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  • Writer's pictureBecky Wagaman

Surprise Trip to the Emerald Isle

Updated: Jun 30, 2021

Last fall, my brother-in-law celebrated a milestone birthday. My sister, Karly, wanted to make sure it was special so she saved up for 2 years and surprised him with an all-expense paid trip to Ireland for a week. Knowing our family's love for travel, she invited Dustin and I, and my parents to come along. We booked the trip and somehow managed to keep it a secret from him for several months. Once his actual birthday finally arrived, we all took him out for dinner at an Irish pub in a nearby town to reveal the surprise in a fittingly themed environment.

Six months later, it was finally time for our vacation! Months and months of anticipation made it almost feel surreal that we were finally leaving! We flew to Dublin out of Chicago with a stop at London Heathrow Airport. Unfortunately, the British Airways flight crew and pilot showed up late in Chicago which delayed our entire flight and ended up making us miss our connecting flight in London. This really bummed us out because we had made dinner reservations at a fancy Michelin Star rated restaurant for that first night in Ireland and due to the missed flight, we ended up having to cancel them. We also missed out on our only day to explore the city of Kilkenny. There was only one flight left that day that had enough seats for all 6 of us on it and it wasn't departing for several hours. So unfortunately, we spent the whole first day of our vacation sitting in the London Heathrow International Airport taking turns sleeping on benches and making trips back and forth to Starbucks.

The irony in the whole situation was that when we were checking in at O'Hare earlier that day, the reservation specialist had offered us an earlier direct flight and we had declined because we had already checked our luggage and were worried it would get lost if we changed flights. Had we taken them up on the offer, we would've saved ourselves an entire day! Note to self for future - if someone offers you an amazing deal, you smile and say, "Yes, thank you!" Karly was ok with how it worked out though because we ended up having to go through customs in London in order to reclaim and recheck our luggage so she ended up with an extra stamp on her passport that she wasn't expecting!

24 groggy hours of traveling later, we finally arrived in Dublin and were granted a quick and seamless entry into the country. Right from the very start, the people there were extraordinarily friendly! We took a shuttle from the airport to our car rental location and picked up our 3 vehicles for the week, 1 for each couple. In Ireland, they drive on the opposite side of the car and the opposite side of the road from the USA so it was very strange for the guys to get used to at first. Nothing like trying to learn new traffic laws while running on fumes from no sleep! Dustin and I were given a diesel Ford Focus, Karl and Karly were given a diesel Skoda Octavia and my parents got upgraded to an awesome Nissan Qashqai. The entire roof of their vehicle was see-through, which offered amazing views when driving through the mountains later on!

Before we left for our trip, Dustin had purchased 3 walkie-talkies with a 16 mile radius so that we could all communicate while we were driving since not all of us had international phones. He and I also rented a GPS and then the other two cars followed us so that we didn't all have to rent them. However, this great plan of ours only took about 15 minutes to fall apart when we got separated at a roundabout in Dublin. (In case you've never been to Ireland, the country has a roundabout like every 10 feet when you're in a big city or on a main highway, which can make for a hard time when trying to follow someone!) We ended up losing each other and somehow ended up out of range for the walkie-talkies so after waiting on the side of the road for about a half hour, we decided to just keep on with the drive and hope that we all managed to find our way to the hotel in Kilkenny.

About an hour and a half later, we finally got within range again and were able to communicate. Thankfully, my brother-in-law had internet access and had been able to figure out the way, and my parents followed them. Dustin and I arrived about 25 minutes before everyone else so we checked in, cleaned up, and headed to the hotel bar for a celebratory first official Irish Guinness. Everyone else arrived around 8pm.

Instead of going immediately to bed after 27 hours of travelling like you would expect, we decided to rally. We wanted to make the best of a very long day by heading out to see what we could in the town of Kilkenny since it was our only night there. We drove downtown past the castle and then got out to walk around a bit. My mom has a friend who grew up in Kilkenny and his family used to own a pub there called Conway's. He asked us to find it and take a photo for him so we made sure to find the pub while it was still light outside so we could get a good photo.

Kilkenny is a very charming medieval town and we were sad that we had missed out on exploring it more. Definitely plan to return there on the next visit.

