Saturday, August 27, 2022

Ninety Minutes in Galway & Strangers on a Train to Dublin

When I tell friends about my trip to Ireland, many ask, "Did you go to Galway? Didn't you love Galway? I loved it!" Not wanting to disappoint my enthusiastic friends, I smile and nod, and let them gush over their time in Galway. Truthfully, our tour group spent a little less than ninety minutes in Galway before we had to hop on a train to Dublin. We were set loose with the only direction to meet our tour leader outside of the train station at an appointed time. Left to our own devices, Chad and I walked very quickly a few blocks radius around the train station, snapping photos of anything that looked important or charming. We didn't spend any time in the local pubs. We didn't soak in the ambiance. We didn't chat up any locals. We just hurried through the city center. 

A cute pub that we didn't enter

I don't know, some church or maybe a prison?

Oscar Wilde statue

Galway Hooker Monument (I looked it up later.)

Some other cute bar that we also didn't enter

Walking ahead of me is Chris, an Englishman with lots of photos of his grandkids.

Chad and I made it to the train station on time. We took the modern, bland, commuter train to Dublin. We had to chat with some American tourist randos who sat with us on the train. I should really get better about putting in earphones and staring moodily out the window. Chad and I are both cursed with the people-pleaser, try-hard genes, and are usually too polite for our own good. At this point in our trip, I was happy to chat with most of the members of our own tour group, but I really didn't want to expend the emotional energy to feign interest for other American tourist strangers. On the train near us, there was also a group of young women in their best and brightest going out clothes, hairdos, and extensive makeup. They were headed to a concert in Dublin by Irish rock band The Script. They were giddy with excitement, and so cute with anticipation of their first pandemic era concert. 

In Dublin, our group tried to check in at our next hotel, but none of our rooms were ready. Our tour leader, Richard, sat in the hotel lobby guarding luggage for several hours while the rest of us ventured out for some free time in Dublin. Chad and I walked with Trish and Reg (two of our favorite tour elders) to Guinness Storehouse for respective pre-booked self-guided tours. The route covered 2.9 km/1.8 miles. Trish kept a brisk pace with me. Reg started to lag near the end, and Chad hung back with him. 

Trish told me that she caught some man checking me out. I laughed and explained that I'm happily married, way too old for that young man, and that he probably wasn't even looking at me. Then Trish asked, "So is Chad older than you?" 
I replied, "No. I'm actually older. I robbed the cradle by two years." 
Trish looked impressed and proclaimed, "He's your toy-boy! Well done!" Trish told me that her daughter is a a few years older than I am, and said conspiratorially, "So I could be your mum." I think of Trish more like my fun, cheeky, British aunt who can walk really fast.

Guinness Storehouse is like Disneyland for all things beer production and distribution. It gets crowded in some sections, especially in the 360 degree panoramic bar on the top floor. I don't like the taste of Guinness beer. Blech. But I enjoyed the whole Guinness Storehouse experience. If you're a tourist in Dublin, go to Guinness Storehouse. Book a timed entry online beforehand to avoid long lines. 

Our hotel in Dublin was the Belvedere Hotel. This hotel looks deceptively posh in the lobby with crystal bedazzled light fixtures and a sparkly bar just off the lobby. However, the hotel seems like two old buildings were joined into one bigger building with split-levels, meandering hallways, a labyrinthine system of short staircases, and two elevators for two separate wings of the hotel. We got lost a few times. There was no central air-conditioning in the hotel. Chad and I borrowed a fan from the front desk, opened the windows a smidge at night, and slept well. The bathroom was very modern with a walk in shower partitioned off by a clear glass wall. Unfortunately, the shower drain couldn't keep up with the healthy water pressure. Each time Chad or I showered a mini flood formed all over the bathroom floor. On the bright side, the view from of our hotel room windows was charmingly Irish with row houses featuring colorful entry doors.

