Ireland Trip: A Full Guide

In February 2016 John and I embarked on our first European vacation to Ireland! We booked through Great Value Vacations totally on a whim (fully explained in the Day 1 post) and it ended up being one of the best trips we’ve ever been on. We’d spent the last nine years seeing as much of the US as possible (38/50 states!) but it was finally time to go abroad. Éirinn go Brách!

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I organized each post about our trip by location/region. Here are all of the links:

Further related reading/may be helpful if you’re interested in international travel and/or road trips:

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International Travel Essentials – Tips, Advice, & Recommendations

In February 2016 John and I embarked on our first European vacation to Ireland. We’d spent the last nine years seeing as much of the US as possible (38/50 states!) but it was finally time to go abroad.

Up until this point our vacation of choice has been road trips – we’ve done four big road trips in the last 6 years: two cross country trips (Boston to Las Vegas in 2010 and Boston to Portland, Oregon in 2012), San Diego to Portland, Oregon in 2013, San Francisco to Denver in 2014, and hundreds of smaller road trips in between.

In 2015 we tried another new-to-us vacation and went on our first ever cruise to Alaska. Cruising is a whole different beast, and I won’t touch on those specific details here, but I mention it because, depending on if you cruise internationally, some of this blog may be applicable.

The differences between domestic and international travel are obvious and abundant – logistics, packing, passport requirements, cost, route, sightseeing, currency, political/cultural differences, etc. The main point of this post is simplicity. International travel can be complicated and challenging. By keeping things simple you can focus more of your energy on enjoying your adventure, and making a ton of great memories while staying safe. This post also focuses on travel essentials that have a small footprint – smart packing is all about items that can double duty/serve multiple purposes or are small/light/compact in your luggage.

My only preface is to say that I am, by nature, a person that enjoys being prepared for any and all situations. I carry the world in my bag at all times because I like to. I feel best knowing that whatever my day brings, I can handle with minimal fuss. If you are more of the spontaneous type, this post might not be for you.

First things first, sleep! Traveling, by nature, is stressful and exhausting. Sometimes you have to catch a flight at 3AM, or you have to adjust to a major time difference, or you may be a light sleeper or have trouble sleeping in strange places. The bottom line is that getting enough rest, or being as comfortable as possible while you try to sleep, is crucial. Here are my two recommendations for comfortable resting in any location:

1) The Rest Easy Inflatable Neck Pillow – I love this thing. John got it for me for Christmas and it saved me on our trip to Ireland. I used it on the red eye flight we took to Dublin, in the airport while we waited for our guide to pick us up, on the bus throughout our trip to nap, etc. It’s super soft, comfortable, the cover is washable, it’s simple to use (you don’t even have to blow it up, there’s a built-in hand pump), and when you deflate it you can tuck it anywhere in your luggage. I had hated neck pillows up until now because they are such space wasters but this one is super compact.

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2) Eye Mask – I bought this Alaska Bear sleep mask because of the adjustable strap and the soft material, but as long as the eye mask blocks all light, the brand doesn’t much matter. I don’t like anything that goes around my head because I am prone to migraines but this was really comfortable. The mask is great because it makes resting/sleeping in daylight possible (which is normally impossible for me). I used this on the plane and in the airport to block out the light so that I could rest. Eliminating the distractions around me really helped me relax, whether I actually slept or not.

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Another thing that is critical on vacation is time. Especially ones where there is a packed itinerary. John and I don’t do the whole lay on a beach vacation thing; we like to have a full schedule with activities, sightseeing, and fun things planned. Either type vacation is good – as long as you’re enjoying yourself and relaxing. That said, the action-packed variety means that time is at a premium.

Getting ready and out the door is my biggest time suck (on vacation and in daily life, let’s be honest). The thing I spend the most time on is blow drying my hair. I’m a long haired cat and prefer to bring my own salon-style hair dryer wherever I go. Those crappy hotel ones just don’t cut it for me! Bringing my own wasn’t feasible for our Ireland trip because 1) it’s too big and packing space was precious and 2) it wouldn’t have worked in the outlets and I didn’t want to risk it blowing out our adapter (see below).

So I invested in the Aquis microfiber hair towel. It was great! Lightweight, very small folded up, and dried my hair really well. It really cut down on my blow drying time (I have since been using it at home and at the gym). It takes up way less space than a hair dryer and is much more practical. The only thing that is a bit of a pain is drying it when you’re on the go. But I just folded it up damp, put in a ziplock bag, and hung it to dry when we reached our next destination. No mildew, mold, or weird smells. It dried just fine. I washed it when we returned from our trip and it’s like new again.

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The only thing that caused me actual stress when we were preparing for our trip was the electricity conversion. Not all countries use electricity the same way and I knew nothing about this prior to our Ireland trip. John and I did a bunch of research (the internet has a million great articles on the subject – here’s my favorite one) and ended up buying the Bestek 200W travel adapter and power converter.

The basic thing to know is that the adapters are the plug attachments that allow you to plug in to outlets provided abroad. The power converter allows you to utilize the correct voltage, depending on where you are in the world.

This Bestek one is great because it has 3 outlets and 4 USB ports, is small and can fit into any bag, and it can be used in over 150 countries.

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Another issue when traveling is hydration. I am a thirty person and drink a lot of water, and I never drink enough on vacation and end up feeling gross. Planes, airports, buses, hotels are all so drying too. They typically keep the air cool and dry, which is comfortable, but very dehydrating. I end up feeling parched and my skin gets super dry. So, in addition to common sense travel essentials like water and moisturizer, I highly recommend a hydrating spray. I tried this Kiehl’s In-Flight Refreshing Facial Mist and it was wonderful. Just spray on your face and you feel instantly refreshed. Plus, it smells like delicious lavender. I now use it at home and at work just for a little hydration pick me up.

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I’m a bag lady; I have a bag for every situation in life and travel is no different. A daily bag for traveling, for me, is utilitarian and is always based on where I’m going. Sometimes I trot out my nicer bags (Marc Jacobs and Kate Spade are my faves) and sometimes I go with a basic backpack, it really just depends. My bag for our Ireland trip needed to be all about function, space, and durability – with a focus on waterproofing and the room to hold my Canon DSLR camera. I went with Timbuk2’s Classic Messenger Bag (size: small, color: smoke). I am a loyal Timbuk2 customer and this bag was as perfect as the others I have by them.

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There are a gazillion pockets, which is the best feature of this bag. Quick access exterior pockets for chapstick, interior pockets for my phone and Clif bars, and interior zippered pockets for more secure things like money and my passport. The bag fit all of my essentials – wallet, camera, water, snacks, cough drops, hand sanitizer, pens, etc – and kept them completely dry.

The messenger bag style was perfect because of the easy access in and out and comfy crossbody strap. Plus, I love the four size options from Timbuk2 – this bag is big enough for my stuff but small enough to look like a purse (I don’t like carrying a big huge bag to places where there are bag size rules).

