Northern County Mayo is perhaps the closest you’ll get to true wilderness in Ireland. At the very least, Mayo is remote (and travel to and around), rural, quiet, and under-rated. There is little tourism infrastructure in the northern nether regions of Mayo (the southern part of the county fares better: parts of Connemara, the town of Westport and the holy mountain of Croagh Patrick all draw visitors). The problem does not lie in the lack of beauty – more in the lack of roads leading to said beautiful places. Lough Conn, a large lake outside of the not-overwhelming town of Ballina, is a diamond in the rough. Not far off the famous Wild Atlantic Way driving route, the glittering shores, fantastic sunsets, and little-visited beaches make Lough Conn an ideal place for off-the-beaten-track nature enthusiasts. It is a lovely place for wild camping (otherwise known as ‘real camping’ – no showers or wifi here!) or even just a beachside barbecue on a sunlit evening at the end of summer. Lough Conn itself is quite large – it measures 14,000 acres (57 km²). There are two accounts for the name (and very existence) of the lake. In Irish mythology, Lough Conn was created by famous giant Finn McCool (also credited with creating the Giant’s Causeway – a story for another day!). Hunting with his hounds Conn and Cullin, they chased a wild boar for days until water began to pour from the boar’s feet. It swam across the newly-created lakes one after the other but Conn the Hound drowned in the first lake (Lough Conn) and Cullin drowned in the second lake (becoming Lough Cullin). A version of the story was later attributed to an Irish chieftain, Chief Modh, though in this account, the pigs, not the hounds, was drowned. Drowning aside, both lakes are lovely, quiet places – a true glimpse into unspoilt Ireland. For a bit of local culture, stop by Foxford Woollen Mills on the way back to civilisation – a respected local weaving and crafting designer!
Look at that colour! These deep, cobalt blue waters belong to Croatia’s coast along the Adriatic Sea, the body of water dividing Italy from Croatia. This little Balkan country has been drawing attention over recent years as the place to be during summer! Perhaps a bit over-crowded, the country does not want for beauty. From ancient ruins (such as the Diocletian Palace in Split), to delicious food and wine to rival Italy’s cuisine, to an incredible coastline easy to experience by boat, to friendly locals who can’t wait to show tourists their culture, all the way to the unbelievably blue waters such as those above, Croatia seems to be blessed. And what better way to visit than by boat? Whether you take a small tourist “island-hopping” boat, a cruiser that travels up and down the coastline, an immense Mediterranean cruise ship or even a ferry from Italy or Albania, Croatia must be experienced via the water. And if you do visit Split, be sure to climb the little hill called Marjan just outside the city centre, as the view from the top is to die for!
A little-known part of Spain is the northern coast running from Bilbao on one side to Santiago de Compostela on the other. One of the rainiest parts of Spain, it is also one of the greenest! Little towns like Santillana del Mar and San Vincente de la Barquera hug the coastline, famous beaches such as the one at Noja dot the coast (ironically this frequented surfers’ beach is located just next to a large prison…), roads sporting the shiny, yellow “El Camino” signs connect the towns (Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage). Winding grey roads, large green fields, limitless blue waves and bright orange roofs weave the patchwork quilt that is northern Spain. This is a region of tranquility, rarely frequented by tourists, colorful, happy and green. Whether you’re doing the Camino, surfing the waves, biking the coastline or merely soaking up the history and culture of Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias, and Galicia, you’ll fall in love with northern Spain in moments.
This rough coast barely brings to mind images of Spain. Waves crash against the rocky beaches, cliffs fall dramatically to the sea. Located in Basque Country, Spanish isn’t the only language you’ll hear – their “native” language, Basque, is a very old, very distinct language, and has little roots in any other European language. Reaching the coastal inlet of Gaztelugatxe involves a bit of a hike (though taking a car part of the way is possible). Regardless, you’ll want to take to the trails as you hike to the monastery of San Juan in order to benefit from the beautiful views, thrilling landscape, exhilarating climbs and descents while listening to the relaxing sound of crashing waves.
