We just returned from our 2 week jaunt through Ireland and Scotland! Many thanks to all you posters who helped us figure out just what and how to see and do everything.
Itinerary (by nights)
1: The Burren
2-3: Dingle, by way of Cliffs of Moher and Shannon Ferry
4: Cashel, via Blarney Castle
1: Wild Honey Inn, Lisdoonvarna
HIGHLY RECOMMEND. This was a wonderful landing spot for our first day, after a sleepless “overnight” flight, and a perfect launching pad to see the Burren. They apparently also serve a fabulous dinner, but we arrived on a Monday and the kitchen was closed. I can tell you the breakfast was wonderful! Our bed might have been the best we had our entire trip, although the memory might be tainted by how sleepy I was by the time I climbed into it. We also had a little patio area with French doors that opened onto the garden.
2-3: Towerview Guesthouse
HIGHLY RECOMMEND. This can’t-miss-it-schoolbus-yellow house just outside of town served a wonderful breakfast and had super-friendly and helpful hosts. It also had a yard full of goats, sheep, chickens, calves and cats. Which sounds awful, but was actually charming. It was far enough from “downtown” Dingle to be quiet, and close enough to walk from, and even back after a night out!
4: Ard Ri House
Meh. It was perfectly fine, comfortable, and close to the Rock which is all we really wanted. I was a little turned off by the army of porcelain dolls scattered around the entryway.
5-6: Apartment rented from Air B-n-B
Mixed feelings on this one. The apartment turned out to be wonderful and roomy, and had a washing machine AND dryer (!) so we didn’t have to pack as many clothes. The owners, who lived upstairs, were helpful and attentive, and left us fresh eggs, juice, local honey and homemade granola. The downside was the location: it was quite a hike to get to the Temple Bar area, which was really the closest area of historical interest. HOWEVER, I didn’t really like Dublin so that is probably also affecting my opinion here.
Keep in mind that we were traveling at the end of May and the very beginning of June, when tourism is just starting up. I’m guessing the experiences we had would be quite different in August!
The Burren: Go. It’s beautiful, and rugged, and prehistoric, and windswept. The driving is scary, and the seafood is delicious, and the sites are interesting. It felt like we were in an overlooked corner of the world and actually reminded me of what it’s like to be in a California desert.
Cliffs of Moher: We lucked out on our trip and only had a single day of rain, which happened to be while we were driving to Dublin. So, the Cliffs were magnificent. You could see the Blasket Islands off of Doolin, and from one tip of the crescent shaped area that most people visit, you could see the three or so miles down the coast to the other. We parked, and paid, at the newish large visitor center, but you are able to walk away from more people by leaving the walled in, and therefore safer, area most tourists stick to. Also, if you have a good map (I suggest the Ordinance Survey Map), you can find some one track local roads that lead out to the far end of the crescent near Hag’s Head, which we did. There’s honor-pay parking in the driveway of a house in a village there, and it was a short walk to the tower where we watched gulls ride the air currents and ate a picnic lunch. AND we were completely alone.
Slea Head Drive: This is the Dingle Peninsula’s version of the Ring of Kerry and it was astoundingly beautiful. Enormous mountains create almost a wall of earth on one side of you, and the land slopes down to the blue sea on the other. When we drove it, you could see Kerry and even the outlines of the Skellig Islands in the distance. The big buses seem to only really stop at the Gallarus Oratory, which was definitely interesting, but if you are on your own, turn down any likely road and you’ll find something medieval, or iron age, or just plain beautiful, to stop at that is just as interesting, and deserted. We bought rhubarb bars from a lady who had set up a stand at one of the viewpoints along the road, and she gave us a tip that if you PASS the (paid) parking lot for the Oratory, and drive another 50 yards, there is free parking and entry up the road. And there was! Us, and a napping farmer, were the only cars there.
Blarney Castle: We went to this because my boyfriend insisted. He has pictures of two generations of family members kissing the stone, and he really wanted to add his own to make it three. I was deeply concerned about the kitchy-ness of it, and how many bus loads of tourists we’d have to contend with. There was nothing to worry about! We arrived around lunchtime, and it seems it’s more of a morning stop for the tours. There were plenty of other people there, but the wait to kiss the stone was non-existent, and the castle was actually very interesting. Better yet were the grounds and gardens. They were on par with any really good botanical garden I’ve been to, and made a great spot for a picnic lunch.
