Ireland, I love you. (Part 1)

First of all… hello again, blog. It’s been a while. Remember me? I’ve missed you.

Enough of that sappiness. Back to our adventures.

A long long time ago in a galaxy far far away… actually just months ago and only a short ferry ride away… we went on the road trip of a lifetime around N. Ireland and Ireland.

When I found out we were moving to England a few years ago I assembled a sort of mental list of must see places. When we found out last year we were expecting a baby I knew we should probably knock a few off the list before our baby burrito was born. So, babymoon #1 was to Santorini (heaven, I tell you) and #2 was to Ireland.

Is an extended road trip around Ireland easier pre-baby than it would be after? Yes. Is it maybe not the best idea with a third trimester baby belly and your kiddo dancing on your bladder? Ha, I’ll let you guess the answer to that. (I’d like to take this moment to thank my dear husband for the many MANY stops we made so I could waddle to the nearest restroom. Let’s just say I saw a lot of Irish countryside.)

Anyway, moving on…

Let me tell you, Ireland is my kind of beautiful. I’ve always been captivated with stories that take place in those green, misty, rolling hills. The moody terrain completely lived up to my expectations. And, over the long week we spent, I was constantly amazed at the varied landscape. I love a place that challenges my vocabulary… I just kept uttering, “wow…” and “it’s so beautiful.”  I could happily live out my days in a little farmhouse or cottage in the Irish countryside. That’d be fine by me. You’d visit, right?

We started our trek by taking an overnight ferry into Belfast. I’ve heard Belfast is an interesting city, obviously fully of history, but our first priority was countryside so we just grabbed some breakfast and hit the road headed north. I had heard there were beautiful country roads between Belfast and the North coast and dang, were they right. We headed towards the Dark Hedges, a tree shrouded road made famous by Game of Thrones and several other shows and movies. It was incredibly windy and a bit brisk but definitely worth the stop. We were thrilled to have the area to ourselves, with only a few cars passing the entire time we lingered.

(click on any of the pictures to enlarge them)

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From there we drove to the coast but never seemed to go for more than a few miles without stopping to get out and take pictures. Every turn in the road led to new landscapes of grazing livestock, old and grayed but very-much-active farms, winding footpaths or lanes, and then finally the glistening North Channel.

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Pastures for miles and miles

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Hello Sheep!

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Our first view of the sea

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This was him telling me to get out of the way.

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Clearly livestock has the right of way.

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Ireland has the kind of scenery that makes you want to get lost. On multiple occasions we took random turns, ignored our gps (or just didn’t care that it had no idea where we were), and stopped the car to get out and take it all in. One of my favorite views was our first glimpse of the north coast. We stopped in a little seaside village and were blown away by the beauty and the fresh sea breeze.

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I couldn’t get over this cute seaside village.

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Our next stop was further up the coast line, to the striking and enigmatic Giant’s Causeway. The strange, jutting basalt columns are a notable Irish landmark, and I was so excited to see them that I was actually equally worried they wouldn’t meet my expectations. As a science teacher I often showed my students pictures of the Giant’s Causeway, longing to see them in person. I’m relieved to say I was far from disappointed. The columns jut out of the water like pedestals, begging for you to climb them, which thankfully you are allowed to do. The scale of the causeway is difficult to capture in pictures, but the columns vary from just a few inches high to towering columns pointing up the cliffside. We spent an hour or two stepping up column after column, taking in the jagged coastline meeting the sky behind us and enjoying the crisp air. I got a few crazy looks from fellow tourists (I was pretty pregnant after all, staggering up the columns with my rain jacket barely able to zip over my belly), but I wouldn’t have missed that experience for anything. I hope our Little Man loves exploring God’s creation as much as I do.

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Just down the road are the ruins of the medieval Dunluce Castle, perched right on the cliffside. Compared to other castles, Dunluce isn’t the most majestic, intimidating, or sprawling, but once I walked its walls and saw the views of sea and surrounding countryside I understood why it was such an important and cherished place long ago. It’s worth a walk through, even if just for another chance to stop and stare at the sea.

