DOONBEG, Ireland — Having long wanted to visit Ireland, I headed there last spring. I had heard the people were welcoming, the villages picturesque, and the landscape beautiful, particularly along the dramatic west coast of County Clare, where I stayed in Doonbeg for several days.
The small village only an hour’s drive from Shannon Airport offers pebble beaches, grassy walking trails, and spectacular golf. In addition to Doonbeg Golf Club, a Greg Norman-designed course overlooking Doughmore Bay, there are several others nearby, including Lahinch, Kilrush, and Spanish Point , all open to visitors.
Doonbeg’s location makes it a convenient base from which to explore Clare’s many attractions, including the Burren. From the Gaelic word “Boireann,” meaning “a place of stone,” this 28-square-mile area near Galway Bay consists mainly of terraced limestone. A tropical sea floor more than 335 million years ago, the Burren is the site of thousands of stone monuments and over 70 percent of Ireland’s 900 native plant species. Many versions of this flora can be found at The Burren Perfumery — the oldest perfumery in Ireland.
“Originally, we used the flowers, herbs, and various [tree] woods from the Burren to make everything,” said a saleswoman in the gift shop, “but now we can’t because the plants are protected.” In 2011 the Burren became a member of the UNESCO-supported Global Geopark network requiring the perfumery to use extracts from the same kinds of plants growing in the Burren, but sourced elsewhere. No matter, the oils, creams, and fragrances for men and women smell heavenly and make wonderful gifts. Stop by the adjacent tearoom for some organic pastries.
For more substantial fare, head down the road to Burren Fine Wine & Food, a century-old, former coach house serving market-fresh meals such as ginger butternut squash bisque and chicken-leek pie. For a memorable sweet, stop by Linnalla Pure Irish Ice Cream, which uses milk from its own cows to create artisanal ice creams in flavors such as Wildberry Biscuit, Irish Cream Liqueur, and Hazelnut Ripple.
Not far from the Burren are the Cliffs of Moher, the second biggest tourist attraction in Ireland (after the Guinness Storehouse factory tour). Also a 2011 member of the UNESCO-supported Global Geopark network, these jagged shale and sandstone cliffs span approximately 5 miles along the county’s western seaboard, rising 702 feet at their highest point. You can see them on foot or from a boat.
“See those little black dots up there?” said Eugene Garrihy, a Doolin 2 Aran Ferries cruise host, pointing to the cliff’s edge, “Those are people and there’s not much up there in terms of railings and the wind is strong. . . . What’s more, the people on top of the cliff look out and only see the sea, whereas those who come by boat look out and see the cliffs.” A boat also enables one to see one of the largest seabird colonies in Ireland, a finger-like tower of rock protruding from the sea (called a sea stack) surrounded by gulls, paddling puffins, and populated with razorbills, which resemble tiny penguins.
In addition to natural beauty, Clare has incredible produce, dairy, meats, and seafood, which local chefs such as Irish-born Wade Murphy use in their kitchens. Executive chef at The Lodge at Doonbeg, a European-style manor with a spa and two restaurants, Murphy treats guests to such dishes as brill fillet with shellfish-fennel nage, local lamb loin with smoked eggplant caviar, and beef from a farm down the road.
“The whole food ethos in Ireland has changed,” said Murphy. “In the 1990s we had a bad reputation and were known for bacon and cabbage. But then a huge number of chefs began to travel and came back and upped the standard. Using the techniques they had learned elsewhere, they began cooking with our great local ingredients, while staying true to Irish food. We now have six Michelin star restaurants in Ireland.”
Clare also has a burgeoning list of small food businesses, such as The Clare Jam Co. less than 10 minutes by car from the Cliffs of Moher boat pier. The small shop sells over two dozen homemade preserves, including strawberry champagne jam, Connemara whiskey marmalade, and tomato chutney.
Nearby lies the Burren Smokehouse, home to some of the most heralded smoked salmon in Ireland. The shop ships all over the world, save for Australia and New Zealand. Its gift shop and gourmet food shop sell items ranging from Irish cookbooks to chocolates.
Farther on, you’ll find St. Tola Organic Goat Cheese farm, open for tours and tastings of its award-winning cheeses. After visiting the goats in the barn, I donned a lab coat, booties, and hairnet to see how the cheese was made before sampling varieties such as goat’s milk feta and gouda.
The fishing village of Doolin, only five minutes by car from Doonbeg, is known as the capital of Irish traditional music. In the town’s three pubs — McDermott’s, McGann’s, and O’Connors — patrons regularly enjoy live musical performances, usually involving the fiddle. Act like a local and order a Guinness, which unlike our imported version, has a smooth, nutty, molasses-like flavor and very little bitterness.
When it comes to shopping, I found the best boutiques in the quaint seaside town of La-hinch, also famous for its surfing. Kenny Woolen Mills has the most extensive offering of pottery, tweeds, and knitwear. Across the street, Donogh O’Loghlin has a terrific selection of men’s tweed jackets, while down the street you’ll find shops selling books, women’s clothing, and art.
It has been said that those in search of the real Ireland come to County Clare, where life moves slowly, where you can walk along the beach, stroll through tiny towns, and have your own Irish experience — one that isn’t in a guidebook.