We found a pub in downtown Kilkenny called Kyteler's Inn. We were drawn in by the inviting entrance and the sound of the band playing lively Irish tunes. It was quaintly decorated with a medieval feel and the band was as fantastic as the food! The band must have been able to tell we were a bunch of Americans because about 2 songs after we sat down, they played "Galway Girl" which my mom, sister, and I had been hoping to hear. It was the perfect first night in Ireland.

The next morning, we woke up refreshed and had a delicious Irish breakfast at the Aspect Hotel. Continental breakfasts in Ireland are light-years better than the cold cereal and bagel breakfasts at U.S. hotels. They had pretty much every breakfast food you can imagine- fried eggs, sausage, bacon, yogurt, fruit, pancakes, etc. and of course, Irish tea! As a breakfast lover, I was pleasantly surprised!

Our next destination to explore was the seaside town of Kinsale located near the Irish sea on the southeast coast of the country. We opted to take the back roads there for a more scenic route and decided to drive through the historic town of Waterford on the way. Tramore was another notably cute town that we went through on the way. We ended up driving along the Copper Coast which is a stunning drive along the Irish Sea. The views were breathtaking and around every other curve there was another gorgeous lookout atop the cliffs over the water. We (girls) wanted to stop a bazillion times to take photos and thankfully the guys were really good sports about it!

We decided to veer off track a bit and drive to Cork before continuing on to Kinsale. We wanted to see the Blarney Castle and wanted to make sure that we arrived before they closed for the evening. Initially we weren't really planning on doing more than driving by, but we figured since we were so close, we might as well tour the castle. It was gorgeous and exactly what you'd expect a medieval castle to look like and we were so glad we had decided to stop. We walked around the castle grounds for a bit then went inside the castle.

And yes, we all kissed the Blarney Stone. The legend says that kissing the Blarney Stone bestows one with the gift of eloquent speech. Not being too keen on public speaking, my sister and I figured it couldn't hurt!

After spending a good couple of hours at the Blarney Castle, we continued on to Kinsale for dinner. Kinsale was a bustling and charming coastal city with a cute little harbor. The tide was out when we arrived and there was a tugboat resting gently against the sand, as if it had run ashore. But by time we had finished dinner, the tide had come back in and the boat was once again floating and bobbing about in the harbor. At home, we live on Lake Michigan and while it looks like an ocean, it's just a big lake and we do not have a tide that goes in and out so it was neat to see how drastically different the views were when the tide was out.

We found a cute fish n' chips restaurant on the harbor called Dino's where we had another really great dinner. This is where we discovered "mushy peas," a popular side dish with Irish meals.

After dinner, we took a quick stroll around the town and then drove to our next hotel in Limerick.

On the way there, we saw the Heineken Distillery in Cork.

It was dark out by time we arrived in Limerick, which enhanced the already shady appearance of the areas we were driving through. Let's just say we saw a lot of barred up windows and a lot of graffiti and were not that impressed with Limerick from the little that we saw. Although we weren't thrilled with the area we were staying in, our hotel, Absolute Hotel, was very nice and modern and had a fantastic restaurant/bar with large, expansive windows overlooking the river.

In the morning, they presented an even better breakfast spread than the first hotel with lots of healthy options. After indulging a bit, we headed out for another fun filled day of exploring. Our first stop was Adare Village. Adare was a tiny, quaint, little town that is known for its historic thatched roof cottages.

We stopped at a few shops in the town and walked around to admire the buildings and then got back on the road, the Dingle peninsula being our final destination for the day.

Our route took us right past a beach that we had heard of that was supposed to be beautiful and was well-known for surfing, called Inch Beach. We decided to veer off track a bit and stop to take in the view at the beach. Cars are allowed to drive right on the beach here so we drove along the coast for a bit and then parked and got out and stretched our legs a little. The views were gorgeous!

There was a small restaurant on the beach so we stopped in for some caffeine and then got back on the road.

We drove on some incredibly beautiful mountainous roads on the way to Dingle. This is definitely one of those days that the journey was just as much fun as reaching the destination!

Upon arriving in Dingle, we found a cute little place near the harbor to eat lunch called the Boatyard Restaurant. We shared a few of their Atlantic Platters as a table and enjoyed beer battered fish, Dingle Bay seafood chowder, crab claws, steamed clams and mussels, calamari, and homemade Guinness bread. All of it was phenomenal!

