w r i n k l e d
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
Well, our seemingly marathon visit to Ireland has come to a close. I know one day, when life is feeling hectic again, I'll long for this place. Not just the nature and the solitude, but the pace. How every morning Chris brings me a coffee, and then Oona climbs into bed demanding kisses and cuddles. I will be grateful we didn't need to rush off to get to school or work, that she hadn't outgrown the morning hugs. I will miss her strong legs wrapped around me, that constant chatter, the messy bed head. I'll miss the morning fire. I'll miss calling Isoo in for breakfast, the bottoms of his pajamas pants wet from dew, his binocs slung around his neck, excited to tell me about what he's seen. Soon he'll be old enough to explore the world on his own, and I will miss this; the feeling that he's returned to us from a place both vast and yet safe. I'll miss breakfast and second breakfast and lunch, the long lazy morning mixed with endless cups of coffee and workbooks and the computer open to research the day's activities. I'll miss having Chris around - not just as a tag teammate, but a true partner, sharing in everything at my side.
We never did make it to Sherkin Island to ride bikes or to kayak with seals. We didn't make the 4 hour road trip O'Brien's Tower or the Cliffs of Mohr. We skipped the Galway Oyster Festival and the Blarney Stone. We didn't take the sailing class or the cooking course. I'm sure you're thinking "What kind of lame travel blog is this?" But September began the quiet season and most tourism outfitters had already closed up shop. So we lived quietly as the locals do, forgoing long drives for the small pleasures of sticking close (or within a 45 minute radius) to home.
Despite the omissions, Ireland was pretty much what I expected. There was hiking, scenery, music, incredibly generous and kind people. And yet, we did learn a few things:
I really, really hate driving. Minimum of two hours commuting everywhere, everyday is a drag. The only thing worse than driving every day is not being able to drive at all and being completely reliant on Chris to cart us around. The loss of independence and alone time was a tough one for me.
The house, while still wonderful, has many, many maintenance issues. The sub floor in the kitchen started to give, loosening the tiles and cracking the grout. For the last two weeks there's been a large, empty box sitting in the middle of the kitchen to prevent the kids from walking on and breaking the tiles. If you know me at all, you are familiar with my rampant dislike of clutter so to have a giant box sit obtrusively in the middle of our most used room has been mental torture. Also, the toilet is still leaking. And the exterior paint is peeling in surfboard size slabs. I don't for a second miss homeownership. I also realize that I can tolerate most housing situations for a couple of weeks before I start to grumble.
Speaking of two weeks, I think that might be the magic number. The month long, slow travel thing is great - it's cheaper, more thoughtful and allows for a deeper understanding and relationship building with the people and place you're visiting. However, after two weeks the novelty of a new place also starts to fade. The major sights have been visited. Routine starts to creep in. Sheets need to be changed. Bathrooms scrubbed. Unless you're staying in a hotel, there is no escaping the tedium of housework. In light of this we tried to trim our visit to Spain from 4 to 2 weeks so we could add Paris and Croatia. Unfortunately, the landlord of our Spain house wouldn't let us out of our contract. Which leads me to...
Don't plan so far ahead. Having so rigidly planned the first 5 months is making it difficult to incorporate the knowledge I've gained while traveling. I hope the last half of the trip will be more spontaneous and informed by our experiences.
Finally, I realize that while I don't need a lot, I can never have enough t-shirts.
Here's a wrap-up of the last few days.
WHAT WE DID:
1. Clonakilty International Guitar Festival
If Chris and I drove into Clon 20 years ago, we would have been suckered into staying. The little town is brimming with cool pubs, each one featuring a long roster of bands. So it's only appropriate that it would host the 4-day music fest (which incidentally, features much more than guitars). It's basically young people hopping from one pub to the next listening to everything from Trad (traditional Irish), American pop, folk, alt-rock, etc. There's a 7€/person cover, but no one was collecting. Chris and I wanted to stay all night, but the kids, unaccustomed to the cozy venues, were overwhelmed by the strong smell of 20-something body odor mixed with beer.
The favorite of the bands we saw was Fir Beag at Shanley's
"Seriously Dad, it's like breathing into a hot, sweaty sweatshirt and I can't see anything except a sea of butts. Can we please go now?"
2. Drove the Beara Way
We'd originally planned to drive the Ring of Kerry (Chris and I had already done the Dingle Peninsula on our previous trip), but after being spoilt by the more wild and remote Northwest coast, we opted to skip the crush of tour buses for the lesser known, and equally beautiful, Beara Way. We stopped at the small, ruined Dunboy Castle in Castletownbere before heading to Dursey to ride the very rusty, suspect cable car across the sound. Then there was more driving (sigh) up the western coast before stopping at Tuosist for Teddy O'Sullivan's famous mussels.
Horse spotting in Beara
Photobombing the picnic lunch at Dursey Peninsula.
The choppy sound is treacherous for boaters (as evidenced by the sailboat that needed rescue that afternoon). The cable car is the only bridge that connects Dursey Island to the mainland and only recently stopped transporting sheep and cattle. Rustoleum anyone?
Inside the 6 person cable car is a small prayer card, Psalm 91 (a prayer for protection) and a bottle of holy water. Oh, those Irish and their jokes!
The very quiet town of Tuosist is famous for Derreen Gardens, a 400 acre subtropical fern garden, and Teddy O'Sullivan's mussels. The restaurant/B&B is now run by his niece. The day we rolled in was so quiet, a photographer, sent from an American travel magazine to shoot the restaurant, had to rustle up a few local fisherman and ply them with pints just to get some bodies in the picture. As for the mussels, they are prepared simply. No beer, wine, parsley, shallots or chorizo. Just mussels in a broth that tastes like the sea. Fantastic.
3. Horseback riding in Schull
We've ridden Western saddle here and there, but never English and never through the countryside past cows and rocky coves. Listening to Isoo giggle uncontrollably during the trot will endure as one of my favorite memories.
4. Ran up Sparrograda
I have been dying for a good run to work off some of the million calories I've ingested this month. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of sidewalk happening in this neck of the woods. In fact, there's not much road either - the lanes are so narrow and the Irish drive at such a break neck pace, I don't dare try to share the street with them. I had heard early on that the road just "next" to ours offered great views, but we only finally drove it the other day. They were right, and blessedly the lane was actually paved (instead of the usual broken rocks) and mostly cow-paddy free. We dropped off the kids, threw on our sneaks and turned right back around for a run. You know you're dealing with seriously steep hills when it takes you 31 minutes to make your way to the top, and only 6 minutes to run back down. And lest you worry that we left the kids alone, we could actually see the house from our run and, if you shouted loud enough, hear them across the valley.
The view of our house and barn from Sparrograda. A few people have asked how close we are to our neighbors. This photo should give you a sense.
5. Finally! Trad Music!
It's starting to get hard to find traditional Irish music in Ireland these days because so many of the young people prefer American Rock. But when we heard of this place in Clon, we decided to keep the kids up late, wind through a dark alley and pile into the cozy An Teach Beag. Every Saturday at 9:30pm, a bunch of 65 year-old couples gather to jam on weird looking instruments, drink Murphy's and sing their hearts out. Talk about local color. And they're all pretty good. The venue is located on the property of the family run O'Donovan Hotel. It's said that the grandfather of the current proprietor fathered 18 kids and lost his leg in an accident. His peg leg and the spare are displayed in the hotel.
