Ireland: Highlights in 8 Days
We arrived in Shannon first thing in the morning and collected our rental car. We were glad we had packed some shorts, because it was downright HOT when we arrived. What a wonderful surprise. Our destination for overnight was not far away, in Ennis (north of Shannon). We explored as we drove:
Dromoland Castle, Newmarket-on-Fergus; the Burren; Kinvara and its castle Dunguaire (they do literary-themed historical dinners here, but we weren't able to get in for one); Ailwee Cave (not very exciting, I'm afraid); Poulnabrone Dolmen; the Cliffs of Moher. We spent most of our time at Poulnabrone and the Cliffs. These two are not to be missed! The only unpleasantness we encoutered was bugs--lots of flying bugs!--at the Cliffs. As I said, it was very, very warm the day we were there.
In Ennis, we stayed at the Queens Hotel which has a lovely pub attached called Cruises (it dates from 1685). After eating in the pub and watching a football match (EPL) on TV, we had time for a stroll around town.
Our usual modus operandi on vacation is to get an early start (up by 7 or 8, breakfast, and on the road by 9). This usually means we have to arrive at the next night's lodging in time for my husband to have a bit of a nap in the late afternoon. So, on Day 2, we departed Ennis and headed for Dingle--our planned overnight. We headed out with enough time to snap some photos around Ennis, and then went to Bunratty Castle. Yes, it is a giant tourist trap but interesting to see nonetheless. We didn't spend too long, opting instead to see the sights along the roads to Dingle. We had a look at Adare Manor--really gorgeous, and if only we had the money for accomodations like that! We scoured Rathkeale (might not be spelling that right) for Castle Matrix, since we thought it was a cool name. Just a note: the Castle Matrix, privatel owned, is closed in May. After picking up some lunch in Abbeyfeale, we spent some time exploring Ardfert Cathedral's grounds; they were in the process of restoring the buildings at the time. We had been watching the clouds and weather all morning, as we planned to cross the Connor Pass and had been warned not to try it if the weather was bad. We decided to give it a go and it was a lovely drive with only a few sheep in the road! The light in Ireland in May goes on forever, so when we arrived in Dingle in the late afternoon we were able to head out on the road around the southern end of the peninsula to Slea Head. The Dingle Peninsula boasts spectacular scenery, and there was nary a soul about during our tour. Highly recommended sites: Dunbeg Ring Fort, Kilmalkedar Church, and Gallarus Oratory. We stayed the night at Brenner's Hotel (a Best Western property), which was quite nice.
After a quick post-breakfast walk on the fishing piers in Dingle, we hit the road again--today en route to Kenmare. Before lunch we encountered one of the situations you read about in guide books about Ireland: in the little town of Boolteens a farmer was moving his cows--right down the middle of the main road through town. It was refreshing to be in a "traffic jam" where the rudest comment you hear is "mooooooooo." We spent part of the day walking in the Gap of Dunloe; it was a sunny, warm day and the walking was easy. The yellow rape was in bloom everywhere, the grass was green as can be, and sheep dotted the landscape like clouds come down to Earth. We drove through Killarney without stopping--it was choked with traffic and I noted only, "touristy--ick." I like a little tourist kitsch, but it was just too crowded and seemed to have no charm. We headed down part of the Ring of Kerry, just to say we'd been on it. Plus, I thought "Sneem" was a really funny town name and wanted to see it. The overlook called Ladies' View was spectacular. Sneem seemed a bit of a tourist trap, but I allowed myself to be trapped and bought a fabulous hand-knit sweater (in naturally dark brown wool) at the local Quill's store. From there we headed to our night's stopping point, Kenmare. We found Kenmare to be a charming town with one of the best restaurants we ate at in Ireland: Guilianis. The pasta with locally-caught salmon was to die for! The town also boasts its own stone circle and quite a large number of pubs (many of which were closed for renovation when we were there). We stayed at another Best Western property on the edge of town called Riversdale House. It, too, was undergoing some renovations but was comfortable and had lovely views of the river.
From Kenmare, we headed to Blarney via Timoleague and Kinsale. The road between Kenmare and Timoleague boasted some lovely views and charming towns: Glengariff, Bantry Bay, Skibbereen, Glandore, RosCarbery Bay. We took a side road off to Dunbaeg Stone Circle (which also includes a prehistoric cook site); interesting, and one of the narrowest roads we drove on in Ireland (and there are some really narrow ones!). By the time we arrived at Timoleague to see the Abbey (as recommended by my sister), the day had turned very grey and windy. The Abbey ruins were amazing. We stopped through Kinsale, but didn't explore much since it was so extremely windy. We bought some lunch items at a grocery store in town, but ended up having our "picnic" in the car at Charles Fort because it was too windy to sit outside. The view back to Kinsale from the road out to Charles Fort was beautiful. We did explore the fort--we were the only people there! We took a timer photograph of ourselves, but had to scrounge up a brick to brace the camera because the wind kept blowing it over. Upon arriving in Blarney (we stayed at Christie's, about the only game in town), my husband took a nap while I explored. I discovered that there really isn't much to town except the castle. We had a pint at the hotel pub and dinner in the hotel restaurant (a bit upscale, called The Weaving Room).
