Thursday, October 13, 2016

Ireland, Part 3: The Cliffs of Moher and the Dingle

The first three days of our Great Irish Road Trip included a tour of Dublin and two days wandering Galway. Mrs. Tires and I met Pia and Masha of Slovenia during our last night in Galway. They were headed in our direction the next day, so we offered them a ride.

Smiling despite the early hour and armed with cupcakes, Pia and Masha hopped in the back seat of our tiny rental car, and off we went towards the Irish countryside.

Our companions made for great company. They knew a lot about the surrounding area, and they were more than willing to act as our personal photographers at scenic stops along the way. We joked and laughed as we passed by Ireland's flatlands and swamps, which eventually gave way to more hilly and dramatic terrain.

Our drive brought us by the adorable Dunguaire Castle, a great place to snap a few photos and stretch our legs.

After about two hours of driving, we reached a town near the Cliffs of Moher, where we bid Pia and Masha farewell. The car was much quieter during the final stretch of the drive.

We arrived at the cliffs, where we were greeted by a huge, jam-packed parking lot. As it turned out, the cliffs are one of the most popular attractions in all of Ireland.

The Cliffs of Moher impressed right away. The huge cliffs combined to present a dynamic jagged edge to the shoreline. They were amazingly tall, with the tallest point more than 700 feet above the water. We spent most of our visit admiring the cliffs while we walked up and down the shoreline, and we enjoyed photographing them from different vantage points.

Eventually, we made our way to the O’Brien Observation Tower, which acted as a bookend on the other end of the public area that encompassed the cliffs.

We couldn't believe how close we could get to the edge. While we couldn't set foot on the cliffs themselves, the shoreline we walked along also stood quite high up. In the US, guardrails aplenty would prevent visitors from getting too close to the edge, but at the Cliffs of Moher, some comedic signage acted as the only safety precaution. If our experience disappointed, we easily could have ended our misery by jumping to our deaths.

On the way back to the visitor center, we stopped to listen to a harpist strumming for the pleasure of the visitors.

After a quick perusal of the exhibits and a snack in the expansive visitor center, we hopped back in the rental car and hit the road. We had our sights set on Cork, but we still had plenty of driving ahead to get there. That left us with a decision to make: drive right to Cork, or stretch our time on the road and head to the Dingle Peninsula? We knew the detour would make our already busy schedule that much more jam-packed, but after acknowledging that life is short, we decided to go for it. Off we drove to the Dingle.

After passing through Limerick (which is nicknamed Stab City), we made a bee line to the peninsula, which is known for its beautiful scenery, winding roads and beaches. When we reached the Dingle, we immediately fell in love with our surroundings. Rollings fields of various shades of green and yellow popped up at every turn, and the view changed frequently as we drove. The narrow roads were a thrill to navigate. We also ran into a few surprises along the way.

Inch Beach was a highlight, as it stood in sharp contrast to the surrounding fields. We stopped off to have a look, and the beach awed us with its beauty. Ireland isn't really known for its beaches, but this one was gorgeous, and its surroundings elevated it above the norm.

Eventually, we reached the town of Dingle, a quintessentially Irish town featuring beautifully colored buildings and loads of charm. We only had time to grab a quick bite, but we instantly connected with this lovable little town and fretted over not having more time to explore. The town of Dingle is now on the “Next Time” list.

We had some reassessing to do after dinner, with the hour getting late and lots of driving still ahead. The main roads of the Dingle Peninsula made up a mangled figure-eight, with the town of Dingle serving as the crossroads between the two rings. The western-most ring was called Slea Head Drive, and it housed the most impressive views on the peninsula. Sadly, we realized we didn’t have time to make it around Slea Head, having already pushed our arrival time at the Cork B&B back twice. We continued on the east ring.

Our drive brought us through Conner Pass, a famously narrow road flanked by an exposed cliff face. This road supposedly accommodated traffic in both directions, but it seemed barely wide enough for our tiny car. Fortunately, we didn’t encounter any cars driving in the opposite direction, though we did have to stop for an intimidating sheep making its way through the pass.

A quiet, contemplative mood took over the car as we concluded our cruise around the Dingle Peninsula. We smiled as we sat in silence, enjoying the setting sun while looking back on our day on the road, the highlight of our Great Irish Road Trip so far.

We had no regrets over our choices that day, but we definitely paid the price for our extra long journey. We left the peninsula as darkness set in, and we still had over two hours of driving before we would arrive in Cork. The roads we traveled were heavily wooded and not well lit, so driving became quite difficult, especially after fatigue set in. We white-knuckled our way through, but we weren’t sure we’d ever make it. All the while we knew the owner of our B&B sat waiting for us, and we had to call two more times to push our arrival back some more.

