Author: Heather Ranes
Date of Trip: August 2012
Johnny Cash had it right…the Island of Ireland, at a minimum, has 40 shades of green – each dazzling in their own right. After two years of planning, saving, and planning some more, my husband I took a trip to Ireland this past year – an experience we are thrilled to have….well…experienced.
Two years ago, it came to our attention that Navy football would be tackling (no pun intended) the Notre Dame Football team at the Emerald Isle Classic September 1, 2012. Being a Navy graduate, my husband could think of nothing better than to spend the weekend in Dublin, Ireland drinking Guinness and whooping it up with other fans from around the globe. I heartily agreed…and we began to plan a trip centered on the game.
After exploring our options, we opted to book a portion of the trip with Anthony Travel agency, and then take a few days to explore on our own. As it turned out, both options had their deficits and advantages. By far, the greatest advantage to having booked the first half of our trip through an agency was being able to fly into Shannon Airport from Phoenix, AZ via London, and having a knowledgeable, entertaining tour guide meet us. Once we passed through customs (an easy thing to do in Shannon…one of the fastest experiences I’ve had when traveling internationally), the tour guide was waiting with a sign and immediately pointed us in the direction of our bus to wait while he gathered other tourists. Shortly thereafter, he joined us and we took off down the (wrong!) side of the road trekking to Galway. Along the way he answered every question we could throw at him with patience and good humor, and in addition tossed out fun, entertaining colloquial stories that were fascinating and a joy to hear.
Over the next 6 days (of a 10 day trip), we were on a bus quite a bit; traveling between cities and various sight-seeing adventures. It allowed us to get our bearings and begin acquainting ourselves with the local driving customs, as well as relieve us of any need to pull out a map. Every single tour guide we experienced through Anthony Travel had a wealth of knowledge and added immensely to the educational and overall convenience aspect of our trip. THAT BEING SAID – being on a bus got old in a hurry…and to be honest, I will not purposely book a trip like that again unless I truly feel as though I need to. Traveling with many other tourists…and with all our different personalities and preferences…and submitting to the schedule outlined for us regardless of a desire to pull off the road to go exploring, was tedious after the first few days.
Galway was the first big stop on our trip, and what a lovely stop it was! We stayed at the Jury’s Inn across the street from the Spanish Arch. It was a perfect place to stay…clean, friendly staff, and right in the middle of everything! In fact, we found the location of the hotel to be better than many of its higher-priced competitors. The bar on site was also a great addition; and we spent an hour or so there our first night chatting with the bartender and experiencing the joy that is hot whiskey (a MUST!). We had dinner at a local hot spot, McDonaghs, for fish and chips (also a must), and enjoyed our first Guinness at The Kings Head. Jet lag took over not long after, and we crashed for a solid night’s rest on the welcoming beds at the Jury’s Inn.
Every place we stayed offered breakfast…and Jury’s Inn Galway was no exception. The breakfast buffet had something for everyone, and a very comfortable dining room. After downing a few cups of much needed coffee, we met our next tour guide for a trip out to the Aran Islands. This turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip – and I can’t impress to others enough how much it’s worth taking a day to go!
The bus arrived at the ferry about 30 minutes outside of Galway…the sun was shining (although the wind kept it a little chilly) and it was a beautiful Irish morning. The ferry offered interior, lower deck seating, but we opted to sit on the upper deck…this was not one of our brightest ideas, as it turned out. Not 10 minutes into our 45 minute ride, we enjoyed a traditional Irish summer storm, which soaked us to the bone. Undaunted, we arrived at the port at Inis Mor (the largest of the three islands) soaking wet and proceeded to dash for the closest pub. This region of Ireland is part of what’s known as a Gaeltacht, or Gaelic-language, area….a place where Irish is still the primary language. However, we had no trouble conversing since almost everyone we met was fluent in English.
