Monday, January 25, 2021

Ireland Road Trip: County Mayo

Trip date: September 2019

I had been on my own for 14 days, but now I was leaving Galway to drive to Westport and meet up with Forest and Nicola. I was beyond excited!

It was just a 1 ½ hour drive to Westport, and the girls' train wasn't arriving until late afternoon, so I decided to stop at the famous Ashford Castle on the way. It was raining pretty hard when I pulled up to the main gates and when I inquired about having lunch at the casual restaurant on the grounds I was told they were only open Friday and Saturday; it was Monday. 

So thinking maybe the rain would let up I drove to the nearby town of Cong and had some excellent fish and chips at Pat Cohan's Bar aka The Quiet Man pub. The movie was filmed here and in other parts of the area so it's quite famous. 

The rain hadn't let up but I still thought I would take a stroll around the Castle grounds and get some good photos. When I came back to Ashford's main gate the guard did not think me paying €15 to walk around in the pouring rain was such a great idea, so he kindly let me in without the fee. I parked in the cafe/gift shop parking area and walked to the pedestrian bridge.

He was right, it was nice to get up semi-close to the castle but unless you are a registered guest you can't enter the building, and paying to walk to the other side of the bridge, where the view of the castle wasn't even as good, was a waste of money. 

In Westport I checked into the very large Westport Woods Hotel. This sprawling hotel is like a conference center so there were a few tour groups. We had a large triple room and our breakfast was included in the price. 
Having set up the girl's pillows with a few little treats, I went into town and had a pint at the very well known Matt Molloy's Pub. Matt Molloy plays flute in the famous Irish band The Chieftains and still is known to play in his pub. It's a bit of a pilgrimage and I was happy to sit in front of the fireplace and listen to some Irish men from Cork sing acapella in the afternoon, just so they could say they had.

It was still pouring rain when the girl's train arrived so we decided to head back to the hotel and have a fun catch up at the bar there. So great to see them!

The next morning the weather was gorgeous so after breakfast we set out to meet a friend of Nic's at Croagh Patrick. We explored the park across the street while we waited for him, there is a very moving Famine Memorial sculpture of a ghost ship and also a small abandoned abby. 

Back across the street we started up the holy mountain that is a famous pilgrimage for many. At 2500 feet elevation and about an 3 ½ hour climb none of us were interested in trying for the peak. But the views of the sea and the village of Murrisk from the trail were lovely. 
It is said that Saint Patrick fasted for forty days on the summit of the mountain in 441 AD. We went to lunch after at The Helm! This was a good casual spot for seafood right on the water. 

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around Westport; it's a really cute town and very small. Super easy to walk around; it was the first planned town in Ireland!
That evening we headed to Matt Molloy's, I was more than happy to hang out there again. There were lots of locals listening to the music, the bar actually has a large back venue so there were two bands going. And Nicola even sang along with the band to one song! It was a very fun evening!

We checked out of the hotel after breakfast the next morning and stopped at the small town of Castlebar for a short hike around the lake. There are excellent views of Croagh Patrick and some interesting art installations here.

30-minutes later we arrived at Belleek Castle for lunch, which was excellent. Although we weren't able to do a tour of the castle (tours were at 10:30, noon, 2 & 4pm) we learned that it had been a private residence for many years, a hospital, abandoned, and finally a hotel. 

In the cafe I had a great quiche and salad. The grounds are beautiful and I just wish we would have had time to take a nice walk through their woods. But we had to get back in the car as we were heading farther north to Sligo!

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Aran Islands Day Trip

Trip date: September 2019

I had emailed my hotel the Park House before arriving in Galway, to arrange a ticket on the ferry to the Inishmore. They had kindly let me know that it is best to book the day before as to know better what the weather will be like. The ferry goes daily but being out on the islands in a rainstorm would not be a pleasant way to spend a day.

