Irish Dream: Emerald Isle Adventure
It’s that joyful time of year again! Time to dust off your “Kiss Me I’m Irish” T-shirt and head out on the town for a couple of Guinness and a plate of corned beef and cabbage. We’d kiss you if we could but instead let us offer you a dream of Ireland this St. Patrick’s Day in the form of a second helping (we first published this in 2009) of travel editor Kevin Wierzbicki’s feature about his visit to the southwestern part of the Emerald Isle including the gorgeous Ring of Kerry area. And we promise --- even with a mighty effort Kevin wasn’t able to drink up all the Guinness while he was there. There’s still a cold pint or two waiting so follow the link at the end of the article and you’ll find some very helpful information to aid you in planning your own trip to Ireland. Sláinte!
It's common to hear people talking about
their dream vacation. And while that phrase has a wide and varied meaning
you can almost take it literally if the journey in question is to the charming
green world known as Ireland. How can you not feel like you're dreaming
when you're in a land where castles dot the landscape, where traditional
acoustic music floats on the daily breeze and where a frosty glass of Guinness
awaits at the close of every day? Of course an Irish experience offers
a lot more than these things but they're a pretty good start to a dream
don't you think? Whatever your concept of what Ireland might be like, the
chances are that you'll find the country far more intriguing than you thought.
I know that was the case when I spent a week exploring the southwestern
part of the nation.
You probably already know (I hope you do!)
that there are no such things as leprechauns. Amazingly enough, according
to Will, my tour guide on this trip, there are actually people who come
to Ireland expecting to see the "little people!" I'm usually not a big
fan of organized tours, preferring instead to explore on my own, especially
in an English-speaking country. But Ireland is so rich in culture and so
full of nuance that you just flat-out miss a lot of stuff if you go out
on your own and Will proved not only to be a great guy full of Irish wit
and vinegar but also an extremely knowledgeable guide. On my first day
in country, after arriving at Shannon airport and finding accommodations
in nearby Limerick, Will took me to see the city's very gothic-looking
St. Mary's Cathedral where the adjacent cemetery is filled with grave markers
composed of somber but beautiful Celtic crosses.
We also took a drive outside of town to
a lesser-visited stone circle at Lough Gur where cows grazed placidly in
the meadow next to the ancient ritual site.
Back in Limerick we finished off the evening
at a pub near my hotel, listening to traditional Irish music and emptying
a few glasses of Guinness. Hearing music in an Irish pub is a very warm
and intimate experience; the performers just sit themselves down at a table,
order a drink and begin playing. There really isn't a better way to cap
off an evening and all you have to do to find this anywhere in Ireland
is walk down the street. If one pub doesn't have music chances are the
next one will.
The next few days held one amazing surprise
after another as Will showed me around southwestern Ireland, beginning
with the Gallarus Oratory, a small, well-preserved church that dates back
to about 700 AD. The church was a place of worship for the area's Christian
farmers and it is almost unbelievable that you can still enter the building
today especially in light of the fact that the masonry is held together
without the benefit of any type of mortar.
Gallarus Oratory is located on the scenic
Dingle Peninsula, also the location of our next stop, the Blasket Centre
in the village of Dunquin. Blasket Centre is a museum with many interactive
exhibits that's located right on the tip of the Dingle Peninsula and that
celebrates the rich history of the Blasket Islands that lie just offshore.
The Blaskets are particularly known for having produced famous authors
including Maurice O'Sullivan, Tomas O'Crohan ("The Islandman") and "The
Queen of Gaelic Storytellers," Peig Sayers. The museum's exhibits are extensive
and lots of fun so a visit here can take up the better part of a day but
enthusiasts will want to book a boat trip out to the islands themselves
if the weather allows (the sea here is notoriously rough and safety concerns
often make the journey impossible.) Another thing to watch for along the
Dingle Peninsula is "beehive huts;" ancient stone huts that were once occupied
by monks. Like lots of historic buildings in Ireland, most of these are
on private land. So while you can view and photograph them from the roadside
it may be necessary to pay a small amount to the landowner to get up close.
This is another benefit of traveling with a knowledgeable guide like Will---these
guys know the best places to stop to get pictures and also keep you out
of any trespassing trouble.
In the Killarney area we visited Crag Cave
where we saw thousands of unique crystalline formations forty feet underground,
took a leisurely jaunty cart ride (horse-pulled buggy) through Killarney
National Park where the popular attraction Muckross House is located and
of course hit a pub in the evening where we listened to traditional music
played by a three-piece group called Sunday After Mass.
Sunday After Mass
We spent a full day touring the famous
Ring of Kerry; that's a ring road that circumnavigates the scenic Iveragh
Peninsula and that goes past such famous places as the mountain range known
as McGillicuddy's Reeks, Cromwell's Bridge and a Druid's Circle in tiny
Kenmare. All along the twisting route you have spectacular views of the
sea or green rolling hills dotted with fluffy sheep and cute lambs, castles
nestled into every nook and cranny and picturesque villages lanes lined
with unique shops and pubs. This area is a good place to shop for the woolen
goods that Ireland is so famous for. We'd later find our way north a bit
to County Clare where we drove through an area known as The Burren; it's
a beautiful but harsh landscape where craggy limestone formations make
any type of off-road travel all but impossible.
County Clare is also home to another of
Ireland's most famous spots; the Cliffs of Moher. The view at the cliffs
is nothing short of breathtaking as the coast of Ireland gives way to the
Atlantic Ocean with a sheer 700-foot drop. There's an interpretive center
at the cliffs with a nice place to have lunch or a snack and there are
also lots of booths set up near the center where you can buy souvenirs
of varying quality and price.
The finishing touch to my Irish adventure
occurred over a couple of days in the Galway area, walking it's historic
streets and learning about the local culture (Galway hookers are not what
you might think…they're fishing boats!) and driving through the gorgeous
Connemara area where Will showed me Cnoc Suain where they have a functional
recreation of a traditional Irish village complete with a performance spot
where we listened to traditional music played by women musicians.
And for the grandest finale you could ever
imagine, we stayed at the plush Ashford Castle (built in 1228 and once
home to the Guinness family) where the halls are lined with suits of armor
and other relics of days gone by. Ashford Castle is home to the Ireland
School of Falconry and to top-off my stay I spent an afternoon taking a
falconry lesson where I got to handle stern-looking Harris hawks and take
them on a hunting expedition in the woods. You don't have to stay at the
castle to take advantage of the falconry class and I can't recommend this
experience enough---you'll never forget having one of these magnificent
birds perched on your arm! An Irish dream indeed!
Everything I've mentioned is just a fraction
of the many things to do in the southwestern part of Ireland. The country
is geared to tourism and more importantly to offering authentic experiences;
you won't find a lot of hokey tourist traps in Ireland. And if you travel
with a guide like Will (ask your travel agent or Discover Ireland) you
may even end up an expert limerick writer! To plan your trip visit: www.discoverireland.com
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