I’m Going on a Trip and I’m Taking …

My friend, author Laura L. Smith, likes to travel as much as I do, and when I saw this piece she wrote on packing for an international trip, I knew I wanted to share it with you. Laura has a whole alphabet of things you shouldn’t forget to pack. I particularly loved these:

N You’ll see smell and experience so many amazing things on your travels. You’ll want a place to jot them down. It also comes in handy to play tic tac toe if your flight/train/bus is delayed.

Open mind. Things will be different. You might have your meal served to you on a leaf instead of a plate. You may order chips and get fries. There may not be air-conditioning. You might not be able to drink the water. But life is an adventure. Be open to the people, culture and experience God has in store for you.

Yes. Yes, you would like to try the fried plantains. Yes, you would like to try jumping in the lake. Yes, you would like to hear the local’s explanation of the plants growing at the side of the road or why there’s a parade on a random Tuesday. You will learn so much if you’re willing to try. Never agree to something that makes you feel uncomfortable like going off with strangers, taking a ride somewhere you hadn’t prearranged or drinking the water in Central America, but be ready to say yes to something new.

Laura’s attitude and mine are the same—I tell people all the time they must be prepared to be out of their comfort zone when they travel to another country. It always astonishes me when people whine about some little thing that is “different.” I say so what? I’ll be home soon enough. 🙂

(If you’d like a for-real packing checklist, here’s Mike Hyatt’s, another friend of mine. I’m especially impressed that he includes a corkscrew for opening wine.)


I Want to Take This Trip!

I’ve just finished reading Ben Hatch’s Are We Nearly There Yet?: A Family’s 8,000-Mile Car Journey Around Britain, which I bought because it was a travelogue and (as you’ve probably guessed) I’m a fan of those. Hatch is a humorist, too, so he made this five-month trip with two “under-fours” (that is, children under the age of four) hilarious, though at times I was squirming. (It should be noted there is also a moving subplot about his father’s final illness and death.)

Then I discovered this article, in which Pamela Paul (editor of the New York Times Book Review) also discusses the trials and rewards of traveling with children.

The hope is that despite them, participants young and old manage to eke out some modicum of enjoyment, drawn into one another’s world by the sheer force of parental or filial appetite, tolerating or tantruming through the rest.

But when, I wondered, would my children want to do more of what I want to do, or vice versa, and when might those tendencies magically converge? At what age can a child truly appreciate the cultural value of an international journey, on mutually agreeable terms?

As spring break approached this year, I thought I might have finally hit that moment with my nearly 9-year-old daughter — especially if I left my two smaller children, boys whose predilections would confine us largely to playgrounds and ice cream parlors, behind. Perhaps I could take Beatrice to London, a city I lived in 15 years ago and have traveled to frequently since, as a test case: Would she be old enough to appreciate my London — a city of quirky bookshops, World War history and street scenery straight out of “Bleak House” — and also make it her own? By pursuing our shared passions for books and theater in a city that specializes in both, might we achieve that elusive family-travel synchronicity?

The answer is yes. Honestly, the trip looks like so much fun I’m saving this article in case I get a chance to go back to London. And I won’t need a kid to love it as much as Paul did. It just looks like an interesting itinerary.

I didn’t get to truly travel with my child until he was sixteen (interestingly, also a trip to England), so I missed the particular joys described by both Hatch and Paul. But it is, in fact, really delightful to introduce one’s offspring to something special like international travel when they are old enough to appreciate the privilege. Enjoy!

It was a fun trip! And a dream come true.

It was a fun trip! And a dream come true.

Let’s Go to the Beach!

Are you taking a beach vacation this year?

Tybee Island, 2006

Tybee Island, 2006, from our condo (taken by Alli)

Here’s a tip: Southern Living—one of my favorite magazines ever—says “Skip the beach on Thursdays.”

