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Northern Ireland: Portstewart, Derry and Belfast

I spent the last week of my Ireland trip in Northern Ireland, before returning to Dublin for my final days and then flying out to England.  Honestly, there’s so much to say and so many mixed emotions I have about this part of the continent.  In many ways, I am so, so glad I went to the North and I wish I had made it a priority to stay longer.  In a few ways, it lived up to a few scary and less-than-flattering images I had had in my mind about it before I went.  Either way, it’s an important part of Irish and English history, and I don’t think anyone going to Ireland for a long period of time like I was should skip it.  

Now, again, I’m going to say that I would understand people’s hesitation.  Much like I expected a warm scone and a cup of tea when I arrived in Ireland (not the cavity search that I actually got… thanks a lot, Dublin Airport customs agent), I expected an angry punch or a mugging when I arrived in Northern Ireland.  Their history is tumultuous, to say the least, and even though The Troubles have been over for years, you get the feeling in some areas that all the raw feelings that they brought are hiding right there under the surface.  I was nervous to travel there by myself, especially with a car with a southern plate on it.  I had rented a car in Sligo for my last week on the road, and drove from Sligo to Donegal, and up through Northern Ireland before returning the car to Dublin the following week.  Several people had told me to be careful with a southern car in the North; make sure to park it in a safe, well lit area, don’t leave anything in it overnight.  I’ll say the car part made me the most nervous, as several people had stories to tell about someone they knew whose car was vandalized while in the North, but there was really nothing I could do about it since I needed a car to do the traveling I wanted to do at my own pace.

 

One of the places I wanted to stop while I drove through the North was Derry, which is located between Donegal and Portstewart, where I was staying for a few nights.  Derry, like Belfast, was a place I was slightly concerned about visiting, and so I didn’t book an overnight there, and planned to just stop for the day.  This is another regret from my trip; if I had to do it all over again, I would stay in Derry for a couple of nights, probably instead of staying in Belfast at all.  To me, Derry was a much nicer and much more appealing city than Belfast.  I really thought Derry was beautiful, it was clean, it was modern but charming, and it did have pieces of old world Europe peppered around the downtown area.  Driving in, there was a huge and beautiful sculpture that I wish I had gotten a photo of called Hands Across the Divide.  I tried to get back to where it was by foot later, since there was nowhere to pull off when I was in my car, but I couldn't seem to relocate it.  Anyways, I explored the city via the city walls, elevated up from the streets and full of history themselves.  Derry is the only remaining intact walled city in Ireland, and the walls form a walkway around the inner city.  I got a beautiful weather day when I visited Derry, so I spent most of the day walking around and taking in the city.

 

As I said, my first few days in Northern Ireland were spent in a coastal town called Portstewart, and on my drive there from Derry, I fell in love.  With everything.  The fields, the flowers, the houses, the horses… we were having great weather that whole week and so Northern Ireland felt just as magical, if not more, than any other part of Ireland I had seen.   When I arrived in Portstewart, it was a little bit more condensed, with taller apartment buildings and condos, but still beautiful and right on the water.  There was a main strip that felt a little bit like being back in the states, and just past that was my B&B, Cul Erg.  It honestly ended up being the perfect choice for me, and again I was happy with myself for doing my homework on TripAdvisor.  Cul Erg was charming, right on the water, and run by a truly lovely couple who obviously took pride in their home.  It was big, but it felt homey and welcoming inside.  I was worried that in a 3 floor establishment, I wouldn’t sleep well with people above me, but they ended up putting me on the 3rd floor, which worked out perfectly.  In the mornings, I would eat in the dining room with the other guests, and I quickly learned that Northern Ireland is HUGE for golfing.  Most everyone else staying in the B&B was there for a golfing tournament or golfing trip.

 

Portstewart was a good base for exploring the Antrim coast, which had been my main draw to the North.  By following one road on the Antrim coast, you can see Dunluce Castle, the Giants Causeway, the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, and the Bushmills Distillery.  Now, I don’t know why, but I actually only ended up really doing 2 out of 4 of those I listed.  I saw all 4, for sure… but at this point in my trip, castles were a dime a dozen, and I didn’t have too many more dimes in the bank.  I knew I was running low on funds, with 2 more weeks of travel in England ahead of me, so I chose not to pay to walk the actual grounds of Dunluce Castle.  You could actually see plenty of it from different vantage points on the road and the parking lot, and since it was castle ruins, I didn’t feel like I was missing anything inside by not paying to go in.  I could see it all through my naked eye and my camera lens, and so I skipped the expense.

 

The rope bridge was something I actually really wanted to do, but the timing never worked out.  My main objective was to photograph sunset from the Giants Causeway, and so I found myself on the coast road right before sunset two nights in a row, trying to do everything at once.  I would say that if you have the time, do 2 and 2… maybe Dunluce Castle and the Giants Causeway one afternoon/ evening, and the Bushmills Distillery and rope bridge the next.  By squeezing too much in, I found myself panicking that I would miss sunset at the Causeway… and there’s already too much stress in traveling without adding more yourself.  As it was, I got to the rope bridge too late.  It was closed, but you were still able to go in past the closed ticket counter and turnstile and walk down to the rope bridge.  Which is what I did.  With a camera bag on my back, in warm weather… I walked what seemed to be a mile down the winding path.  It was so long, and it was one of those mental conversations you have with yourself during which you say “Is this a joke?  If it’s not around this corner, I’m turning back” and then you get around the corner and still don’t see it, and you think “Okay, I’ve come this far, I can’t turn back now, it must just be around that next corner.”  After what seemed like forever, I got within view of the rope bridge, got excited, turned the final corner… and realized that there is another gate… a very locked, very insurmountable gate that there’s no way to get around after hours.  I have never been so annoyed in my life!  And here I am, huffing and puffing with my camera bag, and I’m now RUNNING the mile back to my car so that I don’t miss sunset at the Giants Causeway.  I tell you all this so that you can avoid my mistake: don’t try to do the rope bridge after hours.  It will be a fruitless expedition that will result in lots of under-the-breath swearing and unnecessary sweating.  Annoying… and gross.  Bad combination.

