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You’re a Real Gem, Ireland. A Real Emerald Gem.

Ireland was really never on our travel radar. Sure, we had heard it was beautiful and green. People who have been to Ireland always like to say how green the countryside is, don’t they? Well now we have become those people, too. Because it’s true. It turns out that the nickname Emerald Isle is not an exaggeration, it is as accurate a depiction as any. And it really is stunningly green and beautiful, just like an emerald. Have I mentioned how green it is?

I had no intention of traveling to Ireland before I was fifty. I always thought it was the perfect place to visit when you’re older and no longer able to travel to more exotic locales like Vietnam and Kenya. Although I certainly still believe it’s an ideal destination for when you’re older and looking for a more leisurely trip, it’s also an ideal trip for anyone at any age. The ultimate reason we chose to spend my 2011 spring break in Ireland is that I found really cheap flights. Seriously, that’s pretty much it. I stumbled upon extremely affordable airfare, did some research, and proceeded to plan our trip. When you love traveling as much as I do, there are very few places in this world that you don’t want to go to. Although it wasn’t on my immediate radar, like so many other places, it was certainly on my forever-growing list.

We went into Ireland with no expectations-other than it being green and beautiful. Like with so many things in life–movies, books, restaurants, trips–sometimes when our expectations are at their lowest, those experiences end up being the most satisfying and memorable. We were so pleasantly surprised by Ireland. Of course we knew that we would have a great trip–we always do.  But we didn’t expect to love Ireland as much as we did.  Yes, the castles, rolling hills, pastures, and dramatic landscapes are all breathtaking, but beyond Ireland’s natural beauty lies a culture heavily rooted in family, pride, nationalism and simplicity. It’s no wonder we instantly fell in love with this emerald gem.

Limited to eight days, I had to be strategic in my planning. We opted to forgo Dublin along with the east coast and flew directly into Shannon, where we launched our driving tour of western and Southern Ireland. Within the first hour of being in Ireland, we were blown away by the gorgeous Cliffs of Moher.

We picked up our car rental and T gradually oriented himself to driving on the left side of the road. I, for one, kind of liked that he was a bit uncomfortable at first–it forced him to drive a bit slower–which is often a debate between the two us, particularly on long car rides), and began the first 1.5 hour leg of our journey to the stunning Cliffs of Moher.

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Located at the southwestern edge of the Burren in Country Clare, the Cliffs of Moher stretch five miles along the Atlantic Ocean and its highest point towers 702 feet above sea level. The views are absolutely striking and it’s clear why the Cliffs are the most visited attraction in all of Ireland. Although it was very windy that morning, we were fortunate to visit on a such gorgeous sunny day (actually, we did not have a drop of rain the entire trip! Maybe leprechauns really do exist?!). Without question, exploring the Cliffs of Moher was the highlight of our Ireland trip.563075_10201021881097102_402071735_n488132_10201021820095577_1587372397_n.jpg

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Sheedy’s Country House in Lisdoonvarna: One of our favorite B&Bs of the trip

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My first Guinness of way too many of the trip

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We spent the next few days driving down the western coast exploring the Dingle Peninsula. This drive was rather romantic and the peninsula’s dramatic coastline was rugged yet beautiful. And you guessed it, it was so gloriously green!

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The charming quaint town of Dingle and its eponymous peninsula.FotorCreated7.jpg

No better way to start the day than with a little Irish whiskey. FotorCreated7.jpg

And Guinness. Guinness is also a fine way to start any day. Not trying to play favorites here.FotorCreated6

One of my favorite photos of all time. T and I enjoying live music, Guinness and some fried food goodness at the Grand Hotel Ireland in Tralee.535935_10201021978859546_22253925_n

Our wonderful stay at the Ballyseede Castle Hotel in Tralee, confirming that we need to stay in castles much more often. Or like all the time. FotorCreated

