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Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Emerald Isle Tour (May 2009)
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photograph by Christie Brook
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Anytime you dream of visiting a place for 25 years you kind of expect that it may not live up to your expectations, but Ireland truly offered more beautiful scenery than expected and some one of a kind memories. Unfortunately, no picture or even video can do it justice as there is a feeling of great calm and peace about the island that can only be experienced in person.

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photograph by Christie Brook
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The following is my recounting of our May 2009 tour of Ireland along with the planned itinerary (from EF Educational Tours) ...

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Day 1 Overnight flight to Ireland ... um, well for part of our group it was, 23 of our participants arrived on time (thanks to United Airlines & Aer Lingus) ... but thanks to our least favorite airline ever (U.S. Airways), it took 5 flights (all but last one delayed and/or canceled) to get us to Ireland a day and a half late! Unbelievably bad service (didn't even cover our hotel or a meal when our first flight was delayed & then canceled due to the left engine not starting - believe it or not our group members witnessed airline personnel trying to start the engine with a BROOM - we were probably better off not flying on that one). Amazingly the 9 of us were still in pretty good spirits, all things considered, when we arrived in Dublin & we'd really bonded into almost a family for the rest of the tour. My only regret was that there wasn't more time in Dublin for our group as the tour moved on to the Cork area the next morning.

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~~ photograph by Christie Brook
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Day 2 Dublin
Arrival in Dublin; Walking tour of Dublin ... though I wasn't with the group for this the reports were that they had a nice orientation tour of Dublin. The group also enjoyed the Bog Museum exhibits. Fortunately for me I had already planned to do a "stay behind" for 6 days at the end of the tour to see more of the Connemara area & Dublin area (more info on my time in Dublin at the end).
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Itinerary: Originally a Viking settlement, Baile Átha Cliath (Dublin’s original Gaelic name, which means “town of hurdles”) is situated on the banks of the River Liffey, which divides the city north and south. Keep an eye out for Dublin’s famous Georgian-era (18th-century) architecture as you stroll through the city. Walk down the brick-lined Grafton Street, the city’s premier shopping street; visit the striking greenery of St. Stephen’s Green, simply called Stephen’s Green by local Dubliners; and make your way through Temple Bar, Dublin’s hippest neighborhood.
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Day 3 Dublin
Guided sightseeing of Dublin ... our group of 9 arrived late but had a marvelous dinner at the hotel restaurant (truly a first class meal). The rest of the group was able to spend the day visiting St. Patrick's Cathedral & Trinity College along with touring more of Dublin.
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photograph by Christie Brook
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Itinerary: For a city of only 1 million people, Dublin has offered the world a disproportionately large number of great literary works. See what inspired writers such as Joyce, Beckett, and Yeats during your guided tour of Ireland’s capital, scenically situated between Dun Laoghaire (pronounced “dun leery”) and the rocky peaks of Howth Head. Pass by the residence of the president of Ireland as you journey through Phoenix Park. Then continue down O’Connell Street, a wide, treelined avenue named for one of Ireland’s most famous nationalists. Ride past the banks of the River Liffey to the 800-year-old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, built to honor the patron saint of Ireland, who brought Christianity to the country in the 5th century. Jonathan Swift once served as dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Then see the famous doors of Dublin as you ride through the city’s elegant Georgian squares. You’ll also pass an ancient Viking site (the Vikings founded Dublin in the 9th century). Your tour also includes a visit to Trinity College, established by Queen Elizabeth I in 1592. Alumni include Samuel Beckett and Jonathan Swift. In the Long Room of the Old Library, view the illuminated 8th-century Book of Kells, written by Irish monks and found buried in the ground in 1007. You’ll also see a harp that originally belonged to the famous Irish warrior Brian Boru.
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Day 4 Kildare • Cork
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photograph by Christie Brook

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Transfer via Kildare; Visit National Stud Farm ... The National Stud Farm was was a wonderfully close up tour. Though we couldn't actually touch the horses, we were certainly close enough to do so. With so many foals in early May we were able to take some adorable pictures. The weather was breezy but sunny, and the Japanese garden was an unexpected delight to stroll through snapping pics.
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Visit Kilkenny Castle ... while Kilkenny Castle was a short stop during a lunch break, 2 other members of our group and I found a wonderful restaurant that day. Zuni had extremely tasty and elegantly served food at a very reasonable price for the portions. The price of our meal included coffee or tea (so no need spending extra on beverages, great when you're traveling on a budget). In fact, we ended up at Zuni after two of the very friendly locals recommended it. Though I must say, I never expected the food in Ireland to be a highlight of the tour, but many of our meals throughout the country were remarkably good.
