The Best Of Ireland Awards

Yesterday marked one year since we arrived in Ireland. ONE YEAR! I can’t believe how fast this year has gone…and yet, at the same time, it feels like we have lived here forever. We have been to more places, seen more things, met more people, tried more food and experienced more in this year than at any other time in our lives.

People often ask me what the best part of Ireland is and, the answer is, there are many “bests”. There is no way I could possibly limit my favorites down to one thing. So I won’t even try. What I will do, however, is offer you a compilation of the best things we’ve actually experienced here in Ireland. I now present to you:

The Best of Ireland Awards (According to me, of course!)

Best Natural Site: The Cliffs of Moher
IMG_2049I can’t think of anything more spectacular than moss-covered cliffs that plunge 400 feet into the ocean. They’re seriously amazing.

Best Museum: Titanic Belfast
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OK, so for starters, the museum is in the actual shipping yard where Titanic was built and the front of the building is a scale replica of the size of the great ship’s hull. The exhibits are fascinating, there is an amusement park-style ride that takes you through the ship building process, and the cafe serves scones on White Star Line china. What’s not to love?

Best Monument/Historical Site: Newgrange
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Probably the oldest building you’ll ever see (it’s 5,000 years old, making it older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian Pyramids). Just don’t take your kids with you or you might get kicked out for unruly behavior.

Best Holiday Celebrate In Ireland: St. Patrick’s Day

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If you thought the St.Patrick’s Day parade in your town was fun, then wait until you see how Ireland celebrates! St. Patrick’s Day is definitely the most festive holiday we’ve been a part of here.

Best Time To Visit Ireland: Easter Week
IMG_2496The flowers are blooming, the sun is starting to find its way out of winter hibernation, and the towns are starting to come back to life. Easter falls right at the beginning of the official Irish tourist season, so shops and museums that have been closed for the winter will again welcome you in–plus the crowds won’t arrive for another month or two. There are lots of special activities and festivals throughout the country during Holy Week, making this the perfect time to visit.

Best Castle to Explore: King John’s Castle, Limerick

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I’m a self-professed castle-holic, as you will know if you’ve read this blog for any length of time. We have seen a LOT of castles here in Ireland. It’s hard to chose just one favorite castle, but I’m going to have to give this award out to King John’s for their fabulous renovations and hands-on exhibits. I mean, where else will you get to dress up like a knight in shining armor…in a REAL medieval castle?!

Best Irish Food: Scones
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I’m obsessed with scones, so this is no surprise. They’re just the best thing ever. Period.

Best Irish Drink: Barry’s Tea
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Barry’s Tea will forever be that taste that reminds me of Ireland. On my last trip to the grocery store I bought a giant box of Barry’s Tea with enough tea to last me through the apocalypse (or at least until the next time I make it back to Ireland).

Best Place Off The Beaten Path: Ballycotton Cliff Walk
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This cliffside walk is one of the most beautiful, most peaceful places I’ve ever been. The views are incredible, and every corner you turn takes a bit more of  your breath away. Truly spectacular. Also, for the first time in nearly 180 years, this year they are allowing the public to tour Ballycotton Island and lighthouse (via a guided boat ride and tour). I can only imagine how stunning the views must be looking back at the cliffs from the picturesque island.

Best Chipper: K.C. & Son & Sons, Douglas (Cork)
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There’s a reason why hundreds of people queue up outside K.C.’s each night: it’s dang good food. K.C.’s has the right mix of juicy, greasy, succulent-ness that you expect from a good burger or pile of fish and chips.