After satisfying our tummies, we walked around a bit to see Dingle town. As with most Irish towns, there were a grouping of inviting, colorful pubs and storefronts downtown that made for a picturesque backdrop in our photos. I don't think I saw a single town in Ireland that wasn't charming in its own right.

While walking around Dingle, we were offered a sample of ice cream from a place called Murphy's. This is where we were introduced to and fell in love with Sticky Toffee Pudding. It was love at first taste. Soooo decadent! It was a fitting name for the place too because Dustin's nickname for me has always been Murphy. You know, the "anything that can go wrong, will go wrong" kind of Murphy. I might have a tendency to be a little clumsy :)

After getting our fill of the sights and souvenirs in Dingle, we decided to continue our exploration of the peninsula by driving on another portion of the Wild Atlantic Way called the Slea Head Drive.

This driving route took us along the dramatic cliffs of the coastline of the Dingle Peninsula in a loop that ended back in Dingle. We stopped about 57,000 times to take photos because the views were so magnificent! We saw a bunch of baby lambs along the way and even got to see some dolphins frolicking about in the sea at one of the stops! This drive was one of the highlights of the trip and I highly recommend taking the Slea Head Drive if you ever find yourself near the Dingle Peninsula.

The next morning we made our way to Clare to gaze upon the Cliffs of Moher. These are the famous, rugged cliffs that you see in most movies filmed in Ireland as well as many of the tourism advertisements for Ireland. The cliffs usually have quite a few tourists there at any given time. We happened to visit on a very cold and rainy day and even still, the place was teeming with visitors just like us who were braving the wind from the sea and the sideways rain to get a few shots of the stunning cliffs. We typically prefer going to less crowded places, but we just couldn't miss this famous site.

We knew the cliffs were tall before arriving, but they were so much higher than we had expected. We took a tour of O'Brien's Tower to get an even better view and met a lovely old man named Martin who shared some of his extensive knowledge of the area with us. He told us how scenes from Harry Potter and the Princess Bride had been filmed there and pointed out the cave far below us that were in some of these scenes. He also taught us some phrases in Gaelic while we warmed up inside the tower. The people in Ireland are one of a kind and far exceed their reputation of being hospitable. The world could use more Irish people in it!

On our way back towards the cars, we stopped at the restroom, which was a trip all on its own. We found that the restrooms there were multi-stall and unisex. So instead of there being a large women's restroom and a large men's restroom, everyone just used the same one. Kind of weird sitting in a stall knowing that my husband, dad, and brother-in-law were all in nearby stalls, along with numerous other unknown men, but when you gotta go, you gotta go! Definitely a new experience!

Off the coast of the Cliffs of Moher are the Aran Islands. These islands are known worldwide for their high-quality sweaters and knitted goods. That afternoon as we meandered our way to Galway, we found a cute little roadside shop selling these sweaters. Karl had been looking to find one at a reasonable price, so we stopped in. My mom got talking with the owner and asked for recommendations on things to see and places to eat. The owner suggested that we have lunch in Lisdoonvarna at the Roadside Tavern (Kieran's Kitchen).

This tiny little tavern served us up perhaps the best meal of our trip! They had their own on- site brewery and smokery. Karly and I each had smoked salmon and pea risotto, Dustin and Karl had bacon and cabbage (the bacon was closer to what we know as corned beef) and my parents had the lamb stew. All of the meals were absolutely delicious! One of the best parts of getting off the beaten path a little is learning from locals on what to see and do. One of the men in the tavern told us we should go see the "Dolmens" which are megalithic tombs dotted all over the country. One of the most famous was nearby. We had no idea what they were but decided to go check them out. On the way back to our cars from the tavern, we found a pub called "Maguire's." Maguire was my great grandmother's family name and her side of the family was from Ireland, so we stopped to pose for a quick picture in front of it.

