When we think of the rich scenic beauty of Ireland, much beloved of tourists the world over, many people immediately think of our magnificent Atlantic coastline and the peerless mountain ranges that stretch from Donegal right down to West Cork, all of which is included in The Wild Atlantic Way.
But there’s much more to Ireland than just that. This prompted the setting up of Munster Vales as a holiday destination, based around the mountain ranges in West Waterford, South Tipperary, East Limerick and North Cork.
These include the Comeraghs, the Knockmealdowns, the Galtees, the Ballyhouras and the Nagles, with quaint villages and townlands dotted across wonderful scenery.
The project is supported by the county councils in Tipperary, Waterford, Cork and Limerick.
Triona O’Mahony, destination and marketing manager with Munster Vales, explained: “The idea to set up Munster Vales first came about in 2014, when the tourism providers and communities around the mountain ranges felt that they needed representation on a national and international level to highlight and market the strong tourism products available in this rural region.
“Munster Vales represents 160 stakeholders. These range from accommodation providers, activity centres, water sports, horse riding and golf clubs to cafes, restaurants, bars, walking clubs and groups, among others.
“The aim of the project is to breathe life into the rural towns and villages in this off-the-beaten-track holiday destination, support the businesses and create new job opportunities.
“It also aims to highlight the vast array of walking routes available, with more than 1,100km of way-marked routes in the region, alongside mountain biking, scenic cycling and driving routes, kayaking and outdoor activities.
“They approached their local authorities and Failte Ireland who saw the potential, and a feasibility study was carried out by Tourism Development International and Active Me tourism, with the project deemed feasible and the board set up,” she said.
I decided to explore part of the Munster Vales and was hugely impressed with a region that is largely unknown in terms of a tourism destination, even in Ireland.
Crossing the counties of Limerick, Cork, Tipperary and Waterford, exploring the Munster Vales, where history and heritage blend seamlessly with modern Irish life, was a very pleasant experience.
My first port of call was to Lough Gur, near Bruff in Co Limerick.
This, I must admit, was completely unknown to me, but what a surprise I had in store.
Lough Gur is one of the only known places in Ireland where there has been continuous habitation for more than 6,000 years, and the presence of the people who inhabited the area can be felt in the monuments and artefacts they left behind.
A very impressive heritage centre there is full of fascinating information and artefacts from the various ages, and the centre is also a replica of a house from the Neolithic era.
My next destination was Doneraile in north county Cork, passing through Bruff, Kilmallock with its impressive medieval walled entrance and Charleville along the way.
After a lovely lunch at the local Cafe Townhouse in Doneraile, my friendly guide, Michael, brought me on a visit to the hugely impressive Doneraile Park.
This area has a long association with the St Leger family.
An outstanding feature of the demesne with its wonderful house is the range of mature and specimen trees, many now more than 300 years old. It is a beautiful tranquil area for walking.
Overnight accommodation was at Springfort Hall, an impressive historical building dating back centuries, that was converted to a hotel in 1982, situated in the wonderfully named village of Twopothouse, not far from Mallow.
A trip to the world-famous Mitchelstown Caves, located in County Tipperary on the low slopes of the Galtee mountains, close to its border with Cork and Limerick, was an experience never to be forgotten.
The caves, dating back thousands of years, were discovered accidentally in May 1833, by Michael Condon, who was quarrying limestone when he dropped his crowbar into a crevice.
He stooped down to pull out a few boulders to retrieve the bar – next minute, he found himself looking down into a vast series of underground chambers, passages and caverns.
Owner John English brought me on a spellbinding tour of the caves, with their magical stalagmites and stalactites, developed over thousands of years, and he explained that the temperature is always at 12 degrees.
There are three massive caverns, the largest measuring 51 x 31 metres, with the roof tapering up to 20m in height.
It is in this cavern that many concerts have been performed. The superb acoustics and the vast natural auditorium of the Mitchelstown Cave make for a unique and unforgettable experience.
Words themselves could never do full justice to the Mitchelstown Caves, which have to be seen at leisure, so that its timeless masterpieces become vividly imprinted on one’s memory.
Following this, a trip to Lismore in neighbouring County Waterford brought me through the magical Knockmealdown Mountains and through the lovely villages of Ballyporeen and Clogheen.
The journey to the top of the mountain at the Vee and into Co Waterford was special.
The view from the summit is breathtaking, overlooking the Golden Vale and beyond.
The descent through the Comeragh Mountains, by Mount Melleray Abbey and on to Cappoquin, was spectacular.
The area around Cappoquin on the majestic Blackwater River has an abundance of stately homes and a visit to Tourin House and Garden, part of the Waterford Garden Trail, was very enjoyable.
A few miles down the road is the heritage town of Lismore, famous for its outstanding castle overlooking the River Blackwater.
This award-winning town is one of the highlights of any visit to the Munster Vales.
Here you will find the exhibition galleries at Lismore Heritage Centre, where a video outlining the history of the town and the castle can be viewed.
Indeed, the castle, with its wonderful gardens, was the birthplace of Robert Boyle in 1627, regarded as ‘the father of modern chemistry’.
Appropriately, Science Week is held here every November.
My next destination was the Nire Valley, deep in the scenic Comeragh Mountains that is a paradise for hill walkers, hikers and mountain bikers.
Its trails draw people from all over Europe and the Nire Valley Walk, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last month, was a huge success.
The beautifully appointed Glasha Farmhouse outside the quaint village of Ballymacarbry, famed for its food and hospitality, located on the Waterford/Tipperary border, was where I spent my final night.
Exploring the Munster Vales gives visitors some authentic Irish country life, featuring plenty of charming villages and vibrant market towns, restaurants, shops, bars and cafes, wonderful accommodations, with great food and drink.
Getting to the Munster Vales is simple. All you have to do is turn off the N8 and explore at your leisure.
The tranquil landscape offers an ideal escape from busy city life.
This region is perfect for those who are culturally curious and the great escapers, as well as those who appreciate hospitality, great food, picture-postcard towns and villages and stunning scenery.
Give it a try – after all, it’s all right on your doorstep.