As I sit here, looking out at the snow, drinking my hot cocoa, and snuggled in my office, I can’t help but wish I was somewhere else…Ireland! Who am I kidding? I always wish I was in Ireland!…Or the beach. But mostly Ireland.
On September 27th of last year, me and my husband (my boyfriend at the time) made our first journey across the big pond to a country in which both of us have ancestors, Ireland. We went on an escorted tour with Brendan Vacations that was set up and organized completely by our awesome travel agent at Big Sky Travel here in OKC. After much deliberation, Eric and I decided that an escorted tour would be the most beneficial for our first time to Ireland, as all we had to do was show up! Most of the meals, all of the transportation, hotels, sight seeing, etc was covered for one price. Otherwise, I would have had to be the one driving us around everywhere and I wouldn’t get to enjoy the scenery of the land, and I would be stressed out.
We met up with Eric’s aunt Barb, who lives in Portland, OR, in Atlanta, which was our layover airport. The trip there couldn’t have gone more smooth. TIP #1. SLEEP ON THE PLANE! We were all so excited, the 3 of us only got a bit of a nap on the plane. When I opened my eyes and looked out the window, I saw the most incredible view. Green hills, rocks, patchwork grounds. Inching lower and lower, the plane was being consumed by the cloudy atmosphere. To some, cloudy equals gloom, but for me, I found it quite comforting. This is how had imagined it, except it was even more breath-taking. Seeing the little Irish sheep and Irish cows trotting and frolicking in the farm lands made me smile. Then suddenly, farmland turned to modern buildings betwixt ancient stone antiquities. Moments like this can’t be captured on camera…they have to be experienced and replayed in your mind.
Day 1 in Ireland:
Once we got off the plane, we had to go through customs at Dublin Airport, which consisted of us standing in a long line for about 45 minutes. We were the first flight in, so I know it could have been a lot worse. After we got out of customs, we found our way to the meeting point where other Brendan Vacation goers were congregated and hopped on their awesome, cozy motor coach. That’s what they are called there–motor coaches. Not tour buses. Our driver, Leslie, a man, transported us to our first hotel, the Clyde Court Hotel Dublin, which was nestled in a quaint neighborhood, walking distance to some of the best pubs in Dublin.
We got to the hotel at about 11 am Dublin time, which meant it was 5 am OK time, and we had barely had any sleep…remember this is the NEXT day. You lose a full day with travel. We were hoping to get checked into our hotel rooms so that we could take a quick nap, as we had to be ready for our first outing with the group at 2 pm. Eric’s aunt Barb’s room was ready, however there were still a handful of us that had to wait on the rooms to be cleaned. Eric was beyond exhausted. He was falling asleep on the couch in the lobby. We finally got our room at 12:45 pm. We hustled up to the room, ripped off our travel clothes, and passed OUT! No, seriously, We did. When my alarm went off, we barely had enough time to pop some clean clothes on, brush our teeth, and whisk off downstairs to the motor coach.
Some of you may be saying, “Heck! I would have just kept sleeping!” Well, it did cross our minds, but we needed to get on Ireland time. AND our first outing was to see St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Trinity College! How can you pass that up? We got our second wind and enjoyed every second. Dublin is truly a magical place. It is the perfect combo of antiquity and modern. Ancient buildings built of stone are meddled in with new contemporary designs. There is a young and hip vibe that marries with tradition. Just like any large city, you will get the occasional whiff of urine on the sidewalk.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral was absolutely beautiful. This is not a Catholic church though, it is a Protestant church. It’s Episcopalian and to the Catholic’s they are cousins as so as our Travel Director said. I wish we had more time to explore this beautiful church which had so much to look at and learn about, but we got there late on a Sunday. This is still a working cathedral, so Sunday evening service was to begin in an hour, and they didn’t allow tours during that time. So the experience was a bit rushed. None the less, it was still beautiful. As an architecture lover, I wanted to sit down with my sketch book and capture all the the groin vaults with my pen, but time ran out. Then we were on to Trinity College–home of the Book of Kells!
