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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
Back on the bus and back on the road!
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!
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!).
After lunch we walked around downtown Kilkenny for about 30 minutes.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Beautiful gardens and a perfect view of the River Nore.
Before boarding the bus we took a quick walk around the Kilkenny Design Centre.
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.
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.
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.
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!