Cruising through the heartlands of the Emerald Isle affords a glimpse of abandoned castles, placid lakes, and most importantly, the unhurried local lifestyle. By Aatish Nath

We may have traded atlases for Google Maps and guidebooks for the Internet, but the road trip still has a hold on the imagination. It’s our chance to break away from the spaces we’ve known and explore new regions. In Ireland, past windmills and hay rolls, our SUV was stopped in our tracks by sheep and the occasional traffic jam. Luckily all that was needed was the patience to get through both interruptions, which gave us the opportunity to gaze out the window and attempt to capture rolling fields and cloudy skies—reminiscent of early Windows desktop wallpapers emblematic of the first connected generation of the world.

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Aerial view of the 13th-century Clough Oughter Castle, perched on a tiny isle in the middle of a lake.

Unlike most first-time visitors, I wasn’t going to see the Cliffs of Moher or Dublin’s Guinness brewery. Instead, I was spending five days in the heartlands of the Emerald Isle. Interspersed through my itinerary were a series of unforgettable meals, a crash course in local history, and the chance to soak up the kind of lifestyle that is increasingly hard to find in overcrowded tourist centres and packaged experiences.

Along the way, we were greeted by some grey days, par for the course in the British Isles, but we could have done without the clouds on the afternoon we spent on Lough Oughter, kayaking towards Clough Oughter Castle. The lake is only about two hours from Dublin but seems a world away. On the angular, jagged banks, the coastal greenery seemed to be making incursions into the lake, with low shrubbery arcing gracefully into the water. Close to the edge, bevvies of swans were indifferent to the grey surroundings and us—tourists with shoulder and arm strength that was less than suited to kayaking—instead floating serenely on the water, their brilliant white acting as beacons in the haze.

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Enniskillen Castle was built in the 16th century.

At the abandoned castle, more of a single turret than a full-fledged fortification, we were told the story of the O’Reilly’s and the O’Rourke’s, two Gaelic Irish clans, and how the stone castle had been used by both. A walk around the spit of land revealed that even though the isle houses nothing else, it manages to be a repository of the region’s history. The next day, at Rathcroghan Visitor Centre, we dug deeper into that past, going as far back as 3,500 BC. The unassuming centre announces itself thanks to its mud red colour and is the gateway to the outdoor archaeological sites that show burial mounds, which have survived over the millennia as cavities and hillocks carved into the neighbouring fields. Those interested can spend time exploring the 28 stacks, spread over 6.5 kilometres, but we had another museum to visit before calling it a day.

Barely 10 kilometres away, surrounded by green fields on both sides, is the Strokestown Park House, Gardens, and National Famine Museum. The beautiful Palladian mansion was once home to Major Denis Mahon, who was the first landlord assassinated during the Great Famine in the 1840s. The house is now privately owned and has tours of the manor itself, the beautifully manicured gardens, and the adjoining museum. The tour offers an insight into the causes of the famine, examining it from the vantage point of the Mahon family. The family’s presence is felt throughout the house—in the ceramics preserved in the cupboards, the vintage magazines strewn on pouffes, and the leather-bound books that populate the study.

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Strokestown Park House was home to Major Denis Mahon, who was the first landlord assassinated during the Great Famine in the 1840s

Driving past the pubs with quintessentially Irish names—there was O’Conners in Tulks, An Poitín Still Bar & Restaurant in Carrick on Shannon, The Patrick’s Well in Boyle, and Berry’s Tavern (berrystavern.com) on the Drumshanbo High Street—it became obvious that our experience wouldn’t be complete without tasting some local specialities. Guinness fl owed every evening, as local youths hung out at their neighbourhood pubs. On particularly chilly evenings, there was the jolting sweetness of Irish coffee, fortified with Jameson whisky. But it was often the meals—at gastropubs like The Oarsman (theoarsman.ie), restaurants like The Catalina (lougherneresort.com) and MacNean House (nevenmaguire.com), and even on a quick pit stop at the must-visit Sheridan’s Cheesemongers (sheridanscheesemongers.com) — that ensured we experienced Ireland with all of our senses. The last one serves up an array of local cheese and charcuterie, best downed with Irish cider for the kind of simple but wholesome meal that keeps one going as the towns roll into one another. Food ran the gamut from local quail served with truffle risotto and hazelnut vinaigrette at MacNean House to hearty soups on rainy days. There were dishes of steamed vegetables and hyperlocal cheese, desserts of fresh fruit crumbles, and mouth-watering chocolate treats.