The vegetarian option for dinner at Belvedere Hotel was a delicious and light pasta dish. Finally, something other than veg curry! After dinner, many of our tour elders headed out to Dublin pubs for carousing and singalongs. Chad and I chose sleep, because we had a full day of Dublin sightseeing ahead of us. 

If you're not entirely sick of my Irish travelogue yet, come back next week for a final full day in Dublin. There's a lot of ground to cover still! 

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Running Late to Connemara Sheep Dogs & Kylemore Abbey

Ready for another jam-packed itinerary touring the Republic of Ireland? Get some Irish breakfast tea down your neck, because we are on a tight schedule. First stop is the Connemara Celtic Crystal Factory in Moycullen where we learned about the detail-heavy work of glass cutting, and the Celtic and Gaelic influences in the designs of fine crystal products made here. We watched a demonstration of the glass cutting by an actual Irish artisan. He had impressive skills and steady hands after many years of study and practice. Our tour group elders bought a lot of crystal vases, bowls and whiskey glasses at Connemara Celtic Crystal Factory. Chad and I met the shop cat. She was cute, but only wanted to be pet for about thirty seconds, thanks, and bye now. 

Irish shop cat about to say, "that's enough now."

Hurry, hurry, back on the bus. We're behind schedule, and the day has only just started. Our bus carried us through the verdant, rolling hills of Connemara, dodging many sheep and a few lazy cows to Glen Keen Farm. The main building of Glen Keen Farm is a cute lilac-pink color, and houses the restaurant and gift shop. Before heading inside, we met Jan, a sweet young sheep dog. Jan let me scratch her back while her caretaker teased me that she would probably hop on the bus with me after a good back scratching. Once our group all assembled, we watched Jan demonstrate her excellent sheep herding skills. It's quite impressive to witness.

Jan, the goodest dog in Ireland

The lunch at Glen Keen Farm was the best meal I had during my nine days in the Republic of Ireland. We were treated to veggie quiche, a small green salad, a carrot with swede salad, strong Irish tea, and fresh baked scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam. The entertainment during lunch consisted of Irish songs and singalong, Irish musical instruments with explanation and demonstration, and old-style Irish dance. For the singalongs, it seemed that everyone in our group except Chad and me knew all the words and notes. Did Chad and I miss a tutorial on popular Irish songs? Was it a generational thing? Are we buzzkills who don't spend enough time in pubs? Probably all of the aforementioned. And I'm honestly fine with that.

Paul from our group on drum, actual Irish guy on Irish flute

Our group ran behind schedule nearly from the start on this day, so we jumped back on the bus very shortly after lunch. Our bus wound its way back through the rolling hills, meandering sheep, occasional scenic lakes (or loughs as they are called locally), and out to a bigger road. Soon enough, an imposing mansion appeared on the horizon with a dramatic backdrop of green hills and a lake in the foreground to provide an admirable reflection. Kylemore Abbey looks like a Victorian take on a royal castle. The mansion was built from 1863 to 1868 by Mitchell Henry, a wealthy politician and former doctor from Manchester England. Henry and his family lived there until 1903, when it was bought by the Duke and Duchess of Manchester. Since 1920, the former private estate has been owned and run by the Benedictine community. The grounds, gardens and exterior view of the mansion are breathtaking with so much to explore! Only a portion of the mansion interior is staged with period furniture and historic informational displays. I was slightly disappointed that more of the mansion was not open for guests, but there are still nuns living and working at Kylemore Abbey. I guess it can't all be open for gawping at? Like Sister Mary Annette needs for her humble quarters to be closed to tourists? 

Chad and I walked as fast as we could to see the two massive gardens, the lake path, the Neo-Gothic church, and the partial interior of the house. Despite our speedy efforts, we didn't have time for a visit to the gift shop with award winning chocolate made by the nuns. We didn't have time for the Tea House or the Kylemore Kitchen. I wish our group had another hour at Kylemore Abbey. Back on the bus, I heard some of our tour elders saying that they only made it to the gardens, or only made it through the house exhibit area. 

