Northern Ireland

Our next stop was the seaside resort of Portrush in Northern Ireland. As we crossed the border from Ireland into Northern Ireland (UK), the speed limit signs changed from kilometers per hour to miles per hour.  I must have missed that in the guide books :o! So, I was frantically googling to confirm my guess as my husband drove.  To make things more fun, our rental car only displayed kph, but fortunately our Garmin displayed speed limits in kph.

We stayed at the Adelphi Portrush .  The Adelphi does not have a car park and guests are left to their own devices to find a spot somewhere in town — no small feat on a sunny weekend in August!  My husband dropped me at the curb and I ran in to enquire at the front desk.  It was suggested that we try an area a couple of blocks away.  After two circles of the block, we were successful in finding a parking spot, and then had to haul our luggage a couple of blocks through crowded sidewalks to the hotel.  In retrospect, we should have dropped off our luggage before looking for parking.

After settling in to the hotel, we drove to the nearby Bushmills Distillery and took the informative tour of the facility.  It was interesting to learn how Irish whiskey is  IMG_1941   made.  The tour ended with a tasting, but we passed on the drinks since we were driving.  We headed back to the hotel for dinner. My husband enjoyed the fish and chips, which were nice and crispy and a generous portion.  I loved the salmon (are you sensing a theme here?) — perfectly cooked and served with a mustard glaze, haricots verts and new potatoes.  Delicious!

The hotel was on the “basic” side, but clean and our room was huge!  It consisted of a living area with a love seat, small table and chairs and a desk. The king sized bed, armoire and dresser were in a separate room connected by an open archway.  The decor was dated and there was a large stain on the carpet in the living area as though a previous guest had spilled his coffee.  The bed was comfortable, but the pillows were thin, solid foam and not very comfortable.  We also had dinner at the hotel restaurant.  Breakfast the next morning was included.  My husband had the full Irish.  The eggs were perfectly cooked, but the sausage was fatty.  The toasted soda bread was delicious!!  I enjoyed the scrambled eggs, which were perfectly cooked — light and fluffy.

After breakfast, we visited the Giant’s Causeway. The Giant’s Causeway is an area of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, formed around 50 million years area IMG_1955as the result of an ancient volcanic eruption. There are trails, but most tourists go off trails walking across the columns.  This does make it difficult at times to enjoy the views and to take photographs.  Do allow plenty of time to enjoy the trails and see the many, varied formations. We walked out to the Organ and then climbed The Shepherd’s Stairs. We had great weather for most of the day, with cold rain showers coming at the worst possible time — as we were climbing the stairs!  We browsed for souvenirs at the Visitor Centre and purchased an adorable clay sheep.

In the afternoon, we visited the ruins of Dunluce Castle perched on the edge of a cliff on the Antrim coast.  The first castle on this site was built in the 13th century.IMG_1923  The Clan McDonnell won the castle in the mid-16th century and made it their home for 150 years. It’s amazing to consider in this age of disposable everything,  that these walls have stood the test of centuries of wind and water.

Next, we’re off to Dublin …

Ancient Burial Grounds and a Day at the Beach

From Westport, we headed northeast to County Sligo to visit Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery, one of four major passage tomb complexes in Ireland.  This site is not b=to be missed!  It consists of approximately 60 remaining stone circles and passage tombs.  It is believed that there were originally as many as 200 stone circles. On the main site, IMG_1883Tomb 52A is estimated to be 7,400 years old.  It is truly awe-inspiring to see the amazing tombs and speculate on how they were built centuries before machinery was available.   I would recommend allowing at least an hour to explore the site. We were lucky to enjoy beautiful blue skies when we visited! As an added bonus, there is also a fun geocache an easy walk away.

Before our trip, I enjoyed reading “The Princes of Ireland” by Edward Rutherford. It really gave me a sense of the history of this ancient country, and made the history of sites such as this all the more real!

Our next stop was the seaside town of Rossnowlaugh Beach, between Ballyshannon and Donegal. We stayed at the Sandhouse Hotel, a lovely resort hotel. Our GPS took as the most direct route, as the crow flies, which meant navigating a narrow, twisting one lane road.  Of course, the speed limit was 80 kph! And of course, we met another car.  Fortunately, she quickly backed to the closest pullout to allow us to pass.  I am sure that she recognized that was the quickest way to solve the impasse!

