Songdoc’s Irish Midlands Trip Report

Old Mar 21st, 2010, 03:19 PM
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Songdoc’s Irish Midlands Trip Report

During six or seven previous trips we visited Dublin; the Dingle Peninsula; Adare; the Killarney area; Donegal; Wicklow; Galway; and much of the west coast. This time we had five days prior to needing to be in Belfast for business and decided to seek a convenient base from which to explore Kilkenny and the Rock of Cashel—without having to drive too far after landing in Dublin. We chose a self-catering cottage at the Roundwood House—between Mountrath and Kinnity.

Feb. 18, 2010, started in Nashville (amazingly, using American Airlines FF miles) then changed planes in Chicago. We left O’Hare on time but arrived into Dublin about 40 minutes late due to strong head winds. The plane was much smaller than those I’ve flown on previous transatlantic flights—and had none of the bells and whistles. It looked old and tired—just like I felt when I stepped off in Dublin. Thanks to Ambien, I’d mostly slept—but not soundly.

It took more than a half an hour for the luggage to arrive. Then on to Europcar to p/u the car I’d reserved online. The agent mentioned to a trainee that my World Elite MasterCard was the only one that allowed me to waive the CDW insurance. The bill was more than $170 higher than the quote I received online—and that did NOT include the non-negotiable 69 Euro charge to leave with a full tank. I had no idea that I’d have to pay for the full tank—and forfeit any gas that was in the tank upon return. This was all starting to feel like a ripoff to me. I got the agent to remove approximately $50 of the charges and taxes that were supposed to be included—and I was too exhausted to argue about the rest. I’ve since sent an email and included the email I received that stated there would be NO additional charges. Haven’t gotten any response yet. Grrr …

More than 90 minutes after landing, we were finally on the road to our cottage. It was surprisingly bright and sunny—but brrrr… 32 degrees. The drive was approximately 2 hours and was almost all highway and quite easy (but I’ve driven on the “wrong side” many times).

WARNING: to those who think they’re going to bounce off a transatlantic flight ready to drive for hours and/or hit the ground running – after an hour the exhaustion hit me like a brick wall. I managed to stay awake—but only barely. I was not having fun yet.

The Roundwood House setting is picture perfect postcard Ireland. Unfortunately, the heat had not yet been turned on—and it was so cold inside the cottage that we could see our breath. Who cared? I just wanted to sleep! A couple of hours and two strong cups of coffee later we explored the lovely grounds, accompanied by a wonderful, huge furry, very friendly dog.

The property is more than 300 years old and has some out buildings that are definite Kodak moments. Our self-catering cottage (“The Forge” – 250 Euros for 3 nights) was okay—but not up to the level of some of our favorite places. I hate making any disparaging comments because the hosts were so nice—but the couch, chairs, and bed were all exceptionally uncomfortable (and I’m not very fussy). The main house had a lovely sitting room where I could sip tea in front of the fire and use the WiFi.

Back in the cottage there was a very noisy (but gratefully, unseen) animal running and gnawing its way through our rafters. The owner claimed it was only mice—but I know what mice sound like—and if this was a mouse, then it was wearing tap shoes. Not important—but this is not a place I’d choose again.

Drove into Mountrath (less than 5 minutes) to pick up some food at a little market that insisted we must have a pin number to use our credit card. If we’ve ever had a pin number, I’m not aware of it—and have never been asked before. Luckily, we had plenty of Euros left over from our previous trip. We stopped for dinner at Phelan’s, one of only a few places that were open. It wasn’t exactly gourmet dining but we didn’t care.

Mountrath is not what you'd call a tourist mecca. It’s your basic, functional town. It seems its main appeal is its proximity to the Slieve Bloom Mountains and Kilkenny. I don’t mean to seem cruel or jaded, but I’ve visited many wonderful places in Ireland … and this is not on my top twenty list.

Back at the cottage the heat had kicked in – and now it was roasting. We switched the light off at 9 PM and I was asleep about 3 seconds later. When I awoke, I was refreshed, wide awake, and ready to start my day and hit the road!

