Our fifth country on our way around the world turned out to be Ireland. After having spent more than 10 months away from Europe we felt that this was a good place to start our “soft landing” - moving closer to home. Our arrival in Munich was planned to take place in early April.
So, on a very early morning in early February 2014 we touched ground in Dublin's International Airport. The rain was pouring down and the wind was howling. We had spent the previous week on Manhattan in a biting frost. The average temperature never got above 0 degrees celsius, and on Manhattan it is pretty much always windy around the skyscrapers. That was a cold experience! So we did not mind the milder temperatures and ignored the rain!
We had reserved our rental car a few weeks earlier, but this turned out to be a mistake. The rules for car-rental and insurance in Ireland are complicated and we simply ended up telling the company no to their ridiculous terms and conditions, and went back online to do more research and look for a better solution. All the rental companies sort of hawk their services all over the arrival areas. However, as soon as you get into the nitty-gritty detailstheir offers and conditions are no longer that good at all. Before you get the keys it is mostly about twice as expensive as originally offered (if not worse!), when you need insurance coverage, co-driver insurance and all. This is very annoying when you are tired after a long flight and just want to get to your hotel. Fortunately we had booked a hotel on the outskirts of the airport for our first night, even though we arrived early in the day. This meant that we had about 24 hours to find an alternative. And finally we succeeded at that.
The first couple of days we suffered form a terrible jet-lag. Something we had avoided our entire journey so far. But the evening flight from New York almost made a new record on its way to Dublin and we were only airborne for little over 5 hours. Not nearly enough to get some proper sleep. And just as we had all dozed off in our seats in front of a bad movie on the in-flight entertainment system, we were abruptly woken by the crew and had to consider our breakfast options. Thus our day/night rhythm was completely ruined right from the start of our Ireland trip.
In spite of this we started out boldly by driving to Belfast in Northern Ireland. I recall all the reports on TV from the city that suffered from so much violence during my childhood. Constantly we heard about fights between protestants and catholics. IRA would make the headlines. Bombs were common. Victims plentiful.
But the past many years there has been truce and today you actually do not really notice that you are in fact entering another country (Northern Ireland is part of Great Britain) as you drive along the highway from Dublin to Belfast. But suddenly all the signs are different and you deal with miles instead of kilometers. This is actually somewhat confusing. However, in both countries they are driving on the left side of the road so at least we did not have to change that in the middle of everything!
Nature is the one thing that we keep coming back to Ireland for. It is absolutely special and as the rumor says it is almost unbelievably green! All the way up north you find “Giant’s Causeway” which is quite a spectacular phenomenon. Formations of hexagonal rocks! It all looks man-made, but isn’t. Up here you can walk around for hours just taking in the beautiful and “raw” nature. The weather was nice and we had a few rays of sunshine during our visit. The colours were almost supernatural in the sunshine. Brown and grey cliffs, with bright green algae here and there. The ocean responded with with a symphony of indigo and turquoise. The water looked warm and inviting. Well, it certainly wasn’t!
After this we drove down the west coast. In February it is still winter in Ireland. Not the kind of winter we are used to in Central Europe. The warm Gulf Stream in the Atlantic is way too dominant for really cold winters in Ireland. Only on a rare occasion they have significant snow masses on the west coast. But storms and rain showers are harder and more frequent than anywhere else I have been!
We stayed at a few very cozy and warm “Bed & Breakfasts” along the way. In contrast to the sad and anonymous chain-hotels that we were used to in the US, these were places where they understood the true meaning of personal and individual service. Usually the rooms were very nice, with a personal twist from the host here and there. The breakfast was always satiating, which I have found out is absolutely not guaranteed when you travel around the world. The classic “Irish Breakfast” is in fact a variation of the “English Breakfast” - or is it vice versa? On the plate you find fried eggs, mostly half a fried tomato, mushrooms, bacon and blood sausage. In England the blood sausage is replaced with fried potatoes, which suits me better. Furthermore, the english version will contain “Baked Beans”. Neither irish nor english breakfasts are particularly low on calories, but they saturate extremely well and rarely did we have any hunger at all until early afternoon. Oftentimes we only ate very little for lunch.
One of the great highlights in Ireland was Connemara. Located on the west coast the area offers some of the most beautiful nature you will find in Ireland. Endless stretches of mountains, lakes and bogs. It all seems completely untouched, if it wasn’t for the occasional abandoned stone buildings that used to house shepherds and other farm-workers along with their families a century ago. You see these ruins all over the island. You will also find miles upon miles of drywalls made of stone. Most likely the farm workers just removed the stones from the fields and placed them along the sides to make it easier to work the land. As time went by stones were put on top of stones until walls were created. In total there are about 250.000 kilometers (155.343 miles) of drywalls in Ireland. Spread out all over the country they are the foundation for a wide range of wildlife. They change their “character” throughout the year and the locals say that a good drywall will only get better with age, just like a good bottle of wine.