Why? Because Saturday-to-Saturday vacationers tend to spend their last days (Thurday and Friday) relaxing on the beach before they hit the road home. If you’ve intended to do more than just lie on the beach—that is, if you’re in a place with lots of other activities (waterparks, shopping outlets, museums, more)—you should do those things on Thursdays because they’ll be less crowded, and the beach WILL be crowded. Also, stores tend to restock on Thursdays (while everyone’s at the beach and before the weekend), so you’ll have first pick!

Think about it!

Tybee Island, 2006 (taken by Alli)

Tybee Island, 2006 (taken by Alli)


So You Want to Go to Ireland! (Part 7): Eating, Drinking … and Music

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

Now, let’s talk about those to-do categories we skipped earlier, shall we? I haven’t forgotten them.

10 Have a drink in a traditional Irish pub
11 Hear traditional Irish music
18 Shop for uniquely Irish items
19 Enjoy the food

I’m going to put off the post on shopping, since this one has already gotten longish. So let’s discuss food, drink, and music! Here’s a little bit of background that will help when you’re planning your trip.

Traditional Music
What you may be calling Celtic is called traditional in Ireland. “Trad.” More than likely, you’re going to find traditional sessions in a pub—look for signs in pub windows. Don’t look for a stage so you can sit close—the musicians will most likely sit at a table somewhere in the room. If you’re an old fogey like me, do be prepared to stay up late: the musicians won’t show up until after 9:00 or even 10:00 pm.

If you love this music—and who doesn’t!—look for music stores in larger towns, where you can pick up CDs by local musicians to take home.

Public Houses
Ireland is the only place I know that exports its pub culture. You can go just about anywhere in the world—even my little town here in Tennessee—and find an Irish pub. (Authenticity is another story. About a dozen years ago I visited one such establishment in Nashville—now defunct—and was dismayed to find the wait staff dressed in caps and vests and short pants, looking like they’d just stepped out of the 1840s. Oh dear.)

You can search the Web or travel guides for well-known pubs in Ireland, but as far as I’m concerned, you can stop into any pub on your route, enjoy the ambience of the moment, and it will be an authentic experience. In his wonderful book, McCarthy’s Bar: A Journey of Discovery in the West of Ireland, Pete McCarthy has a series of travel rules, the first of which is Never pass a bar with your name on it … and this works for me. 🙂 Tourists have subtly influenced authenticity, though, so the further out you get, the real-er they’ll feel. (No pressure to look like an Irish pub for the tourists, you see.)

Unlike England, where you find pubs with names like Red Lion, Goose and Cloud, or Saracens Head, many Irish pubs are named after the owner or a previous owner. (There are exceptions, of course: the Bleeding Horse and the Confession Box, both long-lived pubs in Dublin, are just two.) A lot of social life happens in pubs—celebrations of all sorts, meet-ups, and general relaxation. We have nothing in the United States that approximates Irish pub culture.

With that in mind, here are a few things you should know:

• Belly up to the bar, there may not be a waiter.
• No need to tip the bartender.
• Don’t run a tab. Drinks are bought (and paid for) in rounds; that is, you buy a round for the entire table. And then someone else does.
• It’s pronounced JEM-i-sun (short e), not JAY-mi-sun.
• Remove your hat, young sir.
• Don’t ask for an Irish Car Bomb or a Black and Tan. Please.

Pubs in the larger cities and towns probably offer food—pub grub—throughout the day. More than likely it will be casual comfort food—soups, stews, hot sandwiches and fries—but some city pubs chase the business lunch crowd with expanded menus; in smaller towns you might be lucky to get a cold sandwich. Still, if you’re on a budget, a pub’s a good place to eat.

The local—a good place to meet new friends!

The local—a good place to meet new friends!

Let’s talk about what to eat. Don’t worry about “traditional” food and forget any jokes you may have heard about the quality of Irish cuisine. Some of the best meals I’ve had in my life I had in Ireland.