The only problem is that it was 10:45 PM. One Ambien later I slept until 7:30AM.

After a delicious breakfast in the cottage of porridge with cinnamon and chopped apples, and warm brown wheaten bread with Dubliner cheddar we headed to Kilkenny. The sun was shining and the sky was blue. (Am I really in Ireland?) The AA route planner stated that the drive would be 40 minutes. It actually took an hour—and was an easy drive with only a few short stretches of roads that were uncomfortably narrow.

My main reason to visit Kilkenny was the castle—and we certainly did enjoy the castle—but we LOVED the town. With its medieval roots; narrow, cobblestoned side streets; brightly painted shops; pubs; cathedrals; and the castle, it encompasses so many of the sights and sounds that tourists come to Ireland for. Kilkenny is a shopper’s paradise, as well—and it would have been easy to spend the entire day browsing. I could barely stop snapping photos. It was a wonderful surprise—and this just might be my favorite town in Ireland!

Guided walks were not available during the winter but the very helpful woman in the information office gave us a map and pointed out the highlights. We also found a brochure with discount coupons to many of the attractions. We hit them all: St. Canice’s Cathedral; the Rothe House; the Black Abbey; and the castle. Lunch was at Chez something-or-other next to the Rothe House. It was fine, but nothing special.

We had a wonderful day and felt so lucky to have those blue skies and sunshine. It was nice of the Mother Nature to wait until we were heading back to the cottage before a light rain began falling. As we were approaching Mountrath the ain turned into fat snowflakes. Back at the cottage there was a light dusting of snow on the ground—but the driving was not a problem.

Dinner was in front of the fire. It was a delicious takeout feast we’d picked up at the Dunne’s store (sort of an Irish Super Wal-Mart) in Kilkenny.

We woke the next morning to find a beautiful blanket of snow and were concerned about the roads—but they were perfectly dry. So … we headed to Cashel. Our route planner estimated an hour—and this time it was only off by five minutes. We would have arrived right on time if I hadn’t had to share the road leading into Cashel with hundreds of vintage tractors. We learned this was part of a charity event to raise money for Haiti. I would have gladly made a large contribution if it would have meant not having to share the road with these enormous beats.

Trying to find the Rock of Cashel was maddening. Up till this moment our GPS performed perfectly, but it was uterly oblivious to this popular attraction. There were lots of signs in town that said “Rock of Cashel”—but none of them seemed lead us to the massive ruins—that I could clearly see in the distance! Grrr … We parked, walked through the town, and headed to the tourist office—which was closed. (It’s only open on weekdays in the winter.) Again, Grrr … We stopped in a sandwich shop and were told it was a two minute walk to the Rock. Once we arrived all was forgiven.

The first glimpse of the Rock of Cashel against that backdrop of blue sky was breathtaking. It’s extraordinary—majestic, moving, and begging to have its picture taken—over and over and over again. The setting is quite beautiful as well—and I’m sure the exquisite (albeit, very cold) day added to the beauty. In the distance we could see a group gathering on horseback for a fox hunt. One hundred photos later we left the Rock and enjoyed the views of the countryside as we strolled the Path of the Dead, just beside the Rock.

Lunch at nearby Lawrence’s pub was wonderful: steak & Guinness pie served with “root vegetables”—carrots, turnips, and potatoes. Yum!!! While sipping our tea we had a long, thoroughly enjoyable chat with the friendly bartender/server who showed us historic photographs of the town, displayed on the walls. We hated to leave—but wanted to stroll through town and get back to the cottage before dark. The town of Cashel was fine—but after yesterday’s visit to Kilkenny, it paled in comparison. But seeing the Rock of Cashel was well worth the trip and it was another wonderful day.

The next day was spent driving through the Slieve Bloom Mountains where we walked the “castle trail.” The drive and walk were very nice—but not “spectacular”—although thanks to the mist and lighting, I snapped some of my favorite photos. We stopped at Roscrea (thanks to a suggestion on this forum) and enjoyed the town as well as the castle, a cathedral, a friendly horse, and a pleasant river walk.

