Photos by Daniel Charleston and Brandon Crispo
The winds in Dingle Bay are whipping about, waking me at the Skellig Hotel in Dingle, Ireland at 5:00 a.m. And I can't help but wonder, is Fungie all right? You see Fungie is the town mascot of sorts, a dolphin that has been here for the better part of 30 years, guiding boats in and out of the bay, living a solitary life entertaining the people of this parish in the Western most part of the emerald aisle in the North Atlantic. Fungie is known to sleep with his head out of the water, on a rock with seaweed on it (most dolphins sleep just under the water, their blow hole automatically closing if a wave splashes them, and I'm told, sleep quite soundly). I can't help but wonder if the winds woke him up, too, head on a seaweed covered rock just yards away.
It's all right though. This quiet time, this time when the rest of the city is asleep as the winds whip through, gives me time to reflect on yet another incredible whirlwind trip to this country I have grown to love over the last 13 years since I first came in 2000. Each time I come, seven now, I find something new, something extraordinary, something, well, life changing.
I wonder why so many of my fellow Americans don't travel abroad more. Some statistics have the figure as low as 3.5 percent of Americans travel abroad, as stated in this HuffingtonPost article and while almost 45 percent of Americans have passports, it may be that is just wishful thinking since many accept the figure of less than 10 percent get out of the country. I've been lucky enough to see England, France, the Netherlands, Ireland, Mexico, Canada... well, yes, I get around. I'm an entertainer. And each trip changes me profoundly.
I started this trip to Ireland in Dublin, as everyone should. It's cosmopolitan, it's got great hotels, night life, restaurants, world class entertainment; it is their Gotham. But like traveling to any country, you must get out of the city to really see the people, the land, the real country. And I like to do it on motorcycles. I've ridden across this island several times, side to side, top to bottom, and each time my breath is taken away, the beauty, the grandeur, the sights.
This time was no different. Paul Rawlings, owner of the award-winning Celtic Rider in Dublin saw to myself and my traveling companion Brandon Crispo getting on the best BMW Adventure 1200 bikes around, while friend Daniel Charleston would follow in a vehicle with the bags and climate control. Rawlings stuck out the Great Recession and is now seeing an upswing in business thanks in part to his new self-guided tour packages where riders take their time, see the country, stay at authentic guest houses and follow routes he himself has plotted out having lived here and ridden his entire life.
AlpineStars saw to it that I had the needed gear. Since I usually travel here for St. Patrick's Day the weather can be spotty. In Dublin, it snowed the day we left, and we encountered rain and hail on the trip. But the DryStar line of jackets and pants truly made the weather, and 30-plus-degree temperatures quite bearable; not once was I freezing cold or wet. Proper gear is important for any ride or any trip for that matter.
So after three days in Dublin it was off to the South and West, new lands, unseen before; new adventures. The first was to be a four hour drive; one that would challenge both my abilities as a motorcyclist as well as begin the decompression of both the city and my life in the states.
Day One: Killarney
Ireland has a major highway system all over the country, but to get to most destinations you must leave it and drive on more rural two lane highways -- yes, on the "wrong" side for Americans. It takes a little acclamation to get used to, but it's not too challenging. The bikes handle incredibly, power, stability and with the fitted cases, room for storage. We got a late start, so we departed the highway near dark to finish the last 50 miles in to Killarney on the roads of West Ireland; twisting, turning, narrow at times, wet. I had my first encounter with wildlife and motorcycling on these roads. A duck tried to fly across the street right as I was approaching. It hit my windshield and then me, square in the chest, feathers everywhere. We both were fine, it flying away in a huff and me regaining my composure and not missing a beat and continuing on. But what an experience!
