March 23rd to 30th, 2003
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(3/24) Our tour – 15 people joined together by Bill and Judy Blackburn – began yesterday at BWI (some still recovering from our “kick-off dinner” at Bo Brooks the night before!)… Our 3:15 PM Delta flight arrived at the huge JFK airport at 4:00 – then we had a 4 ½ hour wait before leaving via Aer Lingus for Ireland. We walked what seemed like miles through JFK terminal 2 – then took a bus to the International Terminal 4 – a lovely complex. A bar was located where we could watch NCAA basketball, and Maryland beat Xavier to everyone’s delight.
We finally boarded the Airbus and had a decent meal, but yours truly was only able to sleep fitfully. The normal 7-hour flight was delayed by heavy fog at Shannon airport (300-feet visibility!) and after circling > 40 minutes we had to divert to Dublin… and then were put on a 9:45 AM plane back to Shannon! Never a dull moment! After additional delays waiting for others joining the tour to arrive at the airport, we finally left for our hotel around 12:30.
The Bunratty Castle Hotel is a pleasant 3-star place with lovely, comfortable accommodations and a great pub (“Kathleen’s”) where we had lunch (Paul – fish and chips, and I had potato and leek soup and hearty brown bread – with local beer, of course!) After dumping our suitcases and wandering around the nearby shops (beautiful woolens!), the group reassembled for a tour of the Bunratty Castle – built around 1425. It is quite imposing, and the tour was interesting. The castle compound includes a 26-acre “Folk Park” – a “living reconstruction of the homes and environment of Ireland of more than a century ago.” It was well done and a nice walk – in spite of the hundreds of nesting crows flying overhead! “Durty Nellie’s Pub” was the next stop – Murphy’s draft for Paul and Irish coffee for me. Now, after a pleasant shower, we’re headed to meet the gang for dinner here at the hotel and a welcome night’s sleep. More tomorrow! …
(3/25) Last night’s dinner was pleasant, with the whole tour group of 31 assembled. We had limited choices, but our meals were good. Both of us chose the rich seafood chowder and grilled pork chops with potatoes and vegetables – HUGE portions! My dessert – the pear-apple crumble was a hands down winner over Paul’s cheesecake – delicious! (Other options were shrimp scampi – fried and breaded! – on rice, Irish stew, and rice pudding.) After dinner we headed to the Creamery Bar just down the street for Irish Coffee with Judy and Bill for an anniversary toast. Then welcome SLEEP!…
Today dawned chilly and hazy… but the sun tried hard to break through. We had a group breakfast at the hotel at 7:30 (!) – a buffet with juices, fruit, granola, yogurt, scrambled eggs, sautéed mushrooms, baked tomatoes, sausage, ham, breads, coffee, etc.
The bus left at 8:30 for a tour of western Ireland – Clare and Galway counties – through rugged countryside to the Cliffs of Moher (spectacular!) – to the city of Galway (the 4th largest in the Republic of Ireland). We were free for 75 minutes, and wandered the pedestrian street near the harbor, choosing the “Quays” (pronounced “Keys”) for lunch, where 5 of us enjoyed wonderful pub ambiance and had delightful light lunches (seafood chowder, salad, oysters, fish & chips & shepherd’s pie…) The bus driver told Paul later that “The Quays” was the best pub in all of Ireland – before he knew that we went there! Galway city was charming – too bad we didn’t have more time to explore. I visited the old Protestant St. Nicholas church where Columbus was said to have prayed before sailing to the Americas – interesting, but not spectacular.
Our next stop was a tour of the Tara China factory – also interesting, but not worth serious shopping. (I personally would have preferred a tour of the Galway Crystal factory, which is MUCH cheaper than the famous Waterford, which is on the schedule for tomorrow). During our return trip to the hotel, we persuaded our tour guide to stop at a local pub, and we all enjoyed a beer and spontaneous pictures with some locals (“Paddy” and “Sean”?) at Jimmy Burke’s Pub in the little town of Lanahan – thatched roof with classic Irish charm, music, and ambience.
We returned to the hotel with very little time to freshen up before the cocktail reception and special “Irish Night” at Kathleen’s – complete with traditional Irish music, dancers and singing. Meal choices were ham and cabbage (Paul) or Salmon and vegetables (me) – with creamy vegetable soup or honeydew as a starter, and Irish Whiskey cake or lemon cheesecake as dessert. Food was good, but not great.
