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Ireland Seven Nights in Western Ireland in Fall 2010


100+ Posts
I'm sharing an old trip journal in case it's useful to folks here. My husband and I traveled in October 10-16, 2010, spending seven days driving around Western Ireland, staying in B&Bs.

The Prep
My husband Bob and I decide earlier in 2010 that to celebrate his birthday and our twelfth anniversary we would take another “big” vacation: to Ireland! I had never been, and the last time he was there was thirty years ago. We decided to stick to the West coast since we only had a week, and we planned to rent a car since it would afford us more freedom to see the sites we wanted to see, at our own pace. After researching prices online, we took our plans to an agent at AAA, and she found an independent tour option through CIE tours that was cheaper than what we could do on our own (it covered flights, car rental, and lodging).

Working with AAA was a smooth process and I would recommend it to anyone who either doesn’t feel comfortable doing things on their own, or who feels it is a better deal. That said, I think in the future we will make arrangements on our own, for two reasons. One is that we will probably want to find a rental property and base ourselves from one or two locations if we return. The other is that we had a bad experience with Hertz rental cars at Shannon airport and would not use them again (short version: car was not ready on time, and we ended up having to take a larger car than we ordered, which made for more stressful driving. And they tried to convince us we were lucky to get the free upgrade.).

But onward to the good stuff!

Day 1: Bunratty & Cliffs of Moher
We arrived in Shannon, Ireland gray and early Sunday morning. It’s a nice small airport and provided us our first Irish tea and not-so-Irish-but-tasty croissants as we waited (and waited...) for our rental car. Finally we set out just after 10, having decided our first stop would be Bunratty Folk Park, since it was only a few minutes from the airport and would give us a chance to ease into driving on the other side of the road.

Bunratty Folk Park is a recreated 19th century village, adjoining 15th century Bunratty castle. We toured the castle first, navigating the many, many twisting steep staircases that take you from grand halls hung with tapestries to tiny guard chambers tucked into corners of the towers. I was particularly intrigued by these odd mermaid-antler-figurehead things that were hanging in many of the rooms. I still don’t know what they are!

After exploring some (though not all) of the thatched houses and old schoolhouses and getting a bit woozy from the ever-present peat smoke (which smells something like roasting chestnuts, I found), we decided to head on to our next destination: the Cliffs of Moher.

It was probably not the ideal weather for it, being overcast and chilly, but it was on our way to our first night’s lodging in Fanore, so we decided to go for it. And they certainly are impressive!

The Cliffs were definitely a tourist destination, however, even on a gray day. Dozens of tour buses were pulled into the parking lot, along with at least a hundred cars. There’s a massive new tourist center with restaurant and shops and multimedia display built into the side of the hill nearby, and the walkways along the cliffs are new and sturdy. I am glad that we saw the Cliffs, but I couldn’t ever escape the feeling of “tourist sight!” long enough to truly internalize their majesty. Maybe if we came back in February?

After that we headed north along more narrower-than-seems-possible roads, headed for Fanore. This was actually my favorite part of our first day, as the traffic fell off and we began seeing more of the unearthly Burren landscape.

We continued winding along the edge of the land, with an empty expanse of of rough gray stone on one side, and the choppy charcoal sea on the other, occasionally broken by bands of vibrant green grazing fields populated by cows (not sheep!). A short time later we reached the Rocky View Farmhouse, a welcoming and comfortable place for our first night. At the suggestion of our hosts, we had dinner at Vascos, two miles back along the road. This was a lovely modern-but-warm place to have our first meal (our “lunch” had been tea and scones at Bunratty). I had pumpkin-sage-spinach risotto and really excellent house-made lemonade, while Bob had lamb tagine over couscous. We were too stuffed for dessert! As we enjoyed our meal I think I finally started to relax from the stresses of driving (those roads are really narrow) and the press of crowds and the tiredness of having been mostly-awake for 30-odd hours. The evening sun began breaking out from the clouds, foretelling sunnier weather for the next day. After a brief visit with a local sheep we retired for the night.

Day 2: The Burren
I woke early, too excited to sleep and drawn by the odd gusty weather outside. Our B&B (Rocky View Farmhouse) was situated on a strip of settled land that runs along the coast, with the barren hills of the Burren rising on one side and pastures leading down to the sea on the other. The sun was rising behind the bare hills that were still topped by a ridge of thick clouds, but the wind was whipping along them, tearing up streams and tatters. I think I took about twenty pictures of the sky that morning, while out on a solo walk along the nearby roads.

It was intoxicating being out along the sea, breathing the air, drinking in this odd mix of sunlight and cloud and bare rock and lush green fields. I think I might well have just kept walking along the grassy paths between the pastures if I hadn’t eventually come to a closed gate!

