The Rock of Cashel. Photo: Insight Vacations/Simon Boucher-Harris
The most Irish thing about me is that I share the same shade as Irish coffee (if you haven’t any idea what that is, let alone tasted it, you’re missing out). And, dare I hope, have the same amount of (ahem) spirit(s).
It’s weird that, since I was a young kid, I’ve had an affinity for all things Irish, especially music: U2, The Corrs, The Chieftains, Sinead O’Connor, Van Morrison, Clannad, The Hothouse Flowers, The Cranberries, Snow Patrol … the list goes on. Not forgetting all those traditional Irish ditties that my feet would itch to do an Irish jig to.
The beauty of this island is totally breathtaking. So are the people’s warmth, cheeriness, laid-back style and the ready acceptance of anyone, without any judgment – ironic, considering their apparent self-deprecation.
And who can dispute their gift of the blarney? If you’re not convinced, after eight days touring the Emerald Isle on the Treasures of Ireland trip with Insight Vacations tour director Big Mike Doughty, you will be! The mists of the valleys of the Ring of Kerry being the “dragon’s breath” to “seven white horses sighted by a woman in one day before nightfall ensuring a marriage”, were amongst the many “facts” he wove.
Non-Irish eyes are smiling
Our multi-national band of media members started and ended the tour in Dublin, Ireland’s capital. It’s a great city and seems to be on every professional travel site’s list of must-visit destinations. It’s a city of literature, of the Book of Kells and of course Guinness (the Guinness name is not just synonymous with the stout but also the family who has given much back to the country). You get to see all this on the tour but much has already been written about it so let’s explore the paths less travelled instead – while heading down south along the coast on a circular route.
The ruins of castles and monasteries dot the Irish landscape, most of which we spied from our tour coach. It speaks of the tumultuous and oft-time convoluted past of the country that its timeline includes the participation of the Celts, Vikings, Normans and the English.
Our coach, expertly “piloted” by Eugene, was a luxurious 40-seater with WiFi and ample legroom for “giants” – something you get with all Insight tours. And daily “flourishes” like local chocolate served onboard, courtesy of Big Mike who likes being compared to actor Liam Neeson. Sometimes these Insight flourishes are enjoyed outside the coach, like the best tea and scones I’ve ever had – at the Thatched Cottage Restaurant just outside Cahersiveen. And the ginger cookies that the Irish refer to as flapjacks for some reason, from a cart by the roadside at the Ring of Kerry, was to die for!
The relaxed start to each day meant we didn’t have to get up at unearthly hours to begin our day – that was much appreciated, too!
Our first big stop during the tour was the town of Kilkenny – no, not for the beer (which is made by Guinness) but for a go at the spectacular national sport of hurling – and no, that’s not the act of throwing up after one too many pints. This 3,000-year-old sport requires fancy skills with the hurley stick and the sliotar (the ball) and lots of strength and accuracy. We all had a go at it after some quick coaching on the game (and history) from PJ Lanigan who conducts The Kilkenny Way: The Ultimate Hurling Experience that includes a tasty Irish stew lunch at his pub.
Kilkenny’s team is the current holder of the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championships (which it has now won for a record 36 times) and we actually got to hold the prestigious Liam McCarthy Cup. How cool is that? The players and coaches don’t make a cent from this game – it’s an amateur game and played for the passion of it.
Sights and insights
The trip was filled with insights and precious moments like this. The Rock of Cashel looked impressive from afar, and quite picturesque with cattle and sheep grazing in the foreground. Some restoration work was going on in the area as we were being told a comprehensive history of the place.
Delight at the structure and the lovely rolling plains in the distance gave way to sadness at the number of gravestones (many of young children) that filled the area that spoke of a difficult history.
Who can forget the “drive” through the vast Killarney National Park, the first in Ireland in a horse-drawn carriage called a jaunting car? The amazing scenery and the sight of red deer, native only to the area, is equally matched by John our jarvey (driver) whose gift of the gab entertained our group during the hour-long ride.
Much later, we set off on an hour-long hike through the park that included the beautiful Muckross House and Gardens and the calm and serene Torc Waterfall.
Before that, we were treated to some of the most stunning scenery in the world (well, I think so) on a 179km drive around the Ring of Kerry. It was dotted with quaint pretty towns full of character, like Waterville, a favourite vacation spot of Charlie Chaplin (where there is a statue in his honour) and Sneem, where we made quick stops.
There are quite a few stops for us to take in the views, including one called the Ladies View in honour of Queen Victoria, who, with her ladies-in-waiting, was very impressed at the sight when they visited in 1861. There’s also a lookout point that takes in the whole of Killarney National Park and the mountains that are part of the Macgillycuddy Reeks mountain range. (My head is still swimming with all the memories of those moments that, hopefully, my camera has captured well.)
Pub-crawling in Killarney made for a nice cultural contrast as locals and tourists happily danced away to the merry Irish music where I spotted a Hugh Laurie look-alike playing the fiddle. There seems to be hosts of doppelgangers in Ireland, for surely there was Edward Norton working in the Guinness Brewery in Dublin, too.
Just when you thought there couldn’t be more such moments, along comes the Dingle Peninsula and the Wild Atlantic Way. I could dingle all the way and that includes the stop at the town so named. How many myriad ways and styles of stunning has been created for our viewing pleasure – from rough and rugged to gentle and serene to natural beauty?
The spectacular Cliffs of Moher made me want to keep coming back for more here (pardon the bad pun). One hour was not enough to take in the wonderfully set up Visitor Experience Centre and hike up the cliffs. I made it to only one side and rushed back to the coach all sweaty despite the misty, wet and cold day we were experiencing. Then we made another short stop at the bigger town of Galway.
The food was delicious at every stop, no matter the level of sophistication of the dishes served. There was O’Connells Restaurant in Donnybrook, Dublin, and the 19th Green – a traditional Irish guesthouse run by Freda Sheehan and her husband John, an award-winning chef – where we had a cooking demo, followed by some traditional Irish dishes for dinner.
Stays in some stunning locales, like the Old Ground Hotel in Ennis, and what is reputedly the best luxury hotel in the world at the moment, Ashford Castle in Cong, fed all our senses.
Meeting real gypsies (travellers to the Irish) and just spending time with the locals was truly satisfying despite missing out on leprechauns and lucky four-leaf clovers. I did find my pot of gold through the céad míle fáilte, (one hundred thousand welcomes) the Irish and Insight gave me, and the friendships among my fellow “travellers”.
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