The highlight of our evening was when Donna (the resident extrovert from Myrtle Beach) sang a rendition of Happy Birthday a’ la Marilyn Monroe to Paul as a surprise – It was great! (She also brought the house down doing her “Hambone” routine while the entertainer was playing “spoons”!) We ended a wonderful day at the bar, enjoying Irish coffee and drinks with the gang. Tomorrow we head to Dublin for 2 nights, via Limerick and Waterford. We’re looking forward to seeing more of the interior countryside and exploring Ireland’s largest city – especially the “pub scene”
(3/26) We spent the whole day today on a bus driving across Ireland to Dublin!… The countryside was much greener than the rocky west coast, with lush pastures (sheep, cattle and horses) and farmland (“tillage”). The small towns were quaint with both large and small homes – each with neat walled gardens and brightly colored front doors.
Ireland’s economy is now one of the strongest in Europe, thanks to an influx of money for building since they joined the EU. Many manufacturing firms – especially the computer industry – have set up operations here, and unemployment has dropped from 20% to zero!
To break up the long bus ride, we had a mid-morning stop in a small town (Cahil) with an impressive castle on the water and a delightful bar with delicious scones in the main hotel. The next stop was in Waterford, where we enjoyed a factory tour and watched each step in the making of this world-famous expensive crystal. The skilled craftsmen – glass blowers, cutters, and engravers – were amazing! We had a tasty lunch of pate and salads in the cafeteria at the Waterford Visitor’s Center. (No purchases of the lovely crystal, though!)
We then faced 4 more hours on the bus, with a brief beer stop on the way – arriving in Dublin at 6:15. Our hotel – the Mespil _- is adequate, but nothing special. After drinks in the bar, six of us chose to have dinner nearby instead of walking downtown. We went to “Ouzos” – a lovely cellar restaurant with relaxing fish tanks -- and had a delicious meal (Paul: fish & chips; Pat: red snapper).
(3/27) After the usual “Irish Breakfast” at the hotel, we had a Dublin City tour. It was enjoyable day. The 3 ½ hour bus tour, narrated by “Clare” – an excellent local guide – was interesting. Dublin has a fascinating history that dates back to the Vikings, with a wide variety of sights and architecture. Dublin is famous for the imposing rows of huge Georgian town homes with domes windows over brightly colored doors. The huge squares surround beautiful parks with lush grass and flowers everywhere. The museums, government buildings, courts, etc. are all quite striking.
Our first stop was at the historic Trinity College, where we were awed by the exhibit of the “Ancient Book of Kells”, (the gospels written in Latin and richly illustrated by monks over 1000 years ago). We also marveled at the old library, built in the early 1700’s. The college was founded in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth and now, greatly expanded, is a co-ed university with more than 16000 students.
Our other stop was St. Patrick’s Cathedral – now an Episcopal church. A church has been located on this site since the 5th century – the Normans built a stone church here in 1191, and the current structure was built in the early 13th century. Very impressive, with a beautiful park and gardens in the back. Finally the bus took us on a tour of the area north of the River Liffey, through the huge Phoenix Park, and past the large Guinness and Jamieson plants.
We then headed out on foot – a stop at the internet café (only 1.5 Euros for 15 minutes!) – and lunch at a wonderful old pub “The Old Stand”, where we were the only non-locals. We enjoyed delicious country vegetable soup, brown bread, chicken salad, and Smithwick’s lager (pronounced “Smiticks”). After walking some more, we stopped for an Irish coffee at “Henry Gratton’s” before returning to the hotel. Although Dublin is a bustling city of 1.7 million, it is visitor-friendly.
After a rest, we went back downtown with Bill and Judy. The downtown pedestrian Grafton Street was packed with people, and we finally ended up back at “The Old Stand” pub for dinner. Three of us had the Irish Stew, and Judy had a smoked salmon platter – all delicious and very inexpensive. (We thought the popular touristy “Temple Bar’ region less desirable than the charming streets off Grafton.)
The next adventure was to find a casino for Bill – and we finally found it at the “Merrion Club”, where they allowed visitors to enter by just signing a log. They did not have a liquor license, but we enjoyed free cappuccinos while 3 (minus yours truly) played blackjack – each ending up about 10 Euros ahead when cashing in. During our trek back to the hotel on foot, we stopped at “Murphy’s Bar” – another classic local haunt – for an Irish coffee before calling it a night. We leave tomorrow at 8:00 AM for Killarney…
(3/28) Today was another LONG day on the bus (the downside to this kind of tour), and the weather was chilly and rainy. We criss-crossed the country again – this time diagonally southwest from Dublin to Killarney.