The next morning, as we were loading up the car to leave Roundwood House I could barely believe my eyes. Could it be? There was a peacock perched on the window sill!!! It was kind enough to pose for some beautiful photos before we said goodbye.

Next stop: Smarmore Castle just outside of Ardee. We chose this so we wouldn’t have to drive nonstop from Mountrath to Belfast. For 55 Euro each (including breakfast) we booked the Viscount’s room—but didn’t have high expectations of a 6-room castle that was so inexpensive. Surprise: We loved it! The extra 5 Euro for this premium room was well worth it because it included a beautiful 4-poster bed—and the original tower—from 1320! While parts of the property are from the 1300's, the bedrooms and most areas are not centuries old—but are decorated with faux paintings and furniture that made me feel as if I were staying in Versailles. Great fun—especially with the four-poster bed and the marvelous breakfast room with its lovely music. The hosts were exceptionally nice—and we enjoyed that traditional Irish fare—pizza—in the attached Italian restaurant.

Enjoyed a nice walk through Ardee—but wouldn’t make it a special stop. IMHO Smarmore Castle makes a perfect base for visiting Newgrange (which we loved on a previous trip). We would have enjoyed an additional night and didn’t want to leave! But it was time to perform and teach workshops in Belfast at the wonderful Belfast Nashville Music Festival.

As we headed to Belfast we left our beautiful weather behind for several days of biting, bone-chilling rain, snow flurries, and temperatures with highs of 2 or 3 C (low 30’s F). There was lots of road construction and on several occasions our poor GPS was quite sure we were driving ourselves into a field. But the detours were well marked and we had to tell Jeepus to be quiet until we approached Belfast.

FYI, the speed limits and mileage signs in the North are posted in miles--but my car (rented in the Republic) was only in kilometers--so my math got a good workout.

Of course my performances and seminars were utterly brilliant (hehehe) and kept me busy, but we managed to squeeze in some sightseeing, as well. We visited the Saturday morning market at St George’s market—with trad music, and amazing foods. The spectacular City Hall is not to be missed. It has free guided tours and is one of the grandest buildings I’ve ever seen. Took a quick look in the linen hall library—nothing special—although it has renowned resources for tracing ancestry. During a long walk we stopped in the legendary Crown Bar and the Europa Hotel—the most bombed hotel in the world. (37 bombings. What a distinction!)

After 3 days of rain, the weather cleared and we took the fifteen minute drive to Belfast castle. It’s a beautiful building with lovely grounds and views—but it’s not really a castle—but a manor house. The inside was nothing special—four rooms that are not furnished. But the sun returned and we strolled the walking paths with wonderful views. Enjoyed baps (sandwiches), soup, and tea in the bar by a roaring fire.

Queen’s University includes some of the most beautiful buildings anywhere—and I had the honor of performing in the spectacular Great Hall. I felt as if I’d stepped inside a Harry Potter movie. The buildings—especially when lit at night—were exquisite.

A Black Taxi Tour was a highlight but I was shocked to find that in the Shankhill Rd,/Falls Road area most of the political murals have been replaced with “positive” ones depicting historical events and national heroes. I understand wanting to move beyond “the troubles”—but it felt all wrong to erase history; sort of like bulldozing the concentration camps. When I realized the murals had been destroyed, I thought the tour would be a waste—but I found it profoundly moving. I was close to tears several times as we visited the memorials at the sights of the bombings—and the peace wall. Highly recommended.

Our hotel was Madison’s in the Queen’s University/Botanic Gardens area and it was fine—but not luxurious. About $90 U.S. We much preferred this area to staying downtown (which we had done previously). Just wish we’d gotten a non-smoking room. It’s a vibrant sector with lots of restaurants and shops. All the food was good—and seemed more reasonably priced than in the Republic. A highlight was lunch at AM PM next door to Madison's Hotel.