 

I did make it to the Giants Causeway on time that night, and since the weather was beautiful the whole week, I ended up there the next night as well.  I can honestly say that some of my most peaceful times on my trip were the nights that I ate dinner early and traded out the drinking for my camera and a good sunset spot.  The sunset from the Giants Causeway was breathtaking, and it’s so vast and expansive that there are plenty of places to sit and relax without being on top of other people.  My pictures really don’t even do this natural wonder justice; one thing I learned on my trip is that as much as I’d like to be, I am NOT a landscape photographer (yet, anyways)… but the Giant’s Causeway was perfection and my only regret was that I hadn’t made Kevin take those couple of days off of work… he had never seen the Giants Causeway and I know he would have loved it there.  I showed him my pictures a couple days later in Dublin and I can hear his reaction now:  “Wow, that’s class.”  :)

 

On my last morning in Portstewart I headed to the Bushmills Distillery.  This wasn’t originally on my itinerary and didn’t seem like something I absolutely needed to do, but since I had gone to the Jameson distillery in Midleton and visited the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, I figured one more alcohol-related tour couldn’t hurt, and I stopped on my way out of town.  Unlike Jameson, I wasn’t on a tour with 90 non-English speaking Germans (I’m sorry, but THANK GOD) and so I found Bushmills a little more enjoyable.  Our tour guide was great, and he couldn’t believe that most of us could actually understand everything he was saying.  His Northern accent was strong, but after 3 months of practice deciphering accents, I never really had any problem understanding people anymore.

 

This was also the morning of the fateful Van Morrison ticket.  As I said, it was a gorgeous, sunny morning, and on my way to Bushmills, I pulled over to get a picture of Dunluce Castle from down the road a bit.  But when I got to a good spot, I noticed they were setting up some sort of event there.  I walked down and saw a sign for a Van Morrison concert happening there in 2 days.  There was a setup crew, and I got to talking to one of the guys on it about the concert.  I was considering looking up tickets and I asked if he knew where I would get them.  He went and got the production manager, who came over to chat.  He asked me if I was traveling alone, and I said yes.  He asked how long I was in Ireland for, and I told him 3 months.  “Three months?!?!?!  By yourself???”  He was incredulous, to say the least.  He was also impressed… and by the end of that conversation I was on the guest list for the Van Morrison concert.  I didn’t tell the production manager that I was leaving Portstewart for Belfast that day, and in my head I was immediately conflicted because I wanted to continue on my way, spend time in Belfast, and not have to worry about driving the two hours back to Portstewart in 2 days.  But things like that don’t just happen every day, and so I knew I would be back in 2 days for the concert.

 

I continued on to Belfast that day and I will say that this is when my opinions of the North started to take a turn downwards.  I wanted to like Belfast, I really truly did.  Once I saw Derry and how lovely it was, I had high hopes for Belfast impressing me in the same way and exceeding my expectations.  But quite honestly, it just didn’t.  As soon as I arrived in Belfast, I felt like I had in Wexford and Sligo, but on a much larger scale, since Belfast was much bigger.  It felt dirty, it felt impersonal, it felt industrial, it felt hard and cold and it felt slightly dangerous… and I felt out of place.  And disappointed.  And relieved that I had a ticket to a play that night, and that the Van Morrison concert would give me an excuse to spend one less evening in Belfast.

 

I found my hotel without much problem and although the neighborhood felt safe, I was slightly put off when the person checking me in brought me to my room… which was in a building next door.  I wasn’t staying in the main hotel, with the security and the person at the front desk if I needed anything… I was staying next door, in a creepy-feeling apartment building with no signs of other people.  That said, I did have an absolutely gorgeous room, and I was completely excited about that.  But again, I had that sad feeling that I wished Kevin was there with me, and I couldn’t wait to get to Dublin in 2 days to see him.

 

That first night, I headed to the Belfast Grand Opera House to see Hairspray.  I purposely got there about an hour early so that I could go across the street to the Crown Liquor Saloon and have a drink before the show.  The Crown Liquor Saloon is definitely a must- see while visiting Belfast, as is the Opera House… both are gorgeously decorated.  I had never seen Hairspray (the play or the movie) before, so I was excited to see something new in such a beautiful location.  It was a great show and I met a lovely family sitting next to me in the theater.

 

The next day, I was picked up at my hotel for a private Black Taxi Tour that I had pre-booked a couple of days earlier.  There are other ways to see the Murals and the areas where the Troubles occurred, but as a solo female traveler, I honestly felt safest doing a guided tour with a Belfast native.  My driver was a great guy, and although I asked him while he was explaining Belfast history at the beginning of the tour whether he was Catholic or Protestant, he wouldn't tell me until the end.  He wanted me to have a completely unbiased, subjective view of the city, without knowing which side he fell on.  He picked me up at the hotel, and we started the tour seeing the murals in the Shankill neighborhood.  My taxi driver took me out of the car and walked me around the buildings in this neighborhood, showing me the murals and explaining their meanings and their history.  He gave me a few minutes to walk around on my own and take photos, but he stayed close enough so that I could ask any questions I had.  When I was ready to move on, we got in the car and headed to see the murals on the Falls Road.  The Shankill Road is considered unionist (Protestants who identify themselves as British) and the Falls Road is considered nationalist (Catholics who identify themselves as Irish), and they are separated by a peace wall that is still locked every night at 10:00 pm.  You can, of course, still get out if you need to, but it would require walking or driving a few miles out of your way.  After seeing the murals in both neighborhoods, we walked the peace wall for a few minutes, my tour guide talking about his childhood in Belfast and me reading the names and quotes on the wall while he talked.  After I signed my name to the wall, and after one or two more stops on the tour (including the absolutely gorgeous church you'll see below), my tour guide brought me to the Titanic Museum and dropped me off there.

