So You Want to Go to Ireland! (Part 9): Last Thoughts

This series began with an introduction, and here are parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. We started with anticipation and forward planning, discussed how and what to put on the itinerary, and finished up with thoughts on making your trip everything you want it to be—making it magic.

But part of finding the magic is planning just enough so there are no unpleasant surprises and no disappointments in your logistics. So let’s run down a list of miscellany …

• Eat your breakfast. Always. And bring some snacks along, just in case.

• Definitely make reservations. Remember that rates quoted for lodging are often pps (per person sharing), so double it!

• Generally, B&Bs are less expensive than hotels … which is the opposite of how things are in the States.

• Remember to ask for a VAT (tax) form or VAT card and then clear it when you leave the country. You might be surprised at what you save.

• Do bring an adapter. The right one is easier to find in your country of origin.

• Yes, you will need the extra insurance on a rental car.

• Bring your own GPS but don’t forget to buy and download the proper maps.

• Wi-fi will be dodgy sometimes. But, hey, it’s good to be unplugged on occasion.

• Use Skype to call home.

• Your local AAA office sells “tip packs” of coins and small bills in euros. It’s always nice to have a little local currency in your pocket.

• If you go into Northern Ireland, you’re in the UK—and you’ll need different money.

• I’ve gotten better deals on rental cars from on-site (that is, in Ireland) companies (which include Avis, Hertz, and so on) than by making arrangements before I left the States. (Here are some other tips.)

Driving on the other side isn’t all that hard.

• There are two major airports in Ireland—Dublin in the east and Shannon in the west—and you should choose which to arrive at based on your itinerary. This seems self-evident but you’d be surprised how many folks I’ve known who flew into Dublin and immediately headed west.

You’ll have seen some recommendations for sights to see in this series as well as in the trips I’ve already posted, but by all means, do your own research. You can find material online and in books, too, like traditional travel guides, but don’t neglect nontraditional travel books like Ireland, journalist Max Caulfield’s coffee table–quality book of six tours, illustrated with gorgeous photographs.

I’ve written some about being realistic about time and travel conditions—about not trying to squeeze too much into too short a time—but I want to stress that again. You won’t enjoy a trip that begins to feel like a forced march: up at dawn, into the car, drive, drive, drive. This is stated very well in “Five Trips for Planning Your First Trip to Ireland,” from from travel writer/tour operator Mindie Burgoyne, who says:

1. Lose the idea of “must-see” sites.

2. Think about your best choice for transportation.

3. Think about what appeals to you before you plan the trip.

4. Don’t be afraid to consult a travel blogger.

5. Book your first night before you leave and try not to move around too much.

There’s a lot more information in this article than just these points, but you’ll note right away that Burgoyne and I are mostly on the same page when it comes to planning a trip to Ireland.

You’ll note none of this includes signing up for a tour (which is where Burgoyne and I part ways). I’ve never been in a tour group in my life and I’m not starting now. It might be the right choice for you, though, and I’ll happily concede that some folks like having the logistics handled for them … and that’s OK.

One reason I avoid tours is the likelihood that you’ll be shown TOURisty sites. While I agree that some things absolutely shouldn’t be missed—the Rock of Cashel, say—Bunratty Castle and kissing the Blarney Stone are never gonna be on my list of things to do. 🙂 Instead, have a look at this list and see if there’s something that appeals.

And that’s it from me. I hope your trip to Ireland is spectacular!

Have you got your passport?


The Rock of Cashel, Co. Tipperary

So You Want to Go to Ireland! (Part 8): Finding the Magic

This series started with an introduction, and here are parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

In every long-awaited trip, there is a moment in which you open your eyes a little wider and think, Oh my. This was so worth it. Or you open your mouth and say it to your traveling companion. Sometimes it happens at the end of the day and one of your party says, “I think [insert activity here] was my favorite thing so far.”

When that happens, you’ve had a magic moment.

On my first trip to Ireland in 2003, Gerry and I were driving from one point to another on a Sunday morning and happened to pass Jerpoint Abbey. It hadn’t been on our itinerary, but there it was. Was it open? We walked in. The place was deserted. I took some stunning photos (back in the days when you had to send film off and hope you’d gotten good shots), taking my time to look at every single rock and blade of grass. The morning was silent but for the blackbirds flying above our heads. I can still remember everything like it was yesterday—it was magic.

The altar at Jerpoint Abbey.

The altar at Jerpoint Abbey.

Most of these moments are completely unplanned—what else could they be?—but there are two things you can do to invite the magic to show up.

1. Accept the fact that you’re going to be out of your comfort zone. Relax.
2. Allow plenty of time, both in days and hours. Cut, don’t cram.

