I’ve been on a blogging hiatus while dear hubby and I enjoyed an Ireland vacation. Due to the pandemic, third time was a charm in terms of scheduling! Although air travel was a nightmare, with cancelled and delayed domestic flights resulting in us missing the first day of our organized Irish tour.
But we sure were lucky in the weather! Not only didn’t it rain, but most of the time we experienced beautiful blue skies with lots of sunshine. It wasn’t until our very last day in Dublin, that we used umbrellas and rain jackets. Our good fortune, however, may have been another consequence of global warming.
Based on a recommendation from dear friends, we booked a guided tour through CIE. Founded in Ireland, the company has 90 years experience and is the largest travel operator in Ireland and Scotland. Several years ago, our friends had taken a different itinerary.
We chose the 10-day Irish Legends tour, which covered a smaller, more concentrated southern half of the island. After the organized trip, we added two more nights in Dublin to explore on our own. Let’s begin with an overview of our Ireland vacation itinerary. Then I’ll share pictures and descriptions from the first three days; visiting National Stud, Kilkenny, Waterford and New Ross. See why Ireland exceeded our already high expectations!
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Irish Legends Tour
Pictured above was one of the many castles, churches and monasteries (most in ruin) we saw along the way during our wonderful Ireland vacation.
Described by CIE as, “a mythic journey through the Emerald Isle,” the 10-day Irish Legends itinerary included both popular tourist favorites, as well as off-the-beaten path sights. Note: I have no affiliation with CIE.
As you can see by looking at the map below, the Ireland vacation tour basically covered the lower half of the island. By mostly bypassing the major motorways for more scenic routes, we traveled about 1,000 miles.
Other than the first night, we stayed two nights in each of five hotels . That meant no checking in and packing up everyday. All breakfasts were included, and we started on the bus between 8 and 8:30 AM each day. Most days returned us to the hotel by 5 PM, with time to settle in and unwind before dinner. It made for a comfortable pace most days.
I’ll share more insights on the tour operator and itinerary as we travel along on our Ireland vacation. Feel free to post any questions, or share your own experiences in Ireland at the end of this post.
As I mentioned, we missed the first half day of our tour due to airline issues. It was maddening, frustrating, and both physically and mentally exhausting! But, I’ll save that tale of woe for the end of this post.
So, we missed the tour of Malahide Castle, and the welcome drinks and dinner with our tour director/driver and travel companions. That also gave the group an opportunity to adjust to the five-hour time change and jet lag. Although we were exhausted, Mr. Buzz and I were finally in Ireland — with the tour — and excited to relax, explore and enjoy!
Ireland Vacation: Day 2
Visiting Irish National Stud and Gardens, was one of the more unique stops during our Ireland vacation. Having visited Churchill Downs and several horse farms around Lexington, Kentucky as a teen, I was really excited to see National Stud.
Considered the home of equine royalty, some of the world’s finest thoroughbreds live in beautiful County Kildare (“kil” in Gaelic means church). It’s the heart of Ireland’s horse racing industry. Just south of town — and 10 minutes from National Stud — is Curragh Racecourse where the five most prestigious Irish races take place.
Starting in the 1300s, the Normans bred war horses here. Kildare’s grasslands lie on a table of limestone, infusing the soil with nutrients perfect for grazing horses. And the River Tully‘s water contains high levels of calcium carbonate for building strong bones.
We began our visit at National Stud with a walk through lush and serene Japanese Gardens.
Hubby and I really enjoyed the opportunity to stretch our legs and wander at leisure; exploring paths that took us to a tea house, sculptures, and around and over various ponds, streams and other water features.
Irish National Stud
For well over 100 years, the working stud operation’s central objective is to produce Irish thoroughbreds capable of being crowned champions at home and abroad. Ever since the then newly formed National Government took over in 1943, the horse farm and gardens have belonged to the people of Ireland.
We began at the Stallion Boxes, where our experienced and entertaining guide explained in detail how the stud farm operates. It was fascinating! She introduced us to the nine stallions currently servicing mares; including their racing history, successful offspring, and some whopping stud fees.
During the mating season, each of the stallions “services” four mares a day! And, in case things get a little too spirited, the mares wear pads to protect them from injury. These guys really are studs lol! Before the stallion enters the ring, a “teaser” pony gets each mare “in the mood.” We all felt badly for little Tommy who never gets to do the actual deed!
Surrounding the Sun Chariot Yard (named for a famous champion) are stables housing pregnant mares. Nearby is a Fouling Unit where births take place; usually from February through May. There are around 300 fouls born each year at National Stud!
During the day, each stallion is released into his own large fenced field on either side of tree-lined Tully Walk. Each is pretty high strung and they have to be separated. As we walked down the lane, we were able to observe all nine studs.
