I’ve Seen London, I’ve Seen France


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We just returned from an epic vacation: 2 weeks with 2 little kids in 2 different countries.  One of the main reasons we wanted to move to Ireland was for the opportunity to travel and see places we wouldn’t otherwise be able to see, and this vacation was the first of several that we hope to take in the next 2 years. Our trip included visits to London and Paris–must-see cities on any European travel itinerary.

This was the longest vacation we’ve ever taken (see, we really are embracing the European way of life!) and it was…incredible. The boys traveled great, everyone stayed (mostly) healthy, we saw incredible sites, we ate delicious food, we had great accommodations, and we all had fun. Really–lots and lots of fun. While we were planning this trip I actually had a lot of anxiety about how the boys would do and how we would manage the logistics of a trip this big. And, in the end, it was one of the best vacations we’ve ever had (proof again that worrying is never worth it).

One of the biggest reasons this trip was so successful was because of this girl. Meet Jillian:

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Jillian is a family friend of ours (and one of our all-time favorite babysitters) from our church in Seattle. She flew all the way out here to help us with our kids on our trip. Jillian’s mom works for an airline, so she was able to get a killer deal on a plane ticket–plus, I think she was just a little bit excited about the prospect of an all-inclusive trip through Europe!–so we pulled some strings and got her out to Europe. It was great having an extra set of hands and eyes as we were traversing the cities and she also provided babysitting for us so that Jon and I could go out and do some exploring on our own. It was so, so very wonderful. Let’s just say I don’t think I’ll ever be able to travel without a helper again. Thank you, thank you for everything, Jillian!

London:

We began our trip in London. Here we are in front of Buckingham Palace. Jon and I both agreed that the palace itself was not quite what we’d expected. I had pictured this big palace set apart from the city with beautiful grounds for us to meander, but no. The palace is right smack in the middle of a busy intersection in downtown London, surrounded by busy streets and people walking by at all hours. It was beautiful, just not quite as grand and serene as I had imagined.

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We did get to watch the spectacle of the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. There were bands and horses and fancy soldiers marching around. The whole thing lasted about an hour, so we sat there and ate our lunch while the guards did their thing.

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While we were at Buckingham Palace we also visited the Royal Mews (the stables where they keep all of the royal horses and carriages). This is one of several royal carriages that was on display–definitely fit for a king!

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After visiting Buckingham Palace we walked down the street to Westminster Abbey, one of the largest, oldest, most fascinating churches in Europe. This is the church where Wills and Kate and Prince Charles and Princess Diana got married. It’s also where many famous people are buried. In addition to almost every monarch to ever set foot on the British throne, many “commoners” have found their final resting place here: Charles Darwin, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Charlotte Bronte, Winston Churchill, and Handel to name a few. I like this photo of me with Westminster Abbey because it’s so very London: the Abbey, a red phone booth, and a double-decker bus.

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Since our first day in London was a “grown up day”, the next day was a “kid day” . We visited the London Zoo,  a beautiful zoo and one of the largest that we’ve ever been to. We spent all day exploring the zoo and watching the animals. In addition to the standard zoo animals, there were some pretty unique ones: Okapi (a cousin of the zebra), camels, a pygmy hippo (David’s favorite animal by far), and huge Galapagos tortoises (disclaimer: David is not sitting on a real turtle, but they were really that big!).

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We got to be quite the experts at navigating the public transportation systems in both cities on this trip. While the subways came frequently and got you anywhere in the city within minutes, we found them a bit difficult to navigate with a stroller. You see, subways are underground. And to get underground you go down stairs. Lots and lots and lots of stairs. And then, when you arrive at your destination, you have to get back above ground. And that means–you guessed it!–lots and lots of stairs.  Luckily Jon is like the Incredible Hulk when it comes to lifting and we managed just fine (minus a few thrown-out backs–collateral damage, I guess).

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Another highlight of our time in London was Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.  The original Globe Theater burnt down hundreds of years ago when the actors shot a real cannon during a performance, but the theater that stands today gives you a pretty good idea of what it would have been like. They still perform Shakespeare plays in the theater, but seeing as it was the middle of November and we had two rascally boys with us, we decided to play it safe and just do the theater tour. The tour was informative and entertaining. And now, for some reason, I just want to read Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet…

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From The Globe we walked onward to see more of the city. We found London Bridge which, to my great disappointment, is just a bridge. Not a fancy bridge or a beautiful bridge or a quaint old bridge. Just a bridge with 5 lanes of traffic driving over it. At least it wasn’t falling down.

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Not too far away, though, there is a bridge that is actually worth seeing: Tower Bridge. This is the one you picture when you think of iconic London landmarks:

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At the base of Tower Bridge is the Tower of London. The Tower of London is not a tower at all–it is a huge, sprawling castle with lots of towers and lots of history. The Tower of London was the royal castle of the British monarchy for several centuries. Today, visitors can go inside the castle to explore the bedrooms, throne rooms, secret passages and even the dungeon.

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This is also where the Crown Jewels are on display–they even have special jewel guards here called “Beefeaters” (not sure where the name came from, but they were all very cute in their fancy uniforms).  It was quite fascinating to see all those glittering  jewels and gold, and to picture how they would look on top of my head if Wills had chosen me instead of Kate (I have to say, though, I think we all fared better the way things worked out).

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One of the best perks of having our helper on this trip was that Jon and I were able to go out on several dates. We had lovely (quiet) dinners, stayed up until grown-up hours exploring the city, and even took in some shows. Our favorite date of the entire trip, though, would have to be riding on the London Eye. The Eye is a huge ferris wheel with pods instead of seats. One rotation takes about 45-minutes, so you get to see a lot of the city from a unique perspective. It was so fun to see all of the glittering lights of London as we rode up in the sky. Really spectacular.

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Our last day in London was a free day: all of the attractions we went to were free and open to the public (a notion that we welcomed with open arms after realizing how stinking expensive everything is in London). We started the day at the Natural History Museum. It is a HUGE museum with many different sections to explore.

