Nineteen years ago we visited England, Scotland and Wales on our first two-week trip abroad. We intuitively knew that, like an alluring goddess of legendary beauty, Ireland demanded its own separate visit, and made a promise to one day return. We finally made good on that commitment last fall and found that Ireland had been waiting for us.
Rolling green fields stitched with stacked stone walls and dotted with sheep, Neolithic ruins, crumbling abbeys, lively pubs and extroverted, welcoming people all delivered on our long-deferred expectations.
A word about the people: Somewhere in Ireland there may be 100 shy individuals, but on our two-week swing through the country we couldn’t find even one. If you don’t like talking to strangers, Ireland is not for you.
If you think of Ireland as a clock face, Dublin is at three o’clock. Our trip began and ended in Dublin, and we made a big counterclockwise spin around the perimeter, landing along the way in Belfast, Londonderry, County Donegal, Galway, Dingle and Kilkenny.
Ireland is a small island, and we were confident we could circumnavigate it in a few days.
In truth, it can be sampled in two weeks, but only if one plans well. Roads outside the big city corridors of Dublin to Belfast, Limerick or Cork are mostly two-lane — sometimes much smaller — and are so scenic it is difficult to average more than 50 miles per hour. Besides, we were constantly jumping out of the car to grab just one more crazy-beautiful vista.
We had heard horror stories about how overrun with tourists Ireland has become in midsummer. Although we knew some precipitation was likely in October (how else do they get those 40 shades of green?) we were pretty sure we’d have the place almost to ourselves. Besides, being rain-starved Californians, we were secretly a little intrigued by the prospect.
After a day and a half in Dublin we headed toward Northern Ireland on a brilliantly sunny day. More than 200 years ago, my husband’s ancestors left Carrickfergus, just outside Belfast, and sailed to Canada. There’s not much left of the docks, but we wanted to see the place they lived and left for their new life. We were a little surprised by how much it looks and feels like the maritime provinces of eastern Canada.
Stone structures, medieval walls, rolling fields
On our way we spent most of the day visiting the Neolithic tombs at Newgrange in the Valley of the Boyne. The massive stacked stone structures built into the earth date from 3,200 B.C. (1,000 years older than Stonehenge). The nearby Hill of Tara was the center of religious and political power in pre-Christian Ireland. Other than the two sheep farmers we met from Donegal we had the entire site, with its windswept views, all to ourselves.
Londonderry captured our hearts. This Northern Ireland city with its intact medieval walls looks very European. The city thrives as a cultural destination with abundant art and music festivals, a stunning new Peace Bridge curving across the Foyne River and startling murals in the Bogside neighborhood calling out for remembrance of the troubles that have come before and, for now, seem to be a matter of history.
Our very best day was the one spent touring the Dingle Peninsula on the southwest coast. This is storybook Ireland at its scenic best — the rolling fields, crashing waves, an ancient ring fort (circa 500 B.C.), a tumbledown abbey, a stacked stone oratory (small chapel) from about 700 A.D., still watertight. We ended the day at Muckross House, a fabulous Victorian manor house and estate complete with shady forests, acres of lawn, a lake and grazing cattle in the side yard.
Everybody used to diss the food in Ireland. No more.
We found an abundance of fresh seafood, vegetables and piles of potatoes (“mash”) everywhere we went, and surprisingly good wines.
Breakfasts were huge and included as part of the bed-and-breakfast deal. We quickly learned to specify the “continental breakfast” as opposed to the “full Irish” — the latter comprising eggs, bacon, bangers, white and dark “pudding” (sausage), baked tomato, sautéed mushrooms, baked beans and toast.
After a breakfast like that, who needed anything but a light dinner? Of course, the one nonnegotiable meal of every day consisted of a pint of frothy Guinness.
On our final day back in Dublin we made the pilgrimage to the Storehouse — Arthur Guinness’ legacy mothership of all breweries. The clever, self-guided tour was mildly interesting, but the real reward was the all-glass Gravity Bar atop the seventh floor, with 360-degree views of the city.
With Dublin’s lights winking on like a blanket of jewels below and surrounded by a couple hundred of our newest best friends — all drinking pints and snapping selfies — who could ask for a better send-off?
IF YOU GO: IRELAND
Visit Ireland any time from April through October. Late September-October offers the best rates and thinnest crowds.
The exchange rate varies, but averaged about $1.35 U.S. to 1 EU last fall. It only hurts when you review your credit card and bank statements after the trip. All the more reason to visit in the offseason when hotels are searching for guests.
If driving, a GPS is a must-have.
Figure out what county your destination lies in —there are Cashels, Waterfords and Dingles everywhere, and your GPS will offer them all.
Most of Ireland uses the Euro, but the six counties of Northern Ireland use the British pound. Plan accordingly.
ATMs are everywhere.
All of Ireland — Northern as well as the republic of Ireland — is safe and welcoming.
Pubs are family-friendly and feature food (those under 18 just can’t drink), and there will always be a soccer or rugby game or two showing on the television.
Traditional Irish music played by informal sit-in groups is found in pubs across the country; music usually starts around 9:30 p.m., or “half-nine” in local lingo.
Gas stations are great places to stock up on cheap but good coffee, pastries and sandwiches for the drive or an impromptu picnic.
Buy an inexpensive phone at Tesco (the British Walmart — they are everywhere) along with some prepaid minutes. About $30 to $40 will cover it and will allow you to plan/make up your trip as you go. Check in advance at http://www.tesco.com.
Traveling in October, we found it easy to book lodging as we went. We reserved our first and last nights hotels in Dublin by searching online at http://www.tripadvisor.com, then narrowing it down to the central, entirely walkable parts of the city we wanted to see; otherwise we consulted our Rick Steves Ireland Guidebook for B&Bs or just drove through the small towns to find places that appealed.
If you rent a car, pony up for the insurance. Ireland is one of four countries in the world where your credit card insurance won’t cover you if something happens to the vehicle.
Remember to drive on the left side of the road!
Resources: Researching our trip in advance was easy. We used the following websites for an overview, then talked with friends who had traveled there recently http://www.exploringireland.net ; http://www.ireland.com; www.visitdublin.com; http://www.ricksteves.com; http://www.roughguides.com . The guides we took with us were Rick Steves’ Ireland and Lonely Planet’s Discover Ireland.
Jeanne Potter is a principal at Glenn Burdette CPAs and lives in San Luis Obispo. In her time away from hectic “busy seasons” she enjoys traveling with her husband, Ron Tilley. When they go, they like to pick a country they’ve never visited and try to sample the best of it in two weeks. A vacation for them usually involves public transportation, a currency exchange and/or a foreign language — if all three, so much the better!