Thursday, July 28, 2022

Cobh and Blarney

I fell asleep quickly at Midleton Park Hotel, exhausted by travel and jet lag. I slept soundly until about 6:00 AM local time. I tried to go back to sleep when I saw that I had another hour before my alarm, but couldn't. I peeked out the window of our hotel room, where I spied a cute chubby calico cat perched on the doorstep of a charming row house across the street. With my extra time that morning, I decided to take a leisurely approach to doing hair and makeup, and getting my suitcase packed up for the next destination.

Our tour group kept a brisk pace with a loaded itinerary. Our second full day with the group started with a drive to Cobh (pronounced "cove" according to our coach driver, Conor from Donegal.) I loved Cobh with its colorful buildings, charming main street, idyllic seaside views, and impressive giant church atop a hill. The harbor town currently known as Cobh, was originally called Cove. In 1849 Queen Victoria set foot on Irish soil for the first time at Cove. To honor the event, the name was changed from Cove to Queenstown. After the formation of the Irish Free State, the town again returned to the name Cove, but in Irish language form: Cobh. 

statue of Holy Mary at Cobh

cute pub near harbor

hilltop view toward Cobh harbor

St. Colman's Cathedral dominating the hilltop

cute colors in Cobh

Scots Church in Cobh

Chad and I chose to visit the Cobh Heritage Centre, rather than Titanic Experience Cobh, because our coach was parked right next to CBC. (Location, location, location!) I'm happy we experienced Cobh Heritage Centre, because it featured lots of good exhibits and information about many waves of Irish emigration, rather than just the Titanic ship story. I found the far-flung places of the Irish diaspora fascinating: Australia, Jamaica, Bermuda, Barbados, Argentina, Brazil, and many more places you might not expect!

After not quite enough time in Cobh, we hit the road to Blarney Castle and Gardens. Chad and I chose to forgo the ninety minute line to kiss the Blarney Stone, especially during these germy times. Instead we explored the gorgeous gardens and grounds surrounding the Blarney estate. The Blarney grounds are huge with over 60 acres! I loved the beautifully bewitching Poison Garden growing Wolfsbane, Mandrake, and Cat Mint. I also loved the Fern Garden complete with a waterfall and ferns cultivated to look tall like palm trees. I wish we had a little more time at Blarney. Chad and I definitely rushed through the lake walk trail to meet our tour coach on time.

Blarney Castle

After Blarney, our group checked in to the next hotel on our itinerary, the Rose Hotel in Tralee. We had about an hour to freshen up (or for a "wash up and brush up," as tour leader Richard says) before loading into the coach to go to dinner at a different hotel in Killarney. At dinner, we sat at a big table with a new group of people from our tour: three retired British teachers who were friends for many years plus one of their husbands, and two sweet elderly British widowed men who travel together each summer. Collectively this bunch of fellow tour group members were delightful dinner company with thoughtful and kind conversation about different social media platforms, movies, television shows, modern phone etiquette, and education. 

After dinner our group went to a Celtic Steps Show. I acknowledge the heritage of Irish dance, as well as the skill and discipline involved. True confession time though, I do not enjoy watching traditional Irish dance or Irish step shows. To my very untrained eye, it's repetitive and stiff and monotonous. The ladies' dance outfits especially look scratchy and constrictive. If you love traditional Irish dance and traditional Irish music, please continue to enjoy it. 

By the way, I turned off comments on this blog a few years ago. Just whisper your comments down your kitchen sink drain if you need to get any strong opinions out of your system. If you have any scammy business links you wanted to post in the comments, take those over to Instagram. Thanks!

I slept beautifully at the very comfortable Rose Hotel in Tralee. Would recommend. We stayed two nights there. I admittedly didn't love packing up and moving hotels so often on this trip, but I acknowledge the need to be in close proximity to each day's attractions versus spending hours in the coach each day. 

Come back to this blog in about a week for more Irish travelogue adventures. Nobody is paying me for these posts, so I'm not committing to a schedule. I have dishes to wash, laundry to handle, walls to paint, and cats who need about an hour of brushing and playing each day. Responsibilities! Plus my (totally imaginary) housekeeper went missing during the worst of pandemic stay at home times. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Cork City & Jameson Distillery

As previously mentioned, Chad and I finally arrived in Ireland for a nine day tour in June of 2022. The first evening we met our fellow tour group members, we were somewhat gleefully informed that we were the only two members of the tour group who weren't retired. The elder Brits eyeballed us with some suspicion at first. The few elder Americans who were also on the tour didn't find us until the next morning.

