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.
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The Giant’s Causeway

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When we decided to travel to Ireland, I made one request.  I’d happily spend most of our time hiking around southwestern Ireland to celebrate the Mister’s recent graduation, but could we please make one major detour and visit the Giant’s Causeway?  After a showing him a few photos, he was sold on the idea, and we began our trip by heading straight for the Causeway coast in Northern Ireland.


So many of the places I travel to are chosen because I’ve already fallen in love with photographs of them, but, as with so many beautiful places, words and photos fall short of actually representing the experience of them.  Clambering over the slick basalt columns, watching as passing storms transform calm water to crashing waves just a few feet away, hiking trails lined with sheep and brightly blooming gorse, no photo or essay could have captured the full vibrancy of the experience, though that doesn’t stop me from trying.  Just a reminder to myself of why we try so hard to travel as much as we can.

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Dunlace Castle

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When traveling, I find that so many of the best moments are those that are unplanned.  Perhaps because the lack of expectation erases any chance of disappointment, leaving only room for discovery and adventure.  One morning we were navigating hairpin turns along the coast of Northern Ireland, and just ahead, perched on the edge of a cliff, the ruins of Dunlace Castle came into view.  “Let’s go there!” I exclaimed, and swerved across traffic into the pull-off for the castle.  The northern coast was stormy that day, and as we slipped amongst the battered stone walls and towers, the wind and rain whipped through our hair and across our faces.  The castle cliff seems to rise straight out of the sea, and we peered through openings in the stone walls, both those meant as windows and those created by time or misfortune.  Looking out at the cliffs that stretched out on either side of the castle and listening to the crashing waves below, we wondered if anyone ever slept well living here.  Were the howling wind and beating rain and wild crashing waves a nightly menace or a soothing lullaby?

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