 

From an architectural standpoint, the Titanic Museum is pretty amazing, and much like the Titanic itself, it is just colossal.  Standing at the base of it, it’s almost overwhelming.  But it’s gorgeous and it certainly must boost the tourism in Belfast immensely.  The inside is beautifully structured as well, and I was excited to do the tour.  That being said, I ended up completely confused by the layout of the museum.  Not the physical layout or how to get around; that was easy and it was self guided, so you could go at your own pace.  I was confused by the lack of continuity… there didn’t seem to be a start or a finish to the museum, and everything in between the beginning and the end seemed random.  I mean, I remember walking in to the start of the tour and learning about linens in Ireland in the early 1900’s.  What???   I just felt completely confused by the way the information was laid out.  There was no shortage of information though, and this museum would answer any question you could ever have about the Titanic.

 

After leaving the Titanic Museum, I headed back to the hotel to grab my car and head back up to Portstewart for the Van Morrison concert.  It was a beautiful night, but as usual I mistook the Irish sun for warmth that didn't last all too long :)  I wore a dress and ended up FREEZING and had to leave the concert a bit early, but what I did stay for was amazing.   Heard some of my favorite Van songs, like Brown-Eyed Girl (of course), Days Like This and Crazy Love.  The peak of the night was probably hearing Into The Mystic, while staring out onto the water and seeing that perfect sunset.  To see Van Morrison, live, and hear him play one of my all time favorite songs, while watching an Irish sunset over the water, with a castle to my right and miles of beach to my left... yup, it was a good night :)

 

Here are some photos from Northern Ireland!

 

Dunluce Castle...

 

 

 

 

 

Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge...

 

 

 

 

The Giants Causeway...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This might have been the second night at The Giants Causeway... I ended up there two nights in a row photographing sunset, and the second night when I was walking down, the sun was creating this perfect shape and shadow on the tunnel... I don't know why but I had to take a picture of it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Portstewart...

 

 

 

My B&B...

 

 

Van the Man!  :)

 

 

 

 

From the concert... Dunluce Castle is nestled over on the right...

 

 

 

Sunset and concert rigging silhouettes...

 

 

 

More from The North...

 

 

 

The cause of most Irish traffic jams :)

 

 

The Bushmills Distillery...

 

 

On my way down to Belfast I pulled off at a rest stop to take this photo...

 

 

And ended up meeting these hilarious guys who were taking in the sun and having a little picnic :)  I chatted with them for a bit and as I was saying goodbye they both took out 5 euro and told me "If we had met you in a bar, young American girl braving the world on her own, we would have bought you a drink because we both have daughters your age and would want her taken care of.  So take this money and have a drink or a snack on us."  It warmed my heard :)

 

 

The beautiful city of Derry...

 

 

Exploring the city from the walls...

 

 

Derry has murals as well... although not to the extent I saw in Belfast, which you will see below...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My last northern city visit, Belfast...

 

 

 

This mural is very famous, because no matter where you move in front of it, the gun is always pointed directly at you.  Very weird... very spooky... very cool.  I moved all around and the gunman was still staring me down...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the gates I was talking about, that gets locked every night at 10 pm...

 

 

 

 

My favorite Irish song of all time, memorialized on the wall...

 

 

 

 

 

The Titanic Museum...

 

 

 

After Northern Ireland, I headed back to Dublin for a couple of days before flying out to England.  Being back in Dublin in good weather completely changed my opinion of the city... when I was there in the freezing cold rain of early March, I wasn't too keen on the decision I had made to stay there for a week... or come to Ireland at all!  Lol but being there in June was incredible and I fell in love.  However, since I already blogged a tiny bit from Dublin when I was actually in Ireland, I plan on going straight to Liverpool and London for my next blog post.  Stay tuned!  xoxo :)

 

 

 

 

 

Sligo and Donegal

After a few days in Westport, I headed up to Sligo for my next stop. Sligo is considered part of Yeats Country, and there were a few places I wanted to visit related to the famous author. Now, there are only two places in the Republic of Ireland I can think of that didn't live up to what I expected, and one of them was Sligo (the other being Wexford, which I blogged about when I was still in Ireland). I hate to write anything bad about any place in Ireland, I really do, but if I'm being honest about my personal preferences, I really didn't like Sligo town or Wexford very much. Both were very industrial, somewhat dirty, and really didn't give me any sense of Ireland, or "old world Europe" at all, as I had expected. If I had my trip to do again, I would skip over Sligo town and find a smaller village around it to stay in, or head straight to Donegal.  

I had 3 nights in Sligo, so I made the best out of it. One beautiful part of Sligo that I would recommend if you are passing through would be Sligo Abbey, located downtown. I enjoyed walking around the abbey ruins and I was glad that I had blocked out the morning to relax and take photos of the abbey.  It was a cloudy, rainy morning for it, but I took a bunch of pictures, which you will see below.

 

I also loved the Model Arts Center and National Gallery, and would highly recommend this if you are looking for a more modern, contemporary museum. I spent an afternoon relaxing in the museum and its cafe, and seeing some really incredible works of art. I would say this museum, while much smaller, rivaled some of the national galleries I saw in Dublin.

 

A museum that I would avoid like the plague would be the Yeats Memorial Building. I feel sort of bad saying that, but at the same time, I really don't. Seriously, I look back on my time there and still have no idea what happened.

 

Upon walking in, I felt like I was in an old classroom. The "museum" was basically one room, with photos and different letters and artifacts under glass. There was no one around, except for random students who would come in and out and grab things from behind the front desk and then go out the way they came in, through a back door. I think the building was actually connected to some sort of school. Finally, a random guy came out, seemed legitimately startled to see me, and asked what I was doing there. I asked if this was the Yeats Memorial Building and if it was still open to the public, as his surprise seemed so genuine I suddenly felt like I shouldn't be there and he was going to have me arrested for trespassing. He told me that it was, but he still seemed puzzled as to why anyone would WANT to be there. After a few minutes of eyeing me suspiciously and realizing that I wasn't actually there to steal anything, he offered to show me "the video".... I had no idea what this meant but I said sure, of course, if it was part of the tour. He proceeded to wheel out a TV and VCR that seemed to be from the early 60's, and proceeded to play a videocassette from the same era. I honestly wanted to cry from the boredom, and as soon as it was over I paid my donation and I left. Again, I hate to rag on anything in Ireland, but this place was just painful and should be avoided at all costs.