Every day, before setting off, we’d enjoy big breakfasts at gorgeous hotels, like the imposing Slieve Russell Hotel Golf & Country Club, or baked beans and smoked salmon at the Lough Erne Resort. Then there was the boxty—a potato pancake that has gone from a necessity of the famine to a staple in the country—often stuffed with everything from cream and spinach to meats and even morning staples. And yet, what made every morning special was being able to walk onto expansive grounds or cycle through postcard-ready villages like Drumshanbo. A stroll at dawn let me peek into the secret world of spiders glistening in the morning dew, as the chill seeped into my bones and was alleviated only with copious cups of hot coffee.

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Catalina at the Lough Erne Resort serves sumptuous meals.

On the banks of Castlehume Lough, Jim Hoy taught me how to cast my fishing line into the middle of the lake, on my fifth and final day. Once again, it required the kind of shoulder movement that has to be honed over the years. But I had all of two hours, in which I learned how a repetitive action could foment patience and steel oneself against disappointment. I left without any fresh catch, but I did get to marvel at the crisp Irish sunshine and the still, yet nippy morning that ensured the lake’s surface was broken only by the fishing line’s plunges.

The previous evening had seen us cross over to Northern Ireland, into the town of Enniskillen. Our apéritif was at the Boatyard Distillery (boatyarddistillery.com), where Ciarán Shannon, the Brand Development Manager, showed us the stills and then led a tasting of its three all-organic spirits—two gins and vodka. The distillery with its shed roof and large windows that overlooked Lough Erne was complemented by the sky outside—crisp blue and without a cloud. Luckily, the gin more than held our attention, and we even found ourselves, surprisingly, savouring the vodka.

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The Boatyard Distillery on the banks of Lough Erne uses only organic ingredients in its spirits.

It was much needed after spending some time underground, as part of the Arigna Mining Experience (arignaminingexperience.ie), where a former miner shared stories of the dangerous days he spent working the seam in the former coal pit. The pit still features the wheelbarrows used to transport the coal out and is as damp, cramped, dark, and cold as one would imagine. As we emerged from the mine, the rain was coming down in sheets, and we sought refuge in the warmth of a coffee at their cafe. Luckily for us, our evening walk through Cavan Burren Park (cavanburrenpark.ie) was dry, though chilly, and allowed us to hear the sound of the wind and the crunch of the twigs underfoot. Like a lot of the country that we covered, the park, located on a limestone plateau, was ecologically diverse with sandstone boulders and tombs from over 6,000 years scattered among the colourful foliage and five walking trails. Its natural beauty complemented the magnificent ruin that was Boyle Abbey, where the 12th-century Cistercian place of worship may have lost its roof but not its ability to evoke awe. All of these marvellous places weren’t on the usual Irish itinerary and gave me a contented sense of discovery.

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Boyle Abbey is a well-preserved Cistercian monastery near the Cavan Burren Park.

As I replay my Ireland road trip, I find the story of its history narrated with nuance—from the Bronze Age till the present day. It goes to show that a trip away from busloads of tourists, multilingual tour guides, and smiling selfie takers can also be entertaining and informative—besides being deemed safer in a post-coronavirus world.

GETTING THERE

British Airways (britishairways.com) has the most connections within the UK and Ireland, and they fly to Dublin via London. To travel to both Ireland and Northern Ireland, you will need an Irish visa and a UK visa.

STAY

Slieve Russell Hotel Golf & Country Club: This imposing hotel is popular with golfers. The rooms are spacious, and there’s an indoor swimming pool, though we’d recommend exploring the gardens that adjoin the building. Doubles from INR 11,400; slieverussell.ie Bush Hotel: A historic property that’s located bang in the middle of Carrick on Shannon’s high street, this hotel is simple, comfortable, and steeped in history. Doubles from INR 4,920; bushhotel.com

Lough Allen Hotel & Spa: If you’re travelling with children, they’ll love the indoor swimming pool. Its modern rooms are comfortable but don’t have any defining local touches. You’ll get more than your share of local flavour from your drive through the region. Doubles from INR 12,350; loughallenhotel.com

Lough Erne Resort: This luxury hotel played host to the 2013 G8 Summit, and it’s evident why. The resort is luxurious without being opulent, with comfortable rooms and first-rate food. The spa is worth checking out. Doubles from INR 15,780; lougherneresort.com

Related: Here’s A Glimpse of Life In Ireland Under Lockdown