After a hobbity breakfast (porridge, tea, and brown bread with really good butter for me, eggs, bacon, sausage, tomatoes and biscuits for Bob) we bid farewell to our very nice hosts (probably the most welcoming hosts of our trip) and headed off to explore more of the Burren.

Our first stop was Ailwee Caves, which Bob was very interested in seeing. I will admit I probably would not have chosen that stop myself, but it turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip! We skipped the Birds of Prey show and instead took a short but pleasant hike up a walking trail to the cave entrance.

Perhaps because everyone else was at the Falconry demonstration, Bob and I lucked out and got on a cave tour by ourselves. Our friendly guide took us into the damp tunnels, deep into the caverns that were dimly lit by gold lights, turned on one section at a time as we progressed through. We saw wallows where bears had hibernated 1500 years ago, deep chasms, stalagmites and stalactites, and underground waterfalls. Very cool! The sound of dripping water, the strong mineral tang in the air, the smooth sliminess of the walls (yes, of course I had to touch them). Our guide finally led us to the human-made exit route, leaving us to find our own way out as he went off to turn off the lights again, whistling the Indiana Jones music as he went. Hee!

One of the most fun and cool things about Ireland overall was how we would stumble across ruins or other cool sites just randomly, along the side of the road. We’d been instructed by our B&B hosts to keep an eye out as we left the Caves for a couple unmarked ring forts right along the main road. And indeed there were — and these were some of our favorite sites of the trip. The first (visible from the road) was a simple ring of earthworks, with deep gulley running along the outer edge and a flat clearing within. But trees had grown up throughout in the years since it had been used, creating a bright peaceful green space under tall trees.

I am not sure we would have found the second site had we not been looking for it. From the road it looked like simple a narrow green lane edged by some stones. But if you followed the trail on the other side of that wall, eventually you found Cahermore, a wonderful (small) fort.

We went onward, finding our way to the considerably-more-obvious Poulnabrone site, one of the most photographed in Ireland. I (the mathematician) liked the fact that from one side it looks like the Greek letter Pi.

After that we drove around a bit more (probably more than we should have for my sanity) to visit the Burren Perfumery (okay, but not a must-see) and the ruins of Corcomroe Abbey (ditto). I think my favorite part of the latter was the “traffic jam” that happened shortly after our arrival, when a tour van trying to get in met up with a whole bunch of cows trying to get out. A woman on a bike who was braver than I was "encouraging" the cows to move on.

We finally stopped for dinner (lunch was chocolate digestives, cheese and crackers in the car) at a pub. My vegetable soup and brown bread were delicious, while Bob’s lasagna was “more like macaroni & cheese with tomato sauce.” I put too much faith in the claims of “homemade dessert” implying quality, and vowed not to order “apple pie” in Ireland ever again. After that we had a long dark drive around Galway that is best not remembered, into Connemara and our second night’s lodging.

Day 3: Connemara
I will admit, one of the main reasons I was excited to be staying in the Connemara region was that we had booked two nights at Ballynahinch, which looked glorious in the online pictures.

And it was as gorgeous as I had dreamed! There were a few downsides (the beds were not particularly comfy, and the tap-water had a brown cast and was not hot enough for my comfort) but it was still a lovely place. When I wandered downstairs at an unseemly hour I found a cozy spot in the large sitting room (there was also a smaller library) to read and write in my travel journal, and a helpful waiter setting up for breakfast even brought me a pot of tea to sustain me for the two hours until breakfast would be served.

Once it got light out, I ventured out to explore the extensive grounds, exploring the “Lake Trail” that ran up along the nearby river to a spot overlooking a lake and one of the Twelve Bens (the Connemara mountain range) in the distance.

As a horticultural aside: the grounds featured some really beautiful hydrangeas, turning from pale blue to deep autumn-sky blue to purple to rust. But the thing that was absolutely everywhere was fuchsia: the somewhat alien-looking flower I’m used to seeing in hanging baskets back home. Apparently it loves the climate in Ireland! We saw great hedges of it along roads, in gardens, everywhere! As with the palm trees, it was one of those elements that kept reminding me that yes, I was in a foreign country.

After my walk, Bob and I had an excellent breakfast (they had a buffet of cheeses, cereals, fruits, yogurt, baked goods, and freshly squeezed orange juice, plus hot breakfasts involving eggs and meats in various incarnations, including kippers) in the large, sunny dining room overlooking the gardens and river. Then we set off to explore!