 

Moving on... :)...

 

My two favorite activities in Sligo actually weren't right in Sligo town at all. The first was one of the most relaxing things I did my whole trip: the Voya seaweed baths in Strandhill. My friend Karen had recommended them to me, and I took a bus to Strandhill one of my days in Sligo to head to Voya for an hour of pure bliss. Strandhill is a really cute oceanside town, and the Voya spa is right on the beach. I wasn't really sure what to expect, but my god. If you're passing through this part of Ireland, BOOK A SEAWEED BATH. I have never been so relaxed in my life. You start by stepping into a steam shower for ten minutes and then you sink into a porcelain claw foot tub full of seaweed. I was somewhat apprehensive about it at first, but that quickly slipped away, as did all my thoughts, worries, concerns, everything. The seaweed bath was pure bliss.

 

After it was over, I took a long walk along the beach on what was a very sunny but windy day. The Strandhill beach seems to go on forever and with good tunes playing on my iPod, I could have walked it for miles. I finally got hungry and turned around, heading for the Shells Cafe which is located conveniently right on the beach, next to Voya. Shells Cafe is another place I would completely recommend if you're visiting this area. Great food, great atmosphere, and an adorable (albeit overpriced) gift shop.

 

I was seated towards the back of the cafe, at one of those small two person tables that is right next to another small, two person table. My side was a long bench that was shared by the neighboring tables, and the other side were regular chairs. As I sat there and ate the biggest burger I have ever seen in my life (see photo), another woman by herself was seated at the table next to me. Before long, we had struck up a conversation, and honestly it hurts my heart that I didn't get a photo with this woman. She was just a couple years older than me, single, and one of the sweetest people I met on my trip. She was so nice, in fact, that I was almost scared... When she asked if I wanted to take a walk with her after leaving the cafe, I started worrying that her sincerity was a cover for being a serial killer. But of course, her sincerity was genuine, and we walked along the beach the opposite way of where I had walked earlier. She told me all about the area we were exploring and about her life there, working full time, caring for her elderly father, and pen pal-ing/ casually dating a man in America that she had met when he visited Ireland earlier that year. We walked and talked so long that I missed the bus, and she offered to bring me back to Sligo. When she dropped me off at my B&B, she gave me her name so that we could stay in touch on Facebook. I really wish I had looked at the slip of paper as she gave it to me, because unfortunately, I couldn't read her writing and I was never able to connect with her again. But I'll never forget spending the afternoon with her; a perfect stranger who became an instant friend and walking companion.

 

The other activity that I had a blast with outside of Sligo was horse back riding through Island View Stables in Grange. Growing up, I loved riding horses, so much so that my mom sent me to horse camp one summer.  Unfortunately, I came down with hay fever and had to leave early (true and pathetic story) and I've never really had an occasion to ride a horse since then.  I knew going to Ireland that I wanted to be sure to get back on the horse (hehe) and so I had found Island View through TripAdvisor and booked a 2 hour bog and beach ride with them on my way out of Sligo.  If I had it to do again, I would probably just cut down to a one hour trip, because let me tell you, my butt was KILLING me the next day, but the two hours was still nice :)  My poor tour guide was probably dying from boredom since every time he tried to step it up to a run I would clutch my horse for dear life and start screaming psychotically, but if he hated me he never let it show and we had a beautiful day for the ride.  After we returned the horses to the stables and the ride was over, I actually walked back down the beach path we took so that I could grab a few pictures.

 

On the way out of Grange, I hit some other Yeats related stops, including the churchyard where he is buried.  Despite the fact that there were tour buses pulling up to let people see the grave, this was a really tranquil place and I stayed about an hour, just walking around and looking at the different grave stones and writing prayers inside a book in the church.  The graveyard looks out over Ben Bulben and of course there were sheep grazing as far as the eye could see.  All in all, not a bad eternal resting spot.

 

When I left Yeats' gravesite I had some extra time before I needed to head to Donegal, and so when I saw a sign for a scenic drive off the main road, I thought, why not?  Now this is one of those moments that I deeply regret, as of course I didn't write down the name of this scenic drive, but when you're driving on Route 15 going north out of Drumcliff, like I was towards Donegal, you will see signs for it to your right.  It takes you right around Ben Bulben... in my mind, it was something like Glencarrig Drive... but I could be making that up :)  It could have Drumcliff in the name, who knows!  This is why you should always write down what you end up doing while you're traveling.  But I'll get to that in my final post about Ireland :)  Anyways, the drive was really spectacular and peaceful, and under-traveled... it seemed like sort of a hidden jewel because I didn't see one other car while I was on it, and when I stopped to take photos at different spots it was just me... it was pretty amazing and it definitely ended up being one of a my favorite spontaneous scenic drives.

 

Back on the main road, I also stumbled upon signs for another side drive, to the Glencar Waterfall.  Glencar was a favorite spot of William Butler Yeats (or so I learned at the Yeats Memorial Building, HAHA) and much like lighthouses, I have a weird obsession with waterfalls, so I was happy to make another detour.  Glencar was beautiful and like Torc Waterfall in Killarney, it had a footpath for easy access.  I spent about an hour there walking around and taking pictures and relaxing before heading on to Donegal.

 

Here are some scenes from Sligo town...

 

 

 

The place to AVOID AT ALL COSTS...

And the place to go instead :)

Sligo Abbey...

 

 

 

 

 

I haven't done many black and whites from Ireland but I just liked this better with no color...

 

 

 

My day trip down to Strandhill...