6. And a whole mess of other stuff
The kids went to drama again (loved it), swimming at the Baltimore Leisure Centre (It's a pretty crummy pool. Don't forget to bring your own towel and swim cap), went hear Madeline play violin at the farmer's market, and played some more soccer. Isoo played with a new group and the coach, to ensure he wasn't the last one picked, assigned Isoo as a team captain. When Isoo loped off the field he said several of the boys told him, "you play class.'" Chris explained it was slang for "play well". I asked Isoo how he'd responded. "I said 'thanks.' I figured if it was a compliment it was the right thing to say. If it was an insult, they would think I'm being appropriately sarcastic."
The last few days it was Chris' turn to scream at all of us so we sent him to Schull for a pint, Skibb to blow off some steam at the men's soccer match, and then to church so he could pray for strength not to kill us. We're still alive.
And a small thing I want to remember: While running errands in neighboring Schull (Chris' fav town), Isoo got a chance to spin a roulette wheel and won a 20€ gift certificate to the local supermarket. He could have blown the whole thing on car magazines and energy bars, but instead, he asked if he could buy us dinner. While we have everything we need, the kids are very conscious of our budget. They are familiar with the daily allowance and often ask how much is remaining. I was so proud of Isoo and really wanted to let him contribute, but we were set with dinner. After wandering around the store for a half hour, he settled on a box of chocolates for his sis, a single bottle of beer for Chris, a bottle of San Pellegrino for me, strawberries and bagels for breakfast and yes, a couple of energy bars for himself.
WHERE WE ATE:
Apple Betty's Cafe - Skibbereen
Cute, unassuming cafe. Great coffee. No sweet chili sauce. Yay!
Sea Palace Chinese Restaurant - Clonakilty
Ever since Pine Yard burned down, I've been suffering from Chinese food withdrawal. I had a feeling this was going to be a clunker. I was right. Chris' review? "I would rather eat my own poo."
Riverside Cafe and Restaurant - Skibbereen
Just down the street from drama class, this is where Chris and I go for our weekly hot date. A glass of wine, view of the river and a whole hour of uninterrupted conversation.
Teddy O'Sullivan's - Tuosist
Located in Helen's Bar, Bed & Breakfast, overlooking the water as you enter town. You will never, ever go here because it feels like you're at the ends of the earth, but you should. Delicious, fresh seafood pulled right out of the sea.
La Concha Seafood Restaurant - Skibbereen
Hey! The seafood here is pretty good! And loved the chicken curry. The staff is great - friendly accommodating.
Paradise Crepe - Schull
When Lilliane closed up shop for the season, we had to drive to Schull for the kids' crepe fix. Not nearly as good as Lilliane's, but the patio is cute and the staff is friendly (if not a little spacey).
Casey's Bar & Restaurant - Clonakilty
Chris and Isoo loved it. They had the awesome salmon special and watched the Tottenham vs. Arsenal soccer game. I almost went deaf when Tottenham scored. Isoo claimed he heard the "F word" 3xs every 50 seconds. Oona and I huddled in a corner and played cards. All in all, it was very educational. For the record, the staff is excellent.
Total old man bar, and not in the ironic, hipster way. We played Spot It and made so much noise and laughed so hard that Oona almost peed her pants. None of this means anything to you, but it means something to me. Plus, I think the kids were a little drunk from all the rum in the chocolate cake.
WHERE WE STAYED:
Carlton Dublin Airport Hotel
We stayed here our last night in Ireland in order to make it to the airport for our early morning flight to Lisbon. It was pretty nice and very modern for a European airport hotel (i.e., good room size and none of the horrible polyester bed spreads, dated wallpaper or salmon colored carpeting). I will say, however, that the restaurant managed to staff the laziest woman in the world (a.k.a. our server). She spent most of the evening lounging at the bar. To get her attention, I had to stand up and frantically wave my arms around like I was shipwrecked and needed rescue. On her way back from bussing our table, she dropped a spoon and instead of bending over to pick it up, I watched her kick it all the way back into the kitchen. Classic!
When we were visiting the James Turrell Sky Garden, we were fortunate to be able to sit and chat with Cathy, the owner/baker of Liss Ard Cafe. We got to talking about food and I asked if she knew of a farmer in the area who might be able to utilize our energy. She suggested I email Madeline McKeever at Brown Envelope Seeds, and Madeline very graciously agreed to let us slackers tag along with her for the day. Madeline and her partner live on 30 acres of land 45 minutes from our house. Michael raises chickens, cares for the dog (Bob) Dylan, donkeys Nick (named after Madeline’s seed hero, Russian botanist Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov) and Ben (Ben-Hur, of course), and keeps bees on the property, but the bulk of the farm is comprised of winding forests, grazing fields, and some apple trees. We, along with Kevin and Penny, a vacationing couple from the UK, enjoyed a cuppa before touring the barn, used for drying quinoa and vegetable seeds; and the polytunnel, where Madeline grows tomatoes, herbs, lettuces, squash and carrots year-round. After that we wound our way through the forest, which opened to rows of corn, kale, cabbage and assorted greens. Organic farm = weeding by hand, so we got down to business, chatting as we weeded.
Madeline is great - a quiet, unassuming Johnny Appleseed, badass feminist, laid-back farmer and ambitious businesswoman all rolled into one. She was raised on a cattle farm north of Dublin, studied botany, and lived briefly in Maine and Boston before returning to Ireland to purchase her dairy farm on Turk Head 26 years ago. She does still own a few cows, but her real passion is growing fruits and vegetables to harvest and sell the seeds. How does one get started in the seed business? You know what they say about necessity being the mother of invention. Shortly after her marriage ended, she was a struggling single mom/farmer trying to save money by drying her own seeds. Now she sells them over the Internet to small farmers, market growers and every day city folk so anyone can produce their own food. You can find her catalogue at http://www.brownenvelopeseeds.com
The boom of large corporate farms has made it difficult for small farmers to compete; the banks are stingier with loans, requiring small farmers to raise more cattle, and work more land to stay solvent. But it’s back-breaking work and coupled with Ireland’s long history of young people’s emigration, many would-be next generation farmers (like Madeline’s two daughters) are opting for the “greener pastures” of white collar occupations in the large cities of Europe, Canada, Australia and the US. Nowadays the average age of an Irish farmer is 54. Madeline recalls the time when she would drive a modest 30 gallons of milk to the local creamery to see a queue of 5 other farmers doing the same. Now she says there are only a couple of independent dairy farms left and the queue has been replaced by tankards from giant dairy conglomerates. The EU’s guidelines on selling seeds are another of Madeline’s hurdles. The restrictions, originally created to discourage the spread of “bad seeds”, curbs seed breeding and sharing, and dramatically limits the varieties of produce that can be grown in Ireland. (The US, on the other hand has much looser criteria, which in part, accounts for the heaving bounty of options.) Despite the obstacles, Madeline remains steadfast - not surprising considering she’s a woman who runs an independently-owned farm, was single mom of two, and a self-taught online businesswoman. Oh, and 10 years ago she and another farmer jumped on a train to Dublin to file a last minute injunction to cease the sale of prime Skibbereen land to a supermarket developer. It’s a long, murky story that includes illegal produce sales, clipping of deadbolts and her arrest. But the story ends well: The land that she was able to save is now the location of West Cork’s largest outdoor mart, the Skibbereen Farmer’s Market, which she founded and where you can find us every Saturday morning.
By mid-afternoon, we had pulled several rows and in true conservationist form, Madeline invited us to stay for a late lunch of the migrating greens we had harvested while weeding. I would have loved to have stayed for the sautéed turnip tops and kale, but the kids were tired from a long day in the sun and when her friend dropped in unexpectedly, we took a rain check on lunch to give them a chance to visit.
