We have been driving for two weeks clock-wise around Ireland and now are opposite Dublin on the west coast.
We took some back roads from Kylemore Abbey to Westport through some remote and rugged mountainous country of County Mayo. I am glad to see that even in a country as old as Ireland, there are still wild and unspoiled areas. We drove for about an hour without seeing a single house, which amazed us. We have been saying it for the last two weeks, but Ireland truly is a beautiful country.
Eventually, we came back to the main road and continued north at a faster pace. Westport is one of Ireland’s coastal resort towns. It was rated in 2012 as the Best Place to Live in Ireland by the Irish Times. Irish beach goers flock to it during the summer to catch some sun rays, splash in the water, and enjoy the local restaurants. Since we are traveling in early June, we have fortunately missed the beach crowds, so we largely had the area to ourselves.
We were pretty hungry from driving, not that sitting in a car burns much calories, so looked for a place to eat. Westport boasts some very good restaurants and pubs, which made choosing just one difficult. We selected JJ O’ Malleys, Westport’s most famous bar and restaurant (self-proclaimed).
We made the right decision! The food was outstanding. We all ordered some type of seafood entree caught fresh in the nearby Atlantic Ocean. My sea-bass special was particularly delicious. The atmosphere is also amazing. It is a combination of rustic old-world charm and authentic Irish warmth. The staff was very friendly too. This was one of our best meals in Ireland.
After dinner, we decided to call an early day and head for our B&B. Collette Moran’s home was definitely off the beaten path, but well-worth the extra effort. Her home was immaculate and comfortable. We loved that it was out in the country with awesome views of the mountains and farmland. We all slept very soundly. This is our last night in the Republic of Ireland for a while. Our next B&B will be in Derry, Northern Ireland.
STILL LOVING IRELAND!
Kylemore Abbey has got to be the most beautiful castle setting in all of Ireland!
I have seen many pictures of Kylemore Abbey. Indeed, if you Google Irish castles, it always comes up as one of the top picks. Like most of Ireland, words and pictures fall short of the real thing. You need to experience it to truly capture the beauty and aura of the Irish countryside.
Kylemore started out as a private residence for Mitchell Henry, a very wealthy doctor from London. He, like many others, fell in love with the area. He and his wife, Margaret, built the castle in 1868 and settled down to enjoy a very lordly Irish life in the remote area of Connemara County. Their castle spans over 40,000 feet, 70 rooms, and 10,000 acres of land. Not bad for a second home in the country!
Tragically, Margaret died in 1875 at the young age of 45 from a fever she contracted while on holiday in Egypt. Mitchell build a small, but beautiful, memorial church on the shores of the lake in memory of his wife. Eventually, he also was laid to rest next to her in the mausoleum. The castle was then sold to the Duke and Duchess of Manchester in 1909. After only a few years, however, the Duke lost the castle in a gambling bet. If I had been his wife, he would have joined Mr. and Mrs. Henry!
Luckily, the castle went to a good home. The Irish Benedictine Nuns purchased the castle in 1920 after fleeing their abbey in Ypres, Belgium, during World War I. They converted the castle to a private international girls boarding and day school, which operated until 2010. Today, they still own the abbey and maintain it as a retreat, educational place, and historical site to the public (€11.70/adult).
The nuns have done an impressive job keeping Kylemore in pristine shape. The castle is open for guided tours. There is also a wonderful cafe, gift shop, Victorian walled garden, and hiking paths to explore. Although a bus runs every 15 minutes from the abbey to the gardens, we elected to walk the mile and enjoy the scenery.
The Victorian walled garden was impressive! Mish gladly would accept living in the head gardener’s cottage. I still would opt for the castle. We had our usual afternoon tea in the garden restaurant and imagined what life would be like living here. Providing I did not have to keep up the yard work, not bad at all.
We left the city life of Galway behind and headed for the remote Irish countryside on our road-trip around Ireland.
Our scenic drive took us along Lough Corrib, the largest lake in Ireland, to the quaint town of Cong. If you are a John Wayne fan, you might recognize this picturesque spot as the fictitious town of Inisfree in the movie. We can see why director John Ford picked this location, it is one of the most beautiful areas we have seen so far on this trip.