The main street at Inis Mor is tiny…but well stocked with several pubs and shopping options. Like most tourists, we stopped in the sweater market – and while we did see some lovely items, we did not purchase anything. Our tour guide assured us that should we change our minds, we would be able to buy equally authentic Aran Wool merchandise on the mainland (and possibly at a lower price), as well as shop online at the store’s official site. After shopping, we met up with a pre-arranged local driver who piled a few of us into his mini-van and proceeded to take off for the inner island.
**Side note**had our tour not pre-arranged for drivers, we would have had no difficulty procuring one. Many of the locals wait near the ferry for tour groups to come in and offer their vans/cars/horse-buggy services to them. Having now seen it, I would have no problem utilizing their services. I do think having a local or well-versed Irish tour guide is important for this leg of the journey.
The driver stopped first at what is known as the Seven Churches. It’s an ancient site of two churches and a graveyard (the 7 Churches name comes from other buildings on the site that most likely were homes of the monks)…and it is fascinating. It’s a gathering of ruined chapels, monastic houses and fragment cemetery stones dating from the 8th to the 11th centuries. A leisurely walk and several snapshots later, we were off for Dun Aengus.
The island is famous for its Iron Age fortress, Dun Aengus. And having now seen it, I agree that it may be one of the most impressive of its kind in all of Europe. The mini-van dropped us off at the visitor’s center, and we proceeded to hike along a well-marked dirt path about 20 minutes to the site. Little is known about this 2,000-year-old Celtic fort; which hangs dramatically (albeit precariously) on the edge of a cliff 300 feet above the Atlantic; and my husband, who hates heights, was less than pleased to discover that safety standards we’ve become accustomed to in the states have no bearing on Inis Mor…there’s no fence — only a sheer drop-off. It offers spectacular views of the ocean, and we sat there for some time marveling at the tenacity of the forts creators.
The next day we departed for Dublin via Birr Castle. Birr Castle is a large estate castle with grounds open to the public for viewing and wandering (for a small fee)…as well as home to what was once the world’s largest telescope. The entry fee gains you access to the grounds and the telescope…but the castle itself is still a residence and closed to the public. If you are in the area, the grounds are worth touring; we were particularly fond of the formal gardens (think period era movies like Pride and Prejudice); but the telescope was also worth seeing.
Ireland is not a large country…and had we not been in a meandering bus, the trip from the west coast near Galway to the east coast near Dublin would have taken approximately 4 hours. However, in order to properly see the beautiful countryside, it’s safer to assume that many rest stops are necessary!
When we arrived in Dublin, we quickly changed clothes and made for the Guinness Brewery Storehouse. The Irish are simply mad for Guinness…and for Arthur Guinness as well. In a spectacular feat of advertising, there is actually an Arthur Guinness day in late September during which people flock to their local pub to raise a pint. Sounds delightful, if you ask me!! All that being said, the tour at the storehouse, which ended at a bar with 360 degree views of Dublin, was well worth the time, and we enjoyed reading and seeing the history of the legendary brewery.
In Dublin, we stayed at another Jury’s Inn; Jury’s Inn Custom House. While the hotel was clean and completely sufficient, we found it to be a little further off the beaten path that we would have liked. The traffic in Dublin, particularly during rush hour, is heavy, so we walked 99% of the time…and found that we needed to walk at least 10-15 minutes to reach the outskirts of the more heavily visited areas.
The next morning, we joined a walking tour of Dublin hosted by Historical Walking Tours of Dublin. We met outside the gates of Trinity College, which was easy to find. The tour was excellent. Our guide walked us around the high points of Dublin (including Trinity College, Temple Bar, Dublin Castle, the old Parliament building, etc), and gave such a comprehensive story of Irish and Dubliner history that ours heads were reeling. Additionally, the fee was modest….maybe $15 USD per person. The tour lasted several hours, provided us an opportunity to sense the pulse of Dublin (and note places worth coming back to for further investigation)….but we were glad to be wearing good shoes!
