Today, I’m taking you on the next three days of our dream Ireland trip. A few weeks ago, I shared the first segment of our Ireland Vacation: 12 Day Itinerary in Emerald Isle.
Starting outside Dublin, we visited Irish National Stud and Japanese Gardens, medieval Kilkenny, Viking-established Waterford and it’s crystal factory, and a recreation of the Dunbody potato famine ship.
Next, we headed west, taking a scenic route along the southern Irish coast in County Cork. Our first stop was the seaport town, Cobh, and the Irish Heritage Centre. Later, we ate a picnic lunch and spent the afternoon at Blarney Castle and it’s extensive gardens and grounds. Afterwards, we headed into County Kerry, spending the next two nights in popular Killarney.
My favorite day of the entire 12-day Ireland trip was spent exploring the spectacular Dingle Peninsula. Another reason it was so much fun? Along the way, we stopped for a misty view of the Gap of Dunloe, went shopping for quality Irish-made goods, drank a Bailey’s Coffee at the famous South Pole Inn, and dined at an authentic, family-owned pub for a traditional meal.
Although the scenery and experiences were impossible to truly capture in pictures, I hope you’ll enjoy coming along on this virtual Ireland trip.
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Castles, Churches & Ruins Everywhere
As in the first leg of our Ireland trip, we continued to see many castles, churches and ruins as we traveled scenic routes. Our travel bus was purposely only about half-filled; so that every person could have a window seat and clear views — although Mr. Buzz and I, along with the other nine couples chose to sit together.
Pictured above is Cahir Castle, one of Ireland’s largest and best-preserved castles. It stands on a rocky island on the picturesque River Suir.
Built in the thirteenth century, the castle served as the stronghold of the powerful Butler family. At the time of building, Cahir was the cutting edge of defensive design and much of the original structure remains. Because of that, it has been used in many movies, including; Excalibur, The Tudors, The Green Knight and most recently, The Last Duel (2020).
Colum, our guide and driver, purposely chose interesting towns or villages for “comfort stops.” Scheduled about every two hours of bus riding, the breaks allowed for passengers to visit restrooms, grab beverages and snacks, and a little time to look around. Cahir (Heritage Town) in County Tipperary was my favorite comfort stop on the entire CIE tour.
Although we didn’t have time to tour the inside of the castle, it was located adjacent to the parking lot and town. As we sat in the riverside park, a parade of white ducks serenely floated by! It was one of many magical moments on our Ireland trip.
Despite heavy traffic on the stone bridge in front of Cahir Castle, the view on the other side made it worth dodging vehicles! Plus the sights and sounds of water spilling over the rocks made it enchanting! As with nearly everywhere we visited on the Emerald Isle, I wish we had more time to visit and explore.
Seaport & Irish Emigration Museum
After driving through what has become an international pharmaceutical center, we arrived in the charming seaport town of Cobh. Ireland’s most important port of emigration, nearly half of the over six million adults and children who left between 1848 and 1950, departed from Cobh (then called Queenstown after Queen Victoria).
At the Cobh Heritage Center, visitors can learn about those emigrants who departed, mostly in search of a new life and opportunity. Many of our own Irish ancestors first sailed to Liverpool, England or Wales, before settling in New York, Philadelphia, Altoona, and Pittsburgh.
However, many other Irish departed the island involuntarily, as “undesirables” and convicts to Australia, or as forced labor to the colonies and West Indies. They are referred to as the forgotten Irish.
Situated within Cobh’s beautifully restored Victorian railway station is the” Queenstown Story,” which follows Irish emigration from the 1600’s.
It was a moving experience to stand alongside the harbor, realizing this was the place most of our Irish ancestors ever last stood on their homeland’s soil. While visiting the center’s genealogy center, I pulled up an actual ship passenger record listing to show dear hubby two generations of ancestors — including his great-grandfather who was only six years old at the time.
Titanic & Lusitania
Cobh is also notable for it’s relation to the Titanic and Lusitania. On 11 April 1912, the Titanic made its last port of call in then Queenstown, leaving with 1,308 passengers and 898 crew members. Exhibited at the center are informative displays about the ship, including individual stories about passengers. Visitors can view actual ship artifacts and photos that were taken onboard.