Enviously, I watched as a few fly-fishermen cast their lines into the Cong River in search of salmon. A young girl walked by with her father caring a salmon almost as long as she was! I really wanted to get my rod and real and go after one, but unfortunately I left them back in the U.S. Oh well, just one more reason to come back to Ireland.
We strolled through the ruins of Cong Abbey. Apparently, the local monks used to fish in the river for their supper. Lucky guys! I guess they didn’t have a problem recruiting some men to their ranks.
We crossed the river and continued through an old stone arch to a nature trail that meandered through the woods. About a mile into the wood, we saw a sign for Ashford Castle, so, of course, we had to investigate. The path opened up onto a large well-manicured green lawn. Across the yard was an imposing dark grey stone castle. Elijah and I realized straight away that we were not supposed to be here. Mish, however, wanted a better look. We hung back on the edge of the wood as Mish boldly walked out across the lawn. Sure enough, a dapper dressed castle guard driving a golf cart came out of nowhere in pursuit. Elijah and I bid a hasty retreat back into the safety of the wood. I really hoped Mish did not get detained. Luckily, she shortly came back giving us a very disapproving look. We’re not cowards, just more cautious.
We decided to keep to the woods and follow the path. Deeper in we found Guinness Tower. This six story stone structure was built by Benjamin Guinness, who was the grandson of no other than the legendary Arthur Guinness himself, as an observation platform. It sits alone in the dark forest as if it is not supposed to be discovered. There is definitely a fairy tale quality about it. We climbed the old steps inside to the top, where we were rewarded with a view of the forest canopy. Only in Ireland can you stumble across old castles and ruins when out for a short walk.
We climbed down and went back into town. We had worked up an appetite so sat down for a late breakfast in The Hungry Monk. We all had eggs with fresh salmon. The meal was delicious and the servers were very friendly and welcoming. It doesn’t get more authentic Irish than this!
To top of a lovely morning, we came across a Guinness truck parked in the middle of the street. Can it get any better?
Our next stop is Kylemore Abbey. I have seen many pictures of this castle and am very anxious to experience it in person. So, I will let everyone know if it is as impressive as the pictures.
Galway is an amazing cosmopolitan city with lots to do and see!
All I knew of Galway was the famous song Galway Girl by Steve Earle (an re-recorded by Ed Sheeran). Needless to say, that didn’t really help me much. So, we went out to explore the city. Since it is the sixth largest city in Ireland and home to a major university, we had high expectations. Galway did not disappoint!
The city is very cosmopolitan. The nice lady at the visitor center told us that 1 in 4 city residents were not Irish. The well-regarded university, ocean port, beautiful surroundings, mild climate, and plethora of shops and pubs draws people from all over the world. We could hear numerous languages as we walked around the city.
Probably the busiest place is Eyre Square in the heart of Galway. We found many interesting shops and eateries. There were also several talented street performers entertaining the crowds. We worked up quite an appetite and decided to find a good pub. Mish found out that today was the Hurling Championship and, coincidentally, one of the teams playing was from Galway.
If you do not know what hurling is, your not alone. This unique sport is almost exclusively played in Ireland. It is of Gaelic origin and dates back to over 4,000 years. That makes the game older than Ireland itself! The sport can be traced to the Celts and has prehistoric origins even. The best way I can describe the game is that it is a mix of lacrosse, rugby, and quidditch. The main difference is that those sports are safer.
Hurling is fast, furious, and dangerous. We sat in a pub and watched the match while we ate and drank. A very nice older gentleman sitting next to me patiently explained the game to us. I had to ask many questions because the game is like nothing I have ever seen. He told me that when he played as a young man players didn’t wear helmets. He got a shattered eye socket one time from an errant silotar (that’s the hard ball you use). Another time he got a hurley (that’s the stick players use to hit the silotar and each other) in the throat. And they play this game why?
I’ll admit, it was loads of fun! We rooted for Galway and toasted their victory. Back out on the street people were still out walking around and socializing. The lights came on and the city took on an even prettier look. Galway is definitely worth a visit when you are on the west coast of Ireland.