Kylemore Abbey exterior

Kylemore Abbey imposing wall

Kylemore Abbey bookshelf, complete with fancy tophat

On the way back to the hotel, our bus got caught behind a tourist in a rental car driving well below the speed limit, refusing to let our bus pass. Since our group ran behind schedule all day, this made us late for dinner. Our tour manager, Richard, called ahead to the hotel restaurant to let them know of our tardy arrival.

Cute view from a quick stop in Cong

At dinner Chad and I sat with our bus driver, Conor. We all bonded over Irish authors we like and our respective pets adopted from pet rescues. Conor's wife works with a local pet rescue group in their hometown of Donegal. Near the end of dinner, Conor asked, "Why'd you come with this group? There's tour groups from America." I explained that I booked the tour through an American company, not realizing that our group would be a majority of British (mostly English, a few Welsh) people. I also explained that I had no clues and no hints about the tours being so heavily favored by retired people, but that we were having fun with our group, and at times struggling to match their fast pace. I also confided to him in a hushed voice, "The other people in our tour group can outdrink us, outsing us, and don't need nearly as much sleep as we do. They are in it to win it!"

Technically our tour manager for this trip was Richard from Great Rail Journeys, but this was also Richard's first trip to Ireland. Richard did a good job of ensuring we mostly stuck to our schedule, and that logistics ran smoothly. Richard had prepared notes that he read about different landscapes and historical facts for locations, but it was bus driver Conor who told Richard how to pronounce Irish words and names. It was Conor who told Richard about the best local places to stop for lunch, restroom breaks, and scenic photo opportunities. It was Conor who told us all the local lore and local points of interest. So hail to the bus driver, an unsung hero, who not only delivered us safely to each location, but who also guided our tour to a large extent. 

Hail to the bus driver, Conor! Photo by Valerie from our group.

There's even more Ireland trip to recount. Drop by next week for more Irish sightseeing!

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Shannon Ferry to Cliffs of Moher

I slept so well at the very comfortable and clean Rose Hotel Tralee. I was sad to have to leave that hotel after only two nights, but our tour group had to make tracks to the next series of destinations. Our group traveled north to Tarbet. There we, tour bus and all, boarded the Shannon Ferry across the Shannon Estuary. The temperatures topped out at only 57 degrees Fahrenheit/14 degrees Celsius that day, and the wind whipped across the water. I planned ahead with layers of warm clothing and a raincoat topper. I sometimes experience motion sickness on boats, even big ferries. I exited the bus and stood topside on the deck of the ferry for a few minutes. The cold, fresh air calmed my sensory system. Yay! None of the usual motion sickness!

How many buses fit on a ferry? Um, 6?

Upon landing on the other side of the estuary, our tour bus drove through County Clare to the Cliffs of Moher on the southwestern edge. These dramatic and sheer cliffs tower 510 feet/155 meters above the churning Atlantic Ocean. The Cliffs of Moher Experience safeguards visitors from the cliffs with fencing and wide walkways positioned safely back from the dangerous edge of land. The whipping wind is beyond blustery, like seriously tie down your hat and anything you don't want to lose. The pathway around the small castle-like building, O'Brien's Tower was very crowded. If you choose to walk beyond O'Brien's Tower caution signs soon appear that you are leaving the Cliffs of Moher Experience, that rock slides do occur, and that your safety is not ensured. The wire fencing on either side of the narrow dirt path past that point barely gives two people room to get by each other. Just don't. Instead, turn around and head back in the other direction for more breathtaking views along the other side of the official, and much safer, Cliffs of Moher Experience. The farther you go in the direction opposite O'Brien's Tower, the less crowded the walkways become. 