We made it to Cork at about 1:00 AM and found Higgins B&B. Despite the late hour, Breeda, the B&B’s owner, met us at the door and cheerfully showed us to our room. We hit the pillow that night and instantly fell into deep sleep. It had been an exhausting but wonderful ride, and there was more in store the next day.

Coming soon: Ireland, Part 4: Cork, Kinsale and Carragaline

See also:

Ireland, Part 1: Dublin
Ireland, Part 2: Galway

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Ireland, Part 2: Galway

After kicking off our trip to Ireland with a day in Dublin, Mrs. Tires and I woke up the next morning ready to embark on our Great Irish Road Trip. The trek would take us to the other side of the country and back, starting with a stay in Galway. Excitement built up as we packed our things, but some trepidation crept in when we got our rental car. People drive on the left side of the road in Ireland, and the steering wheel is on the right-hand side of the car. That took some getting used to.

Palpable nerves floated in the air when we started the car and pulled out of the parking lot, but a few well-executed turns alleviated our fear…for a moment. As we entered a roundabout, inefficient signage (not driver error in any way, shape or form) sent us in the completely wrong direction, and before we knew it, we were off course and heading into no man’s land. The mood in the car went into a tailspin, with all the anxiety bubbling up to the surface. After freaking out at each other for a few minutes, we stopped off at the nearest establishment to get directions. The world’s kindest bartender gave us detailed instruction and assured us we’d live to tell the tale of this harrowing misstep.

Before long, we merged back onto the highway and were driving in the right direction. I adjusted quickly to the left side of the road and started enjoying the extra challenge the foreign setup put upon us. I initially hesitated to bring the car up to the speed limit of 120 km/h, but eventually I got more comfortable and started enjoying zipping along in our tiny automobile. Mrs. Tires later revealed to me she never rid herself of the nerves, but at that moment, all was well. We admired the beautiful countryside and ogled the strange signs as we drove.

Flipping through the Irish radio stations provided additional entertainment, and that’s how we heard the song Blurred Lines for the first time. The song hadn’t hit the US yet, but it played time and time again on the radio in Ireland, and we heard it about 50 more times on our journey.

After almost three hours of driving, we arrived at our destination, the seaside town of Galway. Intense traffic greeted us, but eventually we made it to the Salthill Hotel, a quaint yet ornate establishment conveniently located near the shoreline. We unpacked and unwound after our drive, and while doing so, I happened upon some literature about the nearby Salthill Promenade. As it turns out, kicking the wall at the end of the promenade was a time-honored Galway tradition. I kept looking for some sort of reason this ritual existed (such as bringing good luck, or punishing terrible wrongdoing the wall once committed) but found nothing. Nevertheless, I’m not one to buck a sacred ritual, so I convinced Mrs. Tires to get ready, and off we went to kick the wall.

The promenade impressed, with the ocean serving as the backdrop. A huge public diving board punctuated the shoreline, and people leaped off of it despite the chilly temperatures. Interesting characters acted as ornaments to the attraction.

At the end of the promenade sat an ordinary stone wall. We each gave the wall a good kick, and laughed heartily in the process.

From there, we stopped at a local donut shop for a treat, then took a long walk to the center of Galway. Downtown Galway centered around Quay street, and consisted of a series of narrow streets lined with pubs, shops and restaurants. We spent the rest of our day wandering around that area, checking out the shops and popping into intriguing pubs for a pint. The stroll provided plenty of charm, though it was a bit cramped, with narrow streets and lots of fellow tourists.

Our stroll eventually took us to the King’s Head Pub, a restaurant, pub and music venue that managed to feel both cozy and cutting-edge. We started with a plate of oysters, and they instantly became a favorite of ours, partially because of the tangy sauce on the side. We slurped our last oysters just as the live band started playing downstairs, so we joined the excited crowd and rocked out. We were hoping for some traditional Irish music, but the contemporary rock band provided a welcome alternative. They played hard all night and kept the crowd dancing. The Kings Head also poured us our first pints of an oddly named pale ale - the Galway Hooker. This smooth and tasty beer’s name drew inspiration from the hooker ships that frequented Galway. I amused myself to no end by approaching the bar and slyly stating, “Two hookers, please.” After enjoying several hookers (never gets old!), we called it a night. The King’s Head perfectly capped our first day in Galway.

In my opinion, no vacation is complete without some mini-golf. So when I saw a mini-golf course near our hotel, I knew it would be the perfect way to start our second day in Galway. After another stop at the delicious coffee and donut shop close by, we walked over to Leisureland for a game. It rained a bit while we played, but we had a great time regardless, and I won, which is always a bonus!