We missed the Cliffs of Moher on our last visit to Ireland, but this time we made it a must see destination.
The Cliffs of Moher are not the tallest sea cliffs in the world, but they are some of the most dramatic. They are sheer vertical walls of rock that rise over 390 feet from the ocean. They are located in County Clare at Hags Head near the small coastal resort town of Doolin. The area is well known for its famous golf courses, which we passed up. I still have yet to play a single round of golf and plan on keeping it that way. The cliff had much more fascination for me.
Be aware, between the golfers, bicyclists, and cliff watchers the roads get pretty crowded. You will need to go slow and constantly be on the look out. Once we reached the cliffs, I was amazed at how many tourists were there. The cliffs are one of Ireland’s most visited attractions, so be prepared for crowds. There is also a 10 Euro parking fee. Despite these, the cliffs are well worth a look.
I do not like heights. The cliffs are dizzily high. I was amazed and alarmed that there is not a railing to prevent foolish tourists from going on an unexpected one-way trip. To add to my shock, we learned that 26 people have fallen from the precipice in the last 20 years. There is even a special rescue team trained just for the cliffs. They have yet to do an actual rescue because they have all been body recoveries. As long as you stay on the well marked path, you will be fine. Please do not try to get that amazing dare-devil selfie.
I braved the heights and was rewarded with a breathtaking view. We could see all the way to the Aran Islands near Galway, which is our next stop. On top of the cliffs is O’Brien’s Tower. Cornelius O’Brien built the tower in 1835 as an observation platform for Victorian era tourists. Climbing to the top parapet gives you an even better view! It is an additional 3 Euro per person, however (cash only).
Built into the hillside behind the cliffs like a giant hobbit hole is the visitor center and cafe. We had a wonderful tea while we looked out over the ocean. The coffee and cake helped me regain my nerves. I’m very glad that we didn’t pass up the cliffs a second time.
We left the Dingle Peninsula for the small city of Ennis, but decided to take a short cut over Conor Pass.
By now we have been in Ireland for over a week and about half way through our family adventure. I’ll admit, I am getting a little tired of driving. So, I decided to take a short cut over Conor Pass to liven things up. It is the highest public road in Ireland and largely regarded as one of the most dangerous roads in Europe.
The road cuts across the Brandon Mountains linking Dingle on the south side of the peninsula with Kilcummin on the north side. The Brandon Mountains contain Ireland’s second highest peak, Brandon Mountain, at 3127 ft. Compared to the Cascades back home in western Washington they are mere hills, but are still dramatic and beautiful in their own right.
The pass is very winding and narrow, but does have sum pull-outs where you can stop and let other vehicles sneak by, which was luck for us because we needed them. My short cut to liven the drive up definitely got my heart racing at times. Luckily, most Irish drivers are very polite, which cannot be said of all Europeans.
The Brandon Mountains are steep and jagged due to the relentless work of glaciers during the last ice age. They have left their indelible mark on the pass. We noticed the characteristic cirque land features, which the Irish call corries. These steep amphitheater shaped valleys are dead giveaways that glaciers carved the area.
Thankfully, we successfully traversed the Conor Pass and head along the north shore of the Dingle Peninsula. Our next obstacle was the Shannon Estuary. To cross this, we needed a boat. Luckily, the Shannon Ferry makes crossings twice an hour. Otherwise, we would have had to drive over two hours around the estuary. Being from the Seattle area, we are well accustomed to ferries so felt right at home.
Once safely on the other side of the estuary, we made for our next bed and breakfast outside of Ennis. Ennis turned out to be an unexpected gem of a small city. I’ll get to that next time!
On the tip of the Dingle Peninsula is Dunmore Head, the most westerly point in Ireland.
