The beautiful country of Ireland should be on your bucket list as a place to visit for at least a couple of weeks.
The birthplace of Oscar Wilde, Richard Harris and Van Morrison is an excellent mix of beautiful green countryside, stunning coastline, and some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. After all, who could be unhappy in the land where Guinness roams free and St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated like nowhere else?
Before my family moved to the Cayman Islands in 1975, we lived in Dunmore East, County Waterford, for four years – a small fishing village on the southern coast. My friend, Lynne Firth, and I took a trip back to the Emerald Isle in October 2007 to revisit the land of my youth, and among one of our many stops was the town of Lisdoonvarna, coincidentally known for its matchmaking festival at that time of the year. Perhaps if we were lucky, we would return to Cayman with more than just a shamrock in tow.
The capital city of Ireland is chock-full of bars, restaurants and sights to see. Visiting the Temple Bar neighborhood is a must for its cobblestone streets, art galleries, and a slew of places where you can enjoy a freshly pulled pint. You can also wander the lovely grounds of Trinity College, watch a rugby match at Croke Park, and of course stop by the Guinness Storehouse – a top tourist attraction.
We went to the Guinness Storehouse when we were in Dublin, and after a tour of the brewery, we simply had to get a fresh, creamy pint of the stuff as we looked out from the Gravity Bar, which offers breathtaking 360-degree views of the city. I am reluctant to admit how much we spent on souvenirs in the shop. Suffice it to say that my luggage was bulging with key rings, beer mats, T-shirts, hats, slippers, playing cards and a cornucopia of other Guinness gear.
The Cobblestone Pub is a prime location for some brilliant live Irish music. It’s the genuine article, and if the locals head there (as they do), you know it’s worth checking out. There is nothing quite like sitting in a pub, listening to some great musicians with your toes tapping along. Make sure you put The Cobblestone on your list of things to do while you’re in Dublin.
Tips: If you’ve got the money, The Merrion Hotel is a great place to stay. Ideally located near many bars, restaurants, and the shopping on Grafton Street, this is a top TripAdvisor pick with fabulous amenities, including The Tethra Spa – an impressive oasis with a pretty stunning swimming pool. Slightly more budget-conscious travelers should consider Butlers Town House Hotel. It’s a 20-room boutique property that serves an amazing Irish breakfast in the mornings, and with a great location next to the Landsdowne Road station with only a couple of stops to the city center, it’s a terrific choice and a very warm, welcoming hotel.
The City of Galway sits on the west coast of Ireland and is famous for its oysters. A fascinating, bohemian city, Galway has a youthful vibe, thanks to its high percentage of students in the population, where live music and performers abound, and the people-watching is just as entertaining.
Don’t be surprised to hear Gaelic spoken in the streets, and try to book your trip to Galway around its famous Galway Oyster Festival, usually held in the last weekend of September. If you’re a fan of this slippery mollusk, you’ll eat your fill and then some before the festival is through.
The city is well located near some picturesque country. Hopefully you’ve rented a car, but even if you haven’t, make sure to get to Connemara National Park, preferably with your hiking shoes on. Some of the views will take your breath away, particularly from the top of Diamond Hill. This is one of these places that is impossible to do justice with mere description – you have to be there to breathe in the fresh air and simply appreciate it in all its glory. Dedicate a day to it; Connemara should not be a rushed stop.
Tips: We stayed at a great hotel in Galway City with some interesting history: Hotel Meyrick. It sits on Eyre Square, and is the oldest hotel in the city. It first opened its doors in 1852, and was originally known as the Railway Hotel. It is a grand edifice and worth the money if it’s in your budget.
The Aran Islands reside off the west coast of southern Ireland. There are three islands in total: Inis Mór (the largest); Inis Meáin; and Inis Oírr. You can catch a ferry from the Rossaveal port outside Galway City, and it takes about an hour each way to reach the islands. The wind can be particularly bracing in the cooler months, but if you’re not keen on sitting on the deck to get the full benefit of it, you can always sit inside.