Best Farmer’s Market: Mahon Point (Cork)
IMG_1486This weekly farmer’s market is one of the best-run public markets I’ve ever been to. All of the food is fresh and local, sold by the farmers who produce it–and everything is incredible. Fresh cheese, home-baked bread, crisp veggies, straight-from-the-farm meats and fresh-from-the-sea fish–anything you could ever want for your weekly shopping. Plus they have woodfired pizzas and what I lovingly refer to as “crack curry” because it’s just so addictive.  Nom nom nom…

Best Scenic Drive: The Ring of Kerry
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Seeing as The Ring of Kerry is on every tourist’s agenda,  this choice is a bit cliché. But it really is incredible, and every tourist to Ireland should see it at least once. Driving The Ring takes you through mountains and valleys, past lakes and waterfalls, and along sweeping ocean cliffs. There are countless hikes that you can take just off the main road if you want to explore a bit more of the beauty, or you can just stay in your car and take it all in.

Most Unique Irish Experience: Bunratty Castle Medieval Banquet

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This was one of our family’s favorite experiences–my kids still talk about our dinner in the castle and ask when we can go back ther. Picture this: you arrive at a medieval castle and are greeted by people dressed in medieval costumes. These people then serve you bottomless wine, feed you a meal fit for a king, and serenade you with music. Did I mention you’re in a REAL castle?! Did I mention there was wine?!

Best Bike and Foot Trail System: Cork Bay Railway Walk

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This is a rails-to-trails system that follows the bay from Cork city out to a town called Passage West. There is an entrance to the trail right down the hill from our house, so we have spent many, many hours exploring these waterfront miles. The trail even goes directly to Jon’s office, allowing him to walk home from work on a peaceful trail when he wants a break from the usual commute. One section of the trail also leads to Blackrock Castle and cafe, the perfect place to stop in for some lunch or tea while you’re out exploring

Best Stone to Kiss: The Blarney Stone

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Some say that the Blarney Stone will give you the “gift of gab”. I think it may just give you canker sores and a strained neck, but it’s still worth giving a little smooch.

Best Big City to Explore: Dublin
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Everyone from Cork has just stopped reading this blog as I have pronounced heresy. Sorry, Rebels, but Dublin IS bigger and it’s my pick for city explorations. Take your pick of museums, cathedrals, pubs and parks–as well as trendy restaurants and upscale shopping. If you’re looking for a big city in Ireland, this is it!

Best Festival: Youghal Medieval Festival
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A medieval festival in an actual walled medieval city. Need I say more?

Best Island: The Great Blasket Islands
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This was one of my favorite day trips that we took in Ireland. A somewhat crazy boat ride takes you out to an ancient island that was finally abandoned half a century ago. We spent our day on the island exploring ruins, climbing grassy hills, and frolicking on sandy beaches with hundreds of basking seals. I would go back there in a heartbeat.

I could go on and on about all of my favorite things in Ireland, but I’ll show a wee bit of restraint and stop myself there. Ireland is an amazing place–an amazing place that I have been fortunate enough to experience for one whole year.  You will always be near and dear to my heart, Ireland!

 

 

 

 

Dingle

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When we first moved to Ireland almost a year ago we made a bucket list of sorts with all of the places that we wanted to visit while we were living here. We’ve made a pretty good dent in the list so far and have already crossed off most of our “must see” locations: The Cliffs of Moher, Dublin, Newgrange, Belfast, Killarney, the Ring of Kerry, Kilkenny, the Rock of Cashel. However, there was still one Big One–maybe THE Big One left on our list. It seems like every person we’ve ever talked to who has visited Ireland or who lives here says the same thing: You must, must, must go to Dingle.

It’s supposed to be spectacular–in fact, National Geographic once cited the area as “the most beautiful place on earth”. That’s quite a statement from anyone, let alone National Geographic (because, you know, they’ve actually seen a lot of the earth). We were saving our Dingle trip for nicer weather and a special occasion, both of which lined up perfectly this weekend. We decided to continue our celebration American Mother’s Day this weekend with our special trip out to Dingle (I say continued the celebration because I actually thought Mother’s Day was this weekend when I booked the trip–that’s what I get for celebrating a holiday in a country where nobody else is celebrating said holiday).