Rain continued to sprinkle down on us as we handed in our putters, so we took a bus into town to continue our exploration of Galway's main drag. On our way, we passed the village of Claddagh, home of the claddagh ring. Mrs. Tires loves her claddagh ring, so she was delighted to be near its origin. The sighting inspired us to seek out the Claddagh Ring Museum, located in Galway proper. I was surprised to hear of a whole museum dedicated to this type of ring, and it turned out my skepticism was justified. It was less a museum and more a ring store with a couple of display cases. We were in and out of there in less than five minutes.

Our wanderings continued, and we caught glimpses of the Spanish Arch and the Christ of King Church as we strolled. This worked up quite the appetite, so we moseyed on over to McDonagh’s, a famous order-at-the-counter-style eatery that supposedly served some of the best seafood in Galway. You wouldn’t know it from the fish and chips I ordered, which was passable at best. McDonagh’s disappointed, and I can’t recommend it.

We weren’t deterred by the lackluster museum and the subpar food, and our spirits were lifted when we figured out how to work some traditional Irish music into our day. Tig Coili, a quaint little pub in the center of town, featured live music every day and served as a hangout for local musicians. Even in early afternoon, the place was packed. The setup was more casual than I expected, with the musicians sitting around a table instead of standing up on a stage. Nonetheless, the music was upbeat and pleasant, and we beamed as we listened to the gleeful singing and strumming. We also struck up a conversation with a kind family from the States, and we exchanged tales about driving around Ireland and all over the world.

We finished our pints at the end of the session and headed over to another well-known Galway establishment, the cleverly named Dew Drop Inn. This famous pub was small to the point of being cramped, and the crowd was decidedly older, so we downed a pint, snapped a photo, and moved on.

On and on we wandered. At one point, we stumbled upon the Oscar Wilde statue and the park that flanked the downtown area.

Mrs. Tries chats it up with Oscar and Eduard Wilde
Before we knew it, it was approaching nine o'clock, so we searched the town for a kitchen that was open late, and eventually we found a fancy wine bar called Martine’s on Quay Street. We got an unexpectedly delicious meal, including a huge, juicy burger. While we sat at our outdoor table and looked back on our day, we came to the conclusion that we had sufficiently explored Galway and were ready to call it a night. While we enjoyed our time wandering Galway, it underwhelmed. We questioned what brought us there in the first place. While we were glad we made the trek, neither of us felt we'd have to go back, and we agreed that it wasn't an essential stop on the Great Irish Road Trip.

By all accounts, the bus should have been running at that time, but we waited at the bus stop for quite a while and there was no sign of it. A local about our age named Peter sat waiting for the bus as well. We commiserated on the bus’ tardiness, then got to introducing ourselves and chatting away. As the prospect of a bus showing up faded into the evening, we decided to split a cab. During our cab ride, Peter invited us to meet up with his friends at a bar called O’Conner’s Famous Pub. We gladly accepted.

We instantly fell in love with O'Conners. Its lively vibe was perfectly complimented by its decor, which consisted of wall-to-wall artifacts such as  decked-out lamps, wooden barrels, wagon wheels, and many more eclectic objects. We especially loved the fishing nets with fake clam shells strewn from the ceiling. Our new friends were wonderful company. We met Pia and Masha, both of whom were from Slovenia. As we discussed our travel plans with them, we discovered Pia and Masha were going where we were going the next day. After ensuring our safety by looking them in the eye and asking them if they were serial killers, we agreed to give them a lift to the Cliffs of Moher. We drank and laughed late into the night.

We weren’t sure whether Pia and Masha would actually join us the next morning, but, sure enough, they hopped into our rental car bright and early, accompanied by some cupcakes from Pia’s bakery. Off we went to the Cliffs of Moher.

Coming Soon: Ireland, Part 3: The Cliffs of Moher and the Dingle Peninsula

Monday, August 8, 2016

Ireland, Part 1: Dublin

Ireland's green fields, kind folks, and delicious beverages called to me ever since my visit to Northern Ireland in the early 2000s. So when Mrs. Tries expressed her desire to visit Ireland and retrace some of her ancestry, we pushed this country to the top of our travel wish list. We finally make the trek in the summer of 2013 as part of a trip that also brought us to Italy.

Planning a trip is half the fun, and I took my planning game to the next level when masterminding this vacation. Using a piece of paper to represent each day, I turned our kitchen cabinets into a giant calendar so we could post our findings as we researched our destinations. It helped us piece together our schedule, and kept the trip top-of-mind.

Once the pieces (of paper) fell into place, our Ireland itinerary included a day in Dublin, a couple of days in Galway, a day to check out the Cliffs of Moher, and a couple of days in Cork before returning to Dublin for one more night.

When July rolled around, it was time for our epic adventure. We headed to O’Hare airport with passports in hand and anticipation mounting. After a long but uneventful flight directly from Chicago to Dublin, we landed in Ireland tired, but excited.

We touched down on the Fourth of July, and much to our surprise, the Dublin airport was covered in decorations celebrating America’s Independence Day. We had a laugh and a smile at this, as it was both totally absurd and oddly comforting.