Trinity College is famous for the Book of Kells, which are thought to have been written by monks and contain the 4 gospels. These are no ordinary gospel pages as they are written with special ink and have very ornate drawings and illustrations. Trinity College is also FREE to attend! Hmm, maybe I went to the wrong university. Hind sight, right? Trinity College has wonderful grounds to explore. We saw some cute Irish birds pecking around, and then I found that big gold ball, also called the Sphere Within Sphere, which was donated to the University by Arnaldo Pomodoro in 1982. By this time, Eric, Barb, and myself were starting to feel the pain of Jet lag, so we decided to kill our remaining time, by walking around the square across from the college. There were musicians playing in the alleys, sweet shoppes tempting us with their treats, clothing stores, antique stores, and of course, pubs! After a bit of a walk, we ended up nestled on our seats in the motor coach, anxiously awaiting the departure to the hotel.
Upon the the arrival back at the hotel, we had a few minutes to freshen up, and meet back downstairs for our Welcome Dinner, which was included in our fee, and some free beer! You know we stayed awake for that. Ladies and Gentleman, If you get nothing else from this blog, please know that Ireland is the best place for food, sights, and beer. Nothing can bring a tear to my eye like an ice cold beer after a long hard day. My first Guinness in Ireland was amazing. It takes a few moments to be properly disbursed into your glass. Don’t want too much foam at the top. Dinner was amazing. Everyone who was on our tour with us were to sit in one area, and we all got to chat and learn about where everyone was from. Most of us had family or ancestors that were from Ireland and were looking to see some of the places that we had heard about. There was a good mix of ages on this trip, including a family of 9 with young children. So a lot of the younger people went pubbing that first night. NOT us. We excused ourselves around 8 pm, and we went to sleep! Oh, what a great night of sleep it was. We woke up feeling refreshed and ready for another journey…of course we got a nice breakfast in our bellies first.
Day 2 in Ireland:
Our tour guide got us out of the hotel and onto the road just in time to beat morning rush-hour traffic in Dublin. It’s a good thing too, as we got to our first visitation sight in Glendalough (pronounced Glen-da-lock). This is one of the most popular destinations in Ireland. It’s no wonder why either. This is an ancient monastery that is the burial grounds for St. Kevin. I could have spent an entire day here sketching the hills, the gravestones, the trees, everything. It was absolutely beautiful. We got there as the morning light danced upon the crest of the hills, casting soft shadows on the the trees and land. All was hushed and serene. Crisp chirps from freshly-woken birds harmonized with the whispering water that was close by. In this moment, no cars, crying babies, or email notifications from cell phones could be heard. Only the sigh of tranquility that nature brings. I did not miss facebook, the internet, my phone, or work at this moment. I was completely content, except once again longing for my pen and sketch book, which I foolishly forgot at home. We were the first tour there, so we got to explore the grounds for about 30 minutes before the other tours started showing up.
After our time at Glendalough, we headed to Waterford, home of the Waterford Crystal Factory and shop. Prior to our tour of Waterford Crystal, we all had a bite to eat at a local mom-and-pop eatery/gift shop. We had the seafood chowder and fresh-made Irish Bread. Fun Fact: Ireland uses NO preservatives in their food. Everything is fresh and you can taste it. I didn’t feel so bad about being a glutton over there as the food was so fresh and good. Man, I am hungry now…and I want a Guinness.
We took a guided tour of Waterford Crystal. The tour began with a little video that was a bit strange. We walked into this dark room that had TVs. They were playing some techno song I had never heard of, with fireworks going off on the screen, then images of people talking that we didn’t get to hear what they were saying. This went on for what seemed like an eternity. Eric, my husband, whispered to me “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if I got out there and started dancing right now?” This made me laugh pretty loud and I am sure people thought I was being disrespectful, but the thought of him getting out there and getting his groove on in the middle of a room with people we didn’t know made me chuckle. It made Barb chuckle too. But he didn’t do it. We were on our best behavior. Yes, it was kind of cool to see how they made this awesome and expensive crystal, but this is not something either of us would have paid money to see. I would have rather spent more time at one of the other places, or gone sight-seeing around the town of Waterford.