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Night in County Cork ... We spent the night in at the Blarney Golf Resort Hotel in County Cork. I have to bring this up because it was a fantastic evening. The food was extremely good, the lodgings were very impressive, and our 9 person group (those of us who arrived so late) had the most amazing time "crashing" a wedding party (well not quite crashing). While we were enjoying the evening at the hotel bar with Guinness and Guinness shots (for those of you who are unaware the shots don't actually have Guinness in them but are great), we watched many wedding party members come in and out in kilts. It was explained to us that a Scots-Irish wedding had taken place that evening in the hotel. Well the wedding party was extremely friendly and allowed us to take pictures with them, as well as, regaling us with some great bagpipe tunes (very talented). How's that for a memory of a tour of Ireland?! You wouldn't believe how jealous the rest of the group was that they didn't stay up with us for that experience.
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photograph by Christie Brook
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Itinerary: Your first stop will be the National Stud Farm, where world-class race horses are bred and trained. Then it’s on to Kilkenny, Ireland’s best-preserved medieval town, where the imposing 12th-century Kilkenny Castle overlooks the River Nore. Transfer via private motorcoach to County Cork.
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Day 5 Cork County Kerry
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Tour director-led sightseeing of Cork ... actually, we made a little detour which turned out to be a great experience. Our bus driver was exceptionally helpful in coordinating a stop at Fort Charles for us that morning. This gave our group some amazing photo ops and a chance to see where the Lusitania went down in 1915. That truly made our group leader happy as it was one of his lifelong dreams ... we history people just can't get enough of standing where key events happened (or in this case standing where we would have been able to see the event unfold if it had been 1915).
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Queenstown Story Museum ... was a great encore to our stop at Fort Charles. It was also a nice shopping stop for me as I was able to get a lovely sterling silver celtic cross necklace for a wonderful price. Our drive also offered us some great views of the southern coast of Ireland.
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Visit Blarney Castle ... I honestly expected Blarney Castle to be too touristy for my taste, but although I didn't go to the top & kiss the Blarney stone with other members of our group I did have a delightful time taking pictures and having a very nice lunch. The grounds around the castle are actually very natural and beautiful and the castle is quite impressive from the outside. Plus we had a very nice lunch at the restaurant there (tuna & sweetcorn sandwich ... never would have though of it but I'm a true fan now). One of the highlights of the afternoon was sitting in the restaurant looking out the window at the bright sunny day when suddenly a gush of heavy rain came down with the sun still shining as stong as ever. It only lasted a couple of minutes but it was an unforgettable part of the tour for me.
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photograph by Christie Brook
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Night in Killarney ... the hotel wasn't so good, but it was well located. And another great evening was spent by our 9 person "family" visiting pubs and a pizza place in Killarney. It made for a very nice, and late evening.
Itinerary: Your tour director shows you Cork, Ireland’s second-largest city. Learn that Cork comes from an Irish word meaning marshy place. But then heed the rhyme of an old saying: “Limerick was, Dublin is, and Cork shall be, the finest city of the three.” Visit the Queenstown Story Museum, whose exhibits tell the story of Irish emigration during the past 150 years. Next, visit Blarney Castle. To reach the legendary stone and to receive the “gift of the gab,” you’ll have to climb the steps of the castle, lean backward under the parapet wall and kiss the stone upside down. You’ll also see the ancient ruins of the Rock of Cashel. Founded by a follower of St. Patrick, the Rock was once a stronghold for Brian Boru and other Irish kings. Transfer to County Kerry, where you’ll spend the night.
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Day 6 Ring of Kerry
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Transfer via Killarney; Visit Bog Village ... our stop at the Red Fox Inn and Kerry Bog Village provided a great shopping stop both for souvenirs and whiskey. We also had some wonderful Irish coffee.
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Visit Ring of Kerry ... it was a long but worthwhile day touring the Ring of Kerry. Some of my best scenery pictures came from this tour (stone walls, sheep, seascapes and lush fields). The restaurant we stopped at had wonderful food and some remarkable decor. The walls were painted with beautiful scenes of Ireland from castles to a great mural of the coastline. Another feature of the day's tour was watching a sheep dog demonstration. It's amazing to learn how the dogs are directed by whistles (a different set of pitches for each dogs commands). I think we all gained a great respect for the dogs and their handlers.
