I’ve visited the Wicklow Mountains many times but not as much as I should have, given that I lived only about 30 mins away for much of my life! So I was delighted get the chance to visit recently on a tour of the Wicklow Mountains & Glendalough, thanks to PrivateTour.com.
Disclosure: This is not a paid or sponsored post. All opinions are my own, based on my experience on the trip.
Wicklow Mountains Tour
After getting picked up from O’Connell Street in Dublin city centre, we soon left the hustle and bustle of the city behind as we headed south to the Wicklow Mountains. Before long the drone of traffic, the busy motorways and drab buildings were replaced by green fields, mountain peaks, autumn coloured trees and quiet country roads. We were headed right to the heart of Wicklow, to the Wicklow Mountains National Park.
Boasting over 20,000 hectares, Wicklow Mountains National Park is the largest of the six National Parks in Ireland. As it covers such a vast area, one of the best and recommended ways to experience the National Park is to take a scenic drive through it.
There’s plenty of opportunity to appreciate the expansive vistas and wilderness of the National Park on the trip. Much of the landscape is made up of blanket bog and heath, which you can clearly see as you pass through places like the famous Sally Gap and also on the distant slopes and rounded peaks of the Wicklow Mountains.
I haven’t done many bus tours in Ireland, as I usually just make my own way around. So, it made a nice change to have someone else doing the driving. I could just relax and take in the views as our guide Richie took care of navigating the narrow winding roads. Not to mention, I didn’t have to worry about taking wrong turns and getting lost, something I can be a little prone to!
Glencree Valley – Stop 1
Our first stop was at the Glencree Visitor Centre. Nestled in Glencree valley, just at the edge of Wicklow National Park, Glencree is a very scenic area with a rich history.
Glencree was once a site of military occupation. Barracks were built here in the early 19th century after the Irish Rebellion of 1798, for the purpose of hunting out guerrillas hiding out in the mountains. The buildings were later used as a reformatory school, a prisoner of war camp during World War I and a temporary Refugee Centre from 1945 – 1950.
Now the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, the buildings are used to facilitate engagement between groups involved in and effected by violent conflict, both in Ireland and internationally. There are free exhibitions with more information of the history of Glencree or you can enjoy a bite to eat or purchase local crafts and gifts in the Armoury Café.
I took a little wander outside the grounds to have a look at the Lourdes Grotto and German Military Cemetery nearby.
Grottos are a familiar sight all over Ireland, often found just at the side of the road or at junctions. The Glencree Grotto is a good example of a typical grotto and is located in a very picturesque wooded area in the valley, beside the Glencree River. Though Ireland is no longer as deeply religious as it once was, you will find that a lot of grottos are still well cared for, often with fresh flowers in place.
The German Military Cemetery
The German Military Cemetery at Glencree contains 134 graves. Six of the burials are soldiers from World War I and 128 are from World War II. The majority are German Air Force or Navy personnel who died in aircraft crashes or were washed up on the Irish shoreline. Many of those buried have never been identified. An impressive Celtic High Cross overlooks the cemetery from the hilltop above.
The P.S. I Love You Bridge – Stop 2
Wicklow has been used as a location for many movies and TV series and in fact it’s one of the biggest industries in Wicklow. Our next stop was a location from the movie P.S. I Love You. It has become popular with fans of the movie as it’s the bridge where Holly (Hilary Swank) meets Gerry (Gerard Butler) for the first time in the movie. Spoiler alert: They fall madly in love!
If you’re not a fan of the film or haven’t even seen it and have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry. This is just a short photo stop and still a good chance to soak in the rugged beauty of the area. The bridge also makes for a picturesque photo opportunity regardless of it’s recent fame! This was pretty clear from the length of time I had to wait to get a shot without anyone else in it!
Lough Tay (Guinness Lake) – Stop 3
Next we headed to a viewpoint overlooking stunning Lough Tay. The lake is known as the Guinness Lake thanks to it’s dark water, distinctive shape and the bright white sandy beach at the top, which makes it look like of a pint of the famous black stout. It didn’t always look quite like it does now. The white sand was imported by the owners of the estate, who just happened to be the Guinness Family!
