For these reasons and a host of others, Ireland is one of the top travel destinations for Americans. If you haven’t visited the Emerald Isle (the old saying that there are a thousand shades of green in Ireland is pretty much true) or you just want to relive your memories there, hopefully this article will motivate you to make travel arrangements soon.
First off, let’s get rid of some of the myths about the country. It doesn’t always rain. While most days there will usually be some sort of precipitation, the steady, all day long rainstorms found across much of the U.S. are actually quite rare there. More common is a pattern of sunshine, followed by partly cloudy, cloudier, mizzle (an Irish term for a mix of mist and drizzle), rain, back to partly cloudy, and then repeat. Believe it or not, I’ve actually come back from trips to Ireland with a sunburn.
While many people who haven’t been there equate the quality of Irish food with that of England, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. In England, if you order pub grub, your first choice is to decide whether to eat it or to shoot it. By contrast, even in the small, out of the way places in Ireland, the food will be satisfying and many restaurants around the country rival some of the best on the planet. One reason for this is the freshness of the ingredients. The lamb you drove past that morning could very well end up on your dinner plate.
While Northern Ireland is still part of the United Kingdom and tensions between Catholics and Protestants remain, the six counties that comprise that part of the country are much calmer than in the past and should be considered in your travel plans. Keep in mind, however, that the Republic uses the euro while the British pound is still the currency of the North. While the Irish are warm and welcoming, they don’t have much tolerance for anyone who puts on airs or treats them like they’re always drunk or blurting out silly idioms like, “faith and begorrah”. Lastly, like most other places on earth, running around with a fanny pack, cargo shorts, a gimme cap, and flip flops isn’t going to get you anywhere.
Outside of Dublin, Cork, Belfast and Galway, most of Ireland is very rural and exceptionally scenic. Small towns and villages are interspersed between picturesque fields and pastures. The coastline varies from pristine beaches to rugged cliffs overlooking the ocean. I’d strongly recommend that you consider a self-drive vacation, as it’s the best way to see the country. Driving on the opposite side of the road (referring to it as the wrong side is rude) isn’t that difficult as long as you take it easy and don’t go out of your way to be stupid by renting a car with a manual transmission. There are three classifications for Irish roads. M is for motorways and are the equivalent of our interstates.
N roads are usually two lanes and vary in condition. Sheep are nearby but generally not in the roadway. R roads are very narrow, sometimes only one lane and the sheep are either roadside or directly in the road. Because of the condition of the roads, presence of sheep, hit-or-miss nature of some road signs, and winding nature of most routes, give yourself plenty of time when going from one place to another. If you’ve never encountered roundabouts they can be scary at first, but once you get used to them, they’re a piece of cake.
WHERE TO GO
The shorter list would be where not to go. The three major cities in Ireland—Dublin, Cork and Galway, each have distinct characteristics. Dublin is by far the largest city with almost a quarter of Ireland’s population. Even though the Celtic tiger has its tail between its legs right now, Dublin retains a cosmopolitan buzz that should be familiar to Washingtonians. There are excellent restaurants at all price ranges, music of all types, and the museums, theaters, and nightlife are on a par with the world’s major cities. Cork is second only in size. With a large university and its own collection of cultural and historic attractions, this city is sure to enchant. Galway is the smallest of the three cities, but it sits on the scenic Galway Bay with the River Corrib running through the center of town. Serving as a gateway to some of the loveliest and most unique landscapes Ireland has to offer, such as the Cliffs of Moher and Connemara, Galway is a must-see location. The small towns and villages of Ireland have a lock on the word “charming” with very few exceptions. Some of the most picturesque and interesting include Kilkenny, Killarney, Ennis, Cobh, Westport, and Kinsale. If it’s been designated as a “Tidy Town,” it’s usually a pretty good indication that the place is above average. Other considerations include proximity to historic sites and the quality of restaurants and lodging. Some hit on all three. Cashel is the name of a 10th century religious center that was once the stronghold of one of the Kings of Ireland. It’s a beautiful village and the only place in Ireland where a blue cheese, Cashel Blue is made. My wife was so taken with all three aspects of the town, that she named her silver tabby Cashel.
In general your best bet is to study guidebooks or read travel essays and pick out those locations and attractions, cultural or otherwise, that most appeal to you. “The Lonely Planet Guide” has an excellent section on the history and culture of Ireland and provides excellent recommendations on things to see and do. Georgian Campbell’s guides are about the best for lodging and dining reviews. Using a travel agent that is familiar with the country such as Isle Inn Tours (www.isleinntours.com), an Alexandria company that specializes in trips to Ireland and Scotland, is also an excellent idea. The price will be comparable to what you can negotiate yourself on the web and the access to their knowledge and recommendations will make the trip that much more enjoyable.
When seeking music or night spots, be sure to ask the locals about places with good “craic” (pronounced “crack”). This is a peculiarly Irish term that is tough to translate into English but generally means a place with great conversation, openness, music, people, gestalt, vibe, and any number of other adjectives.
GETTING READY TO GO
Everyone always wants to make the most out their limited vacations and this oftentimes results in scurrying from one place to another practically every day and night. One thing to understand about Ireland is that it’s a small country. Dublin is well worth three or more nights on its own. Staying three or so nights in one or two other places will allow you to get to know that specific location and also be sure to make day trips into the surrounding country side. This strategy will let you see a good part of the country with little fuss or bother. Lastly, anyone going to Ireland, especially for the first time, should read “Round Ireland with a Fridge” by Tony Hawk. The book is not only hilarious but it captures the unique spirit and resiliency of Ireland and her people.