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And speaking of waterproofing – I knew I was going to need a warm, 100% waterproof coat for this trip. Going to rainy climates doesn’t bother me as long as I have the right gear. We love Seattle, Vancouver, and Portland, so we were ready to take on Ireland rain!

I bought this coat for a few reasons: I love the zip-in fleece lining – it makes the coat a 3 in 1 which is awesome for traveling, especially to a place with variable weather. It has 3 exterior zip pockets to hold my stuff securely and also without getting wet. And it has an oversized hood with a toggle so you can really keep the rain out of your face/hair. These kinds of coats are everywhere so you can find them at any store – I’d recommend a outdoorsy type retailer for the best construction though (REI, Columbia, North Face). I ended up wearing this coat all winter long, so I’m very happy with this purchase.

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Last bit of waterproof preparedness – shoes! They aren’t as cute as flats or heels but, as I mentioned, my gear for our Ireland trip was all about function. I did a bunch of research and picked up these waterproof Merrell Azura shoes. I bought them 4 months before the trip to have time to break them in and to test them during our New England winter. I really love them – they are comfortable for hours on end, look good with jeans, and kept my feet bone dry.

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There are a few other essential items I would recommend that weren’t pictured here.

1) An international roaming add-on to your phone plan – Whether it’s for maps, Yelp, documents, or posting pictures to Instagram, you’ll likely want to use your phone during your trip. If so, you’ll need international roaming coverage unless you want a hefty bill when you get back.

John and I both have AT&T and they have a few international traveling packages (most providers will), at three price points. It’s a one-time, 30 day add-on that allows you to use data without additional roaming charges. We chose the AT&T Silver Passport package and I’m so glad we did. Typically vacation is a time to unplug, for sure, but on this trip we needed to be able to have maps available, the ability to text each other and call our hotels, and have the internet for spontaneous information we needed.

2) An iPad/tablet loaded up with TV shows, movies, and podcasts – This goes without saying but long flights and bus rides are boring. I know streaming apps are ubiquitous now but you can’t always count on airlines having satellite TVs or your bus having wifi. Prior to our trip we loaded up our iPads to capacity with Better Call Saul and The People vs. OJ Simpson episodes, Serial season 2, and a few of our favorite old movies.

iPads/tablets are also great because of the size. I would not at all recommend bringing a full laptop on an international vacation, or any trip for that matter unless you absolutely have to.

3) Headphone splitter – We have this Belkin one and love it. It allows us to enjoy the same shows/movies/music podcast at the same time but with our own headphones. It also affords us more media storage space on our devices – I usually load up my devices with podcasts, while John loads up on shows/movies.

4) Ziplock bags – I regularly buy gallon, quart, and portion measured food storage bags from Target for every day life but they come in so handy for travel. Diverse in size, waterproof, and secure – I never go away without them! I toss a few of each kind in my luggage and if I need them, great – if not, they take up practically no space. On our Ireland trip I used all of them! (eg. I used the gallon size to hold my damp micofiber towel (see above) and the candy we bought on our trip, I used the quart size to hold toiletries and postcards/gift cards we bought for safekeeping, and I used the portion bag to hold cough drops and the bar of soap we brought on the trip).

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5) Snacks. Can’t say it enough!

6) Last but not least, research. If you’re not the researching type, no big deal. If you are, I highly recommend the following approach (in addition to internet research, of course).

John bought me these two books for Christmas and they were amazing (Concise History of Ireland and Illustrated Dictionary of Irish History). John was a history major in college and always found he learned best with a historical text accompanied by an illustrated dictionary. The history book is dense and rich with information – with such specific details that, on its own, would have left me on information overload. But having the illustrated dictionary as a compendium allowed me to switch between the two books while I was reading, so that I actually learned the information. I cannot recommend this approach enough!

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We’re going to France in August so I look forward updating this list with any new tips afterward!

(Products listed on my blog are never sponsored; I am in no way paid, given free samples, or told to say anything you just read. I have posted about the above products because I went out, purchased these items myself, and want to share my thoughts in a candid and informative way.)

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Ireland Trip | Day 5: Dublin

In February 2016 John and I embarked on our first European vacation to Ireland! We booked through Great Value Vacations totally on a whim (fully explained in the Day 1 post) and it ended up being one of the best trips we’ve ever been on. We’d spent the last nine years seeing as much of the US as possible (38/50 states!) but it was finally time to go abroad. Éirinn go Brách!

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Our last day in Ireland. I hate when vacation comes to an end! :(

I woke up at 7:30AM and wished I could have slept longer. I definitely had a cold and was not in the mood to do anything. But we only had a few hours of vacation left and I knew we needed to make the most of it.

We debated what to do in Dublin that was open early and would only take an hour or so. We settled on going to see The Book of Kells at Trinity College. We booked tickets online for the exhibit right when they opened at 9:30AM and got ready for the day.

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Our hotel (the O’Callahan Davenport Hotel) was right around the corner so we walked the 10 minutes to Trinity College. Of course it was pouring out but we had near perfect weather for the majority of our trip so we didn’t mind.

We arrived at 9:20AM and had to wait for the Trinity College Library to open to go inside. Thankfully they had huge umbrellas set up outside where we waited (I imagine they are permanently out there since the climate in Ireland is so rainy).

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The experience was really cool. Before getting to The Book of Kells you first walk through an exhibition called “Turning Darkness Into Light,” which introduces The Book of Kells and other ancient religious manuscripts such as the Book of Mulling and the Book of Armagh. The exhibit describes how these books were produced, the importance of the scribes and illustrators who wrote them, and their significance and symbolism.

The Book of Kells is located in the Treasury Room of the Trinity College Library, at the very end of the exhibit. The room is dark and no photographs are allowed. The Book of Kells is exquisite – ornate and so beautiful, unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The library has two sections on display, of the four total of The Book of Kells (the other two are in secure storage), and they turn pages every few months or so (there is a myth out there that they turn the pages every day but they confirmed that they don’t do that because the Book is too delicate). The Book’s website lists which manuscripts are currently on display.

The Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript (which means it is text accompanied by ornate borders, illustrations, and lettering) written in Latin, containing the four gospels of the New Testament. It was thought to have been created in a monastery on Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland, around 800AD.

It is a masterwork of calligraphy and represents the pinnacle of Insular illumination artwork, a style of art specific to the British Isles beginning around 600AD. This style is famous for its use of dense, intricate, and imaginative flair. Celtic designs brought additional style elements to Insular art, such as spirals, circles, and other geometric patterns.

The ornamentation of The Book of Kells is certainly its claim to fame. The illustrations combine traditional Christian iconography with classic Insular Celtic patterns, in vibrant, stunning colors. The pages are calf vellum, the lettering is in iron gall ink, and the colors used were made from various substances from all over the world (eg. orpiment, ochre, lead, copper, indigo, berries, lichen, lapis).

Here is a photograph of the first page of the Gospel of John (not taken by me obviously but I couldn’t describe all of this without including a picture). Click for a closer look.

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It’s an exquisite treasure and I’m so glad we got to see it.