Another exhibit is dedicated to the Lusitania, which was sunk by a German U-boat torpedo on May 7, 1915. Launching a flotilla of boats, Cobh was the center of rescue efforts, saving 761 people. Tragically, 1,198 people — including 128 Americans — died.
Cobh is an inviting town, with flowers, colorful buildings and striking architecture overlooking the waterfront. We only had time to walk a short way along the main street and into the seaside park.
Travel Tip: If you are on a self-driving Ireland trip, Cobh and nearby Kinsale are worth a day’s visit, and good place to overnight.
Blarney Castle & Gardens
It was an absolutely gorgeous day, and quite warm for Ireland. So earlier, Colum had chosen a comfort stop at a roadside grocery/deli, where we bought food and beverages for a picnic lunch at Blarney Castle. However, it was two in the afternoon before we entered the grounds, and everyone was starving!
Plus, we only had a few hours to eat, explore and get into the long line to kiss the Blarney Stone.
Because we felt pressed for time, hubby and I rushed through our tasty lunch. We were on our own to explore as we pleased. But, were clueless on how to manage our time, as there’s a lot to see and do at Blarney Castle!
Had we known, we would have eaten at the seaport park in Cobh, or even on the bus during the drive. It was the most rushed afternoon of the entire CIE tour. Everyone wished there had been more time at Blarney.
Travel Tip: Plan ahead for your visit to Blarney Castle and Gardens by visiting their web site — even if you are part of a tour group as we were. It was far more extensive and impressive than we anticipated! And, not the tourist trap we had envisioned (although it can be packed with car and busloads of visitors). Whether you kiss the stone or not, Blarney is not-to-be missed! Do book tickets ahead online to save time in long lines.
Extensive Grounds, Gardens
Between the entrance gates and a distant lake, are 60 acres of grounds that include a network of paths leading through various gardens, arboretums, and avenues.
The extensive grounds include: a Boardwalk and Water garden (with waterfalls and caves), Carnivorous Courtyard, Jurassic Fern Garden (our personal favorite) and Icehouse, Great Trees (some of the largest and oldest specimens in Ireland), a double Herbaceous Border with rose pergola, Himalayan Valley, Poison Garden, mystical Rock Close, Seven Sisters stone circle, and surprising Tropical Border and Vietnamese Garden.
Kiss Me, I’m Irish (or Not)
The castle itself is massive and impressive, with battlements, dungeons and several towers. In the picture below, you can just make out people at the top of the main tower. That’s where you kiss the Blarney Stone.
Tourist Tip: If you are interested in kissing the stone, you should probably head out first to see how long the line is. There are signs along the path that indicate the approximate wait time from various points. While we were there, it was marked as 30 minutes from just outside the tower entrance. During the summer, however, the wait can be as much as two hours.
Friends who had visited previously, described cramped, tight quarters in the narrow stone stairwell (with two-way traffic). Because of the crowds, kissing the stone is a rushed moment and photo op. With the pandemic going on, that and possibly kissing a slimy stone, didn’t sound all that appealing. Instead, we elected to pass on the experience, taking advantage of the fabulous weather to explore the grounds and garden.
I took a gazillion pictures during our exploration of the gardens, grounds, water features, and views of the castle from many different vantage points. However, rather than sharing photographs of the gardens, I limited myself to a just a few of the castle.
Travel Tip: In my opinion, Rick Steves really does Blarney Castle a disservice and undersells it. He dismisses the castle as an empty shell, and kissing the stone as lame (probably true). However, he does note that the gardens are beautiful. Steves also provides no clue on how to manage your time. I’d say a minimum of three hours to explore the grounds, gardens, castle and kiss the stone. More, if you want to eat (they have a lovely cafe) and shop.
We spent the next two nights of our trip at the Killarney Towers Hotel. It’s located right in the heart of the lively tourist town, and is immediately adjacent to a pedestrian area loaded with shops and pubs.