We knew that Dingle was going to be incredible when the drive into town was a treat in itself. When we were a few miles out of town we crossed over Conor Pass, the highest mountain pass in Ireland–which, coming from the Cascade-rimmed Pacific Northwest, is a bit of a deceiving term. By “highest mountain” pass, they actually mean that it’s just the tallest hill on the island. Regardless, the views from the top of Conor Pass weren’t too shabby:

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We arrived in Dingle at about noon on Friday and checked into our AirBnB apartment in town. The apartment was over a shop, both of which were run by Kathleen McAuliffe, a relatively well-known Irish designer and milliner (her shop had lots of cute hats, jewelry, dresses, and artwork made by herself and my favorite Irish designer, Orla Kiely. I exercised great restraint in not sneaking down each day to buy up her stock).  That’s our apartment on the top floor of the blue building:

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After we got our car unloaded we walked into town for lunch. There was a small farmer’s market set up in the middle of town so we booked it over there for some local fare. Jon and I ate lamb burgers (the lamb came from a farm up the hill, the bun was made in a bakery in town, and all of the veggies came from farms in the area). The boys, however, went with a less-conventional approach to lunch. They both passed up crepes and sausages and bread and cheese. Why, you ask? Because they wanted to eat the world’s largest carrots. David literally ate his carrot all weekend–we just carried it with us wherever we went and he kept nibbling away at it. Here’s Bugs Bunny in action:

IMG_4551 After lunch we walked through the little town to get our bearings. The blue shop on the left is called Murphy’s Ice Cream and we stopped by there for a treat. It was some of the most delicious ice cream I’ve ever eaten (on the same par with Mallard’s and Molly Moo’s for you Seattleites who might be reading). I had the Dingle Sea Salt ice cream (kind of like a rich salted caramel flavor)–the cream came from the local Kerry breed of cows (they are more rare than Giant Pandas!) and the sea salt came from Dingle Harbour. Yes, they actually go out to the harbour, collect sea water, and produce their own sea salt for the ice cream. If you ever find yourself in Dingle, stop by and give it a try–you won’t be sorry!

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After our walk we drove a few miles out of town to Ventry Harbour where we could play on a nice sandy beach. We spent a couple of hours building sand castles, climbing sand dunes and dipping our toes in the Atlantic:

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When we’d had enough of the beach we decided to get back in the car and continue driving out of town along Slea Head Drive, a scenic road that makes a 40-Kilometer loop around the Dingle Peninsula. A few miles into the drive we came to a tourist stop at some famine cottages (cottages that were abandoned in the 1850’s during the Great Irish Famine). While walking up to the cottages we visited several animals: horses, sheep, rabbits, and a very friendly donkey:

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The cottages themselves were very interesting. There were three cottages set up so you could see how people might have lived in them (let’s just say I’m glad I wasn’t born in 19th century rural Ireland…). There were displays with information about the famine and how it affected people in the region–about 2 million people died or immigrated during a time period of about 10 years as a result of diseased potatoes and the starvation that ensued. Learning about the famine is terribly saddening, yet strangely intriguing.  IMG_4632 From the cottages, we continued along Slea Head Drive. We made a quick pit stop at a little roadside cafe so we could use the toilets and eat some pie. I don’t know if it was the stunning view or the home-baked goodness, but that was some of the best darn pie I’ve ever had:IMG_4657 We took hundreds of photos and videos along Slea Head Drive, but none of them do it any justice. We were there on a rare day of perfect weather with sunshine and blue skies that reflected off the ocean water. It was almost magical. Every turn we went around was more stunning than the one before and I literally had my breath taken away several times.

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Besides the incredible views, the drive was also uniquely Irish. We were stopped several times to allow livestock and cars to pass on the single-lane, cliff-lined road:
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When we got back home from our drive around Slea Head it was dinner time. We made pizza back at our apartment and enjoyed a relaxing evening lounging around. At 8:00 we heard the church bells ringing at the church across the street from our apartment and we told the boys that was their “bedtime bell”. So, off to bed we went.