I know in my last post, I did a sort of low grade moaning about traveling too slow and the isolation and boredom of rural life. But meeting Madeline was a highlight for me, and one I wouldn’t have been able to experience if I were merely a tourist blowing through. And there is a really wonderful sense of community that comes from small town living. Everyone knows everyone. Exhibit A: The guy who makes your pizza is the guy who coaches the soccer team. Exhibit B: On the morning we were heading to Brown Envelope Seeds, the caretaker, Ruth, popped by to check on us. Turns out that she was Madeline’s former assistant for 8 years!
Another thing, I had sort of secretly been complaining about composting. Back home, if Chris was out of town and it was snowing or raining (and I was clear of any witnesses), I would not recycle. I know what you’re thinking: Boo, Cheong! But I hated to see cans and bottles litter my counter as much as I hated to be cold or scared by animals in a dark alley, so into the garbage it went. I threw away ridiculous amounts of trash and non-trash. Leftovers we never got to because we were sick of the taste. Groceries we threw out because we opted to eat out instead of cooking. Clothes that didn’t fit. Shoes that were out of fashion. Paper scrawled carelessly on only one side. Plastic zip lock bags. Tin foil. Water down the drain as we waited for the shower to get to “just the right temperature”. While no one will ever accuse me of being careless with money, we had more food and “stuff” than we needed. Living here has made me even more mindful of waste. Our water comes from a well and is geo-thermally heated. In rural areas like ours, you have to cart your own trash to the dump and pay a fee of 5€/bag (roughly $6.50/bag). So we eat everything we can, compost the coffee grounds, shells and peels and then recycle the rest (recycling is also costly at 3€). Every corner of Oona’s drawing paper is used, and when she’s done, it becomes kindling for the fireplace (our only source of heat). There are no plastic bags at the supermarket. Electricity is a fickle beast.
Yes, when it’s dark and you are walking through the tall grass where Isoo saw the remains of a rat to compost the dinner scraps, you do find yourself whispering, “Go on. Be a big girl.” I may never be a country farmer, but after meeting Madeline, I know that I too, can be just a little bit braver.
Drying veg in the barn. On the right is quinoa in its original state.
Isoo, Kevin and Madeline in the polytunnel. The tunnel allows Madeline to farm year-round, protecting her crops form the harsh Irish weather and seeing her vegetables to fruition. Ripe veggies = ripe seeds.
Getting down and dirty.
Our would-be lunch. The turnips Madeline sent us home with were delicious, mild and perfect for a salad.
Madeline and Michael
I thought for sure I would be the first to break, but on the evening of Oona’s birthday, after breakfast in bed, banners, balloons, cards from friends, a small mountains of gifts, a dream come true excursion to throw pottery on a wheel, she announced matter-of-factly, “When it’s time to blow out my candles, I’m only going to make one wish: To go home.”
After that she cried for about an hour. I tried to explain how there would be many, many birthdays, but likely only one in Ireland, surrounded by mooing cows and horses and gorgeous nature. But you try talking perspective to an 8 year-old homesick for her friends, play dates and a good old-fashioned birthday party.
Chris finally coaxed her downstairs with promises of lemonade and birthday desserts. Within minutes she was her happy, easy-going self again, but lying in bed that night, I found myself bracing for what would come ahead: Halloween without the Monroe St. gang, a Thanksgiving Day chicken, a quiet Christmas without the chaos of cousins, dogs, visiting uncles and aunts and enough presents to fit under a dozen trees.
The countryside makes her loneliness even more pronounced. Chris and Isoo don’t understand; they are self-contained creatures. I am, too, except, well, its just so very quiet here. When we planned this trip, we did so with the intent of exploring our horizons - opting for a mix of rural, village, medium and large cities to see what feels right for our family. But it’s become evident that while there’s plenty enough to do, I’m not cut out for country living. I miss TV, cafes, restaurants and noise. Bars, traffic lights and bookstores. I miss having neighbors and seeing kids on a playground and waiving to fellow runners. Options, small talk, public utilities. While our life back home often felt over scheduled and frenetic, it throws in sharp contrast our current solitary existence. Neither feels right. OK, so now I know.
I'm consumed by that familiar sense of restlessness, of moving on, of traveling faster and seeing more. Chris woke up the other day sighing, “I thought we were in Paris.” We’ll have to see if it was a premonition or just a dream. We have 9 days remaining here and intend to make the most of them. We have plans to work on a farm, hike the Beara Way, take a ferry to ride bikes on a tiny island. Yes, I know I should appreciate it while I can, but you try talking perspective to a middle-aged woman who feels that the whole world is out there just waiting for her to explore.
The truth is, we are doing great. Better than expected really. Oona is growing like a weed and becoming more coordinated, athletic and funny each day. Isoo is totally in his element. We wake up to find “out birding,” scrawled on a piece of toilet paper. He is doing what he loves best, gorging himself on birding, greedily devouring bird watching sites, blogging, taking pictures. I’m envious of his discipline and passion, especially since my own interests in writing, running, reading, etc. seems to have given way to quiet daydreaming. But I guess that too, is not such a bad thing.
So OK, we’ve slowed down, but we’ve not been idle. Here is a round-up of the last few days:
WHAT WE DID:
1. West Cork Food Festival
West Cork is made up of a series of very small towns. By this I mean every 30km or so of farmland is broken by a main street consisting of a couple of pubs, a post office and gas station. If you hit the jackpot, you also get a bank, a school, supermarket, weekend farmer’s market and enough shops to fill a couple of blocks (Skibbereen, Clonakilty, Bantry). The nearest town, the very laid-back, Ballydehob, was once a former hippie commune with a thriving music scene. Now it's home to a health food store, gas station, two seldom open pubs and a post office where you can pick up your mail. Yawn.
So the West Cork Food Fest is a pretty big deal. It seemed everyone in Ireland (which incidentally is the size of Indiana) descended on this little corner to partake in farm-raised beef, organic produce and fresh caught fish. Normally this is the kind of crowded, noisy event we avoid like the plague, but all things considered, it was terrific to see the streets buzzing and we had a great time listening to music and moving from stand to stand sampling the goods.
Potato chip heaven. Dug from his garden, peeled and then right out of the fryer. Rivaled only by fresh made, piping hot Dinky Donuts. When he saw I'd taken a pic, he shouted, "Please put me on Facebook!"
Top: Local cheese. These hens lay multi-colored eggs.
Middle: Monkfish from the Baltimore harbor. My teeth ache just looking at the candy!
On our way to the car, we decided to pop into Jeff’s Oak Fire Pizzeria for a make your own pizza session. Even though we'd neglected to register, Jeff made an exception and on our way out, Oona was stopped by a photographer from the Irish Examiner. As luck would have it, her picture was featured in the online paper.
WHAT WE ATE:
Too much to mention without embarrassing myself.
2. Clonakilty for Oona's Birthday
We knew the birthday was going to be a tough one because like most kids, Oona had been actively planning her party for the last 364 days. We did our best to make it memorable, driving 45 minutes to Clonakilty for a private pottery session. What I didn’t realize was that the “pottery school” was run out of woman’s garage, in the middle of nowhere, and that she had had a power outage. Fortunately, Rita, had a kick wheel so we did it up old-school. Rita was fantastic – interesting, talented and a great teacher. Most of all, she was incredibly patient with Oona, letting her stay far longer than reasonable (if you have ever worked on a kick wheel, you’ll know what I mean).
And as if the surprise birthday party they had thrown her before our departure wasn’t enough, the highlight of Oona’s day was opening the handmade birthday cards the Monroe St. gang had snuck into our luggage. Not only were we touched, but also a little bit homesick.
