Lady Bird, part 1

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Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Austin, Texas.  June 2015.

Slowhand

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Austin, Texas.  June 2015.

Summertime time time

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Wanderings: Ireland and Northern Ireland

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Traveling to Ireland wasn’t the original plan.   Initially, we were eyeing London as a sort of celebratory hurrah for the Mister’s recent graduation from a Master’s program, but found ourselves increasingly frustrated that tickets were stubbornly fixed at fares nearly twice as high as Paris or Rome.  While exploring nearby airports, we stumbled on a great sale for direct flights to Dublin via Aer Lingus.  Why not just go to Ireland instead, I proposed?  The euro was down, and after a cold and snowy winter, wouldn’t it be great to hike around green hills and charming towns?


Sometimes by the end of a trip, I feel sated.  Happy and full of new experiences, I’m often tired and ready to go home.  Ireland and Northern Ireland were the opposite.  A first taste.  A scrape of the surface. An opening chapter.  We practically circumnavigated the island, visiting both countries, and it felt like a flash.  I’d rather linger for months, maybe years.  Explore all the little towns, all the wild coasts, all the old ruins.  Try the local cheese in every shop and take time to make friends with all the sheep and horses in every field we pass.  And even more than all the beautiful places and surprisingly incredible food, I fell in love with the people.  In many ways Ireland felt like a big hug.  So often when traveling you feel like you encounter people, and here we felt like we really met them.  Whether it was at pubs, in shops, in their homes, or installing art in a field of barley, people were open and warm and genuine, always happy to stop and chat, to tell us about their favorite spots and seemingly genuinely curious about us as well.  We stayed with several families along the way and in just a few hours it felt like we were old friends.  To be in such a beautiful place with such wonderful people, that’s about as much as anyone could hope for anywhere.  Hopefully we’ll make it back someday, and if we are very lucky, we’ll have more time to linger.  Until then, here’s a little travelogue of our stay, with a few tips in case you’d like to visit as well.

NORTHERN IRELAND

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The Dark Hedges

  • You’ll want a map or a good GPS for this one.  While we were never actually lost, we very much feared we were, as the tiny country roads twisted on farther than we thought possible and addresses were hard to find.
  • Visit on the early side if you can.  We encountered few others and the glowy morning light was beautiful coming through the trees.

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Dunlace Castle

  • The castle is a great midday stopover if you are lunching in Portrush or visiting the Old Bushmills Distillery.
  • The views of the coast alone were worth the (rather inexpensive) entrance fee.
  • Don’t hesitate to visit if it’s raining, but bring good shoes.  Those old stones are slippery when wet.

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The Giant’s Causeway

  • I’d save this one for later in the day; the late afternoon light is amazing.
  • If you’re up for it, it’s well worth it to scramble off the path and onto the hundreds of basalt columns so you can watch the waves crash over them from up close.  It’s muddy and slippery so a solid pair of hiking shoes is a must.
  • Set aside a couple of hours to hike the Causeway Trails.  The views of the cliffs rival Moher, in my opinion and these are dotted with patches of vibrant yellow gorse and sheep pastures.

IRELAND

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Carrowmore Megalithic Tombs

  • A great place to stop if you are on your way to or from the Causeway Coast, you’ll get amazing views of the countryside, and stone circles, cairns, and dolmens aplenty.
  • Be sure to visit the sites across the road from the visitor’s center.  At the far end of this is circle 7 (pictured above), perhaps the loveliest of the stone circles complete with dolmen and a view of sheep pastures and Knocknarea cairn on the hill the distance.  Though it looks like this site is cut off by a neighbor’s pony pasture, there is a narrow walkway and stile along the fence that leads to the field.  The pony is very friendly, by the way.
  • On our way there, we stopped in the charming town of Sligo to pick up a picnic of cheeses, yogurts, and charcuterie.  Carrowmore has a nice picnic table behind the visitors center, perfect for a little fresh air feast.

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Clonmacnoise Monastic Ruins

  • The best advice I can give is don’t trust the hours posted online.  Your best bet is to arrive midday.
  • If you arrive outside of the posted hours and are feeling…adventurous, keep an eye out for cattle in the neighboring fields.  They spook easily.

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Cliffs of Moher

  • Beat the crowds and arrive as early as possible in the morning.
  • The visitor’s center is beautiful, and built unobtrusively into the hillside, but once the tour buses begin to arrive it reaches levels of congestion that can be suffocating.  Use the side door, not the main entrance to get to the bathrooms, and skip the concessions in favor of lunch out on the road.
  • If you are up for a walk, the trails south of the main viewing platform are fantastic and offer amazing views.
  • If you like birding, this is an excellent place to bring your binoculars.

