Garderobes, Yuck! (10 Aug 2016)

Another driving day, though a short one, from Clifden to Galway with a few stops in between. First stop was the Roundstone Music Shop, housed within an old Franciscan Monastery and home to one of Ireland’s famous Bodhran makers, Malachy Kearns. Bodhrans are traditional drums, all made by hand in the shop. Malachy runs the shop, and we had the opportunity to talk with him and have him sign our Bodhran. He said that unfortunately, with all the cheap goods from China, they don’t really make enough on the drums any longer to have a sustainable business, but that it is still his passion. He loves to travel and has met a lot of very friendly Americans and would like to retire to the U.S., preferably Laguna Beach if he could afford it. How funny!

We then stopped at Aughnanure Castle, an old Tower House ruins. As we have since learned, Tower Houses were rather common in the 1500s. They were multi-story towers surrounded by one or two walls and then typically some sort of moat or other water (lake, river, stream). The first floor was used to store grain and other food. The upper floors were then used for eating, sleeping, and hosting guests at banquets. Wealthy families that owned animals would bring the animals inside the stone walls at night so they wouldn’t be stolen. The Aughnanure castle had a murder hole, basically a double door, with a grate in the ceiling above the area between the two doors where enemies could be trapped and shot from above. It also had a garderobe, a chute on the side of the castle, used as a toilet. Disgustingly, the people of the time thought that excrement could be used as a disinfectant and would sometimes hang their clothing in the chute to cleanse it of bacteria. Gross!

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McDonagh’s fish and chips counter, recommended in both the NY Times 36 Hours in Galway and Lonely Planet was a must for dinner, though Ryan and I opted for the restaurant side with slightly healthier fare, starting with grilled Gigas Galway oysters and a fried fish skewer followed by grilled salmon with mash and veg, as it is called here. Based on the food available and how we have been eating, ie. full Irish breakfasts, lots of pastries and scones, food with cream and cheese, we wondered if Ireland had an obesity problem like the U.S. A quick Google search turned up an article stating that according to the WHO, Ireland was on track to become the most obese country in Europe by 2030. No indication of why, food vs lifestyle, etc, and no comparison to the U.S., which probably still has higher percentages of obesity than Ireland.

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Afterward our not quite so bad for us meal, we walked down the main pedestrian thoroughfare of pubs and restaurants, crowded with people and lots of street performers. The crowds were slightly reminiscent of our stay in Beijing, though not quite as crowded and not nearly as chaotic.


Street performers; Music and dancing, a mix of Irish and what sounded like Latin music

Street performers; Music and dancing, a mix of Irish and what sounded like Latin music

Tiny houses on the walk back to the hotel.  Can people stand up straight on the second story?

Tiny houses on the walk back to the hotel. Can people stand up straight on the second story?

Cool feature discovered on the Golf.  The emblem flips up and the back-up camera pops out

Cool feature discovered on the Golf. The emblem flips up and the back-up camera pops out

Correction posted 8/16/2016: The correct term is ‘garderobe’, not ‘gardenrobe’.

Diamond Hill Hike (09 Aug 2016)

It wouldn’t be a vacation if we didn’t do at least a few hikes. First one up was Diamond Hill in Connemara National Park. It was a relatively short 3.5km hike up to the peak of Diamond Hill, providing great views of Kylemore Abbey, Twelve Bens peaks, and the Atlantic Ocean. Throughout the hike, we encountered many younger kids and older adults, all European, doing what we considered not an incredibly easy hike. Thus, we have come to the conclusion that Americans in general are out of shape compared to Europeans. In a reversal of roles, Ryan hiked faster than Nicole, who is a bit out of shape and maybe carrying a little extra weight :-).DSC08543_blog

That's where we are headed - Diamond Hill

That’s where we are headed – Diamond Hill

Views from the top.
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Connemara is home to the Connemara pony, the only breed originating in Ireland. They are all over the area and were taking a nap as we passed them on our hike.

Most of the landscape on Diamond Hill and along the coast has been rocky with low colorful vegetation, reminding us a bit of the Alpine tundra areas of Rocky Mountain National Park

Most of the landscape on Diamond Hill and along the coast has been rocky with low colorful vegetation, reminding us a bit of the Alpine tundra areas of Rocky Mountain National Park

Post hike, we stopped at the Avoca handweavers gift shop and then walked across the road to savour some more Killary mussels, fresh from a trailer next to the fjord.
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Ryan then navigated the very narrow and windy Sky Road, a scenic single-lane, 2-way road along the coast. At the lookout point, a guy launched his very fancy drone high into the sky. It was crazy windy up there, and he didn’t look too sure was sure it was coming back at one point. However, a few mins later, it did manage to fly back to him. He must have gotten some really cool photos from that flight!  No pictures of the drone unfortunately.

