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Trip Report Slow travel in May in SW Cork, Kerry & Connemara--trip report (long)

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I got a lot of help here before our trip from May 21 to June 2, so I thought I’d try to pay it back so others can get some tips for their trips. I’m breaking it up into sections so people can use read what they are interested in. This was primarily a rural, more outdoorsy type of trip, flying in and out of Shannon, and we had a car to get around. We are middle-aged and have traveled enough that we know we prefer to slow down, and we don’t necessarily need to visit all of the typically hyped tourist places. Finally, we are not foodies, so there isn’t much information on that here.

We’re from the US and have seen much of the US, including many of its national parks. And, have traveled extensively internationally, primarily western and eastern Europe but also Peru, Mexico/Central America, and Vietnam. So, our comments on places we visited in Ireland (our first trip there) are a reflection of our past experiences and should be taken in that context. I do have to say that Ireland really is one of the most beautiful places we have visited, and the scenery is gorgeous.

RENTING A CAR AND DRIVING

Figuring out the rental was one of the biggest hassles and headaches prior to our trip. We ended up using Nova since we’ve been happy with them numerous times in the past. Their price including CDW was much better than Dooley. We also purchased their extra super CDW which was basically a car4hire policy. We were given a rental through Alamo/National/Europcar and encountered none of the hassles and nit picking that we’ve heard others have encountered. We did get a car that seemed kind of banged up in a minor way, and as we were detailing its condition with our camera, the guy at the lot told us that they photograph the cars too so they know exactly what condition the car was in when rented. Refilling the car before we returned it turned out to be confusing, and we had to turn back to the area of the Shannon Sky Mall center to find a gas station hidden behind it. But, the price for gas to return it empty rather than full was even more exorbitant than at most rental locations we’ve dealt with in the past.

Since we have one car at home that is a stick and we are cheap, we rented a small stick shift car, and, while it was a tad challenging at times, it worked out okay. My husband did all of the driving, and I did all of the navigating. The car we got was a Kia Picanto, a model we felt was basically a piece of junk. I don’t know if the suspension was shot on the car we had or if they are all this bad, but we both felt like we were flying and bouncing around the car most of the time on most of the roads.

We’d paid for the extra driver, so I periodically said I’d like to give driving a try, and he’d tell me that I really didn’t want to. According to him, the major problem driving was that the alignment and placement of the pedals was a bit off compared to what we are used to. He thought it might have been because the small size of the car and the fact that the wheel-well on the right forced all of the pedals to be closely compacted together. He actually felt that having the manual transmission was preferable to an automatic because a couple times he accidentally hit the accelerator, only causing the car to rev and not accelerate, rather than the brake since the pedals were a bit off.

After reading many things here that driving in Ireland is very confusing, we’d contemplated buying a GPS even though we don’t have one at home and have never used one on our many driving trips on the continent. But, in the end I just ordered a Collins atlas from Amazon here in the US. They carry it in-stock at a good price, and it is a good map because tourist sites are also indicated and there are maps of the larger towns too. I just wished I’d ordered it right away rather than right before we were ready to leave so I could have used it in the planning process. The times we felt a GPS would have been useful were in cities/towns and when we were out in the boonies trying to follow roads that are unnamed, unnumbered and unsigned. Other than that we were fine with just the map, but we have also driven quite a bit in Europe and are used to it.

Before we left, I used aa ireland to print out the set of directions from the airport to our first destination. This was one of the best things I did for our trip because we were in a new country, somewhat tired, and were driving on the opposite side of the road for us. I truly appreciated these overly detailed directions on our first day.

CLOTHING

Prior to our trip I’d asked for advice on clothing, so I thought I’d report back on what I used and didn’t use on our trip. I took and used, a gore-tex jacket, a lighter fleece, an alpaca sweater, a quilted microfiber vest, an umbrella, a rain hat, hiking boots (a must), regular shoes, lightweight slippers for evenings inside, keen sandals, several long-sleeve shirts (both button up and pullover), a lightweight butter fleece turtleneck with a neck zipper, a couple tee shirts, a silk scarf, 1 pair of long pants, one pair of pants that zipped off into shorts (only zipped them off once for a couple hours), one pair of long pants that zipped off into capris (zipped them off twice), and a set of silk long underwear (used several evenings indoors when I was chilled and once while out in a boat).

I took and didn’t use a skirt, a pair of capris, gloves, a light stocking hat, rainpants and a pair of Birkenstock sandals. Hope this helps others to decide what to take.

WHERE WE WENT

We flew in and out of Shannon, and went from western Cork up through Kerry to Connemara. I’ll briefly give our thoughts on each place or sight we visited.