We spent most of the day driving — which was both good and bad. It was around this time that I think I realized I had probably scheduled too much driving on the vacation for my enjoyment. It’s tough because the sites are spread out, and because some of the sites are the scenic drives. We drove along the coast south from our hotel through the town of Roundstone, then up the coast to Clifden, the largest city in the region. From there we went out along the “Sky Drive”, said to be one of the most beautiful in Ireland. And it was indeed dramatic, rising up rather perilously above steep green fields populated by cows that seemed perfectly at ease scrambling about. The weather was clear and it felt as if we were in a world of nothing but sea, grass and sky.

We continued on to Kylemore Abbey, a remote manor set in a lake valley in the heart of the Bens, currently owned by an order of nuns who (until just recently, I believe) run a private girls’ school there (but apparently the local girls got to go for free!).

It’s clear the facility is aware of the tourist potential now, though. There was an extensive visitor center with a reasonably good cafe (note: there was free self-serve water available in the cafeteria, complete with real glass cups, so no need to buy the bottled water). I had potato-leek soup with brown bread (very good) while Bob had some sort of beef goulash over rice with a side of carrots. Prices were comparable to pubs (€5 for soup and bread, €9 for full meal with sides). There was also a salad bar, quiches, and a number of pre-made sandwiches, as well as scones, muffins, and several cakes.

We toured the handful of rooms open to the public (all nicely decorated in period style), visited the “miniature cathedral” (decorated with different colored marble from throughout Ireland), observed another sightseer communing with a huge pine tree, hands pressed to its giant bole and eyes closed, read about the rare bats that roost in the cathedral’s ceiling, and generally enjoyed imagining ourselves in some historical novel.

A mile walk (or a few-minute shuttle ride) from the Abbey is a giant walled garden that the nuns have only recently begun to restore. When it was built by the original owner, it apparently had 19 greenhouses, connected so that the ladies of the household could take their afternoon walks in warms and comfort during even the middle of winter. Can you imagine? They’ve restored three so far, and plan to continue with the rest as money allows. Even so, the gardens were impressive. We particularly enjoyed touring the recreated dwellings of the Head Gardener (he and his family lived right in the garden, in a quite nice house!) and Under-gardeners’ bunk house (near the above, so the HG could keep an eye on them!).

By this time I was losing steam, and figured I had probably seen the highlights of my day. But as we drove onward, taking the final loop through the mountains that would take us full-circle to our hotel, I discovered I was wrong. Because I was in Rohan (of Lord of the Rings fame). I’m not sure the pictures in my photo album can convey this – on the surface it’s just a bunch of golden-brown hills – but being there, in that moment, with the sun sliding down to the west and those bare heights rising up, I had an overpowering urge to run off into them, to find out what was on the other side. The answer was not Eomer and Eowyn, alas. It was more hills. But that didn’t stop me from wanting to keep going!

Bob and I talked about it later, about the unique feel of this landscape, trying to identify what it was that drew both of us to it (aside from the fact that it looked like Rohan). Age, emptiness, potential? I’m still not sure...

We ate a decent though pricey dinner at the pub at our hotel (skipping the even-more-pricey high-cuisine dining room), and then finished the day watching Master Chef and MI5.

Day 4: Kilmacduagh & Ennis

After another leisurely morning hiking around the grounds (me) and sleeping in (Bob) and plying ourselves with scones and tea (both of us), we departed Connemara and headed south again toward Ennis, which I’d chosen for our fourth night purely because it seemed like a good stopping point between Connemara and Dingle, and because we could stay in another fancy house.

To break up the several-hour drive we stopped at Kilmacduagh, site of an abbey that was founded in the 7th century by a saint who (according to Wikipedia) chose the spot because his girdle fell off as he was walking by. The handful of remaining structures date to the 12th century or later. The most dramatic is the tall round tower (now leaning in a Pisa-like fashion), where the monks fled during attack (the door is high above ground level – they used a ladder and pulled it in after them).

The weather that day was marked (for the first time) by dense coiling fog, but it turned out to be a blessing. I don’t think I would have enjoyed Kilmacduagh half so much if it had been bright and crystal-clear. As it was, the fog veiled the modern houses across the street, and softened the looming tower and broken stone churches into something magical. I could almost imagine I was in one of those historical time-travel movies, and that if I wandered deep enough into the fog I’d come through in the 12th century.

We were also the only visitors for our entire hour-long stay, wandering freely around the wet fields and climbing through old doorways. It was definitely one of the most magical experiences of our vacation.

After that we headed onward to our fifth night’s lodging at Newpark House, which featured the best bed of our entire stay (most beautiful and comfiest), as well as some really lovely (though chilly) sitting rooms, and a bucolic vista out front. Though the local cows looked disturbingly deranged.