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Our favorite part of the Natural History Museum was the dinosaur exhibit. There were several full dinosaur skeletons on display, and Jacob even got a birds-eye view of them:

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After a few hours in the museum we needed some fresh air, so we headed over to Hyde Park. The boys had fun playing on the playground and throwing rocks in the lake. It was a beautiful day to walk around and spend some time outside.

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Our final stop of the day was a giant toy store called Hamley’s. It’s 5-stories tall and there are oodles of toys to play with. We ended up spending over 3 hours in the toy store and, sticking to my guns on the whole “free day” thing, we didn’t buy a single toy. The boys were so tired at this point, though, that I don’t think they even noticed.

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London was incredible, and we all agreed that we must return soon. For now, though, it was time to move on to Paris.

Paris:

We rode the Eurostar train from London to Paris through the Chunnel. It was a pretty quick ride (less than 2 hours) and I actually didn’t even notice when we went through the Chunnel. I guess we were just going fast (or I was just out of it, which I probably was).

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For our first day in Paris, we made a beeline for the biggest Paris attraction of all: the Eiffel Tower. There it was, in all it’s majesty, just as grand as you think it is. We posed for some nice photos to prove that we really were in Paris:

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And then Jon did what we’d kinda been wanting to do all week:

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(Don’t worry, Grandma Doreen, the boys were laughing the whole time and no children were harmed in the process of taking this photo)

After waiting in a very long, VERY cold line, we took the elevator all the way to the top deck of the Eiffel tower. We even celebrated our time in Paris with a champagne toast at the top of the tower:

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The view from the top of the tower is spectacular. It was a bit cloudy on the day we were there, but you could still see for miles. It was amazing being able to see the whole (gigantic) city from one spot.

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The next day we headed over to another Paris landmark: The Louvre Museum.

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It was, shall we say, interesting navigating an art museum with two small children. But we were determined, and we made it happen. We may or may not have snuck the boys snacks in the “no food allowed” areas, we may have allowed David to watch a movie on the iPad instead of marveling at the world’s greatest masterpieces, and I may have timed our trip so that Jacob was exhausted and fell asleep shortly after our arrival. At any rate, we had a successful 3-hour tour of the Louvre.

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The building itself is incredible–the walls, the floors, even the ceilings are pieces of art in themselves:

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And, of course, there is plenty of “real” art to look at, too. Like this little piece you may have heard of, the Mona Lisa:

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Mona Lisa was interesting to see just because, well, it’s the Mona Lisa. Other than it being famous, though, Mona Lisa isn’t all that impressive. One of my favorite pieces in the whole museum is this painting that is on the wall directly across from Mona Lisa. It’s a HUGE painting of the Biblical scene where Jesus turns water into wine. Standing in front of the painting you feel small, like you are actually a part of the painting itself. It’s all very cool.

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Another stand-out piece in the museum is this mummy. He’s an actual Egyptian mummy, thousands of years old and still fully intact. Craaaaaaazy….

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Since we visited the Louvre on a Wednesday, they were open late until 9:30. After dinner we dropped the boys and Jillian off at our apartment so Jon and I could return for some child-free time at the museum. It was great to have a bit of time to wander the halls and not worry about who needed to eat or where we could find a potty NOW. It was also nice to break up the visit a bit–there’s only so much art museum you can handle in one go.

The next day we visited Notre Dame Cathedral. It was every bit as huge and beautiful and incredible as you think it is.

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We (and by we, I mean me and Jon. No kiddos on this one.) also climbed hundreds of stairs to the top Napoleon’s great monument, the Arc de Triomphe.

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Jon and I also had a date out at the infamous Moulin Rouge. This was both what we expected, and not what we expected. Long story short, you need a reservation (which we did not have),  despite offering children’s tickets this is NOT a child-appropriate venue (good thing we left ours at home with Jillian!), and the show is actually quite spectacular when you get past the risque attire of the performers.

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The most unusual place we visited in Paris was the Paris Catacombs. Hundreds of years ago, the Parisians realized that their graveyards were getting full and something needed to be done. There were already miles and miles of underground quarries in the city, so they decided to move all of the bones into the quarries to create the catacombs. The bones are all stacked and arranged beautifully (can you say that about bones?). The catacombs go on for miles through all of these underground passageways–it’s really crazy to see!

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We spent some time later in the week doing some kid stuff. We visited a children’s museum within the City of Science and Industry (a huge complex of museums and fairgrounds). This was an incredible children’s museum, designed specifically for kids aged 2-5, and the boys (my husband included) had a blast! We probably could have spent all week there, it was that good.

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We also went to a huge children’s park called Jardin d’Acclimatation. There were animals, playgrounds, a children’s theater, a water park (we’ll have to return when it’s warmer!) and even a little train that you can ride on.

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There were also carnival rides, and David insisted that he had to ride on the cars. Here he is driving his little truck, in all his bundled-up glory:

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Our final day in Paris was spent taking a River Seine boat tour.

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The boat tour took us past all of the famous Paris landmarks and gave us a different perspective on the city.

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And, then, just like that, our vacation was over. Two weeks flew by at lightning speed–good thing we took (literally) tens of thousands of photos to remember everything! Our time in London and Paris was amazing–so many incredible things to see and do and experience. We will cherish all of the memories of this trip for the rest of our lives.

Until next time, bon voyage!

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P.S. We learned a few tips and tricks for traveling with little kids while we were on this trip. Check out my post here for some insight on how we managed the madness!

The Ring of Kerry and Killarney

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My parents just came for a visit (read all about it here) and, while they were here, Jon and I managed to sneak away for a couple of days to enjoy some time together. Since our time alone is so rare, we wanted to do something that would be best done without our kids. We’ve really been wanting to drive the Ring of Kerry, a scenic tour along Ireland’s coastline. We knew that the boys would go berserk sitting in a car for 8 hours while we marveled at the natural beauty surrounding us so, it was decided, on to the Ring of Kerry we went sans children.