I'm not going to lie, although Chad and I were on our very best behavior, dinner the first evening was rough. We were seated at a table with four British people who were each about thirty years our senior. We exchanged pleasantries of names, hometowns, and what brought each of us on this trip. Then the Brits started talking British politics, somewhat heatedly. Oh no! This is not we-just-met conversation! Regardless of age or nationality, if you choose to start a sentence with the preamble, "I'm not racist, but...", you are likely about to announce your prejudices. Oh no! Chad and I just met these people, and had another eight days with them, so we reacted to their opinions with chilly silence. Plus, they were each interrupting themselves to make requests from the one and only server for our group of twenty-four diners, so our disapproving silence likely went completely unnoticed.

Near the end of dinner service, our tour leader introduced himself and gave a quick verbal orientation of our tour itinerary for the group. As soon as politely possible, Chad and I excused ourselves from dinner. We took our jet lagged selves back to the seen-better-days hotel room for much needed showers and sleep. 

Bright and early the next morning, we strategically secured a table for two (only two!) at breakfast. After breakfast as we lined up to board the tour bus, we met more of our tour group members. Thankfully these other group members did NOT immediately express their strong political beliefs, instead opting to ask how we slept the night before, and if we were experiencing jet lag. Our bus dropped us all at the Dublin train station where we caught the 9:00 AM train to Cork. On the train, Chad and I sat with our tour leader, Richard. He is a delightful man from Yorkshire with a dry wit. We chatted about pre-pandemic travels, pets, and hobbies. Richard overheard me refer to Chad's rain boots as his Frankenstein boots (the boots are green and black and boxy.) He told us about Whitby Goth Weekend in North Yorkshire, which he finds very interesting and amusing.

When our group arrived at the train station in Cork, we met even more members of our tour group. (There were twenty-four people total including our tour leader.) We chatted about weather, tea preferences, and other polite topics as we waited for our bus to Cork City center. Tour leader, Richard, gave us a bit of history information about Cork, handed out maps, and told us what time we should meet the bus again. We were thankfully on our own to explore Cork for a few hours and feed ourselves lunch. Chad and I made a beeline for the English Market, which is an indoor market hall comprised of many different food and beverage stalls. We found really good veggie sandwiches at The Sandwich Stall. We also bought some fruit and baked goods. 

After lunch we wandered around Cork, pausing to gawp at churches, cathedrals, a big statue, and ducking into cute shops. We also went to Costa (a coffee and tea shop) for some tea and to find a restroom. (There are so seldom enough public restrooms in tourist areas.) After waiting a few minutes for our turn in line for the restroom, Chad let me go first. This may seem to be very nice of him, but it was more like I was the advance scout going to check out the situation. There was no toilet seat. I hovered above the cold porcelain rim of the toilet, which was surely crawling with a mind-boggling collection of germs, bacteria, and grime. Upon exiting, I warned Chad, but he's a man who can easily urinate while standing, so the lack of toilet seat wasn't as big of a deal for him. There was a sign in the restroom from Costa corporate asking patrons to inform the manager if the restroom wasn't clean and comfortable. I did NOT bother the manager of the busy Costa about the missing toilet seat. But Chad and I joked about the sign, and the lack of toilet seat, and the manager's possible response if we had chosen to stand in line to inform them. "Really? I am shocked! Shocked! Please accept my sincere apologies. I'll have someone leave this busy beverage service establishment to procure a new toilet seat and make repairs post-haste!" Like they don't have enough to deal with at the moment with staffing shortages, cranky customers, and supply chain woes. 

National Monument in Cork City honors Irish patriots

After our free time in Cork, the tour bus transported our group to a guided tour at Jameson Distillery. I was surprised at how massive the buildings and grounds are at the distillery. Our tour guide was a quick witted, fast talking, young man, barely of drinking age. He told us all about the history of making whiskey in Ireland, the science of whiskey fermentation, and the history of the people of Jameson Distillery. The rooms we visited on our tour were dark and cool. Despite the interesting material, I felt myself starting to doze off while standing upright, because my jet lag and lack of sleep on our trip thus far left me so drowsy. I almost skipped the whiskey tasting, thinking it would complicate my jet lag, but I'm glad I decided to partake. I rarely drink alcohol these days, but that Jameson Irish whiskey really was smooth and delicious.

