Just across a narrow stretch of sea from Northern Ireland, the petite town of Carlingford is now famed for its outdoor sports and love of leprechauns, but also has an interesting history, not least in its apparently heavy role in hiding members of the IRA (Irish Republican Army) retreating across the border from capture during extended 20th-century political issues known locally as ‘The Troubles’.
It’s a peaceful spot now, though, and highly popular with tourists and locals looking for a weekend of athletic escapism, and is also said to be a great place to put down roots, having been voted the best place in Ireland to live back in 2011. Here are the top spots to explore when you’re in town.
Up in the hills above the town itself, Carlingford’s forest hides a frantic adventurous activity: the Skypark. Typically combining ziplining, climbing, balancing and falling off, you’ll be trained to navigate the cables that bring you around a pre-planned path, taking you over hundreds of metres of ground, with plenty of thrills and spills to be had along the way.
Escape games are all the rage at the moment, and Escape HQ in Carlingford is a rare indoor option in the town, with two variations on the escape theme, and an hour to use clues to get yourself out of the room (or, in one case, jail). Put yourself under pressure: get your team together, start the clock and follow the subtle hints to work your way back to freedom.
Carlingford Adventure Centre
A huge adventurous hub to the town, Carlingford Adventure Centre is both a massive hostel and a heartland for all the adventure activities that have grown up around the place. Drop in (or better, call in advance) to book kayaking, canoeing, water trampolining, laser combat, archery, paddleboarding and rock climbing, plus most of the other outdoor activities on this list. Endless adventure.
King John’s Castle
Dominating Carlingford’s skyline, this 12th-century ruin sits on an outcrop overlooking the lough, and is said to have hosted King John of England for a few days in the early 13th century. While it’s now little more than thick but crumbling exterior walls, it’s easy to imagine the grandiosity that once existed here, and the ruins make a historic and picturesque centre point to the town.
The Leprechaun and Fairy Underground Cavern
Carlingford claims to house the last remaining leprechauns, and this surreal cave is their home. A dimly lit cavern outside town that houses (let’s be blunt here) lots of models of magical creatures, it’s the patter that makes this place worth a stop off. Expect to be taught to be a ‘leprechaun whisperer’, given a hefty cultural intro to the little men and indulge in the fairytale world that surrounds them. A whole lot of fun.
A popular modern sporting adaptation, Foot Golf is exactly what it sounds like. Combining soccer skills with a target (much larger) golf hole and flag, it’s a complex skill that’s fast become an international niche sport with established rules and competitive players. Simple in principle but difficult to be good at, this is a great sport to try your foot at.
Carlingford Leprechaun Hunt
Ireland’s full of fun and quirky events, but Carlingford’s Leprechaun Hunt, which takes place over Easter, might just be our favourite of all. The leprechauns – small figurines – are hidden across a mountainside. Individuals and families buy a ‘hunting license’, and stream across the hills searching for the little figures, each of which has a cash prize value. There’s an entire little festival built around it, and proceeds go to the National Children’s Hospital.
A seven-kilometre walk to nearby Omeath (after which you can grab a coffee, turn around and head back again), The Greenway follows the route of an old railway, right next to the lough, and offers some spectacular views as you walk. It’s popular with walkers, runners and cyclists, and is a great way to see the lake off your own steam.
The crumbling remains of Carlingford Abbey still sit in fairly central Carlingford, having been abandoned as an actual place of worship back in the 18th Century. Those stone walls date back to 1305, and while there’s relatively little of the old structure left, it makes for a nice stop off on the way around Carlingford, as they give a taste of what life might have been like before modern amenities arrived in this part of the world.
The highest peak in the Carlingford Mountains, Slieve Foye is best accessed by a well-marked walking route (follow the blue arrows) and rises to 589 metres directly over the lough. The mountains are ruggedly beautiful, and have an interesting history, including the story of the battle at Medbh’s Gap, a legendary story of individual strength which has plenty in common with the movie 300. The outline of the mountains is said to resemble the sleeping giant Finn MacCumhaill.