Exploring the Emerald Isle

Posted Monday, Jun. 16, 2014  comments  Print Reprints

If you go

Book of Kells exhibit: Trinity College is famous for its many treasures, including this illuminated manuscript, written around A.D. 800 by Irish monks. Exhibit hours: 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Sunday from May to September, noon-4:30 p.m. Sunday from October to April. Admission: 8-10 euros. http://www.tcd.ie/Library/bookofkells/.

Christ Church Cathedral: Explore one of the largest crypts in Ireland and Britain or climb the tower to ring the bells. Hours vary by season. 2-6 euros. www.christchurchdublin.ie.

Dublin Castle: Rebuilt beginning in the 17th century, Dublin Castle is now used for state receptions and presidential inaugurations. Open 9:45 a.m.-4:45 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-4:45 p.m. Sunday and public holidays. 4.50 euros. www.dublincastle.ie.

Guinness Storehouse: Located in the heart of the St. James’s Gate Brewery, the Guinness Storehouse is now a visitors center where you can learn how to properly pour a pint. Open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, until 7 p.m. in July and August. 6.50-16.50 euros. www.guinness-storehouse.com.

Visitors center at St. Patrick’s Cathedral: Built in honor of Ireland’s patron saint, the cathedral stands across from the well where tradition has it that St. Patrick baptized converts while in Dublin. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday (until 6 p.m. Saturday from March to October), 9-10:30 a.m. and 12:30-2:30 p.m. Sunday (plus 4:30-6 p.m. from March to October). 4.50-5.50 euros. www.stpatrickscathedral.ie.

Black Cab Tours of Belfast: Paddy Campbell’s famous tour takes you around the Protestant and Catholic areas of Belfast to see how the political murals reflect the story of The Troubles in Ireland’s recent history. Also see the peace walls, which still divide parts of the city. The tour lasts approximately an hour and a half. 30 pounds (about $50) for groups of three or less, 8.50 pounds per person for four to six people. +44 0799-095-5227; belfasttours@hotmail.com. belfastblackcabtours.co.uk.

Titanic Experience: Explore the shipyard and interactive galleries to learn about the story of the Titanic, in the city where it began. Open daily; hours vary by season. (Last admission is an hour and 40 minutes before closing.) 7.25-15.50 pounds. www.titanicbelfast.com.

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Ireland has some of the most stunning and varying coastlines. One minute you are on a beach with green rolling hills behind you and the Atlantic Ocean before you, and the next, you are in the Burren with a harsh landscape that seems more like a lunar surface.

Traveling with my husband and relatives, I had a plan of seeing as much of the Emerald Isle as possible in a short amount of time. To accomplish this, we opted for the Grand Atlantic Tour offered by Railtours Ireland.

Usually, we prefer to find our own way when traveling, but some of the most enchanting vistas in Ireland are far from public transportation. So unless you feel comfortable driving on the left side of the road, a guided tour is the easiest way to see what this remarkable country has to offer.

It was a big change for us, but Railtours Ireland scheduled everything, which made for a smooth trip, and each day we had different guides, allowing for variety.

A few of the highlights on the four-day tour included Blarney Castle, the Ring of Kerry, Connemara, the Burren and Kylemore Abbey. We also rounded out our trip with a few fantastic days in Dublin, then took a few days in Northern Ireland to see Belfast and the Giant’s Causeway.

Grand Atlantic Tour

Starting in County Cork, the largest county in Ireland, our first stop was Blarney Castle, one of my absolute favorite places. Like many visitors to the famous spot, we dutifully climbed to the top of this impressive castle and kissed the Blarney Stone to receive the gift of gab. Of course, the stone is a bit difficult to access, so the kiss isn’t for the faint of heart.

After the heights of the castle, we strolled in the Rock Close and water garden to relax. With giant trees and stones covered in light green moss, it’s a magical area.

After that, there was nothing for it but to walk backward down the Wishing Steps — which promises a granted wish if you do it with your eyes closed — then brave the intriguing Poison Garden behind the castle battlements and view a collection of poisonous plants like wolfsbane, mandrake, opium and cannabis displayed in caged structures.

Next, our tour went to the city of Cork, providing a quick stop at the gourmet English Market, where Queen Elizabeth II famously visited with the fishmongers in 2011. We finished the day at Cobh (pronounced “Cove”) and the Queenstown Story, and a lesson about the mass migration from Ireland during the potato famine.

More than 2.5 million people emigrated through Cobh from 1848 to 1950. This was also the final port of call for the doomed Titanic.

We wrapped up our first night of the tour with a stay in Killarney at the International Hotel — an instant favorite because of the Jacuzzi bathtub and luxurious rooms — and used our free time in the evening to stop at Murphy’s Ice Cream. The many flavors included black currant sorbet, caramel honeycomb, toasted Irish oats and Dingle sea salt (the shop makes its own sea salt). Each one was light, creamy and delicious.