After the tour we roamed back to Temple Bar to visit a few of the pubs we’d passed earlier in the day. If you’re hungry or thirsty, Temple Bar is a safe place to land. It’s several blocks of nothing but pubs, restaurants, and shopping. I first tried a Guinness stew at The Oliver St. John Gogarty Pub in Temple Bar and it was delightful! We had a pint or two, and then headed for St. Stephen’s green not far away. Wow. Talk about a wonderful city park and relaxing respite from the hustle and bustle of Dublin proper…it was beautiful! Small lakes, trees, benches, ducks, and swans all gather here and truly make you forget that you’re sitting in the busiest metropolis in Ireland.
That night, we met with friends and joined them in bar hopping our way through Temple Bar. I remember liking The Temple Bar and The Bank (though both were very crowded)…but I don’t think any pub there would give a bad experience. Just wander on by…if it’s got good music and a lively crowd, chances are that it’s a safe bet! We woke up early the next day to catch our bus to Avia Stadium for the Navy vs Notre Dame football game. Navy ended up losing, so the less said on that topic the better…but the stadium itself had great architecture…so the day was not a total loss!
Sunday, we were back on the bus and heading for Blarney Castle and Killarney. Blarney was an interesting, albeit touristy, stop. There are a series of stores in Ireland called Woolen Mills…and they sell everything Irish you could possibly want to buy as a tourist. One such store has set itself down just outside the entrance to Blarney castle along with a large restaurant or two; so for convenience sake alone, the stop is worthwhile. There are a few things to note in regards to visiting the castle though…if you are scared of enclosed tight spaces, then you may want to forgo actually waiting in line to kiss the Blarney stone. The stone is on the top of a tower castle, and the line for the stone moves very slowly up a wood staircase. You will also want to have a dollar or two handy to tip the person who holds your legs when you lean out to the kiss the stone. The grounds around the castle are stunningly beautiful; and we took time to explore the druid garden and poison gardens rather than wait in line for the stone (had we had more time – remember, we were on a bus – we may have waited in line to kiss the infamous stone…but we are not sorry to have viewed the gardens instead, under the circumstances).
After Blarney we headed off for Killarney and Killarney National Park, where we took up residence at the Holiday Inn. The hotel was clean, but a little old and in need of some updating. The staff was helpful and friendly, and the prices were less than one might pay elsewhere…so it may be worthwhile to stay there; but here are literally dozens of options in this area of Ireland. We stopped in at the Brehon Hotel at some point during our visit, and found the accommodations there to be much more luxurious than where we were staying. However, from a pedestrian standpoint, I wouldn’t stay much further out of town than where we were staying…it’s about a 7-10 minute walk into town from the Holiday Inn.
Killarney is the poster-child for what we, as Americans, want to see when we travel to Ireland. The city is surrounded by lush meadows and forests, its adorable Main Street is bursting with pubs and eateries, and there are lots of stone ruins to explore. Taking the advice of friends, we rented bikes (about $20 USD per person) for the day and spent most of the morning and early afternoon biking around Ross Castle and one of the lakes nearby (the bike rental shops have plenty of advice and maps available). This decision was one I consider to be a once in a lifetime experience…being on bicycles, we were able to pass the pedestrian traffic (Ross Castle is a walkable distance from downtown Killarney) and spend several hours in virtual isolation surrounded by the mystical forests of Killarney National Park. If I were a fairy, I’d want to live here. That evening we hopped from dinner at Bricin Restaurant (pricey, but good) to drinks at the pub at Killarney Grand Hotel. The pub was hopping, and featured a wonderful local music group with plenty of dancing and good times.
**A quick side note about food in Ireland…restaurants are generally pretty expensive. If you are on a budget, plan to eat in pubs. The food is tasty, a little more economical, and there are pubs EVERYWHERE! They do tend to stop serving food earlier than the restaurants though, so plan accordingly.
