When I booked a trip to Ireland,
I did not think too much about what to expect. I’d heard all the usual things about the “Emerald Isle,” such as the lushness and diversity of the landscape, the coziness of the pubs, the liveliness of the music, and the dark humor of its charismatic citizens. All proved to be emphatically true. But I was not prepared for the magic of Ireland, which resides in the hearts of its people, the spirits of its creatures, and the grandeur of its wild natural beauty.
My VBT group cycling trip (https://www.vbt.com/destinations/europe/ireland/) started in Cork, where my husband Rob, my Dad, and I stayed at the friendly and welcoming Imperial Hotel (https://www.imperialhotelcork.com/). Known as the country's culinary capital, the food in Cork certainly lived up to its reputation. Ireland seems to do a lot of culinary things well, and on my personal list are bacon, cheese, fish and chips, and desserts. I heavily deviated from my usual diet and it was worth every delicious bite. My favorite meal in Cork was at Market Lane (https://www.marketlane.ie/) where I had the Ploughman’s (an English cold meal based around bread, cheese, and fresh or pickled onions) of Rosscarbery Bacon, Bandon Cheddar, red onion chutney, mustard mayo and local leaves on soft white sourdough, followed by the Orange and Vanilla Bread and Butter Pudding, with warm custard and whipped cream. Off the charts!
Cork is a great hub if you want to see what County Cork and County Clare have to offer. It was easy to get around via public transportation, and my family and I took a local bus to the picturesque seaside town of Kinsale. The bus dropped us off in the heart of the town, and we opted for a long coastal walk out to Charles Fort (https://heritageireland.ie/places-to-visit/charles-fort-national-monument/). I am not really a history buff per se, but the vistas were dramatic and I felt like we were able to ease into Irish life on a beautiful sunny day. Kinsale also happens to be one of the endpoints of the Wild Atlantic Way, which covers just over 1,500 miles of rugged Irish coastline. Some locals guided us to Dino’s for fish and chips (https://www.dinostakeaway.ie/) so we stuffed ourselves full of crispy golden crunchiness and sleepily trekked back to Cork.
We then headed to Ennis, which is apparently called “Ireland's Friendliest Place.” I’m not sure how Ireland came to that deduction, as I felt that almost every place that I went to in that country was remarkably friendly. I myself am not shy, and I can easily strike up a conversation. But I rarely find the same level of reciprocity. In Ireland, it feels like you are an immediate and beloved part of the community, and everyone is thrilled to be speaking with you. To be greeted with such warmth and cheer is such a gift, and it made my visit extra special. The Olde Ground Hotel (https://www.oldgroundhotelennis.com/) was cozy and quaint, replete with resident kitty, and the concierge steered me to the BEST “toastie” at Sweet ’N Green (https://www.sweetngreen.ie/). Halloumi and Kimchi on sourdough…I had to recreate it when I returned home.
Ennis is an ideal location for exploring the Wild Atlantic Way. It has immediate proximity to golf courses, beaches, food and shopping, and best of all, the Cliffs of Moher and The Burren, two of the most beautiful places that I have ever seen (https://www.cliffsofmoher.ie/your-visit/beyond-the-cliffs-places-to-see/the-burren/). Alpine, Arctic, and Meditteranean plants live side by side, and the rugged coastline is dotted with sheep and cows munching on the lushest, greenest, most nutrient-rich grass that I’ve ever seen. Walking on it felt like stepping onto a springy mattress.
Our guides Catherine and Minda met us in Ennis, and from there we headed to The Cliffs of Moher and then to Lisdoonvarna, to be based near The Burren for a few days. We stayed at Sheedy’s Country House (https://sheedys.com/), a charming family-run boutique hotel where we were treated to the warmest hospitality and five-star dining. Fireside drinks, cozy beds, long winding bicycle rides along the coast and through The Burren….it was so unique and rejuvenating. A true highlight was a tour from local naturalist Shane Connolly, as seen here with Rick Steves: https://classroom.ricksteves.com/videos/ireland-s-barren-burren.
Cycling in Ireland was truly an adventure. As we sped along the country roads (or Irish highways, as our guide Cat called them-grass strip through the middle) we were treated to a myriad of weather conditions and a plethora of rainbows. It rains A LOT in Ireland, and that meant some of the cycling was extremely wet. But it was also full of booming coastlines, thickets of bramble with beautiful birdsong, free-roaming sheep, gigantic dairy cows, curious donkeys, and majestic family horses who ran alongside us as we rode by. We circled up the coast past Fanore Beach and around to Ballyvaughan and then made our way to Galway.