At a certain point, Chad and I decided we had soaked our eyeballs in enough of the dramatic cliff scenery, and that we had enough punishment from the sheer winds. The Visitor Center provided much-needed shelter from the elements. We had lunch at the little cafeteria. The food there was surprisingly good, especially after eating so many monotonous hotel dinners. The little cafeteria even had a small green salad! Fed and recovered somewhat from all the buffeting winds, Chad and I perused some interesting interactive displays about the geological formation of the burren and cliffs, the animals (including puffins), and the plants of the area. Upstairs from the main displays, we found a touch screen program with historical details of Irish family names. Sure enough, I found my family name there! My only regret about the Cliffs of Moher Experience is that we did not see any puffins in real life. 

Looking towards O'Brien's Tower at Cliffs of Moher

Puffins that we did not get to see at Cliffs of Moher

The Regan family crest via touch screen at Cliffs of Moher Visitor Center

Our tour bus made its way to the next destination, driving through new-to-me terrain of the  Burren National Park. Loosely translated from old Irish, the word burren means "rocky place." Think of huge shelves of rock hills. The burren landscape contained a kind of desolate beauty with swirling swaths of greenery daring to pop up every once in a while. 

Our group stopped at the Burren Centre in Kilfenora which is tucked into a cute little village. At the Burren Centre we watched a short film montage of some of the different types of Irish burren landscapes. Then we walked through the exhibition space with charming life-size dioramas of different animals and plant life of the burren. In addition to lots of historical information about the region, the Burren Centre also houses a whole room meant to look like a pub with information about the local music scene.

As afternoon turned into evening, we arrived at our group's hotel for the next two nights, the Lough Rea Hotel and Spa. The guest rooms here were clean, modern perfection. I slept so well here, even if on our first night at Lough Rea Hotel and Spa, there was a pack of semi-feral children, escaped from some event at the hotel, littering the stairs with candy wrappers and crushed candy bits, taking joy rides in the elevators, unaccompanied by any adult presence. Luckily the stomp-running up and down the hallways ended at a reasonable hour, as did the yelling and squeals of youthful joy. We'll have none of that past 8:00 PM!

Speaking of the perceived wasting of youth on the young, one of the elderly men on our tour cornered me in the dining room before dinner that night. He said that he overheard me saying how long my husband and I had been together. He said, "So you've known your husband over twenty years? I thought you were only in your twenties. I wondered what a couple of twenty-somethings were doing on OUR trip!" Feeling a bit peeved at this statement, I did a defiantly brave thing. I said my actual age aloud to this man and his wife. They said that they still have me, "beat by about thirty years." But they did seem a bit less hostile to me after that. So, yay! I think? Ageism is real, and goes in all sorts of directions.

I found out that some of the members of our tour group went to local pubs each night after dinner. I was so tired after eleven hours of sightseeing each day and our hour-long 8:00 PM dinners each night, that I could barely get myself showered and under the covers before I began snoring loudly and having the twitchy eyelids of dreamland. I can't fathom how my elders on this tour had the energy for each day's busy itinerary and late nights at the local pubs!

Tune in next week for more Irish travelogue. Thanks for following along.

Wednesday, August 03, 2022

The Ring of Kerry, Plus Horse Farts in Killarney

The Ring of Kerry is to Ireland as the Road to Hana is to Maui. Both are major tourist attractions with breathtaking scenery and narrow roads featuring hairpin turns. Both are traveled by tourists in rented cars unfamiliar with the local landscape and road rules. Both are also populated with tour buses. Chad and I have traveled both the Ring of Kerry and the Road to Hana, because we're fancy. Okay, we're not terribly fancy, but we value shared experiences such as travel above material goods such as new luxury vehicles, an unnecessarily large house, jewelry, or a yacht. (Yes, we accepted an invitation to watch fireworks from a 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom luxury yacht last year. We expressed gratitude to our lovely hosts, but that baller lifestyle is not for us. Also, the fancy yacht owners struggled to find a boat slip after being unceremoniously booted from their original dock by a new property owner. Thus proving the old adage: big yacht, big problems.)