WHAT WE ATE:
For the birthday lunch we had delicious steak sandwiches at the very charming Scannells, made more so by the adorable and friendly owner. They also have a huge garden that hosts local bands in the evening.
3. People in Ireland are crazy
This is the only explanation why Barley Cove, a pristine beach 45 minute drive (everything is a 45 minutes drive) away was deserted the day we visited. Emerald water, secret coves and shallow lagoons. We packed a picnic lunch and wound our way past wild horses and cows, and along a floating pontoon walkway to the wide stretch of sand. The water was cold, but that didn't stop Chris and the kids. Oona, the beach girl, proclaimed it her favorite day thus far.
4. Mizen Head
Yeah, so we went to Mizen Head, a signal station on Ireland's most southernly tip. I was desperate for my weekly one hour of kid-free time and really wanted the kids to go to Drama Class, but Chris and the kids trumped me. So yes, I had a crappy attitude toward Mizen Head and was sort of vindicated when it turned out to be kind of boring. The Irish love to recreate historical scenes using life-size dioramas. They are totally spooky and super cheesy. If you don’t believe me, see for yourself.
Please pass the butter.
While I don't recommend paying the 18Euro to visit the station, the view from the bridge was sort of cool (but don't tell Chris and the kids I said that). Just pretend you bought a ticket, cross the bridge and turn back before you get to the "museum". A shout out to my book club peeps: While I still stand my ground that The Light Between the Oceans, was a horrible book, I have to admit it did greatly inform my understanding and appreciation for lighthouse keepers.
"Seriously, stop being grumpy. I am standing at the southern most tip of Ireland, which for some inexplicable reason it is very important to me, and you are spoiling it."
5. Drombeg Stone Circle
We drove 45 minutes (surprise!) to see a bunch of rocks in a circle? Yes, and now I’m going to give you a lesson on ancient burial rituals and how the Celts boiled water by adding hot stones to the trough. Wait, why am I the only one who finds this fascinating?
17 stones make up the recumbent stone circle. The largest stones (on the left) mark the doorway, the smallest, (right) the altar. Believed to be created 1100-800BC to mark the burial plot of an adolescent youth.
Steps from the stone circle is an ancient dwelling. Adjacent to the living hut is a "kitchen" equipped with a well that flows into a trough. Stones are heated in a fire and then put into the trough to heat water for boiling meat, dying cloth and bathing.
"Quick, let's run away before she tries to teach us more stuff!"
"No seriously, how much more of this do we need to listen to?"
6. Cobh and Cork
We decided, for everyone’s sanity, to make the long drive to the big cities of Cobh and Cork. First stop: The Heritage Centre, where we had hoped the kids would learn about and embrace their Irish lineage. Again, I could have stayed all day reading every one of the placards, but Chris, spoiled by the vastness of Belfast’s Titanic Museum, was not impressed. The kids were completely spooked by the loud music, creepy dioramas and tragic story. Our visit was short, but we did get some fun photos of the picturesque homes lolling on the pitched hills.
See, I was not kidding about the dioramas.
Lest I lose my audience completely, I surprised the kids by taking them to Kartmania, located in an out of the way business park in Cork. We got outfitted in driving gear and then raced gas pedal go-karts around a huge track. It was expensive, stupid and without any educational value. We all loved it. Isoo declared it “the most fun I have ever had in my entire life!” And if go-karting is any indication, I should prepare myself now for many speeding tickets and dinged headlights from my future 16 year-old son.
To ensure that we do something of some cultural value, we also climbed to the top of St. Ann's and rang the bells of Shandon. Culture-lite.
Playing Fere Jacques
Our last stop before dinner was Douglas Community Park, a large walled park in the middle of a posh Cork suburb. We were all thrilled to see real live kids on a playground! For Oona, the best part of the day was playing soccer in the park with a couple of new friends. Not the same as kicking the ball with her best bud, Mia, but it will have to do for the next few months.
WHERE WE ATE:
Don't be tricked by the views of Cobh harbor and the convenient location next to the Heritage Museum. Or the good trip advisor reviews. The dreaded Irish sweet chili sauce on EVERYTHING.
We'd read such great reviews about this Indian restaurant we decided to it was worth the long drive out to the 'burbs of Cork City. The food was pretty good, but the service was insanely slow, so much so that we didn't have time for much else to do in Cork. Live and learn.
7. Isoo went birding for real!
Chris and I know nothing about birds, much less the birds of Ireland so we hired a guide, Dan "Feathers" Ballard, to meet the boys for a day of spotting. It rained like mad, but Isoo still managed to find a couple dozen life birds trampling through farms, gardens and other private property in pursuit of the elusive pheasant. They never found one, but the day was deemed a success! The best 48 hours of his life! Read the details for yourself here: http://www.traveltobird.com
I think Dan had as much fun birding with Isoo, as Isoo did with Dan. By the end of the afternoon, Dan had invited Isoo to bird with him again, free of charge.
8. Put me in coach!
The kids need friends and cardio so we bought them some shin guards and socks, showed up at the soccer pitch on Saturday morning and crashed the Skibbereen Club practice. After sizing up the kids, we approached coaches with a smile and they happily welcomed Isoo and Oona. Again, the Irish couldn't be nicer. Oona was the only girl on the field and had to play in her Chucks, but by the end of the practice, coach Jeff (coincidentally of Jeff's Oak Fire Pizzeria!) was citing her as an example. Isoo won the drill, had some great assists and scored a goal, gaining the approval of the more serious, older players. Much needed social and physical interaction and a nice ego boost to boot.
WHERE ELSE DID WE EAT?
The Fish Kitchen
Wait, you mean there's ONLY fish on the menu? The restaurant name and it's location above a fish shop in the harbor town of Bantry should have been tip-offs, but nonetheless, I was disappointed. I like fish as much as the next person, er, well maybe I don't. Proof that you can take the girl out of the Midwest, but not the Midwest out of the girl. Chris on the other hand, loved it.
An Chistin Beag
This little restaurant got the best reviews in Skibbereen. But why? It's nothing more than a little diner serving cod sandwiches and chicken wings smothered in bottled BBQ sauce. I actually got up in the middle of my dinner and went outside to look at the signage just to make sure I was in the right place. Our meal was fine, but certainly not worth the hype.
After a 10-year break from the kitchen, Chris is back cooking and we're all thankful for his return. He lights a fire, googles conversions from degrees F to C, settles us at the best table in the house, pours me a glass of wine and then sets off to crank out our favorite meals. Why eat out?
The original thinking was that we’d come during the summer, but by the time we’d gotten around to looking for a house, most places were already full. I felt I was scrapping the bottom of the barrel when I stumbled upon this house on airb&b as there were no reviews and it was located in a corner more remote than we’d previously considered. Yet, I was captivated as I scrolled through the images and its lovingly written description. When the owner offered a discount for September, it was a done deal.
Afterwards there was remorse. It was, after all, the country, and I am a city girl (or at least a citified suburban one). How the heck would I fill my days? I flipped through the pictures again, trying to imagine myself in the big house, surrounded by 8 acres of wilderness. And quiet. And nothing to do. I implored Chris to contact the owner to inquire: What exactly does one do in the country? I mean, is there a cow to milk? Or a stone wall I’m supposed to sit on? “I’m not asking her that,” he said dryly. “Just get your mind around it. It’ll be fine.”
I take his advice so by the time Susan asks what I’m most looking forward to, I sigh and say dreamily, “We wake up and it’s chilly and raining so Chris builds a fire and we drink coffee and after breakfast we teach the kids to make soup and then go outside to stomp around in the rain and then we take a long, hot bath in the claw foot tub and then we read aloud taking turns to do all the voices and roast a chicken and play long, involved board games and tinker around on the piano and Oona paints and Isoo birds and we all get to write.”
