Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Good Craic (Part 2)

When we last saw our intrepid travelers, they were dealing with an unexpected itinerary change. After leaving the bored, gum-snapping ticket agent at the Aran Islands Ferry office unsatisfied*, we returned to the Doll's Cottage to take advantage of our remaining hour of free wifi and some informed advice. We consulted with Sean and his other guests (a crazy-for-hiking German couple, and a nice American school teacher traveling with her two adult children), and decided we would check out Bunratty Castle and then spend the night at Loop Head, unanimously declared the most beautiful place that no one goes to in Ireland. We set the GPS for Bunratty** and headed back toward Shannon for the second of what would end up being four times.

Bunnratty is a fully restored Edwardian castle surrounded by historical buildings, livestock, and agricultural machinery. Think Jamestown or Williamsburg, but quite a few centuries older. It is a miracle that we managed to get this picture of the castle with no one in front of it. One of the guides told us that she sees a thousand people on an extremely slow day. They have medieval dinners in the evenings. I think it's blackbird pie and typhus, but I didn't look at the menu that closely.

After a drizzly but pleasant couple of hours at Bunratty, we made our way to Loop Head via the Coast Road (aka the scenic route). We were bound for a "wonderful B&B" Sean had recommended at Carrigaholt. We were almost there when we realized he had never told us exactly where it was or what it was called. Fortunately, we started seeing signs for a place called Glencarrig B&B. It was getting late, we were tired and a tiny bit grumpy, so it seemed good enough.

It turned out to be better than good enough. Luke and Mary Aston live about a mile from town, and Mary runs the Glencarrig guesthouse for her husband's charter fishing business. Had it been summer we probably couldn't have gotten a room, but in early October we were the only people in the place. The guesthouse is separated from the main house (connected by the dining room), so it was very much like having a cottage to ourselves. Mary recommended The Long Dock for dinner, so we headed back to town.

The view from our room at Glencarrig. It is hard to believe that this whole country isn't covered with condos. 

Downtown Carrigaholt is three pubs and a stop sign, and we were at the end of a long day. We really weren't looking for much except edible dinner and sleep. It ended up being our favorite night in Ireland. After a relaxed supper of local seafood, Biscuit asked about local music. Live music shuts down with the season in all but the most tourist of towns, but we asked anyway. They sent us next door to Morrissey's Village Pub. There was no music, but before we could turn around the locals called us in, made a spot in the center of the bar, and treated us like long lost friends. We had a wonderful night talking about life in Ireland, life in America, what sort of snacks sheep would like (nuts), big tech companies, fracking, and it gets a little fuzzy after that. We may have had a pint or two too many -- at the insistence (and expense) of the locals.

After a slow start in the morning and a much needed full breakfast, we drove off to see the sights of Loop Head. Once again, the pictures can tell the story better than I.

The lighthouse at Loop Head. It is every bit as lonely and beautiful as this shot might lead one to believe.

The Bridges of Ross. There used to be three bridges, but one fell in the sea.

The coast at Loop Head may not be quite as spectacular as the Cliffs of Moher, but it was close, and we didn't see a single tour bus while we were there. 

The parking lot at the Bridges of Ross. We spent close to an hour there and never saw another person. There were three cows, but I believe they were locals. This was typical of our time at Loop Head.

Our last stop in Ireland was to be the Dingle Peninsula. We had originally planned to start the drive to Dingle somewhat late in the day from the Aran Islands ferry, so we scheduled an overnight stop in Ballybunion to break up the drive. More gorgeous coast, this time with golf courses. More good food and local music.

Ballybunion is a golfing resort that is perhaps not as popular as it was before the crash. Consequently, there is plentiful lodging, quite a few pubs (open and closed), and of course beautiful coast, ruins, etc. The women's beach is to the left here, with the men's beach on the right.

This is getting long again, so I will save Dingle for another day. I assume you quit reading it ages ago, in any case. There is only so much of someone else's vacation that any of us can stomach. Since you won't be paying attention, I'm definitely going to talk about you in the next post.

* No, I mean we left unsatisfied from our visit. Not that she was unsatisfied. Because, well, that's just not going to happen, know what I mean? What? We're not doing phrasing anymore?

** Bunratty is the setting between "stun" and "electro-convulsive therapy".

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The good craic

Biscuit and I try to take a trip every few years around our wedding date to congratulate ourselves on continuing to put up with each other. This year we chose Ireland as our destination. Biscuit has wanted to visit the west coast of Ireland since she saw The Quiet Man as a girl, and I am all about rocks, ocean, and pubs.

We didn't want to spend the whole time in the car, and most Irish roads resemble bike paths, so it was apparent from the start that we wouldn't be able to see the whole country, compact as it is. After a ton of internet research (hers), and a few ill-informed opinions (mine), we decided on stays in Galway, Doolin, and Dingle, with a side trip to the Aran Islands and an overnight stay in Ballybunion.*

The trip was super-relaxing, I didn't hit anything in the Skoda (look it up), and I'm full up on scenery for at least a year. I will let the pictures do (most of) the rest of the talking. We took over a thousand photographs between us, and at least half of them are worth seeing. Here are some of my favorites, with a few shots thrown in for narrative purposes.


