GastroGays Staycation Itinerary: The Boyne Valley, Ireland
/ By Rebecca Meade
Small but mighty. Little yet lusty. Co. Louth is where us pair are based and though it’s known as “The Wee County” – Ireland’s smallest county by size – it sure does punch above its weight, with Ireland’s largest town, Drogheda, at its base. But the ‘Boyne Valley’ region actually encompasses more than just Louth. The region traces the River Boyne and its surrounding lands from the mouth at the Irish Sea towards the western edges of Co. Meath and within its realm includes a further two of the ten most-populous cities/towns in the Republic –– Dundalk and Navan.
40 minutes from Dublin Airport, 60 minutes from Dublin city centre and 75 minutes from Belfast, naturally this region along Ireland’s eastern coastline benefits from being in the commuter belt of both capitals, with the M1/A1, M2/N2 and M3 all running through but it’s also a heartland of food and drink produce, a quaint coastal retreat and boasts arguably Ireland’s most important ancient monuments alongside stunning natural scenery with outdoor hikes, trails and excursions to rival other regions.
As ambassadors for the food and drink arm of our local area Boyne Valley Flavours we definitely know a thing or two about exploring this part of Ireland’s Ancient East, suggesting where to stay, what to do and the spots to eat and drink in! [NOTE: This is not sponsored content in any way, though some discretionary affiliate links are included] So, whether you’re day-tripping from the capital or want to spend a couple of days exploring the Boyne Valley region, here’s our suggested itineraries!
Scholar’s Townhouse Hotel is a good base if you’re looking for somewhere with charm and character, right in the centre of the large town of Drogheda. Built in the late 1800’s and originally a Christian Brothers monastery, you’ll be amazed at the transformation it’s undergone; let’s call it ‘landed gentry-fication’ with its opulent dining room, cosy bar and snug area alongside 16 guestrooms — if you’re considering booking here’s our Booking.com Affiliate Link. The enterprising McGowan family have been running it successfully as a hotel and restaurant/bar for the last 15 years or so and Scholars has won a slew of accolades and awards, particularly in the last half decade. There are, of course, many Airbnb or guesthouse/B&Bs in the town if you prefer something more self-catering or homely.
We suggest you pop by Five Good Things for breakfast/brunch and grab a coffee at our favourite local cafe Ariosa or new-kid-on-the-block West Gate Coffee Shop before checking out some of the historic sights of Drogheda by foot –– St Laurences Gate, Millmount, Saint Oliver Punkett’s head, amongst other things like the Droichead Arts Centre or Highlanes Gallery for some culture and visual art. Lunch is great at Stockwell Artisan Foods (which doubles as a shop to grab some great local produce) then head across the road for a slice of something sweet in the historic Moorland Cafe, a proper downtown caff (with sharp, salt of the earth service to match) that has a connection to the time-honoured McCloskey’s Bakery further up the town.
For something a little more global, Simona is right by the main shopping centre, Scotch Hall, and is a homely but stylish Italian restaurant for lunch. Family-owned, Fabrizio Palombo heads up the kitchen and his wonderful wife – the restaurant’s namesake – Simona runs the floor serving their Italian classics, all made fresh daily.
For dinner, again Scholars has a very good restaurant (quite formal, the bar area more casual) whilst Bryanstown Social has just opened in August 2020 (in the former Eastern Seaboard property) by restaurateur and chef Oliver Dunne off the Dublin Road on the outskirts of town. Aisha’s is a Lebanese/Mediterranean restaurant with exotic flavours, generous portions and great value (BYOB too) whilst for casual sit-down bites, Yeah! BurgrandThe Crossserve deep-fried comfort food favourites, with the latter specialising in craft beers too. For a pint, it’s gotta be Clarke’s on Peter Street whilst The Black Bull Inn is also an expansive bar and restaurant towards the train station.
If you fancy it, take a long walk along the ‘Boyne Boardwalk’ along the Ramparts of Drogheda, winding right from the centre of town all the way to Oldbridge, passing right under the iconic Mary McAleese Boyne Valley Bridge over the M1.
Want something a bit more adventurous? Why not see the town from the Boyne itself, as you can take a trip on one of the Boyne Boatswhere you’ll paddle along the river in traditional currach boats (as seen in Game of Thrones!) whilst learning about the history and heritage of the area.
ITINERARY 1 – THROUGH LOUTH: DROGHEDA TO CARLINGFORD, VIA THE COAST ROAD AND DUNDALK
From Drogheda head straight for the coast, taking the scenic route hugging the River Boyne out of the town to the seaside villages of Baltray, Termonfeckin and Clogherhead –– all wonderfully equipped with different styles of beach. Rockier/shellier at Baltray, finer sandier stretch at Sandpit/Termonfeckin (which is the village where Patrick went to school as a kid!) and firmer and well-worn at Clogherhead.