Killarney is a town on the shores of in southwest Ireland’s County Kerry. It’s a stop on the Ring of Kerry scenic drive, and the start and finishing point of the Kerry Way walking trail.
The town’s 19th-century buildings include St. Mary’s Cathedral. Across the bridge from the cathedral is extensive Killarney National Park, where the Victorian mansion Muckross House, Gardens & Traditional Farm sits. We never actually visited these places during our Ireland trip. For us, Killarney was mostly a central location where we slept, as well as enjoyed evening pub visits featuring live music.
Early the next morning we headed out for what was my favorite day of the entire 12-day Ireland trip. First, was a surprise stop at the Aghadoe Heights overlook.
Just two miles northwest of Killarney, it commands a superb panorama of mountains, lakes, and islands — including Innisfallen. Adjacent to the overlook are the ruins of a 13th century round tower, Aghadoe Cathedral and abbey.
But in the midst of all this natural beauty, the horrors of the Irish Famine still lingers. The churchyard was the designated burial site for victims. In less than one acre of the small cemetery, a corner contains about 2,000 famine victims from Killarney’s workhouse — one of three where paupers are interred from 1846 to 1849.
Gap of Dunloe
Afterwards, we headed through lush woodland to the beautiful and iconic Gap of Dunloe. Visible for miles, the narrow pass was forged by glacial flows between the highest mountains in Ireland. Left behind are massive boulders scattered about the valley. Running through the gap is the Loe River, which links five lakes.
As we got out of the bus, we heard the clip clop of hooves echoing around us. Soon, a man on a large draft horse — while leading another by rope — road past. It was like time traveling; another spontaneous, magical moment on our Ireland trip.
We had stopped to visit Moriarty’s, a CIE Tours preferred shopping partner. They also had a lovely cafe and garden for those not interested in shopping. Moriarty’s is known for their collections of premier Irish-made products, rather than cheap, mass-produced, Chinese-made souvenirs.
It did not disappoint! We did some serious gift-buying, so I can’t share everything we purchased. Hubby got a cashmere blend, zip-front sweater in a beautiful shade of green. I was also looking for a sweater. However, my eye caught sight of a stunning green/brown tweed coat with suede trim and gorgeous detailing. Mr. Buzz and our guide Colum said once I put it on, the purchase was decided! Everyone in the room reacted like I had just tried on Cinderella’s slipper and it fit lol! All our items were shipped back to Pittsburgh, arriving the same day we returned from our Ireland trip. I can’t wait to wear the coat and show you!
South Pole Inn
As the bus headed into the Dingle Peninsula, it took us through numerous charming villages like Annascaul.
After living a life full of adventure and exploration, it’s where Irish Antarctic hero, Thomas Crean, returned home and opened a pub. Crean was a member of three Antarctic exhibitions, under Captain Robert Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton.
While listening to harrowing tales of his amazing and well-lived life, we all enjoyed a Baileys Coffee at Crean’s South Pole Inn — served by our fabulous guide and driver, Colum. For the rest of our Ireland trip, hubby and I enjoyed an almost daily Baileys or Irish (whiskey) Coffee — I find myself still craving one nightly lol!
All Hail King Puck
As we approached the Atlantic coast, the bus passed the King Puck statue in Killorglin, home to Ireland’s oldest festival. During this ancient celebration, a wild male goat (known as a “puck”) is crowned king of the town for three days, before being returned to the Irish hills.
The origin of the festival is lost to time, but it dates back to at least the 1600s, and is likely much older. Some say that the festival has its origins in pagan ritual, but the most popular theory involves Cromwell’s English raiders . As they made their way towards Killorglin, they spooked a herd of goats. One of them ran into town alerting the populace, who were able to fortify against the oncoming force. The Puck Fair is said to have been established in honor of that Paul Revere of goats lol!
It’s one of the many colorful and interesting stories Colum would share as we passed through different villages, towns and landscapes on our Ireland trip.
Stretching 30 miles into the Atlantic Ocean, the Dingle Peninsula is situated on Ireland’s southwest coast. Part of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, the sparse but lush peninsula is dominated by a range of mountains that forms its spine — including Mount Brandon, Ireland’s second highest peak.