 

 

 

Shells Café... where I ate the biggest burger ever and made a new friend :)

These were taken on our walk after we left the cafe...

 

 

 

 

The stables in Grange and the path where we took the horses...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another horseback riding group came down as I was leaving and I shot these real quick...

 

 

The church where William Butler Yeats is buried...

 

 

Yeats' gravestone...

 

 

As I said, it was a very peaceful and pretty churchyard...

 

 

Looking out over Ben Bulben...

 

 

Inside the church...

 

 

This was that pretty drive I mentioned, that I happened onto right after leaving the church...

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another road, to the Glencar Waterfall...

 

 

Glencar...

 

 

One of my favorite shots around Sligo...

 

 

The next stop on my journey was another area of Ireland that completely captured my heart, Donegal.  Honestly, Donegal was just beautiful.  Disarmingly beautiful.  And it was definitely one of the places that I felt I was in "the real Ireland".  Of course, by this time in my trip, the weather was perfect, and that definitely plays a part in the way a person can see a place.  It also contributes to that feeling of "the real Ireland"... something else I'll talk about in my final post...

 

I stayed right in Donegal town for a few days and sort of wish I had stayed around in a few different spots, but Donegal town had a lot to offer and I stayed in a great B&B there.  Once again, the B&B was just a bit farther out from the center of town than I would have liked (I found that this was the one thing that B&B proprietors seemed to mislead most about on their sites) but I had a car that week so it didn't matter too much.

 

It was lucky that I had the car because once I settled in in Donegal and looked at my map and what I wanted to do, I realized that when we were in Westport I had missed a national park!  I really couldn't believe it, because we had driven right by a sign for it one day and it hadn't registered at all.  I blame Kevin for distracting me with his ridiculous driving antics.  But I didn't want to miss any Ireland's national parks, so my first order of business in Donegal was actually driving BACK to Ballycroy National Park in Westport :)  I got a chilly and windy day for that, but I still took a free foraging tour that the park offered and learned about the plantlife and landscape of Ballycroy.  Ballycroy also had a beautiful, state of the art visitors center that I really enjoyed.  Kevin thought I was nuts for going back and actually felt a bit bad that we had missed it, but once I had seen a few of them I was determined to see all 6 national parks, and I didn't want to leave knowing I had missed one.

 

The day after Ballycroy, I visited my 6th and final national park, Glenveagh National Park, in Letterkenny, co. Donegal.  I'll talk about the different national parks in my final Ireland post, but Glenveagh was beautiful and well worth the trip.  I spent the better part of a day there and could have spent a lot more.  It had a beautiful landscape; lakes and mountains and a gorgeous castle you could tour, as well as well-kept castle grounds.  You will see some Glenveagh photos below... it was definitely one of my favorite national park visits.

 

I also visited Donegal Castle, right in Donegal town, close to where I was staying.  This was another beautiful castle, although it was almost like it was cramped into the space it is in... you might see what I mean from the photos below, but the back of the castle backs right up to the river, and it is very narrow and tall from the front, with tall stone walls surrounding it.  I enjoyed it nonetheless, and right next to Donegal Castle was one of my favorite little pubs, The Olde Castle Bar.  Adorable space with beautiful stonework and old gas lamps out front... pictures below!

 

Another great bar in Donegal was the Reel Inn.  I'm sure if I had walked into this place when it was empty it would have seemed sort of lackluster and dive-y.  But this place is never empty.  They have live music and Irish step dancers every night, and it seems that it is always jam packed.  I was almost intimidated by the amount of people in there, mostly in groups or couples, no one really alone like I was.  But this was nothing new by this point in the trip, and I wanted to see the Irish dancers, so I stayed around and made friends with a few couples who were there on anniversary trips.  When the dancers asked for volunteers, one couple I had been talking to frantically pointed at me and shoved me towards the dance floor, and I was very grateful that I had had a few drinks while taking in the music.  I'm sure my step dancing partner wasn't as grateful, because I was TERRIBLE at remembering the steps... seriously, there were 80 year olds who did better than me on that dance floor.  But the craic was mighty, as they say, and I was laughing a few months ago when a woman I met that night tracked me down on Facebook and sent me some pictures she had taken of me dancing.  Hi Sharon!  :)  It was a lot of fun and I'm so glad I can say that I Irish step-danced in Ireland!

 

Donegal is home to another hidden gem that I'm going to give away now, because I love everyone who takes the time to actually read my blogs and so you guys deserve the inside scoop ;-)  I had an absolute perfect, serene, peaceful, serendipitous, relaxing, amazing evening at the Slieve League Cliffs in Donegal.  I honestly can't believe these cliffs were not listed in any of my tour books, because I honestly enjoyed visiting them more than the Cliffs of Moher.  My friend Nicole told me about them, and I decided to go up one night and photograph sunset there.  Unlike the Cliffs of Moher, these cliffs aren't overrun with tourists, and so I felt completely relaxed and happy making my way up and down the mountain to get different vantage points of the spectacular sunset that night had to offer.  Seriously, I apologize for the 400 sunset pictures below... the sky changed so much that night and I honestly couldn't pick just 2 or 3 favorites.  I went way overboard!  Sorry :)

 

Here are some photos from Donegal...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The back of Donegal Castle...

 

 

And from the front...

 

 

 

Loved this place!

 

 

 

 

 

I remember posting about this on Facebook when it happened... I was driving through Glencoumbkille, looking for the Doagh Famine Villages, when I saw this man on the side of the road cutting turf.  I had just been down at the Ballycroy National Park, where I learned a lot about turf cutting in their visitors center, and I couldn't help but find it completely fascinating.  I mean really... I am not joking... I am FASCINATED by the whole process.  So I pulled over and watched this guy for a few minutes, until he noticed me there and came over.  I asked him about how to get to Doagh, and he helpfully gave me directions.  Afterwards, I asked him if he would mind if I took a couple photos of him working on the turf.  He thought I was joking and I insisted that I was serious and that it would mean a lot to me.  He was honestly one of the friendliest people I met in all of Ireland, and so he said sure, he would let me take some photos.  He walked back towards where he had been working and he started cutting again.  He stopped and said "You know, my wife is never in 100 years going to believe me when I tell her that some American stopped and took photos of me cutting turf."  I replied "Just tell her it's for the Sexy Turf Cutters of Ireland 2014 calendar."  The photo on the right was taken right after I said that, when Francis just busted out laughing hysterically :)

 

 

 

 

Doagh Famine Village...