After Waterford, we began the long drive to Cork County, where Eric’s Hogan side of the family is from. We stayed in the Rochestown Park Hotel which was supposed to be walking distance to an awesome bar our Travel Guide kept talking about. After a delightful dinner, the 3 of us decided that we wanted to walk to this awesome bar she was talking about, and have our first beer in an Irish Pub. Well, we followed the directions from the lady at the front desk and found the first pub, which apparently was in the city limits of Douglas, and we didn’t get the warm Irish welcome we were hoping for. Tip # 2: Don’t go to an Irish pub on a Monday night in a small town. The pub was dead. This was O’Driscolls and there were like 5 people in there. You know on movies when the character walks into a bar or restaurant and people stop and turn and stare??? Yeah, that happened here. Oh! look! American Tourists, on a Monday night…in Ireland. Can’t imagine what they would be doing here at 10:30 at night. Hmm, maybe hoping to live it up like the Irish? I guess in this town, people actually go to bed at a normal hour. Our bartender came over and asked us what we wanted, gave it to us, then asked for our money. We kinda wanted to start a tab, but whatever. So we sat there, drank our beer, and noticed as he started turning the barstools upside down onto the tables…even internationally that means that they are closing. So we sucked down our Smithwicks and Guinness, tipped the lad, and was on our merry way back to the hotel, where we lived it up in the dead hotel bar. The bartender at the hotel was at least pretty cool and kept the beers coming.
Day 3 in Ireland:
Lots of fun and driving this day. We left from our cozy hotel in Cork and ventured out into the pouring rain to see the Heritage Center in Cobh (pronounced Cove). This place was really awesome. It has info, videos, vignettes and more about the Titanic and the Lusitania ships. You see what conditions were like for the people who migrated to the US from Ireland. They have old videos, memorabilia, etc on a self-guided tour. You really appreciate what people went through to come to America. There is also a great little gift shop and cafe that you can sit and have a coffee and pastry. Eric was able to get a family history scroll of the Hogan’s here complete with the family crest. You see these types of souvenirs all over Ireland, since we are all trying to find our Irish roots. Might as well make some money off of it!
By the time we left the Heritage Center, the rain was just tapering off to a nice drizzle. Tip #3: Dress for 4 seasons when travelling to Ireland. Once on our motor coach, we were off to Blarney to visit the famed Blarney Castle!! Arriving in Blarney, the sun had shied out from behind the clouds, and was shining on the rain-glistened trees and flowers, illuminating all that was once cloudy and grey. There was still a nice crisp in the air, but the birds had come out from hiding and were chattering among themselves. I can only imagine what they were saying. “Oh, look at that weirdo. What’s up with Americans and Ranch Dressing?”
The village of Blarney was already bustling with anxious tourist longing to capture epic photographs of the gardens, or make the long hour and a half climb up the tower to kiss the famed Blarney Stone. Tip #4: Don’t kiss the Blarney stone. Apparently the locals told us that drunkards will sneak into the castle at night and wiz on the stone. When you see the stone, it’s all discolored from people touching it and kissing it. I mean, the chaps that hold you whilst you lean back and kiss it do spray sanitizer on it first. But really, you are still kissing a stone that millions have kissed or pissed on. I opted out of that, but Barb and Eric didn’t. I captured it all on camera. It was pretty cool being in an ancient castle. This was another place that I would have just liked to have sketched for a day.
After the castle, we stopped into a gift shop and I bought a wool hat that was made in Ireland, and some finger-less arm/hand warmers. Those were the 2 things I really wanted to get while there. We wondered on to a highly recommended cafe to have lunch called the Lemon Tree, located in the Blarney Castle Hotel. After lunch, we popped in to the Blarney Chocolate Factory and bought some sinful liquor-filled chocolate truffles. Fun Fact: You can order them online! Our bellies full and our feet longing for rest, we scurried back to the motor coach, settled in our seats, and headed for the wonderful town of Killarney, AKA the Vegas of Ireland.