After consulting with our host, we decided to take the 30 minute walk into town (not a particularly scenic walk, but it was good to stretch our legs and not drive). Ennis was the largest city we visited in our stay, and it was a nice change at that point. We had cocoa and tea at a bookstore cafe, did a little shopping and a lot of people watching (we arrived just as school let out, expelling a wide range of kids in several different uniforms out into the city to cluster at a fry shop, giggle and whisper in pairs overlooking the river, rush about determinedly with sketchbooks and instrument cases).

We ate at The Rowan Tree, which is both a hostel and a restaurant featuring pizza and pasta. My meal was nothing special, but the setting was lovely: lofty ceilings, warmly painted walls, big broad windows overlooking the river, and a mellow, candle-lit atmosphere.

Heading homeward again, we stopped for some provisions at the grocery store, then retired to rest up for the drive to Dingle the next day.

As a reference for anyone planning a trip to this part of Ireland, I’ll note that we drove from Ennis to Dingle by way of the Shannon Ferry, and it was fine though not very scenic, and driving through Tralee was particularly stressful and confusing. But it got us to Dingle!

Days 5 & 6: Dingle
This was the highlight of my trip! I loved Dingle from the moment we came out along the southern coast past Inch beach and saw the tracks of silver light running along the sea toward Kerry.

Dingle itself was such a charming little town, full of restaurants, pubs, and cute dogs. Not to mention tourists! Bob and I particularly enjoyed the brightly painted storefronts. There is also a tower out on one hill overlooking the bay that strongly resembles a Dalek.

We spent the afternoon of our arrival rambling around the town, window-shopping and sampling some much-lauded local ice cream (which was good, but nothing extraordinary. We find much better made locally in Maine. Or by Ben & Jerry’s).

We particularly enjoyed a visit to the Dingle Music Store, where the proprietor welcomed us warmly and (upon my asking about local CDs featuring concertinas) pulled down a concertina from a shelf and began playing for us. He moved on to accordion later! We enjoyed our impromptu concert very much, and were happy to get his recommendation to see a session later that night down the street that would feature an uillean pipe player. I was sorely tempted to accept his parting offer of a sip of whiskey, because it would have made a good tourist story, but alas neither Bob and I care for it and wouldn’t have wanted it wasted on our palates.

We had dinner at a Chinese restaurant (Tir Na Ri), being in the mood for something different. It was comparable to standard restaurant Chinese food we’ve had elsewhere. We did enjoy the oddity of seeing fellow diners having their beef with broccoli over chips (fried potatoes) as well as rice!

After settling into our B&B (The Lighthouse, located a brisk uphill walk from the downtown, very comfortable, with a huge lovely tub and plenty of hot water at last!) we rested up a bit before following the suggestion of our music-store friend.

The recommended pub, An Droichead Beag (“The Small Bridge”), was conveniently only a 10-15 minute walk from our B&B. There were probably at least a dozen other live music sessions going on that night (a Thursday) but we were so happy we chose this one! Not only for the excellent music, but for the atmosphere of the pub itself. It was a low, wood-beamed, fire-flickering place that reminded both Bob and I of The Prancing Pony from The Lord of the Rings. It was crowded, but everyone was very jovial and there was a wonderful energy throughout, no doubt assisted by the music. We’re pretty sure the band must be relatively famous locally as there were not only tourists but plenty of locals (more so than the following night, when we returned to see a fiddle and guitar duo play to a smaller and less boisterous crowd).

We had a wonderful time, squeezed into our tiny corner. Even the Diet Coke seemed to taste better, in the small glass bottles! We left during the break between first and second set, and I kind of regret not staying to hear more. But we were tired, and I am not a night owl, and we had lots to do the next day!

For our second day in Dingle, we decided to do the popular Slea Head Drive, a loop that runs west from Dingle to the farthest tip of the peninsula. This was probably my favorite drive of our entire trip. We stopped a number of times at various forts, beehive huts, and scenic overlooks.

It was absolutely gorgeous!

We especially enjoyed stopping at Dunbeg Fort, where we paid a few euros each to the old gentleman tucked into a tiny shed, then headed down a pebbly walk to the edge of the cliffs, where we found ancient stones marking out the structure (it’s not a “fort” in the sense of more modern defenses). A good part of it has already fallen into the sea, alas. We each tested out the beehive guard-hut, and peered down between the gaps in the stone walk to glimpse the ‘suterrain’, a secret underground passage.

