Winter may be the least popular time of year to visit Ireland, and for good reason. It is dark and cold, especially after the glow of the holiday season fades. There’s a feeling of hibernation and tightening of budgets. Some restaurants and hotels in the countryside close for the season. It’s easy to get bored with the abundance of root vegetables. And yet, it may just be my very favorite time of year to bundle up and get on a plane to Dublin.
I’m happy to keep the many pleasures of winter—a glass of hot whiskey by a fragrant peat-burning fire, a bowl of seafood chowder after a blustery walk—all to myself. Packs of American travelers can keep on planning summer trips for the long days of August when sunlight lasts until after 10 p.m. and temperatures are mild for outdoor activities from surfing to fishing to golf. I’ll take the cold instead. Though some may say it’s ill-advised, I harbor a soft spot for Ireland’s black winter nights.
Summer travelers miss the warmth of a pub’s open hearth that pulls random groups of people together. They miss the overwhelming pleasure of a hot seaweed bath on a frigid day. August visitors never get to experience the relief that an especially rainy afternoon in January can bring, when you’re forced to cancel plans and read books all day instead.
One January morning in Bushmills, a town on the coast of County Antrim in Northern Ireland, I waited for rainclouds to pass over a pot of tea and then went for a walk along Giant’s Causeway—a coastal Unesco World Heritage site with over 40,000 interlocking basalt columns—without another visitor in sight. Instead of jostling with other summertime travelers for a spot at overcrowded lookout points, I pulled my hat down over my ears and had the view of crashing waves all to myself. When I was chilled truly to the core, I found a fireside seat in the nearby Bushmills Inn and slowly thawed out over a whiskey. No smartphone, no magazine, just me and the low flames.
Winter may also be the best season to connect with locals. The dark and chill mean that once people arrive at a cozy pub, they certainly aren’t going anywhere else for the evening. Connecting with Irish people can be a slow burn; they aren’t always open to the idea of fast friends. But winter encourages staying put, letting a conversation unfold naturally, and seeing what happens when for once, we aren’t short on time.
One December morning my husband and I decided to drive from Dublin to Kinsale. During the drive we booked a last-minute room at a bed-and-breakfast and ate a fish dinner in a candlelit restaurant surrounded by locals who wanted to know what the feck was I, an American, doing on the blustery coast of County Cork in December? Conversation continued long after the table was cleared and the restaurant was supposed to close.
There’s also a practical element to traveling to Ireland in the least popular season: lower prices and late checkout at hotels, extra value in spa packages, and last-minute availability at hotels and restaurants that is simply nonexistent during the peak summer season. Explore Ireland in winter and you might start getting used to food and beverage credits at hotels, packages that include extras like a bottle of wine on arrival, and complimentary upgrades (examples of packages available this winter are listed below).
During a December visit to Ashford Castle in County Mayo, I remember waking up before sunrise—at 8 a.m. Instead of rushing into the day, I slipped into a bathrobe and lit the fireplace. I ordered breakfast to the room and read by the hearth as the country estate slowly arose from slumber and the milky lavender light finally gave way to daylight. The winter provides an excuse to snooze in the mornings instead of jumping up with the sun, it removes pressure to see and do everything. Winter allows us to breathe.
Once I discovered these unique seasonal pleasures, I couldn’t stop. December or January wouldn’t be complete without an Irish coffee in a pub older than the United States or a breakfast of warm scones in bed while the wind howls outside the window. Luckily my husband, who is an Irish native, is always looking for excuses to travel back home.
One January we checked in to Adare Manor in County Limerick. As a New Yorker without a bathtub, there are few things I cherish more in a hotel than a giant freestanding tub. Between afternoon tea and evening cocktails, I found myself drawn back to the room. The tub was waiting. So often when we travel, a hotel is simply a place to sleep. Winter gives the space to appreciate individual hotel features, not just to see them but savor them. In between soaks, I went outdoors for long walks or falconry—you get to meet rare and fascinating birds like Tiny, a white-faced owl or Olaf, a snowy owl—and then gave in to the pull of the hotel room for the rest of the afternoon.
I’m sure Irish people will disagree with me. They’ll say the winter is grim, getting up in the dark gets old. But this story isn’t for them—it’s for people who are unfamiliar with an Irish winter, who won’t be driving to work in the rain after dropping the kids off at daycare in the dark, but instead will be polishing off a third slice of brown bread at the hotel breakfast buffet at 10 a.m. It’s for the people who can order a hot toddy on a Tuesday at 2 p.m. because they’re on vacation. It’s for the people who tend to overschedule themselves when they travel, who could use a time and place to just be.
Nothing about winter says: make the most of this day. The pace of the season practically demands that we slow down. The darkness of December, January, and February is a reason to stay longer in a bookshop, to spend uninterrupted time with friends, to talk to strangers, to cancel fancy restaurant reservations and hunker down in sweatpants in front of the fireplace and call a cheese plate with bread and wine dinner.
Winter gives me permission to be the kind of restful-seeking, afternoon-snoozing, bathtub-worshipping traveler I wish I was the rest of the overscheduled year. My December flights are already booked.
Editor's Note: This is the latest installment for our twice-monthly series on underrated destinations, It's Still a Big World.
Winter Deals in Ireland
· The Shelbourne, a five-star hotel in the heart of Dublin, offers rates from €299 (Nov-March) compared to from €450 (April to October).
· At Adare Manor, a five-star hotel in County Limerick, winter season rates start at €360 per night including breakfast, compared to €699 in the summer. A seasonal Winter in Adare one-night package, available on select dates from November to January, includes a dinner for two in the Carriage House Restaurant, late check-out at 2 p.m., and complimentary upgrade from a classic room to a deluxe room for €480.
· At Ashford Castle in January and February, Corrib Rooms start at €325 per night (compared to €695 during the high season) and the luxurious Junior Staterooms start at €725 per night (compared to €1,825 during the high season). Special advance purchase rates and spa packages are also available. Rooms at the four-star the Lodge at Ashford, on the grounds of the Ashford Estate, are available for as low as €165 per night in the winter.
· At Lough Eske Castle in County Donegal, rates start at €220 including breakfast on select dates from October through March (excluding Christmas) compared to €330 during peak season. A Winter Escape Offer for a mid-week stay is available for €189 per night and includes full Irish breakfast, €20 food and beverage credit per person, a bottle of prosecco on arrival, and 20-percent spa discount on pre-booked spa treatments.