48-80km (30-50 miles) N and W of Dublin

Less than 48km (30 miles) north of Dublin along Ireland's east coast runs the River Boyne, surrounded by the rich, fertile countryside of counties Meath and Louth. More than any other river in the country, this meandering body of water has been at the center of Irish history.

The banks of the Boyne hold reminders of Ireland's ancient past in the extraordinary and mysterious prehistoric passage tombs of Newgrange and the storied Hill of Tara, once the seat of the high kings. This was the setting for the infamous Battle of the Boyne, when in July 1690, King William III defeated the exiled King James II for the crown of England.

Today its historic treasures are tucked away among miles of farmland, smooth, rolling hills, and modern Dublin suburbs.

Blink and you'll miss it -- to the north and east of Meath, little Louth is Ireland's tiniest county at only 824 sq. km (318 sq. miles), and even its largest towns (Drogheda and Dundalk) are quite small. The heritage town of Carlingford is easily the prettiest, sitting on a spur of the Cooley Mountains, overlooking glassy Carlingford Lough -- a photo just waiting to happen. Established by the Vikings, Carlingford still follows its medieval street patterns, and is overseen by a massive 13th-century castle. On the heights above the town, the ancient Irish folk hero Cuchulainn is said to have single-handedly defeated the armies of Ulster in an epic battle.

Drogheda is a busy modern hillside town with a dark history. In 1649, English forces led by Oliver Cromwell sieged the town, which had been held by a small regiment of Irish rebels. Cromwell's forces smashed their way through city walls that had once been thought nearly impregnable. The subsequent indiscriminate massacre of townspeople and Catholic clergy there was so brutal that it remains infamous in Ireland to this day.