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We finished day 1 by working our way anticlockwise around the coast to the wooded hills of Lough Gill, just outside of Sligo, the land of treasured Irish poet William Butler Yeats. Our b&b sat on a hillside overlooking Lough Gill, or radiant lake; the very same one mentioned in Yeats’ poetry. County Sligo (and nearby county Letrim) offer miles of wooded walking paths, and we happily took advantage of them. As we returned to our car for our post-hike reward of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, we passed a father and his young son getting out of their car. At the same moment a golden retriever came bounding by and the little boy exclaimed with the cutest little-kid Irish accent, “Isn’t she gorgeous?!” It still puts a smile on my face. 🙂

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The view from our bed and breakfast

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Loch Gill

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Not a bad view!

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Our walk in Hazelwood Park

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The city of Sligo itself was pretty but also slightly disappointing. Unfortunately we arrived the day after the annual WB Yeats festival, only catching remnants of the previous days’ celebrations. Also, most businesses and many restaurants in city centres (except for typical chain “High Street” stores) are closed on Sundays, so we meandered past interesting looking but sadly closed stores.

Our next stop on our Great Irish Road Trip was County Clare. If you’re a fan of driving winding country roads, you will LOVE Ireland. We could have done nothing but drive for the entire week and I would have still enjoyed the trip – the landscape was that varied and entrancing. Several times we had the roads to ourselves, which we were grateful for on many single-lane unmarked roads.

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We stopped to stretch our legs at the oddly moon-like Burren: a bare, cratered expanse of limestone poking up through rich, green pastures. After getting very lost while looking for the start of the walking trails and anywhere (please, anywhere) for this prego lady to relieve herself, we finally found a trail head. I had great intentions of hiking to the top of the hill, but alas, it was hot and I was tired and frankly food sounded a lot better at the moment. So, we returned to the car for a snack and found a more wooded and shaded spot to hike.

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Dinner that evening was at the delicious Gus O’Conner’s Pub on the coast of County Clare. The pub is almost 200 years old and is famous for it’s nightly traditional music. The place was hopping with locals and tourists alike, but thankfully we found a tiny antique sewing table in the corner to settle down in. We ordered some Guinness stew (sadly the only Guinness I could imbibe at the time; whose poor planning was that?) and passed the time until the music started with some quality people watching. The music didn’t start til 9pm, which – and I know this sounds pathetic – was very late after a long day of hiking and driving. We managed to stay awake long enough for a few songs before heading out, and it was well worth it. I love the look of musicians absorbed in their craft, tuning everyone else out completely. One of the men was playing the spoons, which reminded me so much of my Meme who used to two-step around the kitchen playing the spoons to the sounds of old gospel bluegrass. I’ve always appreciated Irish music, probably because of the familiar rhythms and twang.

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Next up were the Cliffs of Insanity Moher. If you like beautiful views slightly obscured by coaches, selfie sticks, and people taking pictures with iPads, then I recommend showing up right around lunchtime for optimum tourist viewing. If you’d rather skip the coaches, I’d recommend arriving bright and early right when the parking/visitors’ centre opens. We did just that and were able to see the beautiful cliffs and walk along the cliff tops unbothered for much of the morning.

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Guys, those are PUFFINS!

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This picture really shows you the crazy scale of these cliffs. And the “little” rock to the right is Puffin Rock from the picture above.

When walking along the cliffs, I was equally impressed by both the cliffs to one side and the pastures to the other. You can get up close and personal with some beautiful Irish cows and sheep – I loved them!

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After working up an appetite we popped into the visitors’ centre for lunch. With full stomachs we walked back out for a second hike and were surprised to see a thick fog had rolled in (along with the many coaches that were now arriving) and the cliffs were almost completely obscured! We lucked out arriving earlier when we did. But, the foggy mist was beautiful in it’s own way, making the green hills appear even brighter. You can always rely on a good rain to bring out the colors of nature.

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Yikes.

You’d think by now – 4 days in to the trip – we’d be tiring of the landscape and sightseeing, but that was far from true! Every turn brought new views. Every restaurant and inn had the kindest proprietors (every request was met with a cheery reply, “Course ya can!”). And every day brought a new adventure.

Ireland already had my heart.


Watch this space for my post about the second half of the trip… at the rate I’m going, it should be up by 2017.  🙂

 

 

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