Next, our tour took us around the Ring of Kerry, with some of the most spectacular views of the tallest mountain range in Ireland. As we passed through picturesque villages such as Glenbeigh, Waterville and Sneem, we found the best vista at Ladies View, a spot where Queen Victoria stopped on her 1861 tour of Ireland. This outlook features exceptional views of the Lakes of Killarney and the oak woodlands of Killarney National Park.

On Day 3, we transferred up through the city of Limerick, crossing the Shannon, the longest river in Ireland. A brief tour of the city was followed by a trip to Bunratty Castle. Completed in 1425, this structure fell into disrepair but has since been transformed into an attraction with medieval feasts performed nightly.

We also toured the famous Cliffs of Moher, counted among the highest in Europe with 700-foot elevations spanning nearly 5 miles of Atlantic coastline. A short drive later we were in the Burren. In this unique landscape of craggy gray limestone, rare alpine plants grow up through the fissures.

Finally, the last day of the Railtour took us to Connemara, one of Ireland’s Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) regions. In the heart of this area sits Kylemore Abbey, an 18th-century castle now owned by Benedictine nuns. It boasts the huge Victorian Walled Garden, roughly 6 acres divided by a natural mountain stream.

After all that walking, we were glad for a lunch stop at the abbey’s visitor center, where a spinach and salmon quiche with a tasty fruit tart for dessert did not disappoint.

The tour ended with a stunning drive through charming fishing villages and acres of peat lands, past beautiful lakes and waterfalls in an area Oscar Wilde described as a “savage beauty.” After that, we headed east from Galway on a train back to Dublin.

Dublin treasures

Despite being the country’s capital, Dublin has a small-town feel — mostly owing to the locals’ pleasant dispositions.

The people of Ireland are similar to their traditional music: lively, engaging and very friendly. If you take a taxi or a tour bus, you’ll find that most drivers are chatty and informative about the history of their city.

A few must-see attractions include the Ha’penny Bridge, the first toll bridge in Europe. The visitors center at St. Patrick’s Cathedral provides great guides and a chance to purchase the Dublin Pass, a discount card to many major attractions. Another treat is a tour of Dublin Castle and a lesson on the Irish road to independence.

Mouthwatering meals are easy to find at the Queen of Tarts cafe in the nearby Temple Bar. The quaint shop has two locations, and a mention of the offerings wouldn’t be complete without a salute to the tea served in fine china along with desserts like apple crumble, pecan tart or lemon meringue.

Not-to-miss churches include the impressive St. Patrick’s Cathedral and its lovely close, or garden area. At Christ Church Cathedral, it’s fun to climb the tower and ring one of the 19 bells. (Parts of the show The Tudors were filmed in Christ Church Cathedral and the massive crypt underneath.)

We also enjoyed a trip to Trinity College and viewing the magnificent Book of Kells, a ninth-century illuminated manuscript, one of many treasures found in Trinity’s Long Room library, which houses more than 200,000 books.

For an authentic Irish pub experience, Nancy Hands Bar near Dublin Heuston station offers fare ranging from fish and chips to a Guinness ale pie.

And no trip to Dublin would be complete without a visit to the Guinness Storehouse, so we learned what makes a pint of the “black stuff” unique, enjoyed the Guinness family’s unexpectedly captivating exhibit and quenched our thirst with a pint in the Gravity Bar — while enjoying a 360-degree view of the city.

Northern Ireland

From Dublin, it was a short train ride to Belfast, Northern Ireland. This city has seen many years of sadness, and you can still see living history of the political turmoil in the area on a Black Taxi Tour.

Today, both Protestant and Catholic areas are open to tourists, and graffiti on the peace walls and the infamous murals on the houses in each district record how the animosity between the two sides is starting to lighten — at least a bit. The barriers were built in 1969 and meant to last only six months, but their numbers have grown to more than 40 and they span more than 13 miles.

Another Belfast attraction is the new Titanic Experience, which details the history of the doomed voyage and the massive ship’s construction, one rivet at a time, in the Belfast dockyard.

To see a bit more of Northern Ireland, we spent a day at the famous Giant’s Causeway. A tour took us along the Antrim Coast Road, one of the most scenic coastal drives in the world.

We spied stunning views of the northern coast from the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge and stopped at the Bushmills Distillery for Irish stew and whiskey-infused cheesecake. The afternoon was spent climbing the causeway’s rocks, where intense volcanic activity formed hexagonal basalt rock columns. Of course, local legend has it that the rocks were built by a giant to cross over to Scotland.

Stunning scenery, lively people, rich history and culture flourish throughout this enchanting island. A guided tour was an excellent way to have a relaxing visit and get a taste of Ireland’s varied offerings, while a self-guided tour along the Atlantic coast to the rolling green hills gave us a glimpse of the landscape’s wild beauty.

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