Not so long ago, Ireland won the title of the best country in the world, its overall contribution to humanity taking it to top spot on the inaugural Good Country Index. Adele Thurlow looks at other areas in which Ireland also excels.

Sustenance and swill

There's an old Irish proverb that says laughter is brightest where food is best and there's no doubt the food is outstanding at the many artisanal food stores throughout Ireland.
In Dublin, Fallon & Byrne is packed with Ireland's finest fare. Its food hall is replete with the creme de la creme of fish, meats, produce and cheeses. The upstairs restaurant is described as a "hot spot for slow food", cooked with gentle respect by cheerful sorts - it's seriously good Irish gastronomy.

Avoca also takes the food experience to the next level with cafes and foodhalls accompanying its retail stores at 12 locations around Ireland. The flagship store at Kilmacanogue in County Wicklow, set in the grounds of the old Jameson (whiskey) estate, includes two award-winning cafes and a food market. The pick of these would have to be Fern House Cafe with its lofty Victorian sash windows overlooking the estate's lush gardens and its towering tiered plates of epicurean wonders.

The Irish drink an average of 4-6 cups of tea per day, and their brews are frequently described as the highest-quality tea in the world, often using darker teas from East Africa as opposed to the lighter Indian and Sri Lankan leaves popular in England. To fully appreciate some of the best tea in Ireland, it helps if the atmosphere is suitably genteel.

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The Old Ground hotel in Ennis, County Clare, was a former manor house built in the 18th century as a private residence. These days, it's a theatrically furnished hotel where patrons sip tea on elegant sofas, beneath chandeliers and alongside an open fire.

The interior of the critically acclaimed Cupan Tae tearoom in Galway is considerably less grand but every bit as glorious. With more than 30 specialist brews on offer, tea lovers may need to make more than one visit or, if time is of the essence, indulge in the premium high tea service with Cupan Tae's trademark champagne tea poured from a Russian samovar.

A very traditional Irish drinking custom that is harder to find, despite Irish pubs abound, is the snug. Back when no respectable woman would be seen drinking at a pub, less conspicuous, small "snugs" adjacent to the bar were created. Belfast's historic
Crown Bar
has multiple snugs, while in Dublin, hope to find an available seat in the traditional snugs at Kehoe's, Dohney & Nesbitt's, or the "Snug of the Year" at Toners.

Coastlines

Not unlike New Zealand, much of Ireland's dramatic scenery is found along its coasts. The windswept Cliffs of Moher, on the southwestern coast in County Clare, is Ireland's most visited natural attraction. With panoramic views of the frigid Atlantic, the 8km stretch of cliffs with drops of 200m are even better viewed from above.

A helicopter flight will not only give perspective on the scale of the cliffs, but also provide views of the lunar-like landscape of the Burren, Aran Islands and, of course, a castle or two.

Cliffs of Moher, Ireland. Photo / 123RF
Cliffs of Moher, Ireland. Photo / 123RF

Further north, the much less-travelled Slieve League Cliffs, are actually higher than Moher, reaching up to 600m with barely a rickety wooden rail for safety. Hike "One Man's Path" if you dare — a narrow, knife-edge headland track a mere metre wide .

One of Northern Ireland's best known coastal attractions, and rightly so, is Giant's Causeway. This natural wonder on the North Antrim coast consists of some 40,000 interlocking basalt columns. It's a Unesco World Heritage Site and, as such, attracts thousands of visitors daily, but is such a mindboggling marvel — covering 70 hectares so there's space for everyone — that it's worth joining the crowds to visit.

In the opposite corner of the island, hiking the magical Beara Way rewards walkers with a combination of mountain and coastal scenery, the highest waterfall in the United Kingdom, and is thought to have more archaeological sites than anywhere else in Europe by area. Officially 184km long, the trail can be joined at several points and enjoyed in small sections, or tackled in its entirety over a period of seven to 10 days.

One of the Beara's most unique attractions is the Dursey Island cable car, the only one crossing open sea in Europe.

While 10 minutes suspended above the swirling ocean in a tiny carriage also used to transport sheep and cattle may seem like an unpleasant eternity for some, it's apparently less hazardous than crossing the strong currents of Dursey Sound by boat - and the idyllic destination makes it worthwhile.

History

There's no shortage of often tragic, yet fascinating historical accounts in Ireland, but discovering the rich history doesn't have to be confined to reading plaques in staid museums or amid castle ruins.

The family friendly National Leprechaun Museum in the heart of Dublin takes visitors on a journey through Irish mythology with its interactive exhibits, while the adults only Darkland night tour covers the darker side of Irish folklore — but, be warned, audience participation is required.

Just a few kilometres away, the GAA Museum at Croke Park illustrates the story of Gaelic games from ancient times and includes a tour of the stadium plus an interactive games zone to test your sporting prowess.

And for a quirky insight to the Dark Age, Dromoland Castle's School of Falconry gives visitors the opportunity to experience what was the sport of choice among medieval nobility. The castle itself is now a luxury hotel, with staterooms featuring Louis XV furniture, flanked by a Ron Kirby-designed golf course but it's the unusual encounter with the resident falcons and hawks that draws the most attention from guests.

The unnerving act of holding raw chicken in a gloved hand while an enormous bird of prey hurtles towards you will, at the very least, make for a novel holiday tale.

IF YOU GO
Getting there: Emirates flies from Auckland to Dublin, via Dubai.

Details: See ireland.com.