Escapees! (08 Aug 2016)

Light day today . . . driving from Ashford Castle over to Clifden, with a few stops along the way. First, I got to visit with the Irish Wolf Hounds at Ashford Castle before breakfast. They are very large (150 lbs) and very calm, letting everyone pet them. Funny to see dogs that large roll over on their backs to have their bellies rubbed. Unfortunately, then it was time for breakfast and to check out of Ashford Castle.
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The drive to Clifden, via Kylemore Abbey, should have taken about 1.5 hours according to Google, but as we have learned, everything takes longer. The roads are narrow (VERY narrow in some spots), with no room for passing, so if a slow car, or biker, or something else (like a sheep) winds up in the road, it could definitely delay travel.

Views of the Atlantic Ocean to the east

Views of the Atlantic Ocean to the west

Views of mountains to the west

Views of mountains to the east

Killary Harbour - Killary is the only fjord in Ireland

Killary Harbour – Killary is one of three glacial fjords in Ireland

Speaking of sheep, these are the first escapees I saw, up on a hill on the side of the road. Soon after, we saw a ton more along the road, and have since witnessed them easily jumping the stone fences frequently used as enclosures. Mystery of the escape solved! We have also resolved the painted sheep. The markings are used to identify 1) which sheep belong to whom and more interestingly 2) which ewes have been impregnated. During mating season, sometimes “a ram will be fitted with a bag of dye around its neck and chest. When the ram mounts the ewe a bit of dye will be deposited on the ewe’s upper back.” Fascinating.
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We stopped at Kylemore Abbey, which was teeming with tourist buses. Kylemore Abbey is a neogothic country house currently home to Benedictine Nuns and known for its beautiful Walled Garden, mostly what I was interested in. Ryan just read out of the guide book that in 2015, Notre Dame (the university in Indiana) signed a 30 year lease for summer classes and student housing at the Abbey. However, we saw no signs of the Fighting Irish. Ryan and I opted for the longer, Woodland Walk over to the Walled Gardens and only ran into two other people on the whole route. The Walled Gardens were huge gardens with sections including herbs, a rock garden, ponds, traditional Victorian gardens, and greenhouses. It was starting to rain, so we headed for some food (big surprise) in the tea house before walking over to the Abbey itself.
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Dinner was at Mitchell’s Seafood Restaurant in Clifden, a short 5 min walk from our B&B; Killary mussels and Irish lamb stew. Ryan said those were the best mussels he has ever eaten, and probably the freshest, as we drove by the Killary Harbor where they were being harvested.

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Ashford Castle (07 Aug 2016)

Ashford Castle is amazing! That pretty much sums it up. A big thank you to Janie and Jessica and Distinctive Journeys for booking us there for two nights. Totally worth it!
We woke up from the very comfortable beds to enjoy a slightly rushed but wonderful breakfast buffet; Rushed because we didn’t want to be late for our Hawk Walk. What exactly is a Hawk Walk, one might ask. As I read in a travel book, it’s the thing on your bucket list that you didn’t know was on the list. Our guide told us all about Harris Hawks we would be flying, brother and sister named Beckett and Swift. The males are smaller, about 2/3 the size, of females. The hawks flew along with us as we walked through the woods, learning how to release and call them back . . . With food of course, mostly raw chicken parts, including feet and heads. This was an unexpectedly amazing experienced, that we are very glad we did.

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I had read about biking around the Castle grounds, so that was next up on the list. We first rode in circles (not purposely) on a bunch of short forest paths, stopping to walk down into a cave, until I got a bit cranky and we figured out where to go. From there we headed out to the Cong Village, passing by the Monk’s Fishing Hut, St. Mary’s Catholic Church (need to specify Catholic, since there is actually a St. Mary’s Church of Ireland very close to it), and circling around the very small village. It started to rain rather hard by that point, so we headed back to drop off the bikes and get cleaned up for tea.  Think we have enough to eat?
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During tea, the weather had cleared up and was sunny again. To try and burn off some of the tea sandwiches, scones, and pastries, we want out for a walk around the estate, visiting the Old School House (apparently a private residence now), and the Walled and Terrace Gardens. The Walled Garden had a variety of herbs and vegetables, in addition to flowers, which are used in the castle restaurants.
Just in case we were still hungry, dinner reservations were at 8pm at Cullen’s Cottage, on the grounds a short walk from the castle. Definitely NOT hungry! We shared a soup, salad, and main, and that was more than enough food.