What really happened is that I screamed more in that first week than I ever did in my entire life. The homeschooling, the intense togetherness, the lack of structure, kids who can’t find anything in an unfamiliar house, being surrounded by people ALL OF THE TIME. Do you really need to ask? And then there was the day the refrigerator and the toilet broke at the same time. And the apocalyptic number of flies. Argh.
Chris, displaced most of all, spent the first few days drifting around like a ghost; faint, distracted, searching for quiet corner to write and think, only to find he was now living in a circular room. But the worst offender was Isoo. “Oh my god, there is nothing to do here!” he would moan (translation: “How will I live without a TV?”). He nags us incessantly to take him birding. We fling open the door, sweep our arm across the landscape and say ”have at it!” He looks out quizzically, blinking in the threshold like a newborn not used to sunlight and fresh air. Oona, thankfully, has managed to keep herself busy chasing frogs, gathering blackberries, making pies, collecting pebbles, scampering up the big rock to paint, waking up early to get first dibs on the swing in front of our house. All accompanied by constant chatter and fueled by an endless parade of snacks.
But there are also lovely surprises, not least among them, fantastic weather. We’ve had nothing but warm, dry days since we’ve been here (knock wood). Another thing we were wrong about: There’s loads to do - here are some of the more memorable things we did in our first 10 days in the country:
WHAT WE DID:
1. Lough Hyne and Knockomagh Woods
Lough Hyne used to be a small fresh water lake until sea levels rose and flooded it with ocean water, causing it to sustain an unusual collection of marine and plant life. It’s also home to the Knockomagh Wood, a majestic oak forest consumed by moss. The place feels so enchanted you half expect to run into wood nymphs and trolls. We took the steep, zig zag trail to the top. Definitely a workout for the glutes, but the amazing views of the countryside were worth it.
Chris and Isoo leading the way.
Oona finds a rope swing.
Oona at the top. Breathtaking views of West Cork's farmland and Lough Hyne.
2. Cape Clear/International Storytelling Festival
At only 3 miles wide and 1 mile long, Cape Clear is Ireland’s southernmost inhabited island and one of the few remaining areas where Gaelic is still spoken. Chris and I were totally psyched to attend the 20th Annual International Storytelling Festival, but Isoo was there for the sole purpose of birding. We drove 30 minutes to Baltimore and then boarded the ferry for Cape Clear. Sprawled on the only available bench was a goateed man wearing dark shades, hat, and a sour-expression, a giant backpack wrapped in black plastic garbage bags at his feet. He was also wearing binoculars, the tell-tale sign of a birder. “Hi there, plan on doing some bird watching today?” I asked, eager for tips to share with Isoo. I was going to melt him with my sunny American demeanor if it killed me. It didn’t work. He had no interest in me, but during the 40 minute ride, he and Isoo grunted at each other, squinted into the horizon and pointed out sea birds. With a little prodding, I learned that his name was Gareth, a professor just returning from giving a lecture at Purdue University and, as luck would have it, the brother of the Ireland’s foremost bird watcher and moth expert. When I asked where on Cape Clear he liked to bird, he sheepishly confessed to having a small place on the island good for spotting, but suggested we take the Green Trail for some hiking.
By the time we pulled into the harbor, Gareth was quizzing Isoo on his bird knowledge and a crowd of white-haired men with crazy eyebrows and rich accents had gathered to play audience. After some handshaking and tilting of caps, we had a quick picnic lunch at the pier before we set off for the Green Trail, already reminiscing of our good luck at having made new friends, when from behind a stone wall we heard, “I suspected we’d meet again.” It was Gareth, tin coffee mug in hand, standing in a field on the edge of the woods. Behind him was not the charming cottage I suspected he was modestly alluding to, but in the words of Oona, “The World’s Smallest Hut”, just large enough for a cot, his pack and a cook stove.
Ah-ha! Gareth was an actual genius misanthrope! A real live, bird watching hermit! Even Isoo admitted that it was like glimpsing a bit of his future self. As we walked away Gareth, shouted “Stop for a cup of tea on your way back.” Alas, the trail looped us in another direction and we were late for the festival so it was the last we saw of Gareth, but not of our other new friends. We huffed in, sweaty and exhausted from the hike just as the festival doors were closing. We would have been the last ones in if it wasn't for a white-haired man who slid in next to Isoo, greeting him in loud whispers. You guessed right. Our fellow commuters were the storytellers. We had a fantastic time listening to them and meeting other storytellers from Austria, Switzerland, the US, etc. And as if to make certain that everyone had a memorable time, Oona spotted a dozen dolphins and a giant breaching whale on the ferry ride home. One of our favorite days so far.
Left: Isoo and Pat, one of the storytellers from the festival. Right: Looking for birds (Gareth is in the pink shirt).
The scenic ride to Cape Clear.
Pulling into Cape Clear harbor.
The Green Trail hike is very bush wacky. Totally overgrown with heather and nettles. Although the bushes were often taller than Oona, she insisted on leading the way. Wear pants and long sleeves to avoid getting scratched. Or skip it and walk the paved roads instead.
See, even the paved roads are pretty. On our way down for the locally made goats milk ice cream.
Dolphin spotting by eagle-eyed Oona.
WHERE WE ATE:
Séan Rua's Restaurant and An Siopa Beag
Conveniently located on the harbor, Séan Rua's Restaurant and An Siopa Beag is an all purpose grocery store/restaurant/pizzeria/bookshop and the meeting hub for the tiny island of Cape Clear. It’s the kind of place you go to several times a day during your stay on the island, because, well, there’s not many other options. The menu is limited, but the views are great and the staff, friendly.
3. Skibbereen Farmer’s Market
Ok, I’m going to amend my previous comment about the food in Ireland. Yes, the pub food in the big cities is wanting, but the local food in Ireland’s farming region is a whole other animal (excuse the pun). Last Saturday we went into Skibbereen, a funky little town with a great art and music scene, and was floored by the selection of absolutely fresh meats, fish, cheese and vegetables (yes, Ireland now has vegetables beyond potatoes). The really cool thing is that it’s stuff grown literally on our doorstep. We spent the whole morning sampling and chatting with the farmers, and then stayed to listen to the band, who incidentally, were pretty darn good.
Giving new meaning to doing shows on the road.
I totally need one of these trucks.
WHAT WE ATE:
Frankie's Bad Ass BBQ
Seriously good. Every Saturday Isoo wakes up and begs to get a Frankie burger and one of Liliane's crepes. The hot dogs are really Irish sausages, but still pretty good.
Crepes a la Francaise
When the kids are old and gray, the only thing they may remember about Ireland are the banana and nutella crepes.
Chris and the kids can have their burgers. What I really love are the spicy falafels.
West Cork Pies
Chris, Oona and I are addicted to the outrageously tasty Thai Scotch Eggs.
The Real Olive Co.
Fresh, delicious Mediterranean food imported from Spain. Also on the menu is buffalo mozzarella made from the only buffalo farm in Ireland. Olives, anchovies, cheese and a handful of their roasted cashews are our go-to Sunday afternoon snack.
4. Bantry House
Bantry House is a gorgeous private estate owned by the White family for over 300 years. While it was once their residence, it’s now opened to the public. You can dine in the café (formerly the kitchen), sleep in the B&B, walk the charming gardens and wander the ancient rooms. It’s the kind of place where Chris and I geek out, touching things we’re not supposed to and imagining what it would be like to live in that era. Oona is a sucker for the treasure hunt and quizzes. Added bonus: Watching Isoo writhe in agony.