 

 

 

 

 

 

So about Donegal being gorgeous... um yeah... seriously... OBSESSED with it all...

 

 

 

 

 

 

This, my friends, is the most perfect beach in all of Ireland.  It is called Silver Strand Beach, and on my way to the Slieve League Cliffs, I knew I would be early for sunset and I had some time to kill.  I saw the signs for Silver Strand and decided to make a quick detour.  Thank God I did, because I am telling you... this was the most beautiful beach I saw in all of Ireland.

 

I'm going to go ahead and throw my friend's husband under the bus here, but I hope he'll understand that I'm just doing it for story purposes :)  When Mel and Marc came to visit me in Ireland, we were driving one day and ended up on a beach in Lahinch (a beach Kevin and I returned to a few days later and I blogged some sunset pictures from)... it was a windy day and we got out of the car to take a few pictures, and Marc (one of the smartest people I know, FYI) made a comment about seeing the beach in Ireland and how it was great to see a beach while they were there, since there wasn't a lot of them around.  I honestly remember stopping and being like "Wait, what?"  HAHA his comment caught me so off guard that I didn't know what to say... I think I responded, "Marc, you're on an island... there are beaches EVERYWHERE here!"  And he backtracked a bit and clarified what he said, and then the topic was dropped.  But it got me thinking about my friends Lauren and Chris, who had thought about going to Ireland for their honeymoon but were told by friends and family that they needed to go somewhere beachy... why don't people associate Ireland, a small ISLAND country, with beaches?  They are literally everywhere and I walked on so many of them, saw so many more through the window of the bus en route to a new destination, etc... why don't people consider Ireland a "beachy place"?  And then it hit me: the weather.  Yes, there are gorgeous beaches everywhere you turn in Ireland.  But you know what there's NOT?  Gorgeous weather lol.  It's not all that often there that the weather gets higher than 75 degrees, and it's not like weather in America... my other friend Melissa, from Galway, said it herself... it's very rare to be able to spend the day at the beach like you can in America, because most likely at some point in the day it's going to rain and ruin your beach fun.  And honestly, I wish I had taken a picture of it, but I remember being on a different beach in Clifden and seeing a grandfather sitting in a beach chair watching his grandkids... WEARING A SWEATER, JACKET, AND WOOL CAP lol... so my point is that yes, Ireland has beautiful beaches EVERYWHERE... but to utilize them you really have to make sure to plan your trip in the summer months, don't count on the weather completely, and probably best to always bring a cover-up... and an umbrella :)

 

Now, of course I didn't get to see all the beaches in Ireland, but out of all the pretty beaches I did get to see, Silver Strand definitely took the award for most beautiful and my favorite.  Let's start off by saying that there were sheep lining the walkway to go down to the beach.  SHEEP LINING THE BEACH WALKWAY!!!  I just can't... when you got to the end of the walkway, you are on top of a long set of stairs taking you down to the sand, and the view is just heaven.  This is really just perfect color water and perfect sand, placed in a perfect cove with waterfalls peppering the cliffs of the cove around you.  It literally took my breath away.  I walked down to the water, kicked my shoes off and waded in... and the water was actually really warm. Not surprising, cause like I said, this place was heaven :)  Someone else must have thought so too, since there was an Irish singer filming a music video while I was there!  The videographer actually saw me with my big camera and came over to chat during a break on his shoot.  Blue Moon Productions out of Belfast... such a nice guy and it was very surreal to be on a beach in Ireland with my feet in the water, listening to the strumming of a guitar and watching sheep eat around the stairs to the beach lol....

 

Here are some shots of my favorite beach in the world!

 

 

 

 

 

 

This was after I left the beach and headed over to the cliffs...

 

 

The next 100 pictures are the sunset that night at the Slieve League Cliffs :)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sheep silhouette :)

 

 

These are from when I drove back to Ballycroy National Park... so technically, they should be on the Westport blog post... but since I drove back from Donegal to go there, I'm putting them on here :)

 

This is Glenveagh National Park, my final national park visit, and definitely a favorite!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More from around Donegal...

 

 

 

 

 

 

The obligatory feet in the water photo...

 

 

Another unexpected side trip I ended up making was to Malin Head, the most northerly point in Ireland.  I had been to Mizen Head, the most southerly point, and so I figured it was only fitting that I visit the most northern point as well.  This was another spot that seemed to be a hidden secret... I mean, clearly it's not, but once again it was just me up there enjoying the gorgeous day on my own, not another tourist in sight... I loved places like that!

 

 

 

 

On the way out of Malin Head...

 

 

I sat for a few minutes on this rocky beach near Malin Head... I know it sounds like I was always sitting places by myself having a moment haha... and in some ways, I was!  Among the millions of things it offers you, I'd say the most special, the most abundant gift Ireland can give you is peace of mind, body and soul... and as cheesy as it sounds, I was happy to receive that gift.

 

 

 

 

 

Next up on the blog: my week in Northern Ireland:  Portstewart, Derry and Belfast!  :)

Doolin and Westport

I’ll start with Doolin, because I don’t want to jump around too much.  I actually was able to visit Doolin twice, once when my friends Mel and Marc were visiting and once with Kevin.  Doolin is in county Clare, and this ended up being one of my favorite spots in all of Ireland.  Driving the hills around Doolin really felt like real Ireland to me, and I thought it was incredible.  

