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England and Ireland - 3.5 weeks without a rental car

JMichael

10+ Posts
Here's the first installment of my trip report. I don't want to bore folks with too much detail, but I am happy to answer any questions you might have regarding events, accommodations, transportation or dining.

Meredith and I just returned from our 3.5 weeks in England and Ireland, and I thought I would share some of our experiences and a few photos. We usually fly “open jaws,” flying into our first stop and out of our final stop to come home, rather than round trip. The advantage is that you don’t have the expense or trouble of doubling back to your original port of entry. We did things a bit differently this time around starting with our choice of airline. I was having a difficult time finding deals for our travel dates and happened upon Westjet, Canada’s second largest carrier. They were promoting their new 787 business service from Calgary to London and Dublin and offering attractive one-way fares. We ended up flying out of San Francisco to London via Calgary and returning from Dublin to San Francisco for much less than any of the US carriers were charging.

We have been to London before, so we didn’t have the pressure of doing the “must see” museums and such in our five days there. I purchased Oyster Cards when we arrived, for use on public transit and topped them up with 35 GBP each, knowing that any unused amount would be refunded when we left London. Public transit in both the UK and Ireland worked very well for us. It would be so nice to have that caliber of service in the US. The Underground, rail, and bus services were frequent, clean, safe and on time. It was nice not having to fuss with rental cars and to be able to have a pint or two without worry.

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The Thames from Parliament Park

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The lake in the Queen's Garden on the grounds of Buckingham Palace

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Taking a break at the Garden Cafe

South Kensington was our neighborhood of choice this time. Staying at the Pelham Hotel made for easy walking to a variety of restaurants and the South Kensington tube station was literally across the street. We booked tickets in advance for tours of the Buckingham Palace State Rooms and the Queen’s Garden, the Churchill War Rooms and Westminster Abbey (Verger Tour). I wanted to surprise Meredith with a visit to Highclere Castle, filming location for Downton Abbey, but regular, summer tours ended just prior to our arrival. However, a week before our departure, I discovered there was a 1920s Costume and Cocktails Party at Highclere planned for the Saturday we would be in London. Tickets were still available, so our packing lists were quickly amended. The day was a bit breezy, but the party was great fun with custom cocktails, an orchestra playing tunes from the 1920s, Morris Dancers, vintage cars and tours of the castle.
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We are huge fans of Downton Abbey, so this shot was mandatory.

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The Alex Mendham Orchestra played throughout the day

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My wife (left) with Lady Carnarvon (right)
 

JMichael

10+ Posts
Originally, we planned to hop from London to Dublin on British Airways. A few days before we left, BA abruptly cancelled our flight because their pilots were planning a strike. It looked like there might also be a labor action at Heathrow. I scrambled to make alternate arrangements and we ended up on Ryanair out of Gatwick. I have a new appreciation for the plight of canned sardines.

The Airlink (route 757) bus worked well getting us from Dublin Airport to St. Stephen’s Green, a couple of blocks from Buswell’s Hotel. Dublin is a great city for walking and we did plenty of that in the three days there. Highlights included Grafton St., St. Stephen’s Green, the Guinness Storehouse, St. Patrick’s Catherdral, Christ Church Cathedral, and a walk along the Liffey and through Temple Bar, with pub breaks along the way. We discovered that the best way to find a pub was to look down the street. If you see a building with copious baskets of flowers hanging off the front, 9 times out of 10, it's a pub. Favorite places to eat were Bewley’s on Grafton St. for breakfast, The Winding Stair for lunch, and The Bank on College Green for dinner.

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Bewley's on Grafton St. where we had breakfast each morning under the Harry Clark windows in Poet's Corner.

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The interior of the Bank on College Green restaurant and bar. Formerly the Bank of England, you can still see the vaults in the basement if you go to the WC.

We only used taxis a couple of times in Dublin, to get to the Guinness Storehouse and back, and later to get to Heuston Station for our train to Kilkenny. The fares were very reasonable and the drivers would tell us about the sights along the way.