Brandon and I should have pulled over. It was dark, wet, even icy on a few corners in the hills. There were plenty of parishes on the way, and we had a car following. But we were determined and are very experienced cyclists (he just finished a ride from Los Angeles to Anchorage and back) and we pulled in to Killarney and the Randles Court Hotel, a four-star Clarion property, just as the last bit of light was leaving the Western sky. The hotel's lush sitting room for tea, finely appointed rooms and a bathtub to welcome a weary traveler or royalty alike was just the remedy for an exhilarating journey. And this journey was a very guy thing. When we got off the bikes, we actually thumped chests and screamed, "F ya!" Daniel looked non-impressed, having had the luxury of a Jaguar rental.
I did my radio show from a lovely suite at the Randles Court, away from other guests since I get loud. There's going to be a Harley Davidson and bike fest in Ireland and Killarney May 31st through June 3rd 2013 and I can see why. It may have been a bit more dangerous than normal, but it's an incredible ride. Ireland was made for biking, no doubt about it. A point of pride for the city is that actor Michael Fassbender hails from Fossa, near Killarney, having relocated from Germany very young with his parents.
We were content to have a quiet night at a pub in this town of the Ross Castle, an incredible national park and 14,000 residents but 36 hotels. It's a tourism town, no doubt. However, we happened upon one of the best clubs I have ever, in my life, been to; not because of the decor or swankness, but because of the people. The club was filled with straight, gay, old, young... I know the gay or European question is a tough one, but at Mustang Sally's, as the doorman told me, "It doesn't matter who you are, you wanna dance with your mate, go ahead, dance, no one will care." And they didn't. I felt safe, warm, welcomed as the DJ who looked 15 cranked out hits from America (they love our music) and the bartender kept Jamesons and Bulmers cider coming. We left at 2:00 a.m., which we're told is early for this place, and walked back to the hotel.
There, out front, we sat in the early morning, three friends having a grand adventure.
"Shh... do you hear that?" I asked them.
"I don't hear anything at all, nothing..." Daniel replied.
"Exactly, I replied. There are still places in this world where there is complete and utter silence."
That's a big deal for a city boy like myself. In Long Beach, Los Angeles, there may be quiet, but there isn't complete and total silence. We sat, the three of us, listening to the night, no words, just smiles.
The next morning it was one more bath in that tub, and then breakfast at the hotel (many hotels are B&B's). I walked the quaint and bustling village, took a horse-drawn carriage ride to the castle for some photos, walked through the cathedral in the center of town. There's a lot to see in Killarney, and I know I'll be back. But for now, it was back on the bikes. Failte Ireland always assists me with interviews of the most interesting people in the country and doing seven-day-a-week radio even while traveling makes every trip interesting. Next stop, Portmagee. The weather broke, the sky was blue, the temperature was four degrees celsius (times that by nine, divide by five and add 32 for fahrenheit, so around 41) and another adventure awaited.
Day Two: Portmagee
It's about a two hour ride from Killarney to Portmagee. It's a fishing village, much like a Cape Cod of Ireland on the very Western part. It's a small town, facing Valentia Island connected by a bridge. The ride there was filled with high country beauty, sweeping fields, sheep, cows, horses filling the fields. Random castles or ruins simply pop up out of nowhere (we stopped for gas, looked up, and right down the street was a castle, only in Ireland).
We were greeted at The Moorings Guest House B&B by owner Gerard who was arranging a special show of Irish music and dance just for us that evening in the bar. I keep pinching myself about how lucky I am. We stowed the bags and met with Muiris O Donoghue who is the owner/operator of Geokaun Mountain and Fogher Cliffs on Valentia Island. His family owned and farmed the land until he decided to open it as a park; one with some of the most spectacular views in Ireland. He told us of the island's history, how it once had been south of the Equator, how the first creature to spring from the sea and take to land left footprints on it 350 million years ago and how Portmagee bustles starting in April on.
Before the show, Gerard told us of Portmagee, and how it had just won an award beating over 100 cities as the best Tourist destination for music and culture and then six adults and two young girls treated us to a "Session;" a weekly show they do with locals of traditional music and dance. We were so profoundly grateful and it made for such a fun night in the pub.