We drove up to Killarney the day before our self-guided tour so that we would be able to get an early start on driving “The Ring” the next morning. Killarney is a cute little town with lots of pubs, restaurants, shops and Victorian-era hotels. We stayed at the Arbutus Hotel right in the middle of town. It was a charming family-run hotel that has been passed down from generation to generation. When we checked in we were greeted with tea and warm homemade gingerbread by the fireplace. It was so warm and cozy and…quiet.

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After a nap–because, as any parents of young children know, sleep is the most precious thing you can get on vacation–we went out to explore town. We did a little shopping, went out for dinner, and visited a few pubs to listen to some trad (traditional Irish music). We didn’t stay out too late, though, because tomorrow was going to be our big day of driving The Ring and we’d need to get an early start.

The next morning we had a delicious breakfast at the hotel before heading out to The Ring.  We followed Rick Steve’s Guide to driving the Ring of Kerry so we actually drove in the opposite direction of the tour buses.  Since we were there during the off-season, there was very little traffic and we were able to pull off at every scenic pull-out that we wanted to see (which just so happened to be every scenic pull-out).

Our first stop was a waterfall that was a short hike off the road. It was raining so we didn’t want to bring the big fancy camera on our little escapade into the woods but, trust me, it was beautiful! I think that if we make it out this way again we will bring our hiking boots and just do some hikes–there are miles and miles of trails leading to the most incredible sites! Even the boys would have fun romping through the woods.

Our next stop was at a vista overlooking the Lakes of Killarney. There are 3 large lakes–Lough Leane, Muckross Lake, and Upper Lake–surrounded on all sides by lush vegetation and striking mountains (the photo at the top of this post is also of us posing by the Lakes of Killarney):

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While we were at Ladies View looking at the lakes some mist blew in over the water. If you look closely at the photo below you can see a little rainbow near the bottom of the photo:

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There were lots of beautiful old buildings along the road. This is an old church perched between a river and a small mountain:

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And this is a castle on somebody’s private property. There was actually a “For Sale” sign posted nearby, so I’m wondering if we could actually buy some land with our own little castle. Best Irish souvenir ever!
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Next stop was the Staigue Ring Fort (so called because of it’s circular shape). Staigue Fort was built somewhere around 300-400 AD but historians don’t know the exact purpose of why it was built or who built it.  The fort was quite impressive with 13-foot thick stone walls and two little chambers that you could walk inside. It’s amazing to me that something that was built 1700 years ago–with no mortar and only the most basic of tools–is still standing right where it’s original builders left it.

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From the Ring Fort we continued on to a vista of the Skellig Islands and the Skellig Experience Visitor Center.  These two islands have quite the history.

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The smaller island, Little Skellig, is home to one of the world’s largest seabird colonies with over 30,000 pairs of Gannets (and, I’m guessing, one of the largest piles of guano in this hemisphere). The larger island, Skellig Michael, is the site of an ancient monastic settlement. Some time in the 6th century monks sailed the 12 miles out to Skellig Michael and labored to create stone huts and thousands of hand-carved stairs into the mountainous terrain. Despite four Viking raids and being in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean for 1400 years, the entire settlement is still in tact. During the summer months, visitors can actually charter boats out to the Skellig Michael and walk around the ancient huts and chapels where the monks lived and worshiped. Again, I am impressed.

Another must-stop attraction near the Skellig Islands is the Skellig Chocolate Factory.

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This has to be the most remote chocolate factory in the world, but the quality of their chocolates means that people are still willing to drive hundreds of miles to get a taste. We went into the factory for their free chocolate taste testing, and we ended up spending a small fortune on chocolates to take home to get us through the long Irish winter ahead.

Continuing along the road our next stop was the town of Waterville. Waterville was home to Charlie Chaplin and his wife for a time, so there are several statues and mementos dedicated to the silent film star in town. We pulled over here for some lunch (sub-par food) and a walk along the ocean (phenomenal).

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After lunch we continued our drive and enjoyed amazing view after amazing view:

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We drove by several “famine villages”–houses and farms that were abandoned in the countryside during the Great Irish Famine of the mid-1800’s. There were hundreds and hundreds of these abandoned houses in Kerry, so it really gave us a picture of the devastation that the Famine must have brought this region.

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Our final stop on the Ring of Kerry was a place called, appropriately, “The Best View On The Ring of Kerry”.  We walked up a path to the top of a cliff where we were greeted by stunning views of the ocean beyond:

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And the cliffs below:

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By this time we’d been driving on The Ring for over 7 hours and our daylight was starting to wane. Luckily we had already seen all that we came to see and it was time to head back for home. We had a wonderful time enjoying the natural beauty of Ireland and spending some quality time together.

And now, after a glorious mini-vacation, we are gearing up for our first-ever BIG family vacation! On Monday we leave for two weeks in London and Paris. Bon Voyage!

Mom and Dad’s Visit To Ireland

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I just had the most amazing two weeks with these two: my mom and dad (or, as they are better known around this house, Nana and Papa). I can’t even begin to tell you how wonderful it was to have them here–to hug them, to show them our new home, to explore Ireland with them, to marvel together at how quickly my boys are growing, to introduce them to our new friends, to laugh with them, to have conversations that are not only between the hours of 3 and 9 PM (which happen to be the only times that we’re all available with time zone differences). It was…incredible. And I never wanted their time here to end. But, alas, the time has already come and gone. Now all we have are the memories…and lots of photos. LOTS of photos (we’re talking in the tens of thousands here, folks). So, I’ll try to do their visit justice with this little (read: LONG) photo diary of our adventures together in the Emerald Isle.

Cork City

Mom and Dad flew in to Dublin and spent a couple of days there exploring the capital and celebrating their 35th(!) wedding anniversary. I love that they are still in love and that they always keep things new and exciting in their lives. Although they have traveled all over the world, neither of them had ever been to Ireland before. It was my mission, then, to win them over to this beautiful country.

