In the time I’ve been writing my travel blog, I haven’t written a whole lot about Ireland. But that’s all about to change. I’m here to give you some tips on what to do with a week at your disposal. Since before I came to Ireland for my master’s degree, my sister, Kiana, and I, had been planning a grand European trip with two of our friends, Jackie and Kaycee.
Kiana, an artist, wanted to come see me in Ireland, and we both wanted to see Italy in-depth. It would be my second time and her first. This was my first trip planning itineraries for others, and it was a lot harder than just traveling for myself. It’s like I told Kiana later: if I lose my way or screw up when I’m traveling by myself, it’s no big deal. If I do it with three other people in tow, I look like a big idiot. Spoiler alert: I definitely screwed up during the trip. But it’s all part of the experience, and since the experience didn’t include anyone getting kidnapped (although it did include me losing my phone), it was cool. Kiana has agreed to be my special guest on this post, contributing both illustrations and comments (they’ll appear in bold parentheses). On to our Irish adventure!
Day One: Limerick
I woke up at 7 am the morning the girls arrived in Dublin, one hour later than I was supposed to to pick them up on time. After making a frantic phone call to my mother and discovering that their flight was even earlier than expected, I dashed to the bus and rode it to the airport.
At this point, I hadn’t seen my family in seven months, the longest I’ve ever gone without being home. Anyone who knows me well will know how hard that’s been for me. And Kiana and I used to be pretty hard on each other back in the day, when we shared a room (I still maintain that she was the reason it was always a mess), but we’re good friends now. So I was pretty excited to see them.
After a very drowsy bus ride, we arrived back at my place. When they’d slept it off a little (and I’d written about a paragraph on my thesis) we walked the river. On the way there, I showed them what I call the “murder castle” – an old ruin which you can climb to the top. [Talk about the janky steps and all the graffiti we saw on the way there.]
Kind of creepy, to be sure, but if your first real sight of Ireland is the overgrown and appropriately forlorn ruins of a 15th century castle, it’s worth it, right?
The walk ended up being two miles, which I did not mean to do to three girls who had just flown halfway around the world. But at the end of it, they got to sit down to their first bowl of seafood chowder at Locke Bar.
After that, I showed them the town center of Limerick – which wasn’t as impressive as I had hoped, since the church wasn’t open (although we did get to watch a cat murder a bird). We did walk along the River Shannon, which we had followed all the way into town. They also liked seeing King John’s Castle, although I, along with everyone else in Limerick, just kind of view it as commonplace now. It was cool for Kiana to see where I’ve been living for the past year, though.
[When we got there I felt like I was being overloaded with awesome stuff. Like the creepy graffiti wall of that guy with his eye in the “eye” scream (get it?).]
Day Two: Ring of Kerry
One of the only things I hadn’t done in Ireland yet at this point was to travel the Ring of Kerry, said by some to be the most beautiful loop drive in Ireland. Since Kiana is an artist, and we had talked about coming here even before I had thought of getting my master’s degree, I wanted to wait for us to experience it together.
I started off the day by making the girls a traditional Irish breakfast – or as traditional as it can get when it’s an American making it, which means that unfortunately, there were no baked beans (totally necessary, trust me). It consisted of fruit scones, Irish bacon (which is more like Canadian bacon), sausage, eggs, and grilled tomatoes.
I really hope they enjoyed it, anyway, because we had a long walk ahead of us to where the tour bus was picking us up. I just looked up the route on Google Maps, and it was 1.5 miles. That doesn’t seem so bad, until you know that the other girls were lugging full-sized suitcases behind them, because they weren’t coming back to Limerick. I, of course, only had my little candy-colored carry-on, so I was thinking to myself, “Oh, it won’t be that bad.” Cut to us, one mile later. I’m realizing I should have called us a taxi and the girls are silently fuming (and sweating) behind me. They did eventually forgive me, but only when they realized that the bus was air-conditioned and they didn’t have to do any walking for the rest of the day.
