Visiting Ireland – and Looking to the Left
Touring the Emerald Isle by car adds a few white-knuckle moments
“Are you sure you want to drive?” I asked my intrepid traveling companion while planning a recent trip to Ireland. “You know I love to drive!” she replied with what I dubiously considered naive enthusiasm. Having already been to Ireland, I was somewhat familiar not only with the difficulty for us Yanks of driving on the left, but also with Ireland’s small country roads, roundabouts (in our parlance, traffic circles) every which way you turn, and shortage (at least by American standards) of safety features like, oh, say, guardrails. Still, the thought of the flexibility driving would afford us won me over.
“How about a GPS and automatic instead of a shift” I asked before reserving our car online (a tip – Ireland’s cars are smaller, so take that into account when making your plans; you might want to go up a size, depending on the number of passengers, pieces of luggage, and overall comfort level), taking one last shot at minimizing the frustrations I saw looming ahead. “No way!” said She Who Loves to Drive (aka Nancy).
Itinerary in hand, we set out to begin our week-long adventure in the western part of Ireland, wending our way south and east, eventually ending in Dublin. After arriving in Shannon on a dark and rainy morning, the car rental agent, upon hearing our American accents, must have thought to himself, “Up-sell!” I was quick to jump on the offer of a discounted rate for the GPS and automatic, and Nancy, I daresay too jet-lagged to argue, agreed much more readily than I would have thought.
We situated ourselves in our comfortably spacious—but not too large (remember the small roads!) rental, and channeling my inner Beyonce, “to the left, to the left,” I say as Nancy pulls out — to the right! “How do you know?” she asks. “Umm … the arrow on the pavement pointing left,” I say.
And with that, we were off! Thanks to Nancy’s driving skills (believe me, this is nothing I would have attempted on my own), my itinerary planning, the GPS we rather unoriginally dubbed “Colleen,” and the grace of the fates, we survived the trip, life, limb, automobile, and friendship intact!
Here’s what we saw along the way …
After an easy flight on Aer Lingus directly into Shannon (the closest airport in Ireland to the East Coast), we headed for our first destination, Dromoland Castle Hotel, just 20 minutes away in County Clare. It didn’t take long — about a minute and a half — before we came upon our first roundabout. It took only about another 30 seconds for “Colleen” to start chirping in her Irish brogue, “recalculate, recalculate,” a phrase we were going to become all too familiar with over the course of our travels.
A bit of recalculation and we did, indeed, soon arrive at Dromoland, which dates back to the 16th century and was the ancestral home of the O’Briens, Barons of Inchiquin, one of the few native Gaelic families of royal blood and direct descendants of Brian Boroimhe (Boru), High King of Ireland in the 11th century.
After a short nap and a hearty Irish breakfast, it was back in the car for a drive to the oft-photographed Cliffs of Moher. Unfortunately, the bitter wind that day shortened our visit but if the weather cooperates, it’s well worth a trip to see the Cliffs in person and (carefully) take the Cliff walk.
The following morning we took part in one of Dromoland’s signature activities, a Hawk Walk, led by Dave Atkinson, director of the Castle’s School of Falconry. The Walk is just one of a number of programs for experiencing this ancient sport, during which you learn about the natural history of birds of prey and their role in the environment, and (if willing) take part in handling and flying one of the resident Harris hawks, raised and trained by Atkinson himself. Squeamish though I was at the beginning — the thought of a large bird flapping its way toward me and landing on my outstretched (but well-gloved) hand was a tad unsettling — this really is an experience not to be missed, especially in the midst of the Castle’s 410 park-like acres.
Having survived the experience of serving as a human landing strip, it was back into the car for an excursion to the nearby village of Bunratty, complete with its own 15th-century castle and a re-created village to tour (and shop your way through). The Castle offers a medieval dinner in the evenings; I had already done this on a previous trip, and while it is a tourist attraction, it was — much to my surprise — a thoroughly enjoyable one. If you’re hungry or thirsty during the day, or want to skip the banquet, the authentic and historic Durty Nelly’s pub is steps away from the Castle and makes a nice stop for a pint of Guinness and a platter of fish and chips.
One more night at Dromoland (which is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary) where we were cosseted and pampered as one can only be in such a regal setting, and then it was time for “Colleen” to guide us to our next destination — Adare, billed as the “prettiest village in Ireland,” with its many traditional thatched roof cottages. While we spent only an afternoon there, you can easily pass a day or so longer for a real taste of Irish village life.
After a surprisingly un-touristy lunch at, ironically, the Visitors Center, it was back in the car for our ride to Killarney, in southwest Ireland’s County Kerry, accompanied by the much-too-frequent “recalculate” admonishments from our disembodied traveling companion, along with some serious handle-gripping on my part. “Perhaps you might move a little to the right?” I suggest. “I’m trying to stay to the right of the center lane,” replies Nancy. “Maybe we could also try to stay to the left of the ditch?” I say. You get the picture.
By late afternoon, having managed to avoid both ditches and oncoming traffic, we thankfully arrive at the Killarney Park Hotel, our digs for the night. Located right in the center of town, the Killarney Park is a sleek, contemporary hotel with all the “mod cons” and amenities you could ask for. We stopped in the hotel’s pub/lounge so that Nancy could have her first Guinness (not an altogether resounding success — beer in Ireland is served at room temperature, so it takes a bit of getting used to). Then we hit the High Street for some traditional Irish window shopping and a look at this popular destination which, long popular with the Irish themselves, gained international exposure when Queen Victoria first visited in 1861.