Signs on the paddock fencing identified each of the stallions. They are magnificent creatures!
Walking the extensive grounds, we were also able to see large fields of mares with their fouls, and retired thoroughbreds and studs — either in permanent residence or boarded. Many Irish visitors come to National Stud for close encounters with famous race horses.
Originating in Ireland, the Connemara Pony is a breed known for their athleticism, versatility and good disposition. The breed also make excellent show ponies and are dear to the Irish people.
In the picture above, a Connemara mare is fostering a thoroughbred foul. Born with a severe facial deformity, the poor little foul was rejected by it’s mother. Several surgeries later, and the foul will live out it’s life in the care of National Stud.
Medieval Kilkenny Town
Next, we drove through County Kilkenny, passing some of rocky and boggy Ireland’s finest agricultural land. Everywhere you looked, sheep and cows were grazing in rolling pastures divided by low rock walls. Quaint cottages with vibrant flower gardens — some with thatch roofs — made us feel like we had time-traveled back several hundred years.
Our afternoon destination was Kilkenny, said to be Ireland’s finest medieval town.
We started in front of Kilkenny Castle and a large adjacent park crowded with happy Irish families enjoying a town-wide arts festival.
A local guide led us down to the riverfront, where the castle dominates the town and sits at one end of the Medieval Mile. At the opposite end is the 13th century St. Canice’s Cathedral. In between are a number of buildings with medieval facades. Today, it’s a very busy street full of shops, pubs and throngs of people. Especially on a lovely Sunday afternoon during the hurling season finals.
Kilkenny is hurling mecca for the Irish, which has a pub/museum and large stadium. And, everywhere are black and gold banners, signs and flags in support of Kilkenny’s hurling teams!
There’s also an impressive statue of three players, located below the castle on the River Nore.
“Hurling is an outdoor team game of ancient Gaelic Irish origin. One of Ireland’s native Gaelic games, it shares a number of features with Gaelic football, such as the field and goals, the number of players and much terminology.”Wikipedia
Mr. Buzz really was into hurling, and watched both the men and women’s finals on TV (the Kilkenny women won, but the men lost to Limerick).
Irish Pubs, Food & Trad Music
Hurling is historically and culturally very important to the Irish. In the picture below you can see a large, inflatable Kilkenny Cats mascot on the roof of Matt the Miller’s pub.
Kilkenny has many atmospheric pubs that play trad, or traditional Irish music. They all also serve Smithwick‘s reddish ale, which was founded in 1710 and older than Guinness.
My favorite part of the walking tour was along the river. Afterwards we had a traditional and tasty Irish lunch in the Kilkenny Design Centre. But, it was 2 PM local time before we sat down to lunch. Hubby and I were starving and bone-tired from our air travel odyssey.
While others in our group decided to stay in town and explore the town, castle, and cathedral, we checked into the hotel and took a two-hour nap. We would have liked to head back into Kilkenny for dinner and trad music. Instead, we grabbed some large bowls of delicious soup, Irish soda bread and reddish ale at the hotel’s pub. Afterwards, we hit the hay, awaking the next morning feeling rested, refreshed and excited for our Ireland vacation to continue.
Ireland Vacation: Day 3
Our next destination was in southeast Ireland and the historic Viking port and Norman beachhead town of Waterford. The oldest city in Ireland, Waterford was once far more important than Dublin.
Waterford Crystal Factory
But before exploring the city, we headed to the Waterford Crystal Visitor Centre. Initially, I expected the it would be more of a marketing and sales pitch. However, the tour of the plant and watching skilled artisans at work was fascinating! Hubby and I really enjoyed the experience.
First, we visited the museum where got to view some exceptional crystal pieces and learn the history of the company. Then we got to tour the actual factory floor and watch each stage of production.
It takes eight years to become a master craftsman for each of the specialty, leaded glass-making skills.
Here’s the crystal production steps we saw while touring the factory:
- Hand Marking
Throughout the process, there are six rigorous inspections. Any flaws are tossed, and we witnessed this several times. Broken pieces are recycled into molten glass.
Here a master craftsman is cutting patterns into a piece of crystal stemware. To be a master cutter requires memorizing over 100 different Waterford patterns!
We were able to walk quite close to the markers, cutters and polishers, who would pause in their work to explain and show us what they were doing.
Now I understand why Waterford Crystal is so expensive! Hubby and I were fortunate to receive nine, three-piece settings of the Kenmare pattern (now retired) as wedding gifts. Several years ago, I included the water and wine stems in, Elegant, Easy Shamrock Tablescape for St. Patrick’s Day.
Outside ,a fabulous local guide named, Jack, led us on an interesting and entertaining walking tour of Waterford. Arriving in 819, Viking pirates first established the city.