From Dublin we made a clockwise circle through the Republic of Ireland, stopping in Kilkenny, Killarney, Dingle and Galway. Kilkenny is a lovely little town. Its restored castle on the River Nore was built in 1195 by William the Marshall, a true and loyal knight to Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, about whom Meredith and I used to teach. A short stroll around Kilkenny will take you from the castle on one end of town past Rothe House and the Smithwick’s Brewery to St. Canice’s Catherdral on the opposite end. In the evening you have several pubs featuring traditional Irish and contemporary music from which to choose. Our favorite restaurant was Butcher and favorite pub was Kyteler's Inn, both on St. Kieran's St..

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Kilkenny Castle. It only has three walls. Cromwell's army knocked don the fourth when they invaded. Cromwell's name came up often. He is not well-liked in Ireland.

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A pleasant night time stroll in Kilkenny

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The Raglan Rogues playing trad music at Kyteler's Inn
 
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Joana

10+ Posts
Thank you for your report! Bewley’s was a favorite for us, also. We returned last month from a trip to Ireland and Northern Ireland, also using train travel which we enjoyed. We were based in Dublin, Galway and Belfast. How was your travel through the rest of Ireland to the south and west? Were you able to use trains between the towns, or were buses used in some areas? Since we don’t wish to drive anymore abroad, I have been wondering how to manage visiting areas such as Cork, Killarney and Dingle without a car. Thanks in advance for any advice!
 

JMichael

10+ Posts
Hi Joana. Cork and Killarney have both train and and bus service. We did hire a driver to get us from Killarney to Dingle because we wanted to go along the coast and see Inch Beach. I don't think the bus runs directly between Killarney and Dingle. You have to go by way of Tralee and switch to a different bus there. An alternative would be to take the train from Killarney to Tralee and then the bus down the peninsula to Dingle.
 

JMichael

10+ Posts
Our next stop was Killarney, a town known as a Mecca for tourists, but one which offers several options away from the madding crowds if you know where to look. We chose to get to Killarney using Irish Rail. In order to go west, we first needed to go east. Rather than being a continuous network as in most countries, almost all of Ireland’s rail lines fan out from Dublin. Therefore, we had to train east from Kilkenny to Kildare to catch the westbound train to Portlaoise, where we switched to another train at Mallow, which would take us to Killarney. All the trains were on time and we accomplished the trip in about 5.5 hours. It was so much more relaxing to look out the window and take in the scenery than to drive and miss the beautiful countryside.

It was a short walk from the rail station in Killarney to Killarney Lodge on Countess Rd., at the edge of the city center. Killarney Lodge was hands down the best B&B we have ever stayed in. The full Irish breakfast was an excellent way to start each day. The owner, Catherine Treacy, was informative, friendly and helpful. After dropping our bags in our room, we made the 4 to 5 minute walk into town and oriented ourselves, picking Murphy’s Pub for a late afternoon bite. The tour buses packed with folks headed to the Ring of Kerry or Dingle Peninsula can be a nuisance, but they can also be avoided. For instance, most of the tours leave Killarney around 9:00 or 10:00 am. Knowing that, we headed down our street to Killarney House and Garden (part of Killarney National Park) after breakfast. It was quite serene, with a few locals, no tourists besides ourselves, kids running after the birds or scurrying around the lovely flower beds. Another day we decided to hike the Gap of Dunloe. The scenery was breathtaking (as was the uphill part of the hike). After making our way into the Black Valley we enjoyed a 90 minute ride in a small boat across three lakes to Ross Castle.

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Killarney

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Good advice at the Killarney Brewery

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Hiking the Gap fo Dunloe

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You can drive the Gap of Dunloe, hire a pony and trap, or hike it as we did.

