Visiting Ireland can be either a high-end or budget experience, and I decided to combine the two for a wonderfully innovative journey to reconnect with my Irish roots.
Ireland presents delightful possibilities for a variety of travel styles. Couples, single people, old and young -- everyone can enjoy this lovely country. It's especially good for bonding with the grandchildren as you introduce them to their Irish heritage.
Having lived in a rural Irish cottage for nine years, I know the country well, and I was delighted to go back. Of course, I visited the popular tourist spots along with other areas and, with my Irish cousin's suggestions, I was delighted with some amazing little-known historic discoveries and unusual experiences.
Rather than planning a summertime vacation, I opted for two weeks in the fall "shoulder" season, in order to take advantage of lower fares all around, from airfare to lodging and everything else. Shoulder means the season between high (summer) and low (winter). I wasn't concerned about possible bad weather because that can happen at any time in Ireland; we just take it in stride, and go on. A cost-saving option for me was to use public transportation, Bus Eireann, rather than renting a car. This also relieved me of the worry of dealing with now-unfamiliar byroads and gave me an opportunity to visit with other travelers.
Landing in Dublin, I took a bus to the City Centre where I planned to stroll around and overnight before beginning my cross-country travel. I checked into the Shelbourne Hotel (a splurge), and took off to visit my favorite haunts, Trinity College with the magnificent Book of Kells, Eason's bookstore and a long, leisurely lunch at Cornucopia on Wicklow Street. A vegetarian restaurant, Cornucopia offers a variety of options including wholefood, gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian and more; all delicious, wholesome, organic and reasonably priced.
Back to the hotel for a long leisurely nap; then I was ready for Shelbourne's world-class high tea, and it was fabulous -- twelve selections of tea and a legendary selection of sandwiches followed by scones with a variety of toppings, sweets and pastries. Wing-back chairs or sofas, a lovely blazing fire, the clink of teacups -- I felt the world slip away, and I was in heaven!
And, to top off that magical day, I spent the evening at historic Abbey Theatre to see "The Picture of Dorian Gray."
The next morning, having splurged the day before, it was time to tighten the belt and begin to see more of Ireland. The Irish thoroughbred horse industry is world renowned, so a short bus trip to Kildare brought me to The Curragh Race Course, and National Stud and Japanese Gardens where I was able to see a race horse's life journey from conception to champion, then stroll among some of the most beautiful gardens in Europe. Thank God it was a lovely day to enjoy it all!
Again by bus, I headed to the Rock of Cashel dripping with Irish history. Inquiring for a B&B at the Tourist Information office in the town, I decided on Cashel House B&B, around the corner from the City Centre and two minutes' walk from the Rock.
A wee bit weary, I popped into a pub for some hearty 'pub grub' and a chat with the locals, strolled around town a bit, and off back to Cashel House for a nice hot bath and sleep.
The rest of the trip is a wonderful blur. Still on public transportation, I headed from Cashel southeast enjoying wide, beautiful vistas, villages and public gardens, most of them in view of the Irish Sea.
I particularly remember stopping at Powerscourt Estate and Gardens for a homemade gourmet lunch in the Terrace Cafe, a quick browse through the Avoca shop with its exquisite clothing, gifts and furniture, and a stroll through the gorgeous formal garden with its backdrop of the Wicklow Mountains.
This area in County Wicklow is well worth a longer visit, especially for golfers because, in addition to the two courses at Powerscourt, Co. Wicklow is home to 17 other courses, most of which are four- and five-star level!
Continuing around the outer perimeter of the 'Emerald Isle', through Counties Wexford, Kilkenny with its wonderful array of Irish crafts and clothing, and Co. Waterford, home of the world class Irish crystal, on to Co. Cork where I visited Blarney Castle with its Blarney Stone which is said to impart the gift of gab to anyone with the fortitude to climb up to the top and kiss it.
All along the way, the magnificent scenery gradually changes from the gentle elegance of the East to the more wild and rugged rocks and waters of Ireland's 'Wild West', on the Atlantic Ocean.
I was delighted to see that everywhere I went continued to be family-friendly; every location provided room to run and play and/or interesting children's activities to go along with the ones geared for adults. Irish people with their twinkling eyes and quick-witted fun, simply love children, and visiting children are delighted with the attention.