Termonfeckin BeachImage via Fáilte Ireland, (c) photographer Eilish Tierney
Around Termonfeckin, it would be a great idea to link up with local chef and cookery tutor Tara Walker who runs the East Coast Cookery School for an afternoon class/demo if possible followed by a cup of tea and a slice of fresh cake at the local farm shop and cafe, Forge Field.
Nearby is Maria Flynn’s Ballymakenny Farm Spud Shack where on certain days you can rock up and have the chats with a local speciality producer, plus buy some of her exceptional produce!
A little further out the road, in Clogherhead you could check out Smuggler’s Rest for a casual bite and seafood focus, whilst a trip to Port Oriel Pier may reward you with the iconic fish and chips that are sometimes served from the Fisherman’s Catch van beside the fish shop, which is a treasure trove of the local catch –– plus you’ll have to pick up Oriel Sea Salt, too! If the chips aren’t available, the chowder most likely is and on a breezy or wet day it’s just the tonic. Beyond the pier there’s a nice little coastal hill walk you can easily get lost in, with some gorgeous views and refreshing sea air to fill your lungs. Look over towards the Mourne Mountains, as that’s where you’re tracing a line to next…
Back in the car, continue northwards on the Coast Road until you reach Annagassan. A historic little village which traces its history right back to the Vikings, stop by The Glyde Inn pub (named National Pub of the Year in recent years) and accompanying ‘Linn Duachaill’ restaurant where Conor O’Neill runs a tight ship right by the shore.
The menu has both gastropub classics-done-well and a particular emphasis on fresh seafood and shellfish in its specials, some of which come sourced from right outside.
Take a peek (or a step) outside to their expansive terrace which is quite literally at the shoreline. If the razor clams are on the menu, order them! But other than that, they’re vocal about local whether it’s Clogherhead hake, Terry Butterly’s smoked salmon from right there in Annagassan, their award-winning chowder or the signature Viking Burger! The bar at the front is a sight to behold, filled with quirky memorabilia and heritage elements.
From Annagassan you’re about 15 minutes drive from Dundalk. If you go through the historic town of Castlebellingham you’ll reach the M1 where it’s a quick skip to Dundalk. As a side note and an aside to the famous former castle and now luxury estate and wedding venue Bellingham Castle the coveted Bellingham Blue cheese is also from this area, made by local cheesemaker Peter Thomas and his wife Anita.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dundalk Image via Fáilte Ireland, (c) photographer Selena Clarke
In Dundalk town, a beacon born of the Sixties The Fairways Hotel [Affiliate Link via Booking.com] has reopened recently after rising from the ashes and is a plush spot to book in to, all bang-on-trend interiors with jewel tones and rich fabrics. In town, The Táin Arts Centre is well worth checking out for its exhibitions, events, gallery and screenings, whilst nearby is theCounty Museum which traces the history of ‘the wee county’ from Stone Age to present with a really rich collection and has been running for over 25 years. Set in the Carroll Centre on Jocelyn Street, it’s housed in a restored 18th century warehouse, formerly used by Dundalk Distilling and Carroll’s Cigarettes.
In the centre of the town,Squarerestaurant offers casual fine dining by 26-year-old chef Conor Halpenny –– Euro Toques Young Chef of the Year 2017 and his debut restaurant recently included in The Sunday Times’ 100 Best Restaurants in Ireland, compiled by John and Sally McKenna, and Best Newcomer in Leinster at the Restaurant Association of Ireland (RAI) Awards 2020. Serving Thursday-Sunday (evenings only), seasonal ingredients dictate each dish on the menu and are always the starting point for the dish that later takes shape. We’d argue this is the best place in Dundalk to eat, so snap up a table!
The Spotted Dog is another great spot, owned by the Mulligan brothers Brendan (chef) and Vincent (manager) with a seasonally-changing menu served for dinner Thursday-Saturday but open from morning to afternoon every day except Sunday and Monday. For a drink, Russell’s Saloon on Park Street is a cocktail and gin emporium –– we wrote about here, and a couple of other Irish inclusions, in this Best Gin Bars Across The World feature.
Image via RockSalt Cafe
In terms of cafés, out by the seafront in Blackrock RockSalt is a great cafe for breakfast, brunch or lunch daily whilst they have a second site in the town itself.
Above Dundalk you’ll find the coastal town of Carlingford. Popular for overnighters (and Carlingford Oysters!) and group getaways, this pretty town sits at the heart of the Cooley Peninsula. First inhabited by the vikings (and though the name suggest a fjord it’s not actually a fjord, but fjord-like surroundings) whilst its later medieval layout has been prettily preserved, including the ‘Tholsel’ – a former gate into the town – whilst King John’s Castle (dating back to 1200) is still a popular tourist spot.
