Wicklow wanderings: on and off the beaten track
Updated: Oct 13, 2020
You could spend a month travelling around Wicklow and still not see half of what it has to offer. For a relatively small county it packs a powerful punch with areas of the most spectacular natural beauty combined with a vibrant arts and culture scene, not to mention that it's become something of a destination for foodies. It's also home to two of my favourite places to stay: Brooklodge and Tinakilly House, pictured above. It's no surprise that tourists flock here in their droves during the summer months but there are still a few places you can have all to yourself. Here are some of the reasons to visit...
There can be few more beautiful walks than the forested routes through Devil's Glen, Ashford. Located in a valley, surrounded by trees on all sides and with nothing but the sound of birds and the Vartry river bubbling past, it's one of the most tranquil places you can imagine and one of my favourite places in Ireland. In fact, sitting on a rock in the foreground of the pic above is my exact favourite spot of the walk, right at the bend in the river and before you reach the waterfall. It's incredibly peaceful and I defy you not to feel the pull of nature. Take a listen...
You have two options: the Waterfall Walk, marked with red arrows (5kms) or the Seamus Heaney Loop, marked with yellow arrows (4kms). Neither are particularly challenging and would be suitable for people of all ages and of average fitness. It's mostly flat terrain with the exception of one moderate ascent on the red trail. The Waterfall Walk, not surprisingly, ends with a rocky outcrop and a thundering fall of water as it cascades down-river.
The return journey to the car park backtracks along part of the route you've just come and then splits at a fork. If you started on the higher ledge, you'll finish the walk on the river bank, or vice versa.
The Seamus Heaney Loop was named in honour of one of Ireland's most loved poets and you'll find quotes from his work etched onto benches as you walk the route. The poet was known to have spent a lot of time here and found inspiration in these surroundings so it's a fitting tribute to him and to his work.
If you're trying in vain to entice your kids to embrace the great outdoors then the Sculpture in the Woodland trail could be a good draw. Dotted around the two routes are twenty sculptures by Irish and international artists who were commissioned to create works of art in wood which would sit within the environment: a bringing together of art and nature. Send the kids off to see how many of the twenty they can find, though bear in mind some have not withstood the test of time.
It works really well and it speaks of the sensitivity of the artists towards the surroundings that none of them look incongruous and in fact many can be difficult to spot, even with a signpost. My favourites are Janet Mullarney's 'Bella Vista' and 'Panorama' below - a tongue-in-cheek contribution which I imagine refers to the challenges of the artists to produce anything that could compete with the magnificent landscape.
You can find more info and a route map on the Visit Wicklow website here:
Lough Tay has to be one of the most photographed spots in Wicklow but it's not hard to see why. The spectacular vista of the lake nestled between the Wicklow Mountains will literally make your jaw drop. Expect to hear gasps of 'wow' from visitors as they get their first glimpse.
From the viewing point at Military road you'll see in the distance the vast expanse of Luggala: an 18th century house from the Guinness trust situated on a 5000 acre estate with landscaped gardens and a private beach. Oh and it's currently on sale for a cool €28,000,000.
NB: the lake is on private property so cannot be visited at ground level - to be enjoyed from a height only. However if you want to sit lake-side and ponder the world, then Lough Dan is only a few kilometres away and is accessible to visitors.
I love Lough Dan, not least as it offers a quieter but no less beautiful alternative to the tourist favourite Glendalough. Everyone knows that Glendalough is spectacular but the large numbers of visitors, especially during the summer months, can be a little off-putting and make for a less than Zen experience. It's a short distance from Roundwood and there's a car park at the entrance.
Lough Dan is located in a valley and surrounded by hills on all sides. The shoreline is a white sandy beach, reached after a long and steep descent - a joy on the way down, not so much on the way back up so you might want to take that into consideration. That giant picnic basket / cooler box will not feel like such a good idea on the ascent. Trust me.
It will take you about thirty-forty minutes to reach the lake after you park your car. There's an initial climb on a narrow entrance road and you'll soon find yourself on a path high above the shore with glimpses of the lake between the trees on your right. With glee you'll see how far down the lake appears and how easy the descent is going to be. With horror you'll contemplate the same path from the shoreline on the way back up. But don't think about that until it's time to go. And I may be exaggerating a little. It's totally worth it. There are bright yellow honeysuckle bushes the entire way to the lakeshore and beyond giving off the most gorgeous scents and creating fabulous reflections on the water.
We didn't see any swans this time but on our last visit, on a much colder Autumn day, they were our only company as we sat on the beach. It's a beautiful place to spend a few hours and I'd highly recommend it.
VALE OF CLARA LOOPED WALK:
The path less-trodden...
One of Wicklow's best kept secrets. This is the beautiful nature reserve of the Vale of Clara, nestled well off the beaten track between Rathdrum and Laragh. It's so secret in fact that's it's not the easiest spot to find.
It's incredibly peaceful & you'll be surrounded by trees the entire way. Depending on how active you're feeling there are three forested looped walking routes you can take: 9.5, 5.6 or an easy 2kms. I opted for the 9.5: if you have the time I'd recommend it. It's not a tough route with only a few hills & you'll be following the river for the first few kms which is very pretty. If you're lucky like I was, you may even catch sight of a few deer. They scarpered however when they saw my very subtle mustard yellow coat. Camouflage gear next time for sure.
