Co Wicklow is known as the Garden of Ireland - and with good reason. Not far from Avoca, in the Wicklow Mountains National Park, is the hauntingly beautiful Glendalough, a monastic settlement founded in the 6th c by St Kevin on a site between two lakes. Walking trails take you past Celtic cross gravestones and the ruins of ancient grey stone buildings. The 30 metre high Round Tower (pictured) still dominates the site, while a well thought out heritage centre gives a insight into the area's history.
The next day we found more echoes of Ireland's past at the World Heritage Site of Newgrange, a Stone Age passage tomb in Co. Meath (above). Some 3,200 years ago, its builders had the skills and knowledge to exactly align the passage so, at the winter solstice, the sun shines directly into the central burial chamber. You can enter only with a guide, who, for a brief moment, will extinguish all lights apart from the one which mimics the sun's rays shining through a portal. It's a profoundly moving experience.
There are more passage graves (one reputed to be around 5000 years old) in the grounds of Loughcrew House, also in Meath, but what really caught my eye there were the beautiful gardens with their unusual sculptures (above). There are six acres to stroll around, laid out by past generations of the Naper family, who've lived there since 1665. In 1997 Emily Naper began the major task of their restoration.
She's created new borders (this one backs on to an old wall), terraces and woodland walks, and has turned the grounds into a venue for weddings - in the romantic ruined church of St Oliver Plunkett - summer concerts, opera, and festivals.
All these beautiful sites are just an hour or so's drive from Dublin - but a world away from that city's buzz and bustle. Just remember to keep an umbrella handy for the showers that make Ireland the Emerald Isle.
More details at http://www.discoverireland.com/