The only Irish attraction to make Conde Naste Travel Magazine's "20 Most Beautiful UNESCO Word Heritage Sites" was County Antrims's Giant's Causeway. The 40,000 basalt stone columns that stretch into the sea towards Scotland were formed, geologists say, by volcanic lava. But Irish mythology says the strange formations were the work of the hero Finn McCool, who built the causeway as a path to cross the Irish Sea and do battle with a rival Scottish giant.
Whatever the derivation, the Giant's Causeway is a scenic wonder that you can not only gawk at, but climb over and around as well. And that's what hundreds of thousands of visitors do each year, after taking a short bus ride from the visitors' centre, operated by the National Trust. In addition to climbing on and among (weather permitting) the columns, there are hiking trails to the top of the impressive cliffs which tower over the causeway itself.
The visitors' centre also provides an informative and entertaining film, which outlines both of the conflicting accounts of the causeway's beginnings. You can also purchase Irish handicrafts and souvenirs at reasonable prices (the causeway is no tourist trap), and get information on other attractions along the ruggedly beautiful coast of County Antrim.
Other nearby sites worth visiting include:
Dunluce Castle: Imposing ruins, dating from the 16th century, dramatically situated on a cliff overlooking the Irish Sea.
The Glens of Antrim: Take a breathtaking ride along the coast, detouring into the nine glens, where you'll find lovely hidden coves, time-warped fishing villages, forests, waterfalls, and even the mountain where St. Patrick is reputed to have tended sheep while in slavery.
Carrick-a-Rede: Here, you can walk, if you dare, across a rope bridge that spans an 80-foot chasm.
The Old Bushmills Distillery: Recover from the rope bridge experience at Bushmills Distillery with a taste of Irish malt whiskey, after touring the world's oldest licensed whiskey distillery.
The historic village of Bushmills is literally minutes away from the Giant's Causeway. A great place to stay is the Bushmills Inn (www.BushmillsInn.com), which provides one of the warmest welcomes you'll find in an island famous for hospitality. Having a Bushmills double malt before a turf fire in one of the inn's cosy sitting rooms is only topped by the superb dining in the inn's acclaimed restaurant, where you can feast on Irish smoked salmon or succulent New Zealand lamb.
The Giant's Causeway and Bushmills are about a four-hour drive from Dublin, mostly on modern highways ( called "dual carriageways" in Ireland). If you decide to say in Belfast and tour one of Europe's emerging "hot" cities, try the Fitzwilliam International Belfast, a boutique hotel adjacent to the Opera House. While Belfast was for years considered "off limits" due to the sectarian troubles, with the current peace initiative, it's actually one of the safest places in Europe these days.