545940_10201022013140403_1202455838_nOur absolute best meal of the trip was at the Ballyseede Castle Hotel:  a five-course delectable dinner in their ornate and regal dining room. That night, however, T and I became very sick…like up-all-night-in-the-bathroom sick. We were certain that we had food poisoning (how could that be?? and from our favorite fancy restaurant, of all places?!). We spoke with the receptionists and they assured us that while we didn’t have food poisoning, we had been struck by a nasty 24-hour virus that had swept the surrounding area. It is completely possible that they were lying to us and we may have been naive in believing them, but we chose to take their word (mostly so our amazing castle experience would not be tainted–yes, green-colored glasses indeed). We sluggishly packed our car, got on the road, and drove the (painfully long) one hour to our next destination, Kenmare. Not sure how T made the drive, as I was in and out of sleep. As soon as we arrived at the Ashville B&B, we quickly checked in with our host, politely explaining that no, we didn’t care about the local attractions and restaurants, no, we didn’t want to hear about the history of our B&B, and no, we really weren’t interested in what time breakfast was being served in the morning. All we wanted to do was go to bed. And we did. For over fourteen hours. Nothing short of a miracle, when we woke up the next morning, we were pretty much back in full commission and were ready to continue with our trip. So if you’ve been to Kenmare, you’ll have to let us know how it is. We hear it’s a lovely, lovely town.

We began our scenic drive around the Iveragh Peninsula in southwest Ireland’s County Kerry, and were once again rewarded with stunning views, rugged and verdant coastal landscapes, and rural seaside villages.

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Next we visited the famous Blarney Castle and Gardens, where of course we kissed the infamous Blarney Stone. On a recent visit to the Gum Wall in Seattle, I learned that the Gum Wall is the second most unhygienic tourist attraction in the world, right after–you guessed it–the Blarney Stone. Awesome. VOMIT.FotorCreated4547144_10201032908612783_235906667_nFotorCreated6Making out with good ol’ Blarney

Our next stop was Kinsale and what’s most notable about this leg of our trip is the fact that we were finally ready to stomach a full dinner and drink alcohol again! Woohooo! For us Hill’s, this is extremely important. We were so excited that we ended up getting completely wasted off of Guinness and Irish whiskey at the Kinsale Blue Haven. Add in some great live music, and clearly, we had a fantastic night. Plus, T’s blirishness had been confirmed once and for all. I really can’t imagine a more successful evening.FotorCreated8

One of the highlights of our trip was visiting Adare Castle, in Adare Co., Limerick and enjoying afternoon tea. This manor was absolutely stunning, the grounds were impeccable and the assortment of scones, sandwiches, pastries, and cakes were truly delightful. And, um, the cocktails were pretty fantastic, too. 383114_10201032941853614_2067075994_n71419_10201032942093620_1621696207_n

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Following our wonderful day in Adare, we headed north to Galway for the last leg of our trip. We stayed at the cozy and lovely Marless House, where our hosts graciously opened up their home to us. Our B&B was slightly outside of town and within walking distance of the beautiful Salthill Promenade.

We really loved the lively city of Galway and especially enjoyed its traditional pubs offering live Irish folk music and wide variety of restaurants.  I also happen to particularly love cities located on the water…add in that Galway Bay is the source of the area’s famous oysters, well, it’s no surprise that Galway was a favorite among us Hill’s. 480279_10201051320233062_1860258831_n541078_10201051320513069_1607570203_nFotorCreated2

Downtown GalwayFotorCreated2

My first and only vegan meal (unless you count french fries and beer as a meal–if you do, then it turns out I ate A LOT of vegan meals) in Ireland. One more reason to love this city.FotorCreated3.jpg

During our stay in Galway, we took a day trip to gorgeous Connemara National Park. Scenic mountains, expanses of grasslands, woodlands, and lakes dot this rugged terrain of Western Ireland. Its vast open fields and spectacular scenery are truly breathtaking and this was certainly one of the highlights of our trip.527712_10201033651711360_1400820092_n59728_10201033649151296_22113195_n.jpg564550_10201033656031468_1533761223_n

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The gorgeous Kylemore Abbey545934_10201033672711885_2044345793_n

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We then visited Cong, a village that straddles Country Galway and County Mayo. It is situated on an island formed by a number of streams that surround it on all sides.527781_10201052001490093_2184341_n

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Our final leg of the tour brought us to Bunratty Castle and Folk Park, a medieval fortress dating back to 1425. Somewhat touristy, but enjoyable nonetheless. 63492_10201052079972055_786435589_n.jpgFotorCreated3.jpg

And of course, we couldn’t conclude our trip to Ireland without celebrating this wonderful country with a few (ok, maybe more than a few) final beers and calorie-laden pub food.

Till next time, Ireland.  Slan abhaile!FotorCreated1.jpg

 

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