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Killarney National Park

  • Great for a drive or a full day of hiking, we’d recommend staying at one of the charming B&Bs right outside the park entry; we stayed at the lovely Killarney View House.  That full Irish breakfast is the perfect fuel for navigating the lovely hikes in the park.
  • The walks are well worth the time, but try to get a trail map before you set out.  We got turned around a few times and would have hiked right on to the next town if we weren’t helped out by a friendly local.
  • Have dinner at the Laurels in town.  Best pub and I dream of the food.
  • Stop at the Killarney Brewing Company for a tasting.  Friendly guys and the extra stout stole my heart.
  • If you aren’t able to make it to the Aran Islands, there is a outpost of their sweater shop in town.  A great place to pick up a few high quality gifts.

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Kenmare

  • We only stopped here for lunch, but this town would be a charming place to stay if you are spending a few days in Kerry.

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Ring of Kerry

  • A classic locale for a reason, Kerry County is worth as much time as you can possibly spare to visit.
  • Don’t let a foggy, rainy day stop you.  This area is even more beautiful in moody weather, though we’d recommend a couple of layers beneath your rain jacket.
  • Take any little side road that strikes your fancy, this area is full of charm and wonderful place to get lost.
  • If, when passing through the tiny towns, you see a sign for local cheese, pull over.
  • The Skellig Chocolate Factory is a great place to pick up some local sweets and grab an incredible hot chocolate or coffee to warm your bones.

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The Skellig Islands

  • This was the most amazing place we visited, and also the most difficult.  Consider skipping if you get seasick or have a fear of heights.  If you have young children or any travelers with mobilities issues, there are options to take a cruise around the islands that don’t actually off-board.
  • Do your research when booking.  A small number of authorized boats stop at the larger island, Skellig Michael, for several hours so you can hike.  Others only cruise around it.  Know which one you are booking.
  • Visits to Skellig Michael are only permitted from May to October, and in limited numbers.  Thirteen boats make one trip per day carrying roughly a dozen passengers.  Book well in advance, and try to keep your hopes in check.  Rough seas and bad weather make for a dangerous mix, and trips are often cancelled for safety.
  • Hiking shoes are a must.  Bring a rain jacket and warm layers.
  • There are no bathrooms on the island.  No food or visitors center either, so pack a lunch.
  • This is a birders’ dream.  Bring those binoculars. (This little guide was great for our whole trip.)
  • I fell asleep on the boat ride back, a silly thing to do given the wind and waves pummeling our little boat.  I was chilled to the bone by the time we got back to Portmagee, but was set to rights with warm tea and the world’s best mushroom soup at Skellig Mist Cafe.

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Ballymaloe Country House

  • If you are going to splurge on dinner or a hotel room, this would be a great place to do it.  Make dinner reservations well in advance.
  • Dinner only?  Get there a little early and explore the back gardens and the kitchen gardens.  The barley field practically glows at sunset.
  • Save your appetite.  This is a long, excellent meal and you’ll want to try all of it.

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Cork

  • Absolutely my favorite city in Ireland.  Stay at least two nights if you can and consider AirBnb.  This is a great place to make local friends.
  • Cork is known as a food town.  Spend a little time researching and make a few dinner reservations.  Stop by the English Market for brunch, and pick up some cheese, fresh baked bread, and a bottle of wine to picnic out to one of the local parks or share with your AirBnb hosts on their rooftop deck.
  • The Franciscan Well is an awesome little brewpub.  There’s a little pizza operation out on the back patio which makes this another great place for lunch.

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Dublin

  • I didn’t do a full post on Dublin, mostly because I was having too much fun to take many pictures.
  • Any fan of books or libraries should make a little time to visit the Long Room at the Trinity Library.  A breathtaking space.
  • This city is incredibly walkable.  We quickly figured out that it was easier to walk from place to place than try to navigate the trains.
  • Skip the whiskey museum ($$$) and instead spend the equivalent money on a meandering walking tour of the local pubs.  Our basic plan was, walk any which way you please for half an hour, find a pub with a little character, step inside to try an Irish whiskey (cider for me) at the bar and chat about whiskeys and bourbons with locals and bartenders.  Repeat, until you eventually find your way back home.  We had a fantastic time and saw so much more of the city this way.
  • Many of the little pubs make their own coasters and these are excellent souvenirs that won’t take up much room in your luggage.

County Kerry

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Over and over in Ireland, locals that we chatted with would apologize to us for the rain and gloom and fog.  “It’s not Ireland if it’s not raining,” they’d say with a shrug.  Yet over and over again I’d smile and try to explain how thrilled I was.  Stormy skies and moody fog make for far interesting landscapes, a gift to any photographer.  I’d take fog over sunshine any day, as long as I have a raincoat and a waterproof bag to stash my camera.  The fog was thick the day we visited Kerry, and I was thrilled.  We pulled over again and again, awed by the landscapes, chasing sheep, and occasionally, warming our bones with a little hot chocolate.