We drove out to the small town of Dunquin to visit the Great Blasket Centre and Island. I had no idea what to expect, I had never heard of Blaskets. The Blasket Islands, in case you also didn’t know, are a group of small islands off the coast of the Dingle Peninsula. The largest of the six primary islands is Great Blasket. It was continually inhabited until November 17, 1953, when the government evacuated the last 22 residents because of the harsh and primitive living conditions. You can take a daily ferry to see the remains of the small community, but you need to transfer to an inflatable boat once the ferry reaches the island because there is no safe landing site. We skipped it.
Instead of the boat ride, we opted for a long walk along the Siuloid na Cille. The 5 km walk was beautiful. The views of the Blaskets and surrounding ocean were amazing. After the walk, we had afternoon tea in the visitor center. I actually had coffee, but close enough.
I really wanted to find the famous Sheep Highway. I’m not sure if it is actually famous, but I have seen pictures of it many times. We finally found it after some asking and searching. It is an old stone roadway that goes steeply up from a stone pier to the cliff top. It was used when islanders brought their sheep to the mainland for market. I wouldn’t go out of your way to find it, but we were in the area anyway.
Elijah was looking for a nice leather wallet, so we headed inland and looked for Holden Leather. Holden is the epitome of fine Irish leather work. Their leather goods are of exceptional quality and craftsmanship. We visited their shop and factory outside Dingle. The owner was very friendly and helpful. He explained the care he takes in designing and making his unique leather products. I really want one of his messenger bags now! Unfortunately, the wallets were out of Elijah’s price range. He could buy one or have money to put in a wallet, but not both.
Last stop on our trip around the Dingle Peninsula was the Gallarus Oratory. The small stone structure dates from the 12th century. What impressed me was that this tiny church has stood for almost a millennia untouched by time. It will probably be just like this a millennia from now.
Our day trip around the Dingle Peninsula was very eventful. We are equally impressed with both peninsulas. It is hard to say which one is prettier. You will have to travel both to judge for yourself. Let us know!
We left Portmagee and continued our way around The Ring of Kerry.
There is so much to see along The Ring of Kerry that you end up stopping every few miles, which can make the trip a great family adventure, but a little tedious too. We, however, decided to just drive and enjoy the magnificent scenery as it went by and pass up some usual tourist stops. Ahead of us was another famous peninsula to explore. Mind the sheep crossing though!
The Dingle Peninsula is the next peninsula north of The Ring of Kerry. To get to it, we went through Moll’s Gap, which was the last place in Ireland to get electricity. Believe it or not, they didn’t get it until 1972! After the gap we traveled through Killarney National Park with Lough Leane and Muckross Lake, it is truly a national treasure. This was actually our second time through this area because we traveled the ring counter-clockwise. Seeing it again made it no less wonderful.
We headed for the small town of Dingle, where our next bed and breakfast awaited us. Devane’s BnB was wonderful! It is located on the main street right in the middle of Dingle. Our hosts were terrific. They made us feel at home right away. The room were neat and tidy and the home cooked breakfast was delicious. Bed and Breakfasts are the only way to truly experience Ireland!
Elijah and Mish went out to explore the town while I caught up on some much needed rest. All of the driving was getting me tired, so I decided to take a nap. After a while, Elijah and Mish came back from their reconnaissance of the area to report they had found a cool pub for dinner. I woke up hungry, so off we went!
The main reason for selecting The Dingle Pub wasn’t its name. It was for David Geaney. David is the five time world and current Irish dancing champion. He regularly performs in his family’s pub. Amazingly, he was quietly waiting and busing tables as we anxiously awaited for “the dancer” to come out. No one knew that the humble young waiter was THE dancer! You’re never too famous to work in your father’s place. I guess that is pay back for the years of dance lessons.
When he took the floor everyone stopped to watch in awe. His feet flew so fast you couldn’t even see them! He danced to live music and thunderous applause. It was quite the dinner show. After he did a set, he simply went back to waiting tables. Amazing!
Probably the most well-known and traveled road in Ireland is The Ring of Kerry.
This was our second time on it and we were just as excited as the first time. The first time we ventured around the ring we did the whole thing in one day, which was way too quickly. This time, we are taking three days. (FYI, drive the ring counter-clockwise to avoid getting stuck behind the tour buses, they have to drive it clock-wise.)