After their brief stay in Dublin, Mom and Dad took the train to Cork where two VERY excited little boys were waiting to greet them at the train station:

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For our first full day together, I took them on a whirlwind tour of Cork City, the real capital of Ireland. We started at the old Cork city gaol (jail)…not because I wanted to send any subliminal messages, but because I had already purchased a Groupon voucher to use there and I wanted to make sure we got to it before the boys got cranky (which is basically any and every time after they’ve woken up in the morning, so I don’t know why I even try).  The gaol is a beautiful 200-year old building with a colorful history.  We got to walk through the hallways where the guards would have kept watch and even go inside the cells where the poor miserable inmates would have worked away their sentences. Let’s just say I was glad we had the freedom to leave that place when we were ready!

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After exploring the gaol we went to another part of the city called Shandon. We hiked up a big hill to St. Anne’s Church, home of the famous “Four-Faced Liar” clock and the ever-ringing Shandon bells. We played a few songs on the bells (yes, they let anyone who pays the 4 Euro admission price ring those giant church bells to their little heart’s content) and then we climbed the steep, spiraly, claustrophobic stairs all the way to the tippy-top of the tower.

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When we got to the top of the tower we were rewarded with a gorgeous panoramic view of Cork city. Definitely worth the precarious journey.

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Once we got our feet back on solid ground, it was time for some lunch and shopping. We strolled through the city and crossed one of the many bridges that cross the quays (wharfs) that divide the city. This was about our (and by our, I mean the boys’) limit for the day so we called it quits and headed back for a quiet evening at home.

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Morning Run

My parents are both avid runners. I always feel a bit like a lazy slob when I’m around them because they’re up at 7 AM every morning lacing up their running shoes before I’ve even rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. I happen to have a few favorite runs around here, though, so I was ready for them. After we dropped David off at preschool on Thursday morning we went down to the pedestrian path that goes along the waterfront. Since my dad is the fastest, I made him push Jacob in the stroller (nothing like pushing a baby through a head-wind to even out the pacing!). Our turn-around point on this run was Blackrock Castle (and, like me, they were adequately impressed at being able to run to an actual castle).

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As you can tell from the plastic-wrapped baby in this photo, it started to rain a bit on our return trip. All the more reason to run faster all the way back to our car!

Later that day I converted my dad over to “The Darkside”: I taught him how to use Facebook. And now, instead of running, this is what we might all look like at any given moment:

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Now, since we all needed something worthy of posting to Facebook, we decided to go out and listen to some local trad (Irish music) downtown. Unfortunately for us there was a jazz festival going on that night so every SINGLE pub in town was featuring jazz musicians. No trad for us, but we did get some pints and some good music after all.

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Cliffs of Moher

Jon was actually able to take a few days off of work while my parents were visiting so we took a couple of bigger day trips while he was with us. The first outside-of-Cork trip we did was to the Cliffs of Moher on the western coast of County Clare. On our way up to the cliffs we came across this beautiful old abandoned church. We got out to stretch our legs and snap a few photos before continuing on.

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The cliffs are one of the most dramatic natural sites I’ve ever witnessed. Truly magnificent.

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The cliffs were the perfect backdrop for a family photo-op:

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There are miles and miles of trails that you can hike around the cliffs, but we decided to stick to the main paved path with our two little darlings.  After all, you never know when a lovely stroll might turn into a full-on fit because you aren’t allowed to swim in a giant mud puddle:

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Note: I should have just let him swim in the giant mud puddle because about 20 minutes later he FELL in an even BIGGER puddle and had to get showered off in a public restroom.

It wasn’t all bad, though. We did find some fun activities at the Cliffs, like throwing pebbles in drains:

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And catching some sweet air with Papa:

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After a few hours (and a few thousand photos) at the cliffs, it was time to pack up and move on. We had a dinner date at…

Bunratty Castle Medieval Banquet

Yes, that’s right. A medieval banquet. I know it may sound cheesy (ok, I KNOW it sounds cheesy!) but it was so much fun that I don’t even care. Actually, I think this is one of my favorite things that we’ve done in Ireland.

The castle has a folk park that is set up like a medieval village, complete with houses, shops and animals–like this “piggery”:

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The castle itself was built in 1425. Incredible.  Just to imagine the things that have happened in this place…

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When we walked into the banquet we were greeted by our hosts who were wearing period dress and handing out mead (honey wine). I liked them already. There was also a harpist and a violinist (who, we discovered, studied at Juliard) playing for us in the entrance hall. I love this photo I got of David sneaking Daddy a kiss as we all settled in:

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After we all had sufficient mead it was time to go downstairs to the banqueting hall. We were all seated at long tables (except our family, who they sat in a secluded table away from the other paying customers. I wonder why…). There was much music and merriment.

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We were served course after course of delicious food (and bottomless wine. Did I mention that this is my favorite place in Ireland?).  David and Jacob both consumed ribs like they were rabid little baby beasts. It was awesome.

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And then Jacob had a meltdown. It had been a very long day for a 1-year old, and I felt his pain. Literally. I ended up eating my dinner standing up while holding a screaming, flailing, eye-gouging, hair-pulling baby. All I can say is, thank goodness for the loud music. And the bottomless wine. That helped, too. In the end, though, it really was an amazing experience. Perhaps we will return again some day with baby-restraint devices in tow.

Cobh and the Titanic Museum

Our next outing was to the quaint town of Cobh, about 20 minutes from our house. Formerly called Queenstown, Cobh was the last port of call for Titanic before her fatal voyage out to sea. Curiously, it is also the location where survivors and the bodies of those who perished in the sinking of Lusitania were brought ashore.

We started our day at the Experience Titanic museum, housed in the former White Star ticketing office from where passengers departed for Titanic.

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The museum is an interactive experience where each guest is given a “ticket” with the name of an actual passenger who boarded Titanic from this very spot over 100 years ago. As you go through the museum, you see mock-ups of the state rooms, the loading dock where passengers said their final good-byes, and audio-visual presentations.

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At the end of the tour you can search for your passenger to see what their fate was on Titanic (sadly, all of our passengers perished).  It was a fascinating museum to visit.

After our time at the museum we went outside to explore a bit more of Cobh. In the center of the town there is a Lusitania memorial. My dad actually has a relative who died in this shipwreck, so it was pretty humbling to stand in this place.