Our first stop was the Shannon SkyMall shopping center, which didn’t resemble what we were thinking of as far as a shopping center. From the side we approached on, it resembled more of a several story office building. There we went to the Vodaphone store and purchased a SIM card for our phone. I think it was E10 for the card and E20 for the minutes—well worth it! There was also a large Dunne’s with a large variety of things, so we stocked up for our first week in self-catering.

Western Cork—most of our favorite places were here, and it made a good base for a week. We stayed in a self-catering place in Ballylickey which is right outside of Bantry.

Places in West Cork area:
• Baltimore—not much there, and it’s a quick walk around unless you want to sit at a table in a restaurant overlooking the harbor and have a drink or snack. We had a good lunch at Casey’s (on the outskirts of town) with a water view but not of the harbor.
• Lough Hyne—we didn’t get the appeal because we thought we’d be able to walk around and actually see the mixture of the waters and the different marine environments. You can’t walk all the way around the lake to see these things, and the hiking path is more wooded, steep, and adjacent to the lake.
• Sheep’s Head Peninsula—very scenic with a nice remote hike out to the lighthouse at the end of the peninsula.
• Bantry—a pleasant mid-sized town with plenty of shops and restaurants in a nice setting.
• Bantry House—interesting house but nothing truly extraordinary. The setting was nice.
• Gougane Barra—a nice wooded area with trails set by a lake. Nice, but not particularly unique for those who have experienced a lot of these types of places (and we have).
• Glengarriff—a town only about 4 blocks long set on either side of the main road. Nice place to use as a base for the area, but not much there.
• Garinish Island—a short boat ride from Glengarriff. One of my favorites of our trip with exceptionally lovely, unique gardens and a fun look at the seals sunning themselves on the boat ride to the island.
• Berea Peninsula—lovely, varied, wild, super scenic, nice hiking. We spent two afternoons enjoying various parts of the peninsula. Couldn’t seem to coordinate our time with the ferries to the adjacent islands, or we would have visited those too.
• Derreen Gardens on the Berea—When we drove up, we wondered if it was worth the time and money. It was! A beautiful place with many paths. We probably spent close to 2 hours here just wandering around.

Places in Kerry:

• Killarney National Park—a nice park in a mountainous area. But, not really all that unique for those who have visited lots of mountains before. One afternoon was sufficient for us because we had other places to see that, for us, were more different and unique. We rented bikes in town and used them to see the park’s lakes and the Muckross House.
• Muckross House and Gardens—a lovely setting, particularly in May when all the rhododendrons were blooming. The house itself was interesting in that it truly was a hunting lodge, and visitors also get to see the kitchens and bedrooms and bathrooms.
• Skelling Michael—We are so glad we made the effort to get out there. It was a completely different experience from any others we’ve had. The steps and elevation increase weren’t nearly as bad as some of the descriptions we’d read, and the boat ride was also fine. But, we still wouldn’t bring a baby or small children as a few people did. We were disappointed though that we didn’t see more than a couple puffins because we’d though we’d see a lot since we were there in nesting season.
• Ring of Kerry—we only drove this so that we could get to Portmagee for the boat to the Skellings, and we only stopped in Watertown where we ate dinner and went to bed. The ROK wasn’t quite what I’d expected. It wasn’t nearly as touristy and overrun with gift shops, for example, as I’d expected. The scenery was nice and rolling but not spectacular in many places. If you’ve visited rural Wisconsin where all the farming takes place, think of that with some water views and some occasional cliffs.

County Clare—drove through here on our way north. Pleasant scenery, once again reminiscent of Wisconsin.
• The Burren—We like nature, wildflowers, hiking etc., but this place just didn’t do it for us. A half hour walk out on to the stones to see how the plants grow was sufficient. If I had limited time, I’d skip it.
• Doolin—There is no Doolin, just a cluster of houses here and there. But, we did enjoy walking to the pubs for the evening music, and what we heard was authentic. We arrived about 8:00 pm and spent two nights in the area—definitely more than enough.

Connemara—lovely scenery, but not a lot to do if one wants to walk or hike because there just didn’t seem to be any trails we could find that were for people who just wanted to spend an afternoon walking. I’ve heard that this is because much of the land is too boggy for hiking trails. We only had several afternoons to explore, and one of them it was raining.
• Lough Corrib—A beautiful lake, but even though we were there in the midst of the peak brown trout season, the fishing just didn’t pan out for my husband who is an avid fly fisherman. We rented a boat for 3 days at a reasonable rate.
• Kylemore Abbey—It was pouring which discouraged walks around the grounds, and that is what we’d come for. Our hostess who conducts tours of the area had told us to stay outside because that is the best part of the place. A lovely setting though.