Luckily the torrential rain I encountered on my first night in Galway lifted and I woke up to partly cloudy but dry skies. After breakfast I had a short walk to pick up my ticket at the Aran Island Ferries office and then on to the bus stop. My €50 ticket included the 1-hour each way bus ride out to the ferry in Rossaveel and the 40-minute each way ferry crossing.

The main town on the island of Inis Mór, Cill Rónáin, has just about 300 residents. It's here that you decide how you want to get around the island and see the sights. You've got three choices; rent a bike, hire a horse and cart (which is how residents use to get around the island), or pay for a seat in a minivan (which are used as taxis after the tourists leave). 

I chose the minivan for €15. There were 3 other passengers and our driver Tommy took us around while sharing information about the island with us. He is a local who is a retired fisherman and had a lot of great stories and information. All the van drivers charge the same price so you can just go with whichever color car you like best!

Our first stop was Dún Eochla, the stone ringfort that sits on the 300+ foot high cliffs of the island. It's a pretty hike up to the fort and once there you have some awesome views! 

The fort is thought to have been built around 600 AD, but no one knows for sure. There's a series of stone walls, the interior walls are about 16 feet tall and 9 feet thick! 

The fort is also protected on one side by a fence of ragged stones. It's all pretty incredible! We spent about an hour here which was plenty of time to explore and take in the views.

We had a quick lunch at the cafe near the base of the fort in the village of Cill Mhuirbhigh. The cafe had a really nice selection of sandwiches, quiche, etc. and the sun was out making it perfect to sit outside and enjoy.

Back in the van we drove farther along the island. The scenery is so pretty, I had a front row seat again, and it was interesting to listen to Tommy tell us a bit about the three Aran Islands. There are about 1200 people total that live on the islands; Inishmore is the largest and about 7 ½ miles long. 

The islands are limestone and most areas have no natural topsoil; seaweed and sand were used to replicate when needed. The single story cottages with thatched roofs are typical, though many now prefer more modern roofs, and people work harvesting seaweed, fishing, and knitting. Aran wool sweaters are famous and very expensive. And of course all residents speak Irish (and most also English).

At the Seven Churches, Tommy pointed out the various ruins of this, one of the earliest, monastic sites. Pilgrimages here have been going on since the 7th or 8th century. The graveyard is the burial ground of both saints and locals.

Our last stop was to one of the beaches where a seal colony usually resides, unfortunately there was only one hanging out when we were there. There are quite a few sites we didn't make it to in our 3-hour tour, but it was nice not to rush around. We also passed a couple of bicycle riders and I have to say I would not want to do that! The roads are very narrow and most are quite rough. Even Tommy said he thinks it is dangerous.

As it was warm and sunny, I had Tommy drop me off at Joe Wattys bar, which is just a short walk from the main town, and had a pint of Guinness outside on their patio.

It was such a gorgeous day and I was so happy to have been able to see some of these incredible medieval sites. I wandered back to the pier where I caught the 4pm ferry and sat upstairs in the open air.


All photos from Aran Islands here.

Other posts from this trip:

Country Count #50: Ireland

Out and About in Dublin Town

Michelin Stars and Cocktail Bars in Dublin

24 Hours in Belfast

Ireland Road Trip: County Kilkenny

Ireland Road Trip: County Cork

Ireland Road Trip: Kenmare and the Ring of Kerry

Ireland Road Trip: Dingle Town

Dingle Peninsula Archeology Tour

Ireland Road Trip: Cliffs of Moher and Galway

Ireland Road Trip: County Mayo

Ireland Road Trip: End of the Road; Sligo to Dublin

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Ireland Road Trip: Cliffs of Moher and Galway

 Trip date: September 2019

After 3 nights in Dingle it was time to get back out on the road. I had a great mini full-Irish breakfast in the Dingle Benners Hotel before checking out and getting back on the Wild Atlantic Way. It had been nice to have a few days without driving especially as this day was going to be a big one. 