We were fortunate to arrive on a warm and sunny day.  We were told that it was the first real day of summer in western Ireland.  The beach was crowded with surfers and families enjoying the lovely day.  The water was quite chilly by my standards, but the surfers didn’t seem to mind.  We enjoyed a stroll along thIMG_1918e beach and tried unsuccessfully to find a nearby geocache.  Several cars were parked right on the beach and it was funny to watch them scurry to leave as the tide came in.

Our room was huge, with a double and a twin, and a separate seating area with a love seat and chairs.  We were on the third floor and had a breathtaking view of the Atlantic.  The ensuite bath was also very large, with both a tub and a separate shower.  We had dinner that evening at the hotel restaurant. I was initially concerned because the restaurant was almost empty — only one other table had guests. We were pleasantly surprised. I selected two starters: goat cheese wrapped in leek atop a crouton, and a fish cake with lime sweet chili sauce over a bed of greens. My husband enjoyed the crusted supreme of chicken with sautéed mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, grilled prosciutto and melted Brie. It was served with buttered potatoes and steamed cauliflower and broccoli medley. All of the food was excellent! Breakfast the next morning was included and was a good “full Irish” breakfast.

Tomorrow, we’re off to Northern Ireland!

My Irish Roots

My family emigrated from County Mayo around 1850, during the Great Famine.  Impoverished and illiterate, they were likely tenant farmers evicted and put on a ship to America. Unsure whether they came together, separately or alone, I’ve searched countless manifests for the names of my ancestors, Michael Frain and Catherine Holden, but have never been successful in pinning down a definite match. Still, I was proud to return to the land of my ancestors and hope that they were smiling down on me!

The Quiet Man
Our first stop in Mayo was Cong, the location for the filming of the 1951 film The Quiet Man. It’s a small town and on this pleasant August day, the tourists outnumbered the residents.  It’s a lovely little town and we enjoyed a stroll through the town, visiting scenes from the movie as well as the ruins of the abbey.  As we wandered down a country lane leading out of the town, I wondered if my ancestors walked this same lane 160 years ago.

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We continued our journey north to Westport, where we stayed at The Wyatt.  Parking was a bit of a challenge as the carpark (located down an alley behind the hotel) was full.  We were instructed to park a short block away at the grocery store.  We arrived on the dot of 3, the check-in time, but were informed that our room was not yet ready.  We were told that the room would be ready in 5 minutes, so we made ourselves comfortable to wait, and wait … and wait.  The 5 minutes turned out to be an hour.  Had we initially been told that the wait was an hour, we would have gone for a walk to explore the town.  Our “superior room” was large and comfy.  I would recommend requesting a room away from the street, as the traduce woke us earlier than we would have liked.  The room included breakfast, which was a buffet of cold cereals, eggs (undercooked and runny), bacon, sausage, potatoes, delicious mushrooms, grilled tomatoes (also excellent) and assorted breads.  The hotel is conveniently located in the center of town, which offers lot of fun shopping opportunities.

After settling in, we took a stroll around the lovely town, browsing at several shops before purchasing my Claddagh at James Murtagh Jewellers.  The Claddagh ring (Irish: fáinne Chladaigh) is a traditional Irish ring given which represents love, loyalty, and friendship (the hands represent friendship, the heart represents love, and the crown represents loyalty). The Claddagh ring originates in its namesake town of Claddagh, County Galway.  I chose to buy my ring in Country Mayo, to have a souvenir from the county of my ancestors. The staff James Murtagh Jewellers was extremely helpful, explaining the different options, thicknesses, etc. Our sales woman also provided us with a card for VAT and explained the process.Westport

Our shopping mission a success, we headed back to the hotel for dinner at JW’s Brasserie.    The host asked whether we had a reservation, and despite the many empty tables, was quite dismissive (almost rude) when we responded that we did not. The wait was surprisingly short and the dinner very good.  My husband enjoyed the bangers and mash.  The portion was very large — 3 sausages.  I had the herb-crusted salmon with a lemon cream wine sauce, served with mashed potatoes.  The salmon was excellent!

Our stay in Mayo was too short.  I hope to return someday and perhaps to find the town that Michael and Catherine left so many years ago with hopes for a better future.  I feel so blessed that they found that future for the future generations!