After viewing The Book of Kells we walked through the rest of Trinity College Library, including the Old Library which was breathtaking! The room is 200+ feet long and houses around 200,000 of the library’s oldest books (all of which Trinity College students can check out).

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There are 38 marble busts of classic philosophers and writers (eg. Shakespeare, Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, etc). It is also the home to Brian Boru’s Harp, dating back to the 14th century, making it one of the oldest harps existing in Ireland.

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Visiting the Trinity College Library was a very special treat. There are so many treasures under one roof! We didn’t visit any museums on this trip so this really scratched that itch.

After buying a few souvenirs in the gift shop, we left Trinity College around 10AM. The rain had let up so we took the long way back to our hotel and enjoyed the Monday morning bustle in Dublin.

We got back to the hotel at 10:45AM and proceeded to pack up, grabbed a taxi, and headed to the airport at 11AM. The ride was quick, about 30 minutes, and we got to the airport at 11:30 AM.

We checked in quickly and were through security in about 10 minutes. Dublin Airport includes a customs checkpoint before you go to your gate if you’re flying to the US which was great – so much more convenient than having to do it after you arrive at your destination and it went super smooth. We got to the gate around 12:15 PM and hung out until we boarded at 2PM. We took off around 2:30PM and headed home to Boston.

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We were served another yummy meal on our Aer Lingus flight home – a full lunch at what was 12PM EST and then tea at 4PM (with tea sandwiches and all!).

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We arrived at home in Boston at Logan Airport at around 5PM. I was sad vacation was over but I was ready to be home, see my Reggie boy, and get back into my routine.

This was such an excellent vacation. I felt so soul-rested and energized from our trip. I have wanted to go to Ireland for so long, to see the place where my ancestors come from and to connect with my heritage. There are so many joyful things about traveling; seeing the world’s treasures and going someplace new is such a gift. I am so grateful for our guide, Tony – he made this trip for me. I cannot imagine truly experiencing Ireland for the first time in any other way. I am so thankful for the gorgeous weather we got, I didn’t expect it at all and I was thrilled. And I just feel really blessed to travel with my hubs and best friend, we always have so much fun together.

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Two weeks later…

Our goodies from Blarney Woolen Mills arrived!

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John bought two gorgeous sweaters; I got a sweater too, a scarf, and some yarn. I’m so glad we took advantage of the free US shipping because this stuff would have taken up so much space in our luggage! Finally, because I have to share, my sister is pregnant with twins so I bought her these precious bibs and socks in Dublin. They were so cute, I couldn’t help myself!

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That’s a wrap on our Ireland trip! I’ll leave you with my new favorite Gaelic expression: An té a bhíónn siúlach, bíonn scéalach. (He who travels has stories to tell.)

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Ireland Trip | Day 4: Killarney, Adare, & Dublin

In February 2016 John and I embarked on our first European vacation to Ireland! We booked through Great Value Vacations totally on a whim (fully explained in the Day 1 post) and it ended up being one of the best trips we’ve ever been on. We’d spent the last nine years seeing as much of the US as possible (38/50 states!) but it was finally time to go abroad. Éirinn go Brách!

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Day 4 was the day of vacation where I woke up with a cold. Go figure. Maybe it was from kissing the Blarney Stone (doubtful) or maybe the circulated plane and bus germs (likely) – either way, feeling sick when you want to feel awesome sucks. I wasn’t alone though, I’d say half of our tour group was coughing that morning. Something certainly caught up with us.

Since I felt so crappy I wanted to sleep in but knew we were on a schedule. I showered and packed up. John went down to have breakfast (again, included in the cost of our trip) with the group but I didn’t feel like having the buffet. We headed downstairs at 8:30AM to get on the bus. I ran next door to the convenience store to get some tea. Just before 9AM we left Killarney to make the last leg of our trip back to Dublin.

At 10:30AM we arrived in a small town of Adare. Adare is a small village in County Limerick, settled around 1200, and is designated as a Heritage Town by the Irish government.

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We only had about 30 minute for this stop so we checked out the Visitor’s Center and walked through the local park. We picked up some postcards and tea at the heritage center gift shop.

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Before we left Adare, we stopped in to Holy Trinity Abbey Church (Roman Catholic) where John lit a candle and I explored.

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The abbey is the only recorded Trinitarian monastery in Ireland. It was originally built by the Fitzgerald clan for the Trinitarian order of monks in the early 13th century.

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The monastery was abolished and badly damaged during the reign of King Henry VIII. However, it was repaired and expanded in the mid 19th century and is now stunningly beautiful.

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We piled back in the bus and were back on the road at 11AM.

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It was a quiet ride, definitely a low energy kind of morning. Tony put on some traditional Irish music and we all quietly relaxed. John fell asleep, I admired the scenery.

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The ride was beautiful and there was a pale fog over everything. The sun was just barely out and we could see blue skies coming through.

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We drove through Newcastle West, along the River Maigue. We passed several castles – Fuller’s Folly (above) and Desmond Castle (below right) – and a 13th century Anglican church (below left).

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At 12:30PM we stopped at Midway Food Court for lunch – it was basically a highway rest top but more inviting, and less transactional, than the ones we have in the States. Plus it had a swimming pool and a gym! We became obsessed with these Keogh’s potato chips on our trip. Super delicious and it happens to be my maiden name (Irish pride!).

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After our lunch we got back on the road at about 1:15PM, for the final drive northeast to Dublin.

We got to Dublin around 2:30PM. For our final activity together with our guide, Tony, we took an hour-long panoramic tour of Dublin in the bus.

Dublin is the capital of Ireland and its largest city. The city has a current population of roughly 1.8 million people. The area of Dublin Bay has been inhabited since prehistoric times, however the writings of Ptolemy around 140 AD provide the earliest reference to civilization there. In the 10th century Vikings claimed the area as their own; the Irish government formally recognizes 988 AD as the year in which the city was settled. The Kingdom of Dublin became Ireland’s main city following the Norman invasion (around 1500). The city expanded rapidly from the 17th century and, following the partition of Ireland in 1922, Dublin became the capital of the Irish Free State, later renamed Ireland.

We passed the following landmarks and got a brief history of each:

The Criminal Courts of Justice and the Guinness Brewery (more on that in a moment).

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We drove over the River Liffey, which flows through the center of Dublin, and passed several municipal buildings.

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The Brazen Head (the oldest pub in Ireland, est. 1198) and Trinity College, a research university founded in Dublin in 1592 (Ireland’s oldest university).

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At 3:30PM our bus tour ended, we said our goodbyes to Tony, and we checked into the hotel (the O’Callahan Davenport Hotel). We were quickly back out the door at 4PM – we didn’t want to waste any time in Dublin! There was so much to do in Dublin and we had less than 24 hours. There were a half dozen things on our must-do list but we quickly narrowed it down because it was late afternoon on a Sunday and things were beginning to close. In the end we decided to go to the Guinness Brewery, the last admission being at 5PM.