We did the tourist bit and visited Blarney Castle--but made sure to arrive just as they opened to avoid the crowds. I think we were the first "puckerers" of the day . . . in the rain. Yup--finally Ireland's weather caught up with us (the only time on the whole trip!). But it made for an atmospheric castle visit, anyway. We left town with a destination of Kilkenny. Our other two big stops for the day were at Cahir Castle (wonderful guide gave a tour full of fascinating history) and Rock of Cashel. Here is where I will tell you my favorite site in Ireland: the Rock of Cashel. It had stopped raining when we arrived, but was still grey and misty out. The ruins at the Rock, sitting high above town, were black and mysterious. I was spellbound. This is definitely a must-see spot. We got lost trying to find our hotel in Kilkenny, but finally got it sorted out. We were actually staying a bit outside of downtown and so had to drive to dinner. Parking was tight and we ended up in the back lot of a supermarket. After dinner at a place called Langton's (which I don't recall) and a pint or two at Kyteler's (a rather atmospheric pub where I think I felt/saw the presence of a ghost I'd read frequents the place), we were headed back to the car. Given the open nature of the parking lot, we could hear sounds from all over town. What stood out was some fabulous live music coming from just across the river. There was a lovely band playing at a pub called Matt the Miller's and so, of course, we had a pint and a singalong. It was here that we most noticed the youthfulness of Ireland. At 32, we felt positively ancient amongst this crowd!
From Kilkenny we set out for Dublin. Along our chosen route we stopped for a look at Brownshill Dolmen, said to have the largest capstone of any dolmen in Europe. It was indeed a monster at 150-200 tons. We also followed the typical-for-Ireland directions in our guidebook and turned left at the Moon Post Office, to see the Moon High Cross. It was the best we saw, although I wished I had more information about it. In Dublin we met up with an Irishman I'd met on a football chat site and he gave us a wonderful, if whirlwind, tour of the city center (followed by a couple of pints at The Hairy Lemon, across from our hotel). We also visited the campus of Trinity College and viewed the unbelievably detailed and beautiful Book of Kells. We stayed at a great hotel with a wonderful location--and I haven't written down the name. I'll have to find it so I can include it in my tips . . .
Ahhhhh, glorious Day 7! Any day that gets started with the ringing of Sunday service bells at St. Patricks, while you have your free pint of Guinness at the Hop Store up the street (yes, at 10am), is bound to be a good day. And it was. Tonight was our night of luxury--our destination was Tinakilly House in Rathnew, just south of Dublin. Once we got out of the maze of ring roads around Dublin, it was a pretty drive from there to the ancient monastic center at Glendolough. Another grey and misty day lent its aura of mystery to these spiritual ruins. Glendolough is certainly worth a visit, although it was awfully crowded. The day was capped by the incredible service and hospitality we encountered at Tinakilly House. It was Sunday, as I said, and there were only 3 or 4 other couples at the estate. We were upgraded to a junior suite that had a lovely view across a bird sanctuary to the North Sea. I strolled the grounds and gardens while my husband napped and I saw one of the contrasts that make up modern Ireland. Across the way from the estate was a farm. The farmer came out to herd his cattle from one field, through a gate in the fence, and into another field. His mode of transport for the task? An SUV! We ate dinner at Tinakilly House, which was a delicious and decadent adventure in luxury. After drinks in the parlor, where we placed our dinner order, we were escorted into the dining room to our window table. We had impeccable, discreet service as we enjoyed a bottle of wine, a three-course meal including rack of Wicklow lamb, and heavenly dessert. We were then invited to take our coffee and cognac with petits fours in the front sitting room. In a word, fabulous.
We had originally thought we would head back across the country and see Galway on our final day. We realized that there simply was not enough time. So we headed back with the intent of staying in Kinvara for our last night. But there were no rooms at the hotel there that participated with our voucher program. So we settled for what turned out to be a dreary hotel on a busy road outside of Limerick. But the day was sunny and warm and we had a leisurely drive across Ireland through Sally Gap. In a town called Port Laoise we turned off on a whim to visit something called the Rock of Dunamase. They had only just begun to excavate the site and prepare it as a "tourist site" and we had it to ourselves. Very interesting old ruins and spectacular views of the surrounding central Ireland countryside. We arrived in Limerick late in the day and things seemed to have come to a halt for the night. We found a cozy little Italian restaurant (not much was open) and made an early night of it since we still had to pack up for our flight to London.
Many of you will probably think that this was a horrible, too-much-stuff-too-little-time tour. And depending on how you like to travel that could be true. Would we have liked to have another week (or 2 or 3 . . ) to explore, so we could stay several days in one place? Of course! But given our time constraints we wanted to see as much as possible. We found this to be a wonderful honeymoon vacation!