A few years ago we came across a travel offer we couldn’t refuse. We discovered it on a web site with a very peculiar name –Travel Zoo.
The deal included round trip airfare from Baltimore to Shannon, Ireland, a rental car, and bed & breakfast vouchers for a week. We booked the Ireland trip, as well as round trip Air Tran tickets between Atlanta and Baltimore, and arranged to meet a number of family members in Baltimore prior to flying across the Atlantic.
Amongst the eight of us who made the trip, we had three rental cars. My bride and I spent weeks planning our week in Ireland and made reservations at various B&Bs before we left home. The others decided to ‘wing it.’ They took the B&B directory with them and waited until the last minute of each day to decide where they’d sleep. It worked for them; but Lu and I usually prefer to know, in advance, where we’ll spend the night. As a result, after the first night, we all went our separate ways. Twice during the week, we bumped into each other – once as we were touring the Ring of Kerry, and again in Dublin at Trinity College.
We spent the first night at a hotel near the Shannon Airport. Between our arrival and turning in for the night, Lu and I attended a welcoming meeting and had our first taste of authentic Irish coffee – actually, Lu had a taste and I had two cups. Later, we drove over to see the Cliffs of Moher and dined at a pub in a small fishing village. My guess is that village saw very few tourists, which made it all the better for us. Lu had cabbage and bacon (their version of bacon was what we call ham) and I had Irish stew… along with a pint of Guinness.
The crack was just getting started as we finished our meal and prepared to leave. ‘Crack’ in Ireland is an evening of music and fun at a pub. People show up with their musical instruments; everyone orders pints of their favorite beverage, and the fun begins. It’s all perfectly legal, and lots of fun!
The next day we traveled to Limerick and toured King John’s Castle. We were the first to arrive when they opened for business and the lady at the counter did not have change. She simply told us to go on in and stop by to pay as we left. That gesture says a lot about the people of Ireland. But another occurrence during our trip says even more.
My nephew’s wife has a constant ringing in her ears and cannot sleep without the sound of a fan. She usually takes a small fan with her wherever she goes, but had forgotten to do so on this trip. She asked to borrow one at the hotel for her first night and was told to take it with her for the rest of the week. They just asked that she return it on her way back to the airport.
Our second night was spent in Killarney. While we didn’t see Bing Crosby’s mother, we did see the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks – a mountain range that might have inspired Lucille Ball when she made up names for her various characters.
Our hostess at the B&B asked if we would like to have porridge in addition to our traditional Irish breakfast. I made a comment that oatmeal might taste good in the morning. I was quickly informed that porridge is not the same as oatmeal. Rather than insult our hostess any more than I might have already done, we agreed to have porridge with our breakfast. I never told the woman, but porridge sure tasted a lot like oatmeal.
The Ring of Kerry was our next tour and we later regretted taking the bus. We’d been warned that the traffic could be horrendous and the roads narrow and difficult to negotiate. The traffic problem might have been true for summer visitors, but being there in late winter, the only congestion we encountered was a herd of sheep that had escaped a field.
There were many things we would have stopped to see, but the driver had to maintain his schedule.
Later that day we drove on to Cork City in County Cork. We’d agreed to meet the others for dinner at Cronin’s Pub. (My sister’s married name was Cronin, and we were going to dine with her, her son and his wife and daughters, and my brother.) Lu and I found the place. The others did not. So, we had dinner and moved on to our B&B. Later we learned that they had their hands full just finding a place to stay. (If I have this fact wrong, I’m sure I’ll hear about it!)
The next day we went on to visit the Waterford Crystal factory. As factory tours go, this one was less than so-so, and as we found ourselves in the gift shop (as seems to happen with all factory tours) we realized how expensive Waterford Crystal really is! We respectfully declined to take any souvenirs with us.
We spent the night just south of Dublin and had another enjoyable meal in a local pub. Our plan for the next day was to drive to a train station and take public transportation into and out of Dublin.
The great plan for Dublin was erased as we watched a train leave the station while we were parking the car. In truth, it took a few more minutes – long enough for us to walk to the platform and learn that the next train was scheduled for more than an hour later. So, back to the car we went with a renewed sense of adventure.
I’ve always hated driving in New York City and, after spending three months in London, knew I wouldn’t want to drive a car anywhere near the English capital. From what I’d read about Dublin, I had absolutely no desire to get within ten miles of the center of town… and yet I wound up within blocks of the city’s heart. Amazingly, I even found a free parking spot!
We had a marvelous time in Dublin – we took the ‘Hop On – Hop Off’ bus tour, learned more than we wanted to know about Molly Malone and her cockles and mussels, and saw the Book of Kells at Trinity College. More enjoyable for me was the tour of the Guinness Brewery. Once again, my bride had a taste of Ireland and I had two pints of it.
The traffic leaving Dublin was, indeed, horrendous, but we made it without any major mishap.
This is not to say we had no minor mishaps during the week. The first day driving a car with the steering wheel on the passenger side, I managed to come so close to a stand of bushes that I knocked the side view mirror out of whack. While Lu was able to move it back to its proper position, she realized she was in for a week of terror.
Many roads in Ireland are extremely narrow and the Irish people seem to take pleasure in building stone walls right up to the edge of the road. They are also big on planting trees and hedges as close to the road ways as possible. When a truck or bus came at me from the other direction, I had a tendency to move farther to my left than was necessary. I never hit a wall, but some bushes and trees suffered from my over compensation.
After leaving Dublin, we spent the night in a B&B to the north of the city so we’d be close to the next item on our agenda. Newgrange is similar to Stonehenge in that there are many theories about its origin, but nothing is known for sure. It was built at least 3,000 years ago, but we can only guess at the why?
What they do know is that on one day per year (the Winter Solstice) the sun shines through a passageway and lights up what appears to be an altar. Before modern man discovered the true nature of Newgrange, it was simply seen as one more hill on the Irish landscape.
From there we headed for Kildaire to see the church made famous by St. Brigid. Unfortunately, the church was closed for repairs, but we did get to experience something new and different.
In the center of town, there was a pay self-cleaning toilet. Lu went in first and tried to hold the door open so I could go in without paying. For whatever reason, I balked at the idea and left the door close as I fished for another twenty pence coin.
As we stood waiting to insert the additional coin, we heard the water begin to spray inside the toilet and I was extremely glad to be outside of the structure. This public facility made sure it was perfectly sanitized between users. I wonder how I would’ve felt had I been sanitized as well.
Our final experience in Ireland was a truly memorable evening in County Clare. The Bunratty Castle banquet was a highlight of our trip. We were served a four course meal and given nothing but a knife with which to eat it. Naturally, the first course was the soup!
In truth, the soup was either turnip or parsnip soup that was extremely thick and we were given lots of bread. Dipping the bread into the soup made it very easy to eat… and it was absolutely delicious. We also had chicken and baby back ribs, which were easily eaten using nothing but the fingers and the knife.
As I recall, the dessert was either pudding or ice cream, but our hosts relented and gave us spoons.
All the while we ate and drank (they served us mead as well as wine) the wait staff was singing and dancing and providing a wonderful floor show. It was a truly memorable experience.
In fact, the entire trip is one that I would gladly repeat. The Irish people are wonderful and their country is every bit as beautiful as the pictures we’ve all seen. The food and drink is as good as any you’ll find anywhere, and the crack is heartilly encouraged!.