We decided to walk, which took about 45 minutes. It was nice to get some exercise and fresh air, and it was beautiful out! We walked directly through St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin’s largest public park at 22 acres, situated in the heart of Dublin and its Georgian squares.

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At the edge of St. Stephen’s Green we caught a glimpse of a familiar flag – it was a Boston College satellite campus in Dublin! You know John loves his alma mater so we got some pictures and met some folks inside. What a fun surprise! Let’s Go Eagles!

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Just around the corner from St. Stephen’s Green was St. Patrick’s Cathedral, so pretty in this evening light and the gardens were beautiful.

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We walked the winding back roads of Dublin, which was an awesome way to see the city. The weather was perfect and I love snapping pictures of Dublin’s famous colorful doors.

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We arrived at the Guinness Brewery 4:45 PM and got in right before they closed.

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The first thing you notice at the Guinness Brewery is simply how massive it is. We’ve been to breweries all over the US and have seen some huge ones (Anheuser-Busch, Sierra Nevada), and this ranked among one of the biggest and most impressive.

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Arthur Guinness started brewing ales in 1759 at the St. James’s Gate Brewery in Dublin. On December 31, 1759 he signed a 9,000 year lease, which is built into the floor at the Guinness Brewery:

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The tour is self-guided, and goes through one of two brew houses on site. One is the actual brew house and the other is this one, re-purposed for the self-guided tour. I think it’s a totally genius use of the old brew house; the ambiance is perfect and the building has retained so much of its original charm even though it’s been modernized.

The tour spans 7 state of the arts floors, all connected by escalators and glass floors/walls. The aesthetic is really cool, sleek, and visually stunning.

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The actual brew house:

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The tour was educational and really cool, nothing super new to us since we’ve been to many breweries and know quite a bit about the brewing and distribution process.

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The gift shop fills the entire bottom floor of the brew house:

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You can totally see the massive fermentation tanks still built into the ceiling of the old brew house (below, right).

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There are five bars/restaurants throughout the brewery, with the Brewer’s Dining Hall being the hippest, in my opinion.

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When we were done with the self-guided tour we made our way up to the Gravity Bar. The Gravity Bar is the highest floor of the brewery and is one huge circular room with floor to ceiling windows.

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The Gravity Bar offers 360 degree views of Dublin – and the weather was so clear and gorgeous so we could see the whole city. What a sight!. We watched the sunset and sipped our pints of Guinness. I could see how this place would get absolutely mobbed, it’s really awesome. We definitely lucked out by going at the last time slot on a Sunday night.

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We left the brewery at 6PM in search of dinner. We walked around for about an hour, including a stroll through the Temple Bar area (not really my scene, it was crazy with tourists and loud music).

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We eventually had dinner at a burger joint, The Counter, which was tasty.

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After dinner we walked back to the hotel. It took about 15 minutes and we got back around 8:15PM. We headed upstairs, packed up for our last day in Ireland, and were asleep by 10PM.

I decided to leave figuring the hotel hair dryer until the morning (seriously, what IS this thing!?!).

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Stay tuned for Day 5 where we continue exploring Dublin and conclude our trip!

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Ireland Trip | Day 3: Killarney & The Ring of Kerry

In February 2016 John and I embarked on our first European vacation to Ireland! We booked through Great Value Vacations totally on a whim (fully explained in the Day 1 post) and it ended up being one of the best trips we’ve ever been on. We’d spent the last nine years seeing as much of the US as possible (38/50 states!) but it was finally time to go abroad. Éirinn go Brách!

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Day 3 began at 7AM; we got up, showered, packed up for the day, and headed down to breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant (Killarney Towers Hotel) at 8:30AM. It was a buffet again and the options were slim for me, though it was nice that this was included in the cost of our trip. More brown bread it is!

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After breakfast we headed out at 9AM. Our first stop was a jaunting cab ride (horse drawn carriage) through Killarney National Park.

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We piled nine people into our carriage and were led around the park by our driver, Michael, and horse, Susie.

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The ride took us through the forest, bog, woodland, swamp, grassy fields, etc. Such a diverse landscape and we definitely saw another 40 shades of green! We also saw several indigenous red deer (Ireland’s only remaining wild herd of native red deer live here in the park) and sika deer as well. (They are too fast for pictures, unfortunately!)

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Killarney National Park was the first national park in Ireland, established in 1932, and is over 25,000 acres. It is one of the very few places in Ireland that has been continuously covered by woodland since the end of the most recent glacial period (roughly 10,000 years ago).

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From the park we has sweeping views of the lovely Lough Leane (Lake of Learning) and the McGillicuddy’s Reeks mountain range, including the highest peak in Ireland – 3,400+ feet!

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Across Lough Leane we could see the Innisfallen Abbey on the island of Innisfallen. The monastery was founded in 640AD and was occupied for approximately 850 years. During this time the monks of the abbey wrote the Annals of Innisfallen, which chronicles the early history of Ireland. The location of the monastery on the island is thought to have given rise to the name Lough Leane, which in English means “Lake of Learning.”

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We had a spectacular view of St. Mary’s Cathedral from inside the park as well.

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Our carriage ride ended around 10AM. Tony picked us up in the bus at the park’s entrance and, from there, we headed out to begin the journey around the Ring of Kerry.

The Ring of Kerry is a scenic drive around the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry, on the southwest coast Ireland. It is 100+ miles long, in a circular route, and covers a diverse landscape including the rugged coast, seaside villages, beachfronts, and rural towns. It is described as a journey through 10,000 years of Ireland’s history and was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

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For the first hour of the bus ride we drove westward through fields and farms, and so many peat bogs. We had a great view of the snowy McGillicuddy’s Reeks range whole time.

On the way we passed through the small town of Killorglin. Killorglin is most famous for holding the Puck Fair every August, which is the oldest traditional fair in Ireland. In Irish folk lore King Puck, a badass goat with the ability to talk, warned locals of impending danger from raiders, allowing them to protect themselves before they met certain doom. The Puck Fair celebrates the heroic King Puck and, though the origin date is unknown, it is thought to be a story from pagan times.

Killorglin has this awesome King Puck statue right on the main road as you pass through town:

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After about an hour we stopped at the Kerry Bog Village Museum. The village museum is an 18th century famine village replica with cottages with authentic thatched roofs, farming equipment, two extremely smelly Irish wolfhounds, and two ponies.

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The Irish wolfhounds were amazing – so sweet and gentle, but so smelly. These babies need a bath!

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The village was so impressive. They researched every last detail to get the replicas perfect and it really shows. There is such authenticity and attention to detail here. From the burning peat to the thatched roofs, everything was historically accurate and provided a really unique window to the past.

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I love places like this – where you can go and see what life was really like by interacting with the environment. It’s so much more immersive and salient than a museum or looking at a picture. You could sit in the cottages, smell the burning peat, touch the farming equipment, pet the ponies. I felt like I was there, that the past wasn’t too far away, that I had a deeper appreciation for the people who were there by putting myself in their shoes.