After a surprisingly comfortable British Airways flight from Dallas to Heathrow, we caught a surprisingly uncomfortable Aer Lingus flight to Shannon, the "other airport" in Ireland. They lost my bag somewhere along the way, and by the time we finished filling out the paperwork, customs was deserted and we walked out of the airport unmolested. After a bit of a wait at the rental agency, we headed off to Galway, with me trying to remember to stay on the left side of the road.

Shannon airport from the rental agency car park. There is a Radisson hotel that is actually closer to the terminal than this, out of the frame to the right. We stayed there on our last night in Ireland. As hotels go, it was very close to the airport.


We spent our first two nights in Galway at the Park House Hotel. The hotel was well located, with private parking (which we really came to appreciate in Ireland) and helpful staff. My bag arrived about four hours after we did, so I didn't have to spend ten days in the same pants. We were asleep before it was dark both nights, awake through the middle of the night, and asleep again through the morning, which kept our time wandering the city somewhat limited. We did manage a nice drive around Connemara, and even had time to find Nora Barnacle's house.

Galway is the fourth most populous city in Ireland (75,000 and some), a college town, and a seaport since 1124. The River Corrib flows through the city and into Galway Bay.

Did I mention I like pubs? This one is across the street from John F. Kennedy Park, and served the best hamburger I have had in a while. Our hotel was across the street about halfway up the block. 

It seems about half of Ireland comes here to shop. This area between the park and the sea is restricted to foot traffic for several square blocks. I mostly bought beer. And an umbrella.

Doolin and the Burren Way

We left Galway on the third morning and drove down the coast to Doolin in County Clare. Doolin is known for traditional Irish music and is very near the Cliffs of Moher, so it's a pretty popular tourist destination. Luckily for us, the tourist season ends on October 1st, and the crowds were fast disappearing. The town consists of a harbor, three pubs and some wool-centric souvenir shops. Since it's too warm for sweaters where we live, we focused on the pubs. We enjoyed some good food, great traditional Irish music (we even tried to dance once), and the best stout I have ever tasted.

We stayed at Doll's Cottage B&B in Doolin, owned and operated by Sean O'Connor. Sean's parents Gus and Doll had owned Gus O'Connor's Pub, a fixture in town and less than a hundred yards (or "meters") from the B&B. As an itinerant chef and storyteller, Sean is an ideal host, as long as you like to listen and don't mind opinions. We had a blast, and he was very accommodating, even offering us a ride to the Cliffs of Moher to start our hike. The room was generally clean, with a few dusty spots in the corners that let you know it was the end of a long tourist season. This was common with the accommodations on our trip. I had the impression that all would be spic and span again come Spring.

For our full day in Doolin, we walked from the Cliffs (about 3 miles distant) back to Doolin village along the Burren Way. I can't begin to do justice to how simultaneously relaxing and stimulating it was. The weather was grand, and there were sheep and donkeys besides. Combined with the pub experience the night before, this had to be our favorite 24 hours of the trip.

The Cliffs of Moher, a breathtaking stretch of coastline. The combination of active erosion, strong winds, and poor survival instincts send a few people over the edge every year. The authorities finally relented and put some barriers in the most heavily trafficked sections. 

This is reputed to be the landing spot for Harry and Dumbledore in their search for a horcrux. I didn't see the cave, but I assume the entrance is concealed by magic.
O'Brien's Tower at the Cliffs of Moher. You can hardly throw a sheep in Ireland without hitting some medieval structure or ruin.

The view along the coast toward Doolin village. The village is near the center of the distant coast. The harbor is toward the left of the frame, 

In case the seaward view isn't holding your attention, this is what the other direction looks like. Biscuit and I talked a lot about what it would have been like to grow up in one of these houses.

Donkeys! You can see that they are already walking toward us, hoping for carrots, or beer or something. Also, cow butts.

Looking back along a section of the coastal path. As you can see, we have left the barricades far behind.

Doolin village. Gus O'Connor's pub is the two story building to the right of the frame. Doll's House B&B the reddish house with the bay window. I think that's Fitz's Bar at the right edge but it was always dark when we were there. And people were drinking.
The next morning we were scheduled to travel to the Aran Islands and spend the night on Inis Mór. Unfortunately, we woke to rain and tropical storm force winds, and were disappointed to learn that the ferries would not run "for at least a couple of days." It was by far the biggest disappointment of the trip, and we were left with 36 hours to fill.

Whatever would we do? Could we find something else fun to occupy our time? Would the 2 euro umbrella we bought in Galway survive? How many times would I go to the wrong side of the car before remembering it was right hand drive?

Find out in the next installment of The Good Craic! (This is getting long, and Biscuit is growing tired of me crippling our internet connection uploading gigantic pictures, so I will take up the second half later.)

*Do you love the names of these towns, or what?