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We decided to do a little experiment this weekend having the boys sleep together in the same room (they’ve always slept in separate bedrooms due to their strange sleeping patterns and my unwillingness to deal with cranky sleepers). The sleeping part actually went remarkably well. They enjoyed sharing a room. In fact, they enjoyed it so much that one night they were playing together after bedtime, but it was so cute and harmless that we decided to let them play until they fell asleep. Harmless. Right? Wrong.

Jon went to do the nightly check-in on the boys before we went to bed only to discover that the door to their room was locked. LOCKED. With two sleeping children inside. It wouldn’t have been such a big deal if it wasn’t our house and we weren’t worried about actually having to break down the door to get them out. Or if we could have woken David up to coerce him to try to unlock the door. Or if we thought the boys wouldn’t completely FREAK OUT when they woke up in the morning and realized they were locked in their bedroom-dungeon. Or if we could have found a key to unlock the door. Or if we could have made anything–a clothes hanger, a paperclip, my earring, the inside of a pen–that would budge that dang lock. So, after about half an hour of trying everything we could think of to open the door we were ready to give up and call a locksmith. I said a little prayer and decided to send a quick text to Kathleen, the lady who rented us the apartment, to see if she had any ideas. Just as I was about to hit “send” I heard Jon yell, “Hey, it’s open!”. For no apparent reason, he tried to open the door one more time and it just opened. The only explanation I have is that my prayer was answered…and the kids slept through the whole thing:

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The boys woke up bright and early the next morning (per usual) so we decided to walk around the corner to the bakery for some breakfast treats. Colleen’s bakery had the best doughnuts I’ve had in Ireland, hands down. They were on par with Laffeen’s, for those of you in the know. The apple turnover was also delicious. So was the coffee cream puff. So was, I’m sure, every other edible thing in that bakery:IMG_4696

After our doughnut gorge-a-thon we walked over to the town park for some wiggle time (see our “bedtime bell” church in the background?):IMG_4710

Then it was off to the marina for a special excursion. We managed to (by luck and by prayer) score another perfect-weather day in Dingle (seriously, if you’ve ever been to Ireland, you know how very, very rare this is). I’d heard about these boat tours that take you out to the Great Blasket Island and I reallllllllyyyyyy wanted to go. The remote Blasket Island is the westernmost point of land in Europe. The island had been inhabited since prehistoric times by up to 200 people (and many more sheep) at a time. When the Great Famine hit, however, almost all of the inhabitants perished or immigrated. By the early 1900’s only about 20 people remained on the island. In 1953 the government deemed the islands unsuitable for human habitation and they moved the last residents off the island. Today you can visit the island to see what remains of the village and the abundance of wildlife that have made the island their home.

The thing about visiting the island, though, is that the boats that get you out there only sail on perfect-weather days. Which are oh-s0-very-rare. In fact, right up until 20 minutes before the day’s scheduled sailing we were unsure if the boats would be running due to high-wind warnings. But, we lucked out and they decided to go ahead with the sailing. Hooray!

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Our boat was run by a small company called Great Blasket Experience, and it was wonderful. There was room for 12 people on the boat, so it was our family, another family with two boys from Houston, two men from London, and a couple from I-don’t-know-where (they didn’t talk much). Once we all clamored aboard our little vessel we fitted the boys out with life vests, and then we were off!