The first place we stopped on the Ring was the little village of Glenbeagh, where it was raining buckets (or “lashing,” as they say in Ireland), for the first time in a month. I had hoped that when the girls came, we’d still be experiencing the Great Irish Heat Wave. But it turns out that they’d just missed the tail end of it. I was worried at this point that we weren’t going to be able to see any of the Ring. When the rain comes in off the sea coast, you’re pretty much out of luck. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from living in Ireland, it’s that you should just do whatever you’re going to do when it’s raining, because you could literally die waiting it out.
We began to get really good views near Dingle Bay. I could quickly see why this is one of the most-visited tourist spots in Ireland other than the Cliffs of Moher. The coastline is dramatic and green and beautiful. We drove through the mountainside and then came out at one of the best views in Ireland, Coomakista. It was magical, because by the time we got there, the rain had cleared off just enough to be able to see the little islands that dot the area, and the miles of open ocean further out.
We then stopped in Waterville, which is famous for being a favorite vacation spot of Charlie Chaplin’s, to take in the beautiful beach area.
After seeing the coast, we headed back inland to the small village of Sneem, where I introduced the girls to chocolate flakes in ice cream, which is something I’ve only experienced in the UK and Ireland. Kiana hadn’t finished hers by the time we were ready to get back on the bus, and the driver jokingly told her she couldn’t bring it on board, after which she swallowed the entire thing in fear. Of course we teased her mercilessly about this for the rest of the trip. We also saw an old guy with his massive pet goat. It looked like it wanted to murder everyone.
[You didn’t mention the weird town that sounds like Hemoglobin that loves King Puck!] She’s talking about Killorglin, which holds a festival crowning a goat king of the village for a day. Some say the ritual dates back to pagan times.
As we drove back in through Killarney National Park, I realized that if I had managed to rent a car like we had originally planned, we would have died in a violent crash. Irish roads are ridiculously narrow anyway, but these especially were almost too tricky for two cars to pass in some places. Kiana remembered all the names of our bus drivers during the trip, though, and she’ll probably have more to say about the excellence of this particular one. [Ah, Jaymie, who had a lovely accent and smoked like a new and improved chimney, and Janek, the quiet Eastern European driver who scared me into swallowing an entire ice cream cone in one go and drove like a maniac or a god, you pick.]
I was glad that at the end of our tour, we made a stop at Ladies View and one at Torc Waterfall, which I had already been to, but which I consider some of the best scenery in the whole park.
After we got back into Killarney, we stopped to have some supper at a fast-food restaurant near our hostel which makes very good milkshakes (Ferrero Rocher, specifically). Unfortunately, the food was disappointing, and we decided then and there to not eat fast food again on the trip, a promise we did not break.
Day Three: Gap of Dunloe
I had just hiked the famous Gap a couple of weeks before by myself. One of the good things about living in Ireland so long and going almost everywhere is that I could test drive all of our outings to make sure things went smoothly. However, there are some things even I can’t control. Our luck with hot weather didn’t prevail, as you’ll soon find out.
The morning started out beautifully, with mist clinging to the green mountains around the Gap. The trail was emptier than it had been the first time, and we meandered through the valley, pausing to talk to sheep (or at least try to) and take several hundred pictures (Kiana, not me) at the many lakes, ponds, and rivers.
We stopped at a little abandoned house I had noticed on my first visit, and walked around in the ruins.
We had plenty of time to get down to the lake, where we had hired the traditional boat to take us the rest of the way. Even the line of hills just past the Gap didn’t bother us too much.
But when we got to the other side, the clouds started rolling in. By the time we got down to the Black Valley floor, we couldn’t see the village back behind us. And then the rain started.
I had a raincoat when I came to Ireland. It quickly disintegrated after several months. Like, the material was peeling. That’s how much rain we get. All I had now was a windbreaker I’d worn to run track in high school. The other girls had thin ones, too, except for Kiana, who was the only one willing to pay a decent amount of money for a raincoat actually made in Ireland. Guess who stayed the dryest? [I didn’t have a nice raincoat that day. I bought it the day after because I, too, was wearing my adorable polka dot American rain jacket which, surprise, suprise, was a windbreaker. Remember by the end I just took it off because it was completely useless?]