These, then, are the things that will always be good:

• fish and seafood
• lamb
• potatoes
• pork: chops, sausages, bacon
• brown bread
• dairy: cheese, butter, buttermilk
• fresh fruits and vegetables
• soups and stews: Guinness stew
• breakfast: white and black pudding

Some things are just obvious: you are never far from the sea in Ireland, so fish and seafood are fresh, fresh, fresh. By now you’ve seen the sheep everywhere, so it makes sense that the lamb will be good. Pork too—the locavore movement is in full swing here as in the States; the demand for organic and local foodstuffs supports farmers across the nation. Gerry gets delicious sausage from his local butcher, made to the butcher’s family recipe and available nowhere else.

Speaking of pork, be sure to enjoy the “full Irish” breakfast, wherever you find one; pay particular attention to the black and white pudding, which are really coarse sausages stuffed with oats or barley and pork (pig’s blood, in the case of black pudding). Seriously delicious. And the best B&Bs will be patronizing a local butcher for bacon, sausages, and puddings. Yum. Oh, and about breakfast: you’re not going to find a Denny’s or an IHOP in every town, so if you’re not staying in a B&B or otherwise find yourself in need of breakfast some morning and don’t know where to go, step into the local hotel, where the dining room will bring you a pot of tea and a menu right away. 🙂

Potatoes are served with just about everything in Ireland—fried, boiled, mashed, you name it. They are more flavorful than the potatoes you’re used to, so be sure to sample them. A decade ago we stopped at a pub for lunch and I ordered Guinness stew (a favorite of mine, and always a safe bet if you’re looking for comfort food); when the bowl of stew (beef, onions, and carrots swimming in gravy) arrived it was accompanied by a serving bowl of boiled, peeled potatoes. It was explained to me I should add one potato at a time to my stew bowl. Oh my. I felt like I was tasting potatoes for the first time, tasting ur-potatoes. I’ll never forget that meal. (Oh, and don’t you forget that french fries are called chips, and potato chips are called crisps!)

As noted, you can’t go wrong with a Guinness stew. And soup … OMG. Cooks across Ireland are stirring up the most imaginative pots of soup you’ve ever put in your mouth. I still fantasize about that bowl of parsnip and blue cheese I had in Glandore. Great pub food. You’ll also find delicious fried food in pubs—fish-n-chips, for example, and lovely fried chicken.

Parsnip and blue cheese soup with brown bread. OMG.

Parsnip and blue cheese soup with brown bread. OMG.

You can always count on these types of meals to be served with hearty brown bread and butter. By all means, set your diet aside (you’re going to walk it off anyway) and sample the bread, kids. Heaven!

Or put a slab of cheese on that bread. If your’re a cheese-lover like me, you’re going to love your stay in Ireland; artisan cheeses abound. Be sure to order that cheese tray from the dessert menu, or duck into a farm shop or grocer to pick up cheese to snack on later. (If you’re in Dublin, go to Sheridan’s Cheesemongers and they’ll take fine care of you. Try the English Market in Cork.) I could go on and on about this—one of the magic moments you’ll read about in the next post has to do with cheese—but just trust me: try the cheese.

One last thing: give tea a try, even if you’re a coffee drinker. The Irish drink a lot of tea, and they know how to do it right. And for a special treat, you should consider taking in a “high tea” (or call it “afternoon tea”) at an upscale hotel. (This will include sandwiches and baked goods in addition to your teapot full of joy.) We enjoyed this experience at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin (read about it here) and have already decided to do it again. It was special—and delicious—and it’s a quintessential Irish experience, so you should consider putting it on your itinerary.

Up next: Let’s go shopping!

So You Want to Go to Ireland! (Part 4): Narrowing It Down

What should I do when I’m in Ireland? I get asked this a lot. But the thing is, you can have a completely different trip depending on where you go—city or country? east or west?—and what your personal interests are.

The first time I visited Ireland, for example, Gerry and I scheduled easy drives from one locale to another so we would have plenty of time for dawdling* … and for following the brown signs. (Brown signs indicate a site of significance, whether historic, prehistoric, natural, or whatever.) We laughingly call that trip the Brown Sign Tour: every time we saw one, we followed it. We might just as easily have done a National Parks Tour. Or a House Museum Tour. We ran into some folks who were doing the Golf Course Tour.