The music festival was a grand success and I got to hear some wonderful music from Irish and American artists. Also managed to see an excellent very Irish drama (“The Absence of Women”) at the Lyric Theater at Queen’s University.

It was a very easy 2-hour drive back to the Dublin airport—all on highways and no traffic. We enjoyed Belfast more on this second visit—possibly because of staying in the University/Botanic Gardens area—and possibly because of the things we did and our expectations.

When I returned my rental car I was shocked to be told that I was being charged for a scratch on the undercarriage. The car had been covered in dents and scratches. This was virtually the only spot that hadn’t been circled as having previous damage. I don’t think I caused the scratch—but even if I did I think it should have been considered normal wear and tear. When I checked the car (after a transatlantic flight) I failed to crouch on the ground and look under the bumper. There was no way to see the damage from a normal standing position. I just wish I'd thought to snap a photo. Anyway ... I’ve filed a claim with my World Elite MasterCard and was left with the feeling that Europcar is a total ripoff. (I’d used them previously with no problem.) Sadly, it made me leave Ireland upset and stressed.

I should mention that we’ve spent considerable time on Northern Ireland’s Antrim Coast and it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. But we skipped it this time because we’d been there last year—and wanted to concentrate more on England and Wales. So … we bid a sad farewell to Ireland and flew to Bristol for the next leg of our journey. I’ve done separate trip reports for England and for Wales.

Here’s the photo link to copy and paste in your browser:
Songdoc is offline  
Old Mar 22nd, 2010, 05:42 AM
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Thanks Songdoc, I really enjoyed reading this. Smarmore Castle is a new one on me - I'm off to check it out!
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Old Mar 22nd, 2010, 07:22 AM
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Another group of marvelous photos! I laughed out loud at the picture of one of you lying in the rock coffin! thanks for sharing.
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Old Mar 22nd, 2010, 08:19 AM
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Again a wonderful report with fab photos! The photo with the view of the old ruin in the distance ( name escapes me now) is the view Johnny Cash gazed down upon before putting pen to paper and writing the words of one of his hit songs.
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Old Mar 22nd, 2010, 08:25 AM
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Songdoc -- Great report, as usual!
Love the pix. As I mentioned before you left, wife and I are following your path through the Cotswolds and the heading to Ireland via Swansea this July, so I appreciate all the details.

littlejane: If you mention http// when booking at Smarmore, they were offering a discounted rate.

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Old Mar 22nd, 2010, 10:13 AM
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Songdoc - I am sorry to hear about your experience returning the rental car. We just returned from Ireland on Saturday and had a similar experience returning our car to Hertz. They said we damaged a tire, and of course tires are not covered by the insurance (we even got super CDW!). My dad swears it is a scam because the second we returned the car the guy immediately went over to that tire and told us we damaged it. They wanted to charge us 200 euro (!!) for a new tire when all 4 tires were totally worn out to begin with. Funny enough, our cab driver the next morning told us that 200 euro for a new tire is ludicrous. We complained to the manager at the counter inside the airport who was very kind and canceled the charge. I hope your credit card is able to work it out.

I enjoyed your report - we loved Kilkenny as well and wish we could have stayed more than one night.
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Old Mar 22nd, 2010, 01:50 PM
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Songdon I've enjoyed reading your report (heck, I live in Kilkenny and even I want to visit now ;-) Glad you like it here. I'm rather amused at Dunnes Stores being described as a Super Walmart I've been in quite a few Super Walmarts in the US and you would fit about 20 Dunnes in most of them. The first time I was in Walmart it was like sight seeing in itself, I'd never seen car tyres and guns on sale in a regular store before!

Sorry to hear about your problems with the hire car. I've rented cars in a fair few countries at this stage and thankfully never run into any problems. I do then to take loads of pictures when I get a car, but would never have taken them of the undercarriage! I've never rented a car here in Ireland though.