After touring the site we watched a video at the tourist center across the street, and had some tea and scones at the Stone House, a restaurant that shares the parking lot. The scone was so tasty and the Stone House itself so appealing (with its sunny, brightly decorated rooms, and tables to sit at outside, all sharing the gorgeous view down to the cliffs and across the water) we decided to have an early lunch. We were delighted to hear that the brown bread and roasted chicken for our sandwich were still in the oven but would be out shortly, so we hung out and talked with the friendly chef/waiter Mark (whose uncle owns the restaurant, if I remember correctly). He told us that this summer they switched from a high-end expensive fish menu to a less expensive more traditional menu, and that it had been a hit. I can see why, as everything we ate there was marvelous! The scone was light and fluffy inside and buttery-crisp outside, the open-faced chicken sandwich was so fresh and juicy, and came with a tasty side salad dressed with a corn-pepper-pesto relish. Mmm... It was the best food we’d had so far on our trip so we decided we might as well have dessert too, especially as Mark said it was the last day he would be there before closing for the season! I had a really luscious Bailey’s cheesecake, while Bob had an apple tart. Highly recommended!

Another of our favorite stops on the drive was at Slea Head Beach. It’s an amazing setting, right on the tip of the mainland, with only the Blasket Islands further out. The beach is a cup of pale sand held between sharp dark stones. You reach it by means of a steep curving switchback, and when you stand on the beach facing out to sea, a tall cliff looms behind you. Very dramatic!

We continued on, stopping to observe more interesting landscapes. Our last stop before returning to Dingle was the Gallarus Oratory.

We enjoyed visiting the Oratory itself, marveling at the mortar-less construction that has stood watertight for centuries. We also enjoyed parking in the lesser-known public lot and walking in, thus avoiding the fee for the visitor center.

Back in Dingle, we had late afternoon tea at the Goat Street Cafe and wished we would have been able to have a full meal (it was closing at 4:45 and we weren’t really ready for supper). It looked like the kind of food we would really enjoy (spicy stir-fries and couscous and curries and tarts), and smelled wonderful. We contented ourselves with dessert, which was delicious.

We went back to our B&B to rest up for another night of music, then found ourselves a late but tasty dinner at an Indian restaurant down by the harbor. If we return to Dingle we’d definitely eat there again, but we’d also have liked to check out The Blue Zone, which had some delicious-smelling pizza but was sadly full when we stopped in.

After supper we returned to An Droichead Beag for another round of music, and then to bed to rest up for our last full day in Ireland!

Day 7: Lough Gur and Bunratty again!
Our only fixed plan for our last day was to attend one of the touristy “feasts” at Bunratty Castle for dinner that night. We decided to break up the drive back by stopping in the Lough Gur area, south of Limerick.

We loved this region, and wished we could have spent longer! Lough (lake) Gur is surrounded by interesting sites ranging from hill forts to neolithic tombs to the largest stone circle in Ireland. We were fortunate to also have lovely weather with blue skies and puffy white clouds, which gave the scenes a fairytale quality.

We were amused that the stone circle also served as cow pasture.

Regretfully leaving Lough Gur, we drove north through Limerick (not as bad as we feared) and found our last night’s lodging at Headley Court in Bunratty. This was a serviceable B&B we chose primarily for its convenience to the airport (10 minutes away). It wasn’t the most lovely location or the most charmingly decorated, but the proprietor was friendly and breakfast next morning was tasty (for the first time we were offered something other than eggs/toast/porridge: French Toast!)

After checking in, we returned to Bunratty Castle for the second time on our trip. As I had expected, the affair was slightly (or perhaps very) cheesy, but was still fun, and the food and entertainment were actually very good! I don’t think I would do it again, however, because it was pretty clear they were packing in far too many people for true comfort, in the interest of making as much money as possible no doubt. The tables were packed so tightly it was uncomfortable, and I am not even a particularly large person. The food service was likewise rushed, probably because there are two seating each night, and we were the first. But aside from those drawbacks, it was a fun way to end our trip!

Overall I had a very good time, though it was also a learning experience for me in terms of what I enjoy and what I don’t enjoy in a vacation. I discovered that I much prefer a vacation where I stay put in one place for several days, and do more of my sightseeing by foot. If I were to return, I would probably try to rent an apartment in Dingle for five days, or perhaps somewhere on the east coast, and do more walking tours. I also much prefer staying in an apartment for purposes of eating. Not only do I enjoy poking around local grocery stores, but it would have made it easier to eat healthily and cheaply. So, it’s good to know that for the purposes of future vacation planning!


1000+ Posts
thanks for sharing this! I'm going to refer to it when planning our trip for next summer!

@Pauline , how do I bookmark this? I see that I have several other posts saved, but I don't know how I did it. I see how to 'watch' a thread, but not how to bookmark. What am I missing?

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