Doolin was the sight of my first B&B mixup.  I am actually shocked it didn’t happen more, considering how many B&B’s I stayed at.  The first time I went to Doolin my friends Melissa and Marc dropped me off at my B&B, went off to theirs (since we couldn’t find two rooms together anywhere that night) to get ready for dinner, and when I walked into my B&B the woman who ran it told me she had accidentally double-booked the room and would have to find me another place to stay.  I panicked at first, but she was true to her word and called a great place for me, and her husband drove me over.  It ended up being a truly great mix-up, because my new B&B was in a prime spot right next to Gus O’ Connor’s, the sweater market, and Wilde Irish Chocolates (SCORE).  It was also right up the hill from the ferry to the Aran Islands (Doolin is the only other spot besides Galway that you can reach the islands from).  When Kevin and I returned to Doolin a week or two later, we stayed there again, and it was honestly the perfect location.  Not to mention really clean, well decorated, and the breakfast was delicious.

 

The big pull to Doolin, and why it was on my list of “must-visit” places, is that it is considered the unofficial capital of traditional Irish music in Ireland.  There are several pubs in town, but the two I visited and the two most-talked about and most recommended to me were Gus O’Connor’s and McGann’s.  With Melissa and Marc, we started at Gus O’Connor’s for a drink and some starters and to take in the atmosphere.  We didn’t stay late enough for the music, instead choosing to walk down to McGann’s and listen to their trad music.  The funny thing about Doolin is that it’s sort of spread out… you almost feel like there are two “downtown” areas…. Gus O’Connor’s, the sweater market, and the little tourist shops are on one end towards the ferry, and to get to McGann’s is a slight walk back into the center of town, which is basically one long road with a bunch of side streets off of it.  We wouldn’t have minded the walk… if it hadn’t been raining… as always :)

 

We got to McGann’s and it was packed.  The host asked us if we were just eating or staying for the music as well, and when we told him the music, he asked if we minded sitting at a table with some other people.  We said of course not, and we were sat with a middle-aged father and his two twenty-something sons.  Now, I hate to judge a book by its cover, but I could tell right away that these people were not my people.  I don’t know what it was, I honestly don’t, but it was just a weird feeling that I would never normally be eating dinner with people like this.  But we were in this situation and so of course I tried to be as polite as possible, with Mel and Marc and I asking them what brought them to Ireland and how long they were staying for.  It turns out they were on a golfing holiday and were over for 5 days, and much to my complete disbelief, the sons actually COMPLAINED the entire time while talking about this golfing holiday.  I honestly was shocked at how few good things they had to say about a golfing trip to Ireland.  You almost felt bad for the father, because clearly he was paying for the whole vacation, but then you really couldn’t, because you wanted to hit him for raising such entitled children.  I mean, I had a hard time keeping my mouth shut.  At one point after finding out that I was in Ireland for 3 months, one of the sons looked at me like I was insane and said “Don’t you miss the states???”  I smiled and said “No, actually… I miss my family and friends but I love it here.”  I finally got up at one point to use the bathroom (and get away from these people) and I could hear one of the sons say to Melissa “I cannot believe your friend is here for 3 months.  Isn’t she miserable?  I have no idea how I would survive that.”  As if we were surviving a natural disaster in a 3rd world country or a concentration camp.  It actually took all of my effort not to turn around and say something to that comment, but I decided people like that just aren’t worth it and I kept walking towards the bathroom.

 

I’m not sure why I’m telling that story.  It’s not a happy one and it’s not a favorite memory of Ireland…. But it seemed important.  Because at that moment, I wanted to take back every sarcastic thing I have ever said as a joke.  I wanted to take back every time I’ve been self-deprecating, every time I’ve made myself out to be miserable, every time my own parents probably wanted to hit me for complaining.  Mom and Dad, I am SORRY!  I promise if you take ne on a golfing holiday to Ireland, I will not complain.  I also won't golf, but I promise, I will NOT COMPLAIN :)

 

The music at McGann's was great and we stayed for the whole set.  As the bar was clearing out, I asked the bartender to call me a taxi, and once again I ended up with a lift home from the bar manager.  I think it made Mel a little bit nervous, as she asked me to Facebook her as soon as I got back to my B&B to let her know I was safe lol, but at this point I was old hat at this routine and I happily chatted with him on the way back to my B&B.  It is truly amazing to me that when taxis are "off season", the managers will give you lifts home.  I sort of laughed when I got in the car, as he had two child seats in the back and there were Cheetos (or the Irish version of them) all over the car.

 

Here are some photos from Doolin!

 

 

These were taken down by the Doolin ferry landing...

 

Hehe...

My first day at the Cliffs of Moher was windy, rainy and foggy... the Irish weather trifecta!

 

I mean, really... another day where I had to literally hold my hair down for any photos...

These were taken on my second Cliffs of Moher visit, with Mel and Marc in early May...

 

 

 

 

 

I took these pictures of a harp player in front of the Cliffs about 2 seconds before I wiped out right in front of her.  Seriously... thousands of people around, beautiful, dry day.... and I went flying on my butt.  It was sort of comical.  And by sort of I mean completely.

The Burren!  My 4th national park visit...

 

 

This was on a beach overlook in Lehinch, a place I ended up coming back to with Kevin a few nights later to see a band we had heard about...

My second trip into the Burren, with Kevin...

Who then dragged me to the Father Ted house :)  Father Ted is HUGE in Ireland and Kevin had always wanted to check out the real Father Ted house, so we stopped there for a couple photos.

 

The same day we visited the Cliffs of Moher, Kevin and I headed to Bunratty Castle and Folk Park.  I may have mentioned this before, but I had a few stops I wanted to make that were sort of retracing the route my stepmom and dad went on their honeymoon 20 years ago.  Bunratty was one of their stops, and it is definitely worth a visit.  We took the castle tour, but I honestly had more fun out around the folk park.  It's really well done and well maintained and really feels like a time travel trip.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ok, so Moneygall is in county Offaly and not County Clare, but one day while in county Clare, Kevin and I didn't really have a plan.  He asked what I wanted to do, if there was anything I wanted to see that we hadn't already visited, and somehow Moneygall came to mind.  Such a good sport, that Kevin, because we jumped in the car and he drove me the two hours to Moneygall so that I could see where Barack Obama had done his state visit in 2011.