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These ponies were awesome…and liked to bite fingers (ow).

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After our visit to the village museum, we went next door to the Red Fox Inn for a warm beverage – I got tea and John got a hot chocolate and Bailey’s. Yum!

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Back on the road! More ruins, more gorgeous views. This particular ruin (on the left) was Glenbeigh Towers, built in 1867 by Lord Headley of Aghadoe. It was the home to Lord Headley’s estate staff and he eventually abandoned it after going bankrupt. During World War I the castle and grounds were used by British Military Command as a training center. In 1921 the Irish Republican army burned the castle down and it’s stayed that way since.

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30 minutes down the road from Glenbeigh we made our first stop on the Ring of Kerry to check out the magnificent view across Dingle Bay. We stopped to take a few photos and make many dingle jokes.

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Onward we went. We were able to see the Skellig Islands out in the Atlantic Ocean (right photo, two islands in the background). The sculpture (left) is called “To the Skellig,” and depicts four Monks taking a boat to the monastic island of Skellig Michael. The Skellig Islands are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to a 6th century monastery, a wildlife preserve, and is where the final scene of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was shot (on Skellig Michael, no big deal).

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40 minutes due south we stopped again in Waterville to take pictures on the beach and dunk our hands in the Atlantic Ocean. Waterville reminded me of Cape Cod: a quiet, pastoral, colorful beach town.

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The air smelled so salty and wonderful, and the beach was unbelievably beautiful.

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You know I brought a handful of those rocks home to remember this gorgeous place.

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We got back on the bus and continued on our southeasterly journey along the Ring of Kerry.

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In the foreground, a 1,000 year old Celtic stone circle burial site:

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We stopped again at another scenic overlook in Caherdaniel where we took panoramas and enjoyed the crisp, ocean air. The view from Caherdaniel reminded of Cannon Beach, Oregon and our honeymoon.

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Along the Ring of Kerry we saw so many sheep and ancient rock/stone formations – some from the Celts, some from the Bronze Age, and others unidentified. It was totally magical. The stones in the picture below are the Eighercua Alignment, a megalithic stone monument, estimated to be from the Bronze Age, roughly 1700BC.

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At 1PM we stopped at the Scarriff Inn in Caherdaniel for lunch.

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The views were incredible and the food was pretty good. After this 35 minute pit stop, we headed back to the bus and continued east along the Ring of Kerry.

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At 1:45PM we stopped at another scenic overlook in Castlecove, another beautiful vantage point along the Ring of Kerry. No one view of the coast was alike; it never became repetitive and never stopped amazing us. Such beauty out here.

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I’ve spent my whole life looking out on to the Atlantic Ocean but from the opposite direction. This whole trip refreshed and inspired me. It encouraged me to take a new perspective on life; experiencing gratitude for what I have, but with new eyes – just like I was doing with a different view across the ocean.

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At 2PM we stopped in the little town of Sneem to stretch our legs. How cute is this?

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On the way out of Sneem we were treated to more sweeping views of the Ring of Kerry, crystal blue water, and snowcapped mountains. It reminded me of Lake Tahoe.

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Between Sneem and Kenmare, going now west to east, the landscape became more rocky, less green, and dipped into deep valleys.

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The clouds started to come back after having gorgeous sunny skies all day. The road winded perilously and we bobbed and weaved in the bus on our way back to Killarney. Hello, carsickness!

Our final stop was at Ladies View in Killarney National Park. Queen Victoria made a royal visit to the park in 1861 and her ladies-in-waiting were so taken with the view here that it was named after them.

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We got back to Killarney at about 3:30PM and were wiped. We decided to relax and watch parliament election coverage for a few hours before dinner. At 5PM we went for a walk around the shops downtown. We walked for an hour – John bought a new hat, we got some souvenirs, and stocked up on more delicious Cadbury chocolate (sorry not sorry).

We got back to the hotel at 6:15PM and headed down to dinner in the hotel restaurant at 6:30PM. We had another group buffet dinner, all different food from the night before which was really nice (also included in the cost of our trip). After dinner we took another walk around the neighborhood. We went back to our room around 7:30 PM, changed into pajamas, and continued watching election coverage until we fell asleep.

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Stay tuned for Day 4 where we explore Killarney, Adare, and Dublin!

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Ireland Trip | Day 2: Cashel, Cork City, Blarney, & Killarney

In February 2016 John and I embarked on our first European vacation to Ireland! We booked through Great Value Vacations totally on a whim (fully explained in the Day 1 post) and it ended up being one of the best trips we’ve ever been on. We’d spent the last nine years seeing as much of the US as possible (38/50 states!) but it was finally time to go abroad. Éirinn go Brách!

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Day 2 began bright and early, with a breakfast call at 7:30AM in the hotel restaurant (Gulliver’s at the Newpark Hotel). It was a buffet with tons of options (and was included in the cost of our trip). I am not a lover of breakfast food but I managed to have a great breakfast. At this point I was definitely hooked on Irish brown bread!

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Our hotel departure was set for at 8:30AM, and we piled into the bus and took off from Kilkenny.

Our drive took us through County Tipperary and County Cork. It was a cloudy morning, mist covering the long stretches of farms and pastures, quiet with only sheep in sight.

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Here in southeast Ireland common agricultural industries are farming, lambing in spring, and growing winter wheat. Most of the farm land is used for grazing and Ireland dairy (milk, cheese, grass-fed beef) is sent to over 140 markets/countries all over the world. They don’t have any factory farms in Ireland (unlike the US); the farms here are family owned/operated.

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The drive was a perfect portrait of rural Ireland. Verdant, beautiful, cold, hushed. Pictures cannot do this place justice. On one side, open grasslands. On the other, castles and ruins springing up like weeds. Everywhere you look something both foreign and familiar.

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A 13th century monastery site, now in ruins. In the early Viking raids (800-900AD), Vikings looted and plundered many monasteries throughout Ireland and left what was once sacred, lost and destroyed.

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After about an hour’s drive west, we arrived in Cashel.

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We stopped quickly to get a glimpse of the Rock of Cashel, a sacred historical site with a huge castle on top, and to take some photos.

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The land itself is an outcrop of limestone with buildings that date from the 12th, 13th, and 15th centuries. Hore Abbey, located in the valley below, is a ruined Cistercian monastery built in the 13th century.

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From Cashel we drove an hour south towards Cork. We passed through Cork City and Tony gave us a quick, but thorough, tour of the Lee River waterfront. The Port of Cork is the main port serving southern Ireland and is the second busiest port in Ireland.

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Here we saw the old Ford factory (above, right), which closed in 1984. In 1917, this Ford plant was built by Henry Ford and it was the first of its kind outside of America. The Ford family hailed from Cork but were forced out of Ireland in 1845 during the Great Famine. Henry’s father, William, would come to America, buy land in Michigan, and the rest is history. The Port of Cork also has several bonded warehouses (below, right), built in the 1700s, that held whiskey, tobacco, and other goods before being exported from Ireland.