We hung out in the picnic area at Lord Brandon’s Cottage until it was time to board the boats. A few weeks before, it had been all beautiful green hills and cool lake water, but now it was a wet hell. The boatman gave us a tarp to put over us, which at least kept the rain off our legs, but our top halves were soaked by the time we docked at Ross Castle. [The islands on the lake looked like a scene from Tarzan (sans a gorgeously hot man swinging from the vines). The Gap is exactly what one pictures when picturing Ireland.]
After we checked out the castle (more about it and Killarney in general in an upcoming post), we walked back to the town about a mile or so. I wish now that we would have just rented a horse and trap, because I would have paid a stupid amount of money to avoid how wet we got. By the time we got to the magnificent cathedral at the edge of town, our shoes were squelching with every step and we didn’t want to go inside and ruin anyone’s worship. We went back to our hostel and attempted to dry some of our clothes out, which didn’t work out too well, because we had to move on to Cork that evening. We packed up our damp stuff and got on the train.
By the time we got to the station about an hour later, we were very tired of lugging our suitcases in the rain. We saw the sign for our hostel after about 800 meters and were excited to get to bed.
But it’s never that simple. Those poor girls had to lug their enormous suitcases up a vertical hill, and then up three more flights of stairs to the room we’d been given. Cursing and sweating, we finally managed to get ourselves settled in for the night after a delicious dinner at Cork’s famous Fish Wife. But unfortunately, our good luck was about to run out.
Day Four: Cobh and the Coming of the Cheese Man
This was the day we relaxed the most in Ireland. We got a late start wandering around Cork. I introduced the girls to Penney’s (or Primark, as it’s known in the UK), a department store which is a national treasure in Ireland. [THE PEOPLE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE GREATNESS THAT IS PENNEY’S!] It’s true; I got my favorite pair of jeans there for five euro. Then we got on the very convenient Cobh Connect bus to make our way to the port town.
The first thing to know about Cobh is it’s pronounced “Cove.” I made the mistake of calling it “Cob” once, and only once. It’s the Gaelic name of the town, renamed from Queenstown after the Republic of Ireland gained its independence from Britain.
The town is known for being the last port of call for the Titanic before it set sail on its infamous voyage. There’s a good museum housed in the original White Star Lines ticket office that the passengers departed from. But this day wasn’t about museums and jetting around from place to place. It was about relaxation.
The main focal point of the town is the giant St. Colman’s Cathedral, which you may recognize from every Instagram travel account ever (including mine). The most photographed view is of a row of adorable houses, known locally as the Deck of Cards, in front of the cathedral.
This was Kiana’s first time inside a European church. Come to find out, she likes them as much as me. I’ll let her describe the experience: [Do I need to describe it? Holy cow, when you first glimpse it over the housetops you can’t imagine people building something so magnificent. My first thought was that it had to have just appeared one day. When you get up to the facade, your breath just leaves your body in one huge huff because the amount of crazy detail on the outside is mind-blowing. The cathedral is very Gothic because it incorporates three things: flying buttresses, pointed arches, and stained glass windows (my old humanities professor would be so proud). To those of you who have already seen the great Gothic cathedrals in Paris or Germany, cut me some slack because this is the first one I’ve seen. The altar on the inside was exquisitely done so that it looked almost like a mini Gothic cathedral. The one thing that really stood out to me was its intense attention to detail. I can’t even describe how unbelievable it was.]
After exploring every inch of the inside and outside, we went down to the waterfront, where we tried out the famous ice cream doughnut at Scoops Gelato while sitting on the pier and looking out at what is said to be by some the second-largest natural harbor in the world, after Sydney, Australia.
Then we went to the Titanic Memorial Gardens, built in honor of the victims of the wreck, and sat on the sea wall and watched the ships.
After a great lunch at the Yellow Door Cafe, we decided to head back to Cork to check out the city. Kiana and I went on the hunt for more cathedrals/churches and just talked about life and caught up as we wandered. It was so much fun.