We made our way to the Poulnabrone Dolmen. The landscape here was very different; a field of limestone boulders, very rugged, and rocky. At first glance, the dolmen reminded us a little of Stonehenge. There were large sheets of stone stacked on top of each other creating a monument to mark this tomb. We only saw this one, but apparently there are several similar monuments throughout the country. The area that we drove through after this was called the Burren and the landscape here was unlike anything I had seen before. It looked like we were on the moon. Everything was very dry and desolate and the mountains were made of glaciated karst, which is basically limestone, dolomite, and gypsum. It was a very unique and interesting area to drive through.

After driving for a couple of hours, we soon arrived in Galway. Galway is a huge city and very different from the tiny, sleepy towns we had been frequenting throughout the trip so far. We checked into our hotel (Menlo Park Hotel) and got cleaned up a bit then headed out to explore the city. We first drove around the downtown area and around the bay to see the sights and get a feel for the city. I tend to do a considerable amount of research before arriving for the places we visit on our trips so I soon recognized one of the areas that I had learned about ahead of time that I thought looked like it would be the most lively and the most fun to go for dinner and drinks that night.

We parked and walked over to this vibrant, cobblestoned pedestrian street called Quay Street. This street is lined with pubs and restaurants, each offering its own array of live music, as well as many shops and it's nice to walk down because there aren't any cars allowed.

Karl found another sweater shop with much better prices than the ones near Clare. He tried on several and finally found the one he'd been searching for. Meanwhile, I went in and out of shops looking for the perfect Claddagh ring, which are known for originating in Galway. These rings represent love, loyalty, and friendship. Being that I am part Irish, I wanted to purchase one there as a memento of my heritage. I didn't have much luck that night due to a lot of the stores being closed already, but planned to come back the next morning when the stores reopened.

A couple of locals recommended the King's Head Pub for dinner so we popped in for a nice relaxed meal and then headed back to our hotel for a night cap at the hotel.

The following day, we had another full day of adventuring planned. Before leaving Galway, we went back downtown to Quay Street and I found the perfect Claddagh ring at Claddagh Jewelers on Mainguard Street.

My mom had been wanting to stop into one of the many inviting tea rooms that we had seen along the way and we had remembered passing one on the way into the city that looked particularly charming so we retraced our route until we found it once again. It was called Cupán Tea and inside the place was dainty, fancy, and girly and looked like a little girl's dream setting for a tea party.

I bought a loose tea blend there called "Dreamy Creamy Galway Tea" that was a blend of black tea, roasted coffee beans and jasmine flowers. It was indeed "dreamy." I also purchased a triple tea timer here. The sand in each hourglass falls at a different rate, the first being 1 minute long, the second 3 minutes long and the third, 5 minutes long, allowing you to achieve the perfectly brewed tea. It was the perfect addition to my tea collection. My mom and I have always shared a love for tea, as it is more of an art than just drinking a beverage. Something about it just feels classy and sophisticated. I think the guys felt their manliness dwindling just by stepping foot in the place so my dad went a few shops down and found a hat shop where he got a traditional Irish hat that we had seen several times throughout the trip. He had owned one when he was in college and wanted one again and it looked great on him!

After getting some souvenirs from Galway, we headed out to visit Karly's screensaver on her computer in real life, the Kylemore Abbey. It was one of the places she had most wanted to see in Ireland. The drive there took us through the enchanting wilderness of Connemara National Park. Much of the trip put us on little single lane roads through the vast countryside with gorgeous mountains towering above the valley that we were in. This was probably my favorite area in Ireland. There were numerous lakes and waterfalls along the way and it was very rustic yet picturesque. Unfortunately, I didn't take very many photos of this area because I was too immersed in the beauty and was just taking it all in!

The Kylemore Abbey, although resembling a castle, was just a large private estate that a man named Mitchell Henry built for his beloved wife, Margaret. The property is now owned and maintained by a group of Benedictine nuns. The estate is situated behind a small lake and is enchantingly beautiful.

The grounds include a Victorian walled garden where fresh ingredients are grown and used in the on-site restaurant. There are also many beautiful flowers and plants.

There is a really cool gothic church on site as well as a moratorium where Margaret Mitchell was laid to rest.

Along the walk near the gothic church, there was a triangular shaped stone with a sculpture of a hand across from it. We were told we were supposed to stand at the hand, make a wish, and throw a rock over our shoulder at the stone. If we hit it, then our wish would come to pass. So we all gave it a whirl! The stones there kind of reminded me of the ones from Outlander!