Here in western Ireland are some of the world's finest, most challenging and beautiful golf courses and golf links. (Links are golf courses butting up to the sea.) Ballybunion, LaHinch, Waterville complementing the East Coast's Mt. Juliet, Portmarnock and others will take every bit of your skill to complete well.
Traveling up the West coast I reached Killarney, where I stayed at a real working horse farm, also a B&B, called Forest Haven where Andrew Joy, the proprietor, gave me excellent advice about seeing quaint and scenic Killarney with its jaunting carts, well-known lakes and forests, and great music-filled nightlife.
In Ireland, centuries blend seamlessly together. Driving along a country road, you might see a small sign, 'Megalithic Tomb'; you'll get out (if you're in a car), probably walk across a field where cattle graze, open a gate (don't forget to close it), and there it is -- large standing stones topped horizontally with another stone. Megalithic scenes are to be found throughout Ireland, probably most of them in the West.
Killarney was a great starting point for my bus trip around the Ring of Kerry, 111 miles of some of the most breathtaking scenery in Ireland. Passing through Kenmare, Sneem, and other towns and villages including a bog village, on the Ring you can see the two Skellig Islands in the Atlantic Ocean where, on the larger one, Skellig Michael, you can see a 6th Century Christian monastery. Also known as Great Skellig, this island is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Dingle was my next stop. A peninsula in Co. Kerry, it is the site of Ireland's earliest Christian Church, Gallarus Oratory. So tiny that two people nearly fill it, the stone building was built between the 7th and 8th century using Neolithic techniques without mortar.
With only a few days left in my trip, I traveled up through Co. Clare to Salthill, a suburb of Galway City where I had booked a B&B at AbbeyLee, just a stone's throw from Galway Bay.
With a warm welcome from proprietors Marie and Michael O'Shaughnessy, I started off with a wonderful cup of Irish tea and a friendly chat. "How's your trip?" they asked, and in the course of it I told them I still wanted to see Co. Clare with the Burren, and Doolin with its renowned Irish traditional music. I also wanted to see medieval-modern Galway City and the Connemara area.
You can imagine my delight when they told me that, not only could I take arranged bus tours to visit all those sites, but that the buses would pick me up at the O'Shaughnessys' door and leave me back there at the end! Now, I ask you, what could be better than that!
Because I was, sadly, in my last four days of the Irish visit, I decided to use them optimally by taking advantage of the tours. On the first day, I opted for Galway City, with the option of getting on and off all day as the tour progressed. I visited the Old City, Eyre Square with its statue of John F. Kennedy and shopped for bargains as the Irish do, in the Eyre Square Shopping Centre, stopping for a bite of lunch in the Dunn's Store cafeteria as I had done so many times before, with my neighbor Anne Costello. Then I visited St. Nicholas Church, the oldest continuously running medieval church in Ireland where Christopher Columbus visited in 1477. I saw the Spanish Arch and approximately 20 other historic sites.
The next day, it was on to Connemara with its green malachite stone visible in the hills we passed. We travelled through some of the most beautiful scenery I could ever imagine, stopping at Kylemore Abbey for lunch and a stroll around the gardens. And we visited Cong, site of the classic film "The Quiet Man" starring John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara.
On my last tour day, we travelled to Co. Clare, with its world-famous natural wonders the Cliffs of Moher and The Burren with its Aillwee Caves and megalithic dolmen. The Burren, 111 square miles, is unique in that its limestone rocks house plants both tropical and Arctic. It is bound by both the Atlantic Ocean and Galway Bay.
Back at Abbeylee, the O'Shaughnessys were kind enough to walk with me to nearby Salthill Promenade where we sat on a rock and watched the sun go down on Galway Bay. Really! What a perfect ending to a wonderful trip!
The only thing left was to take the public bus to Shannon the next day, for my flight out. All along, with a lump in my throat, my video-mind kept playing back the unbelievable variety of sights, sounds and experiences I had enjoyed in these past few days! They're still in me now, as I start planning my next trip back to Ireland, and that'll be soon, God willing.