The first leg was the longest. We made for Portmagee on the very tip of the Iveragh Peninsula. This small town is about as west as you can go in Ireland. It sits way out into the North Atlantic Ocean on the rocky coast. We felt almost vulnerable being exposed on the treeless point. Luckily we found a wonderful bed and breakfast, Skellig View, within walking distance to the edge of the land.
The land ends dramatically in enormous cliffs that plummet over 200 feet to the crashing waves below. It looks like a gigantic sword sliced the peninsula off at its tip. Standing on the top of them was both exhilarating and terrifying. We felt very tiny and insignificant in comparison to the landscape.
We ventured around the area by car and found some cool sites and another chocolate factory! By now we have seen several stone forts, but they are still cool. Even though I have been to many chocolatier’s too, why miss one? So, off we went to see forts and chocolate. The forts were enormous Stone Age structures that have withstood time and the elements. Skelligs Chocolate Factory was much newer, but still amazing. They have free samples! I bought their Irish Whiskey Creme Truffles. Wow! They are amazing!
That afternoon, a violent storm raged in from the ocean. We hunkered down in our little cottage as the wind howled outside and the rain beat down on the roof. Despite being trapped inside, we were quite cozy and relaxed. We spent the night relaxing and reading. It was actually a very nice change of pace from all of the driving and walking. It felt very authentic Irish.
The next morning dawned windy, but clear. Off the coast we could clearly see the original Jedi Temple. Ok, it is not really, but it is the site in the Star Wars movies where Luke Skywalker goes to do Jedi stuff. The island is actually called Skellig Michael. It is one of only three World Heritage Sites in Ireland. It has been a revered holy place long before the Jedi. It is the home of the most western Christian Monastery in Europe. The monastery consists of several ancient stone beehive huts that are only accessible by boat and then climbing a long steep flight of uneven stone stairs to their high perch. The hour long crossing is rough, even in relatively calm weather, so we opted not to go. Besides, I’m a Trekkie anyway. Even from the mainland, however, the island is impressive. May the force be with you!
After an amazing hike in Gleninchaquin Park, we went for a scenic drive to rest our legs while still exploring Ireland on our family adventure!
Just across the Kenmare suspension bridge is the Sheen Valley. The heart of the valley is a small town called Bonane. We decided to make for it and see what was there. The drive, of course, was magnificent!
Along the way to Bonane we happened to stumble on a chocolate factory and shop! Benoit Lorge is an award winning chocolatier from Lorraine France who traveled the world making delicious treats before settling in Ireland. His shop is Lorge Chocolatier Handmade Chocolates on the Glengarriff Road. We had to stop in to sample his creations (I never turn down good chocolate.). We were not disappointed. His chocolates were exceptional! If you are in the area, stop by his place for sure.
Now that we were rewarded for our hike, we continued up the Sheen Valley. The next unexpected stop was the Bonane Heritage Park. This award winning park is an archeological treasure chest that was discovered only ten years ago. It showcases real archeological sites from the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages. It provides an incredible window into Ireland’s ancient past. As you stroll along the Druid Walk, you will see stone forts, astronomical sites, a famine house, and stone circles, all of which you can actually touch and learn about. We had a nice picnic lunch amid the ruins overlooking the valley.
We left the park and kept driving deeper into the valley. The road starts to climb steeply, but the views get better and better. Almost at the top, where the road passes over the Caha Mountains, is another surprise worth stopping for, Molly Gallivans. The legendary Molly apparently was, among other things, a bootlegger. She made illegal whiskey which she sold to locals and passerby’s to supplement her income. Today, her cottage and farm is open to tour so you can see what life was like in rural Ireland 200 years ago.
As usual, Elijah made friends with all of the farm animals. The enormous pig especially latched onto him (probably because he had carrots and bread). Even Mish found a friend. Once she fed him carrots he followed her around like a puppy, until he could not go anymore and brayed loudly in protest.
We went up and over the Caha Mountains and leisurely made our way back to Kenmare. The Sheen Valley is an amazing place to explore! There is a something for everyone. Mish got stone circles, Elijah got animals, and I got chocolate!