Driving on the motorway from Dublin to Cork it's easy to overlook Ireland's southeast corner. We should know: We totally missed it the first time we were in Ireland. This time we were there as guests of Fáilte Ireland (the Irish tourist bureau), and they showed us that there a lot of things to do in County Wexford. We managed to fit all of these into just a little more than one day, and we had a blast!
1. Take a guided tour of Dunbrody Famine Ship and Irish Emigrant Experience
Our first stop was New Ross, home of the newly-opened Irish Emigrant Experience. The exhibit includes a well-designed and interactive museum, but the highlight is the Dunbrody Famine Ship. This is a full-scale replica of an actual 3-masted timber ship, built in 1845, which carried thousands of Irish emigrants to North America during the Great Potato Famine.
Ships like these were called “coffin ships” because of the how many died during the journey. After we had a chance to explore the ship a bit above and below deck, we met passengers (costumed actors) who told their stories about the hardships of their time on board.
2. Visit the Kennedy Homestead
President John F. Kennedy’s great-grandfather, Patrick Kennedy, was born in County Wexford. The homestead is still owned and farmed by his descendants. It has been such a tourist attraction ever since President Kennedy visited a few months before his death, that they finally recently built a museum and visitor center so visitors would have something to see.
The very interesting museum includes everything from Patrick Kennedy’s emigration in the mid-1800s all the way down to Jackie's clothing to a family tree of his current descendants. After exploring the museum we had an opportunity to explore the homestead on our own. The homestead is still farmed by another of Patrick's descendants, Patrick Grennan, and we had a very pleasant surprise when he popped in to say hello.
3. Enjoy the John F Kennedy Arboretum
Not far from the homestead is an arboretum dedicated to JFK. A guide explained that they have over 4000 different trees and shrubs, hiking trails, lakes, playgrounds, a miniature train and more. She also told us that it's possible to see 6 different counties from the highest point. Unfortunately we had to take her word for it. It was raining so all we could do was a quick drive-thru.
4. Drive out to Hook Peninsula and visit the lighthouse
It takes some time to get to the coast but the trip is worth it: Hook Lighthouse is rightfully one of the top things to do in Wexford and Waterford. They say it is the oldest intact, operational lighthouse in the world. It probably is, at 800 years old, but if not it is definitely the oldest working lighthouse in Ireland.
The light keeper’s houses are unoccupied now so they host the visitor facilities: museum, gift shop, and a very nice café/restaurant.
If you're up to it, take the guided lighthouse tour …
… and climb the 115 steps to the balcony. On a clear day, imagine how spectacular the view would be!
5. Enjoy local cuisine
Though you might get hungry on the drive out, we recommend you save your appetite and eat here as the food we ate was delicious! Not to mention, you'll have great views of the waves crashing against the nearby rocks as you eat.
Seafood is a local specialty. Dan and I had a scrumptious fish casserole, which they specially made for us because we don't eat shellfish.
6. Get spooked
Not far from the lighthouse stands a large mansion called Loftus Hall. Built in the late 1800s, it stands on the foundation of a building that was built about 1350 during the time of the Black Death. The house was built with no expense spared because Queen Victoria was planning a visit.
Sadly, because it was unoccupied for a few years it's now in quite a bad state of disrepair. However, because of a legend that the house is supposedly haunted by the ghost of a young girl, the current owners just opened the building as a haunted house tourist attraction. I'm not a fan of stuff like that but I do like the building and admire them for their creativity.
7. Visit Dunbrody Abbey
Only the shell remains of Dunbrody Abbey, a Cistercian monastery founded in 1170. Still, it's worth a visit. If you're there between mid-May to mid-September there's a lot to do: visit the Dunbrody Castle visitor center and museum, tour the abbey, find your way through the 1500 yew tree hedge maze and play pitch and putt. This is a popular attraction.
Unfortunately we were there in October and everything was closed. Mick, our clever and talented tour guide, was able to get the caretakers to unlock the gate so we could explore the abbey's ruins anyway.
8. Eat at Dunbrody Country House
Whether or not you stay at Dunbrody Country House overnight, you can enjoy the ambiance of an Irish country house there. Stop in for afternoon tea, a signature cocktail, or a full dinner. No doubt whatever you have will be delicious. We were served puff pastry and goat cheese canapés along with their own special Mrs. Tea, a Jasmine Tea inflused with Elderflower Cordial and Hendrix Gin drizzled with lemon juice.
9. Learn how to produce tasty Irish food in Dunbrody House’s famous Cookery School
Want to learn the secrets of producing fine food … or at least watch while someone else does? Famous Irish celebrity chef Kevin Dundon runs Dunbrody Cookery School, where you can learn to prepare Irish cuisine. Kevin focuses on using fresh, seasonal, locally-sourced ingredients in all his fabulous dishes.
We opted out of the cooking session … the class was on how to prepare half a pig and we think pork is gross. Instead, Irene, the master gardener, took us on an exclusive, private tour of the Dunbrody's impressive culinary gardens and orchards. They use only the best ingredients so of course only use organic fertilizers and grow heirloom varieties here.
We passed a pen on our walk and asked Irene about the large pig inside. Apparently it was of part a 40th birthday gift to Kevin from Catherine, his wife. In a couple more years that pig will be sniffing for truffles; the rest of Kevin's gift was tree seedlings that had been seeded with truffle spores. The trees are now growing in their own special orchard and almost old enough to start producing the delectable fungi. Let's hear it for the mild Irish climate.
So there you have it: 9 things to do in Ireland's County Wexford. Have I missed any?