The gorgeous gardens of Bantry House.
Overlooking Bantry Bay.
The over-the-top dining room. And the library where Colonel Mustard did it with the wrench.
5. Drama Class
Say what? Isoo and Oona want to take drama class? Not. Who cares? Not us! Desperate for a little time away from the kids, er, I mean, to give them a chance to make some Irish friends, we enrolled them in a drama class (the only thing we could find that suited both ages and allowed for a per class tuition). Isoo almost threw up when we told him. Oona was game. Ironically, he liked it better than she did. See ya next week!
Are we having fun yet?
6. Liss Ard
Liss Ard is a sprawling Georgian estate located just a few minutes from our house. It’s a gorgeous Inn with fancy lodgings nestled in 200 acres of lakes, woods and gardens. It’s lovely, but what makes it really worth visiting is the James Turrell Irish Sky Garden Crater. You enter through a locked gate, walk through a long, dark vault, climb several steep steps and are “rebirthed” into a giant, man-made crater. In the center is a stone tomb looking thing that you’re supposed to lie on and quietly contemplate the sky. It’s actually pretty amazing and powerful, but Isoo and Oona insisted on clawing their way up the incredibly steep incline and then running around the vast rim howling like idiots. Let’s just say it wasn’t exactly the experience Turrell was going for.
Oh, while we were there, we met one of the chefs at the restaurant who confessed to letting himself into the crater on the recent full moon. He said it was an incredibly eerie, magical experience. Jealous.
The crater from a distance.
Clawing your way up is one thing. Sliding all the way down on your butt and ruining your pants while screaming bloody murder is another. All part of the fun.
The kids run wild on the rim while mom tries to contemplate the meaning of life.
WHERE WE ATE:
Cafe at Liss Ard
Cathy, the wonderful baker/owner at Café at Liss Ard, sells her homemade pastries and cakes from this tiny little room decorated with vintage knickknacks. Think mismatched Victorian china, lovely fluted cake plates and dollops of fresh cream, all served in the beautiful graveled patio. As we came late in the day, Cathy was able to join us, sharing her treats and letting the kids play with her dogs.
7. Soccer, Soccer, Soccer
We took a nap the other day and woke up to find that a couple of farmers had come to cut stuff down, harvest the hay and then bale it up. These are probably not the correct farming terms, but what do you want from a citified suburban gal? Anyhow it changed the whole property for us. Voila, now we have a huge soccer field!
Every couple of days Isoo yells for Oona and gives her an intense soccer lesson. She should be ready for TE tryouts when we get back!
Today's lesson: pull backs.
We drove the 1.5 hours to this charming harbor village famous for its colorfully painted houses and plethora of restaurants. It was the first time back in 12 years. We had a blast walking the town and showing the kids our old apartment, grocer, hang outs, etc., until Chris inexplicably got poop all over his shirt and backpack. He made the 3km walk up the long winding road to Charles Fort in the heat wearing a hooded black fleece. By the time we got to the fort, he was a hot, sweaty, miserable mess. His solution was to hike down to the shore, strip off his clothes and plunge into the icy Bandon River. Oona, his partner in crime, joined him screaming, “My buttocks are frozen!” Isoo and I sat on the rocks shaking our heads. Ironically, Chris did the same thing 12 years ago, jumping off the shores of Compass Hill in Kinsale to swim with the seals. Some things never change.
Many a pint was pulled here during our last stay.
Oona and I had a great time running through the massive fort, playing hide-and-go seek and doing cartwheels.
But hard to know which of the two guys enjoyed it more.
Chris swimming in the icy Bandon River just outside the fort. I'm sure the other tourists had no idea what to make of him.
WHERE WE ATE:
Black Pig Winebar
We had our best meal yet at this hip little tapas bar. Elaine, I kept thinking how much you would love this place, to curl up with a great glass of wine and grab a cookbook off the shelf. The patio out back was so romantic Isoo commented that it might be nice spot for a date. The food scene in Kinsale has definitely improved (ask Chris about his short stint as a cook in Ireland)!
Last but not least, as we got deeper into our stay, we did manage to figure things out a bit. Isoo did bird, Oona did paint, we all got creamed by Oona in chess, soup was made, baths were drawn and we even found a stone wall or two. And finally, Chris and I celebrated our 17th wedding anniversary with lots of family cuddles and a quiet dinner at home. Perfect.
Blackberry hunting on the path down to our house.
Early morning reading by the fire.
On the lookout for the Willow Warbler.
Oona painting on the rock in front of the house.
One of many many stone walls.
WHERE WE ATE:
I'm going to say it: Chicago has the best pizza in the world. Even if you think yours is better, it's not (this goes for you, too, NYC, with your greasy, flaccid slices). This place was fine, but it was no Giordano's.
A small organic grocer with a kitchen that cranks out vegetarian pasties, muffins, salads and soups. This was widely lauded as the place to go to in crunchy Ballydehob for decent grub. I wanted to find it amazing, but it was just fine.
“What you want to do is go back 'round and when you’ve come out the other end, make the 4th right onto a dirt road. The sign’s blown off, but you’ll be alright. The road’s bumpy and you have to go quite a ways. Don’t let the stream put you off, just drive right through. The house is at the end of the lane.”
We follow, Ruth, the caretaker’s, instructions. We find the town, and the road so twisted and narrow you can’t help but gasp every time a car races your way (for the record, the side windows were already shattered when we picked up the car). Then the dirt path, overgrown with tall grass and spikey blackberry bushes. We splash through the promised stream, the car rocking as it dips into ruts so deep I wonder if the rental has a spare. After nearly a mile and a half, there it is, at the top, looking exactly as it did in the pictures only bigger and sunnier; the exterior painted yellow with blue trim. Oona runs out of the car to scamper up the huge rock that fronts the house. Isoo heads straight for the tree swing. Chris fishes out the key and disappears inside, leaving me to struggle with the luggage.
“Cheong, leave it, you have to see this!”
It’s only our fourth day in the house, and it's still revealing itself. It’s a great, open, (believe it or not) sunny house with loads of windows and a set of Dutch doors (I have always wanted Dutch doors!) that flank either side of the kitchen. And while it's comfortable and spacious, it’s not one of those cookie cutter luxury homes. It's imperfect - the tubs are stained from the manganese and iron in water. There is the occasional missing light fixture. The trim in the Living Room is in the midst of replacement. The freshly painted exterior is puckering. The tin garage is missing half its walls. The 8 acres is not flat and wide, but overgrown and wild, with more than its share of thickets and thorns, ditches and water holes. But it is a house alive with color and art and the sense that a happy family of young children lived here.
I love the little details: The slightly warped plates handmade by the owner, the dining table stained with coffee rings and paint splatters, the claw foot tub under windows that open onto Fuschia flowers. I pull open a dresser drawer to find a child’s diary. Another reveals a skeleton key. The extensive record collection with everything from Underground 80’s, Burl Ives, flamenco, Al Green. Wellies, in an assortment of sizes lined up in the mudroom. DVD sets of Madmen and Dexter. In the pantry gluten-free flour, brown sugar, Yogi tea. A creased photo of a young woman with dark curly hair wearing an infant in a carrier. The chair pulled up next to the piano as if a lesson had just been conducted. A pair of green stone earrings in a tiny bowl. Well-loved Teddy bears with noses gone missing. A giant jar of 1-cent Euro coins in the laundry room. I pull a sheet of scrap paper from beneath a pile of puzzles to find a pencil drawing of a small mouse. In the bookshelf are tomes entitled “How to Repair Farm Roofs”.