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We walked past rows of brightly-colored houses:

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All the way to the top of a huge hill where an even huger church stands guard over the town and her harbor:

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After sufficient exploring was had by all, we headed back home. To save us a little driving time we took the tiny car ferry that runs between Cobh and Passage West right up the street from our house.

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Kinsale

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We actually had a few days between our visit to Cobh and our visit to Kinsale. We celebrated David’s 3rd birthday (detailed here), we enjoyed a fun Halloween (yes, they dress up and trick-or-treat here!), and Jon and I went on an over-night trip to Killarney and the Ring of Kerry (read all about it here). While Jon and I were in Kerry, Mom and Dad took the boys to Fota Wildlife Park and the Rock of Cashel. I think they’re pretty brave adventuring alone with our boys!

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After our refreshing trip to Kerry, I was ready to continue my role as local tour guide. Next stop on the tour: Kinsale. Like Cobh, Kinsale is a cute little harbor town with a character all it’s own.

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Kinsale is known as a “foodie” capital and has some of the best restaurants around. We ate lunch at my favorite cafe in town, the Lemon Leaf. After lunch we walked around town and saw some of the beautiful sights: the harbor with its pristine white sailboats, Desmond castle, shops (where I bought my first pieces of Irish art–I’m in love!), and beautiful old churches. This is St. Multose church, built in the year 1190 and used as a place of Christian worship continually since then. In fact, they were even having a church service there while we were walking around.

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At about 3:00 I excused myself to take the boys home for naptime while Mom and Dad continued exploring. They had a pint at The Spaniard pub and then checked out the impressive Charles Fort.

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Blarney Castle

I wanted Mom and Dad to go out with a bang, so for their final full day with us it was a trip out to Blarney Castle and the famous Blarney Stone.

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The stone (which is said to impart the gift of eloquence on all who kiss it) is actually built into a precipice at the top of the castle. We hiked up flight after flight of stairs until we reached the roof of the castle.

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To kiss the stone, you actually have to lean backward, hang onto support bars, and dangle upside down from the top of the castle. Mom was the only one brave enough to actually kiss the stone on this occasion, so we’ll just have to let her do all the talking for us from now on:

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After exploring the rooms and staircases and crazy defense mechanisms built into the castle, we spent a couple of hours exploring the beautiful grounds. There are actually lakes and rivers and forests you can hike to within the castle grounds so it was the perfect place for David to get out and run around.

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Seeing such an amazing castle was the perfect ending to an amazing trip!

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It really was the visit of a lifetime. So many fun times were had and so many lasting memories were made. I think I did a good job showing them the local sites–and left just enough out that they may have to come back and visit us again. Miss you already, Mom and Dad!

Killarney Day Trip

We’ve spent the last couple of weekends laying low (really low…we’ve been sick). Now that everyone is back on two feet again (or, in Jacob’s case, two knees) we were itching to get out and do something fun. A few days ago I met some tourists from New Zealand who told me about an amazing place they had just visited–and I knew right away that it would be our next adventure.

Welcome to Killarney. Or, as I will be referring to it from now on, The-Most-Beautiful-Place-On-God’s-Green-Earth. It was fascinating.

It took us a little over an hour to drive out to Killarney–practically on our back doorstep. Killarney is part of The Ring of Kerry, a 100-mile loop through some of the most incredible scenery you will ever witness.

We started our day at the Gap of Dunloe, a narrow mountain pass that winds though a lake-laden valley. There is one teeny-tiny road that goes through the Gap, so you can’t drive your car through. Instead, many people were hiking (and, if we didn’t have two ticking time bombs called toddlers with us, we probably would have done the same). We decided to go with the other popular option, a horse-drawn trap. The trap was basically a small carriage with bouncy little seats and a friendly driver. It was wonderful. Before we got on our trap, David got to meet some of the live transportation:

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When it was time to board our horse-drawn trap, we all climbed in and held on. Our horse’s name was Kinny (he was 12 years old and very good-natured) and our driver’s name was Dan (he was as old as the hills and called me ma’am).

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The road took us through a grassy valley filled with sheep of every color. Well, the sheep themselves were mostly white, but they all had colorfully-painted backs. Each owner paints his sheep a different color to keep the herds distinguishable, and the end result was a rainbow of baaing onlookers as we rolled past.

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We rode out to five different lakes, each enchanting in it’s own magical way. Everything was so pure and still and beautiful. The photos really don’t do it justice.

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We paused for a walking break at one of the lakes and got to poke around some (400 year old) cottages. What a beautiful place that must have been to live!

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We all agreed that our ride through the Gap was one of the most magnificent tours we’d ever been on. And, oh! Our day was just getting started.

From the Gap we drove back through the town of Killarney to Killarney National Park. The Park is huge–over 25,000 acres. We parked near one of the entrances and went in for some lunch and a little walk. There were beautiful gardens:

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And a marvelous place called Muckross House:

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The boys were starting to get antsy at this point so we decided to cut our time in the park short and head out to one final destination: Ross Castle.

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I really can’t get enough of the castles here in Ireland, and you can see why. They’re incredible! This castle is perched on the edge of a deep blue lake surrounded by mountains.  You can take boat rides out from the castle to explore the lakes and islands (one of which has the ruins of a 6th century monastery on it), but we were running short on time (that is, time before one of our children exploded).

Ross Castle was built in the late 1500’s as a personal residence, and today it has been restored for people like me to come and gawk. The castle is mostly intact, so there were lots of fun places to explore. We had a great time exploring the grounds and touring the interior of the castle. We may have even scaled a few rocky walls.

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Thank you, Killarney, for the beautiful day and the incredible memories.

Saving Money On Family Travel

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Last week we went on our first official “just the four of us” family vacation to Dublin. One of the great benefits to living in Europe is that we can literally hop in our car and drive to some of the most fascinating places in the world. In fact, this was one of the main reasons we wanted to move to Ireland in the first place: to travel and see as much as we possibly can in the next 2 years.

Dublin was a bit of a reality check for us, though. Turns out, it takes more than time away from work and a sense of adventure to travel with a family: it takes money. Loads of money. Especially in Europe. But I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure a lack of funds doesn’t keep us from our fun!