Our first stop was “The Rock of Cashel”, which was actually the ruins of a castle and cathedral – 6 buildings in all, ranging from 600 to 1000 years old. The guided tour was interesting. Next we stopped at the base of Blarney castle, where we had a long break for tour, lunch, and shopping. Lunch in the pub was delicious soup and the Irish version of a “toasty” – ham, cheese, tomato & onion of toasted bread – not grilled, as expected. Paul and July braved the long climb to the castle ruins in pouring rain to kiss the Blarney stone, but Bill and I “wimped out.” (They both said that it was well worth the trek, but lying our your back over an open space at that height to kiss the stone was “scary!”). Click to see the video of "Kissing the Blarney Stone". Next we did some shopping at the huge Blarney Woolen Mills, where we bought a great tweed sport coat for Paul.
We finally arrived in Killarney at 6:00 and checked into the Best Western International Hotel – a beautiful old hotel with a lovely lobby and friendly staff. Our room is very pleasant, with a large modern bathroom containing Jacuzzi tub and a separate shower. Other amenities include iron, pants press, and hairdryer. (All of our hotel rooms in Ireland have had “hot pots” to make instant coffee or tea.)
Dinner at the hotel was a classic group event – over in an hour, with less than spectacular food – roast sirloin of beef for me and haddock for Paul, accompanied by turnips, peas, mashed potatoes, and a delicious potato croquette – the hit of the meal. Dessert was a poor peach melba. After dinner we toured the town on foot – LOTS of pubs and shops. We met up with Jim and Lynn and stopped for drinks at a local place (The Granary) with live traditional music (Irish bagpipes, hand accordion, and fiddle). We then returned to the hotel for a final nightcap and listened to the live music from Hannigan’s Bar.
(3/29) This morning, after the now-classic Irish breakfast, we boarded the bus at 9:00 for our tour of the Ring of Kerry. The weather was clear and sunny – beautiful to see the interesting sights around the peninsula. We went from rocky lowlands to the hills overlooking Dingle Bay – interrupted by the obligatory shopping stop with complimentary Irish coffee, where I splurged on a beautiful wool and cashmere cape! We then headed south to Waterville, a town on the coast, for lunch. My local wild smoked salmon platter with salad and soda break was delicious, and Paul enjoyed the fried cod special with “chips”. We continued our counterclockwise route through the mountains, Killarney National Park, etc., with beautiful vistas along the way – and lots more sheep grazing!…The baby lambs were so cute that we vowed we may not be able to eat lamb dishes ever again…..
On our return to town, Paul and Phil took a cab to visit a local golf course, and the ladies did a little more shopping. Killarney is a cute, lively “hub” town with countless hotels, B&Bs, shops & pubs. We could easily spend another 2 days here to relax and enjoy more of the sights – but we’re headed home tomorrow!…(Paul is already planning to return with the guys on a golf trip next fall!)
Tonight we had another group dinner at the hotel – better food this time (I had seafood in a pastry wrap and Paul had a stuffed pork chop). At 8:30 we were lead on foot to a local place (Laurel’s Pub) for entertainment, which served expensive drinks and was obviously geared to tour groups (3 busloads were there for the evening .) The “show” didn’t’ start until almost 9:30 – a good singer, 3 musicians, and 3 adorable young Irish dancers who were visibly nervous. After an hour, we slipped out the side door and returned to the Granary for more traditional Irish music. Donna donned her green tinsel “hair” and performed the “Hambone” with the band, with stunned smiles and pictures from the locals!…
(3/30) The chore of packing had to be done last night, since bags were due in the hallway at 7:00 and breakfast was at 7:15. Ireland starts Daylight Savings this weekend – a week ahead of us – so there was very little time for sleep! We awoke to find out that we had NO hot water – so I took a “bird bath”, dressed, and we headed downstairs to discover a dark lobby and dining room! (I realized too late that I had forgotten that I had set my watch ahead at dinner – so I actually ended up setting the alarm clock 2 hours ahead, and it was really 6:20, instead of 7:20 AM! UGH! Nothing to do but watch TV in the lounge and endure the teasing later!!)
We left at 8:00 to drop the first batch of the tour group at the airport by 10:00 – then were taken to Bunratty Castle Hotel near the airport to relax for 2 hours before it was time for our group to face the long lines. Security was high because of protests expected (against US planes refueling at Shannon airport….which they’ve done for many years). Ireland is officially neutral re the was in Iraq…. But they are dependent on the US companies for jobs, and the US tourists for other revenue. We had lunch in the airport bar while watching the England-Ireland rugby match on TV – but Ireland lost.
Our flight home (the first Aer Lingus flight to Baltimore since they resumed service) was uneventful. Yours truly got some much-needed sleep, but was generally miserable due to a sinus cold. (A number of our group came down with bad colds during the trip – not helped by being stuck on a bus together and suffering from lack of sleep!)