Clare and Galway

The Cliffs of Moher in County Clare are not to be missed! The cliffs rise to a dramatic height of 214 meters above the turbulent seas.  August is peak tourist season and the cliffside trails were packed, sometimes requiring us to wait a narrow points to pass people walking in the other direction.  Still, it was worth the O'Brien's Towerjostle of the crowds to enjoy the splendid vistas. We were fortunate to visit on a clear day when the Aran Islands were visible offshore.  For better views, visitors can climb O’Brien’s Tower, an observation tower built in 1835.  We stopped at the visitors center, which provides much interesting information on the geography of the area before continuing our journey north towards Galway.

We stayed at the Glenlo Abbey Hotel, a converted 18th century abbey, approximately 3 miles outside of the city center.  Rooms are large with comfortable king-size beds. The property itself is beautiful with views of Loch Corrib across the golf course.  We walked into town to visit the Spanish Gate which was built in 1584 and comprised part of the city walls.  We continued to the stately cathedral, where we were disappointed to learn that it is only 50 years old!  We did a bit of window shopping, before catching a cab back to the hotel in time for dinner in the charming hotel bar. The Oak Cellar Bar served as the abbey kitchen and dates back to 1740. The bartenGalway Hookerder recommend a local brew, Galway Hooker, a tasty pale ale that we both enjoyed.  No, it is not named for ladies of the evening!  A Galway Hooker is a type of fishing boat designed to navigate the strong seas of Galway bay and is picture on the label. For dinner, my husband, Adam, ordered the fish and chips over crushed peas.  Adam (admittedly not a huge pea fan to begin with) hated the crushed peas, but I loved them!  We both agreed that the fish and twice-fried chips were excellent.  I had the Galway Goat Farm Cheese — crispy goat cheese croquettes (yummy!), heritage beetroot risotto with pickled beets and hazelnuts.  The risotto was a very generous portion and delicious, but a bit thicker than I am accustomed to.  The cubes of pickled beet and thinly sliced yellow beets were wonderful.

Next, we’re off to County Mayo, the home of my Irish ancestors!

Ring of Kerry

We were advised by the helpful staff at Ard Na Sidhe to start our drive around the Ring of Kerry late morning to allow the tour buses a head start, and to drive the route counter-clockwise (or as they say here “anti-clockwise”) so that we would be driving in the same direction as the busses.  Don’t worry — you won’t want to pass them! 😉 Stop along the way to enjoy the views of Dingle Bay as you head south. IMG_0542The scenery is as varied as it is beautiful — cliffs, mountain, lakes and Dingle Bay leading to the Atlantic Ocean.  As anywhere that you travel in Ireland be prepared for rain. It sprinkled off and on for most of the day for us — what the Irish call a “soft” day. Driving around the southern tip of the peninsula, we encountered heavy fog, reducing visibility to about 100′ (as if driving the winding road was not enough of a challenge). The blanket of fog rendered the landscape eerily beautiful!

Drive at a speed at which you are comfortable and use the pull-offs to allow the occasional local to pass; remember that there are a lot of tourists who are also unfamiliar with the roads.

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We stopped for a late lunch in Kenmore.  Many restaurants (all of those recommended in our guidebook) were closed on Sunday.  We ate at Ristorante Bella Vita.  The curried carrot and parsnip soup was perfectly spiced, which and filling — just the thing for a chilly day.  It was served with more of the tasty Irish brown bread and scrumptious butter.  My husband had the steak panini with chips.  The portions were very generous.

After lunch, we visited the Druid Circle.  There is an “honor box” to collect the 2 euro admission to the site, which is just a short walk from the town.  It’s an IMG_1824interesting site that should be part of your visit.

Before continuing on, we shopped at Quill Woolens.  They have an excellent selection of quality knitwear.  The staff is knowledgeable and helpful. I purchased a lovely hand knit Aran sweater for the incredibly reasonable price of 69 euros. I am a knitter, so I have a good idea of the hours of work and the skill level required to produce each unique sweater. There were dozens of patterns with every imaginable cable and stick, some that I had never seen. Because they are handmade, the actual sizes vary. I tried on several to find the perfect fit and sleeve length.  My husband purchased an Irish tweed cap.

Our purchases in hand, we continued north through the Killarney National Forest.  Allow plenty of time here to stop to enjoy the amazing vistas.  Don’t miss the “Lady’s View” stop for a gorgeous view of the lakes of Kerry.