Both of these things seem self-evident, but you’d be surprised how many American travelers I’ve run into who aren’t really enjoying a long-awaited vacation, and it can almost always be tracked back to these two things. So let’s review.

Remember, this isn’t the United States—you will be out of your comfort zone. That’s a guarantee. So adjust your attitude now. Unlock your preconceived notions and set those puppies loose, friends. It always astonishes me when folks whine about some little thing that is “different.” Because I say, YAY! I’ll be home soon enough. These differences will make your memories. These differences will engage your mind. These differences are things you’ll be thinking about years later. Embrace them.

Americans also have a tendency to try to cram as much as they can into their vacation time—but let’s rethink that too. If you’re looking at the map you may think, Oh, it’s only fifty miles. But if you’re driving that fifty miles in second gear—and I’ve done that, due to road conditions (that is, mountain-y roads)—it’s going to take awhile. You think this is a small country, but the roads are narrow and you don’t know how to drive on them. (Trust me on this.)

So cut your itinerary, don’t cram it. You don’t want to be running from one must-see venue to the next, zigzagging all over the country, driving, driving, driving. You won’t enjoy any of it. And you’ll drive right past the magic.

Some of this crammed-itinerary phenomenon has to do with the difference between abundance thinking and scarcity thinking. That’s another post for another time, but in this context it simply means you should assume not that this is the only time you’ll ever take a trip to a foreign land, but that life is long and abundant, and you’ll be back to see those things you left off your itinerary this time. Slow it down. Your experience will be richer if you take the time to fully savor your adventure.

This can be said about life in general, of course, but that, too, is another post for another time. 🙂

Make sure you build enough unstructured time into each day for dawdling. Gerry and I stopped for lunch at a pub in a small village (Leap). The back door was open, and we could hear water running; when we looked, there was a picnic table next to a little brook. We sat and ate there. Then we lingered over a fresh pot of tea, reading the newspaper we’d pulled from the rack out front. Doesn’t sound like much to you, maybe, but I remember that as a magic moment.

Stop frequently, for no reason than to stretch your legs. If you see something you’d like to photograph, pull over. Found a beach? Take a walk. Say hello; talk to the people you meet. Turn off the main road if you see an interesting sign; 2 kilometers is barely more than a mile, so check it out. Go on.

I’ve learned to keep a loosey-goosey schedule, so there’s always a plan B, in case we find a venue closed or too crowded. I’ve also learned to simply let things go, quickly, if they’re not working out. Flat tire? Put the spare on and drive to the next town. Don’t stew. You’ve paid too much for this vacation in money, energy, and time to spoil it by fretting over things you can’t control. I once took some fantastic photographs of a thunderstorm from the garage of a tire shop near Kenmare. Magic. 🙂

A sudden shower, over in five minutes!

A sudden shower, over in five minutes! See the tires?

Look for the magic, and you’ll find it. My friend Margaret and I were at St. Fin Barre’s cathedral in Cork when lunchtime arrived. “Is there a good restaurant good close by?” we asked a docent we’d been chatting with earlier. “Would a vegetarian place be OK?” She referred us to Café Paradiso. “I wouldn’t say it’s close, but you can walk there,” she said. So we did. It was packed at three o’clock in the afternoon, and in spite of our not having a reservation (!), they fit us in. It was one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life. The ambience was electric, there was a couple at the table next to us who were relishing the meal and each other, and … well, it was magic. (Later, back home, I learned the restaurant is famous. Who knew!)

We had another magic meal on that trip—pears we’d picked up at a grocery store a week earlier and let ripen to perfection (juicy and sweet), eaten with a hunk of Cashel Blue we’d purchased earlier that day. Much less fussy than eating at a world-famous café, but just as memorable.

Remember the stealth sheep? I count that a magic moment. I count as magic the time we stopped by the side of the road so I could call my college-age son to get some important news; I woke him up. The sun was sparkling on the sea far below, and the news was very, very good.

Somewhere in County Donegal.

Stopping to make a phone call, somewhere in County Donegal.

I could go on and on. (And I will post other “magic moments” later.) The point I’m trying to make is this: Dawdling is allowed. There will be no tests on this vacation, no prizes awarded for Most Things Seen. Instead, look for your beauty, look for your delight … and you will find it. Magic.

So You Want to Go to Ireland! (Part 7): Let’s Go Shopping!

This series started with an introduction, and here are parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a souvenir shop in Ireland, so sooner or later you’re going to find yourself in one, if for no other reason that to pick up some postcards. But what you really want is something nice to remember your trip by. Something lasting. Right? I know I do.

When you’re shopping for gifts for yourself or others (I like to do my Christmas shopping in Ireland), look for things you can’t get at home, or—in the case of international brands like Waterford Crystal or Belleek porcelain—that you can get somewhat cheaper than at home. (Particularly when the exchange rate favors the dollar.)