Here are a few ways we’ve found to save money on our travel. With a little extra planning and some flexibility, you really can stretch a dollar (or Euro) pretty far.

1. Travel Off-Season

Everything costs more if you travel during your destination’s peak season. If you have some flexibility in your schedule, travel when the area isn’t as popular (it will save you lots of money, plus there will be fewer crowds to deal with). If you need to travel at a specific time (like when your kids have a break from school), see if you can find a location that is off-peak during your preferred travel time. Many areas in the Bahamas and South America, for instance, have killer deals in the summer months during their “rainy season”.

2. Save Money on Transportation Costs

IMG_3213My friends over at This Beautiful Frugal Life just did a great post on saving money on airfare–really, if you want to save money on flights, this is a great post. Once you arrive at your destination, you’ll still need to get around. Many cities have great public transportation that is both convenient and affordable. If you plan on renting a car, you can often save money by renting for a whole week rather than by the day and by returning the car to the same location that you picked it up from (most car rental companies charge a fee for returning your car to a different location). For our recent trip to Dublin, we decided to spend a little extra money to have centrally-located lodging so we could walk everywhere and not have to pay for parking or taxis. Which brings me to my next point…

3. Be Creative With Your Lodging

Long gone are the days where hotels were your only (or even best) option for lodging on a vacation. For our family with two children under the age of 3 (read: two children who take naps and don’t sleep through the night), hotels are actually a BAD option. I need bedrooms. With doors that lock. And a kitchen to prepare the 5,000 meals a day that they require. We love renting from vacation rental sites like VRBO and AirBNB. For the same price as a modest hotel room, you can rent a whole house (or, for the truly adventurous, exciting options such as a gypsy trailer or a houseboat!). We have had several great experiences with rentals from these sites, so I really don’t see hotels again in our future for a very long time.

And, if you get really desperate for sleeping space, you can always let your baby fall asleep in the stroller then disassemble said stroller to bring sleeping baby inside.

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4. Buy A Pass.

IMG_3109Most large cities across the United States and around the world offer some sort of “City Pass” that allows you to visit several attractions for one (relatively) low price. If you’re planning on hitting up several sites on your visit, these passes can save you a lot of money. If you are visiting a U.S. city with a Costco, you may even check the local warehouse for City Passes on a deep discount. In Ireland we were fortunate to have Heritage Pass cards gifted to us–the cards give us free admission to hundreds of national heritage sites and parks in Ireland for an entire year. On our trip to Dublin last week we saved about $50 per person by using our Heritage passes to visit castles, old prisons, and government buildings. Many cities and states have a similar pass for parks, museums and public spaces.

5. Save Money on Food

IMG_3200Next to airfare and lodging, food is usually the most expensive part of any vacation. We like renting places that have a kitchen so we can cook the majority of our meals at home (plus, our kids are picky little things so it’s a waste taking them out to eat, anyway). If you can’t (or don’t want) to cook for yourself, consider buying share-able ready-to-eat meals (pizza or rotisserie chicken, anyone?). You can also order your restaurant meals as take-out to save money on tips and service charges (as an added bonus, you can even make your meal into an adventure by eating in a local park or at the beach).

6. Check The Group Deal Sites

Most major cities around the world are featured on group deal sites such as Living Social and Groupon. Sign up for e-mail alerts from your destination city to purchase vouchers for your vacation. I’ve gotten great deals on hotels, restaurants, and attractions this way.

7. Find Your City’s Free Admission Days

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Several cities that I’ve visited have a “free day” where museums, art galleries, and the like are free on a certain day each month. In Seattle, we had free first Thursdays, and here in Ireland they have free first Wednesdays. If you visit any of the sites participating in the “free day” on their specified day, admission is totally free. Can’t beat that!

8. Budget For Special Activities

IMG_3227There will always be one or two things that are really important to splurge on. Maybe it’s dinner at a Michelin Star restaurant or visiting an over-priced theme park. Decide what your “splurge” is, and budget that in ahead of time. After all of the money you’ve already saved, you won’t feel *quite* so guilty about consuming $200 worth of duck confit. After all, this is a vacation!

Dublin, Day 5: Viking Museum and Kilmainham Gaol (Jail)

Today was our last full day in Dublin–tomorrow morning we will get up early and go collect our weary dog from her overseas travel (poor thing, she didn’t even know what she was getting herself into joining our jet-setting family). There were still several attractions we wanted to see but, alas, time was running out.

First thing this morning we walked down to a restaurant my fellow traveler-friends have been raving about: Queen Of Tarts.

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And now I see why. The shop sells every sort of baked scrumptiousness that you could ever hope to find in one space. For a sweets addict like myself, this place could be big trouble if I lived close enough to visit every day (because I’m pretty sure I would go there just about every day). This morning We all had raspberry scones with raspberry preserves and cream. They were simply divine.

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After breakfast we walked across the street to Dublinia , a Viking and Medieval museum. Since Jon comes from Viking lineage, he really wanted to learn a bit more about his barbarous ancestors and their role in Irish history.

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The museum was really great. There were lots of interactive exhibits and period actors who kept things engaging for even the squirreliest of toddlers (mine). David got dig for Viking artifacts, sit in Medieval gallows, and try on Viking helmets.

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When we’d had our fill of Viking paraphernalia, we walked down the block to Dublin Castle. Dublin Castle was built in about 1200 and it was later used as the seat of British rule in Ireland until the 1920’s. It is now a major Irish government complex.

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We looked into going on a tour of the castle, but the wait was several hours. In my experience, waiting and little boys don’t typically go well together, so we counted our losses and moved on.

Our next destination was the Kilmainham Gaol (Jail). The gaol was built in 1796 and housed many of Ireland’s most notorious criminals (and loads of other people who did terrible things like steal bread when they were starving…). Several leaders of Irish rebellions were imprisoned–and executed–here.

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We were able to snag spots on one of the last tours of the day. When we purchased our tickets we were forewarned that if our kids were being disruptive during the tour that we’d be locked in a cell and left overnight.