Hill of Fairies

Ard Na Sidhe Country House – “Hill of the Fairies” is an absolutely lovely country home, built in 1913 on the shore of Caragh Lake (Loch Carthai) near Killorglin in Country Kerry.  The home and gardens are gorgeous, the views spectacular, the staff welcoming and the service attentive.  You’re made to feel like a welcome guest at the home of a friend.  We stayed in room #5, which was very spacious and nicely decorated.  The bath was modern and the shower powerful!  Although we visitedIMG_1806 during August, we loved the heated bathroom floors.  The lounge is large and comfortable, perfect for relaxing, playing games or quiet conversation.  We enjoyed chatting with other guests and sharing recommendations of places to visit.

We enjoyed tea served in the lounge one blustery afternoon after a hike up Glannagilliagh, but more on the hike later.  My husband and I shared an order of tea, which consisted of three sandwiches: smoked salmon on brown bread with cucumber, a curry spread with roasted tomatoes also on brown bread, and ham and a delicious cheddar with roasted tomato spread.  The open-faced sandwiches were larger than what I have been served for tea in the States, and were sufficient for the two of us to share for lunch.  The tea also included two warm scones with that delicious Irish butter, clotted cream, and a lovely strawberry preserve.  To finish the tea, there was a wonderful selection of sweets — clotted cream and strawberries on sweet biscuits, an amazing cheesecake bite topped with raspberry jam, a rich chocolate cake and my personal favorite — delicious chocolate mousse on graham cracker crust.

Tea Table

Dinner is served in two adjacent dining rooms.  Our favorite was the Gratin of Cod with Prawns, Mozzarella and Crab served with Saffron Orzo and Tomato and Caper Pesto.  My husband ordered it the first night. I tried a bite and liked it so much that I had to order it the second night.  I know that cheese and fish is Gratin of Codsupposed to be a no-no, but it was a happy pairing.  I also enjoyed the Pan-fried Monkfish with a Mild Curry Sauce served with Sautéed Asparagus and Creamy Coconut and Coriander Rice.  I loved the combination of the curry, coconut an coriander and the fish was perfect!  The second night my husband had the Filet of Prime Local Beef with a Gorgonzola Crust Topped with Onion Rings over Gratin Potatoes and a Baby Onion Jus.  The gorgonzola was the perfect topping for the tender steak and the onion rings were perfectly crispy.  We also shared a dessert each night.  I loved the tart, yet sweet Lemon Tart with Fresh Raspberries and Raspberry Sorbet.  My husband is a cheese-lover and choose the Selection of Irish Farmhouse Cheese with Homemade Apple Chutney and Oat Biscuits.  The cheeses were a bleu, a brie and an Irish cheddar (of course!)

Breakfasts included a buffet selection of fruits and breads and hot items cooked to order.  The oatmeal was steel-cut oats served with honey and yummy.  I have always loved oatmeal, and for me, this was comfort food at its best!  The omelet was delicious and perfectly cooked, with a choice of fillings.

In an attempt to walk-off some of the delectable food, we visited the nearby Caragh Lake Recreation Area.  We hiked about 3 1/2 miles up to the top of Glannagilliagh to enjoy the spectacular views of the lake, Dingle Bay and Seefin Mountain. It was a great hike, and as an added bonus, there is a geocache in the area.

View

We stayed two nights and I really wished that we had stayed longer.  I will definitely return one day and would plan to stay three or four nights!

Blarney Castle

Yes, it’s “touristy” and for that reason, we almost skipped it.  But, how do you travel almost 5000 miles and not visit Blarney Castle?  I am so very glad that we included it in our itinerary!  The grounds are absolutely gorgeous!  Lovely gardens Gardens at Blarney Castle— the Poison Garden, the Irish Garden, the Stone Close and the Bog Garden — I could spend the entire day exploring.  The Stone Close contains a Druid’s Circle of stones and a very interesting stone shaped like a witch’s profile.  There are several trails that make for a pleasant walk, ranging from 20 minutes to an hour and a half.

Of course the main attraction is the Castle itself, and the famous Blarney Stone.  To reach the stone, one must climb an old, steep spiral stone staircase.  I have a  fear of heights, so the climb was a bit scary, but I am so glad that I did it. It’s quite the climb (I lost count of the steps), but the view from the battlements is worth the climb.  To kiss the stone, you must lay on your back and lean backwards while holding on to iron bars. Best to tip the gentleman who holds your legs before you kiss the stone. A photograph of the kiss can be purchased in the gift shop. I am still waiting for the gift of gab to kick in, so for now the photo is my only proof!  😉

Kissing the Stone