So here’s a quick list of things you might buy in Ireland:

• Knitwear: sweaters, scarves and more
You’ve seen the sheep, now buy something woolen. I buy sweaters and scarves every time I travel to Ireland; they’re available just about everywhere. And the range of colors and styles! Oh! They make lovely gifts.

• Clothing made from Irish linen or tweed
You can buy beautiful woven wool scarves, too—and tweed caps, jackets, waistcoats (you may call this a vest). Some shops sell piece goods so you can sew your own at home. Look for beautiful table linens and handkerchiefs and you’ll think of Ireland every time you sit down to a meal.

• Crystal and glassware, china and pottery
Waterford Crystal is the category leader but there are other good quality brands equally beautiful (research it before you go). Jerpoint Glass is one of my favorite places to shop (Co. Kilkenny) but you can find their pieces in nicer shops all over the country. I also love Nicholas Mosse Pottery, which is readily available. Check department stores for Royal Tara china or Belleek, for a lot less than you’ll pay for them in the States.

• Handmade arts and crafts
There is so much to choose from here: jewelry, pottery, prints and paintings … we could go on and on. Look for small art galleries, museum shops, individual studios (like Jerpoint Glass and Nicholas Mosse) and workshops … and larger outlets like Kilkenny Design Centre in Kilkenny and Dublin (which often, by the way, runs free-shipping-to-the-States promotions). Here’s a website that will give you some ideas. Steer away from those Philip Gray prints; aside from the fact that Gray’s the Irish version of Thomas Kinkade (a hack), these reproductions are poorly done on cheap paper. You’ll know real art when you see it.

• Books
Ireland is a nation of readers (and the home of many fine writers), so you’ll find a bookstore in every town of a few thousand or more. Look for books by Irish authors, photography books, books on Irish history or of local interest (architecture, say) in both new and secondhand shops. Or choose a cookbook!

• Music
If it’s in the budget, you can buy traditional handmade instruments (tin whistles, flutes, fiddles, pipes, bodhráns) from craftspeople in their workshops or in more traditional music stores. While you’re in that music store, you might be interested in sheet music or teaching CDs, such as the one I purchased the featuring a how-to on fiddling traditional Irish melodies and techniques. Music stores and record shops will feature the recordings of local musicians and bands, too; these are affordable and make one-of-a-kind gifts.

• Fashion, design, and up-market personal products
Ireland has a youthful population and has a growing reputation for fashion and design; a special item of clothing might be just the thing to take home. There are many Irish designers (research it) but lately I’ve been loving Orla Kiely; you can find her bags all over Ireland (and they’ll be different from what you’ll find in the States). I also love Moulton Brown hair care products (it’s a British company but I was exposed to the products in Ireland), and I make sure I bring some home from every trip.

• Antiques
Dublin has an antiques district but even small towns have an antique shop or two. Look for unusual prints, vintage jewelry, a teacup … something small and special you can carry home with you.

• Foodstuffs
I am a real sucker for farm shops as well as the upscale grocers you’ll find in larger cities and department stores. I bring cheese home on every trip. And chocolate (see below)! Other delights: tea, jams and jellies, Sarah’s Wonderful Honey, cookies … and did I mention the chocolate?

• Chocolate in particular
On the other side of the pond, chocolate must contain at least 20 percent cocoa solids. In the US, on the other hand, cocoa solids need only make up 10 percent. So there’s definitely a taste differential. My three favorite chocolate brands are Áine, Butler’s, and Cadbury. I stock up on the big bars to bring home for gifts, Christmas stocking stuffers, and so on.

• Little gifts for friends
As mentioned, chocolate bars are always a hit. Irish-themed Christmas ornaments are nice (you can find them in souvenir shops or department stores). And, frankly, though it may seem cliché, the Guinness line of trademarked souvenirs (T-shirts, hats, and so on) are generally of good quality, so if you’ve someone who’d like that sort of thing, go for it. Now … if you really want a nice, truly Irish T-shirt … you’ll have to drive to Lahinch, on the west coast, to the Celtic T-Shirt Shop. A family-owned business since 1979, these shirts (and other apparel) are original designs screen-printed by hand—and they’re gorgeous. Honestly, the website doesn’t do them justice.

See? You don’t have to let the souvenir market drive your purchasing decisions. Don’t buy the first thing you see. Look around! You’ll find something perfect. And don’t forget to pick up a bottle of Jameson’s in the duty-free on your way home. 🙂

A few things that came home last time: scarf from Avoca Hand Weavers, Nicholas Mosse mug, chocolate-covered cookies from Cadbury.

A few things that came home last time: scarf from Avoca Hand Weavers, Nicholas Mosse mug, chocolate-covered cookies from Cadbury.