June 10, 2016
Lά maith agat (Gaelic – Have a good day)
We just returned from a bus tour of Ireland, with a couple days in Scotland. It was my first bus tour and it was fantastic. We were blessed with a great group of 36 travelers, who were punctual and considerate of their fellow passengers. Our guide was awesome and the weather was absolutely wonderful. Imagine visiting Ireland in May and having sunshine and no rain.
The tour was arranged by Transat Holidays here in Canada but done by Abbey Ireland. Our main guide, who was also our driver, Matt Rafter, was extremely knowledgeable. He was an endless font of information from agriculture to history and everything Irish in between. Having the gift of gab, the driving time was very enjoyable as he regaled us with story after story, even singing for us at one point. Aside from Matt, we had a separate guide for the city tours of Dublin, Derry, Belfast, Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Some of the highlights were:
Phoenix Park, Dublin – a huge green space in the heart of the city which is home to hundreds of wild free roaming deer. Below is a group photo in front of the cross erected on the green space used for an open air mass by Pope Paul II for 1,250,000 people, one quarter of the population of the island of Ireland, one third of the population of the Republic of Ireland.
- Johnnie Foxs Pub –
Johnnie Foxs is one of Irelands most favorite taverns, situated up on the hills surrounding Dublin. The quaint old style pub is well known for its nightly entertainment. The food was typical Irish fare, including Colcannon Soup, Irish Soda Bread, Lamb Shank, Salmon, moss pudding and Whiskey cake. For us vegans in the group, lunch was Colcannon Soup and the most delicious bean stew. That night we were celebrating the birthdays of two of the travellers, Larry and Ken who both were turning 65 (also my Ken’s 65th birthday earlier this year. The three leprechauns went to school together and have stayed friends since.) Entertainment was a lively Irish band and Irish River Dancers. A fitting introduction to Ireland.
Blarney Castle – kissing the Blarney stone turned out to be way more difficult and terrifying than I imagined. While the castle and grounds were fantastic, the Blarney Woollen Mills turned out to be a large gift shop located in an old woolen mill.
- Ring of Kerry – the countryside with its stone fences, green rolling hills, plentiful sheep and narrow roadways where a treat.
- Jaunting car ride in Killarney Park – the best part being the horse drawn cart driver with his humorous anecdotes and thick Cork accent.
- Cliffs of Moher – The visitors’ area was safe with paved paths and walls but beyond the main area the gravel paths along the cliffs edge are not protected and could be dangerous in inclement weather. However, the view was phenomenal. A must see in my books. Would have been lovely to be dropped off at the visitor center and walk to the next town along the cliffs for lunch.
Bunratty Medieval Feast – Staff dressed in period costumes regaled us with song and humor. The restored castle was something to see. Dinner (soup, ribs, chicken, potatoes and veggies) were to be eaten without forks and spoons, a dagger being your only piece of cutlery. (unless you were a vegan, then you got a fork with your salad and rice). Larry from our group was singled out as a scoundrel and sent to the dungeons. He was able to return to the group by singing for everyone’s entertainment. While it was a fun evening, it did leave me wondering how the Irish peasants were fairing while the English lords and ladies were feasting.
- Boat cruise on the River Corrib – a relaxing way to view the countryside and enjoy a sunny day in Ireland. It was a balmy 20 degrees and I was dressed in several layers while a local sunbathed on the shores in a swim suit. The locals are a hardy bunch.
- Street market in Galway – a lively bustling event that won my heart with its many homemade craft and vegetarian food booths. We enjoyed whole wheat samosas, curry and fresh squeezed carrot juice.
- Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery – A must see. Not your typical cemetery, with over 50 passage tombs dating back to 3700 BC. Located on a hill with spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. One of my favorite places.
- Beleek Pottery Tour – The tour was exceptional, not just lip service to get you into the gift shop. We got a start to finish walk through of the workhouse seeing in action the painstaking process involved in crafting this high quality pottery.
