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Highways to Heaven - Ireland's Most Scenic Drives

‘Go where Ireland takes you’ we’re always telling you. Well today, we’re giving you hints, especially for those who’ll drive where Ireland takes them. Promise to keep your eyes on the road as guest blogger Fiona Hilliard reveals four of the most scenic drives in Ireland.

The Burren, County Clare

In a quiet, unassuming corner of County Clare sits one of Ireland’s most unusual natural attractions. Named after the Gaelic word boireann, meaning ‘rocky land’, at first the Burren seems a moonscape of harsh, uninhabitable limestone, but don’t be fooled – over 700 plants live here and it is considered one of Europe’s richest botanical areas. Wildlife flourishes here too, including many species of birds, small mammals and butterflies; 28 of the 32 types of butterflies found in Ireland are native to the Burren.

Rocky road: The Burren Life on the Burren began long ago and far away. The limestone that pervades the area was formed from the shells of sea creatures over 300 million years ago. Some 15,000 years later, a glacier came tearing through the soil and nature’s icy wrath wore the rock down into the angular pavements that fascinate us today.

The drive: The Burren circuit is 83km in total. Beginning at the ancient town of Kilfenora. Heading west, you’ll come to Lisdoonvarna (home in September to the famous matchmaking festival) and signage for Fanore and Black Head. Stop into the Burren Centre on the way to learn more about the area’s history and wildlife. The village of Craggah is also worth seeing, and the shoreline at Fanore is good for a stroll.

The Causeway Coastal Route

The Causeway Coastal Route stretches some one hundred miles between two spirited cities, Belfast and Londonderry, to make one of the world’s greatest road journeys. The basalt columns of the Giant’s Causeway are just one highlight of this spectacular coastline.

Starting in Belfast, head north via the seaside town of Carrickfergus and past the nine Glens of Antrim: glacier-gouged valleys of charming seaside villages and forest highlands. Between Ballycastle and the Giant’s Causeway lies the most scenic stretch of the trail, with sea cliffs of striped black basalt and white chalk, charming harbours and broad sweeps of beach. Take a deep breath to face the chasm-crossing Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, and then reward yourself with the visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site itself: the celebrated Giant’s Causeway

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The curious assembly of 40,000 basalt columns, formed by molten lava cooled into mostly flawless hexagonal dark stone steps, appear so perfectly artificial it’s no wonder that it has spanned the enduring myth of Finn McCool provoking fellow giant Benadonner.

An inland detour to the village of Bushmills is good for the night and a nightcap, being home to the oldest working distillery in Ireland. Back on the Coast Road head due west, stop at the romantic remains of Dunluce Castle, the lively seaside resorts of Portrush and Portstewart, or the breath-taking sight of Mussenden Temple. Finish the route in the city of Londonderry, UK City of Culture for 2013.

The drive: The Causeway Coastal Route is pretty much the A2 the whole way. Get a more detailed breakdown of the trip on this driving itinerary.

Slieve Gullion Forest Park, County Armagh

The mountain of Slieve Gullion towers 573m high on the craggy heather-covered hills of a long extinct volcano. Naturally, for an area of such natural beauty and heritage, the Ring of Gullion doesn’t come without its share of myths and stories, including one superstition that if you bathe in the Lough, your hair will turn white.

The Drive:

A scenic 13km drive through Slieve Gullion Forest Park offers wonderfully picturesque views over the surrounding hills. Park at the picnic area and take a hike to the top to find yourself at the highest point in County Armagh. Those who chance the walk are rewarded by the view of two early Bronze Age cairns and a pretty lake.

The Sally Gap, County Wicklow

Put Dublin in the rearview and head south to the ‘Garden of Ireland’: County Wicklow. The Sally Gap is a straight road leading to the peat bogs of the Wicklow mountains, past shooting locations from the film Braveheart, and the stunning Lough Tay (known as The Guinness Lake because its peat-coloured water and man-made beach resemble the dark and creamy stout). Suddenly, expansive fields and bog turn to lush, green valleys and you’ll find yourself in the history, serenity and downright beauty that is Glendalough.

Known as the ‘valley of the two lakes’, Glendalough inhabits a serene pocket of rich history and spectacular scenery in the Wicklow Mountains National Park. The round tower makes a piercing silhouette against the rolling hills, and indicates the area’s purpose as one of the most important monastic sites in Ireland since St Kevin founded his settlement in the 6th century. Swap the car for two feet and explore some of many monastic remains including a 12th-century Romanesque Priest’s House, a cathedral, a large granite cross from 6th or 7th century and St Kevin’s Church. The lakes will then beckon for a walk.

The drive:

Take the N81 out of Dublin, and after about 30 minutes turn onto the R759 at Manor Kilbride. It’s a pleasant hour’s drive to Glendalough from here – follow the sign for it at the Sally Gap. See the full itinerary for a Wicklow roadtrip.

Dubliner Fiona Hilliard is a travel blogger and writer for Argus Car Hire. For more tips on road trips in Ireland, check out Fiona’s Glove Box blog.

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