tombstone from the 1980s. I guess since I'm not used to being around man-made structures that old, it blows my mind that they’re still kept in use today

Aside from the history of the place, the setting of the site is just amazing. It's on a ridge just above the Shannon, so you have this really amazing view of the river and the surrounding countryside. Even if you're not into the old buildings and crosses, the tranquility of the place captivates.

 
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