Sessa: 200 euro for a tyre is crazy. Mine cost about 100 each and they are considered very good tyres. On hire cars they usually have bog standard ones, that I doubt cost any more than 60, esp as hire companies would be regularly having to replace them and probably have a deal to get them cheaper.
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Old Mar 22nd, 2010, 04:06 PM
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Thanks for all the kind comments.

(I live in Kilkenny and even I want to visit now)

That's funny!

Re: the Dunnes Stores being described as a Super Walmart ...

Well, certainly not even close to the size of a super Walmart. I just meant that it's a place where one can buy clothing, housewares, food, and more (but no guns!).

Hated hearing about the additional car hire ripoff. So, apparently, it's not confined to Europcar.
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Old Mar 23rd, 2010, 06:29 PM
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Great trip report! Appreciate all the details and the pictures are wonderful.

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Old Apr 11th, 2010, 06:37 AM
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Song Doc -- can't link....does it go away after a time?
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Old Apr 11th, 2010, 07:30 AM
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Link worked fine for me????

sessa -- Yar -- June of '09, Dooley charged me 200 Euro for a tire, as well. I had already purchased one other from a tire shop in Co. Cork for 100 Euro --

I had hit the MOTHER of all potholes, early on in my trip while traveling at twilight, while only going about 45-50 KPH -- Just wanted to EMPHASISE that I'm NOT a 'bad Driver'! -- Badly bent one alloy rim (which I was AMAZED to get straightened for only 50 Euro)and destroyed THAT tire...

Dooley people spotted a small bulge and a short split in the sidewall of the rear tire (same side as the front tire I had DEFINITELYY 'killed', so I didn't quibble).

The car hire companies CLAIM that tires aren't covered because tourists tend to 'bump' curbs, but the TRUE Killer of Tires probably isn't Curbs OR Tourists -- it's the roads --

After the particularly Hard winter and the current state of the Irish economy, I'm not terribly optomistic about road conditions THIS year ...

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Old Apr 11th, 2010, 11:23 AM
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We rented Dooley last visit - had the CDW -- had an accident - bad one - whole left side - it was covered totally - but in order to rent another car they wanted up front 3,000 in cash - and if there was ONE DING/DENT/Scratch - it would be forfeited -- we said no -- and a friend took us to the airport and we rented from another company (can't remember the name) and had not one issue -- will find that name and share...Hey....tried again and got in on link -- will go see them now! thanks all
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Old Apr 27th, 2010, 12:16 PM
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Wanted to update everyone about EuropCar ...

I'm posting this as a new thread, but for those who have followed along ...

EuropCar charged $1,058 to my credit card to repair a scratch under the bumper that was virtually impossible to see --unless one laid on the ground. I was covered by my World Elite MasterCard and let them know that the bumper in question had an enormous dent in it that had been noted when I rented the car. They negotiated with EuropCar and EuropCar agreed to accept half the amount in light of the pre-existing damage. Several emails later the $1,058 charge was removed from my credit card.

I was VERY impressed with how the representative at World Elite MasterCard handled this claim.

About the overcharge ... my first THREE emails did not provide any satisfaction--so I requested the name of the person in charge of customer service at their corporate office. A letter to this individual resulted in the additional charges being dropped.

As I said previously, I was left feeling as if EuropCar tried every angle to rip me off.

Re: the photo link .... I don't know what the problem is. It didn't work for me either the last time I checked.
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Old Apr 28th, 2010, 02:20 PM
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I got the link fine I've had problems with Europcar in the past as well. I believe Michele at recommends Dan Dooley, as they quote all their prices including everything up front. I'll be using them next time.

I've also started a small campaign to email the head of the Bord Failte (Irish Tourism Board), complaining about the Irish rental car regulations (or lack of them), making renting a car in Ireland the single most difficult, byzantine, and ridiculous part of traveling to Ireland. His email is '[email protected]' if anyone wants to pass on their complaints as well. Perhaps he can push some legislation that will help get it under control. Right now, there is none.
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Old Apr 28th, 2010, 02:26 PM
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Oh, and great trip report and pics! I've also put Smamore on my short list
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