Jameson Barrel House

Jameson Cask Room: perfect for a nap

Jameson and ginger ale cocktails, refreshing

My adorable travel companion at Jameson Distillery

After Jameson, our group checked in at the next hotel. Midleton Park Hotel is clean, modern and lovely. As our tour guide, Richard, likes to say we had "time for a wash up and a brush up" before meeting our group again for dinner. Chad and I sat with a different older British couple on that night. They told us all about their children and grandchildren, not asking anything about Chad or me. Fine, good, that's nice, oh what cute photos of your grandkids, etc...

Quick sidebar about the hotel dinners: every single dinner, Chad (a pescatarian) had a fish filet atop a mound of mashed potatoes. Every single dinner I (a strict vegetarian) had a veggie curry, which is apparently the unofficial vegetarian dish of Ireland. This happened at many different hotel dining rooms. They share just the one recipe book industry wide, I guess. There were no green salads on offer. *sigh* I love green salads, and need to eat approximately five to seven green salads a week. The veggies typically on offer in Ireland are potatoes (of course), carrots, radishes and swede / rutabaga. Creativity and variety occurred only when it came to desserts each night: bakewell tarts, deconstructed red velvet cake, chocolate Guinness cake, and even an exotic (by Irish standards) Key lime tartlet.

Quick sidebar about the different plugs and voltage in Ireland compared to the U.S.A.: of course Chad and I brought outlet adaptors for our electronics, but I did not bring a voltage converter for my curling iron. I just hoped my curling iron would work in Ireland, which is not an effective or diligent way to prepare for a trip abroad. My curling iron did kind of work in Ireland, but I had to set it to the absolute lowest heat setting, and even then, the curling iron seemed too hot. I think I fried the wiring in my curling iron by not having a voltage converter. It bravely lasted for the duration of the trip, but I had to lay it to rest (or risk seriously burning my hair) shortly after returning home. Sorry, curling iron, you deserved better from me.

Alas, poor curling iron, I mourn your death.

Tune in later (not committing myself to a schedule) for more Irish tour shenanigans. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Third Schedule Lucky Irish Charm

Travel around Ireland has long been on my travel bingo card. In December of 2019, after much research and budgeting, I booked a tour called Enchanting Emerald Isle. I bought round trip plane tickets for Dublin Ireland. Everything successfully planned, Chad and I looked forward to our nine day trip all around Republic of Ireland in June of 2020. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!

In late April of 2020, I got a voicemail from a man with a lovely British accent informing me that my Enchanting Emerald Isle tour needed to be rescheduled due to the global pandemic. I also got a real loosey goosey email from Delta letting me know that the flight to Dublin was canceled, and that I had a year to use the credits for that flight. So I phoned the man with the lovely British accent, and we postponed the reservation for the Enchanting Emerald Isle tour from June of 2020 to June of 2021, when the world would surely be up and running again. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!

In late April of 2021, I called and emailed the man with the lovely British accent, wondering if his company still existed, and if we should reschedule Enchanting Emerald Isle tour for June of 2022? After a few suspenseful days, he got back to me. Yes, the company still existed. Yes, we have to push the reservation for Enchanting Emerald Isle tour back again. Sometime during 2021, I received another loosey goosey email from Delta that my travel credits for that canceled flight to Dublin extended through December 31, 2022, because laws. Hoping for the best in 2022, but trying to remain flexible, I shrugged and crossed my fingers. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha! 

Finally! It happened! In June of 2022, Chad and I went on the Enchanting Emerald Isle tour all over Republic of Ireland. It was everything I dared to hope it would be. There were also several hiccups, because COVID-19 isn't done reinventing itself yet, and the airlines are woefully understaffed.

Buckle up, buttercup! It's travelogue time! (Sorry if that sounded aggressive. I mean for it to sound familiar and playful with just a little tinge of foreshadowing that not everything goes as planned, like ever, but especially the past few years.)

Cliffs of Moher: a preview

Leading up to our departure date, I triple-checked our passport expirations, our vaccination cards, our reservation with the pet-sitters, and our flight arrangements. I did all the anxious things I do before a trip out of the country, such as sending a detailed travel itinerary to my best friend, my nicest neighbor friend, and Chad's mom. I made sure that the pet-sitters knew who should look after our cats in case of our untimely demise. (Hi, my name is Jennifer. I have anxiety. I choose to sublimate my catastrophizing with planning for disasters and communication of those plans.) I made sure that Chad and I packed extra socks and extra underwear. I told Chad we had to get to the airport four hours before our flight. He knew I was anxious, and did not argue. 