I didn't meet a single person on the entire route so it truly is a place to go to get away from it all. Unfortunately it was pouring rain for most of my walk so my pics are a little dull but I can only imagine what it would look like on a sunny day or in Autumn when the leaves are changing colour.
DIRECTIONS: Located off the road between Rathdrum and Laragh. Look for sign for Clara RC (a sudden right if coming from Rathdrum), where you'll soon see the most picturesque church. Cross the extremely narrow stone bridge & continue up the hill. Entrance to the reserve is on your right. It's described as a car park but there is only space for 3 cars maximum at the site entrance.
Located about 10kms from Rathnew, this lovely beach is a good alternative to the local favourite Brittas Bay, though perhaps more for strolling as opposed to lounging: it's of the stoney rather than sandy variety. It can get quite blustery on the shoreline so layer up on clothing in the early months of the year. While it was positively balmy in Rathnew, the wind coming from the sea meant I was seriously regretting my shorts and t-shirt combo and our beach walk had to be prematurely cut short before I caught pneumonia. More sensible attire called for next time - it is Ireland after all.
WHERE TO FUEL UP FOR YOUR OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES
Avoca at Mount Usher Gardens, Ashford
It may seem like an obvious choice but this is such a great spot for lunch that it warrants a mention. For an area that attracts so many hikers and outdoor enthusiasts, there are surprisingly few places to pick up a good takeaway lunch or to stock up your picnic basket. We learned our lesson after our first day's walking, fuelled only by a pre-packed sandwich from Centra. On our second day we had lunch first. We were delighted to bag ourselves an outdoor table in Avoca which has the most gorgeous courtyard: the sun was shining brightly and petals from the huge cherry blossom tree were falling like confetti. So far, so good.
I always forget quite how tasty the food from Avoca can be. I wasn't massively hungry and just wanted a soup. But this was no ordinary soup. It was potato, white onion and parmesan soup, drizzled with pesto and could only be described as divinity in a bowl. Martin opted for the pan-fried cod, leek, fennel, kale, chorizo and bean cream sauce with Salsa Verde. Despite my lack of hunger I still managed to eat half of his too. It was too good not to. I'll definitely be back.
WHERE TO STAY:
BROOKLODGE, MACREDDIN VILLAGE
Special treat territory in an idyllic location in rural Wicklow. Think chickens roaming loose on beautifully maintained grounds surrounded by mountains and trees. There is the most picture-perfect little church on site, visible through the trees which can be reached by a small wooden bridge across the river.
Everything you need is on-site: a cosy pub, two restaurants and a spa - guests have free access to the thermal suite.
Food: Brooklodge is a foodie’s paradise with two outstanding restaurants: La Taverna Armento, specialising in southern Italian cuisine and The Strawberry Tree, the first certified organic restaurant in Ireland. The former offers high-quality Italian dishes at a reasonable price and in a casual setting; the latter falls under the blow-out category - a five-course dinner menu costs €69 per person or a nine-course tasting menu for €89 per person, with an additional €35 per person for paired wines. Both are excellent.
Rooms: opt for one of the superior rooms if you can stretch to an upgrade - they're big and bright with huge windows and French doors opening out onto a large balcony with fabulous views across the grounds.
Rates from off-peak to peak B&B:
Standard Village Room: €134-€178 Junior Suite: €184-238 Mezzanine Suite: €204-258
They also offer packages including dinner and spa treatments so keep an eye on the website for deals
TINAKILLY HOUSE AND GARDENS, RATHNEW
A step back in time in the nicest possible way. The house is an elegant Victorian mansion set among beautifully manicured gardens with views of the sea in the distance.
Fabulous in summer - cool Scandi-style pods make for a good spot to take in the views with a glass of bubbles. Be prepared to sprint from the bar to bag yourself one - not so easy in heels but I managed it.
Cosy in winter - it's absolute bliss snuggling up in front of the open fire with a book or with a brandy on a cold evening. There are a number of little anterooms off the main reception area where you can sit and read the newspapers in the morning and the bar has an olde-world charm - an easy place to lose a few hours.
Rooms - luxury accommodation at a reasonable price. They are period-style with antique fittings, complemented nicely with all modern amenities. Deluxe rooms come as standard, with Queen-sized beds and fluffy bathrobes. Junior Suites are an affordable option if you feel like an upgrade and all come with a view, either of the sea or of the gardens. I've stayed here a few times and the rooms in general seem to be huge, though none more so than the Captain's Suite, below, which we were lucky enough to stay in last weekend.
Food - give over about an hour and a half to breakfast as it’s an absolute joy. The breakfast buffet has a variety of fresh fruit, yoghurts, jams, cheeses and cereals but you can also order hot food from the menu. The scrambled eggs with smoked salmon dish is divine but you also have the option of a full Irish (veggie version available), porridge, pancakes or French toast. Try grab a table at one of the large windows for views of the garden. They offer a good evening menu too and their desserts are delicious. Go for the cheesecake.
Rates B&B: Deluxe room: €119 - 159 Junior Suite €149 - €189 Captain’s Suite €179-€199
Packages including dinner available from the website and are very good value.