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Ireland - The 40 Shades of GreenAuthor: Heather Ranes (More Trip Reviews by Heather Ranes)
Date of Trip: August 2012
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!”
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