The kids unearth a chess board and Isoo becomes obsessed with the idea of beating his sister. After dinner we collect our scraps and gingerly make our way to through the brush, timidly lifting the lid of the compost bin to peek inside. We squat in the tub and clumsily sprinkle well water over our heads. The foreign brand of detergent transforms our pile of folded clothes into someone else’s clean laundry. I try on the pair of wire reading glasses left on the fireplace. My hair smells of the half bottle of Aussie shampoo found in the second bath. There is no TV so instead we, too, fill the house with music.
We are archeologists, slowly discovering and learning how to be this family. Did the mother also sit at this table, looking out the window as her daughter sat on the swing calling for a push? In turn I wonder what clues the new owners of our old house will find. A stray hair clip. The patch of grass worn away where Isoo kicked his soccer ball. The carpet flattened where the sectional sat. Will they know to put their couch in the same spot? Hang their pictures on the nails left by our paintings?
After the month we will move on. Invariably we will leave something behind. Perhaps Isoo’s worry stone, already rubbed smooth by his thumb. The small jar of dried dill the kids insisted I pack for their pasta. Oona’s hairbrush. One flip flop. A roll of tape. A shoeprint left in the foyer that says: We were here. This was our home.
Chris in the front Dutch door.
The owner is an American potter, the husband is Irish, and they have 3 girls that they raised in the house for 8 years before moving to NY State. Her beautiful handmade pottery is found throughout the house.
The open plan kitchen/family/dining room. The rack above the cast iron stove is a traditional drying rack which is lowered by a rope (the house also has a washer and dryer).
The living room has loads of records, a piano, guitar and a cute reading nook that's perfect for Hide-and-Go-Seek.
The sliding barn door opens to reveal a powder room. Dexter's Midnight Runners, anyone?
I sometimes sit in the chair to write, but more often to stare out the window.
I miss a good shower, but I do love a claw foot tub.
Not surprised that Isoo chose the smallest room. He loves bright, cozy spaces most.
I thought for sure Oona would pick this room. I was wrong. But it leaves us plenty of space for guests. Come visit!
The old stone chicken coop overgrown with Fuchsia flowers.
Oona finishes her soup to find a frog at the bottom of her bowl. A doorway marks a growing family.
Ireland, Part 2 - Belfast
On our fourth day in Ireland, we headed a half hour north of the city for a little birding. We looped around for what seemed like forever searching for the road that led up to the Rogerstown Estuary only to discover that there was in fact, no road. Visiting the estuary would require abandoning our fully loaded Peugeot and hoofing a mile to the shore. Welcome to the countryside! Much to Isoo’s chagrin, we decided to skip the birding and race straightway to Belfast.
I’m not sure what I expected of Belfast – aside from The Troubles and the long history of civil strife, I knew next to nothing of the city and after our very short visit, I still don’t. In an effort to please Oona, I had booked a hotel with a pool and with options limited, ended up at the Belfast Plaza Ramada. Unbeknownst to me, it was in the middle of a suburb, far enough from the city that we ended up spending the majority of our one day in Belfast fighting traffic. By the time we made it to the highly recommended Titanic Museum, it was dinner time. I feared it would be a horrible Disney-like experience complete with life-sized Leo DiCaprio cut-outs, instead, it was a vast, interactive and thoughtful study on Belfast’s shipping and immigration history. I could have stayed all day, but as we were literally the last people in the building and the kids were starving, our tour was cut short. If you ask Isoo about Belfast, he will say, “I don’t even know why we bothered to go there.” While all of the people we encountered in Belfast were very nice, I, too, was itching to hit the countryside and see the true beauty of Ireland.
Titanic Museum - designed to look like the bow of a ship.
Across the street from the Titanic Museum is Titanic Studios, where they film Game of Thrones.
Ireland, Part 2 - Bushmill
I open my eyes to the sound of rain on our sweet cottage in the country. I can’t tell you what it feels like to finally be here. It’s like someone reached into my brain, fished out my fantasy of the Irish coast and then recreated it using a box of paints in 10,000 shades of green. It’s all here: The long grass that covers the rolling hilltops like fistfuls of hair, rocky cliffs stained with yellow lichen and dotted with sea gulls, bottlenose-dolphins swimming under perilous rope bridges, wire fences herding lazy sheep, waterfalls, secret beaches, hidden coves. It’s fecking marvelous.
We had 3 days near Bushmill; not nearly enough. Our first day we headed straight for the Giant’s Causeway, a series of 40,000 basalt columns resulting from a volcanic eruption 60 million years ago, set among a stunning backdrop of tumbling green ocean and dramatic hills. The hexagonal columns were so perfectly formed they look fake. Oona had a blast jumping from stone to stone, pausing only to scamper up giant speckled boulders.
Giant's Causeway - nature's stairmaster.
These rocks are referred to as "onion skins" due to their ruffled texture.
Happy girl. Where's Isoo? Birding, of course.
And if that wasn’t enough, just minutes away was a 100-foot high rope bridge suspended between the mainland and the tiny island of Carrick-a-rede.
Carrick-a-rede rope bridge from a distance.
I hate rollercoasters and heights and anything remotely death-defying so I was a bit wary of Carrick-a-rede. There is many a visitor that make the trek down to the bridge only to turn back to the car lot. Others cross it once and then require a boat to fetch them for the return. Isoo, eager to identify the seabirds on the other side crossed with stoic determination. Oona and I made it following the sage advice, “Don’t look down!”
My brave girl
Guess where Chris got his T-shirt! The colorful walls of Carrick-a-rede.
While the Giant's Causeway is undeniably breathtaking, it was incredibly touristy and crowded. I preferred the more mellow Carrick-a-rede, a small salmon fishing island complete with charming caves where boat builders and fishermen wait out the storm.
The views of Scotland from the other side were amazing, so much so that we lingered, and by the time we had to make the return cross, the wind had picked up. At one point, the bridge swayed so fiercely that I yelped and nearly knocked Oona over, screaming, “Agh! Hurry up child!”
By the time we reached the car, it had started to rain. Looking over his shoulder for one last glance, Isoo shouted, “Hey! A double rainbow!” How is that for a perfect Irish experience?
The day’s final stop was Dark Hedges, a short lane tunneled over with ominous looking beech trees featured in Season 2, episode 1 of Game of Thrones. Sadly, when we got there, the road was littered with parked cars and tour buses filled with fans eager to get a photograph.
I had to do some creative cropping in order to cut out the cavalcade of cars lining the avenue.
The next day we woke to more rain so we used the time to catch up on some math. Ah, if only the kids redirected the energy spent on whining, complaining and foot stomping. They much preferred the day’s history lesson - an audio tour of the Dunluce Castle. It was a cold, overcast, blustery day, the kind you imagine when you see pictures of Irish lasses wearing thick woolen sweaters with their ruddy, freckled cheeks and long red hair whipping behind them.
Dunluce from a distance. Gorgeous medieval castle believed to be haunted by a lovesick young woman who jumped to the cliffs below.
Sorey Boy MacDonnell bribed one of the guardsman into lowering a rope, allowing his men to scale the walls and overtake the castle. Talk about upper body strength!
The boys in the Inner Ward. Oona in the corridor. Oona overlooking the cliffs. Listening for the day's history test.
Room with a view
That evening we drove to the neighboring harbor town, Portrush, for dinner. A note about the food. My dinner in Portrush was Seafood Thermidor: Battered and deep fried pieces of fish swimming in cream sauce and piped over with mashed potatoes served alongside a giant mound of fried onion strings. I almost had a heart attack just looking at it. The following night we ate at a “health spa”. Our dinner? Four ounces of overcooked salmon with a 2lb side of fried potatoes and some iceberg lettuce drenched in sugary dressing. We can’t wait to get to our house and cook again. The kids have already wistfully planned the coming week’s meals.
