w r i n k l e d
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
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!