The next day we returned to Shannon Airport with our tour bus and picked up our itty-bitty Nissan Micra rental car. We booked through Avis rent-a-car, and the entire transaction was flawless. With nothing more than a US Drivers License and a Passport, we were on our way. We were actually very pleased to have a small car – the roads in Ireland – aside from the main highways – tend to be rather small. Under the circumstances, having the smaller vehicle was absolutely worthwhile, as well as better on the wallet. We rented an automatic (which are few and far between, so if you cannot drive a stick shift, plan your rental well in advance!) being fearful of our ability to manage a stick-shift while driving and steering from the “wrong” side of the road; but for those who are wondering, the pedal alignment is the same as in the US…so while it might have taken a few hours to feel accustomed to it, I’m confident we could have handled a manual transmission.
Originally, we’d planned to go to Northern Ireland and the city of Belfast; but after careful consideration we decided to stay in the Republic of Ireland and the southern cities. As it turned out, we definitely made the right choice. Not only did we end up spending less time in the car, we discovered the summer months in Ireland tend to be “protest season” for Northern Ireland. A few days into our trip we began noticing local news stories discussing a new riot that had broken out in Belfast…and was continuing until the day we left. Over conversation at a pub in Kilkenny, we talked with a young lady who’d been born on the boarder of The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland years before. She informed us that it’s pretty typical for that type of thing to occur while the weather is warm. I’d still like to visit Belfast someday, but I’m very thankful that we did not make the trek up there only to discover protests and riots occurring.
Anyway…equipped with our teeny tiny car, we took off for the interior of Ireland and the 400 year old city of Kilkenny. The city is simply loaded with shops, pubs, restaurants, and hotels….and we discovered that it’s a favorite weekend getaway location for Irish locals too. Upon arriving (via the back country roads from Roscrea) we parked our car at the Kilford Arms Hotel and checked in. We chose this hotel based on a few factors; primarily that they had a parking lot, and its ideal proximity to downtown. Those were both perks, and were everything we had been led to expect based on the reviews we found online. However, our stay in the hotel itself was the worst one we had in Ireland. The hotel is dingy, dark, and in desperate need of updating. The bathroom had mold. Had we stayed in Kilkenny longer than one night, we would have found another hotel.
Kilkenny is home to what’s argued to be the best kept castle in Ireland…it’s almost storybook perfect. We did not take the guided tour of the castle (having heard in advance that the majority of the castle’s original internal furnishings had been sold off years ago), but we did stroll around the castle and take in its extensive park for about an hour. The highlight of Kilkenny, for us, was our stop in the Smithwick’s St Francis Abbey Brewery for their tour. Reserve this tour in advance! We booked a few weeks ahead of time via an email to the brewery, and are glad we did. There are limited numbers of tours each day, and they were regrettably turning people away when we arrived at the door to secure and pay for our spot. The brewery is built on the grounds of a medieval abbey from the 13th century; and the tour pauses in the ruins long enough to take photos and hear some great history on the city and brewery itself. Our tour guide was fantastic – a retired brew master who seemed to love two things…Smithwick’s and the Catholic Church….he was delightful, witty, and a wealth of information. The tour ends in the brewery’s cellar bar with a delicious pint of brew, poured from a tap in a way that puts USA bartenders to shame.
The next morning, we woke early and checked out of the hotel. En-route for Waterford, we stopped at a 12th century ruin called Jerpoint Abbey to take the tour there. By this point in our trip, we’d been to many abbeys and ruins (much to my husband’s growing dismay), but even he couldn’t withstand the alluring nature of this one. Jerpoint is definitely among the most impressive of the ruins we stopped at. It’s well worth taking the tour – if you attempt to walk through it yourself you’ll likely miss out on many points of interest. The highlights included intricate tomb carvings and massive crypts. In addition, the setting is beautiful; and we got a good sense of how important the Cistercians were during that time period.