10 years ago–hell, 5 years ago–Croatia didn’t make the map. Today, a lot has changed; Croatia is now one of the most popular destinations for tourists from both Europe and abroad. Why? Well, with a view like this, what’s not to love? Cheery orange roofs, rugged rocky outcrops, sandy beaches, palm trees, pizzas, dramatic fortresses perched on cliffs, prices cheaper than Italy but with a view of the same Adriatic Sea. Out of all former states of Yugoslavia, the EU’s newest member has come the farthest. Dubrovnik, who shares the title “Croatia’s Crown Jewel” with Split, is one of Europe’s busiest “cities.” While this influx of travelers has been great for the Croatian economy, it also means that you should expect to see large numbers of tourists while visiting these two cities. However, in between, you will find smaller–but no less beautiful!–places such as Hvar, Brac, Bisevo, Sipan, Trogir. No matter what, Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast is to die for!
Nothing beats a good set of ruins! In all seriousness, sometimes what has been left to crumble away is just as important as what has been redone and rebuilt. And when it comes to castles, often the most romantic castles, the most picturesque, the most spectacular are the ones quietly deteriorating – especially in Scotland. Case in point, imagine Dunnottor Castle on its cliff-side peninsula, Stirling Castle in the rugged hills, Eilean Donan Castle (the most photographed castle in Scotland) on its beautiful loch, and of course, St Andrews castle itself on the beach. Circa 1200, the St Andrew’s Castle was sacked, destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed, rebuilt, burned, sacked, rebuilt, etc., as the Scots and the English often clashed and continually took their disagreements to the battlefield. Today, the ruins border nearby St Andrews University (the oldest university in Scotland and also the institution that educated Prince William and Kate Middleton), while overlooking the shores of the North Sea, whose waves quietly lap the base of the castle’s cliffs. The ruins are quite beautiful in a crumbly, “everything falls apart,” romantic sort of way.
Dubrovnik is an up and coming tourist destination. Sporting beautiful streets, delicious foods, amazing views, orange-tiled roofs, ancient ruins and the lovely Mediterranean, it’s like Italy–without the Italians. And with locals who natively-speak a slavic language but who also speak rather amazing English. And with better prices. And maybe slightly less tourists. In 1979, it was declared a UNESCO site, and in 1991, it broke away from Yugoslavia. Because of the political turmoil, people just didn’t go to Dubrovnik for a long time. But, then something changed. Politics settled down, and this “new” country began to grow. Somebody “discovered” it and told their friends who then in turn told their friends. Now hoards of people visit Dubrovnik. But don’t let that deter you! Dubrovnik is a Mediterranean masterpiece!
To me, beaches are all the same. Show me a photo of a beach and I’d have trouble deciding whether it was in Florida or Thailand. You go to the beach and everyone always seems to be doing the exact same thing: lying on a towel facing the same way and reading the same books, the children building a half-collapsed sandcastle nearby. Everyone goes into the water for a few minutes then spends the rest of the time sunning and trying to get a tan without getting a burn. Everything about the beach cries stagnant normalcy. Therefore, when I go to the beach, I don’t go for the beach, I go for the towns by the beach. At the beach, I enjoy watching the waves for a bit, I dip my toes in the water, and I’m finished. Time to move on. I’d rather be somewhere else. Revolutionary I know, but I don’t like the beach! That said, I love coastal towns. They have fantastic food, attractive views, and generally nice people. This village here is Howth, Ireland, just outside of Dublin. To me, this photo signifies perfectly what I like about the sea: chaotic, energetic, adventurous. This isn’t a beach. Howth doesn’t have one in the conventional sense. Instead, there is a pier and a harbour and a collection of rocks. The combination of these make for huge, crashing waves that reach icy fingers out to attack passersby. Here, you better watch out because these Irish waters attack all of the beach stereotypes – nothing about these waves are calm or relaxing or boring; instead, they are exciting and adventurous.
With less than 10,000 people, this Scottish fishing village is the perfect weekend getaway to find fresh air, fantastic fish ‘n chips (located in town is the UK’s best fish ‘n chips stand for several years running!), and a wistful beach. Stonehaven, or “Stoney” is a quaint village with a quiet beach and better yet, surrounded by rolling countryside hills, quiet walking paths and countless castles! A great starting place for a stroll in the countryside or just a quiet afternoon away from the city, Stonehaven is a lovely place to kick back.