"No trouble at all, we were grateful to get the call," one singer told me as she packed up her flutes. The show is performed weekly there at The Moorings, with Gerard, his mother-in-law and many friends reminding patrons of the rich musical and cultural history of Ireland. Dinner was at the Bridge Bar, part of the Moorings, and it's easy to see why the food has won awards. I may never eat any other lamb, ever again. They spoiled us. '
The evening was closed out in the pub, with locals regaling us with pub talk of so many things. In a pub in Ireland, no topic is off limits and everyone is friends, talking, chatting. It's the best social experience of my life, pubs. Real pubs. Like this one. And of course, they were all besides themselves that we had tea with the Irish president the Friday previous. They love Michael Higgins. LOVE him, and it showed. It was nice to hear people supporting their president, instead of the sport of tearing one down as in our country.
Breakfast was again included. Brandon and Daniel had scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, brown bread and tea, while I did Irish porridge, yogurt and eggs with tea. We went to the market which is also the post office, got post cards, posted them and got ready for the next leg of the journey. Again, this is a town I could spend days in, going off to the Skellig Islands just out of the bay, exploring Valentia or just hanging in the pub.
It snowed during the night, lightly, but in the morning, the roads were clear, the sky blue and the temperature from eight to 10 degrees; practically summer (between 42 and 50). Car packed, GPS back on bike, gear on, Brandon's Hero3 GoPro camera on his helmet for video and away we went.
Next stop: Dingle. It is another port city on the other side of a "V" shaped bay, so to get to it we had to back track and then go down the other side. The ride would take us over the Connor Pass, and we were told to be prepared for great beauty.
Day Three: Dingle
There's no way anyone could prepare for the beauty of the ride to Dingle. The road rivals Pacific Coast Highway (the 1 to locals) from Los Angeles to San Francisco (one of the prettiest and winding rides in California or the world). From deep in the mountains of the West down to the beach, yes, the beach. The town of Inch, yup, Inch, has a sweeping beach complete with a van giving surf lessons and renting boards right on the beach. There's jutting cliffs meeting the sea, and one can't help but wonder what battles have been fought here, what Vikings have raided, what Irish have battled. It's a place of wonder, topped only a half-hour away by the valleys of the Conner Pass. As I cried looking at the view in the Pass (emotions often well up and I cry, I'm a cry baby) I thought, if there is a heaven and there is peace, it looks like this. Daniel and Brandon and I hugged, looking out, three friends sharing the view of a lifetime, views of a lifetime, a journey of a lifetime. We got back on the bikes and in the car and were off to Dingle; and when we rounded the corner and headed down the side of the hill with the sleepy little port community ahead of us, again, the breath left my body in a gasp of gorgeousness. Another fabulous destination.
And that is where I sit now, at the Dingle Skellig hotel, the sun now rising, the wind dying down, seagulls filling the sky, thousands along the shore. Streisand is playing on my iPad through the iLuv portable speaker that has brought my music to each and every destination. Technology is important even when traveling, WiFi is the new must-have at every destination, and while it's slower and spottier (Portmagee went out for hours and I felt so disconnected, not a bad thing, though) this is a connected country.
Dingle is home to Fungie, the aforementioned dolphin, and so much more. We spoke to Michael de Mordha, in the Blasket Centre, Dunquin; just a 15 minute ride away through another scenic route. It is here we learned of the residents of Blasket Island (who have many descendants in Springfield, Massachusetts where many settled after leaving). The island residents are all but gone, with none living there today, a community and a people passed but not forgotten. The oldest living Blasket is 93 today, and coming back for a special celebration this year. Their music, culture, art is alive at the Center, designed to give the visitor a growing understanding of the culture, moving down a long hall until the glass viewing platform at the end of the hall looks directly out on the island. Residents of the Parish on the mainland have been there for hundreds of years, including de Mordha's family. He was born right near the Centre and has stayed.