Off the M1 towards Carlingford you’ll find Strandfield, an expansive cafe, provisions store, bakery and florist right off the M1.
Open 8am – 6pm daily, this is a must-stop for a bite to eat and a coffee and cake, with wonderful things on the menu from fresh stone-baked pizzas to vegan rice bowls and daily specials. Their sweet treats are legendary and we defy you to pass by the provisions store without picking up a couple of products!
If you want to go a little more inland and explore more than Co. Louth, take a different Boyne Valley itinerary/tour by going from Drogheda (which technically bleeds across two counties) throughout the regal and resplendent Co. Meath. The county of Meath holds an incredibly significant position in the story of the island of Ireland as – in historical and mythological terms – the area around Tara was remarked as the seat of the High Kings of Ireland, so if you’re into ancient culture and history you have so much to look forward to here. Let’s begin with the most famous…
(c) Tourism Ireland, photographer: Brian Morrison
Departing Drogheda from the Donore side of town, continue on the Donore Road, turning at Donore village until you reach Newgrange. Older than the pyramids, this passage tomb – really, a temple of sorts, bearing immense spiritual and ceremonial importance and possibly the resting place of important community leaders – dates back over 5,000 years and was built by Stone Age farmers in this area. A mammoth task once you see this incredible stone structure in person, the nearby visitor’s centre is full of information on the structure and the area, including history and heritage and is both interactive and educational. During Covid-19 access to the tomb is not allowed, but visiting it outside is. Pre-booking is essential. Newgrange forms part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, alongside Knowth and Dowth tombs, and is maintained and operated by the Office of Public Works (OPW).
Image (c) Slane Castle
Leaving Newgrange, join the N2 for the quick spin up to Slane, which arguably is a heartland of the close-knit food producer community in the Boyne Valley. Here you’ll also find Rock Farm Slane, an organic farm and glamping site (book here via Booking.com; Affiliate Link) run by Carina and Alex Conyngham (daughter-in-law and son of Henry Mount Charles of Slane Castle –– yes, the place that the regular big name concerts are held, almost-annually, which you can book tours of the building too)
On the grounds of the 300-acre castle site sits Slane Distillery, where you can visit the converted stables and learn all about the process of producing whiskey and what makes this local spirit so unique. What it may lack in heritage it makes up for in spades with its process and ethos. You can save 10% and book a Combi-Tour of both Slane Distillery and Slane Castle.
Elsewhere in Slane, Inside Out andConyngham Arms are well worth seeking out for a table – the latter, set in a converted 18th century coaching inn, is also a boutique hotel in the Boyne Valley [Booking.com Affiliate Link]. A short drive from Slane to the village of Collon you’ll find No. 3 Collon, the wine bar and restaurant by mother-and-son team Martina and Wayne Fitzpatrick serving great drinks and a global-inspired menu. Tankardstown is also a short drive from Slane, where you’ll be amazed at the luxury of this country house hotel and venue (also a member of Ireland’s Blue Book) plus its accompanying Brabazon restaurant.
Image (c) Tankardstown
A favourite for wedding parties and exclusive hire, this feels secluded and elegantly regal, and if you can bag a Tankardstown House room booking [Affiliate Booking.com link] or a dinner booking you’ll be in luck! They also do an afternoon tea service that requires pre-booking.
Oldbridge Estate, Image via Tourism Ireland (c) Chris Hill Photographic
And if you want to take a slight detour back on the N51 in the direction of Drogheda, Townley Hall is a wonderful place for a brisk walk through the forest as well as a spot for a picnic, plus right across the Boyne is Oldbridge House and the Battle of the Boyne site. Learn all about the game-changing battle between William of Orange and King James II in 1690. Pre-booking your visit online (or by phone) is essential, whilst until the end of 2020 a lot of OPW sites are free entry, including this one!
Further into Co. Meath is the county capital, Navan. Definitely try get to Bakealicious for serious temptation by way of beautiful bakes and great coffee, serving from 9:30am to around 4pm daily. Earl’s Kitchen is a popular cafe space in the town, located at the Old Cornmarket and run by award-winning chef Sandra Earl, who also hosts monthly supperclubs. The Central is well-regarded as a great place to eat and drink (sourcing 90% from within Co. Meath itself!) right in the heart of the town, open weekday evenings from 5pm and weekends from 1pm.