As he led us through Waterford, Jack shared the Viking and Norman history of the important port, along with many colorful characters. The sculpture above commemorates a marriage between Norman warrior knight, Strongbow, and an Irish princess which forever changed Irish history.
Afterwards, Mr. Buzz and I enjoyed a traditional Irish lunch and ciders. Sitting on the covered rooftop of a stone pub, we watched boats sail on the river. Then we leisurely walked through the historic center of Waterford.
Next, we took a scenic drive into County Wexford, passing the dramatic Hook Lighthouse, which claims to be the oldest operating lighthouse in Europe. We also went by the little museum and shrine that is the Kennedy Homestead. President John F, Kennedy’s great grandfather left his home in 1858.
Permanently moored in the tiny port of New Ross, is a full-scale recreation of the Dunbrody. The original three-masted ship was built in Quebec, Canada in 1845. It was a typical trading vessel that would bring goods back from North America to Ireland.
During the potato famine years, extended families camped out on bunk beds for an average 50-day voyage in extremely cramped ad unsanitary conditions. Famine ships like the Dunbrody gained the moniker, “coffin ships,” because 20-50 percent of their human cargo didn’t survive the voyage.
Touring the little museum and vessel (with actors portraying first class and emigrant mothers) was quite humbling. Between the two of us, Mr. Buzz and I have 23 direct Irish surnames (and counting!). More than half of them came to the U.S. during the famine years.
Afterwards, we returned to the Kilkenny hotel for a delicious group dinner.
At this point, dear readers, you may want to just move on to the next leg of our Ireland vacation, which I hope to post soon. We’ll visit the port of Cobh and its National Heritage Centre, Blarney Castle and gardens, Killarny, and the breathtakingly beautiful, Dingle Peninsula.
So, I have to air some grievances here. Don’t say I didn’t warn you! We had booked our flights with United back in February, before anyone was talking about the U.S. airline issues. There are five United flights daily between Pittsburgh and Newark. By 7 AM the day we were leaving, United had already cancelled the 4:40 PM flight due to weather. Huh? Nine plus hours ahead of time? Our booking was on the last flight of the day, with a little over two hours layover before the 10 PM overnight to Dublin.
As I was checking our bag at the airline counter (two hours+ before the flight), United cancelled it — due to weather! Pandemonium broke out! After all, the plane to Newark was landing on time in Pittsburgh. It seemed like everyone going to Newark were making international connections. No one believed it was due to weather. But, that meant United didn’t have to rebook passengers on other airlines, or provide any form of compensation. After trying to reroute through four other US cities, Mr. Buzz and I went back home, dejected.
We decided to book the much earlier 9 AM flight to Newark the next day — even though that meant getting up at 5:30 AM (I didn’t get much sleep) and a 10-hour layover. Before we even arrived at the airport, United had already cancelled both the late afternoon flights to Newark — due to weather! What utter nonsense! And, by the time we went through security, our flight was delayed by one and a half hours! In short order, it was delayed two more times into the afternoon.
Now, we started to panic. I got us standby on the only other flight to Newark at 12:30 PM That plane’s passengers had been forced to deplane, due to a mechanical error! An hour later, they called us to board — but only had one seat for the two of us!
In the end, the 9 AM flight did finally depart about 2:20 PM. I started to believe that our 2020 pandemic-delay Ireland vacation was really going to happen (although how we were to catch up with the tour was still in flux). After we landed in Newark, United emailed us a reminder that our flight to Dublin was about to board — from Chicago, O’Hare! I kid you not!
After schlepping what felt like a mile to the United service desk, we found a sea of people in a long twisting cue — over two hours long! While waiting, I finally got a United customer rep in India on the phone. She explained that the airline had us booked on not one, but three different flights to Dublin that day! Their software scheduling system was a disaster.
After about an hour on the phone with me straightening out our departure, she asked why I didn’t have a return flight back from Dublin. Excuse me?! Now I had to get rebook our plane home via Dulles. But, I had also lost all my upgraded aisle seats too! Thanks to our son’s girlfriend gifting us passes, we decided to head to the United club lounge to pass the next four hours. There, a rep was able to confirm all our flights and upgrade seats.
I ordered a drink, ate a lovely meal, and vegged out listening to a podcast in a lounge recliner. We made our now earlier 7 PM flight and landed in Dublin about 6:30 AM their time — feeling like zombies.
But, now we had to hire an Uber to take us to the area hotel our organized tour was about to depart. No thanks to CIE, who couldn’t even provide a phone number so we could contact our tour director. Calling the emergency number basically only alerted them, and provided no assistance to us whatsoever. We just made the tour bus! I didn’t even have time to change out of the clothes I had been wearing for two days.
Finally, after a two+ year delay, our Ireland vacation was really underway, and it was wonderful!
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