Kylemore Abbey and Walled Gardens – Built by an English Lord for his ‘beloved wife’, later a monastic community of nuns and now a tourist attraction run by the nuns. The castle and chapel are impressive and the gardens spectacular. We enjoyed the long walk through the woods from the castle to the walled garden and from the castle to the chapel. Reminded me of the Ponderosa – tucked away in the countryside, a beautiful house build for a ‘beloved wife’, lots of wilderness and trees, a small lake and lovely gardens. What’s not to like!
- Derry City Tour – It was interesting to learn that Northern Ireland’s recent history of unrest had really nothing to do with religion. Rather, those wishing to separate from England and rejoin Ireland Republic where mainly Catholic, while those wishing to remain British were mainly Protestant. So the division was political. Our tour guide was Charlene, was a delightful young lady from Martin McCrossan’s Derry City Tours. If you are going to Derry, seek her out as she presented a balanced view of the political scene. Her humor and genuine willingness to forget the past and move on for the greater good left me hopeful for peace.
Giant’s Causeway – In Bushmills, this is another must see in Ireland. We were grateful for another beautiful day to scamper among these natural volcanic formations, as the going would have been much less enjoyable in the rain. The video in the Visitor’s Center provided a wonderful interpretation of the actual formation as well as its mythical interpretation. This is also another great site to do a hike.
- Belfast’s Peace Wall and Murals – The city is dotted with murals depicting the political unrest of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Sign your name on the Peace Wall. Due to the decades of civil unrest, the culture of the city has changed so that, unlike most other European cities, the inhabitants tend not to walk about in the evening, preferring to do their errands and retreat to the safety of their homes. Though the city is now safe to walk about, once the work day ends, the streets clear out quickly leaving the downtown virtually empty of traffic and people.
- Titanic Belfast– Belfast is home to a museum celebrating the building of the Titanic. The Irish are fond of pointing out that the Titanic was a fine Irish ship in perfect condition…..then they gave it to an Englishman to drive. The museum is a new modern building with plenty of interesting interactive exhibits dealing with the building rather than the sinking of the Titanic.
- Ferry crossing from Belfast to Cairnryan Scotland aboard the Stena Line ferry which more closely resembled a luxury cruise liner than a car ferry.
Glasgow city tour – Glasgow is a city of contrasts, old and new buildings side by side.
Edinburgh Castle and the Royal Mile – We enjoyed wondering the castle, viewed The Honours (Scottish monarchy’s crown, septre and sword) and browsed through the many shops lining the Royal mile. I loved the narrow walkway streets called Closes that line the Mile providing access to buildings inside the old city.
- Limerick Contest – After leaving the city of Limerick, our guide Matt challenged us to a limerick contest. The results were hilarious. Below is the first part of Ken’s entry to the contest.
From America and Canada they came
36 of them all with a name
Through the Emerald Isle
Driving mile after mile
Until all the gift shops were looking the same.
- The food – I was expecting to live on fried potatoes and cabbage but was delighted to find the food exceptional. Many of our dinners were included in the tour and they were very good at providing vegan options. On our own dinners were a welcome simple change from the elaborate 3 course hotel meals, opting instead for pub fare or local vegetarian restaurants. We found a fabulous budding plant based restaurant culture in several of the cities. I bought myself a couple of vegan cookbooks and plan to try to replicate some of the delicious dishes we sampled including bean stew, Malaysian Curry, Vegan Haggis, Colcannon and Cashew Cheesecake.
- The accommodation – Given the size of our group, we had to stay in larger hotels rather than the more popular B&Bs that dot the country. However the hotels were fabulous, from elegance of Randles Court Hotel in Killarney, to the cute boutique hotel the George in Limerick, to the Harry Potter’ish style of the Jacksons Hotel in Ballybofey. In Belfast, we had the dubious distinction of staying in the most bombed hotel in the world, the Europa.
The trip was exceptional and went off without a hitch. However, there is no place like home. It is wonderful to be home again, in the peace and quiet of the Ponderosa.