Before getting to our hotel, our tour guide arranged for us all to stop into this great shop that was known for its phenomenal Irish coffee, fantastic pricing on jewelry, and superior customer service. It hit all those marks. We had hot Irish Coffees waiting on our arrival, which was much needed. I wanted to buy a piece of Irish jewelry as well and the woman who helped me was great. I told her what price range I was looking at, and she found me a selection of Irish necklaces that were beautiful and meaningful. Barb got her a nice blingy Claddagh ring that sparkled so much they probably could see it from space! Tip #5: Always ask for the tax free price. You pay VAT taxes in Ireland on purchase over 25 Euros and you get them back at the end of your stay. Most shops will fill out the tax form for you. You just keep your receipts until the end of the trip, and put them in an envelope at the airport. Your account will be credited after it has been processed.
Now, on our tour, we were able to book some extra side excursions that were not included in the price of our trip. It works exactly like a cruise. We chose to do everything they offered. Both of the extras were going to happen tonight! As you can tell, our day had been fun-filled and busy, but that was not keeping us down! We arrived at the Killarney Avenue Hotel in just enough time to freshen up and meet downstairs for our first excursion.
Our first extra was a horse-drawn carriage ride into a park with a guide that took you places you wouldn’t see otherwise. It was so romantic. Eric and I got in our carriage and took it all in. For most of the day, we were able to keep our jackets off, but now, the weather was getting cool as the sun was beginning to say it’s evening good-byes. The sun was beginning to sneak behind the peaks of the tall hills in the distance, casting the most elegant shadows among the field. Our guide took us to Ross Castle on the edge of Killarney National Park. It was amazing. We got out, walked around, took some great pictures, and
huddled back in after about 20 minutes of exploration, and took a nice winding path back to the hotel. It was the perfect, relaxing end of a day…or so we thought! Tip #6: It is polite to tip your guide a few Euros after something like this to show appreciation. Many Irish make their money on the Tourist season, and this will pay for their wages for the year. So if they show you a nice time, thank them. Thank their families too. Taxes are high there. There is a price to pay to live in fairytale land.
Back from our carriage ride, we had about an hour to kill before we went on our other extra excursion. We were going to an Irish pub for a 3 course meal, brews, and a local band was to play. Some dancers were going to come and clog along to the music as well. Little did we know when we woke up that morning, that this was going to be the highlight NIGHT of the trip.
The pub was amazing. I had the Fish and Chips and a piece of heavenly cheesecake for desert, along with a couple of Carlsburg ales. We were feeling pretty good by the time we left, and decided when we got back to the hotel, that we weren’t ready to retire yet. So, we chatted it up with our tour guide and driver and they took us to some local hangouts there in Killarney. Since Killarney is the Vegas of Ireland, it has plenty of night time activities that don’t shut down at 11 pm. I don’t remember the name of the first pub we went into, but it was packed. There were about 8 of us from the tour group that went out together that night, and we had the BEST time. After a beer or 2 at the first pub, we went to the Killarney Grand where another band was playing called Deuces Wild. They were awesome. Eric is a music enthusiast, and wanted me to include their set:
- Guns n Roses – Sweet Child ‘O Mine
- Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines
- CCR – Proud Mary
- Bruno Mars – Locked Out of Heaven
- MGMT – Kids
- Eminem – Love the Way You Lie
- Darius Rucker – Wagon Wheel
- Ricky Martin – Livin’ La Vida Loca
- The Killers – Mr. Brightside
- The Rembrandts – I’ll Be There For You
- Bon Jovi – Livin’ on a Prayer
- Magic! – Rude
- The Isley Brothers – Shout
- Dropkick Murphys – I’m Shipping Up to Boston
- The Lumineers – Hey Ho
- Ram Jam – Black Betty
- One Republic – Counting Stars.