Lough Tay is undoubtedly one of the most popular and most photographed views in the park, for good reason. As well as the lake itself there are also stunning views over the Wicklow Mountains. Whatever the weather or time of year, it’s always a spectacular sight. This occasion was no exception with the autumn colours in the trees providing a beautiful pop of colour.
Fans of the TV series Vikings, may recognise the scene before them as that of Kattegat village, the home of Ragnar Lothbrok and his family. Lough Tay is just one of many locations in Wicklow used for the show.
Glendalough – Stop 4
Once everyone had their fill of selfies and photos, it was onwards to Glendalough. Often described as the jewel in the crown of Wicklow National Park, Glendalough is a beautiful valley popular with both international and Irish visitors. It is the most visited destination within Wicklow National Park.
It’s not hard to see why. Glendalough is famous for the Monastic City, which includes a round tower but is also an area of outstanding beauty with lakes, a stunning glacial valley and some outstanding walking and hiking trails.
We had two hours to explore Glendalough. You can choose to do your own thing or go for a hike with your guide. My advice is chose the hike! Richie took us on part of the St Kevin’s Way pilgrim walk which took us to the upper lake. Along the way we had lovely views of the monastic site and lake through the trees. The scenery is just beautiful this time of the year with the autumn colours and everyone commented on just how peaceful and serene it was on the walk.
After the hike we still had time to take in the beautiful scenery around the upper lake and stop for a look at the monastic site as we made our way back to the carpark at the visitor centre.
Avoca Village – Stop 5
Fitzgerald’s Traditional Irish Pub
Having worked up an appetite after our efforts at Glendalough, it was definitely time for a feed! We headed to Fitzgerald’s Pub, a traditional Irish pub in the picturesque village of Avoca. The food was delicious and reasonably priced, with some meals deals available for the tour group. We also got a complimentary sample of whiskey or Baileys. Now, it’s not like I haven’t tried it before but I’ll never say no to a Baileys! Once I had the taster, I couldn’t resist the Baileys cheesecake for dessert either. So worth it though!
With an hour stop in Avoca, you could still have time for a quick look around the village after eating.
The village is famous for its handweaving. Avoca Handweavers is based in the village and is home to the oldest working mill in Ireland. Dating from 1723, the water from nearby Avoca River was used to power the mill. The company, now usually referred to simply as Avoca has numerous stores around Ireland but this is where it all started. According to Wikipedia, it is Ireland’s oldest surviving business.
Like other areas within the Wicklow Mountains, Avoca also had a rich mining history with copper being mined in the area. The Avoca mine site closed in 1982.
Around the village you may also notice “Ballykissangel” on signs and buildings, as on the image of Fitzgerald’s above. Ballykissangel was a BBC drama series which ran from 1996 to 2001. Avoca was used as the location of the fictional town of Ballykissangel, with Fitzgerald’s Pub, the shops, church, post office and Garda station used extensively. A young Colin Farrell starred in the series from 1998 to 1999 before breaking into film.
Overview of the Wicklow Mountains Tour
As with most bus tours, your guide can make or break it. Luckily for us, our guide Richie was really great. His enthusiasm was infectious and he kept us entertained along the way with lots of stories, songs and tips for other things to do in the area. We were also very impressed by his ability to reverse our large bus about 500m back down a narrow country lane when we came head to head with a logging truck!!
Richie stopped the bus several times to point out places of interest or deer in the fields when he spotted them! The stops on the tour are well spaced so that you’re not on the bus for too long at any time. The longest stretch was on the way back, returning from Avoca to the city centre. However, after a full day of activity I found myself nodding off (I don’t think I was the only one!), so the drive was over in no time.
I met some lovely people and even as a (kind of!) local, I learnt a lot on the tour and am happy to have finally made it to Glencree, as I hadn’t been before. I would have liked to spend a little more time there as I didn’t get to check out the exhibitions but I think we lost a little time due to traffic leaving the city and our logging truck friend! So there would usually be an extra15 mins, which would make a difference.
Having said that, I think that was a better option that cutting time from Glendalough, which is really the highlight of the trip. Despite having been numerous times, it’s not a place that you tire of easily. The walk with did with Richie was a route I hadn’t taken before either and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Add the autumn colours at this time of the year too and it really is something special.
The tour runs daily all year round, with the exception of St Patrick’s Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. So if you’re looking for an enjoyable day-trip to the Wicklow Mountains, check it out.
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