Ryan's new car

Ryan’s new car

Ashford Castle is serious about fire safety.  These can be found in the hallways every two rooms.

Ashford Castle is serious about fire safety. These can be found in the hallways every two rooms.

First Full Irish Breakfast (06 Aug 2016)

Saturday morning started with a full Irish breakfast, including a fried egg, bacon, sausage, potato pancake, and black and white pudding for Ryan, and some scrambled eggs with mushrooms and toast for me.

Full Irish breakfast

Full Irish breakfast

First stop of the day was the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge. We hiked out to and across the bridge to a small island. Honestly, the pictures I had seen of the bridge made it seem much longer and higher than it actually was. I was slightly underwhelmed.DSC08329_blog
Second stop was Giant’s Causeway. Before hiking, we ate some lunch in the cafe. All of the tourist attractions have pretty good cafes, and, as you’ll see, Ryan and I stop to eat frequently. Ryan had seafood chowder, which was incredible. I had some tomato soup, which was also pretty good. And both came with Irish brown wheaten bread which was very good (we haven’t quite figured out what this is yet, grainy, buttery, and sweet though).
After filling our bellies, we hiked out to Giant’s Causeway and then up along the cliffs to get a view from the top. Unlike the rope bridge, the causeway was really a natural wonder. It was formed by a volcanic eruption, creating interlocking basalt columns. The columns are broken up into many pieces, that fit like ball in socket, so some are convex on top while some are concave. Most of the columns are hexagonal. It’s just amazing to think that something like that was formed by nature and not carved by humans. The Irish have some rather ridiculous legends around how Giant’s Causeway was formed, which I won’t bother to repeat here.
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Throughout the hiking and driving, we’ve been seeing a lot of painted sheep.  Have not yet figured out why.  Some are blue, some are pink, and some have both blue and pink.DSC08368_blog
It was already starting to get late by the time we finished hiking, but we couldn’t pass up stopping by the Old Bushmill’s Distillery. Luckily, we got there right in time for the 3pm tour and tasting, including the 10 year and 12 year single malt. We were in agreement that the 12 year was much smoother than the 10 year.
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At around 4pm, we finally left Bushmills for the 4 hour drive to Ashford Castle. Up until this point, Ryan had been driving the entire time, while my job was to navigate and continually say “look right, stay left, you are doing great”. Ryan is very experienced driving a manual, after having one for 14 years, so his major concern was just staying on the correct side of the road. I, on the other hand, can drive a manual, but am in no way very experienced at it, and haven’t driven one in two years since Ryan got his new car. Needless to say, it took a lot of concentration for me to remember to shift and stay on the correct side of the road. Ryan only feared for his life for the first 30 min of me driving (or maybe just feared for the left side mirror, which I almost took off once or twice, staying a little too far to the left). He was very good navigating and providing positive reinforcement. Finally, I guess he got comfortable enough with me driving to take a nap, only to wake up once in a while, not to provide any useful navigation, but to say sleepily “you are doing great”.

I should mention at this point all the features in our car, with which we are pretty impressed (list provided by Ryan): TDI, parking sensors, backup camera, engine auto-off when off the clutch in neutral, hill assist to prevent rolling in 1st gear, auto mirror folding, keyless entry & start, fully integrated entertainment system, adaptive cruise control (disabled), front & rear fog lights, and a pair of manually adjustable cloth seats that are miserable for the back, and very uncomfortable for both of us to drive. Oh well, guess you can’t have everything.

We finally arrived at Ashford Castle around 9pm, sore from the car and exhausted. The amazing upgraded room, complimentary chocolates and sherry helped ease our pain though. A light room service dinner of soup and salad was followed by a quick bedtime in a very comfortable bed.