By the time I got to Galway I'd have driven 145 windy North Atlantic Ocean hugging miles. Not really that far but with my planned stops it would take over 7 hours. You can drive directly from Dingle to Galway in about 3 hours, but what fun is that? Also I would be stopping at the Cliffs of Moher and was very excited!

I left Dingle and headed to Tarbet where I queued up for the car ferry across to Quilty. As I got out of my car to take some pictures of the approaching ferry a man told me about the old lighthouse that can only be seen if you head out to the very end of the dock; he assured me I had time before boarding and I did.

It's a quick ferry crossing and the weather was dry but it still took about 3 hours to get to Quilty. I stopped for lunch at Cooney's Pub and had an excellent seafood chowder and small beer. 

In 30 minutes I was at the famous Cliffs of Moher. It was strange driving up and into the large parking lot, you can't see the ocean or any part of the cliffs. But then you follow the walkway and bam! 

Even in the cloudy weather the cliffs are dramatic and beautiful! I spent some time walking both sides of the semicircle, taking in the views. As with any tourist site I also saw people being totally crazy, like this wedding couple who let their photographer perch them on the edge for a dramatic shot! 

The people you can see in the above photo, far in the distance, are hiking a "forbidden" trail that is crumbling down the cliffs. I even saw people scoot themselves down the cliffs a bit for a better picture! I stuck to the paved trail!

On the way out I stopped into the visitor's center and had a quick look at the exhibitions. It had started to rain so my timing was good! There's no charge to visit the cliffs or the center but you do pay a couple of Euro to park your car.

I had another 45 minute drive until I arrived in Burren. Multiple friends had recommended the Burren Smokehouse for delicious smoked salmon and cheese, and they were spot on! I was lucky that I got there right before closing. 

It was getting late now and I still had almost an hour before arriving in Galway. But when I passed gorgeous ruins like the Muckinish Tower House I just had to stop for a few photos.

It was dusk and raining when I finally arrived in Galway. After being in such quaint small towns I was a little shocked by the traffic! The city only has a population of 80k, but compared to the 2k in Dingle... I'm sure you can imagine!

I had used Alaska Airlines miles for my stay at the 4 star Park House Hotel, which is very central and also has parking. It took some time to actually find their connected lot, hidden down an ally, but much better than having to try to find parking in the city. 

My room was big but was in desperate need of a renovation! There was a "safety" light that remained illuminated all night right by the door to the hall. I figured out how to cover it with a trash can or I wouldn't have slept at all. The hotel is large and old and seemed to cater to a lot of tour groups. Not necessarily a bad thing, just an observation.

They did have a big, busy bar and after a full day of driving I was ready for a martini!

That evening I had reservations at Michelin 1-star Aniar Restaurant which had been recommended by a few of my friends. I was excited, and hungry! I walked over in the pouring rain and was very happy to give up my wet jacket and settle into to the cozy restaurant.

Aniar offers a tasting menu of dishes primarily from local producers, farmers, or the wild. The multi-coursed menu was €75 and I also had the wine pairings for €35. 

Dinner started with small bites, served together on a tray with stones, hay, and a warm towel (not to be eaten). Crab with lovage, beetroot with rose, potato with parsley, kelp with sea radish. All were delicious and perfect for settling in with a glass of Txakoli. 

The potato bread arrived along with some glorious butter and a poem. Now that is a first! They also sent me home with a recipe for the bread. Next came three more small courses paired with a lovely Loire muscadet. 
My main of monk fish and turnip was so beautiful (and perfectly cooked) and was served with a gorgeous Roussanne from the very talented winemaker Eric Texier. Stunning pairing.

Two small desserts, both with fresh fruits, ended the meal. I was especially impressed with the singular slice of absolutely delicious melon and another solid pairing with a Zantho Beerenauslese, a dessert wine from Austria. 

