COCOONED for centuries within a formidable fortress, this hidden gem is erupting with energy.

Dynamic Derry - the only completely walled city in Ireland - has become a vibrant cosmopolitan holiday destination.

It has so many museums, theatres, cinemas, galleries, shops, restaurants, bars, clubs and pubs, you need more than a few days to discover its surprising secrets.

Steeped in history, it now boasts some of the best arts and music festivals and sports and cultural events on the international calendar.

A stroll around the 17th century walls is the best way to explore this ancient city. The sheer strength of the colossal walls - 18ft high and 20ft wide - makes you realise why they were never breached, despite three sieges. Guides are available but information boards along the beautifully preserved mile-long walk makes it easy to roam at your own pace.

You can see spectacular panoramic views from the top of the walls, whilst old barbers' shops and fine Georgian houses give you a glimpse of life in bygone times.

The impressive Tower Museum tells the story of Derry's history. The intriguing tale of the recovery of La Trinidad Vanencera, which collided off the coast of Donegal in 1588, is captured in an incredible interactive Armada Shipwreck exhibition.

You can shop 'til you drop' in Derry. Three swish shopping centres include Foyleside, the biggest in Northern Ireland. Austin's, the world's oldest independent department store, proudly overlooks the historic centre of the city.

This majestic stone building, with ornate balconies and a corner turret, has been restored to its former glory to celebrate almost 200 years of exceptional service.

If you love a bargain, visit Glenaden Shirts' factory outlet on Atnagelvin industrial estate, where you can pick up top quality shirts, ties and cufflinks for a snip.

There's also an exhibition of shirt making, a famous city trade for more than 150 years.

There is always plenty to see and do. Celebrate St Patrick's Day in style at a spring day carnival on March 17. The largest celebration of north west Irish music runs from March 24-28. The City of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival attracts international musicians from May 1-4.

Top comics perform in early June and Ireland's leading electronic music festival follows from June 25-29. Derry's vibrant talent and culture is celebrated in a festival throughout July.

A guitar festival is held in August. Ireland's largest outdoor street carnival takes off on October 31 with a Hallowe'en Carnival. The biggest film festival in Northern Ireland is screened in November.

Singers Dana, Josef Locke, Phil Coulter and the Undertones, actress Amanda Burton and playwright Brian Friel are among the many famous faces who hail from the city. Derry has been home to many a saint and scholar.

The great Irish saint Columba founded a monastery in the sixth century. The city has not one but two Nobel prizewinners.

Writer Seamus Heaney won the prestigious accolade for literatureand politician John Hume received the peace prize in 1998. Relics of composer Cecil Frances Alexander who wrote the famous hymns 'Once In Royal David's City' and 'There Is A Green Hill Far Away', are preserved in the cathedral of St Columb.

Derry is the gateway to north west Ireland.

The world famous Giant's Causeway, a UNESCO world heritage site, is within easy reach. This incredible, geological phenomenon is the most visited place in Northern Ireland.

The 40,000 basalt columns were formed by the cooling and cracking of lava from a volcanic eruption 60 million years ago.

This created a series of stepping stones reaching far into the sea.

The impressive shapes and army of columns are an amazing sight. The National Trust, which manages the site, has made great efforts to keep it accessible, yet retain its beauty and natural habitat. No tacky souvenir sellers or ice cream vans mar the scenery. A shuttle bus ferries visitors one kilometre along the coastline from the car park.

Walk, if you can, the view is breathtaking. A visitor centre has a tea room, toilets and a shop.

If all this bracing air makes you feel chilly, a visit to nearby old Bushmills Distillery will warm you up. This is the world's oldest legal whiskey distillery, granted a licence by King James I in 1608.

You can see how this leading malt whiskey is produced, mashed, fermented, distilled, matured and bottled in a guided tour.

Not to mention, tasting a drop at the end.

Donegal, with its rugged coastline, beautiful bays, spectacular mountains and sandy beaches is breathtaking. Glenveagh National Park has more than 10,000 hectares of unspoilt mountains, lakes, glens and woods.

A tour round its centrepiece, an enchanting 19th century fairytale castle, is a must. You will discover fascinating tales as you creep along creaking corridors, through living quarters and bedrooms, preserved with their original furnishings. Peep out of the windows for a magical view of Lough Veagh.

A phenomenal selection of exotic plants, herbs, rare trees, colourful shrubs and ornamental statues are set out in a stunning 27-acre garden. It is so tranquil, you will feel in paradise. The simple rural life of villagers has been preserved at Ionad Cois Locha, an intriguing lakeside living museum. You can see how people lived in tiny cottages, with just two rooms and an open fire in a reconstructed weaver's home.

Take a boat trip on Dunlewey Lake and you will hear mystical legends of the Poison Glen and The Green Lady.