Because my husband is a loving indulgent man, we made the hour drive from Jerpoint Abbey to Waterford in order to take the crystal factory tour. The tour is a little pricey; I seem to recall $25 per person. But it was a very interesting circuit that allowed us to see the art of crystal being melted down and blown, the etching stations, and the process of polishing the crystal. Those Waterford Crystal merchandising experts certainly aren’t dumb; the tour ends in the gift shop. One beautiful crystal decanter later, we were back on the road and making for Kinsale.
I do not know how to adequately explain how lovely Kinsale is. It’s a sailing town, with beautiful boats and water to see from nearly any scenic outlook and it’s the culinary capitol of Ireland. We likened it to Annapolis, MD – and immediately fell in love. Any return trip to Ireland is likely to include a stop here. We stayed at the Old Bank House Bed and Breakfast; the staff was excellent and friendly, the rooms were clean and furnished in great antique pieces, we had a view of the harbor, and we simply could not have been happier with the choice (if you stay here, ask for a room on the higher levels so that you can take in the view!).
Wandering around Kinsale was a lot of fun. The main downtown area is filled with boutique shops and eateries, and the colorful facades of the buildings lend a playful quality to the experience. Over our two day stay, we stopped in the Desmond Castle and International Wine Museum (a nod at the Irish’s impact on the wine trade, both past and present), shopped, wandered, ate good food (which is everywhere in Kinsale) and took a ferry cruise through the harbor past Charles Fort. We were not disappointed with any of it; but we particularly enjoyed the ferry cruise. It was a bit pricey per person (probably $20/person), but included blankets and warm drinks…so we considered it worthwhile. By far, our favorite two food and drink stops were at the Vista Wine Bar (nice patio setting on the harbor), and The Spaniard. The Spaniard is a quick walk from downtown, and just a great place to grab a pint. It’s also on the way to Charles Fort, if you chose to walk there!
Sadly, our time and Kinsale came to an end all too quickly. On a whim, we decided to drive back towards the Shannon Airport via the Dingle Peninsula. It took us a couple of hours to make the drive to the peninsula, and another couple of hours to drive the peninsula itself. The Dingle Peninsula offered what might have been some of the most breathtaking views of the Irish countryside and sweeping ocean vistas. However, the road itself is not for the faint of heart. Our Nissan Micra took up (easily) three-quarter of the roads available space…and it was considered to be a two lane road. We were fortunate in that we drove on a less busy day…but even with traffic the view would be nothing short of spectacular. Some of our best pictures were taken during the 2-3 hour drive, which winds its way past islands, pastures, sheep, small waterways, cliffs, and ancient ruins.
Eventually, we started heading back to the Shannon Airport; about a 2.5 hour trip from the peninsula. We returned our car to the airport – we arrived after the Avis lot had closed, so they had us park it in short term parking and drop the keys at the counter…again, a very easy relaxed process. Then we literally walked from the airport to the Park Inn by Radisson, located a good golf swing away from the airport. From a convenience standpoint, this hotel cannot be beat. However, it is a little noisy and the food options are limited (basically to the pub and restaurant on site). But by this point in our journey, we were ready to head for home and our own bed, so convenience won out over location.
The hotel desk clerk called promptly at 4:15am for our early return flight to the States. Check in at the airport was easy, and we had plenty of time to browse the duty-free shop on our way to the gate. The duty-free shopping here was very good – had we needed any last minute Irish gifts or souvenirs, they would have had it. Thankfully, the return flight was uneventful in every way…and for as much as we’d enjoyed our Ireland adventure; it was a pleasure to come home.
In retrospect, there are only one or two things I wish I’d done differently. One, I would have packed insect repellent (mosquitoes like Ireland too!), and better walking shoes. But on the whole, traveling to Ireland was among the easiest trips I’ve taken. The food was good, the people were incredibly friendly, and getting from point A to point B was simple and straightforward. Road rage doesn’t appear to exist there either, a perk for the tourists! I would absolutely go to Ireland again in the future…if only to hear a friendly local say once again “a thousand welcomes to you!”