Back at the hotel, in the pub, I met one of Ireland's most colorful characters, Maidhc Dainin O'Se an author of 19 books, all in the original Gaelic. His books are used in the school system in Ireland, there's been a documentary made about his life and he's seen so much both here and in the USA one could spend hours talking to him. He was in Chicago when King was killed. He was moved by the civil rights movement, equating the struggles of African Americans to the Irish Immigrants who came to America. He loathes discrimination and bigotry of any kind, cherishes his Irish heritage and is upset at the way the world is going at the time with bankers robbing the poor and going unpunished. He still is mindful that equality for all isn't here in Ireland or the U.S. yet, but is optimistic that in years we'll all get it right. He made a great hour of radio and you must visit the podcast to hear it (links below to all the shows from Ireland).
We laughed and talked with O'Se and then took to the city for dinner at a waterfront pub with the best seafood chowder, ever. On the menu the location that all the food came from, vegetables, seafood, beef, lamb -- all the local sellers and providers were listed. It's that way almost everywhere. The Irish like to eat Irish-produced food. The town is in sleepy off-season mode and much was still closed. But enough was open, including a late night pub that was truly a pub experience. Older fishermen, blowing off steam over a pint, picking up an accordion and playing, shaking our hands, laughing... they didn't know us from Adam but we were welcomed, we were friends. It's the spirit that can be found at almost any pub here or elsewhere.
Dingle has a host of activities throughout the year, many capitalizing on the bay, the local Blasket and Skellig Islands and unbeatable views. At the Skellig Hotel I sat in an outdoor jacuzzi, looking at the hills and the bay as boats passed thinking this is the best jacuzzi view in the world. The Peninsula Spa at the hotel has lovely relaxation suite with steam, sauna and jacuzzi for guests to enjoy. Before embarking back to Dublin I had an anti-aging facial. Yes, a facial and massage. Ireland has it all; from quaint B&Bs to full service spas like the Peninsula Spa at the Skellig. It is in the spa that the normal bumps and stresses of the trip melt away under the skillful hands of well-trained spa therapists. It's a full service spa, for men and women, with half-day, full-day, one hour, 90 minute and a treatment to fit any schedule. I could stay just at this hotel and spa for days; the lush pool, full workout center, two restaurants...but I'm that kind of guy. The town, and country for that matter, has everything from youth Hostels to five star hotels, so any traveler can have the experience they want.
Day IV: The Road Home
Today, it's back to Dublin, a five hour drive and then tomorrow back out on Aer Lingus. The horrors of airplane travel these days (my luggage was finally delivered three days after I arrived and my back has yet to recover from the seats not reclining on the plane) await, but it doesn't matter. I wouldn't have missed this trip, meeting these people, seeing these sights for the world.
We rode back in some of the worst weather Ireland has had in some time. They are calling it a "mini-hurricane." Again, not the most ideal motorcycling conditions, but it had to be done. Six hours in freezing temperatures, torrential wind and rain. If it weren't for the proper gear from AlpineStars and the proper bikes (BMW 1200 Adventure GS) from Celtic Rider we simply would not have been able to ride.
We transected the country from the Southwestern tip to the upper North East in six hours, arriving at the Shelbourne Hotel back on Stephens Green in Dublin. It's a five star accommodation, luxurious, classy, all the things a discriminating traveler could want after a long trip. The tub beckoned again, another fabulous tub, there was hot tea, espresso machine, a bottle of wine waiting... as if they knew we had just endured an ordeal. The Shelbourne isn't the most affordable hotel in Dublin, but it is one of the best. It has world-class dining, bar, every amenity a five star hotel could need and it's right in the heart of the city.
Dinner was at Gallagher's Boxty House. A boxty is an Irish pancake, think Crepe, filled with goodness. I had a boxty filled with rare flank steak covered in a sauce and the best Bailey's Cheesecake in history. Warm whiskey (Jamesons, hot water, lemon and clove) for our weary voices capped things off. It's located in the heart of the Temple Bar, across from the Auld Dubliner.