The Aran Islands are well worth a visit. They feature a number of historically important and interesting sites, and unspoiled countryside with plots often separated by classic stone walls. The islanders speak Gaelic and English, and one of the best ways to get around is on a bicycle.
If you only have time to visit one of them, Inis Mór is a good choice with its breathtaking Dún Aonghasa Fort that stands over a 300-foot cliff looking out to the Atlantic Ocean.
When Lynne and I went to Inis Mór, we stayed at Árd Einne, a guest house that offered bicycle rentals. Although an enterprising pony-and-trap man tried to persuade us to take an island tour, we demurred once we heard the price. Besides, we were rather looking forward to cycling around. We took to the coastal road, and stopped to admire a colony of seals and pick wild blackberries before heading to the fort. It was a bit of a ride to Dún Aonghasa, with the final stretch only accessible by foot. The effort was worth it, though. The view from the fort was incredible, and as it was fairly late in the day, we were the only visitors there.
The rough part was the return journey on the bicycles. We weren’t seasoned riders, and the trip back started with a slow yet steady uphill portion of road that got so steep in parts, we had to get off and shuffle forward with the bikes until it flattened out a bit. It didn’t help that the sun was rapidly going down and that Inis Mór has a limited number of street lights.
Despite the fact that we were exhausted by the time we got back to the guest house, we wouldn’t have missed the experience for anything. If you get the chance, you really must go to the Aran Islands. Just give yourself more time than we did so you’re not riding back at night and you can tackle gradients at your leisure.
Tips: We really enjoyed our stay at Árd Einne, so I would recommend booking there. You must also browse the Aran Sweater Market, where you can buy authentic Aran sweaters and goods.
Lisdoonvarna in County Clare is a spa town of less than 1,000 people, known for its music and festivals, and well located for a visit to the famous Cliffs of Moher. What it is probably best known for, however, is its annual matchmaking festival, held every September. Single hopefuls of all ages descend on the town for dancing, drinking and maybe some romance.
Lynne and I went to the festival when we were on this trip to Ireland, and it was an extraordinary experience. People nearly twice our age were dancing from dawn ‘til dusk as we dragged ourselves to our hotel room to bed.
One of the highlights of being in Lisdoonvarna for the matchmaking festival was meeting fourth generation matchmaker Willie Daly, who carried what appeared to be a very disorganized folder crammed full of singles’ pertinent information. The man is a great character with lots of stories to tell. Try to chat to him when you go.
We didn’t leave the town with husbands, but we certainly improved our dancing skills.
Tips: Stay at the Hydro Hotel. It’s a great location for the festival and is the venue for many of the events scheduled in that month. Do take a drive to the Cliffs of Moher; they are an amazing sight and only 15 minutes away.
We drove around the Dingle Peninsula, and stayed in Dingle overnight after taking Conor Pass – the highest mountain pass in Ireland, offering wonderful vistas of the peninsula. Farther south is the Ring of Kerry, known for its incredibly beautiful landscape, which alas we couldn’t fit into this trip.
The Dingle Peninsula is stunning, with the kind of views that have you gazing in wonder. There are boat tours in the harbor of Dingle, where you are guaranteed to see Fungie, the dolphin that made the harbor its home many years ago. No one knows why he went there and decided to stay, but there is no doubt that he has created a good deal of revenue for that town since he first arrived in 1983.
In the evening, head to one of the pubs where if you’re lucky, you’ll hear some fantastic live music being played.
Tips: A great place to stay is the Dingle Skellig Hotel. It has a full spa in-house, and overlooks the water. If you’re planning to tie the knot in Ireland (maybe after you’ve met your mate in Lisdoonvarna), this is a good venue to consider.
I haven’t touched on so many places that you should see when you go, including the Ring of Kerry, The Burren, Waterford and its world-famous crystal factory, and of course Northern Ireland, with its extraordinary castles, tours of The Crumlin Road Gaol, bustling Belfast City, the Giant’s Causeway, and, for fans of the series, tours of the Game of Thrones filming locations.
Ireland is a fascinating, vibrant, beautiful country that everyone should visit at least once in a lifetime, if for nothing but the craic.