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Ireland - The 40 Shades of Green

Author: Heather Ranes (More Trip Reviews by 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!

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