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On the way out of the harbor we stopped for a few minutes to visit Dingle’s resident dolphin, Fungie. By choice, this dolphin has lived in Dingle Harbour for over 20 years. He’s very friendly and came up to our boat several times. He’s a fast little bugger, though, so I only managed to snap a photo of Jacob pointing at the water where Fungie had just surfaced:

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After our boat left the sheltered harbor and entered the open ocean I began to see why they only sail out to the Blasket Islands on perfect-weather days. The high-wind warnings they had been concerned with that morning had died down, but the water was still choppy. And by choppy, I mean that it felt like we were on a roller coaster. A wet and wild roller coaster on a tiny orange dinghy. I was white-knuckled the whole 45-minute ride out to the islands. The boys, however, thought that this ocean roller coaster ride was some sort of lullaby and they both (yes, even David-who-never-naps) fell asleep on our laps, life vests and all:

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When we (finally) pulled up to the island our captain set anchor and we took turns piling into a little motorized raft so we could shore up on the island:IMG_4739Then we got to climb up this treacherous cliff that was covered in slippery algae. While carrying a squirmy toddler and an independent preschooler. We made it, though, and our time on the island was worth every terrifying experience that it took to get there.


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We spent two and a half hours walking around the island. We went up in the lush green hills around the village:

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Into 2,000 year-old stone “beehive huts”:

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And we ate our picnic lunch inside an abandoned 19th-century farmhouse:

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Although no people live on the island any more, many animals have made the rolling hills and beaches their home. There were herds of sheep grazing freely (leftover from the people-populated days, I’m guessing), sea birds dive-bombing into the ocean for fish, snails (lots and lots of snails. David and Jacob spent a good 15 minutes just sitting in one spot picking snails off a wall), and hundreds of seals basking on the sandy beaches:
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We thought the seals had the right idea, so we did a little basking of our own:

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As we were walking back to the boat launch (if you could really call it that) I snapped this photo of our waiting boat (ours is the small orange one on the left, the boat on the right was the other passenger boat that made it out to the island that day):

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The ride back to the mainland was much less roller coaster-y and much more smooth sailing-y. We said hello to Fungie the dolphin one more time before pulling in to the marina. After our busy day on the island we were all pretty wiped out. We went back to our apartment to take naps. When we woke up at dinner time, none of us wanted to go out or make anything so we ordered Chinese take-out from the restaurant 2 doors down.  It was a truly memorable day.

On Sunday we woke up (or, more accurately, Jacob woke us all up) before the church even rang it’s first “good morning bell” at 6 AM. Since it was Sunday in Dingle, a small town in Ireland, this meant that nothing opened until at least 10:00. Not a cafe, not a coffee shop, not a park…nothing. So, we spent a good 4 hours on Sunday morning just hanging out in our apartment eating cereal, watching movies, and packing up our things.

When it was a reasonable hour to venture out into the world we drove over to the marina to watch the big boats unloading their cargo:
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Our last stop in Dingle was to the Oceanworld Aquarium. It was a small but well-stocked aquarium with sharks, tropical fish, touchable tide pools, genial manta rays and penguins. The penguins were my favorite. They were Gentoo Penguins, a breed found in Antarctica. There was a display near the penguins about Tom Crean, a locally-born County Kerry man who was one of the sailor/explorers on the Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic exploration ship, Endurance. A few weeks ago I read the book about the 1912 exploration, appropriately titled Endurance. Spoiler alert, but Endurance shipwrecks and all of the passengers spend several months floating around on the Antarctic ice floes. The book talks extensively about the seals and Gentoo Penguins that the men encountered and survived off of, so it was fascinating to watch these creatures up close:

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After our morning at the aquarium we walked down the street to a chipper for some fish and chips (or, in my case, chicken and chips!). Then it was time to hit the road and find our way back to Cork. We took a different route on the way home–not so much by choice, but because our SatNav likes to take us on new adventures every day. Instead of driving through the mountain pass we winded our way along the coast on the Wild Atlantic Way. It was a beautiful drive and the two-and-a-half hour journey passed quickly with the boys napping and playing in the back seat.

We had an incredible weekend in Dingle exploring all that the area had to offer.  I count myself blessed that I got to experience such a remarkable piece of God’s creation. And, by the way, I think National Geographic was spot-on: Dingle is one of the most beautiful places on earth.