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Night in Killarney ... another great night in the Killarney pubs, though I took it a little easier than the previous night.
Itinerary: Transfer via the Killarney region, gateway to the Iveragh Peninsula. Experience the mystical beauty of Ireland as you journey the 112 miles around the Iveragh Peninsula, better known as the Ring of Kerry. Encounter magnificent views of the Atlantic Ocean, the Lakes of Killarney, and Macgillycuddy’s Reeks (the tallest mountains in Ireland) as you traverse one of Europe’s most spectacular coastal routes. In Glenbeigh, visit the Bog Village. Wander through a re-creation of an Irish village from the early 1800s as costumed guides demonstrate the way of life that prevailed in 19th-century rural Ireland.
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Day 7 County Kerry • Galway
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Visit Bunratty Castle ... Bunratty Castle was actually quite impressive inside and out. I was able to get some great pictures of the castle and village. I also found my most sought after souvenir in the gift shop ... a real shamrock in a clear necklace, my most cherished treasure from the tour. It was also another sunny (though cool, breezy) day. We truly were blessed with outstanding weather on tour.
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photograph by Christie Brook
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Visit to the Cliffs of Moher ... in order to accomadate a marble shopping trip on day 8, our itineary changed a bit for day 7. We journeyed through some beautiful areas in County Clare on our way to the Cliffs of Moher. The Cliffs of Moher then provided a terrific photo op as we had another clear, sunny day (with a great sea breeze). I also found some lovely straw St. Brigid's crosses in one of the gift shops for only a Euro a piece.
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Stop in the Burren ... we then made a stop at the Burren to see some unique scenery and get some great pictures. We also took a tour of Ailwee Cave. It's amazing to go from being indoors to being in a huge, winding cave in just a few steps.
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Night in Galway ... while other members of the group headed to the pubs, Tarra and I followed our tour director to the ocean. It was a bit hard walking on the slippery rocks of the shore, but I was able to find some beautiful seashells for my mother (her favorite collectible) and get a nice picture of the sunset. It was a beautiful, mild evening, which we still ended with the others at the pub, of course.
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Itinerary: Built in 1425, Ireland’s best-restored medieval castle boasts stunning tapestries and furnishings showcasing the splendor of the medieval era. On the castle’s grounds, you can stroll through the Folk Park, an authentic re-creation of a 19th-century rural Irish village. Continue on to Galway, City of Tribes. For 400 years, Galway was an independent citystate—as recently as the 19th century, local citizens were still in the habit of setting their watches 40 minutes behind Dublin time. Today, Galway is the cultural and artistic capital of Ireland’s west coast—as well as one of the best places to hear traditional music.
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Day 8 Galway
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Connemara Excursion ... again we have our bus driver to thank for rearranging the day before's tours to work in a bus tour of the Connemara region and a stop at the marble shop on day 8. The green marble is an exquisite and very Irish keep sake rather in jewelery, worry stone or other forms.
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Galway ... one of the best meals on tour was our fish (cod) & chips at The King's Head pub/restaurant in Galway. We also enjoyed some shopping and strolling along the pedestrian walkway and around Eyre Square in Galway.
Itinerary: Stop in the Burren, an otherworldly region of limestone rock and wildflowers, where your tour director will show you the highlights and where you will visit The Burren Centre. Also, visit Ailwee Cave, one of the thousands of ancient caves below the Burren. Stop at the Cliffs of Moher for a spectacular view of Ireland’s dramatic coastline. The limestone walls of rock dominate the coast of Clare for five miles and rise to staggering heights of 700 feet. On your way back to Galway, stop in Doolin, Ireland’s traditional music capital.
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3 DAY EXTENSION TO NORTHERN IRELAND ... 22 of our participants continued on to Northern Ireland while I began my touring of Ireland solo and the rest of our group headed home.
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Day 9 County Donegal
Transfer via Yeats Country ... from what some of our participants reported this made for a long ride but it was worth it for the beautiful scenery. The accomodations in Donegal also sounded quite nice.
Itinerary: Journey through the landscapes immortalized in the poetic works of William Butler Yeats. You’ll see the strangely shaped mountain that inspired Yeats’ “Under Ben Bulben.” You’ll also visit his grave in Drumcliffe churchyard. Drive into County Donegal, one of Ireland's most beautiful counties. Donegal is a rugged tapestry of mountains and moors, where the pounding waves of the Atlantic have carved out a jagged coastline and sandy shores.