I’m being silly, of course, but the point is, I can help you plan a trip if I know what your interests are. Do you like museums, or does that sort of thing bore you? Are you an outdoorsy person? There are some beautiful places to hike or bike.

Of course, as much as I’d like to help, I can’t plan everyone’s trip. 🙂 But you can plan your own trip if you know the sorts of things you can expect to see. There’s a lot to choose from! Here’s a list that will help you crystallize in a very basic way what a tourist headed to Ireland should consider.

Things You Might Want to Do in Ireland
1 See prehistoric sites
2 See very old ruins
3 Visit or stay in a small town or village
4 Visit or stay in a city
5 Visit historic house museums
6 See beautiful countryside; take scenic drives
7 See unique natural wonders
8 Walk on the beach
9 Visit museums, art galleries, arts and crafts venues
10 Have a drink in a traditional Irish pub
11 Hear traditional Irish music
12 See sites of historic interest
13 Visit public or private parks and gardens
14 Visit sacred sites
15 Visit islands or lakes
16 Observe wildlife
17 Stay in or visit a castle
18 Shop for uniquely Irish items
19 Enjoy the food
20 Enjoy golf and other sports
21 Enjoy an annual event
22 Experience the local weekly/monthly markets
23 Work on your genealogy
24 Wander … dawdle … relax

Now, the good news is you don’t have to pick just one. 🙂 In fact, you’ll probably experience some of these things on your way to doing others—there’s some overlap. And even if you’ve only got a week, you’ll easily be able to see/do one each of the first dozen items on this list.

In my next post, I’ll give you some examples—things I’ve enjoyed—of the sightseeing opportunities listed above (and after that we’ll move on to food, drink, and shopping). For now I just want you to be thinking about the sorts of things that make a vacation fun—for you.

Mind, I don’t advocate checking off things on a list just so you can say you’ve seen them. Instead, consider your interests, and consider the interests of your traveling companions. (There may need to be some compromising.) Then choose things that will bring you joy. I’m a big advocate of joy. 🙂

*Actually, it may be that he wasn’t sure how I’d do driving on the (ahem) wrong side of the road. As it turns out, I managed fine. I only scared him a couple times. 🙂

This series started with an introduction, and here are parts 1, 2, and 3.

Taken at Jerpoint Abbey.

Taken at Jerpoint Abbey.

Travel Daydreams

This is the time of year—cold, possibly snowy—when some of us stay inside more. Some of us stay in with a fire in the fireplace and a nice glass of wine, some of us stay in with Netflix on the tube or a good book in hand … and some of us stay in with our travel daydreams to keep us warm.

Whether you’re planning something fun for a week this summer or the trip of a lifetime next year (and you know who you are!), it’s good to, you know, think about it. A lot. Do a little forward planning so you can make the most out of your precious time and your hard-earned money.

I’m not talking about logistics, though. Oh sure, getting a flight, a hotel, a car—those things are important. But you can do that, right? You can call a travel agent or do it yourself. There are dozens of storefront and online companies that are eager to help. (Here are two articles—Top 15 Most Popular Travel Websites and 23 Best Travel Websites to Save You Money—with plenty of sites to explore.) I’ve been known to google things like “how to get from Livorno to Tower of Pisa”—Livorno being a popular port on some Mediterranean cruise line itineraries—and come up with fantastic blogs and other firsthand accounts that include step-by-step directions complete with street names, bus numbers, and walking time.

I love the Internet!

No, what I’m talking about is deciding what to do, what to look for, what to eat, what to buy. You may not know how to tell a tourist trap from a genuinely wonderful experience. You may not know where or how to pick and choose which experiences to pursue and which to save until next time. You may want mementos of your visit but don’t know what to buy or where. Sometimes you’re doing these things on the fly after you’ve already arrived. But you may have a friend who’s already been where you’re going, and if that’s the case … you ask.


The one place I’ve visited often enough to be of help to you is Ireland. In fact, this topic recently suggested itself because in the last couple months, several people have approached me asking for suggestions about what to see and do in Ireland on a week or ten-day vacation.

