The Valley Vagabond: Adventures in Pandemic Travel, Ireland, Sightseeing [Part III]

[Guest Post by Jeff Lewis]

When we last left Jeff and Diane they had FINALLY made it to Ireland and were off to explore the land of pubs, wild beautiful landscapes and ancient history. Read on to find out how their trip was and if we’ll see a Part IV!

Travel to Ireland during the pandemic is different than travel any other time. Be prepared for conditions and regulations to change at a moment’s notice. Currently, the US government has Ireland on the top of its Do Not Travel list due to a high rate of COVID-19. Although one is not forbidden to travel there, it is strongly discouraged.

The Irish Government is not preventing travel, but those that entered the country unvaccinated are required to quarantine at specified hotels for 2 weeks at your expense. No travel outside one’s room and not a great way to spend a holiday! The bottom line is to stay in touch with the US State and Health Department and their Irish counterparts.

A downside to traveling now is, Ireland has gone through some very rigid and restrictive lockdowns over the past 2 years. While most establishments are allowed to be open now, a great many have closed their businesses permanently. The shuttered storefronts found in many cities and towns are a grim reminder of what this pandemic has caused.

The silver lining to all of this is that tourist crowds are virtually non-existent. Rarely was a reservation needed at a pub for dinner. Be ready, however, to provide proof of Vaccination and photo ID at every pub and restaurant as you will be checked and the information written down for contact tracing 100% of the time. Even at the most popular tourist sites, there were rarely crowds making for excellent photo opportunities and less rushed visits.

Like all of Ireland, Dublin has a rich old and new history that is worth exploring. Dublin has stories to tell, from its medieval roots to its fight against British rule in the early 1900s. Before arriving, we purchased several guide books, including Fodor’s and Rick Steves, which were great resources. I highly recommend both for general planning but also highly recommend going out and finding one’s own favorite tourist sites, places to stay and eat.

Use the guides to find the places and activities that appeal to you the most. Try to avoid a rigid schedule or itinerary that can’t be altered. You will find that some places require and deserve more time than what you budgeted, so being able to be flexible is a must. Find a good map or a reliable GPS mapping service. We used the National Geographic adventure map of Ireland, which noted tombs, castles, cathedrals and other points of interest, and it was great.

Our Dublin hotel, Stauntons on the Green, was formerly a Georgian row house in the South part of the city’s center. Next door was the Irish Department of the Interior, and St. Stevens Green, the largest urban park in Europe, was across the street. Shopping, dining, drinking (it is Ireland after all), museums, travel hubs, a ride on the city trams or any of many bus services were all within a relatively easy walk.

As a degree holder in Hotel & Restaurant Administration, I suggest that you get to know your hotel staff as soon as you arrive. *Pro Tip: I also recommend you tell them that it is your anniversary/birthday/special trip of some sort, even if it isn’t right when you make your reservations. You often will get upgrades or other special treatment.

We spoke with the hotel manager every morning at breakfast. He saw that we got our favorite table by the front window, looking out at the park every morning. The servers knew that we wanted extra Danish and coffee first thing and had it ready for us. Besides just getting fabulous service, it was fun to get to know them a little bit and hear that terrific Irish accent!

Having 4 days to explore Dublin before our daughter joined us was like having the honeymoon we never had so many years ago. Our stops included Dublin Castle, the formal buildings for the Irish government, Trinity College with the Long Library and the Book of Kells, Christ Church Cathedral, the National Museum of Art, The National Museum of Archeology and more.

We aren’t huge drinkers, so the gigantic Guinness Factory and the Jameson Distillery tours weren’t on our itinerary. Guinness is everywhere in Ireland and is a vital part of their export economy, so to that end, it is worth seeing but, again, tailor your stops to the best use of your time.

Once our daughter finished her archeology work, she hopped on a train and joined us for the rest of our stay. We rented a car at the airport and ventured out into the countryside. Driving in Ireland is an experience in and of itself. They drive on the left-hand side and most rental cars are stick shift. There are very few freeways to speak of, so most of one’s driving is on extremely narrow country roads with no shoulders and limited visibility due to the trees, hedges and boulders that line them.

The rental agencies offer the standard loss/damage insurance, but they also offer wheel and tire insurance as an add-on. I thought this was ridiculous until I got out and realized how much driving I was going to be doing at the absolute edge of the pavement. They also have roundabouts, thousands of them! Get used to them before you go as they use them more than they use traffic lights. I love driving in roundabouts, so I’m totally comfortable with the issues of the right of way they involve. Still, even some of the Irish aren’t comfortable with the ins and outs, so be careful.

It’s also a good idea to have a navigator with updated GPS assisting as you drive. Truth be told, I did do 2 ½ laps around one roundabout as we couldn’t figure out the right exit from our GPS instructions, but overall, direction-finding was a breeze.

Our lodging on the road included a couple of VRBO type rooms or suites in people’s homes, bed and breakfast on a farm near the coast, and a spectacular stay in a country manor house. All were close to sites we wanted to visit but usually out of town, just enough to get a flavor of the real countryside. All had hosts that we had a chance to talk to, sharing local history and knowledge.

Being out in the country on our first night on the road, we met a fellow cancer survivor farmer. He grew a field of sunflowers for people to take or photograph as a fundraiser for the Irish Cancer Society. From him, we learned that the nearby ruins at the amazing Rock of Cashel were once the playground for the local children before preservation efforts and becoming a major tourist draw. He told us that the area was called Kingstown because every self-respecting farm in the area had some castle ruin on it from the days when everyone was a King of their domain.

We found that the interactions with the people one meets along the journey were some of the best memories of the entire trip. Find those opportunities to meet people, talk to them and learn about them and their country.

From Cashel and County Tipperary, we were to continue to Killarney, drop our luggage and drive out to the end of the Dingle peninsula before returning for our overnight stay. The day after that, we were to head out on the scenic Ring of Kerry and then drive up the coast to our next stop in Cobh near Cork.

This is where being flexible really paid off. While Ireland isn’t a huge country and driving from one coast to another is a fairly easy drive, why would you? You miss out on so much if all you are doing is driving. Instead of all the driving, we spent a little extra time getting to Killarney.

We stopped in Kilkenny to visit the Kilkenny castle (the one place we should have made reservations for but didn’t) and St Marys, a beautiful cathedral that has overlooked the town for centuries. We pushed our visit to the Rock of Cashel the next morning and skipped the trip out to Dingle.

While we missed out on Dingle, we gained in time spent at Cashel. We found a jaw-dropping local bakery in town where we picked up pastries and coffee to start our day. We spent an amazing morning exploring the ruins at the Rock of Cashel with nearly the entire site to ourselves.

In Killarney, we spent the afternoon taking a jaunty (horse and buggy) ride out to Ross Castle in Killarney National Park. We met Michael, our jaunty driver, who was a hoot to listen to. He shared the history of the area and told a few Irish jokes. Again, we got to meet people and experience things in a more intimate and involved setting. This is the difference between seeing things and experiencing them.

When given the choice and chance, experience life rather than just going along for the ride.

A good story is never told quickly. Stay tuned for Jeff’s Part IV and the finale of his epic trip to Ireland.

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