It is only after experiencing it first hand, that I began to fully understand why so many writers have been inspired by the beautiful landscape of Ireland.
It was an impromptu decision that brought me to Ireland. I knew I would visit one day, but before travel became a regular part of my life, I did little more than add it to my "list of places to see before you die".
In desperate need of a getaway, a friend had spontaneously proposed a trip, and immediately I suggested Ireland and the planning began. Coincidentally, a mutual friend was travelling on the same dates and invited us to stopover and spend a few days with him, so the trip expanded across two countries.
When the available flights allowed us to fly home from a third country, it expanded yet again. In the end, we first visited Spain, then Ireland and ended the stopover vacation in France, on an extended (Canadian) Thanksgiving weekend in October.
TIP: If you have some flexibility with dates, especially in Europe, check to see if there are return flights from neighbouring countries available at a lower cost. Inter-Europe flights or Inter-Europe Train tickets are sometimes much more cost efficient and allow you the opportunity to add another country to the itinerary.
Though parts of me fell in love with each country we visited in a different and profound way, I was left most impressed with Ireland. I knew little more about the country other than the pop culture stereotypes that flood our screens every St. Patrick's Day.
(Again, this was a time before I planned and researched, vowing to make them all trips of a lifetime).
After a few warm, sun-filled days in Barcelona, my girlfriend and I said our goodbyes to our friend who was vacationing there, and hopped on an overnight Aer Lingus flight, direct to Dublin. We planned to spend three FULL days and nights exploring Dublin.
While waiting at the airport to board, we found ourselves eavesdropping (and mesmerized) on a conversation between a young Irish boy and his father.
I have always felt a little weak in the knees upon hearing an Irish accent, but I when it came from the mouth of a child, I simply melted. It was adorable.
Sitting on the carpeted floor of the airport, munching on a vending machine cheese tray and miniature bottles of wine, my friend and I listened.
They argued softly over the boy's intense need to purchase chocolate before the flight home. After some teasing back and forth, the boy ran off, money in hand, and the father and I shared an understanding smile. This warmth set the stage for the entire visit.
The Aer Lingus flight from Spain lasted just under two hours. My friend and I sat in the very first row and played travel scrabble for the entire flight. The game prompted a conversation among the flight attendants and the Irish businessman who sat beside us, who watched us when they were not working (apparently it's rare to see people playing non-computerized games) All were gracious and friendly, warmly welcoming us with pride to their homeland.
We landed in Dublin in the dead of night, on a chilly October morning. Not dressed properly for the weather, we hopped quickly into a taxi and chatted with the charming driver all the way to The Grafton Capital Hotel (now only referred to as The Grafton Hotel). On the way, we passed the lighted Dublin Convention Centre and the amazing harp-shaped Samuel Beckett Bridge and vowed to find our way back to visit them on foot. The hotel and its staff welcomed us with a sweet old-world charm. The room was simple yet spacious, clean and excellently located.
TIP: If you plan on spending a few days in Dublin and seeing all the sites, be sure to purchase The Dublin Pass, which will grant you entry to the most popular attractions in Dublin for one price. You can purchase 1-5 days worth of attractions, with free entry for up to 35 popular attractions.
The next morning, with our trusty printed map in hand, we wandered down picturesque Grafton Street and peered into the many shop windows. Having met and worked together in a local bookstore in Toronto, we naturally gravitated towards them.
Dublin bookstores were beautiful and charming. We soon found ourselves browsing the shelves of a small bookstore, as locals lined up around the back shelves for an upcoming book signing and the staff handed out chocolates to those who waited.
Everything felt so welcoming and cozy, we didn't want to leave. We felt the same calm sitting on the patio of a local Coffee shop, sipping my americano and sharing a delicious lemon poppy seed muffin. The October air may have been cooler than expected, but the sun was warm and energizing. We walked for hours without noticing the time, something very rare these days and a phenomenon that only seems to happen when on vacation and unplugged.
After an impressive tour of the grounds, we enjoyed a fresh pint of delicious Guinness at the Guinness Factory, also referred to as the Guinness Storehouse, stepped silently through the grand library in Trinity College and then made our way to the heart-breaking Famine Statues.
Dublin's hospitality extended into the wee hours of the night, when we tasted the night life in the Temple Bar district. It felt more than just safe visiting Dublin, It felt like home.
The next day, comfortably on the large Dublin Tour Company Coach, we left the Dublin city center and made our way west. Soon after our bus left the edge of the city, Ireland's beautiful landscape unfolded before our eyes. Words cannot adequately describe the views; the lush green pastures, the rolling hills frosted with a thin fog, the simple yet grand majesty of the trees. The writer in me was left both inspired and awestruck.
Months before, I had the pleasure of participating in a Q&A session with famed Canadian-Irish author Jane Urquart, who when asked about her writing habits, explained that when she is working on a book, she lives in a small secluded cabin in the Irish hills.
At the time it sounded bleak and romantic, but coming face to face with the Irish landscape, I understood how it could both calm and invigorate the senses.
Our driver, seeing how overwhelmed we all were with the landscape, stopped on the side of a curved road at the top of a hill so that we could peer into the magnificent beauty of the foggy hills below. It was magnificent. So perfect it resembled a painting. The large coach then made its way down the narrow roads, passing cozy cottages, rock fences and grazing sheep to our final destination.
Along the way, we made several stops, including The Burren, where we visited the majestic Poulnabrone Dolman (a Portal Tomb), the oldest dated megalithic monument in Ireland.
Within an hour, we arrived at the unmistakable Cliffs of Moher better known to the many fans of the Princess Bride, as The Cliffs of Insanity. Can't you just picture Andre the Giant climbing the rope with super speed?
From the parking lot, the cliffs resembled nothing more than a faint painted backdrop, but as we stepped slowly closer to the edge, the cliffs grew (as did the wind) and this grand image of land and see opened up before us. We spent hours walking along the cliffs edge, snapping photos of the crashing waves against the cliffs from every possible angle.
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The weather was damp and the sun peeked out only for a short time. The barrier is quite low and everything is slippery.
Some brave and dangerous souls, risked their lives by ignoring the signs and crossing over the barrier to walk across the top of the slippery cliffs. One slip and the massive drop would be a death sentence.
Begrudgingly, when it was time, we turned our backs to the cliffs and re-boarded the coach. To our surprise, our driver stopped shortly thereafter, so that we could walk along a rocky edge and see the cliffs from a different and distant angle.
It was this wide rocky expanse that struck me the most. With the clouds rolling in above, and the wind picking up speed, I slowly walked to the waters edge. Waves crashed below and as I stood looking out into the ocean, letting the wind tussle my hair, a school of dolphins swam by. It was surreal.
Back in the Dublin city center, we relaxed the night away. On our last day, we casually walked through the city parks and reminisced about the adventure the day before. We ended the night with a meal at The Church Restaurant, aptly named after renovating its gothic interior to accommodate hungry patrons.
We both instantly felt at home in Dublin, enough so that I could pack-up and live there in a heartbeat, but I left my heart in hills of the countryside. As the coach made its way back to the station, I vowed to return and rent a cottage in the hills, so that the writer in me could lose myself once again in the muse that is the Irish landscape.
So many years later, I have yet to return, but it remains, with many destinations, on my list.
Perhaps another spontaneous trip is in order.