Rock of Cashel: We spent the night in Cashel so we’d be able to see the Rock first thing in the morning before the tours arrived. This worked out really well for us, but mostly because it meant we got to see it the night before in the late afternoon sun. They are some of the best pictures we have of our trip. There’s also a 12th C. abbey below the Rock, which is in a sheep pasture and open to the public 254 hours a day. We got to wander around that too. They are doing work at Cashel, but everything is still open to view. The medieval chapel is worth the stop alone.
**Cashel bonus** We found our way into the basement bar of the Palace Hotel in Cashel looking for a pint before dinner. It ends up that the Palace Hotel is the “birthplace” of Guinness! Arthur Guinness’ father was the brewer for the original owner of the building (who was the Archbishop), and he developed the recipe there. They still have some of the original hops plants in the gardens. I thought my BF was going to die. I think we have 97 pictures of those plants.
Dublin, in general: We only went to the library at Trinity and St. James’ Gate. Both were worthwhile, for different reasons. We were not enamored of Dublin. It didn’t really have a “center”, and we found Temple Bar to be un-noteworthy. As the owner of our apartment warned us, it was full of mostly stag and hen parties from London. We asked HIM what we should see, and his only picks were Phoenix Park and Kilmainham Jail, both of which were much farther than a comfortable walk from the Temple Bar area. I think we probably should have paid for a hop on/ hop off bus tour, but we didn’t. We both decided if we go back to Ireland, we’ll either fly in AND out of Shannon and stick to the country side, OR we’ll head up to Belfast.
Food and Drink
We ate well every single night of our trip, as my waistline can attest. I’m a bit of a foodie, but I managed to only make one reservation before we went, which was at Out of the Blue in Dingle. I would highly recommend any of the following:
Roadside Tavern, Lisdoonvarna: It’s a pub, but they own the very famous Burren Smokehouse next door, so it is NOT pub food. I had a smoked salmon and haddock fish cake with roasted beets and leek puree with prawns. They also have trad. music most nights.
Burren Smokehouse, Lisdoonvarna: They smoke all kinds of fish, caught less than 10 miles away along the coast. We bought an assortment, several kinds of local cheese, bread, oatcakes, and some sweets, packed them in our cooler, and made picnics out of them for several days.
Out of the Blue, Dingle: Fish and seafood only, and they don’t own a freezer. The three course deal before 7 is great.
An Canteen, Dingle: Tiny place down a little alley. They serve locally sourced ingredients, and we had lamb which we’d been craving after watching them run around for days. (we’re awful people. It was delicious.)
Dick Mack’s Pub, Dingle: It SEEMS like it MUST be pretend. Like, a “Disneyland” version of an Irish pub because it’s so stereotypical. But it’s NOT pretend. The locals are many, the beer is room temperature, the bartender is surly. It’s wonderful!
The Courthouse, Dingle: Tiny little bar, but it was the MOST AMAZING music we had the whole trip. The place was packed and people were hooting and breaking out in dance. We only meant to pop in, but stayed three hours until they closed. And so did everyone else.
Palace Hotel, Cahsel: See above
Camden Kitchen, Dublin: Great local bistro style food using Irish ingredients. Good early dinner deals.
The only thing I would do differently, about the ENTIRE trip, is to spend less time, or even skip, Dublin. That’s not to say everyone should skip it: it’s just that for what we were interested in: countryside, natural beauty, local culture, tiny pubs, ancient history—it just wasn’t that great.
The best thing we did was rent a car, and then USE the car. Turn down those small roads to wherever. See a hulking ruin in the distance? Go look at it! See an enticing stretch of beach? Go walk on it! We didn’t bring a GPS (and we were just fine) and we didn’t have a cell phone (this was not intentional, but we were just fine), and we made it. Those turns brought us to the most memorable and beautiful spots of the trip.
Finally, don’t sweat the stuff you don’t do. Everyone has an opinion about what you MUST do and see in Ireland, but it’s YOUR trip. I can’t tell you how many times on the plane, or in a pub, or walking down the street, I heard American tourists telling other American tourists what to do, and how to do it, and what to skip, and why it’s not worthwhile. How annoying, right?! We did our own thing, based on our own priorities, and someday we’ll go back and see the rest. And all that after I just gave you a bunch of advice about a bunch of stuff – oh well!
