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.

The verdant pastures and low hills of Meath are Dublin's closest northern neighbor. The farmland here is so rich that there's an old Irish saying that a farm in Meath is worth two in any other county. With sheep grazing peacefully in green fields, Meath may look ordinary, but it holds remnants of Ireland's mysterious past. It is also the site of the Hill of Tara -- the Olympus of early Ireland where the kings of Ireland ruled.

By then, though, the county was already very old. Meath's rich soil has attracted settlers for more than 8,000 years, and archaeologists have uncovered burial grounds and settlements that give fascinating insight into where and how they lived. The most intriguing of these is Newgrange, with its mysterious carvings and huge stone passage tombs. Nearby, the Hill of Slane, a lofty 150m (492-ft.) mound, overlooks one of the loveliest parts of the Boyne Valley. On this hill, tradition has it, Patrick lit the Christian paschal fire in direct defiance of the Irish King Laoghaire, throwing down the gauntlet for a confrontation between Ireland's old and new religious orders.

The chief town of County Meath is Navan, but nearby Kells is better known to most travelers because of its association with the famous Book of Kells -- the hand-illustrated gospel manuscript on display at Trinity College in Dublin. The town of Kells, known in Gaelic as Ceanannus Mor ("Great Residence"), was originally the site of an important 6th-century monastic settlement founded by St. Colmcille. The monastery was dissolved in 1551, and today only ruins and crosses survive.

Less than 40km (25 miles) southeast of Kells, beside the River Boyne, stand the alluring ruins of Bective Abbey, a Cistercian monastery founded in 1147. Today it feels more like a castle than a monastery; it is a great ruin, with myriad staircases, passageways, and chambers -- a favorite hide-and-seek playground for local children, and perfect for a family picnic.

Even though Meath is primarily an inland county, it is also blessed with a stretch of coastline and two fine sandy beaches, Bettystown and Laytown. History pops up everywhere in County Meath, even on the beach: The Tara Brooch was found at Bettystown in 1850. Often copied in modern jewelry designs, the brooch is one of Ireland's finest pieces of early Christian gold-filigree work, embellished with amber and glass. It's on view at the National Museum in Dublin.