Ireland — February, 2010

I recently took part in a six-day travel agent “FAM” (familiarization tour) of Ireland, and was fortunate enough to be able to bring my 14-yr-old daughter along with me. It was my first trip to Ireland, and my first escorted motorcoach tour, and the trip exceeded my expectations in every way! Before even getting into the details of the trip, I have to put a plug in for CIE Tours (our host) who truly provided a first-class experience.

NOTE: If you’re not interested in the review, and just want to skip ahead to the photos, click here. If you want to read about the trip first, there’s another photo link at the end.

We flew overnight from Newark to Dublin and arrived bright and early on Wednesday morning. At the airport, we were met by our very personable driver/guide Frank who rounded us all up, loaded us in the coach, and took us on an orientation tour of the city – complete with some very interesting background commentary and explanation. Our first destination was the Guinness Storehouse, where we were treated to a tour, a tasting, and a demonstration on how to pour a proper pint. Afterwards, we enjoyed a draft in their beautiful roof-top bar with a 360-degree view of the city. A glass of Guinness at 10:00 in the morning is not as bad as you might think!

 

From there, we continued our driving tour of the city, including Phoenix Park (the largest wall-enclosed urban park in Europe), O’Connell Street, the newly-emerging Dublin Docklands area, and more. We also enjoyed a tour of the Croke Park Hotel, directly across the street from Dublin’s Croke Park stadium (which hosts major concerts, sporting events and conferences).

That afternoon we checked in to the Maldron Hotel Dublin, a lovely modern hotel on the south bank of the River Liffey near the new “Samuel Beckett Bridge” (a stunning architectural landmark, shaped like a harp). After a few free hours to unpack, rest and take a brisk walk along the river to wake ourselves up, we joined our fellow travel agents for a welcome drink and delicious dinner in the hotel restaurant.

Thursday morning we were up and on the coach first thing in the morning for a tour with a very knowledgeable local guide who explained Dublin’s history from Viking times to the present, and showed us Georgian townhouses, parks and gardens, cathedrals, government buildings and more. We enjoyed an in-depth tour of Dublin Castle (in whose courtyard the historic transfer of power from England to the new sovereign Republic of Ireland took place), and a quick spin through Trinity College to see the famous Book of Kells. After our tour we were treated to lunch and a hotel inspection at the Westbury Hotel on historic Grafton Street, and then turned loose for the afternoon on our own.

Mary and I took full advantage of the free time to window-shop along Grafton Street, re-visit Trinity College for a closer look, stop in at the Powers Court townhouses for a snack from their cupcake café, and rest our feet on a park bench in the lovely St. Stephen’s Green. That night, we headed out to Taylors Three Rock (just outside the city) for an evening of Irish food, music and dance. Some of our group even got the opportunity to get up and join the step dancers (fortunately, not me!)

On Friday morning we checked out of the hotel and boarded the coach for a scenic drive south through farm country and market villages – with historic background and commentary provided by Frank. We had a quick photo stop at the dramatic Rock of Cashel (which definitely would be worth a return visit) before arriving at Blarney Castle in County Cork. It goes without saying that Mary and I both climbed the castle and kissed the Blarney Stone before enjoying a pub lunch and some shopping at the Blarney Woolen Mills. The remainder of our drive passed through gorgeous countryside surrounded by lakes and mountains, before ending up in the beautiful town of Killarney, where we checked in to the Killarney Avenue Hotel. We joined our group for a delicious dinner in the hotel restaurant, and begged out of the pub-crawl they were planning, as we were just too exhausted!

Saturday’s itinerary was the highlight of the trip – a scenic drive along the Dingle Peninsula, where we saw snow-capped mountains (very unusual for Ireland, I’m told), wild coastline, sandy stretches of beach, fishing villages, stone ruins, early Christian monastic beehive huts, and lots and lots of sheep! We toured a great family-friendly resort in Dingle, called the Dingle Skellig Hotel, and we made it back to Killarney in time to wander around town and do a little souvenir shopping on our own. That evening we enjoyed a gourmet dinner (and a hotel tour) at the Brehon Hotel – a luxurious four-star hotel and spa in Killarney. Mary and I wanted to hide out in their Thai-inspired Angsana Spa and never come home!

 

On Sunday, we checked out of the hotel and headed northeast to Foynes (the birthplace of Irish coffee), to visit the Flying Boat Museum. This fascinating museum celebrates the early days of transatlantic air travel in the 1930’s and 1940’s and we were treated to a tour of a full-scale replica of a Boeing 314 “Yankee Clipper” – as well as an Irish-coffee-making demonstration!

After Foynes we took the ferry across the River Shannon estuary and continued along the coastline of County Clare to the famous Cliffs of Moher. Of course, this was the one foggy day of our trip, and by the time we got to the cliffs, you could not see your hand in front of your face. We ate lunch, toured their museum, and just before we had to get back on the coach, the fog lifted….so I sent Mary running back up the cliffs to grab a few photos!

That afternoon we stopped for a quick tour of Dromoland Castle, an imposing castle that was the ancestral home of Irish royalty (direct descendants of the high king Brian Boru) and has now been turned into a five-star resort hotel and golf course. Later, after checking into our final hotel, the Bunratty Castle Hotel, we headed across the street to the Bunratty Folk Park to enjoy a medieval banquet in the great hall of the 15th-century Bunratty Castle. This fun and festive dinner included singing, dancing, and bagpipes – but no utensils! I guess part of the “atmosphere” is to eat with your fingers as if you are still in the Middle Ages. Yikes!

 Since it was our last night in Ireland, I convinced Mary to come out to Durty Nelly’s Pub with the group for a farewell drink (beer for me, Diet Coke for her). The next morning dawned much too early, and we were at Shannon Airport by about 7am to check in for our flight. After an uneventful hop across the Atlantic, we landed in Newark at about 11:30 am and were on our way back home to Rhode Island.

A few thoughts/observations about this trip:

  • The weather in Ireland in February was not nearly as bad as I expected. Never once opened my umbrella, and it was warmer than it was at home in RI that week. Clear and in the upper 30’s most of the time…though I’m sure this was an aberration.
  • The food was much better than I expected (since I did not expect much). We dined on salmon, roast beef, delicious soups and breads and, of course, potatoes.
  • The drinks were great too. After much trial and error, I decided that Smithwick’s was my favorite beer (Guinness is a bit too heavy), and I found a whole new appreciation for Irish coffee (which was served to us at practically every stop we made along the way)
  • A motorcoach tour is just about the most stress-free vacation you can take. We never once touched our luggage, waited in a hotel check-in line, worried about directions, or reached into our pockets to pay for sightseeing admissions, etc. Best of all, we did not have to drive on the wrong side of the road or pay for our own gas (about $6 a gallon!)
  • Six days is not nearly enough time to take in a whole country. I feel as though I got a very good “sampler” of Irish history, geography, and scenery — and a great feeling for Irish hospitality – but it just left me wanting more! Now I just need to start planning the next trip. Maybe I’ll bring the boys this time !

For all of our photos, click here.

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