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Along the way in the Gap of Dunloe

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One of the bridges connecting the lakes in Killarney National Park

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Ross Castle
 

JMichael

10+ Posts
When we travel, we try to alternate between big cities and small towns. We also like to rent apartments since they offer spaciousness, flexibility for meals, and usually the opportunity to do laundry in the evenings. From what I’ve read, most folks spend a day or at most a couple of nights in Dingle. We opted to spend a week. Dingle is a relatively small town of some 2,000 permanent residents. However, that population is easily doubled by tourists during the summer as buses disgorge their passengers near the harbor for souvenir shopping and tour boat rides in Dingle Bay to see its most famous resident, Fungie the Dolphin.

The town has three main streets that rise up the hill from the harbor and host a variety of pubs and shops. Dingle is also part of the Gaeltacht, a special area devoted to the preservation of Irish language and culture. At night, traditional Irish music spills out into the streets from many of its 45 pubs and bars. Being there in mid-September, the onslaught of tourists was ebbing. Still, it seemed like a town with a split personality: busy with tourists near the harbor by day, while quiet in the upper part of town, and the reverse at night.

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Dingle's Main St., home to many of the pubs

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Main St. looking toward John St. where our apartment was located

Our apartment was on the edge of the upper part of town, down the street from several pubs and restaurants visited by locals and offering traditional food and music. There were also a couple of flashy, bright green, shamrock encrusted establishments that obviously catered primarily to tourists. Those we avoided, a decision confirmed by the locals who befriended us during our stay.

Our first task upon arrival was to take inventory of the apartment and go grocery shopping. The largest of three markets is in the lower part of town, so walking there gave us the chance to window shop and get oriented. We had three events planned for the week: a guided tour of Slea Head and Connor Pass, a tour of Dingle Distillery and dinner reservations at Out of the Blue, a well-regarded, seafood-only restaurant.

The first couple of days were spent locating the “best” cheese shop, bakery, butcher, and green grocer. We also needed to find “our place,” the spot that would give us the best chance to relax, talk with townspeople, and get in touch with the local culture. In our case that was Foxy John’s, a hardware store and bar a couple of blocks from our apartment.

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Foxy John's Bar and Hardware Store

On entering, there’s a counter to the right with an eclectic mix of tools, hardware, and housewares hanging above and jammed into shelves and cubby holes behind. To the left, is a fully stocked bar with stools, several taps, and even a snug at one end. True to the name, you’ll likely find one of two Johns behind the bar. The elder John is the nephew of the original owner. His son is the affable “young” John who tended most of the time we were there and became our primary guide to the town. Dingle denizens, many of whom are active or retired fishermen, tend to hang out at the far end of the bar. If you want a laugh or to hear tales, strike up a conversation with one of them and soon others will join in.

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The hardware counter at Foxy John's. Despite its appearance, the elder John knew exactly where everything was.

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The bar on the other side of the room, maybe ten feet from the hardware counter

We found that throughout Ireland, it held true that if you want to be left alone, sit at a table. If you want conversation, sit at the bar. Unless we were eating, we always sat at the bar.

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Three of the local boys

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Young John, our guide to all things Dingle

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Young John's perfect pint
 

JMichael

10+ Posts
Three complaints you read most often from folks who rent cars in Ireland are 1) it’s hard to adjust to driving on the left 2) many of the roads, especially in the west, are really narrow 3) the driver has to be so aware of the first two that they never get to relax or enjoy the scenery, and the scenery, especially along the Wild Atlantic Way, is fantastic. That’s why you’ve seen so much of it in movies from Ryan’s Daughter to Star Wars: The Last Jedi. So even if we had rented a car, I would still have hired a guide to take us around the Slea Head Drive and up to Connor Pass.