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Just kidding (kinda). Thankfully Jacob fell asleep in the Ergo halfway through the tour and we kept David busy with videos on my iPhone so we could actually make it through one whole tour on this trip. Hey, don’t judge. It worked.

The iPhone came in handy again after our tour when we boarded our bus back home. We barely managed to squeeze on to the overcrowded hop-on, hop-off tour bus–it was so full that we literally put David up on a shelf. He was seated between some boxes of tour pamphlets and a nice Swiss woman (who also managed to find a perch up on David’s shelf. Did I mention those dang “convenient” tour buses were crowded?). Anyway, Nice Swiss Lady let David play with her iPhone the whole 30-minute ride back to our bus stop. She taught David how to use this ridiculous app that makes all sorts of obnoxious sounds. David, of course, loved it.

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And just like that, our whirlwind tour of Dublin was over. We had many new experiences, a few incidents that I’d like to forget, and many great moments. I’m glad that we live close enough to return to Dublin some day, because it really is a wonderful city.

Until next time, Dublin!

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Dublin, Day 4: Double-Decker Bus Tour to Trinity College and The Guinness Storehouse

Dublin is a very difficult city to drive in: parking is a nightmare and the roads go in crazy patterns (so if you miss your turn, it could be half a century before you find your way back). Because of this non-drivability, we’ve been walking everywhere. Today, though, we decided to mix it up and try a hop-on, hop-off double-decker bus tour.

While it was fun riding the bus and convenient getting dropped off at each destination, I think the big red bus actually caused us more trouble than help. It took a long time to get places (the loop through the city took over an hour). My kids don’t do well sitting still–and remaining content–for more than two micro-seconds, so that was a bust. Plus, most of the buses we “hopped” onto were super-crowded and I had to give puppy dog eyes to comfortable-looking passengers in the hopes that they’d sacrifice their seat for a distressed mother carrying a baby, a diaper bag, a stroller, 3 jackets and an ankle-grabbing toddler. In the end, though, the experience did make for memories (and a cute photo).

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The first stop we departed our bus for today was Trinity College, a several centuries-old university in the heart of Dublin. As a former college tour guide myself, I just had to go on the student-led tour of campus.

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Our tour guide was friendly and witty and loud enough that I could hear her over the two screaming banshees we were pushing along in our stroller. It’s a beautiful campus full of interesting architecture (one dorm didn’t get running water and electricity until the late 1990’s–and now the entire dorm shares one measly bathroom), traditions (graduations are–and always have been–done entirely in Latin. The poor graduates can’t understand a word of their own ceremony), and colorful histories (a group of discontent law students murdered their law professor–and got acquitted in court. Hey, at least we know the late-professor taught them well…).

The most famous piece of history that we saw at Trinity College, though, is The Book of Kells. The Book of Kells is a gospel book written in Latin by monks in the year 800 AD. It contains the first four books of the gospel, and it is beautiful. There are ornate drawings throughout the book and the text itself is so fancy you can hardly tell there are supposed to be words on the page. We almost didn’t wait around to see the Book of Kells because there was a horrendous queue, but I’m sure glad we did.

After we viewed the Book of Kells, we went upstairs to the long hall of the “Old Library”. It’s a massive room with hundreds of thousands of volumes of literature dating back hundreds of years (this library has a copyright agreement that entitles them to one copy of every book printed in England or Ireland every year–that’s a lot of books).

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After our tour of Trinity College we hopped back on our bus for our afternoon adventures. Jon was really excited to go to the Guinness Factory but, since neither me nor the boys enjoy drinking beer yet, we decided to part ways for the afternoon. Jon had a great time learning about Guinness brewing and learning how to pour (and drink!) the perfect pint.

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While Jon was at Guinness, the boys and I returned to the zoo to visit some of our favorite furry/feathery/scaly friends. The boys’ favorite part of the zoo today, though, was playing in the sand and hitting bushes with some sticks they found on the ground. Ah, cheap thrills.

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To round out our day we made one last stop in Temple Bar for dinner. We went to a restaurant that a friend of mine recommended called Boxty’s. A boxty is a bit like a potato crepe stuffed with savory fillings, and it is delicious. Really, really scrumptious.

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Another busy day of adventure–and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Dublin, Day 3: Newgrange Tomb, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and St. Stephen’s Green

For Day 3 of our Great Dublin Expedition we actually left Dublin and drove about 30 minutes north to a place called Newgrange. Newgrange (along with her sister sites, Knowth and Meath) is an ancient Stone Age passage tomb. When you first see it, it doesn’t look like much more than an earthen mound at the top of a knoll, but it is most certainly more than a lump on a hill.

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The tomb is old…very, VERY old. Since it was constructed long before people had a written language, the only way to ascertain its age is through carbon dating. Estimates place Newgrange’s construction at about 3200 BC–making it well over 5,000 years old. This means that Newgrange had already been standing for several centuries when Stonehenge and the great Egyptian pyramids were built.

Nobody knows for certain what Newgrange was used for, but it was definitely a burial tomb with deep religious significance. Incredibly, every year at 8:58 on the morning of the Winter Solstice, a ray of light reaches from the entrance if the tomb all the way to the central chamber and illuminates the space. For the life of me, I cannot fathom how people living 5,000 years ago constructing giant stone domes would be able to create such a flawless design. I barely passed Physics 101, so I know they wouldn’t want me on the planning committee.

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The tour of Newgrange takes you all the way in to the central chamber of the passage tomb. It would have been really awesome to stay and hear the tour guide’s spiel about the mystical and historical significance of this Neolithic wonder, but we were politely asked to excuse ourselves so the other guests could carry on with enjoying their day (“Ma’am, are you sure your squawking baby wouldn’t be happier outside in the fresh air?”).

It’s actually a good thing she asked us to leave, because shortly after we got outside David had an incident (c’mon, we’re traveling with two children under the age if 3. You just know something has to go terribly wrong). David was having a great time running through the grass in front of Newgrange and we were happy to let him blow off some steam. That is, until he ran across the field, pulled down his pants, and started to pee.

