Wednesday, May 24, 2006

On Holiday in Ireland

Nothing shakes you out of the doldrums like taking a vacation; taking a vacation abroad is even more stimulating. All senses are required to navigate the foreign surroundings. Samuel Johnson said, “The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.” No description, photo, or movie can do justice to the beauty of Ireland. It has to be experienced for full appreciation.

I felt at home there from the moment we landed at Shannon airport. The rain and the chill were a momentary discouragement, but I soon came to accept it as the perfect conditions for the 40 lush shades of green growing all around.

Our first order of business was to exchange dollars for euro, then spend some euro for a bus ride to Dublin. Music on the bus was mostly 50’s and 60’s American pop tunes, which we heard a lot during our week’s stay. Was it for the benefit of the tourists, or do they really like it that well? It did provide an element of the familiar, which had a strangely comforting effect on me.

The narrow roads alarmed me, especially being aboard a wide bus. We passed vehicles without leaving more than a pencil’s width between us. Our first meal in Ireland was a lunch of ham and cheese sandwich from a vending machine at a bus stop somewhere along the way. It was that or stay hungry.

Once we got to Dublin, we had no trouble getting a taxi and making our way to the Harcourt Hotel. Benji and Pip were there to meet us, while Karen, Bella and Phin were on a Viking Splash tour of the city.

After they came in and rested for a bit, we walked downtown to Grafton Street for shopping and supper at Café Bar Deli. This restaurant had beautiful stained glass windows, which made me wish I hadn’t forgot my camera. We also stopped in a Dunnes, where I bought an umbrella and a nylon wind breaker with hood. They proved to be lifesavers.

The children wanted to stop at the playground in St. Stephen’s Green, so I elected to walk back to the hotel alone to indulge in a long, warm soak in the bathtub. By the time they returned, I was in the bed, ready to sleep. It was then we learned that it doesn’t get dark there until “half ten,” or 10:30 pm. I was glad no one wanted to wait until dark to turn in. I was not the only one yearning for a long night’s rest.

Unfortunately, the party crowd downstairs at the bar didn’t care whether we slept or not. At some point, I woke up and realized they were directly under our 2nd floor window having a helluva good time. Pat said the noise kept her awake. I went right back to sleep. Phin, Pip and I slept through all of it.

On Thursday morning, we had breakfast in the hotel dining room. I wanted the full Irish breakfast complete with baked beans, black pudding, grilled tomatoes, and brown bread. The coffee was not the best I’ve had, but not too bad. There is no artificial sweetner to be had, they only use pure cane sugar, raw sugar, or brown sugar, and the milk is not pasteurized, but it was good in the coffee and cereal.

After breakfast, we walked back to Grafton Street, then made our way over to Christchurch Cathedral and the Dublinia museum, passing St. Patrick’s Cathedral on the way, which was not open to the public due to a fast being held for/by(?) Afghanis. According to a sign on the fence, Jonathan Swift is buried there and his epitaph reads,

Here is laid the body of Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Divinity, Dean of this Cathedral Church, where fierce indignation can no longer rend the heart. Go, traveller, and imitate if you can this earnest and dedicated champion of liberty. He died on the 19th day of October 1745 AD. Aged 78 years.

I could have spent all day at Christchurch, but we had to get back and start our move toward Northern Ireland. The weather changed from mild temperature and sunny that morning to cold and rainy by noon.

Benji rented a Ford Galaxy mini-van, which, to my astonishment, held all 7 of us and our luggage. His ability to drive on the left side of the street and shift with his left hand was impressive. Getting out of the city, though, was a real challenge. That was the most tedious part of the trip.

We got to Belfast in time to eat supper at a mall, which closed at 6pm. It was after 10 when we reached our B&B, the Knocksoughy House, located directly across from the Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge. From here we had a million dollar view of the coast and Raithlin Island, even Scotland can be seen on a clear day from our hosts’ dining room. Benji and Karen could not have picked a prettier place for us to stay. Pat and I shared a bedroom in the main part of the house, while the rest were in a self-catering apartment that had been added on. It was dark by the time we retired on Thursday night.