The thing we thought was funny though, is that they were playing all American music. And all the Irish people there were loving it. Even “Wagon Wheel” which blew my mind. Why would Irish people like country music? After several beers and many songs, my voice was hoarse from singing and laughing, my feet hurt from dancing, and I found Eric talking politics with a local. SMH. It was definitely a night that we look back fondly on. Somehow we managed to make the short walk back to the hotel, while other parts of our group got lost, but made it back as well. We had only a 5 hours to sleep before we had to be at breakfast and on the bus for our tour the next day! What a day!
Day 4 in Ireland:
The Ring of Kerry. What can I say about it other than AMAZING. Really. If you don’t have a bucket list yet, you need to make one, and put this destination at the top of it.
This next day was going to be long, as we were feeling a bit hung-over from the night before, and we were sitting in the back of the motor coach today, which meant that all the curves and hills were going to be amplified, and if we weren’t careful, we could get some motion sickness. Thankfully, nothing like that happened. We had a yummy breakfast of eggs, sausages (the best sausages in the world are in Ireland), waffles, fresh squeezed grapefruit juice, coffee, yum yum!
The sun was coming up, but still too early to see it’s full presence as it was still hiding behind the hills. Our tour guide snuck us all to a secret favorite spot of hers just on the outskirts of the Ring of Kerry. It was immaculate. The views here set the tone for the rest of the day of travel. The dew was still dancing on the blades of grass. In the distance, horses from an adjacent farm pranced up to the fence to inspect us curious folk. The lake in the horizon was calm from the evening slumber. All was quiet. No cars, no crying babies, no cell phones. Just the horses, the light rustle of the autumn trees, and the sweet scent of a new day. For many moments we all just stood there, breathing it in, capturing this moment, taking pictures, wishing that this moment would last forever. This was one of my favorite spots that we stopped at and I have not yet met it’s match on beauty.
From here we began the 112-mile drive along the Ring of Kerry. This is a must-see scenic drive in County Kerry. It takes you through different ecosystems there in Ireland. There are lots of places to stop and take pictures, eat lunch, have a coffee, etc. One of our stops was obviously meant for tourists. There was a man dressed in what most Americans would expect an Irishman to dress in. He had 2 little donkeys, and on the back of one stood a little Pomeranian pup greeting everyone. It was a happy little Irish dog, prancing on the back of the happy little Irish donkeys. We also stopped at a little house that had a traditional straw roof. It served coffees and teas and pastries. I got a Bailey’s and Coffee, while Barb got a hot tea. Lunch was at this great shop a long the way that had the best Lemon and Mint infused water. I almost bought an Emerald Green hand-made coat there! I am still kicking myself for not getting it!
It all ended back in Killarney National Park, where we took a hike to Torc Waterfall and Muckross House. We got some great pictures of the grounds, but by the time we made it back to the motor coach, we were exhausted! It had been a long tiring day, and we were still feeling the affects of the night before. After dinner, we had a couple of beers in the hotel pub, then we made it an early night in.
Day 5 in Ireland:
We woke up early, had our breakfast of champions, boarded the motor coach, and we were headed to Foynes to see the Flying Boat Museum to take a tour and learn the proper way to have an Irish Coffee. The coffee was delicious, of course, and it was really interesting to see a flying boat, as I had never heard of them before. This, again, was not one of the places that I would pay to ever go back to. For a pilot, this would be an epic experience. For me though, I didn’t really take that much interest in it. We were there for about 2 hours, then we had to catch the ferry. The ferry was pretty cool. it was about 30 minutes across the River Shannon. The sun was shining and the wind had picked up, leaving our noses quite pink from the chill.
Once off the ferry, we were on to the Cliffs of Mohr. This was one of the places I was so excited to see. When you Google images of Ireland, the Cliffs of Mohr always come up. We were on our way to see them today! It was definitely crisp, windy, and cloudy out. Ireland was gearing up for winter and she was letting us know! The drive was long, and curvy, and when we finally got to the Cliffs, it was packed! So many tourists. We were starving and we didn’t have but an hour to get out and explore. This kind of sucked because that didn’t give us much time to eat and really take it all in. We got some pictures outside, but the wind was beating us up pretty bad. Our stomachs were rumbling and reminding us that they needed some nourishment. So with what little time we had left, we went to an ATM, got cash out, and had some delicious seafood chowder. We wolfed it down in time to trot off to the tour bus and be on our way to Bunratty Castle.