Afterwards, it was off to the biggest gay dance club, The George. In 2000 when I first went to this club, the door man gave a quiz of sorts to make sure you knew where you were, what kind of club. While security still quizzes the occasional passer-by, we breezed right in and caught a stellar drag show with incredible choreography, dancers, fans and blowers... they obviously take their drag very serious in Dublin. It's ironic such a religious nation not only allows this, but encourages GLBT travel. Dublin welcomes the GLBT community; at least it's always welcomed me and my friends. And the George isn't the only GLBT pub or club in town, as the community in Dublin is thriving. And while equality, recognition and marriage equality is far away, there is a very definite growing acceptance at least in the city.
After just a few hours sleep it was up and off to the Dublin airport. Aer Lingus tried to make good on the bad trip over (complaining can work) and offered an upgrade on the way home. Three friends, one upgrade... this 50-year-old told the two 25-year-olds to try and enjoy coach, my very tired body was going to enjoy the perks of the one percent. And how evident those perks became once in New York, where we would transfer to Jet Blue; to go from comfort to basic steerage was a shock. And speaking of shocking, must Americans be so rude? In Ireland, their version of the TSA was so polite to travelers, their counter agents at the airport actually wanting to help, to serve. In Ireland we were told to check with the counter agent in NYC about our middle-only, non-together seats on Jet Blue, to see if we could change and be together. I walked up to the woman at the counter in NYC and said, "Good afternoon, we just arrived from Dublin and were told to check with you about seat assignments, that they were putting a request in the computer..."
"The flight is full, there's no changes, there's five requests ahead of you now so please just sit down and I'll get to you later..." That was the verbatim response.
"Ma'am, excuse me, I'm trying to say the change may have already been made, so if you could just check and make sure we are in these seats still..."
"No changes have been made to anyone," she says without looking, asking my name, or to see a ticket. "So again, I'm very busy, please sit down and I'll call you if there's a change..." and back on the phone she went.
I turned to Brandon and Daniel who were staring in horror at the rudeness.
"Well, you can certainly tell we are back in America."
So, for the next six hours each of us sat all over the plane in middle seats, Brandon, 6'4", Daniel and I not petite wallflowers either. One of the TVs didn't work in the seat, the plane was stifling hot for some reason, yes, flying is such a pleasurable experience these days, with such polite staff and value for the dollar (sarcasm noted).
Yet, the trip was so worth it, I learned so much about the Irish, myself and people in general.
Everyone I spoke with had the economy on their minds. They all had The Gathering 2013 on their minds; bringing the 70 million Irish immigrants, or those with Irish heritage, back to the country to visit, to explore, to rediscover. Rawlings at Celtic Rider is already busy planning Wild Atlantic Way, "the greatest coastal bike ride of 2014, possibly ever," he exclaims as motorcyclists will discover the wonderful coastal routes of Ireland.
Ireland, like every other country, is struggling to get back on its feet financially. To Let signs fill business districts, but new shops, stores, restaurants, attractions are opening. The people are paying more and getting less, like the rest of the world, but they are a resilient people. They have valuable assets; their country and their culture, and sharing them with the world is one way to help the country regain its footing.
Nothing in Ireland is just a typical day, a typical drive, a boring time. If you haven't been, come, find out, explore. Have your breath taken away at an incredible vistas, laugh with locals in a Pub, eat fabulous food, meet a dolphin, dance with locals in Portmagee, party in Killarney and then see a castle or have a facial while looking at birds flying high over the sea. Yes, money is tight, and so many bargains can be found on lodging, vacation packages, meals, attractions. Ireland is one of the best values for the travel dollar in Europe or the world.
There's no way to put a price on what I've done here this time, or any of the other times I've been. Don't be one of the 90% or more of Americans that doesn't travel; gather in Ireland in 2013. Bring someone you love, friend or lover, and fall in love as I have with a country and its people. What you will find is the greatest thing of all, yourself. And at what price is that?
Video Slideshow of trip:
To view the photos individually go here.
Follow Charles Karel Bouley on Twitter: www.twitter.com/therealkarel