The town itself is a bit touristy, but adjacent to our hotel was the 25,000-acre Killarney National Park, a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts who come to enjoy the combination of mountains, lakes, woodlands, waterfalls, and wildlife. For history and architecture buffs, there’s also the 19th-century Muckross House and Gardens. You can explore all this on foot, bicycle, horseback, or a horse-drawn “jaunting car.”
Along with the Park, the biggest attraction when staying in Killarney (indeed in all of Ireland) is the nearby Ring of Kerry, the 110-mile circular route of truly spectacular coastal scenery. During the peak travel season, this route is clogged with sightseeing buses. (If your schedule allows, plan your trip off-season–we were there in early November– or a lot of what you will see will be the back of the bus in front of you.) And even if, like we were, you’re doing a self-drive tour of the country, keep the car parked in your hotel lot and leave the driving here to someone else. Busses are one way to go, but we opted to hire a private guide, recommended by the hotel, which graciously made the arrangements for us. For about $200 for the day, Moses Walsh (“the only Moses in Ireland!” he laughs) picked us up at the hotel and took us on a personally guided tour that avoided other visitors by skipping the traditional Ring of Kerry route and heading in the opposite direction around the Ring of Skellig. With Moses’s skillful driving and expert commentary, we were free to sit back and enjoy the scenery that neither of us would have been able to concentrate on had we been driving ourselves.
The beautiful coastal drive included a stop for lunch in Waterville, where Charlie Chaplin regularly spent his holidays (there’s a mural in his honor), a pass through the popular holiday resort of Ballinskellings, then on to St. Finan´s Bay and up the very steep Coomanaspig Pass, then down to the fishing village of Portmagee. An unexpected treat–in the middle of literally nowhere–is the Skellig Chocolate Factory, Europe’s most westerly chocolate factory (and well worth a stop).
It was Moses’s birthday and he had to be home in time for his celebration, but he made time on the way back for us to have a stroll down High Street in the delightful town of Kenmare.
Before wishing Moses many happy returns and thanking him for a wonderful day, we asked his advice about the drive to our next destination, Castlemartyr Resort. Since the highway we had planned to take was undergoing construction, he advised us that we’d do just as well to take the scenic route. Cue the white knuckles!
From blindingly (but short-lived) bright sun to sudden downpours to adorably woolly Irish sheep crossing the road at their own gentle pace, this very steep coastal drive could best be described as alternately breathtaking and gasp-inducing.
With Nancy clutching the steering wheel and me clutching the door handle, we eventually made it safely down to sea level where we stopped for a well-deserved break in the picturesque fishing village of Kinsale in County Cork. This holiday destination is not as well-known to Americans (though its sister city in the States is Newport, Rhode Island) as it is to Irish and European visitors, who come to enjoy the fishing, sailing, and annual gourmet and jazz festivals. I would have been happy to spend several more hours just strolling through the streets and soaking up the harborside atmosphere in a local cafe, but the one drawback of traveling in late autumn is that it begins to get dark early and Nancy’s professed love of driving seemed to wane along with the setting sun (just as her tendency to drift to the right was on its upswing).
For a sightseeing respite, we drove on to our next destination, where we planned to enjoy a day or so of R&R. Castlemartyr Resort is an 18th century manor house adjacent to the ruins of an 800-year-old castle, originally built by The Knights Templar under Richard Earl de Clare, known as Strongbow. The Resort, set amidst 220 landscaped acres, has 103 rooms and suites located in either the Manor House or the new wing (we were in the new section which has a more contemporary flavor than the Manor House, but both are equally attractive and comfortable).
We did venture off-property on a quiet Sunday morning to visit nearby Cork, Ireland’s third largest city, where we came across an unexpected, but moving, Armistice Day Parade. And before returning to the resort for our spa appointments, we came across the Stephen Pearce Pottery studio in nearby Shanagarry. Glassware aficionados in the States may be familiar with Simon Pearce Glass. Stephen is Simon’s brother, and what Simon is to glass, Stephen is to pottery. A visit to the studio, showroom, and lunch in the small cafe proved to be one of the highlights of our trip.
The next day, it was time for one last drive, this time to Dublin, where we had already done enough research to know that we didn’t want to—and didn’t need to—drive in the city. After a few more “recalculate” warnings from our electronic friend (who, quite frankly, seemed to be developing quite an attitude with us), we ditched the car at Dublin Airport, took a taxi into town, and checked into our final destination, the Hotel Fitzwilliam. This small, boutique hotel, just across from St. Stephen’s Green and a block from the beginning of the pedestrian-only Grafton Street with its many boutiques and cafes, was both well-situated and well-appointed, and my only regret was that we weren’t staying longer. Next time I will.
Dublin, of course, is well worth more than a day’s visit, and fortunately I’ve been there before, but if you do only have a day to spend, you can opt for a hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus tour of the city, or narrow down your itinerary. Any or all of these would make for a perfect Dublin day: stroll down the aforementioned lively Grafton Street, with its boutiques, cafes, pubs, and entertaining street performers; visit the Book of Kells at Trinity College; cruise the River Liffey; and enjoy an Irish beer and music at one of Dublin’s many pubs.
Sadly, it was home to the States the following morning, though we were happy to finally be able to leave the transporting to others. As perhaps one final reminder of our trip, though, just as the plane landed, the pilot suddenly changed course and announced that he was on the wrong runway.
What else to say but “recalculate!”
If you go…
It’s still not too late to visit Ireland during this year of The Gathering, a year-long celebration of all things Irish. Throughout 2013, Ireland is welcoming friends and family from all over the world, calling them home to the Old Country to gatherings in villages, towns, and cities throughout the country. Not to worry though–you don’t have to be Irish to enjoy it all!