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Traffic Knows no Borders (05 Aug 2016)

The flight to Dublin from Newark was very easy.  It’s only 6 hours, which is great, quick, but doesn’t really provide much time to sleep.  By the time they served dinner (mostly yuck), I’d say we got about 2 hours of sleeping.  I did something Ryan hates, booked an isle and a window on a 3 seat row.  (Thank you Nicoleo for that tip).  We lucked out and no one booked the middle seat, so we were able to spread out, and I got to sleep across two seats.

The flight landed before 7am in Dublin and getting through the airport took all of about 10 minutes.  All our luggage was carry-on, so no waiting at baggage claim.  No line at immigration.  And no customs.  I don’t mean no line at customs, I mean literally, we could see where the customs check should be, but there was no one there, so no customs (this island is VERY different than New Zealand).

We picked up our rental car, a pretty sweet manual Volkswagon diesel Golf and headed off.

Nicole sizing up our TDI Golf

The plan was to stop at one site outside Dublin and then head straight up to our first night’s lodging in Bushmills, about a 3.5 hour drive total.  The drive to Bru Na Boinne was easy.  Good thing we got there early!  When we arrived at 8:45am, there was already a line at the door for tours, and the visitor center didn’t even open till 9am.  We got a spot on the 9:45am tour for Newgrange.  Bru Na Boinne is a valley in the Bend of the Boyne River known for passage tombs.  Newgrange is one of the three largest tombs, that you can actually walk into, and dates back to 3200 BC, which is crazy to think about.  The rest of the area is also dotted with much smaller tombs, which are identifiable by the mounds in the middle of the fields.  There is a window above the entrance to Newgrange, and during the Winter Solstice, the sun lines up directly with the window and lights the passage all the way into the tomb.  They replicate that with artificial lights for visitors, and you can enter a lottery to be on of the 150 people or so that gets to visit the tomb during the actual Winter Solstice.


After the tour of Newgrange, we headed back to the visitors center for a quick snack and a short ‘audio-visual’ (movie) about the tombs, where Ryan and I both promptly fell asleep.  Oh well.  Once at the car, we decided it smart to take a short nap prior to more driving, considering we had only slept 2 hours the past night (and only about 4 hours the night before for Ryan, since he was busy trying to get the new router and VPN working).

Friendly European Robin following us outside the visitor's center

Friendly European Robin following us outside the visitor’s center

We hit the road at about 2pm for Bushmills, for what should have been a 2.5-3hr drive.  Unfortunately, the primary motorway A1 was shut down for a short part a little bit south of Belfast due to a traffic accident.  In Ireland, as we learned later, the roadway is shut down for 24 hours after a traffic fatality.  The ‘diversion’ (detour) turned into a 3 hour ordeal of crawling traffic.  Shout out to Ryan at this point.  He not only was awake and taking part in activities the first day after arriving, but was patiently sitting in traffic for 3 hours when I know he was exhausted.  He was really a trooper, and luckily, still not sick yet on this trip :-).  After way too long, we finally arrived in Bushmills at 8pm.  Our lodging for the evening, Lismar B&B, was owned by a nice older couple, was very clean, with a nice bathroom.  We opted for a fast food fish and chips so we could get to bed as quickly as possible.


Bumpy transition to vacation life


So, apparently it takes a while to get the hang of the “life” part of work-life balance.

  • Step 1: stop working
  • Step 2: try harder to stop working
  • Step 3: Nicole books trip to Ireland and says “I’m going with or without you”
  • Step 4: purchase new router and figure out how to set it up as VPN server.  After trying forever to figure out the details of server certificates vs. client certificates and preventing man-in-the-middle attacks.  Okay, this step is a little gratuitous, but it at least shows that I’m not working.

Morning of flight: wake up 20 minutes late…rush to stuff suitcase, realize I need to cut a few things off the list (sorry no jacket & tie for fancy dinners).  Strap into my boots just to realize the entire tread has separated from my left foot!  Change to hiking shoes, close laptop to pack in bag & run out door except Windows decides to download some updates: “this could take a while … please don’t turn off.”

Finally make it into the car at 7:35 for a 9:05 flight.  No sweat (I was sweating): made it to Fastpark and through security with at least 10 minutes to spare…I guess it’s nice not having to waste time at the airport.  3 hours to NJ, 6 hours in NJ, 6 hours to Dublin (hate United Airlines jam packed seating).

You can barely make out 1 World Trade Center in the background behind our plane:

Our plane

1 World Trade Center

P.S. Crisis in EWR averted — Ryan decides not to eat the mango and papaya salad chock full of peanuts (yes, Nicole packed an EPI pen).