When we got back inside our hostel, an awful smell greeted us. It was a moist, dank scent that kind of reminded me of cheese that has been left in a hot room for two days without refrigeration. Combine that with dirty socks, and you’ll know what the Cheese Man smelled like. [You can compare Stinky Cheese Man to Lars from Heavyweights who had a “severely deviated septum, do not be alarmed.” I don’t know if “He smelled like butt on a stick” would give the imagery I’m looking for.]
One thing I don’t like so much about Ireland is the hostels. They’re pretty cut-rate, to be honest (with a few much-loved exceptions), and they’re much more expensive than others I’ve stayed at. But I’d never had a really bad experience – until then.
This guy did nothing, as far as I could tell, but lay in his bed eating strange things like salads and boxes of cereal with his shoes off. The entire two days we were there, he never once changed his clothes. And he sounded like a herd of buzzsaws when he snored. There was one point where I was holding a cheap bottle of fake Armani perfume I’d bought from an Egyptian guy in London to my nose, trying to get rid of the cheese smell and praying morning would come. Kiana said I was too dramatic, but she didn’t have to sleep in the bed closest to him.
Day Five: Rock of Cashel, St. Mary’s Cathedral, Kilkenny Castle
As you can imagine, we weren’t sorry that we’d booked an all-day tour for Day Five which would keep us out of Cork for a while. We were glad to escape the smelly confines of the hostel for a nice, heated bus.
First, we stopped at the Rock of Cashel. Though it’s mentioned in a lot of guidebooks, getting here is difficult if you don’t have a car, but I’d managed to do it once before by carefully coordinating bus schedules. I’d also walked out to the ruins of nearby Hore Abbey, which is part of the site.
The Rock started out as a castle and fortress, the home of the kings of Munster, one of the three main regions in Ireland, until Murtough O’Brien donated the whole thing to the Church circa 1101. But its connection to religion is much older than that. It’s supposed to have been visited by St. Patrick himself in the 5th century, where he converted the king of Munster.
The structure is absolutely enormous. The oldest piece is the round bell tower, built in 1100. The nearby Cormac’s Chapel, made entirely of sandstone, was started in 1127. But my favorite part of the Rock is the soaring ruin of the Gothic cathedral, with its roof open to the sky. It was used as a church all the way until the 1700s. [You missed all the good parts! The cemetery was wonderful (in a totally not-where-dead-people-are-chilling way). The Celtic knots on the crosses and the fact that they are CARVED OUT OF STONE. Let’s give the Irish credit where credit is due.]
We only got a bit longer than an hour here, which I didn’t think was enough, but at least the girls got to see it.
Our next stop was the medieval city of Kilkenny, which is a great place because it has three lovely churches: the gigantic St. Canice’s, the Dominican Black Abbey, and the majestic St. Mary’s. We didn’t have time for all of them, because we also wanted to tour the famous castle, so we opted for St. Mary’s, my favorite.
Kiana, of course, stopped to take pictures of every surface, nook, and cranny, both inside and outside, just like I did the first time I went in. [Not every nook and cranny! I think I left some unexplored.] St. Mary’s is so huge that you can see it from anywhere in the city, and the altar is beautifully done in gold and backlit in a really amazing way.
Kilkenny Castle, which I’d never visited before, is, unlike most other castles you’ll find in Ireland, not a ruin. Owned by the Butler family (their name comes from the service they performed for His Majesty) for hundreds of years, it was signed over to the people of Kilkenny in 1967 for 50 pounds. Famous Anglo-Norman invader Strongbow first built a castle on the site in the 1100s, but the current castle was completed in 1213, though a lot of restoration work was completed in the 19th century.
It’s most famous for its beautiful courtyard and for its beautiful picture gallery hall, completed in the 19th century and done in medieval style. [You literally described the castle without actually describing anything about it, like the Butler’s room that literally glowed, it was so covered in gold. You can even talk about how it LITERALLY took my breath away!] She’s talking about the fact that I glimpsed the picture gallery first, and made her stop at the bottom of the staircase so I could do a dramatic reveal. Kiana gasped when I pushed her through and the nearest caretaker chuckled and said, “That’s exactly the reaction the Butlers hoped for when they designed this room.”