In additional to typically fattening Irish food, Portrush has a kick-ass playground overlooking the harbor, including a super fun zip-line.
On the morning of our departure for Galway, we had planned on only a short hike to a nearby “secret” beach. We walked alongside a railroad track that broke into a thicket of tall grass and opened onto a sapphire blue ocean that smelled strongly of seaweed and salt. We could have stopped there, but there was a bridge and a waterfall, and beyond that a rise that revealed climbers scaling the cliffside. After that an abandoned estate, cows munching grass, sheep with their wooly rumps sprayed red, and then gravity pulled the kids down into the valley as they raced each other toward the big rocks. The terrain changed after every turn and slope. We could have gone on forever, making up stories as we walked, and me, irritating the children with my continual outbrusts of “Look at this! It’s amazing, isn’t it? Isn’t it?”
Runkerry Beach. In the distance is an estate, seemingly abandoned.
Ireland, Part 2 - Galway(ish)
The first time I came to Galway, I loved the quaint, college town feel of the city. It felt smaller, more manageable and younger than Dublin. We had stayed in the smallest room in a tiny B&B. But the window in our room overlooked the babbling River Corrib and the only thing that separated the bed from shower was a set of swinging doors that flapped like you were entering a saloon instead of the toilet. I had a terrible cold and Mary, the proprietor, the kind of woman you call kindly and hardworking, climbed the top of the stairs to bring me pot after pot of tea and honey. If it’s not the terrain, it’s the famous Irish hospitality that tugs at me. Unfortunately we only made it into Galway for dinner at the tasty Asian Tea House Restaurant. The remainder of our time was spent, once again, in the city outskirts at a hotel/spa. We spent the morning swimming in the pool and packed into the car for Kylemore Abbey. Halfway to Connemara, it started to rain, which made the Connemara rivers rush like mad. Oona lost count after 44 waterfalls. It was a gorgeous, lush drive, filled with thatched cottages and stone bridges and so much green it could barely contain itself; creeping up from the ground engulfing even the bark of the forest in moss and vines to mingle in the treetops so you don’t know where the ground ends and the leaves begin. But it also made the already very narrow lanes and bumpy, twisty roads a little too exciting to navigate. I have to say, I’m grateful that Chris has nerves of steel because there is no way I would have been able to make the drive. As it was, I did plenty of yelping and cringing from the left side of the car.
Sadly, the rain never stopped and our visit to Kylemore Abbey was a soggy one. I could be optimistic here and say we were grateful despite the rain, but we weren’t. The visit sucked. $45 and 3.5 hours in a car driving in a narrow lane in a thunderstorm to walk around a garden in soaked clothes and shoes was no one’s idea of fun. I’m impervious to Isoo’s chronic complaints, but Oona, my happy trooper, tugged on my sleeve. I crouched down to part her hair, wet and stringy BENEATH the hood of her rain slicker to hear her croak, “Mom, can we go home now?”
The soggy garden of Kylemore Abbey. Cool moss creeps up the giant trees.
As I write we’re on the drive to what will be our home for the next month: A country house in southwestern Ireland. Fingers crossed it will be everything we hope. Looking forward to unpacking, doing some laundry and making a home cooked meal.
WHERE WE STAYED
Ramada Plaza Belfast
The hotel itself was pretty good. Clean, decent room size, and weird humming sound that I didn't mind. But it is out of the way, and considering we booked it for the pool, we were a little disappointed to discover that it was tiny and there were very limited swim times for kids. Still, I would definitely stay there again, but next time, I'd walk behind the hotel to the Innkeepers, a little cafe with wooded walking trails and bridges for a scenic breakfast.
Ballylinny Holiday Cottages
We stayed in the one of their sweet "upside down lofts" which meant the kids slept downstairs with their own shared bedroom and bath, and Chris and I were upstairs along with the master bath, and an open plan kitchen, dining, living with fireplace. I did have to spend 20 minutes killing spiders and sweeping the floors before I could make myself at home and the kids did not love the idea of sleeping on a separate floor, but it was a good amount of space, well-located near Giant's Causeway and had great views of the countryside. One thing: The mostly equipped kitchen lacked a corkscrew. We tried the whole wine bottle in the shoe thing, but alas, it didn't work for us.
Breakfasting at the Ballylinny Holiday Cottages
Maldron Hotel Galway
The people who gave this alleged "leisure hotel" good reviews are on crack. Don't stay here unless you want to enjoy this lovely view.
WHAT WE DID:
Whether a history buff or just a fan of the movie, this high-tech, interactive museum is worth the visit. Make sure to give yourself enough time to check out all of the installations.
Go early to beat the bus crowds. Better yet, stay at Ballylinny Holiday Cottages and walk toward the Causeway until you hit a bike/jogging path that runs along the train tracks. Double back until you see a "No Bathing" sign and then head to the coast for Runkerry Beach. Take the beach path up toward the estate and wind around past stunning scenery till you hit the Causeway. Free to see the site, but you do have to pay to use the restaurant, car park and facilities. Pack a lunch and make a cheap, beautiful day of it.
Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge
I strongly recommend you check the weather before heading over; the attraction is sometimes closed due to high winds. Stop being a baby and just do it! The breathtaking views are worth the risk.
Aye, it's the King's Road! This lane of beech trees is stunning, now if only the nerds would get out of my picture.
Even the drive up to the castle will astound and the great audio tour helps to better appreciate the building's history. After touring the castle, take the staircase down to the eerie Mermaid's Cave. There's a "Danger! Falling Rocks! Do Not Enter!" sign at the mouth (after all, it is a cave underneath a jillion ton castle) but Chris and Oona decided to ignore it and ventured all the way down anyway.
Yes, it rained. Yes, we were miserable. But was it worth the visit? Not really. At $45 it was the steepest of the entrance fees, and there was very limited viewing of the Kylemore Abbey itself. The walled garden which is pretty, is a snug 6 acres. If you have the time, nerves of steel for the twisty drive, and the budget, go for it. But we would have been happier swimming in the hotel pool.
WHAT WE ATE:
Morning Star Bar
Yay! Two hour wait for pasta smothered in sweet chili sauce and ketchup! Woo hoo!
Total grandma restaurant (not to diss grandma) in a grandma hotel (actually, it's a National Trust operated hotel). We ate overcooked steaks in the parlor with the rest of the old folk. They brought my "gin martini, up" in a juice glass with a lot of ice, but I didn't care. The views were great, the guests congenial and after the kids ate, they splayed out on the couches in the next room and read their Kindles. It was almost like we were on a date.
OK, there was nothing really bad about this little cafe. The girls who worked there were friendly and busted ass to serve everyone. BUT, I couldn't help but notice that the girl who worked the register was the same one who cut up the salad bits with no hand washing in between. Also, the silverware tray that all the other customers shifted through? Well, that stuff would never happen in the States (at least not in the open). Oh, and while we're on the subject, the notion of paper towels by the bathroom door so you don't have to touch the handles on your way out doesn't exist here. But I'm healthy as a horse (knock wood)!
The Seafood Thermidor almost gave me a heart attack. Resuscitated by a great spinach salad. Whew!
Oh geez. What can I say about this place? We were tired and didn't feel like driving into town, But do go for breakfast; the guy who works the morning kitchen is awesome - capable, charming and unflappable.
Asian Tea House
The one place Chris picked in Galway and it was a winner. Also our priciest meal to date. Great decor, friendly staff, delicious Asian fusion restaurant. I should relinquish the reins more often!