It was late, but my husband and I were on the hunt for a taste of traditional Ireland.

We had heard there was a band playing in one of the pubs down the road and wanted to peek inside. The town we were staying in, Dingle, is well known as a haven for singers of Irish traditional music.

As we neared the pub, the words of "The Wild Rover" wafted outside: "I've been a wild rover for many a year and I spent all my money on whiskey and beer, and now I'm returning with gold in great store, and I will never play the wild rover no more."

Then the chorus, which the pub crowd joined in on, beers in hand: "And it's no, nay, never, no, nay, never no more…"

We smiled.

When my husband and I told people we were traveling to Ireland this summer, it seemed we were met with a lot of skepticism. Ireland, I guess, isn't a top choice for many when traveling to Europe.

But when we arrived, we quickly learned the appeal of this "emerald" island.

Ireland is a country of immense natural beauty. Its history runs deep, with countless castles and prehistoric ruins. The people are also wonderfully friendly and proud of their culture.

Let me walk you through some of the highlights of our nine-day trip, which encompassed much of southern Ireland.

Countryside

There is a reason Ireland is called the Emerald Isle. It rains a lot, and as such, the countryside is an incredible mixture of vibrant greens. Flowers in hues of pink, yellow and blue also line the sides of the road.

We had our first encounter with the Irish countryside just outside of Dublin. Our plan was to visit two sites in the Wicklow Mountains: a monastic ruin in Glendalough and the Powerscourt Estate.

Powerscourt is considered Ireland's finest landscaped garden and was used in the 2002 film, "The Count of Monte Cristo." The gardens were created in the 1800s and stretch for acres across the lush Irish countryside.

The prominent feature of this estate is a massive concrete staircase with a lake at the base. A statue of the Greek god, Triton, has been placed in the center of the lake.

While walking through the gardens, you can catch glimpses through the trees of rolling green hills, marked by stone hedges to indicate property lines. Sheep and cows graze on this land.

At Glendalough, the country is even more impressive. The monastic site is situated between two lakes and is shrouded by tall pine trees. You'll see the ruins of a "round tower" here, where monks used to hide during invasions.

The only way inside the tower was with a ladder, which was pulled up in times of danger.

Natural wonders

In contrast to the east coast of Ireland, where Glendalough and Powerscourt are located, the west coast is more rugged.

Here you will find the famous Cliffs of Moher and also the Ring of Kerry and Dingle Peninsula.

Because of the short duration of our trip, we decided to skip driving the Ring of Kerry, which is an all-day journey along the coast. Instead, we drove a loop around the Dingle Peninsula, which is located just north of the Ring of Kerry.

The scenery was breathtaking.

Picture a narrow road along the coast. On one side are mountains, where sheep and cows graze. On the other side are steep drop-offs to the ocean.

One of the benefits of traveling the Dingle Peninsula is that it's less crowded than the Ring of Kerry, and you can see the same beautiful coastline. Plus, we spent the night in Dingle, which is a vibrant town known for its pub musicians.

Northward from this city are the Cliffs of Moher, one of Ireland's most recognized natural wonders. They rise as high as 700 feet from the ocean and form an imposing view.

Although protective barriers run alongside a significant portion of the cliffs, there are portions where you can walk without the security of a wall. Tourists have been known to slip to their deaths as a result of strong winds that buffet these unprotected areas.

Castles

It seems at nearly every bend in the road there is some sort of castle left to crumble in the Irish countryside. Despite its geography, Ireland has a rich history of invasions by the Vikings, Normans and the English.

Our favorite castles were Trim, Blarney Castle and Rock of Cashel.

For us, the appeal of Trim was its sheer size and history. The castle is considered the country's largest Norman castle. It used to be a significant royal and ecclesiastical site and was used during the filming of the movie "Braveheart."

We paid a minimal fee to tour its keep. A guide showed us models of how the castle used to look and described how people defended it during invasions.

He also talked about the two worst jobs in a castle: Killing massive rats and stirring the sewage in the medieval septic tanks.

In contrast to Trim, the Blarney Castle and Rock of Cashel are empty but imposing hulks.

Cashels sits on a hill above its namesake town and was apparently the site where St. Patrick baptized Ireland's first Christian king. The legend is he used a shamrock to explain the concept of the Trinity to the king.

While not as stirring a story, Blarney Castle is also known for a legend. It has been said if you kiss the Blarney Stone at the top of the castle's battlements, you will be granted the "gift of gab."

My husband participated in this ritual. Neither of us have noticed a difference in his speech.

Historical sites

As with castles, Ireland is dotted with hundreds of prehistoric sites, including the ancient passage tombs of Newgrange and Knowth, located just north of Dublin.

These tombs are older than both the pyramids of Giza in Egypt and Stonehenge in England. At first glance, they appear little more than grassy mounds, but after a quick tour, we learned about the history of the people who once lived there and also the irreplaceable artwork at these sites.

Knowth is thought to contain more than one-third of all the examples of "megalithic" art in Western Europe. By definition, a megalithic structure is something made of large stones. There are hundreds of beautifully carved stones along the base of the main burial mound at Knowth.

Other prehistoric sites in Ireland include smaller burial formations known as dolomens. We visited Browne's Hill Dolomen, which is just south of Dublin. The dolomen is built with a base of several large stones placed on end and then covered with a capstone.

Other tips

For me and my husband, Ireland was a place that captivated us with its history, culture and natural beauty.

If you plan to visit, here are some tips:

1. Driving on the "wrong" side of the road isn't all that bad. Just plan to pay extra for insurance and don't mind the tailgaters when you drive too slowly.

2. Grab a "Heritage Card" at the airport. They are good for a year and will get you into most of the major historical sites in the country. It's much cheaper than paying for individual tickets.

3. If you want an authentic taste of Ireland, pub food is the only way to go.

4. Be sure to eat the traditional Irish breakfast of bacon, eggs, ham and a tomato. It will stay with you most of the morning and into the afternoon.

e-mail: nwarburton@desnews.com