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Parliament Bridge, a single-arched limestone bridge, is the unique centerpiece of the urban landscape of Cork, leading right into the Grand Parade in the center of downtown Cork.

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On the way out of Cork City we passed the Heineken Brewery (left) and Murphy’s Brewery.

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Cork is a place I definitely want to come back to someday. It was urban and modern, with a welcoming spirit. Cork has long been an Irish nationalist city and continues to be a metropolitan hub and the third most populous city in Ireland, with a strong connection to its industrial roots.

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Just 15 minutes from Cork was our main stop for the day: Blarney Castle. We arrived at 11:30AM and Tony let us know we had three hours to shop, eat, and sightsee, due back at the bus at 2:30PM.

There was a lot to do in Blarney in just 3 hours so we needed a game plan. We headed to Blarney Castle first since it was the thing we wanted to do the most and needed the majority of our time for.

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I think when Johnny Cash wrote “Forty Shades of Green” about Ireland, he must have written after coming to Blarney Castle. Not only is the castle itself awe-inspiring, the grounds are gorgeous and in all shades of green. I know that phrase is much older than his song, and all of Ireland is lush and green, but looking at this sight made me think of it.

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The site of Blarney Castle has been in existence since 1200 – first with a wooden structure, rebuilt into stone in 1210, and currently with the present castle which was built in 1446. The castle was built as a medieval stronghold and remained that way through the 1700s.

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There is so much to explore at the castle – a dungeon, the court, battlements, the castle itself, caves, and of course the Blarney Stone.

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The caves!

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Winding our way up the path, around the castle, and getting to the entrance in the back…

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Finally inside the castle – you start in the main hall. It is fantastic ruin that immediately gives off a medieval vibe. Up one flight of stairs – more on that in a minute – you enter the old kitchen and can make your way through the smaller rooms where you can look at the gardens below through the many arrowloops.

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To get to the Blarney Stone, you must climb to the top of Blarney Castle. Sounds easy enough but it was actually pretty scary. The stone stairs – see below – wind sharply and go straight up, they are slimmer than the length of your foot, they were wet and slick, and the only thing you have to steady yourself is a wet metal bar around the edge of the steps or a wet rope hanging down the middle of the steps. To reach the top you need to wind up five flights like this. Five terrifying flights! When we got to the top I had jelly legs; the climb was nerve-racking and I really don’t like heights. Thankfully there is one staircase for going up and one for going down so you’re not bumping into other people, but that didn’t make it any less awful.

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Finally up at the top!

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From the top of Blarney Castle, looking down in to the main hall. Is this not giving you Game of Thrones realness? (Fun fact: GoT primarily films in Belfast and Northern Ireland so it’s not really a stretch to see the similarities!)

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At the top I took a few deep breaths and tried not to look down too much. I was ready to kiss the Blarney Stone and get the heck back down to solid ground. Enter the second most harrowing thing I did that day. But first, some history:

The Blarney Stone itself is a piece of limestone built into the battlements of Blarney Castle. Even though it is world renowned, there is conflicting lore about its origin. We were told it was a piece of the Stone of Scone (a sacred coronation stone used since the 14th century) that was built into the castle parapet for protection. We also heard that it was a gift to the builder of the castle from the King of Scots in 1314. It is also said to be a simple stone that was kissed by the castle’s builder on his way to court to deal with a lawsuit. He did it for luck but ended up winning his case, due to exceeding eloquence in court that day. In any case, the stone was set into a tower of the castle in 1446 and has been there even since – receiving kisses in exchange for eloquence, luck, and the gift of gab. It’s an Irish folk tradition and had been on my bucket list for years.

Little did I know that to actually kiss the Stone, you had to do the following: take off any loose items like hats, glasses, etc. For me, that meant my glasses which then meant I was totally blind for the rest. Get down on the wet ground, lay on your back, scooch as close as you can to the wall, tip your head and upper body backwards over the railing, hold tight to two slick metal bars above you, entrust a stranger who holds on to you for dear life, and kiss the stone! SMOOCH!

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Here’s what kissing the Blarney Stone looks like from the ground:

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Oh my god, it was one of the scariest things I have ever done, but I’m glad I did it.

From the top we took a few photos of the incredible views and made the climb down.

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We stopped in the “family room” on the way out, which is basically the interior of the first floor of the castle. This is where the men would have gathered, fires roared, and meals were had. On the far right is a photo of folks queued up at the top of the castle to kiss the Blarney Stone.

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One final wet, slippery, moldy staircase and we were back on solid ground. Whew!

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Done at the castle, it was time to check out the grounds. Again, there is so much to do here; we could have spent all day exploring. Immediately outside of the castle exit are signs for the gardens. Poison Garden, you say?

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Yes, there is a Poison Garden right behind Blarney Castle! It is exactly what it sounds like – a garden of poisonous plants. Some are actually poison (like poison ivy and oleander) and some are plants that were once thought of as toxic, but used as herbal remedies (like rhubarb).

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In this garden, the most dangerous and toxic plants are kept in large cages. They are not playing around!

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Tobacco, marijuana, oleander:

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Opium poppy, wormwood, deadly nightshade:

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The Poison Garden was, without a doubt, one of the coolest things I have ever seen. So unique, interesting, and totally unexpected. Oh, and right behind Blarney Castle – one of the most famous landmarks in the entire world. Is this real life?

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From the Poison Garden we made our way through the rest of the Irish gardens and the stumpery. I learned a new word on this trip – stumpery. Still makes me laugh. Who knew a garden of stumps would be so interesting?

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Old lookout tower in the stumpery:

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Down the path, we walked through the old stables and through the rock close.

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From there we made our way back to the entrance and back to downtown Blarney in search of some lunch.

We got to The Square and saw there were dozens of little restaurants. We decided to do a loop of the center and pick the best one. As we walked by the first restaurant, John laughed and said “I saw two nuns in there!” Well, after walking the whole center and looking at a bunch of other lunch places, we ended up at the place with the two nuns. Go figure. It was called The Lemon Tree and was probably my favorite meal of the whole trip (spicy tomato bruschetta with vegetables, a wedge of brie, and a piece of crusty sourdough bread over a salad).

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After lunch we had about 30 minutes left to shop before we needed to be back on the bus. We went to Blarney Woolen Mills, built in 1750 and known as the largest Irish goods store in the world, famous for their Irish sweaters. John bought two gorgeous sweaters; I got a sweater too and a scarf. They offered shipping directly to the US so we did that; it was super fast and we didn’t have to take up precious suitcase space with bulky sweaters. Win! (The sweater reveal will be in the last post of our Ireland trip recap series.)

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I grabbed some tea and we headed back to the bus, leaving at 2:30PM sharp. We drove an hour and a half due west to Killarney. The ride was windy and very rainy.