We took a cab from the airport to our hotel, and immediately we were greeted by Ireland’s signature friendliness. Our cab driver eagerly welcomed us and oriented us as we drove, pointing out things like a hotel owned by Bono of U2 fame.

We arrived at the Morrison Hotel, and immediately we were taken by its stylish yet cozy motif. In addition to providing a great place to stay, the Morrison was within walking distance of many of Dublin's most famous attractions.

We were so thrilled to be in Ireland, we skipped the nap we had planned, and hit the area surrounding our hotel to get the lay of the land. One place in particular caught our eye, the National Leprechaun Museum. We wondered how this place even existed, and with it located just a block from our hotel, we had to find out. As it turns out, the museum was an imaginarium of sorts featuring interactive exhibits and optical illusions. It was closed that day so we didn’t get to inquire further, but it looked like a cool place.

From there we wandered over to the bridges that cross the River Liffey, which runs through the center of Dublin. There were many such bridges, several of which were intricately decorated.

Our trek took us past establishments old and new, from ancient churches to modern sculptures.

We could have wandered the streets for hours, but a highly anticipated destination called. Off we went to the Guinness Storehouse. It was a bit hard to find via GPS, but it was worth the confusion and then some when we got there.

I didn't expect much more than a souped-up version of a brewery tour. However, the Guinness Storefront offered much more than that. Essentially, it was a museum, a bar, and an adult playground, all rolled into one. In addition to requisite exhibits such as how the company started and how their beer was made, installations on Guinness’ marketing, how the brand changed over time, its place in pop culture and more were housed within its walls.

It even had some trick photography built in, which sent our funny photo-loving hearts aflutter.

We also enjoyed learning how to pour the perfect pint of Guinness, a process far more intricate than need be, but more fun, too.

The museum experience concluded at the Gravity Bar on the top floor. This glass-enclosed bar offered sensational views of the city, and the taps provided fresh Guinness to visitors. Our pints tasted creamy and distinguished, and the flavor was crisper than the Guinness in the US. We smiled ear to ear while we sipped our Guinness and looked over all of Dublin.

After a quick trip to the gift shop (which featured more Guinness memorabilia than we ever could have imagined), we left buzzing with excitement. The Guinness Storefront turned out to be one of my favorite stops on the trip, and I whole-heartedly recommend it.

From there, we wandered back through Dublin, this time at a more leisurely pace. We enjoyed St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Christ's Church Cathedral from afar while we walked.

St. Patrick's Cathedral
Christ's Church Cathedral
Wandering the grounds of Christ's Church Cathedral
We spent some time exploring the Chester Beatty Library, a free museum featuring ancient artwork and a tranquil rooftop garden. The type of art featured at the Chester Beatty Library was not my favorite, but nonetheless, we enjoyed our stroll through the exhibits. We also spent some time in Dubhlinn Garden, a circular park that sat between the library and Dublin Castle and provided an oasis from the surrounding city.

Dubhlinn Garden
Dublin Castle (part of it, anyway)
The gardens surrounding the area
Towards the end of the first full day of our trip, we found ourselves in a celebratory mood. Fortunately, one of Dublin’s premier nightlife neighborhoods stood within stumbling distance of our hotel. The Temple Bar neighborhood contained bars, restaurants, theaters, and other cultural points of interest. We targeted one of Temple Bar’s most famous bars - the Temple Bar Pub.

This classic Irish pub featured an iconic red exterior, live music, and a loyal following. The huge crowd that night meant we had to fight for a table, but the struggle was worth it. We enjoyed a plate of bangers and mash, a couple of rounds of delicious beer, and some sensational people watching. The back of the menu laid out the bar’s history, and we were surprised to learn the establishment had a sister bar in Chicago. When we got back to Chicago, we realized the sister bar was catty-corner from our local grocery store.

With our meals finished and our glasses empty, fatigue finally caught up to us, and we confessed we were too darn tired to hit up the other bars in the area. We made one last trek across the River Liffey, and then crashed hard in our comfy hotel bed. We’d need a full night’s sleep to tackle what lied ahead.

After a whirlwind trip around Ireland, we arrived back in Dublin a week later to spend one more night in the city. We didn't do much exploring that evening, but we had a blast checking out our hotel, the Clontarf Castle Hotel. This castle-turned-hotel straddled its past and present beautifully. Castle-themed decorations and props displayed throughout the hotel, which made for great photo ops. At the same time, the beds were comfy, the rooms were outfitted with wifi and plenty of outlets, and the restaurant included an outdoor patio and served delicious food. We spent a fun and relaxing evening there - the perfect ending to our time in Ireland.

What happened in between our two stops in Dublin? Stay tuned to find out!

Check out Ireland, Part 2: Galway