That Ireland has '40 shades of green' is more than a cliche. It is real….and it’s beautiful! Beautiful not only because of its stunning shades of green; the beauty is also in its out-of-this-world landscapes, its’ charming and historic cities, its’ quaint villages, friendly people with their lovely accents, gentle spirits and a history and beauty which poets and authors have written about for centuries. Artists flock to the emerald isle for artistic inspiration and it’s easy to understand why. Our group was exceptionally lucky to have as our guide, Willie Cusker, one of Ireland’s most sought-after guides, a real gem and a lovely person.
Our visit began in the north in Belfast, today a lively university town and a wonderful mix of old and new; historic buildings alongside new cafes, restaurants and trendy shopping areas. Of course, Belfast is also home to the building of the legendary ms Titanic and residents still take pride in the skill and innovation that took place at that time, with the creation of that grand vessel.
Just an hour and a half from Belfast is the Giants Causeway, an incredible rock formation created with millions of years of volcanic eruptions and the fierce crashing of the sea. Local lore has it though, that the Giants Causeway was home to the giant, Finn McCool, who lived in the area over two thousand years ago. Fact and fiction intertwine to make this site a magical day of fun, and I for one, liked to think that the rock formations I was climbing were really the stomping grounds of Finn McCool! This topic made for great conversation that evening as we chatted and sang in a lively pub, while one of our group members played the spoons to catchy Irish tunes.
In Londonderry, described as 'an old city with a young heart' and known affectionately as Derry, the local 'walking tour' guide gave us a first-hand account of the events which happened there on Bloody Sunday, when she was a university student in 1972. On this day, twenty-six unarmed civil rights protesters were shot by soldiers of the British Army during a Northern Ireland civil rights march. We stood in the spot where the incident occurred and our guides’ personal account of where she and her friends were standing and the horrors they experienced that day was riveting. This real-life account made our tour come to life.
No tour of Ireland would be complete without a stop at one of the fine Irish china companies and on our tour, it was a visit to the Belleek factory and showroom, where a little retail therapy was most appreciated! Driving south, our next two nights were in Westport, our base for a visit to Connemara, one of the last unspoilt areas in Ireland. Oscar Wilde described it this way…”Connemara is a savage beauty” and that well describes the wide-open fields and valleys, the lakes, quiet, peaceful seashores and every once-in-a-while a tiny hamlet.
One of the many highlights was our journey to the Cliffs of Moher, a range of mountains jutting into the Atlantic at a height of 214 metres. It’s a familiar scene used by the Tourist Board in many of its promotional images and the site was magnificent as we climbed on this very windy day, up to the modern visitor centre for lunch and spectacular views. That evening, we were treated to dinner at Bunratty Castle, Ireland’s most authentic medieval fortress, built in 1425. Today, the castle is used for medieval banquets and as we were a 'special group,' we were offered an opportunity to choose the Earl and Lady for the evening. We chose a lovely couple in our group who were celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary and they played the part of Earl and Lady very well and with lots of laughs.
One of my favourite stops was in the picturesque little village of Adare, a magical, fairytale kind of place. The tiny streets are lined with lovely thatched cottages, some which have survived for hundreds of years. Some have been converted to charming restaurants and shops; still others are privately owned homes. I hated to leave!
More stunning scenery awaited when we travelled the Ring of Kerry, a stunning region which starts and ends in Killarney….stunning landscapes, colourful wildflowers and the most amazing rainbows I’ve ever seen! Returning to our hotel that day, several of us chose to take a horse and carriage ride through Killarney and as our good luck would have it, our driver was a very colourful character who regaled us with tales from the past, though we never really knew if he was telling the truth or pulling our legs!
I have to admit that on visiting Blarney Castle, I did not kiss the Blarney stone. The castle, built over six hundred years ago, is said to be one of Ireland’s greatest treasures and I believe that may have something to do with the Blarney Stone. Legend has it that if you kiss the “stone of eloquence” which is located at the top of the castle’s tower, you will never again be lost for words. To kiss the stone, one must lay on one’s back over a high ledge and kiss the stone upside-down. I know it’s a tradition but I wimped out on this one, though many in our group took full advantage and lived to share details of the experience with us!
Prior to arriving in Dublin, where we would stay for three nights, we visited the National Stud Farm, home to some of Ireland’s most successful racehorses. These magnificent animals spend their retirement years at the farm living in the lap of luxury after very successful and prosperous years at the racetrack. Our guide gave us great insight into what goes into raising a thoroughbred horse and how much money is spent to achieve champion status. The farm is an incredibly beautiful property complete with pristine pastures, Japanese gardens and a horse museum.
Dublin is a wonderful, lively city, easy to walk around and much to see and do. A highlight was our visit to Trinity College in the heart of Dublin City. Inside its’ old library we viewed the famous “Book of Kells,” a 9th-century gospel manuscript.
On to Glendalough, located in Wicklow Mountain National Park, renowned for its natural beauty….another of Ireland’s stunning jewels! As our journey neared its end, we were treated to a stop at Avoca Handweavers because no trip to Ireland would be complete without the opportunity to purchase some of the country’s finest handwoven rugs, throws and fine knits. The quality of these products is exceptional and the prices were very good, especially when comparing what we would pay for them in Canada.
On our last evening, we visited the Old Jamieson Distillery for a tour, a tasting of Irelands’ finest Irish whiskey, delicious dinner and traditional Irish entertainment, which really was delightful! It was a very fitting finale to an exceptionally delightful tour which held many highlights, many pleasant surprises and rainbows beyond compare!