On our way back from Kilkenny, we stopped in the little port of Youghal to walk around for a few minutes, where we saw a family trying to put an eel they’d caught into a bucket. Those things are much faster on land than you would think.
We came back, and since Cheese Man was not there, we opened the windows and tried to get some air circulating. We prayed that he had left for good. But alas, we suffered through one more moist, smelly night before we finally escaped and went on to Dublin.
Day Six: Dublin
Dublin is probably the place in Ireland I’ve explored most extensively, other than Limerick, of course. Before I flew home for the winter, I was there for a good five days. But that was during the freezing cold, and it was nice to experience different places – St. Stephen’s Green, for instance – in the summer weather.
We arrived a little before lunch, and I immediately took the girls to my favorite restaurant, Queen of Tarts. I’ve mentioned this place before, but I absolutely can’t get enough of their delicious sandwiches and cakes, made fresh. I’d been building Kiana up for this experience ever since the first time I’d visited, but she agreed that it was every bit as amazing as I’d said. [I was built up on tales of carrot cake. You didn’t even MENTION the carrot cake. IT NEEDS TO BE MENTIONED!] It’s true; the carrot cake is my favorite. But this time, I tried the Victorian sponge cake and the berry cobbler, too (we may have gone back), and they were both really good.
Our stomachs full, we moved on to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where Kiana geeked out for a bit inside and we wandered around the beautiful accompanying park, which, to be honest, looked just as beautiful frozen over in December, although it was much nicer to take photos when my hands weren’t frostbitten.
Then, of course, we had to do Trinity College and the Book of Kells, where Kiana was just as disappointed as I was about the librarians not letting you touch the books. We did get some good photos, though, including the featured image for this post.
We also went on to St. Stephen’s Green, which was absolutely beautiful, but was populated by a ton of swans. Swans may look nice, but they’re jerks. I was once chased by a couple of these hissing maniac birds while trying to get a photo of their majesty. I don’t trust them.
When we got back to my favorite hostel, Abraham’s – which was lovely and Cheese Man-free – we spent about an hour trying to find a self-service laundromat that would wash our clothes, gave up, and went back to Penney’s to get more supplies for the next leg of our journey – Italy. But there was still one more day of fun left in one of my favorite seaside villages.
Day Seven: Howth
When many people land in Dublin, they look to the Cliffs of Moher and Belfast as great day trips. What a lot of them don’t know, however, is that just a 30 minute train ride from Dublin is the beautiful village of Howth.
Howth is famous for its stunning cliff walks, of which I did the 4-mile Bog of Frogs loop on my solo visit (more about that in another post). This time, however, we decided to do a shorter version so that we would have time to stop and take all the photos we wanted, as well as have time for a delicious lunch before going back to Dublin.
The path starts the second you get off at the train station, winds through the town, and goes up a steep hill before you’re treated to breathtaking views from cliffs covered with beautiful blankets of heather. We had a great time ambling along and watching the ships out at sea, even though it was drizzling a little, and looking out to the very cool Bailey Lighthouse. [Explain how great Howth is! (You can give an accurate picture of it with that one of me literally looking fresh to death).]
We then cut back across country to end up at Leo Burdock’s, a classic for fish and chips, and walked around the seawall in the harbor with ice cream, taking in the views of Ireland’s Eye, a small island, and the cute Howth Harbor and lighthouse, before heading back to Dublin.
There, we admittedly gorged ourselves on more delicious cakes from Queen of Tarts and turned in early because of our early flight to Rome in the morning. [You didn’t even mention our absolutely hilarious waitress at Queen of Tarts who had us all going for a long time!] My bad. She told us there was none of our favorite cake left and then brought it out to us, laughing, while we had heart attacks. But Kiana just liked her because she complimented her eyelash extensions.
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