On Friday, we enjoyed another full Irish breakfast minus the beans and black pudding. Then we walked across the street to the rope bridge. There was a misty rain when we started out, and we hoped it would stop. Instead, it got harder and the wind picked up. After a 45 minute hike to the site, we had gale-force wind. Pat and Bella chose to wait on the safe side while the rest of us precariously picked our way between two cliffs over an 18m wide chasm that was 24m deep, not sure what that is in feet; meters or feet, it was scary. The bridge was built by salmon fishermen to gain access to a fishery located on the far cliff. Had the weather been clear, we could have seen Scotland very easily. The park attendant awarded me a certificate for crossing the bridge.

Our next adventure was to the town of Ballycastle, where we ate lunch and shopped. Pat was on a quest for authentic Irish fabric and wool yarn, I wanted a Celtic cross necklace. Neither of us found the prize we sought. Everybody but me went to the beach where they waded in ice cold water. I stayed in the van and listened to the Christchurch choir CD I’d bought the day before.

Then we set out for Cushendall. Our next stop was described like this by one visitor:

At the very north-eastern tip of Ireland sits Torr Head – a scene of absolute elemental beauty and drama. Flanked on either side by the crumbling cliffs of the County Antrim coast, Torr Head protrudes like an arrow towards Scotland – a mere 12 miles away.

The view from Torr Head was indeed breathtaking; it was the crumbling cliffs of the County Antrim coast, though, that took our breath away. Rather than heed the warning of the “Road Closed” signs, Benji decided to go as far down the closed road as he could. We had passed 5 or 6 warning signs before we came to the part of the very narrow road that was missing. Thankfully, large machines made further passage impossible. Luckily, there was a wide enough space for him to turn around. Continuing on to Cushendun and Cushendall was not practical by this time, even though there was an optional route. We decided to return to Ballycastle to forage for food.

Most shops in Ireland close by 6pm. There were 2 restaurants in town that were open, one looked fancy and expensive, the other had pizza. We had pizza.

Before returning to the B&B, we went to the Larrybane beach located next to the rope bridge. The sun was out, the temperature was warmer, the wind calmer than when we were crossing the bridge. Benji went with Bella and Phin all the way down the beach to a cave. The sunset that night was spectacular.

On Saturday, we went to the Giant’s Causeway, another AONB, area of outstanding natural beauty. It was here we learned the legend of Finn MacCool, along with some geology regarding the origin of the magnificent rock formations. I took the bus to and from the site, while the others walked down. Everyone but Benji, took the bus back to the visitor’s center.

From there we went to Portrush for lunch at D’Arcy’s, shopping, and the amusement park called “Barry’s.” We hoped to take in the Dunluce Castle afterward, but got there just as it was closing. From there we went to White Park Bay beach. Only Benji, Bella and Phin went all the way to the beach itself.

It was after this that we had a disagreement about whether to eat supper or not, and where to eat. Our lunch at Portrush had been late and large. After some heated discussion among very tired people, we decided to try Fullerton Arms in Ballintoy, recommended to us by our B&B hostess. The staff there were so rude to us that we walked out after placing our order. “May your bottom line sink in a sea of red ink!” It was the only instance of boorishness we experienced on our whole trip. They didn’t want to seat us all in their empty dining room because two in our party only ordered wine, no entrée. If they had been crowded and needed the space for people who were eating, their tacky attitude would not have been quite as offensive, but they had 2 customers in a dining room with space for at least 100. That should have been a red flag to us before we ever ordered.

Benji took us back to the B&B, then drove to Ballycastle for the only thing available - pizza. He also got us a couple of bottles of wine, so we ate supper in their apartment. A fine supper it was, too.

An early breakfast was ordered for Sunday morning, because Benji wanted to be on the road by 9 am. He was supposed to return the van in Dublin that afternoon, but wanted to replace a cracked mirror on the driver’s side before returning it. It had been clipped by an oncoming car on that narrow road to Torr Head. It was 11:00 before we left.

Patience was in short supply that morning, all of us were road weary and not looking forward to the 6 hour trip back to Dublin in cramped quarters. Benji and I wanted to drive through the part of the country where the Vance family settled. Naturally, we were the only ones who thought that was a good idea. We did go through some of it, but not the part he’d planned to show me. Before we reached Belfast, it began to rain. Rather than get too far off the main highway, we stopped at a KFC for chicken. Most of our dining experiences were nothing to write home about.

The car rental place called to tell us they were closing for the day and the van would have to be returned to the airport office. Benji and Karen decided to keep it until Monday. That relieved some of the pressure we were under.