Miscellaneous Photos of the Grounds at the Kylemore Abbey:

Inside the Estate:

It was a pretty cold day out when we visited, so after touring the estate and the grounds, we stopped into the tea house for some apple pie with warm custard and a cup of tea.

After spending a few hours taking real life photos of a place Karly had spent so much time dreaming of visiting, we headed back to our hotel for one more night in Galway.

For our last full day in Ireland, we made the decision to make a pretty long drive up to Northern Ireland so that we could visit Antrim and Bushmills, the towns where our ancestors were from, as well as visit Giant's Causeway. We got up at 5am and headed north. The drive took about 5-6 hours. We noticed some immediate differences when we crossed over from the Republic of Ireland into Northern Ireland. The speed limit signs changed from kilometers to miles per hour, which made it a little tricky to know how fast we were going since our cars only showed kilometers per hour. We just kind of tried to stay with the traffic and blend in. The houses and towns looked much more modern and started losing some of the charm we had grown accustomed to seeing in the Republic. Northern Ireland also used a different currency, the British Pound Sterling. We also noticed that there were a lot more choices for radio stations while driving through Northern Ireland.

Eventually, we reached Giant's Causeway, which is a World Heritage Site made up of thousands of hexagonal columns as the result of a volcanic fissure eruption. The columns are completely natural but they look like they have been hand carved out of the stone.

There is a legend among the locals as to how the causeway was created and this is how it is described by Wikipedia:

"According to the legend, the columns are the remains of a causeway built by a giant. The story goes that the Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool), from the Fenian Cycle of Gaelic mythology, was challenged to a fight by the Scottish giant Benandonner. Fionn accepted the challenge and built the causeway across the North Channel so that the two giants could meet. In one version of the story, Fionn defeats Benandonner. In another, Fionn hides from Benandonner when he realises that his foe is much bigger than he is. Fionn's wife, Oonagh, disguises Fionn as a baby and tucks him in a cradle. When Benandonner sees the size of the 'baby', he reckons that its father, Fionn, must be a giant among giants. He flees back to Scotland in fright, destroying the causeway behind him so that Fionn would be unable to chase him down. Across the sea, there are identical basalt columns (a part of the same ancient lava flow) at Fingal's Cave on the Scottish isle of Staffa, and it is possible that the story was influenced by this."

We picked a particularly freezing and wet day to visit, but being our only chance to see the causeway, we didn't really have a choice but to brave the weather. The causeway can be visited free of charge, but it is easiest to reach it from the Visitor's Center, so we opted to pay a nominal fee and go from there. They have a shuttle bus that takes you to the start of the causeway. If the weather is bad or if there is someone in your group that has trouble walking long distances, I would highly recommend taking this shuttle, as it was only £1.20 each way.

After visiting the causeway, we drove through Antrim to see the city where our ancestors had lived. Unfortunately, we didn't have nearly as much time as we would've liked to explore because we still had a few hours to drive yet that night in order to reach our hotel in Dublin. We drove on through Belfast and down into Dublin. Our hotel was located near the airport. The travel agency that we had booked our trip through had made all of the hotel arrangements as part of the package. So far, all of the hotels had been just fine but this one, The Bonnington, was the exception. We were less than impressed to find out that half of the hotel was under renovation and the other half was a shelter for homeless people. We immediately got a very weird vibe from the hotel and found it odd that many of the staff there spoke Russian, when we were in Ireland. We later found out that there had been a mafia related shooting in the lobby there the year before. That knowledge didn't exactly help us to feel warm and cozy that night as we tried to get some much needed sleep before having to get up very early to go to the airport the next day. Nonetheless, we somehow managed to get a little shut eye before having to get up at 2:30am. Everyone else got to sleep all night and as they didn't have to be at the airport until about 10am to fly back to the states, but Dustin and I had made plans to extend our trip by several days in order to also visit Paris and London and had an extremely early flight to Paris that morning. We were more than happy to high tail it out of there, but hated having to leave the family behind in such a weird place.

Our family trip to Ireland is one I will definitely never forget and the Emerald Isle will always be held dear in my heart. We were fortunate to make once-in-a-lifetime memories together, gallivanting through the lands of our ancestors. I can't wait to see where life will take us all next!

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