Galway is a bustling and artsy town full of vibrance and energy. We happened to be there during Culture Night/Oíche Chultúir (https://culturenight.ie/about/) which according to the website is “an annual, all-island public event that takes place each year on the second last Friday of September, Culture Night/Oíche Chultúir celebrates culture, creativity and the arts and seeks to actively promote the belief that this rich and varied culture is alive, treasured, and nurtured in people’s lives, today and every day.” There was an extra dose of music, art, performance, and historical significance.
From Galway, we took a ferry to Inis Mor, one of the Aran Islands (https://www.aranislands.ie/), where it feels like time stands still. We cycled the island, taking in the seal colony, the draught horses, the ancient rock walls, and the quiet splendor of a sparsely inhabited island - only 800 people live there year-round, and their predominant language is Irish. It was lightly raining, very misty, and exceptionally windy that day, which deeply added to the Irish experience. Some things just look all the more enchanting when covered in a veil of precipitation. The movie “The Banshees in Inisherin” did some filming on this little island that is definitely a must-see destination. Whether cycling, walking or in a horse-drawn carriage, it is a mystical and gorgeously haunting place. Be sure to eat at Teach Nan Phaidi (https://www.facebook.com/p/Teach-Nan-Phaidi-100050441933170/). The desserts were unspeakably good- hands down the BEST rhubarb crumble in the world.
We bunked at Kilumrvey House (https://www.aranislands.ie/accommodation/inis-mor/Kilmurvey-House), and we were treated to a night of singing by our illustrious guide Catherine Dowling. The group we were traveling with was struck silent as Cat sang…to say that she is talented is an understatement. You can find her music on iTunes or just about anywhere else that you stream your music (https://music.apple.com/us/album/the-believer/1443096031?i=1443096409). DEFINITELY worth a listen.
The wildest day of cycling was from Galway to Connemara National Park. This was the day that I had been looking most forward to, as I was on a quest to find the Connemara pony. My days had been riddled with all kinds of animals, and I had already met some beautiful horses along the way. But alas, the Connemara Pony was on my list, and rain was not going to keep me from finding it.
It rained…A LOT. My Dad took the day off, but Rob and I soldiered on for the 30-mile route, puddles in our shoes, rain pelting our faces, adventure in our hearts, ponies on my mind. Some of the best scenery was revealed to us that day, but the weather made it almost impossible to take pictures. As we soggily cycled into the lot of The Lough Inagh Lodge (https://www.loughinaghlodgehotel.ie/en/) we were taken aback by the grandeur of the region. Mountainous, foggy, lush, and vast…it’s breathtaking no matter what the weather. Dog lovers take note: the lodge had a little scene in “Marley and Me.”
As I rested that afternoon, I watched sheep roam up and down the road, looking for snacks and meandering through their kingdom. They are allowed a lot of free rein, as it seems many of the animals in Ireland are. With no shortage of nutrient-dense food and a life of leisure, I couldn’t help but think how happy they all seemed. Goats followed our bikes, horses stopped for snuggles, dogs greeted us at hotels. The Irish people call themselves “land people," and that includes their animal families. While I did eventually find the illustrious Connemara pony, the rain thwarted me a bit so I will have to revisit that quest another time.
The last day in Connemara was a windy one, but we had some sun and barely any rain. Our cycling route took us to Kylemore Abbey (https://www.kylemoreabbey.com/) around
the coast, through the National Park, across peat bogs and lakes, and back to our cozy lodge. The team at Lough Inagh was so personable and warm, treating us to a lesson in Irish Coffee making and serving up some of the best food that we had the entire trip. The traditional lodge feeling at Lough Inagh is of another time…it made me want to don my boots and book a fishing trip. I could definitely have used a few more days there.
And last but not least, Dublin. After having been immersed in nature for 10 days it was a little jarring to head back to the hustle and bustle of a major city, but I needed to ease back into New York life so it was a good transition. Dublin is BUSY and beautiful, and a study in variety. I love the diversity of the architecture, as low brick row houses settle in among shiny new lofts, and next door are parked the houseboats. Water is an important part of Dublin’s aesthetic, with rivers running through it and the Irish Sea outside its doors. Lunch at Bewley’s (https://bewleys.com/pages/grafton-street-cafe) was terrific (thank you Dave for the recommendation), but we only had an afternoon to explore, which is not nearly enough time to get a feel for things. Our little boutique hotel was an oasis (https://www.schoolhouse.ie/stay)...a unique mix of old-world and modern accoutrements, with a private outdoor seating area, luxurious bedding, and an extremely quiet night.
Ireland felt like a much-needed respite. The island seemed to hum with the rhythms of nature, and it provided compelling reasons to unplug from my “normal” and tune into the things that really matter. Natural beauty, hearty conversations, exceptional food, and excellent company. Whenever I need to reconnect, I hope I can make it back to that
enchanting island. You can find more images in my Fine Art Sales Gallery: https://kristenvallejophotography.pixieset.com/ireland/