European WhirlwindAuthor: Amanda M.R.
Date of Trip: August 2009
Part I. My husband and I planned this vacation for years. Three weeks in Europe: first half in the British Isles, second half in Italy, and a too-short stop in Paris in between. We knew the itinerary was ambitious, but wanted to make sure we hit the important spots -- in case we never got a chance to go back. Well-traveled friends and acquaintances said we'd regret the quick pace, but we didn't. Now we know what to skip next trip and where to spend more time.
The trip began on Saturday, August 1. We had booked an early afternoon flight to Newark, New Jersey so the pace would be more relaxed than if we had a morning flight. Then we took Continental Airlines flight 125 departing at 9:45 p.m. and arriving in Dublin, Ireland at 9:25 a.m. on Sunday. We experienced no flight delays or unusual security issues, and the scenery coming in for landing was lush and green. After quick clearance through Irish customs, we brushed our teeth and freshened up in the airport restrooms and loaded up on euros at the airport ATM.
I knew it would be a memorable trip when we walked out of the airport and immediately experienced difficulty communicating with the bus driver even though we were speaking the same language. (By the way, a "single" is a one-way ticket.) We took the Aircoach bus from the airport to Merrion Square North. It cost seven euros each and took approximately 20 minutes.
We couldn't check into our hotel that early, so walked around the city and rested in two beautiful parks until check-in time: the Garden of Remembrance and St. Stephen's Green. Then we went back to the O'Callaghan Mont Clare Hotel Dublin, right across from Merrion Square. The hotel was quite nice with helpful clerks, an elevator, air conditioning, and private bathrooms. It averaged $80 USD per night including taxes. I highly recommend it for its proximity to the National Gallery and the great little breakfast and lunch cafe right around the corner, but if you are into the nightlife scene and don't want to spend money on taxis, stay in the Temple Bar District to save your feet.
We enjoyed Dublin very much. Although touristy and a bit overpriced, the Temple Bar District was fun. The atmosphere at the Porterhouse Brewing Company was enjoyable, so we went there twice for drinks and fish and chips. The fish and chips cost 13.5 euros. Portions are very large, so I recommend ordering something to share.
On Wednesday, August 5, we enjoyed a lazy walk across the River Liffey to catch the InterCity train from Dublin Connolly to Belfast central in Northern Ireland, United Kingdom. The pre-booked tickets cost 19 euros each. The station in Dublin was spacious and modern with plenty of monitors to make sure you know exactly what is going on at all times. Train travel days are so relaxing, and this one was no different. We really enjoyed seeing the Irish countryside full of old houses, hedgerows, rolling hills, and castle ruins.
Upon arrival at Belfast central, we got U.K. pounds from the ATM, then it was a five-minute walk to the Belfast Travelodge. The room was clean and located in walking distance of the beautiful City Hall and Victoria Square Shopping Centre's viewing dome, although I could not believe it cost $121 USD per night. I guess that is what happens when you stay in the middle of the city. It was fine, but next time we will spend a little more money and stay farther south for more character and nightlife.
Wednesday night, we ate at McHugh's Bar and Restaurant, 29-31 Queen's Square. It is housed in the oldest building in Belfast, built in 1711. The champ and wine was excellent and we enjoyed our view overlooking the square. Eating at McHugh's was the highlight of our time in Belfast.
On Thursday, August 6, we attempted to rent a car to drive up to the Antrim Coast, but they were all booked, so we headed to Great Victoria Street train station. Unfortunately, it adjoins to Europa BusCentre and the signage was not clear to us. We thought it was all one big ticket counter for bus and train travel. We asked the clerk for train tickets to Portrush and he barked, "No train; it's bus." We thought he meant we had to take a bus, so we bought tickets. After we walked around the station for a while waiting on our bus, we realized there were two separate ticket counters. They would not refund the bus tickets, but we bought train tickets anyway. Luckily, we were able to use the bus tickets later to get around the coast.
The train debarkation process in Portrush could use some improvement. All passengers have to file through one gate the size of a single door. It took about 15 minutes, so I was expecting a reason at the end, such as passport checks. Nothing -- just too many people trying to get through the small gate. We walked to the welcome center and called a taxi to take us to Dunluce Castle. Amazing views. Do not miss this if you to go Northern Ireland. The castle seems so wistful perched on the edge of the rock cliffs. County Antrim is so beautiful -- I plan to go back with a rental car and stay in the country for a week or two.
We were determined to use those bus tickets, so walked out to the road to catch the bus to Giant's Causeway and then to the town of Colerain, where we caught a train back to Belfast Great Victoria Street station.
On Friday, August 7, we went to Europa BusCentre to catch a ride to Belfast International Airport. It took 30 minutes to get to the airport. Security staff took my solid powder deodorant saying anything that can smooth on to your skin is a liquid (?), but the shops were nice and we bought a few things...including new deodorant. The boarding process was a little chaotic in our terminal. Many flights had the same gate number and it was hard to hear who was supposed to be lining up at any given time, so people weren't quite sure what to do.
Our EasyJet flight to Edinburgh was economical and enjoyable, albeit pretty bumpy. We shared the plane with what seemed to be a group of happy, tipsy Scottish soccer players who did not mind the bumps and made us forget them too. We took the Airlink 100 bus from Stand 19 to Waverley Bridge, which cost 3.5 pounds each and took about 25 minutes. We had read that Scots don't like to take Ulster pounds and Brits don't like to take Scottish pounds, and so on, but we experienced no issues using them interchangeably throughout the U.K.
The walk to the Regent House Hotel in Edinburgh took about 10 minutes, a little too far if you prefer to be near the nightlife. Although it seemed expensive to me at $195 USD per night, it cost less than other hotels I investigated. Regardless, our room was charming, complete with beautiful views of the city, a full tea set, and antique chairs and curtains. The pipes in our private bathroom did go out one morning, though, so my husband had to wrap in a towel and run covered with soap to the shared bathroom in the hall.
In Edinburgh, we ate at Milne's Bar and Queen Anne's Cafe inside Edinburgh Castle. Milne's was very crowded, so we had to squeeze into a corner at the bar, which was fine with us. The fish and chips were good, and the bartender was cheerful and personable. Queen Anne's Cafe was surprisingly tasty and a nice respite from being on our feet touring the castle. It was also nice to be seated as opposed to fighting for a seat like we'd had to do everywhere else. My husband tried Innis & Gunn Scottish beer and I had salmon and potato cake.
One week was just right for a first trip to Ireland and Scotland, but when we go back, we'll probably stay two weeks.
Part II. On Sunday, August 9, we departed Edinburgh's Waverley train station at 10:30 a.m. and arrived at London King's Cross at 3:09 p.m. The pre-booked tickets cost 33 pounds each, and the ride was relaxing. I enjoyed looking at all the sheep. Upon arrival at King's Cross, we tried to purchase an unlimited Underground (subway) pass at the kiosk, but got an error. The error was not clear, but I assumed it was because we don't have a chip-imbedded credit card. The grinning fellow at the ticket counter confirmed that was the issue, but said, "That's okay. I have a different machine back here for you Americans."
We took the Underground to Bayswater station in the Westminster/Hyde Park area. Our hotel, Hyde Park Towers, was only about a block and a half from the station. Of course, it took longer than it should have to get there since the hostel across the street goes by the same name. The hotel lobby was elegant and the front desk clerk spoke many languages. We also very much enjoyed the private dining patio in front of the hotel's restaurant and bar. The only drawback to this hotel is lack of air conditioning in the rooms.
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