 

Ollie himself is in the middle of this collage, and he had some great stories to tell about the state visit, teaching Michelle Obama how to pull a pint, and about him and his family's subsequent trip to the White House for dinner.  I bought some souvenirs for my father, and he even threw in a couple of freebies for me.  I could have talked to him all day!

Just a few doors down from Ollie's bar...

We also passed through Lisdoonvarna, which is a place I've wanted to go for years.  But I was a few months early :)  The big pull to Lisdoonvarna is their yearly matchmaking festival, which has been happening in this small village every September for years and years.  There's only one real matchmaker left, but the festival is famous because it goes the entire month of September and features events and dances every day starting at noon.  Kevin had been and told me "it was a bit of craic"... I think it would be so fun!  If I'm still single at 35, I'm quitting my job and heading there for the entire month of September.  Mark my words :)

I honestly wish I could remember the name of the town these pictures are from.  It was on our way to Lehinch and we were sort of deciding as we went where we would stay for the night.  We had passed through this town the day before and I thought it was sort of cute, so I thought maybe we would stay here.  As we passed through it again, we realized there was some sort of horse and donkey auction put on by travelers.  I didn't really understand, but Kevin explained to me that travelers will sell horses and donkeys without the proper papers at things like this.  We decided not to stay here and drove on to Lehinch... but it was interesting to pass through :)

I think Lehinch was a much better choice, don't you? :)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And this is the band we had come to see.  They were from California and they were going across Ireland for a couple weeks.  Loved them, and we got to hang out with a few friends we had met in another town who told us about these guys.  Great night!

 

After spending Memorial Day weekend back on the Aran Islands, we headed up to Westport, which is north of Galway on the west coast.  Let me just say this: I LOVED WESTPORT.  I thought it was absolutely adorable, and just like Killarney, I could see why people called it touristy.  But here’s the thing about being a touristy spot: it means you’re doing something right.  Obviously, if Killarney and Westport were dirty, unsafe towns, tourists would spread the word and no one would visit there.  But when you’ve got an adorable and clean town, with good restaurants, good pubs, fun people, and GREAT music… well, the secret’s going to get out, and people are going to flock there.  I really enjoyed my time there… the craic was mighty, as they say :)

 

We spent two nights in Westport and by this time in my trip, the weather was getting much better (THANK GOD).  It was nice to wear light shirts and cardigans instead of my heavy rain jacket the whole time.  I actually let the great weather cloud my judgment when it was suggested that we hike Croagh Patrick, a HUGE mountain in Westport that I would normally be too lazy to DRIVE up, let alone hike.  But nooooooo, he hit me at a weak moment when we were outside enjoying the sunshine, and it suddenly sounded like a great idea.  “Hike Croagh Patrick?  Sounds awesome Kevin, let’s go!”  Oh how foolish I can be sometimes….

 

A few hours later, I was halfway up a mountain, begging for mercy.  Seriously, if a giant hawk had swooped down and carried me off in its talons, I would have been COMPLETELY fine with it.  Croagh Patrick is not a mountain… it is the devil disguised as a mountain.  It is INSANE.  It is the steepest hike I have ever done in my life.  And I’m pretty positive Kevin seriously regretted suggesting it, and perhaps even had thoughts of shoving me off the side as I was complaining.  I wouldn’t have blamed him.  I was literally on my hands and knees at the end, crawling towards the top… but here’s the thing…

 

The summit?  Yup…. It makes it all worthwhile.  I forgot how many islands Kevin said we could see from the top, but it was incredible.  Just ocean and islands and mountains for as far as you could see.  And there was a chapel at the top as well.  I would have preferred a McDonald’s, but hey, what can ya do?  The chapel was much prettier anyways :) We rested at the top and just spent some time taking in the view, and I have to admit that despite all my complaining, I was so glad I had done it.

 

We stayed in a great B&B called the The Woodside Lodge, and though I would recommend it for great accommodations and great breakfast, it was a bit far out and so we took cabs back every night.  Regardless, we really got to enjoy the nightlife in Westport.  We actually made it a point to head to Matt Molloy’s the first night, as I had heard it was a great bar with good trad music, and pretty any postcard you buy in Ireland that shows the fronts of pubs has Matt Molloy’s on it.  Not to mention that it’s owned by a member of The Chieftains.  I figured it would be a great spot.

 

Now, I seriously hate to knock anything in Ireland, because I loved it so much, but really, I did NOT get the big deal about Matt Molloy’s.  At all.  The main problem, I found, was that the bar is divided into 3 rooms… the actual bar is in the front room, so we sat at the bar and ordered a drink while we waited for the music to start.  We sat talking for awhile and then I thought I heard music playing VERY faintly.  At first, we thought it was the radio.  I finally got up to investigate and found the musicians playing trad in the PACKED third room of the bar… literally, you couldn’t even walk in there or stand in the doorway…. And they weren’t playing loudly enough for even the next room over to hear, so being at a spot at the actual bar was totally fruitless.  We finally gave up and decided to go next door to the Portherhouse, and we LOVED THIS BAR.  It’s one cozy room, with the musicians playing right up front, and we were able to get a seat in good view of the music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Westport House...

Gahhhhh!!!!! Croagh Patrick, you evil temptress you...

Downtown Westport...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next up:  Sligo and Donegal!

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Happy St. Patrick's Day everyone!  I can't believe one year ago today, I was in Dublin with two great friends celebrating with thousands of other green-clad revelers.  That was the first week of my 3 month Ireland trip; I was scared, excited, and couldn't wait to get out of Dublin and see the beautiful country I had waited so long to visit.  I still have plenty of photos coming your way, and very soon, I will have the gallery done that you can order prints from!  For now, a collage of Ireland goodness for you.  Have a great St. Paddy's Day everyone!