But … there are so many possibilities! The Republic of Ireland is about the same size as the state of Indiana, but the culture is ancient and deep. There is a lot to see and do, and you can’t do it all in one trip. You’ll want to narrow it down a bit. I can help with that.

So over the next few posts, I’m going to give you some suggestions about …

Getting the backstory
You’ll want some background information about the Republic of Ireland, its people, culture, and history, because a little bit of knowledge will enhance your visit exponentially. This is easier than you think, and isn’t one bit like studying for an exam. Honest.

• Narrowing it down
Different people have different interests (and thank goodness for that). It’s a simple process to craft an itinerary that’s perfectly suited to your interests if you know what’s on offer.

• Taking in the human culture
You’ve got to eat and drink every day. I’m not going to recommend restaurants so much as I’ll suggest how you can enjoy specifically Irish food and drink. You’ve got to kick up your heels a bit, too, so we’ll talk about music and special events.

• Finding the unique
You’ll want to take home a memento of your trip, won’t you? You don’t have to buy a plastic leprechaun, you know. I’ve got some suggestions for souvenirs that you’ll enjoy for years.

• Finding the magic
Some of my absolute favorite experiences were ones that just … happened. Completely unplanned. I’ll tell you about them, and give you some tips on how you can leave room for magic to happen too.

Hang on and watch this space. I’m going to tell you what I tell my friends. 🙂

Sheep, Co. Kerry. One of my favorite photos ever.

Sheep, Co. Kerry. One of my favorite photos ever.

Let’s Go for a Ride!

I started writing this blog because I’ve taken a few “big” trips—to places I never imagined I would see in person back when I was a single mom trying to keep things together—and my friends have asked me about them. What did I do and see? What did I like best?

Let me tell you …

My father was in the air force, so our family moved a lot—but my folks also took driving vacations every summer, particularly to visit Mom’s sister in Denver, her family in Yorkville, Illinois, and Dad’s parents—his father and stepmother in Owensville, Missouri, and his mother in St. Louis.

They’d been doing this long before we kids came along, but when we did (there were three of us), they made sure to stop at every point of interest along the way. And there are a lot of points of interest in this country. 🙂 For example, I can tell you for sure I’ve seen …

• most of the state parks in California

• many of the California missions

• San Francisco

• Yosemite National Park

Forest Park in St. Louis, with the Jewel Box conservatory and the St. Louis Zoo

• the Arch in St. Louis

• Disneyland in Anaheim, California

• Disney World, in Orlando, Florida

• Lake Tahoe—both sides

• the Great Salt Lake

• Chicago

• the San Diego Zoo

• the Alamo, in San Antonio, Texas

• the island of Newfoundland, Canada

• the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans

Columbia, South Carolina

• the Rockies, especially in and around Denver, Colorado

• Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center

Meramec Caverns, in Missouri

• just about every monument and museum in Washington, DC

• the Everglades, in Florida

… and many other places I can’t even begin to remember at this late hour. Every conceivable museum in every little town. We didn’t drive there, of course, but I spent a couple weeks in Honolulu, Hawaii, when I was fifteen and my father was on R&R from Vietnam.

Daddy had been a history major in college, so we saw a lot of places of historic interest. He was also a master gardener, and he loved to build things (furniture, decks, extra rooms on houses). My mother went to art college, and she played piano and flute, so she was interested in making sure we saw things of cultural interest. They both had an abiding interest in art and design (witness the ’60s-era Danish modern furniture we grew up with). Our parents had records and books and magazines in the house. We talked history at the dinner table. And politics, God help us. My mother was an avid reader.

I learned to swim in lakes, not pools. I have photos of family picnics out in the middle of nowhere. “Let’s go for a ride” was a common refrain in our house. My parents threw great parties, and they both cooked, joyfully.

These things—history, literature, art, music, gardening, good food, travel—the beauty of our world—are the things I was taught to value, and I am interested in them still. When I travel now, these are the things I seek out; old habits die hard. So while I’ve called this my travel blog, you will have started to see my interests reflected here, particularly in the short posts in between trips. I hope that works for you. 🙂