By the time I could catch up to him (running across this ancient burial site with Jacob in the Ergo and lugging 3 jackets in my arms), he was already mid-stream. Whelp, guess you just peed on the oldest sacred ground known to humankind, Buddy. Thankfully our tour group was still absorbed in their lecture, so I was the only one who had to witness the Great Desecration.

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Potty incidents aside, it was an amazing experience walking through Newgrange. Perhaps we will visit again some day–some day after our children are fully potty-trained.

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When we returned from Newgrange it was time for the boys’ afternoon snooze. I seized this opportunity to sneak out alone while Daddy manned the fort. I decided to use my alone time to walk down to St. Patrick’s Cathedral (because, after the morning’s incidents, I realized that sacred sites and toddlers just don’t mix well).

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St. Patrick’s Cathedral is a 1,000 year-old stone cathedral that is said to be the spot where St. Patrick himself baptized new converts to Christianity. Incredible! Jonathan Swift (author of Gulliver’s Travels Was a Dean here and spent several years serving The Church. The cathedral is also where Handel’s “Messiah” was first performed in the 1700’s.

The inside is beautiful–full of marble statues, stained glass, and ornate carvings. It was breathtaking. The Cathedral Choir was also singing while I was walking around, their music echoing through the cavernous halls.

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It was a remarkable place to visit–and I’m so glad I got to see it sans-children!

By the time I got back from my trip to the cathedral, the boys were up and it was time for dinner. We wandered down the street until we happened upon St. Stephen’s Green, a large park near the main shopping quarter of Dublin (Grafton Street). We picked up some burritos to-go and had a picnic dinner in the park.

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The boys had a great time running through the grass, watching ducks in the ponds, and playing on the large playground. And, because no day would be complete without a treat, we stopped for gelato on our walk back home.

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A sweet finale to another great day.

Dublin, Day 2: Dublin Zoo

For our first full day in Dublin we decided to do something child-centric (perhaps if we appease the munchkins upfront they’ll allow us to enjoy some museums and cathedrals later this week. I know it’s probably unrealistic, but I can still hope…). The Dublin Zoo came highly recommended to us–and, as an added bonus, we have free admission thanks to our season pass to our zoo in Cork.

After a frustrating attempt to find breakfast before 10 AM (really, do Irish people not have kids that wake up hungry at 6:00?!?! If so, I need to know what “supplements” you give your children to help them sleep in), we drove across town to the zoo.

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It was a really fun zoo with lots of lively animals. David INSISTED that we find hippos (thankfully they actually had them at this zoo), so we bee-lined it up to the African Savannah portion of the zoo. Here’s David with his beloved hippos:

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The hippos were actually quite entertaining to watch, but I think the main reason David wanted to see the hippos was because he was hoping they would sing and dance like the hippo in his favorite YouTube video.http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=zHDLUbssMIw

The hippos didn’t sing, but they did swim and chomp and pounce upon each other.

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By late afternoon, everyone was exhausted and ready for a nap (hmmm…maybe we shouldn’t wake up at 6 AM, children). We didn’t quite see everything, but we made some good progress. Since we get in to the zoo for free, we may go back again if we have some extra time later in the week.

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After a much-needed siesta we walked along the canal to an area with lots of restaurants. We typically avoid taking the boys out to eat very often (because they’re loud and messy and require more attention than the meal I just paid $20 for) but, hey, we’re on vacation. We found a great Asian street food restaurant called Neon. The food was good and (by Dublin standards) relatively cheap, so the place was busy. Just busy enough that I don’t think the other patrons could hear David yelling 10,000 times about wanting to play the coloring game on my iPhone, busy enough that I could blame the pile of noodles under our table on the family sitting next to us.

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The day was absolutely grand. No, it was brilliant (look how Irish I’m becoming–already using fancy words like grand and brilliant!). Brilliantly grand.

Dublin, Day 1: The Rock of Cashel and Temple Bar

This weekend we decided to take our first mini-vacation since moving to Ireland. Monday is a “bank holiday” in Ireland, meaning Jon has a 3-day weekend. We wanted to do something fun with the long weekend and get out of town for some exploring. And, since our fur-baby (dog) Bota will be flying in to Dublin on Thursday morning (yay!!!), Dublin was the natural choice for our getaway.

We left our home in Cork on Saturday morning and started driving north. One of my favorite spots that I visited on my last trip here, The Rock of Cashel, is just off the main highway between Cork and Dublin. Jon didn’t get to see “The Rock” with me, so we decided to stop by on our way up to Dublin.

The Rock of Cashel is an incredible castle built on a high precipice overlooking the town of Cashel. The Rock is reputedly the site where St . Patrick converted the king of Munster in the 5th century, and was the traditional seat of the kings of Munster for several hundred years.

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It is an impressive space to walk through and imagine what life must have been like inside these walls 1000 years ago.

David’s favorite part of The Rock was running through the cemetery (we got a few nasty looks for this one, but you do what you can to make history interesting for a 2-year old).

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It was un-Irishly warm at The Rock, making for some beautiful views of the castle and the surrounding countryside.

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After our stop at The Rock we loaded back into the car and headed on to Dublin. We are staying in a rental house that we found on airbnb.com. As far as I’m concerned, air bnb is the best travel tool ever created. The site allows individuals to list their homes for short-term rentals–and allows people like me to rent out a full house for the same price as a cheap hotel. Plus, you can rent castles on the website. Real castles. I will do that some day, but for this trip it was a bit out of budget. Anyway, our rental house is comfortable and close to all the action in downtown Dublin so we can walk to all of the local attractions.

Things don’t really get hopping until about 9:00 around here, so we gave the boys a late nap and then took our babies out for a taste of the night life! On our first night in Dublin we walked to the infamous Temple Bar area for some dinner and trad (traditional Irish music).

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We ended up finding a great place called the Vat House. The food was excellent and the music was so much fun! The musicians even invited the boys to dance and help play their instruments.

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We were enjoying ourselves so much that it was nearly 11:00 by the time we left the pub. A late night, but well worth it (well, at least until the boys woke us up at 6:00 the next morning…but I’ll save those adventures for my next post!).