After checking in at the Harcourt and resting for a couple of hours, we walked downtown in the rain to the Maple Leaf Chinese Restaurant and had a good meal. I was ready for another long soak in the tub when we got back. After that, I slept like a baby.

Monday morning was hectic. We had breakfast in the dining room, checked out, stored our luggage, then took off on foot in the cold rain looking for a yarn store for Pat. Since it was on the opposite side of the river, we eventually caught a bus, then had to walk several more blocks, only to find out that the darn thing had closed a year ago. We caught a bus back to Grafton Street, where I bought most of my souvenirs. By this time, I was very tired and hungry, but couldn’t get Pat interested in eating. We were to meet up with Benji et al at 1:30 in the hotel lobby, collect our luggage, call taxis to take us to the train station, rush, rush, rush, not my favorite thing to do.

The Irish have a saying that I like - When God made time, he made plenty of it. I wish we had not tried to cram so much into the time we had. I would have been much better satisfied to have taken a bus tour around the whole city of Dublin on Monday, but I was too tired to oppose the plans being made by the others. When will I ever learn to stick up for what I want, and not just go along with the others while resenting it?

While waiting for the taxis, I copied down the George Bernard Shaw quote that was stenciled on the crown molding in one of the hotel’s dining rooms. “Ireland is like no other place under heaven and no man can touch its sod or breathe its air without becoming better or worse.” In less than 24 hours, I would be gone from the Emerald Isle. Had Ireland made me better or worse? It was up to me.

Our train ride from Dublin to Galway was very relaxing to me. Pat and I shared a chicken sandwich from the concession stand. The children played sweetly, laughed frequently, enjoyed the moment. I tried to absorb as much of their innocent joy as I could. Karen wanted to cook supper for us, we would have been just as happy to eat out, but she was tired of eating out, she said.

We got to Galway around 5 pm. Karen caught a cab and took the kids and the luggage home. Benji took Pat and me to see as much of the town they’ve called home since January as we could see. Each of us found what we’d been looking for all week and wished we had more time to shop there, but their shops close at 6:00 also. He took us to the St. Nicholas Church, but they were closing, too, so we only got to see a little of it. From there we went down to the river, which was higher than it’s been in a while, he said. We caught a taxi back to their house by way of Salthill, famous for its promenade.

Benji and Karen live in a modern 4 bedroom apartment owned by 2 sisters who travel a good bit. Hardly anyone in Ireland lives in a single family dwelling, it’s all “semi-detached housing,” what we Americans call apartments or condos. It looks like an ideal place for them, plenty of kids in the neighborhood for Bella and Phin to play with, close enough to town to walk or ride bikes to. The grocery stores there deliver so they have no trouble getting groceries.

Karen apologetically served pizza for our dinner, but it was homemade pizza, which made it the best we’d had all week. The sherry I drank made me so sleepy, I turned in before the others. At 5:30 am, our taxi arrived and carried us to the bus station. Our bus driver had classical music playing. I told him when we got to the airport that he had the best taste in music of any of our drivers all week. He shyly thanked me.

Our plane trips were smooth and uneventful, just like I like them. We did have pizza for the 4th time in a week, but for airline food it was really good. In fact, all the food that Delta served was better than most of the airline food I’ve had.

I was met at the airport by Mike and the dogs. Gus and Jay-Jay licked me all the way home. I think they may have missed me almost as much as I missed them.


C. J. Garrett said...

Benji sent this before I combined the two halves of this account:

Hey Mom, Well done with the commentary. By far the best written account of one's trip to Eire that I've had the privilege of reading. Sorry for all the rush rush but it's not the easiest task to please everyone, as you well know. I did the best I could, which is all anyone can ask. Hopefully you will all forgive me for any short-sightedness or rude behavior, as it was unintentional. I'm still tired from the trip and a bit dazed, but we're boarding the plane to Paris and doing it all over again tomorrow. Yee haw (at least I don't have to drive, which accounted for at least more than half of all the frustration I experienced). You should steal some photos from my site and post them to grace your travel accounts. Slainte! benji

C. J. Garrett said...

Benji, I think you did a marvelous job of planning and execution. I was so proud of you for being as cool-headed and patient as you were. With 3 women and 3 children, it ain't easy. You were magnificent, Love.