On our travel day, we made it to the airport very early. We checked in for our flight with ease. We made it through airport security in under thirty minutes. Everything was going smoothly. Hahahahahahaha! Then I got a text from Delta informing me that our flight from Austin to Atlanta was delayed by fifty minutes. What that text did not say was that delay meant we would miss our flight from Atlanta to Dublin, so good luck with that. I noticed that Delta had another flight from Austin to Atlanta set to begin boarding soon. As calmly and kindly as I could, I approached the gate for that earlier flight. I asked the gate agent if she could help me switch to that flight, or if I needed to go to a different service desk.  I explained my flight delay situation. The gate agent calmly and politely explained that the earlier flight to Atlanta was very full, and very unlikely to accommodate us. I said I understood. I said we could rebook our connecting flight to Dublin once we got to Atlanta if it came down to that. The gate agent took our names, and added us to the standby list. Did you catch the running themes here? Calmly. Kindly. Politely. 

Ten minutes later, the gate agent paged our names. She said we could squeeze onto the earlier flight, and warned us that the seats were not good: middle seats across the aisle from each other on the back rows by the bathroom; not the Delta Comfort Plus we paid for on the later flight. "I understand. Thank you so much. That's fine as long as we make our connection," I said. Then that superstar gate agent went above and beyond. She asked for our luggage claim stickers. She went out in the 105 degree Fahrenheit heat, on that even hotter tarmac, and physically made sure that our bags got on the same flight as we did. Thank you, Pamela from Delta! I submitted a rave review for Pamela on the Delta website. I hope Delta gives her a raise. 

We made it to Atlanta. We made our connecting flight to Dublin. On that flight to Dublin we enjoyed the Delta Comfort Plus seats very much. We arrived in the Dublin airport at 10:05 the next morning, local time. So very jet lagged and bleary eyed, we made it through customs, found a taxi and made it to the first hotel where we would meet up with the other members of our tour group later in the evening. Ta-da!

Chad and I knew we couldn't check-in to our hotel until 3:00 PM local time, so we stashed our bags with the front desk and got a taxi to nearby Malahide Castle and Gardens to begin our Irish sight-seeing adventures. The taxi driver asked if we wanted to walk the nature trails around Malahide Castle, or be dropped off at the visitor center. We opted to walk part of the 4.5 kilometer Malahide Castle Demesne Sylvan Trail first. When we left home the day before, Austin temperature reached 105 degrees Fahrenheit / 40 degrees Celsius. The temperature at Malahide that day provided such sweet relief at 59 degrees Fahrenheit / 15 degrees Celsius. The path was shady, with plenty of flora lining the edges. After a bit of relaxed wandering, we found the 800 year old castle. It did not disappoint!

Malahide Castle Main Entrance

Malahide Castle Backside

Malahide Church Ruins

Malahide Fairy Garden Entrance / West Lawn

Malahide Pond in Walled Garden

These photos are only a small fraction of the beauty of the gardens, grounds and butterfly greenhouse habitat that we experienced at Malahide Castle. We got rained on a bit, but we weren't upset by it at all! Rain, cool temperatures, and lush greenery are big parts of why we wanted to visit Ireland!

Around 3:30 local time, we got a taxi back to our hotel so we could check-in and freshen up before meeting the other members of our tour group for dinner. The first hotel (not going to name it) was not that nice, in a worn carpet, frumpy way. I was perplexed by our small room with two twin beds, stale air and dusty ambience. This is a four star hotel in Ireland? Luckily we only had one night there, and the staff were friendly and helpful. 

The majority of the other members of our group were traveling together from Holyhead, Wales. The majority of the other members of our group were British. And all of the other members of our group were retired, except for me and Chad, as our tour guide jovially announced upon meeting us the first night. Our tour guide, Richard, thanked us for bringing down the average age of the group. Nowhere in any of the booking details does it say that these tours are for retired people, but apparently retired people self-select for these tours. Oh no! Did I commit Chad and myself to nine days of rambling around Ireland with a bunch of slow, cranky septuagenarians? Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!

Spoiler alert: The retired people on our tour were (for the most part) extremely friendly, inclusive, fun, and ready to explore Ireland at a fast pace! We were all (or mostly all) great friends by the end!

Tune in later (I'm not committing myself to a schedule) for all the Ireland tour travels.