During the ride from County Cork to Killarney, Tony pointed out the change in landscape from east to west in Ireland. The west is where poor and uneducated Catholic peasants were forced to settle in the 17th century. The British oppressed all separatists and imposed the Penal Laws, which attempted to force Irish nationalists to accept the English state and the Anglican church. In addition to being forced to live in the inhospitable west, under the Penal Laws the Irish Roman Catholics could not practice their religion, own land, obtain an education, serve in the military, own arms, or hold public office (among other oppressive rules).

It’s no surprise that many Irish emigrated to America to flee this oppression. It is said that roughly 25-30% of George Washington’s Revolutionary Army was Irish. In fact, the origins of the first St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the US were of George Washington giving his troops the day off to recognize their heritage and their hard work.

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We enjoyed the rural landscape, including the flowering yellow fir bush, and more castle ruins along the route. Come on with these castles, Ireland!

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Around 4:30PM we arrived in Killarney. We checked in to our hotel, the Killarney Towers Hotel, quickly got settled in, and then went out for a walk.

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We walked around downtown Killarney, window shopping and chatting, until about 6PM. We stopped at the convenience store next door to our hotel and stocked up on water and Cadbury chocolate. Oh my gosh, I got so addicted to this chocolate on our trip! It’s so good. Better than anything we have in the States, which is sad for a chocolate fiend like me.

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Didn’t buy these cookies but totally took a picture – no one ever spells my name right (there’s an extra E between the L and the Y, people!) and I was so thrilled to see these treats with the right spelling in the mother land. Haha!

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We got back to the hotel, dropped off our candy, and met our group at 6:30PM for dinner. The hotel had a buffet dinner set up just for us! It was really nice and a great chance to get to know each other (and it was included in the cost of our trip). Our group shared tables together and chatted until 8:30PM.

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After dinner, John and I went back to our room, changed into pajamas, and watched Parliament election coverage. I was stone cold asleep by 10PM.

A footnote about the Parliament Election:
I didn’t know anything about Ireland’s Parliament Election at all before this trip, including the fact that it would be happening when we were here (the general election happened on 2/26/2016).  Because John and I are politically-minded people, we were immediately interested in the election process in Ireland. It’s fascinating.

There are over 10 political parties in the Republic of Ireland (so different from our 2/3!). Ireland is a parliamentary, representative democratic republic. They have a President which is a mostly ceremonial position (toal aside: the President’s residence in Dublin, Áras an Uachtaráin, was designed by the same architect who designed the White House, so it basically looks identical), Prime Minister and government cabinet ministers who hold executive power, and Parliament which holds legislative power.

The election itself has a lot of moving parts – ballots are cast per county on a rank order basis. Votes are tallied to obtain quota majorities. Once a majority is obtained, that individual(s) is/are elected. If there are not enough votes to reach a quota, the candidates with the fewest votes are removed from the running. The election proceeds with a re-count, including the second and third (and so on) tier rankings of the individuals who voted for the bottom tier candidates (those who who just got kicked out of the election). It’s complicated and goes on for weeks; I obviously can’t begin to explain or pretend to know all of the nuances. Thankfully Tony explained much of the process to us and it was a really cool learning experience.

The Irish locals we met were awesome in this regard, totally willing to explain the election and local politics, in general, to us. The Irish are fiercely political, always have been. Tony talked politics quite a bit throughout the trip and surprisingly knew a lot about American politics (ragging on Trump, asking if we were ready for the first female president). It’s funny, since the Irish are so political, it’s not taboo to discuss openly in Ireland like it is here in the US. Tony talked American politics with our group a bit more than was comfortable given our diverse backgrounds and where we were all from (half liberals, half conservatives). Just as in the US of late, anti-establishment politics has given rise to younger, fringe political groups in Ireland. It’s another aspect of why the multi-party parliament exists. Also, because there are so many, coalition building within parliament is popular however, that adds sensitivity and vulnerability to the system if/when those coalitions break down. Which has happened year after year within the Irish government. I could go on and on, it’s just so interesting!

Stay tuned for Day 3 where we explore Killarney and the Ring of Kerry!

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Ireland Trip | Day 1: Dublin, Newbridge, & Kilkenny

In February 2016 John and I embarked on our first European vacation to Ireland! We booked through Great Value Vacations totally on a whim (fully explained in the Day 1 post) and it ended up being one of the best trips we’ve ever been on. We’d spent the last nine years seeing as much of the US as possible (38/50 states!) but it was finally time to go abroad. Éirinn go Brách!

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Last August I got an email from a vacation deal website I had never heard of – Great Value Vacations – offering a dirt cheap, all-in vacation to Ireland (flight + hotels + guide + transportation + breakfast & dinner each day). It was too good a deal to ignore so we booked it right away, totally on a whim. Ireland had always been on our bucket list; no better time than the present! I tried to do some research on Great Value Vacations but couldn’t find much online. I hoped and prayed it wasn’t a scam, and then I kind of forgot about it: life got really busy, 6 months flew by, and it was time to go on the trip! Since last summer Great Value Vacations has totally overhauled their website and there are now more searchable reviews online. The following posts recapping this vacation have nothing to do with the company and I am completely unaffiliated with them. I just wanted to add my thoughts and experience with GVV to the internet, and maybe help other travelers out in the process.

That said, I want to start my recap with the highest of praise for our experience with Great Value Vacations. The rest of my posts about our trip will undoubtedly include details I haven’t included here, but here are my main impressions of GVV:
First, the price was unbeatable – $1,000 per person for a virtually all inclusive vacation for 5 days.
Second, the itinerary was a bit general/vague but it was basically a guided bus tour all over southern Ireland. The schedule started early each morning and ended in the early evening. It was action packed with history, touristy things, and many stops along the way. Just our speed. I felt like I got to see Ireland, get to know the country, the culture, and the history. In other words, I couldn’t have planned it better myself. That said, it wasn’t a whole lot of detail up front so if that kind of thing causes you travel anxiety, you might not love how GVV works.
Third, our guide, Tony McCarthy, a local from Killarney, was excellent. He made the trip for me; we wouldn’t have enjoyed this vacation as much without him. He was so knowledgeable, took the time to get to know us, and really showed us the country. Everything we drove by, he explained. He pointed out things I never would have noticed on my own. He offered a local perspective I definitely couldn’t have learned from a book. So impressed with him.
Fourth, our bus was awesome (Kerry Coaches G class coach) – huge windows, modern, clean, and comfortable, which was clutch since we were in the bus for the majority of the trip.
Fifth, our hotels were beautiful and in perfect locations in each city we stayed. And finally, GVV was not a scam! We cannot wait to book with them again!

Ok, let’s start the trip recap!

We left home at 3:30PM and Ubered to Logan Airport. We arrived at 4PM with plenty of time to check in with Aer Lingus and get through security. It was quiet and we breezed through. We sat in the Terminal E waiting area until we boarded at 5:45PM. Boarding was super easy since the plane wasn’t 100% full. We took off without any issues or delays just before scheduled at 6:40PM. We chilled out until we leveled off around 7:15PM. At that time the staff came around with drinks and John moved to an empty row. The seats on Aer Lingus are small and cramped – the row set up is 2 x 4 x 2 seats – so it was nice to space out. I crocheted and listen to Serial until dinner was served around 8:15PM. It was super good – chicken with rice and veggies, bread and butter, rice salad, and a dessert of berries and whip cream. You definitely don’t see that on domestic flights – certainly not included in your airfare anyway! After dinner I started another episode of Serial but started to doze off. I put on my sleep mask and my neck pillow, and tried to snooze. I think I slept but I was not at all comfortable; I have a really hard time sleeping on planes.