Ringed by sandy beaches and craggy cliffs, inland are rolling hills and mountains. Along the way, grass-fed sheep graze between rows and rows of low rock walls. Although only 10, 000 people inhabit the peninsula, there are over 50,000 sheep!
Colum pulled over numerous times so we could walk around and enjoy the ever-changing, dramatic views. Just ten miles wide, Dingle Peninsula runs from Tralee to Slea Head. Several movies — including Ryan’s Daughter and Far and Away— have helped to increase the peninsula’s popularity with travelers.
Far offshore, sits Skellig Michael island (not pictured here), home to an ancient monastic site. The island had a very pivotal role in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (home to the missing Luke Skywalker) and subsequently in The Last Jedi. Before achieving movie fame, the Skellig Islands were better known as a UNESCO World Heritage site of Outstanding Universal Value.
Dingle Town & Harbor
For lunch, we stopped in Dingle, the peninsula’s largest town and port. A medieval grid of streets extends from the harbor, and is easily explored on foot.
We watched numerous fishing vessels, leisure sailboats, and tour excursions come in and out of the picturesque harbor.
Brightly painted restaurants, pubs and shops line the street across from the harbor. There, Mr. Buzz and I enjoyed a delicious, alfresco meal of freshly-caught fish (I had calamari) and chips.
Afterwards, we enjoyed exploring the tourist-packed town and browsing cute shops. Although stuffed from lunch, we had to have ice cream from Murphy’s. One little sample from a charming young man, and I was hooked! Famous for their “adventurous” and inventive homemade flavors, we shared a cup of gin and pink rock salt ice cream — yum!
Travel Tip: Dingle is also known for lively pub crawls, trad (traditional) music and folk concerts. We weren’t there in the evening, as we returned to our hotel in Killarny after dinner. If traveling by car, and you want additional time to hike, visit beaches and explore more of the peninsula on foot, Dingle can make a good overnight base.
Island Views & Archeological
As we stopped at various overlook points, Colum identified other geological and archeological features of the peninsula and offshore islands. Quaint little villages also dotted the route. From Dunmore Head, mainland Ireland’s easternmost point, we enjoyed gorgeous views of the Blasket Islands, the most westerly island group in Europe.
Travel Tip: With more time, you can catch a ferry to the deserted Blasket Islands. They were made famous by Irish-language memoirs documenting rural life in the 1800s and 1900s.
At each stop, Hubby and I kept saying, “this has got to be the most spectacular vista.” But, then we’d come upon more magnificent coastline. I had such a hard time picking just a few pictures to share in this post!
If we had to pick one area, it was the ocean and landscape pictured above, near Ballyferriter. Looking out at Sybil Head to the left, the Three Sisters sit like land waves in the far right. Behind us sat a dramatic mountain, topped by an ancient ring fort or fortress.
It was part of the other-worldly Slea Head loop Drive. Weaving and twisting around the coast from Dingle Town, the scenic 30-mile route passes an early Christian Church, Iron Age stone huts, “fairy forts,” and other archeological sites. That includes numerous beehives, medieval stone houses once inhabited by monks (also featured in the last Star Wars).
Traditional Pub Dinner
Before leaving the peninsula, we stopped at a family-owned pub for a traditional Irish dinner. We had an interesting discussion of the challenges of operating a restaurant — located in a highly-dependent tourist area — throughout the pandemic. Mr. Buzz and I found all the Irish to be friendly, welcoming and highly appreciative of visitors. With our Irish surname, it was like they all thought we were distant cousins!
Back in Killarney, hubby and I headed to an atmospheric old pub for some lively music and a pint of the local beer for him, and a hard cider for me.
On the next leg of journey, I’ll take you with me to see to the Cliffs of Moher, an authentic sheep farm, Galway, the Aran Islands, and Clonmacnoise, a monastic settlement. But next on the blog will be the Halloween Tablescape Hop, Spooky Spellbound Halloween Centerpiece & Table. In the meantime, we are off to celebrate our son’s engagement and meet V’s family.
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