Bunratty Castle was the last stop before getting to Limerick where our last hotel was awaiting our arrival. Some of our tour group were leaving us at this stop as they were spending the night in a medieval castle. We considered doing that, however it was like an extra $700 per person. Uh, no. Maybe next time. Instead, we stopped at the shops in Bunratty square and walked over to Durty Nelly’s pub which was right across the street from Bunratty Castle. We choked down a quick beer at the bar, and reminisced our time in Ireland. It was coming to an end and it felt like we just got there! Such a sad moment. On our way to Limerick, the sun had made it’s way out of the clouds just long enough to wish us a good morrow, and slowly began to sink beyond the trees and hills.
Our motor coach made its way into the 3rd largest city in Ireland, Limerick. It is nestled along the River Shannon, and is as lively as Downtown San Francisco on a week night. We had a nice and trendy room at the George Boutique Hotel. Dinner was not included this night, however they did have a 3- course special that Barb, Eric, and I chowed down on. Tonight was the birthday of one of the girl’s on our tour, and originally we had planned on going out with her. Barb seemed like she was tired and going to go back to her room. Eric told me that he would rather us do our own thing as we hadn’t gotten to really be alone at all during the trip. So we decided to dodge the partying crowd that was gathered in the hotel bar, and go for a walk in the big city. We found our way to the River Shannon where they had a monument park along the river dedicated to the shipmen and workers who helped build it and use it. Eric and I walked along, kind of sad that this was our last night in Ireland. We sat and took in the city sights. The scent of city and salt from the river lingered in the air. The city was a live this Thursday night, but we found a cozy spot to snuggle. A man walked as his little Irish dog trotted along side. If he could talk he would have said “Look at me! I’m an Irish dog!” We walked along the river, not wanting the night or the trip to end. We found our way to the end of the board walk, and stood in an elevated “podium” in which I imagined performers would sing and dance on during the weekend. In the distance, a couple of drunk lads peed on the sidewalk. Classy. Even in Ireland you can’t escape immaturity.
We finally decided to head back to the hotel, and as I turned to walk away, Eric pulled me back only to find him kneeling and proposing! I was so excited. Of course I said yes. He is the love of my life and he couldn’t have chosen a better place to propose than in Ireland. We made our way back to the hotel, where some of our group had decided to stay in. Eric’s aunt Barb was there too! We told them the good news and we all celebrated for an hour with champagne and strawberries. It was a great night and the perfect ending to the perfect trip.
Day 6–Leaving Ireland:
We had our last breakfast and our last ride on our lovely motor coach. It was raining and cold. It was as if Ireland was sad we were leaving! We were sad too. So many special moments, new friends made, inside jokes had, and about what felt like 10 pounds added to my waistline. The Shannon airport was a cinch to get in. All our i’s were dotted, t’s crossed, VAT tax receipts turned in, coffee in hand, ring on my finger. It was all good, except for the fact that we were leaving. I did miss my own bed. I missed my animals and my family. But I knew I would definitely miss Ireland.
I won’t bore you with the details of the plane rides and delays upon getting home.
I WILL say, that if you ever decide to go to Irealnd, I highly recommend Brendan Vacations. And if you are in the OKC area, I highly recommend using Judy at Big Sky Travel. All the ladies there are helpful and nice. They took the stress out of planning a trip that big. If you have been there before, and you know what you want, maybe you don’t need to go on an escorted tour. I say to just skip the web scouring for the best rates etc. You get what you pay for most of the time. Save time and stress and let a travel agent help you.
I hope this blog has help paint a picture of the beauty that Ireland has to offer. Brendan Tours was like an Irish History lesson on Wheels. I learned a lot whilst I was there. I can’t wait to go back!