As you drive along the many narrow country roads on the Irish west coast you will often gain a bit of altitude and thus be able to gaze at the Atlantic Ocean. And time after time you are met with an intense play of colours and a dramatic scenery of clouds. It is gloomy, poetic and incredibly beautiful at the same time. When the sun breaks through the dark clouds and the rays hit the deep blue waves it creates nuances that only the very best painters are able to replicate. We tried to shoot some photos, but nothing really does any justice to “the real thing”...
Together with Alexandra’s family we crashed in a cottage in the small town of Renvyle for about a week. ALL the way out there where you cannot get any further away from anything! With stunning views of the ocean. Here we would sit by the large dining table and just stare at the brutal, wild nature right outside our windows. Many, many times it would rain and storm madly, but it did not matter to us when we sat indoor with a good glass of red-wine and some hearty, warm food. The locals usually say that “if you do not like the weather right now, just wait 15 minutes!” That was usually right. In this area the weather is really ever-changing!
When you visit Ireland there are a number of things you should not miss:
Connemara National Park, which is incredibly beautiful. We visited the park at a time when snow was still covering the surrounding mountain tops. And as spring was just about to make its entrance, with the first, tiny little spots of green, yellow and red we felt like standing in the middle of a fairytale scenery. Shortly I was reminded of the beautiful views we enjoyed down in New Zealand. I would never say that you could just go to Ireland instead, but you can certainly get a good preview of what to expect of New Zealand by visiting Connemara in February.
Ring of Kerry. Like Connemara this is an almost impossibly beautiful and diverse area. You can make your way around it in just a day. In total the route is 179 kilometers. And although this may sound like a lot to drive in one day on small, narrow country roads, we did find time to drive off the route a few times to take a closer look at a few bays, beaches and castle ruins that we found particularly interesting. You HAVE to explore a castle ruin! But do check if there are any entry bans before you enter. Many of the old ruins are still privately owned. Furthermore it can be extremely dangerous, so always proceed with great care, and never leave children out of sight!
Giant’s Causeway. Already mentioned previously in this blog. But I would like to emphasize that the drive all the way up to the northern shores of Ireland are well worth it!
Good hotels and Bed & Breakfasts are found throughout Ireland and they all have a good standard and friendly service. When traveling in Ireland you should try to avoid the chain-hotels, because even though they may be fine and serve their purpose, you will miss out on the personal and individual experience that the private country inns and hotels offer. We can recommend a stay at Abbeyglen Castle Hotel in Cliffden on the west coast at any time. It is fairly large, but still has the personal touch and the good, old-fashioned, first class hotel service. The staff remembers your name and you have a reserved table for all your meals in the restaurant. Complimentary “Afternoon Tea” is served in the lounge area and a glass of champagne is served in the bar, just before the dinner bell rings. We have been there a few times before, and we are certainly coming back again in the future. There are many, many other places in the same league in Ireland. The only downside is that they are mostly located in remote and almost impassable areas. However, in my eyes this only contributes to the unique experience!
In New York we went to Ellis Island where hundreds of thousands of European immigrants walked through the halls from the 1870’s up to the 1950’s. Many of them came by ship from Ireland. Titanic was one of the ships that should have arrived in New York, but sank on its maiden voyage in April 1912. Almost as a counterpart to what we saw in New York, we wanted to see the last port of Titanic on the European side of the Atlantic Ocean. This was in the city of Cobh, back then named Queenstown. Here we went to see a very interesting and informative exhibition about life onboard Titanic. And about the many dead who in fact came from Cobh and the surrounding area. In Belfast we saw an even more exciting and engaging exhibition at the Titanic Belfast Museum. This was mostly about the working class of Belfast around the time Titanic was built and also about the power-struggles of the upper-class. The museum is built in the former shipyard area where Titanic was built. So in Cobh we actually had a great closure on a theme that seemed to follow us for some parts of our journey around the world: The immigrants and their journey towards a new and better life in the US.
In sharp contrast to the US, I have to say that our arrival in Europe was an abrupt wake-up call in financial terms. Ireland is in no way a cheap place to travel. And the average nightly hotel cost was apprx. twice as high as in the US. However, the standard was never twice as good! But if you do your research you can find some really good hotels at the same high price level as all the bad ones. This way you kind of get the notion that you get better value for money after all.
Ireland has a very good reputation when it comes to Whiskey. Unfortunately none of us are great fans of this luxury, which we are told can be experienced in many forms and qualities all over the country. Personally I can recommend a few of the local beers, with the exception of Guinness which I also do not really know how to appreciate. I have tried Guinness many times all over the world, and the excuse has always been that “Guinness do not like to travel” - meaning that it is best enjoyed in the pubs of Ireland. But not even here do I enjoy it very much. Sorry!
Although Ireland has seen a complete transformation from a poor farmers country to a modern society in almost any aspect over the past decade, there are still lots of chances to see and experience the “original Ireland”. And it was not as hard to get from east to west, or north to south this time as it had been during our previous visits. Lots of highways have been constructed and the general condition of the roads - even in the countryside - has improved significantly. Sadly, cities like Galway, Westport, Cork and Waterford have all lost a great deal of their original charm, but in spite of that you should absolutely spend at least a day or two in each of these cities to experience the local culture. There is still plenty of it!
Click here for pictures from Ireland!