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Skellig Islands

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Luck had everything to do with our travels to the Skellig Islands.  Luck that I Googled, “off the beaten path Ireland” about a week before we left; luck that we managed to find two spots on one of the dozen or so tiny boats that is allowed to visit each day; luck that the seas were just calm enough to allow us to be the first people to visit the islands this year; luck that the puffins were feeling friendly that day; and a great deal of luck that the islands were shrouded with a lovely mist instead of a beating rain.  So very very lucky.


A visit to the Skellig Islands is not for the faint of heart.  Though the seas were deemed calm enough for our small fleet of boats to visit, the eight mile voyage from Portmagee was anything but.  We sat in the back of a tiny, open boat with no railings or ropes to hang on to as the churning grey sea tossed our little boat about on eight-foot waves, spraying us with salt water while a biting cold wind whipped across our faces.  Altogether it was an exhilarating ride for those of us not prone to seasickness, but it was a harrowing journey for a few others who seemed green and wobbly-legged by the time we came in sight of the island.


I wouldn’t want to approach Skellig Michael, the larger of the two islands, on a sunny day.  It was far more dramatic to see it emerge suddenly out of the mist, stark and craggy, a giant rock in the sea that loomed over our tiny boat.  Our captain pulled us up close to the concrete pier and we leapt from the boat on to the island, then followed a twisting stone walkway around to find our way up to the monastery.  The way up consists of several hundred jagged steps, hand-carved out of the rock by monks over a thousand years ago.  The steps are steep, unguarded by any railing, and sometimes crumbling or slick from rain and mist.  We’d been warned that the climb and sheer drops could be terrifying for anyone afraid of heights, and we saw at least one lady who was nearly carried down by a guide, weeping and trembling with fear the whole way.   Heights and I have never been great friends, but as we zigzagged up the stone steps for nearly 600-feet, I was far too distracted by the beauty of the island to feel any fear at all.  Sharp towers of rock rose out of the fog, cut here and there by patches of green and the nests of sea birds, a strange misty landscape so unlike any place I had ever been.


Eventually we reached the ruins of the Christian monastery near the top of the island.  Built sometime between the 6th and 8th centuries, and occupied by monks until around the 12th century, the ruins are perched on something of a shelf in the rock, high above the sea.  We walked amongst the stone walls, exploring all the nooks and crannies, the cisterns, and stairwells, the worn cemetery, and the strange and striking stone beehive cells where the monks once lived.  Leaning against those ancient stone walls, with puffins circling in the air around us and the cold grey sea crashing far far below, it was easy to see this place as the monks once had, a sanctuary at the edge of the world.

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Trinity College Library

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Requisite pilgrimage to visit the Book of Kells and the Long Room at Trinity College Library in Dublin.  The world is quiet here

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Cork

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Often times when I love a city, I find myself too busy to photograph it, and so it was with Cork, perhaps my favorite city from our Irish travels.  I was too busy eating at amazing restaurants, too busy making friends with our AirBnb hosts, too busy eating local cheeses on rooftops, too busy drinking in little pubs, and much much too busy celebrating the gay marriage referendum, which passed while we were in Cork and the entire city seemed to burst with smiling, joyful people.  Cork was my happiest memory in Ireland and the place I’d most want to visit again.  I’d happily trade all the joy I get from taking photos for the joy of being in that city again.

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Ballymaloe House

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One of the dreamiest evenings we spent in Ireland was at Ballymaloe House in County Cork.  Having read great things in Bon Appetit about the restaurant and cookery school housed in the old country house, we were happy to snag a late evening dinner reservation.  Irish sunsets come closer to 9 p.m. during late spring, and it was lovely to spend a glowing, golden hour exploring the extensive grounds of the estate before dinner.  We fell in love with lush back gardens, the glowing barley fields, and most especially the charming kitchen gardens where I would have happily had my dinner there in the open air among the rosemary bushes and old stone walls.

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Kenmare

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Killarney National Park

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Cliffs of Moher

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Considered one of the most iconic landscapes in all of Ireland, we could resist spending a morning at the Cliffs of Moher.  Though the view from the main platform was breathtaking, we’d heard wonderful things about the trail that extended along the southern edge of the cliffs, and we quickly headed away from the crowds towards the quieter trails.  Before long the the guard rail gave way to a wooden fence, which gave way to stone slabs cut from a nearby quarry, which eventually gave way to dirt and grass and cliff’s edge.  Standing there on the grass a few feet from a sheer 200 meter drop, with wobbly knees and winds whipping through our hair and trying to toss us back onto our bottoms, we gazed out at the green cliffs in either direction, the soaring birds, and the wild ocean crashing below, and it was easy to imagine that we were standing at the edge of the world.

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