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I, meanwhile, joined a bus tour through the Connemara area. My beautiful pictures include scenes of the countryside, rivers, sheep, The Quiet Man cabin & bridge, and Kylemore Abbey. It was another beautifully sunny but very windy day. Kylemore Abbey with the lovely church, walkways, lake and gardens was one of my favorite parts of my time in Ireland.
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Day 10 Derry • County Donegal
Tour director-led sightseeing of Derry ... our group seemed to really enjoy Northern Ireland both for the scenery and the fascinating though troubling history.
Excursion to Giant’s Causeway ... having not been with the group on that day, I won't even attempt to describe what is overwhelmingly impressive in photos let alone in person. Needless to say they were all in awe of this scenic stop.
Itinerary: Learn more about the sectarian violence that has plagued Irish history and today has spurred a long-awaited process of reconciliation. Here, 13 Catholic protesters were shot dead by British soldiers in 1972 on what has tragically come to be known as “Bloody Sunday". Your tour also includes St. Columb’s Cathedral and the Tower Museum. Touted as the eighth wonder of the world, the Giant’s Causeway is a fascinating geological phenomenon comprising thousands of 55-million-yearold hexagonal basalt columns that form a honeycomb pathway into the sea. Explore the ancient rock formations and learn the legend of Finn MacCool, the Irish giant said to have built the columns so that his true love could cross the water from Scotland.
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After spending the morning in Galway, I took a train back to a very rainy, cool Dublin. Though it was a bit damp, the rain definitely made me feel that I was in Ireland. In fact, my entire time in the Dublin area was marked by characteristic on and off rain but with a little sunshine in between. After leaving the train station, I dropped off my bags and took a brief walk from Gardiner Street (where I was staying) to O'Connell Street to find a nice place to eat.
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Day 11 Belfast • Dublin
Tour director-led sightseeing of Belfast ... the group did seem to think the placement of the ferris wheel in front of the city hall was a bit odd, but overall Belfast was well enjoyed.
Transfer to Dublin
Itinerary: Your tour director introduces you to Northern Ireland’s capital today. Although the city was once known as the epicenter of religious strife in Ireland, the city has seen incredible rebirth in recent years. Belfast boasts an array of art galleries and museums, upscale boutiques and the Golden Mile, known as the city’s hub for restaurants. Along your tour, you’ll experience testaments to Belfast’s conflicted past as well as its hopeful future. You’ll glimpse the copperdomed city hall, the shipbuilding docks where the Titanic was constructed and the recently restored Grand Opera House. Make your way from Derry to Dublin, Dublin is the setting for Joyce’s Ulysses, one of the 20th century’s greatest literary works. Along the way, you will pass see the Hill of Tara, known as the traditional seat of the High Kings of Ireland.
I began the day nice and early with a walk down O'Connell Street to the River Liffey. I followed the river around the many quays, getting some nice pictures of the river, and then headed to Trinity College. After viewing marveling at the Book of Kells, I spent an hour walking around and sitting in the Long Room, the most amazing library I've ever seen both for it's architecture and the age and quality of its texts. Next I followed Grafton Street, stopping for lunch before heading to St. Stephen's Green. This quickly became my favorite part of Dublin (obvious from the multiple videos and rolls of film I shot).
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Day 12 Home
While the rest of the tour group headed home, I remained in Ireland to take in some more sites in the Dublin area. I spent the day visiting Dublin Castle, St. Patrick's Cathedral and Christ Church Cathedral, as well as, revisiting St. Stephen's Green and doing a bit of shopping.
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The next day I took a bus to Navan to see Dunmoe Castle and the ruins of a church founded by St. Patrick. Upon returning to Dublin I took my daily walk through St. Stephen's Square and had a nice meal in pub near where I was staying.
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My next (and final day) of touring took me on a bus tour to Powersourt, Glendalough and Wicklow. While Powerscourt offered many great photo ops, Glendalough had such an aura about it (especially in the pouring down rain) that it was likely my favorite stop in Ireland. The bagpipes and rain combined with the ancient stone buildings could make a person forget what year it is.
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The next day I flew back to the states, reluctantly, and even more convinced that I'll have to lead some frequent (if not annual) tours to Ireland in the future. It's hard for me to believe that anyone could be satified with visiting Ireland only once.
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Scroll down to the bottom of the page to see large pictures of the Emerald Isle tour.
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