Our guide, Paudy, picked us up at the apartment at 9:30 am. Starting at 9:30 am meant we would not have to contend with the buses of tourists that come from outlying towns to visit this beautiful and historic area along the Atlantic coastline. My vocabulary is woefully inadequate to communicate the beauty of this part of Ireland. I wish I could properly describe the sight and sound of ocean crashing against cliffs or the surf rolling onto vacant beaches, or the majesty of the now-uninhabited, emerald green Blasket Islands rising silently from the sea, or the feeling of walking on paths and standing in structures built and lived in by farmers and exiled monks between the 3rd and 7th century.
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A reconstructed bee hive hut from the 18th century. There were much older remnants of huts on a nearby farm.

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One of the residents of a nearby farm

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The Blasket Islands. The last inhabitants were moved off the islands in the 1950s

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The farms meet the sea. It was originally too rocky here for farming, but over centuries, farmers brought sand and seaweed from the beaches to create arable soil.

Having grown up on the peninsula, Paudy spoke only Irish until he entered high school. (I thought the language was Gaelic, but according to locals, Gaelic is the language of Scotland). Paudy was intimately familiar with the area and happy to show us his home. He took us down unmarked lanes and across fields we would not have found on our own. He apologized at one point when relating the history of a ruined church, saying he had no written evidence of those who built it, only the oral tradition handed down within his family from one generation to the next. To us it was no less valid than any written account and coming from him, certainly more valuable.

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Coumeenoole Beach, used extensively in the film Ryan's Daughter

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Fuschias along the back way to the Gallarus Oratory

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Thanks to Paudy's timing and a little luck, we had the Gallarus Oratory all to ourselves.

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The view from the top of Connor Pass
 

JMichael

10+ Posts
Good food and drink are kind of a big deal for us. Ireland in general, and Dingle in particular, have plenty of both. Renting an apartment let us choose whether to take advantage of the local butcher and fish monger or go out to a restaurant. One afternoon, we went to Kennedy’s (the best butcher in town) and found fresh, boneless, trimmed lamb for six euro a pound. With produce from the green grocer next door, Meredith made melt-in-your-mouth lamb curry that night. Our daily diet included some sort of fresh fish for lunch or dinner. It might be crab, lobster, hake, oysters, cockles or mussels or all of the above in a seafood chowder. The restaurants we went to took pride in serving the freshest ingredients, simply prepared. The Out of the Blue seafood restaurant only sets their menu when the boats come in. If weather prevents fishermen from going out, the restaurant will be closed that night.

Our favorite restaurants in Dingle were Ashe’s Pub for lunch and Land to Sea for dinner. We were having mussels in cream sauce at Ashe’s one afternoon when a fisherman walked by our table on the way to the kitchen with maybe twenty-five or thirty pounds of fresh mussels and a large sack of oysters. We toasted to him on his way out. Land to Sea serves fresh seafood and lamb with an eye to artful presentation.

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The seafood appetizer at Land to Sea

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Roast rump of lamb in its own reduction with mint gel and roasted carrot puree

A short walk from Dingle gets you to Milltown where an old sawmill has been given new life. It is the home of the Dingle Distillery, makers of award winning gin, vodka and most recently released, whiskey. The small-group tour included a walk through of the distillery, instruction on the processes used, and tastings of each of their wonderful products. We got to climb up on the catwalk to see the mash fermenting and get a close look at the three, handmade copper stills.

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It was a warm day, so our guide started the tour with a short history and our first tasting outside the distillery

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Their twin copper stills
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They opted for old school wooden mash tuns

Though they can be made from grain or potatoes, there is little variation in the taste of vodkas. Gins, on the other hand, have a wide variety of flavors depending on the botanicals used during the distilling process. By law, 50% of the botanicals in gin must be juniper berries. It’s the other 50% that gives each gin its unique character. Dingle Gin has a very floral character owing to their use of locally harvested botanicals not available elsewhere. Our guide was really jazzed because they just received the 2019 World’s Best Gin Award in a competition between 400 gins from 20 different countries. It was easy to see why when we had our tasting.