Image (c) The Central
Just outside Navan there are a couple of good places to stay, including Decoy Country Cottages, Bellinter House and both the Newgrange HotelandThe Ardboyne Hotel[each of these are Affiliate Links via Booking.com]. Leaving Navan and heading towards Kells you’ll find Hogan’s Farm Shop(Wed-Sat, 10am-5pm)andMartry Mill, the latter of which is a rare find: a 17th century grain mill that’s still in operation. The Tallon family have been producing stoneground wholemeal flour here since 1859 and James Tallon is a fourth generation miller. Though they don’t operate public tours they do have open days several times a year and are open to school/group tour bookings.
Nearby too is Teltown House B&B [Affiliate Booking.com Link], a unique and beautiful place to rest your head for a night with local hospitality. Between Kells and Ardee you’ll find the historic TheCross GunsGastropub, dating back to the 1700s! Originally a Mounting House for horse husbandry, following the failed 1798 rebellion it became a hospitality house. Dermot O’Donnell now leads this spot with energy, a friendly young team and a passion for local produce across the menu.
Finally to Kells, where we can recommend a stay at the Headfort Arms. Operated by the Duff family for the last fifty years, it’s perfectly positioned in the bustle of Kells town and also has both a hotel restaurant and an adjoining bistro, Vanilla Pod, and bar Kelltic Bar. Olivia Duff (who, alongside husband Eoin Sharkey run Maperath Farm, who you might remember from a recent episode of our podcast Chew The Fat!) and team are seriously passionate about the Boyne Valley, local produce, craft and talent and are vocal about everything the BV offers.
Expect, warm hospitality, beautifully kept bedrooms and lots of space, making the Headfort Arms a great place to base yourself in this part of the Boyne Valley –– book here via our #AffiliateLink. The Bective is the sister venue to Navan’s The Central. The Book Marketis a nice little cafe and bookshop serving breakfast and coffee with sweet treats daily.
In Kells, there are a number of heritage trails, both guided and self-guided, and the best place to start for either is the former town courthouse, which has been redeveloped as the Kells Tourism and Heritage Centre. Or, lace up your walking boots and hit the eco trail at Girley Bog or go visit the Loughcrew Cairns megalithic structures and trail.
Outside of Kells, we suggest taking a pilgrimage to cheese mecca, in the form of Sheridan’s Cheese. The family name synonymous with supporting and supplying Irish artisan and farmhouse cheeses alongside international cheesemakers’ offerings, far-flung wines and all manner of gourmet spreads, sauces, dips and bits, this location is adjoining their expansive warehouse and is set in a former railway barn. Based just at the border with Cavan a short spin outside Kells, it’s well worth having a browse and a bite! Open 10am to 6pm daily, except closed on Sundays.
ITINERARY 3: SOUTHWARDS (SLOWLY) TO DUBLIN…
Sure the M1 will get you from Louth and Meath to Dublin in a snap, but the old Dublin road has something of a time-gone-by charm, so take the leisurely approach to the capital. Stop by Sonairte in Julianstown to check out their eco shop, garden and nature trail, open Friday-Sunday 10am – 5pm.
Then, an ideal stop-off for lunch or dinner is gastropub The Lime Kiln, where talented chef Robert Thompson is at the pass and serving from midday ’til late evening daily. Be sure not to miss the shop and deli alongside, packed and appointed with all manner of local food and drink products, plus harder-to-find pantry treats and condiments to really make your dishes sing. Open from 10am or so daily.
For a brisk coastal walk, you can walk a good hour or two from Mornington Beach right to Laytown. Mornington, Bettystown and Laytown beaches all mesh into one in the 5km golden stretch. Pop by Nan’s Cafe in Laytown for tea and cake (or lunch!) afterwards if the weather is a bit dull (as it can tend to be, even in the peak of summer!) If you’re staying around the area here, The Cottages is a lovely option –– a collection of six 300-year-old thatched cottages right by the sea, all cute and quaintly kept in individual sizes and styles.
Meath has a very short Irish Sea coastline, so the county then ends briskly enough and moves into Fingal/North Co. Dublin where the seaside towns of Balbriggan, Skerries and Rush and Lusk take centre stage. Skerries in particular is worth the drive out to for harbour views, you could have breakfast at Gourmet Food Parlour, lunch at Olive Deli (read more here), coffee at the cool Goat in the Boatcafe and a blow-out, fine dining dinner at Potager –– owned by Chef-Patron Cathal Leonard (Ex Chapter One) and his partner Sarah Ryan and only opened in mid-2019, the menu is modern Irish yet classical in technique with a wine list to rival the lot!
EVERYTHING MENTIONED HERE WITHIN AN HOUR’S DRIVE FROM THE CAPITAL? WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR? WHETHER YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A FOODIE ITINERARY, A COASTAL DRIVE OR JUST A QUIET GETAWAY SURROUNDED BY NATURAL BEAUTY AND HISTORICAL SITES, THE BOYNE VALLEY HAS IT ALL IN ABUNDANCE!