Itinerary (by nights)
7-9: Isle of Skye, via the Road to the Isles and the Mallaig Ferry
10-11: Pitlochry, via Loch Ness
12-13: Edinburgh, via Doune and Stirling Castles
7-9: Carter’s Rest Guesthouse, Glendale, Isle of Skye
HIGHLY RECOMMEND. What a great spot. Yes, it is out of the way, but hey, it’s the Isle of Skye… the whole PLACE is out of the way. The house was located right at the fork in the (one lane) road to Neist Point, and had really the most amazing sunset views. The owners are British/Kiwi transplants and you can tell they love, love, love where they live and what they do. The bed was very comfortable, and they even provide laptops for every room. It was the one time I logged in to anything (I paid a credit card bill. Eek!).
10-11: Craigatin House, Pitlochry
HIGHLY RECOMMEND. Good Lord, this place was amazing. It was somewhat larger than your typical B&B… almost an “inn”. They’ve taken a large stone manor? Cottage? Including the stables, and converted it to rooms. It was lovely and modern with a great garden area and parking. It was outside of the main area of town, but only by a block or two.
12-13: Apartment in New Town, rented through VRBO
HIGHLY RECOMMEND. Another lovely apartment, but THIS time, in a city we LOVED. This one was ultra-modern: granite everything, sleek black lacquer cabinets, long, low, sofa. The neighborhood was in the New Town, so this was a “basement” apartment in a Georgian rowhouse. I say “Basement”, because the windows were all full size. It was a great base, and while we walked into town everyday, there are two bus lines that go straight to the royal mile.
We began “practicing” our whisky drinking about a year ago in preparation for this trip. It was NOT a whisky trip, but we wanted to be true appreciators of single malts, if not afficianatos. We stopped at Talisker, Dalwhinnie, Blair Atholl, and Edradour. We only took the Edradour tour, which was GREAT. ALL of their whisky is made by two men, and their process is completely hands on. I was also the most impressed with their on site selection, which included choices from a variety of cask types, nonchillfiltered options, cask strength options, and extra-peaty choices that they distill during the winter.
Road to the Isles: After I saw Skyfall, I demanded that we take this route to Skye. It was JUST as cinematic in person, with plenty of spots to pull over and take it all in. And throw in the train bridge from Harry Potter for good measure!
Isle of Skye: This has to be a sight in itself. It is the most dramatic place in the world I have ever been. The earth is broken and sharp, which you can see in its mountains and its cliffs, except where it is completely desolate, which you can see in the central part that is covered in peat bogs. The sea is usually frothy and turbulent, and even the sky is dramatic: the air hits the peaks of the mountains and the tops of the cliffs and turns into clouds and misty fog. It sort of reminded me of what it felt like to be in Alaska, but it is not the same. I am determined to go back. Here’s what we did:
*Aqua Xplore Boat trip out of Elgol: Took us out to the smaller islands of Egg, Rhum, Canna. Saw dolphins, Porpoises, seals, puffins, red deer, sea eagles, golden eagles, and a variety of other sea birds. If we had gone a couple of weeks later, we also would have seen minke whales and basking sharks. Worth every penny.
*Hikes in the Quirang and Old Man of Storr: Amazing views of the sea, among volcanic rock formations. Great pictures!
Eileen Doonan Castle: So, so pretty. We didn’t go in, but gave ourselves plenty of time to wander around and find quiet spots to take pictures. The castle is not in ruins (which in Scotland, appears to mean the Victorians repaired it), and the backdrop is stunning.
Loch Ness: We threw this in because we could, and through we should. We probably should have stopped in Fort Augustus to enjoy it more. We stopped at a roadside viewpoint and had lunch. I threw in my crust to tempt Nessie, but no luck!
Blair Castle: We went to Blair Castle on a whim while in Pitlochry and it was GREAT. There’s something to be said for a place that’s been in the same family for so long… the collections were complete and very interesting, and the décor was wonderful. Similar to Blarney in Ireland, the family has invested a lot in the grounds, and they are worth the time to visit. They even have a few highland cows!
Doune Castle: We purchased the Explorer Pass at Doune, which I would highly recommend. If you are going to Stirling and Edinburgh Castles alone, it saves you a pound. If you go to more than that, the savings are even greater. Our “more than that” was Doune, which is the castle that is pretty much EVERY castle in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It was in just about the same level of repair that Blarney was, which is pretty darn good, but let’s be honest, we went for the Holy Grail stuff. If you ask at the gift shop (which I did), they will loan you coconut shells to gallop around with, (which I, uh, did). Great fun, and too small for the bug buses!