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The unique botanicals in Dingle Gin

With only sixteen employees, this is definitely “the little distillery that could.” They have been producing whiskey since they opened in 2012, but didn’t bring it to market until 2016 because it has to be barrel aged for a minimum of three years. They have been experimenting with aging in a variety of different barrels such as those previously used for bourbon, port and sherry. When ready, they blend the contents of the barrels to taste. We had glasses of this year’s Batch 4. I don’t usually drink whiskey, but with a splash of ginger ale, I can understand why it sells for $80 a fifth.

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Whiskey from Batch 2 still aging
 

JMichael

10+ Posts
This is the final entry of my trip report.

Not having a car posed the biggest challenge during the next leg of our trip, getting from Dingle to Galway. We could have taken a series of buses or a bus and a train. However, both would have been routed inland and we wanted to see the Cliffs of Moher. The answer was to hire a driver for the day. Driving up the Dingle Peninsula, we took a car ferry across the River Shannon and made our way to Spanish Point and along the coast to the Cliffs of Moher. They are indeed dramatic, dropping in some places 700 ft. to the sea. The wind was blowing a gale when we were there so please forgive the bad hair. From there we went through several small towns including Lisdoonvarna, known as the matchmaking capital of Ireland. The Irish have gone here for years to find a mate and apparently many still prefer it to eharmony.com.

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Crossing the River Shannon by ferry

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The Cliffs of Moher

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When the wind blows this hard, you don't want to stand too close to the edge. Notice the absence of guardrails.

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Dunguaire Castle

We also toured Dunguaire Castle, constructed in 1520 on the shores of Galway Bay. It was built to protect locals from Spanish invaders. They host medieval feasts there during the summer. From the castle, we wove our way into Galway to the Hotel Meyrick on Eyre Square (also known as John F. Kennedy Park). Galway is the fourth largest city in Ireland and offers a great night life, especially in its pedestrian-only streets between our hotel and the River Corrib. We had a fine time there shopping, visiting churches, and hanging out at Tig Coili, a pub that offered traditional Irish music all day (no canned music and no tv). We had wonderful conversations with the great grandson of the original owner and also a retired fisherman, Domenic, who had lived in Galway his entire life.

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Eyre Square from our room at the Hotel Meyrick

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Tig Coili pub in the pedestrian-only area

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Crossing the Corrib to Galway Catherdral. It was a rainy couple of days but not really cold.

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The knave of the cathedral built between 1958 and 1965.

After three days in Galway, it was time to head back to Dublin for our flight home. We like to spend our last night near our departure airport to avoid travel day hassles, but know that doesn’t mean our final day has to be spent cloistered in an airport hotel. We used GoBus to take us cross country from Galway to the Dublin Airport, arriving about 3:00 in the afternoon. Dublin airport is quite some distance from Dublin proper, but only 15 minutes by cab from the seaside town of Malahide. We left our bags at our airport hotel and made the quick trip to Malahide Castle and Gardens. On the way, we asked our driver for pub recommendations. His advice was, “Duffy’s for food, Gibney’s for drinks.” We followed that advice and it made for a great last night in Ireland. We had a good meal, our final pints of fresh, properly poured Guinness, and Jameson and ginger. We taxied back to the hotel a little later than planned but happy.

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Malahide Castle

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They have a butterfly house in Malahide Gardens

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The Victorian Greenhouse at Malahide Castle and Gardens. It was one of many of the greenhouses sheltering exotic plants.

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On the sidewalk in Malahide. We were in awe of the flowers we saw throughout Ireland in September.

In the past our European travels have mainly taken us to its art and culinary centers in France and Italy. We had heard about the scenic beauty of Ireland, but weren’t sure what else it offered. Three weeks showed us that history, and more importantly the friendliness of its people are huge assets that don’t get the acknowledgement they deserve. With only a couple of exceptions, the Irish people we met were open, warm, fiercely independent, and proud of their heritage. Our visit was, as they seem to say everywhere in Ireland, “perfect.”
 
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