FOOD AND LODGING

We wanted a slow-travel primarily self-catering trip, and this is what we ended up with. We had a rather major fiasco at the start of our trip and ended up our second day in Ireland driving around looking for a different self-catering place than we’d originally planned. We ended up at a place rented through Rent an Irish cottage—Ardganashel Estates in Ballylickey, County Cork. Although it wasn’t within walking distance of anything, it was a nice place and a nice locale for a base. We’d recommend it.

Then, we had 3 nights we’d purposely left open so we could wing it and decide where we wanted to go. I’m happy we planned it this way because what we ended up dong was not what we would have planned from home, and we had no difficulties whatsoever finding a place at the last minute. We found a B & B in Waterville and spent one night there so we could go on the boat trip to Skelling Michael the next day. Then, after getting off the boat, we drove up to Doolin where we stayed two nights at Cullinan’s Guesthouse, another lodging we’d recommend. From there we drove up to the house we’d reserved through owners direct in Oughterard, Connemara. And, it was a lovely house we’d recommend for 4 nights (the minimum rental) but probably not a week.

As far as food, we didn’t eat out much. We found the meals to be quite expensive for what you get, and we weren’t overly excited about a lot of the choices. Pub food wasn’t too exciting as far as we were concerned, and a regular diet of that would get old soon. We had several very nice, but pricey, meals at Cullinan’s restaurant in Doolin. We normally prefer ethnic food and didn’t see a lot of that because we were in smaller, rural towns. Bantry did have a take-out curry place, and we got several meals from there. We found the larger, nicer grocery stores to have quite a few things that basically needed to be heated to be prepared, and some butchers also had some things that just needed to be heated up.

WE HAD THOUGHT ABOUT A BICYCLE TRIP

We had seriously contemplated taking a bike trip for at least a week of the time and had investigated many different options for such trips. And, I had asked for advice from this forum. After looking at all the different cycle trip options I think if we had done one, we would have done one in southeastern Ireland because that is where the conditions seemed to be what we were most looking for as far as a trip with more small towns and less strenuous cycling. In the end we decided against the idea, and we are so glad we opted against a cycling trip.

Initially we had worried about the rain and the hills, but that is not what we should have been concerned about. It was the roads themselves we should have been concerned about, and we drove on many small back roads, not just main roads. Many times during our trip we looked at each other and commented that we were so glad we weren’t taking a bike trip. One day I was in the local tourist office in Oughterard up in the Connemara region when a family taking a cycling trip on tandem bikes came in—the parents and two kids of 12 and 13 or so. The parents came in trying to arrange alternative transportation onward from the area because they had been absolutely terrified riding on the shoulderless roads with the trucks roaring by. Parts of their trip had been fine they said, but they were just too worried about their safety while trying to cycle.

So, for what it is worth, that is our take on cycling in Ireland. We are recreational cyclists who are well into middle-age, and we have taken self-guided cycling trips in other parts of Europe from 5 to 9 days, so we do have experience with seeing Europe on a bike. Perhaps other who are more hard core cyclists would feel differently than we do.

INTERNET ACCESS

A heads up for those of you who plan on using the internet a lot on your trip to Ireland. Compared to other places we’ve visited (including some developing countries), Ireland was one of the most difficult and expensive places we’ve ever traveled to find public internet access. We were traveling with our netbook and assumed it would be simple to find wifi access points. Not so. And, when we could find access, it was very expensive—1E for 15 minutes. Probably this lack of access was because we were in the more rural western parts of Ireland rather than the large cities, and we didn’t go to lots of super touristy places; I don’t know. We are certainly not tied to needing to use the internet and don’t spend hours on it, but it is nice to be able to quickly check e-mails and look up information for things while on a trip.

In County Cork, where we stayed in self-catering for a week, we paid to join the local library and were able to use their computer. But, this also meant planning one’s day around library hours, so we actually only used this option once. In Connemara the local tourist office had two terminals tourists could use during open hours. We had one night in a hotel, one night in a B & B, and two nights in a guesthouse attached to a restaurant where we did have internet access. None of these places were booked ahead of time, and all of them were selected over their competitors (many of whom didn’t offer access) specifically because of the internet access available. This was in the middle of our trip, and by this time we knew that being able to access the internet was a key component in what we were looking for in a night’s lodging.

FINALLY…

Even if you think carrying your jacket on the plane is a hassle, do not pack it in your luggage. My husband learned this the hard way when Delta lost our luggage on the way over, and we were without luggage for nearly two days. He was lucky because it only rained a little and it wasn’t overly cold for our first few days. But, if this had been the weather we had at the end of our trip, he would have been up the creek.

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