Stirling Castle: This was the best castle we went to, in our opinion. Sprawling and historic, with a great guided tour. It is a spot that will cater to a couple of different historical types: it is tied to both Robert the Bruce, and therefore William Wallace of Braveheart fame, and also Mart Queen of Scots, who was born and crowned here.
William Wallace Monument: Goodness, were we DIZZY after climbing and descending the 250 or so spiral stairs. The displays inside were a little hokey, but the Braveheart lover of the two of us was enthralled by the maybe-sword of William Wallace, and the views from the roof were worth it.
Edinburgh Castle: Very impressive and imposing from the outside, but we liked Stirling better for the inside. It’s still worthwhile, of course! We found the National War Memorial to be the most moving, and the story behind the crown jewels to actually be informative of how Scotland ended up part of the UK.
Real Mary King’s Close: So, apparently Edinburgh ran out of room to grow in the 1700’s, and they decided to lop the top floors off of tenement buildings that were built downhill from the royal mile, and build on TOP of them. They evicted all the people who had lived in the buildings, but had to leave them since they were, in effect, the new supports of the buildings above. This means you can now pay a tour company to take you “underground” and low and behold! There is a CITY down there. And while it sounds hokey its not really. They opened the door, and we were literally on a street with houses and workshops and everything. I mean, they ALSO told ghost stories and squeaked rats at us when they talked about the plague, but it was all great.
Arthur’s Seat: It was 80 degrees on our day in Edinburgh, and there was not a SINGLE cloud in the sky, and the whole town was outside. We felt we HAD to do the hike to the top of Arthur’s Seat. So we did. In jeans and carrying souvenirs. It was hot and sticky, but the views were amazing. Worth the climb if you find yourself in a similar situation. (weather-wise, not clothing wise!)
Food and Drink
Three Chimneys, Isle of Skye
Oh, Three Chimneys. How I loved thee. I read an article in the Guardian, like, THREE years ago about this spot, and it was the first thing I reserved of the whole trip. I had to dedicate my tax return to paying for it, but I don’t regret it even a little bit. We had the tasting menu, the main ingredients of which are sourced from the island. We had prawns, and Cullen skink with black pudding, and local oysters (A-MAZING! If you are going to Talisker, the oyster guy is right up the street and you can stop in and have lunch), and smoked mackerel pate, and venison two ways, a soufflé. And whisky. And a bunch of other things I can’t remember right now. They also have an a la carte menu, and the most amazing view.
The Dogs, Edinburgh
I had read about this spot, and it turns out our apartment was just around the corner. They serve up a modern take on traditional Scottish food, and it was wonderful, and affordable! Win WIN.
Cadenhead’s Whisky Shop, Edinburgh
This is THE place to buy whisky. They are the oldest bottler in Scotland, and they buy barrels from distillers and bottle it under their own label. If you are on a whisky trip, save some of your time and budget for here. They will advise you of their inventory and help you pick something based on what you like that is truly special. You can’t get what they sell here anywhere else. Prepare for just a BIT of snobbery.
It would not have mattered how much time we’d set aside for Scotland: it would not have been enough. This is a place where I think it’s important to realize that, and be content with what you’re doing and seeing instead of regretting all the things you’re not. First of all, it is HUGE. We drove over 1,000 miles. Second, pretty much nothing is on the way to anything else. Everything is its own destination. I would not change one thing about how we spent the time we had. And I can’t wait to go back and spend more.
One thing that struck me especially: be prepared for some physical exertion. The Brits call “hiking”, “walking”, and it is NOT the same thing. We were very very glad to have our hiking boots and athletic clothing with us. I would my sturdy walking shoes every day we weren’t wearing hiking gear. The Royal Mile got pretty steep at times, and so did Stirling and Doune. We enjoyed it, but I kept thinking of my mother and how hard she’d find it. If you have never labeled yourself “hardy”, just be prepared!
Hope some of you find this helpful, or encouraging, or entertaining. And thank you to all the board “regulars” for your help!
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We just returned from our 2 week jaunt through Ireland and Scotland! Many thanks to all you posters who helped us figure out just what and how to see and do everything.