Throughout dinner there was a son and his mom at the table next me; as they were obviously American and this sweet little restaurant isn't on everyone's radar, I asked how they came to choose it. The son responded that his friend Sconz had suggested it. I asked if his friend was Doc John Sconz and we both laughed when he said it was! John is a friend of mine who I did an amazing Spanish food & wine trip with a few years ago. Turns out he had met John on his Bourbon trip. Such a small world!

Breakfast the next day was included in my Park House Hotel rate, a pretty good spread of breads, pastries, yogurts, etc to go along with whatever you ordered from the hot menu. 

Thank goodness the weather cleared a bit so I could walk around Galway with being completely soaked. I had a day-trip to the Aran Islands planned for the day (more on that later) but was back in time to stroll around the area between Eyre Square and the Spanish Arch. This area is filled with pubs and restaurants. But it was also Sunday so my picks for a good dinner were scarce. I finally ended up at The Quays, a very well known and popular pub and restaurant. I had a very meh meal of some oysters and a chowder, and although I had planned to stay for the band, they were playing American rock which I can get at home. So I set off in search of something more traditional.

I walked past Tigh Chóilí and decided to stop in, it was packed! The music was good but it was just so packed I could hardly move! I had a nice chat with a local guy, listened to a few songs, had a couple of pints of Guinness, and after 2 hours decided to head back to the hotel to wash my hair. It's a girl thing :)

I found a great gourmet market the next day while shopping around, called McCambridges, and stocked up on some more smoked salmon (Barron Smokehouse is carried by them), cheese, some gin, etc. I had a 1 ½ hour drive to Westport where I would be meeting up with Forest and Nicky!

I'm not sure if it was the weather, or the college town vibe, but Galway was just ok for me. I much preferred the smaller towns of Dingle and Kinsale for music and pub culture. 

All photos of the Cliffs of Moher and Galway here.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Dingle Peninsula Archeology Tour

Trip date: Sept 2019

On my second morning in Dingle, I was picked up outside my hotel for a 2 ½ hour archaeology tour with Michael from Sciúird Archaeological Tours. As I was traveling solo, Michael invited me to sit up front which was so great! Best seat in the house for sure, and it was a nice change to be able to look around instead of keeping my eyes on the road!
The tour cost €30 and was incredibly informational; Michael and his father, who own the company, are both archeologists and locals.There are so many interesting and mysterious sights in Ireland, 2500 archaeological sites just in the Dingle area alone, it was great having an expert to explain things! 

Our first stop was to see and learn about various Ogham stones which had been collected from around the area by Lord Ventry and put on display at his estate. These stones, as I had learned and seen on my own explorations, were early message boards of a sort.
From here we drove along the Slea Head Route, past the town of Dún Chaoin Gaeltacht where Dolores O’Riordan's large mansion stands, to check out the 1000 year old beehive dwelling structures that are on the land of a local goat farm. The structures have been rebuilt making it safe to enter and explore.
There's no mortar, just intricately stacked stones. One even had a secret underground storage type area. These dwellings are so small, it's hard to image a family living inside them!

The farm also had some adorable baby goats which were just an added bonus!
I was so happy not to be driving! There were quite a few big tour buses on the narrow windy road, and after having had a big drive the day before it was super relaxing to just take in the scenery!
We stopped for views of the Blasket Islands and learned about the 175 people who lived on these now uninhabited rocks. The government evacuated the islanders in 1953 for their own safety as during extreme weather they were completely cut off from the mainland. 

At the Reask Monastic site we learned a bit about the stone slab and the small monastery built there in the 6th century. It was a little funny to also see the grounds care person riding his lawnmower around the medieval site!

Our last stop of the day was to the Gallarus Oratory, a 9th century chapel seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Again, no mortar, just stacks and stacks of rocks creating the wall and domed roof.

We were back in Dingle right about 2pm, plenty of time for a late lunch and to explore town. 

I highly recommend booking with this company as the tour was fantastic! Also I was able to get in because of a last minute cancellation but I would suggest booking a month or so in advance.  

All photos from the Dingle Peninsula and County Kerry here.

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