Our tour group departed from Tralee early in the morning to set out for the Ring of Kerry. Our first stop, the Kerry Bog Village, modeled dwellings and daily life of eighteenth and nineteenth century rural Ireland. The quaint thatch roof homes and workshops were interesting to see and explore. Some of the structures house life size mannequins depicting the days of yore. The mannequins look a bit uncanny, one might even say creepy, so be forewarned. Chad and I got to meet some ginormous Irish Wolfhounds. Their ancestors hunted wolves, elk, and wild boar. Upon exiting the Kerry Bog Village, we funneled into the adjacent Red Fox Inn for a warming Irish coffee. Irish coffee consists of Irish whiskey, hot coffee, brown sugar, and a whipped cream topper. I enjoyed a few sips, but more than that seems like courting an instant and aggressive hangover, in my opinion. (Disclaimer: I find coffee too bitter for my tastebuds and too stimulating for my anxiety. Naturally Irish coffee would hold the same very limited appeal for me as any other kind of coffee.)

This guy had too much Irish coffee.

voted cutest couple Kerry Bog Village 

Our group got to meet Irish Wolfhounds.

After being chatted up by a friendly local who advised us of other pubs and bars along the road, Chad and I hopped back on the tour coach at the appointed time. Our tour group had a tight schedule to keep! After our stop at the Kerry Bog Village, the scenery got progressively more alluring. The peat bogs and scrub land gave way to rolling verdant hills, moody beaches, and charming towns. The Ring of Kerry is 111 miles/179 kilometers long winding road on the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry. Our coach driver, Conor, knew all the best places to stop for panoramic vistas and photo opportunities, miles and miles of Instagram content!

magical vista with ocean, sky, and green hills

hills and sky, sky and hills

charming oceanside towns with row houses

one of many beautiful beaches on the Ring of Kerry

Our coach stopped in the sweet town of Sneem for lunch and general leg stretching. Chad and I had lunch at a little cafĂ©. We walked, and gawped at the cuteness of the place. We found a little food truck called Wholly Dough Doughnuts selling doughnuts and coffee. The truck parks on Church Street, just a few steps from the eponymous big church in town. The very friendly person working the doughnut truck talked with us about how the local church hosts a wedding every Saturday lately, due to all the weddings being postponed during the pandemic. We were there on a Saturday, and can confirm, a wedding was happening. 

Sneem's cute river

Sneem being so cute and colorful

Most every Irish person we encountered in Ireland was friendly. Many would say, "you're most welcome," when we entered their shops, restaurants, hotels, museums, etc. Many would chat with us in a relaxed and friendly fashion, without pretense or posturing. I really loved the vibe in most of the Irish places we experienced on our trip, and especially in the smaller towns and villages. 

Our tour group traveled through the rest of the Ring of Kerry and back to Killarney. Once there, our group split up to board three different jaunting cars for horse drawn wagon rides through a short section of Killarney National Park passing briefly by Ross Castle from some distance. Our fifteen year old  jaunting car driver described local flora and fauna, told a few corny jokes, and safely delivered us to a hotel in Killarney for our group dinner. The horse pulling our jaunting car was quite flatulent, farting in perfect rhythm with her strides. Honestly it was both impressive and amusing. However, I was grateful to be at the end of the jaunting car farthest from the horse's hind end. I wish we could have walked ourselves through some of Killarney National Park. I wish we could have actually explored Ross Castle. But as aforementioned, our tour group kept a tight schedule!

At this point in our trip, I caught up on sleep pretty well and operated on local time pretty well. When we were in Republic of Ireland from June 8 through June 16 of 2022, sunset happened around 10:00 PM on average, and sunrise happened around 5:15 AM on average. That's way too much daylight time! I've never been so very thankful for blackout curtains! 

You're most welcome back to this blog in less than ten days (hopefully?) for more Irish travelogue stuff.