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About an hour before we landed, the flight attendants handed out breakfast boxes with a muffin and OJ inside. It was 4AM Ireland time, but only 11PM at home. We landed in Dublin at 5:30AM Ireland time, 12PM Massachusetts time – just about a 6 hour flight.

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We disembarked and made our way to the arrivals hall at Dublin airport.  It was then we checked the itinerary and realized we wouldn’t be meeting our guide until 8:30AM and leaving at 9:30AM. We had 3-4 hours to kill with no place to go. Oops. We tried to find a comfy place to sit/snooze. John got some breakfast, his philosophy was to try and get on Ireland time ASAP. I was just exhausted and wanted to sleep. We parked it on a bench around 7AM. I wasn’t comfortable but I think I dozed off. I got up just before 8AM and John and I took turns walking around the airport to kill time. Finally it was 8:30AM and we kept our eyes peeled for our tour guide.

At around 8:45AM John spotted our guide and we went over to check in. His name was Tony and he let us know he’d come get us when it was time to leave (he was still waiting for some of our group). We went to the bathroom one last time. I grabbed a coconut water and rice cakes for breakfast. I wasn’t feeling hungry or tired, just kind of relieved we were in Ireland and we would begin our adventure soon. I started this vacation with cautious optimism. Maybe it was because I had no idea what to expect, and on purpose kept my expectations low. Or maybe it was because life had been so crazy busy leading up to the trip, I didn’t have time to get super pumped. Or maybe because I didn’t do much researching/planning for this trip, which I normally love doing. Who knows? But anyway, at that moment I was ready and excited!

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Our group of 20 loaded up on the bus and took off at 10AM. We hit the road from Dublin airport and headed to Kilkenny.

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We drove southwest for about an hour before stopping in Newbridge at 11AM. I had just started to doze off too, oh well. We stopped at the famous Newbridge Silverware factory/showroom to shop and get a quick meal at their in-house restaurant. They also have a fashion museum there too but we only had about 45 minutes at this stop so we didn’t get a chance to see it. Newbridge Silverware reminded me of Simon Pearce in Vermont – it was part factory, part store, part museum, and part restaurant. Tons to do, super fun!

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As we were leaving around 11:45AM we checked out the silver pneumatic presses on display outside the outlet. They were made in my hometown – Braintree, Massachusetts! Small world! John kept joking we were the only two things in Ireland from Braintree.

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Back on the bus and back on the road!

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Sculpture of Fionn mac Cumhaill and his hounds at the Ballmany Roundabout in Newbridge, County Kildare. Also a castle. And some spray painted sheep. We would come to know and love the sights of castles and sheep, they are ubiquitous throughout all of Ireland!

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From Newbridge we drove another hour and a half south to Kilkenny. I wanted to stay awake to enjoy my first glimpses of Ireland, but I just couldn’t keep my eyes open. I really needed the snooze!

At 1:15PM we arrived in Kilkenny. Tony gave us until 3:45PM to explore. We started with lunch at a little pub called The Field – it was really tasty, warm soup and a sandwich really hit the spot on the chilly day. We had our first Smithwick’s ale too which was formerly brewed in Kilkenny (they recently moved production to Dublin). It was also the first time I had roasted vegetable soup in Ireland, something I would repeat many times over the course of our trip. That and brown bread were my favorite traditional foods I had in Ireland (I have totally made both at home since we got back!).

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After lunch we walked around downtown Kilkenny for about 30 minutes.

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We admired the beautiful St. Mary’s Cathedral (roman catholic), the quaint shops, the bright vivid colors on the storefronts and doors, and the bustle of the city.

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The Smithwick’s brewery sits in downtown Kilkenny so we took a look inside. It’s just a visitor’s center now since beer production moved to Dublin in 2013. The building was beautiful though. Smithwick’s beer was founded by John Smithwick in 1710. It was originally brewed in the St. Francis Abbey Brewery (Ireland’s oldest operating brewery). The Smithwick’s building is located on the site of a Franciscan Abbey where monks had brewed ale since the 14th century. The ruins of the original abbey still remain on the property.

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Kilkenny Courthouse, formerly known as Grace’s Castle, also sits in the heart of downtown Kilkenny. The building was originally a fortress, built in 1210. Then it was a castle to the wealthy Grace family until they sold it to the English Crown in 1566. It was converted to a prison in 1568 and then to a courthouse in 1792.

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Finally we spent our last hour in Kilkenny at Kilkenny Castle. We did the self-guided tour and it was amazing. The castle was gorgeous and full of treasures – artwork, furniture, tapestries, etc. It reminded John & I of Downton Abbey!

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Kilkenny Castle was built in 1195 by William Marshal, first Earl of Pembroke. James Butler, third Earl of Ormonde, bought the castle in 1391 and established himself as ruler of the area. The last member of the Butler family sold the castle to the local Castle Restoration Committee in 1967, and it was transferred to the people of Kilkenny. The castle and grounds are now managed by the Office of Public Works.

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Beautiful gardens and a perfect view of the River Nore.

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Before boarding the bus we took a quick walk around the Kilkenny Design Centre.

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Kilkenny Design Centre is part of Kilkenny’s castle yard, built in the 1780s by the Butler family as the coach houses and stables of Kilkenny Castle. You can totally see how it used to be a stable and promenade, with the rounded archways and large open circular interior.

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Nowadays Kilkenny Design Centre is an art center with a craft museum and local artisan studios. It was really cool to look inside the potter’s and jeweler’s studios. I love re-purposed old buildings, it’s so special to see how they remain just as useful and important as they originally were intended.

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From Kilkenny Design Centre, our hotel, the Newpark Hotel, was only a 15 minute drive (still within Kilkenny). Checking in was a breeze – here, and at the other hotels we stayed in: the front desk had our entire group’s rooms keys ready and laid out for us at the concierge desk, we just grabbed them and headed to our room. We settled in and unpacked. Our room was lovely and super modern.

Tony had told us on the bus that the hotel restaurant, Scott’s Bar & Brasserie, had the best fish and chips he’d ever had so we headed down there for dinner at around 6PM. John and I both got the fish and chips and Tony did not exaggerate, it was excellent.

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After dinner John and I were both definitely exhausted. I couldn’t believe we made it the whole day without any sleep! I took a relaxing bath and forced myself to stay awake until 8PM, that way I’d truly be on Ireland time. I crashed around 8:30PM and woke up the next morning at 6:30AM, what a great night’s sleep!

Stay tuned for Day 2 where we explore Cashel, Cork City, Blarney, and Killarney!

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