Every self-respecting bucket list should include a dream holiday. Mine? Ireland.
I have an abiding interest in the environment, and there’s virtually no place greener – literally and figuratively – than the fabled Emerald Isle, with its 40 shades of green, its breathtaking natural beauty, and its nationwide commitment to preserving the environment.
My opportunity finally came a few weeks ago, when I took Trafalgar’s Irish Experience guided holiday – and an unforgettable Irish experience is precisely what I got.
We flew Emirates from Johannesburg to Dublin; it’s a new route, with a three-hour stopover in Dubai allowing for a spot of shopping en route. Arriving in Dublin a little after noon, we transferred to our hotel in good time for the trip’s first optional excursion. And it was one that was not to be missed: the Guinness Storehouse, the 253-year-old home of Ireland’s most famous beverage.
After being guided through the brewing process, having a go at tracing my Guinness roots (unfortunately, I’m not related to the brewing dynasty) and learning how to pull the perfect pint (clearly, I have no Guinness roots …), we relaxed in the Gravity Bar, the brewery’s seventh-storey pub overlooking Dublin.
The evening saw our group gathering for the holiday’s official welcome reception in another pub: the Brazen Head, which traces its roots back to 1198 and is recognised as Ireland’s oldest. This was where we broke bread as a group for the first time, and got a taste of the scrumptious epicurean delights that lay ahead over the next 10 days or so.
Meat is a popular and traditional option in Ireland, to be sure, particularly pork and lamb dishes. But any concerns that I might have had about sustainable meat offerings were quickly dispelled; organic and free-range farming is the norm in Ireland, and my green sensibilities were not offended.
As a vegetarian, it’s always a bit of a pot-luck situation for me when eating out – but this holiday was one time when I never had to settle for a lacklustre meat-free option. At the Brazen Head, for example, I tucked into a delicious risotto while most of my fellow holidaymakers made do with lamb stew.
And so it would be, virtually everywhere we went: hearty vegetable soups for starters – such as carrot and bell pepper, or leek and ginger, a veggie pot consisting of grilled vegetables and ricotta in a pastry case, blue cheese risotto, various pasta options – and, unsurprisingly, potatoes. Every Irish meal, no matter what you order, comes with potatoes in one form or another. The Irish are big on mash, and theirs is the creamiest I have ever had.
And let us not forget afters … being a chocoholic, I often opted for chocolate brownies, but I was also delighted with rhubarb crumble. Needless to say, I ate my way through Ireland!
The second day of our holiday was certainly highlighted with ancient and modern Irish history. In the morning we visited Dublin’s famous Trinity College Library, where we were privileged to view the Book of Kells, an early medieval rendering of the Gospels that is Ireland’s greatest national treasure.
From there we enjoyed some shopping before heading through the beautiful countryside to Northern Ireland, and the fabulous new Titanic museum in Belfast.
Opened to the public on 31 March, to coincide with the centenary of the Titanic disaster, Titanic Belfast is situated on the site of the Harland & Wolff shipyard where the iconic vessel was built. The museum is in the shape of a white star, symbolising Titanic’s owners, the White Star Line.
The museum is a phenomenal experience that showcases Belfast at the turn of the 20th Century, the design, construction and launch of Titanic, her sinking, the aftermath of the disaster, myths and legends, and the wreck as she is today.
The next morning, before departing Belfast, we stopped off at Stormont Castle, the present home of the Northern Ireland Executive and the place where the historic Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. Quite apart from its political and historical significance, Stormont’s beautiful grounds are a popular place for the public to relax.
And then it was off, along the Antrim coast on the north-eastern edge of the island to an even more breathtaking – and ferociously windy – location: the world-famous Giant’s Causeway, a set of 40 000 hexagonal basalt columns formed during volcanic activity more than 50-million years ago. The tops of the columns form stepping stones that are so precise, it’s hard to believe that they weren’t man-made.
With our brand-new, wind-formed hairstyles, we proceeded to Londonderry (or Derry, depending on your political persuasion) – but not before experiencing our first Hidden Treasure, a special surprise unique to our trip that was laid on by Trafalgar: a visit to the Mermaid’s Cave, an awe-inspiring cavern that is situated directly underneath the medieval Dunluce Castle.
Londonderry, too, is a fascinating place. One of the only walled cities in Europe to never have been breached, we took a walking trip along the walls with a knowledgeable local guide. The weather, too, was about 10˚C warmer than Dublin, which things that much more enjoyable. We spent the afternoon browsing around the town’s lovely shops, which were refreshingly free of well-known chain brands.
Our Northern Ireland sojourn was nearly at an end, but not before driving through lush countryside to Omagh, where the Ulster-American Folk Park takes one straight into 18th and 19th Century Ireland, and the life of the émigrés to the New World. With authentic cottages and shops, and people in period costume, we stepped into history like never before – and, clearly taller than the people of the time, bashed our heads on every doorway.
We also stopped at the pottery factory at Belleek, famous for its thin and slightly iridescent porcelainware, and watched craftspeople turn out beautiful pieces by hand. We then crossed back into the Irish Republic and on our way to Ballina for the night, enjoyed our second Hidden Treasure: a visit to the grave of the poet WB Yeats at a quaint church in Drumcliff.
From Ballina we struck out for Galway, travelling through the stunning countryside of Connemara. It was balm for the soul, the different shades of green and the rustic farmsteads, and I had myriad photo opportunities.
Galway, on the west coast, is set in a pretty bay and has a nice promenade – a great place to take tea. I was struck by the abundant birdlife (Ireland has little in the way of indigenous fauna), particularly the thousands of ravens which apparently hold sway over the other species. We had the option that night of immersing ourselves in Irish culture, with a banquet featuring local music.
From there it was to Killarney for a two-night stop, with stops along the way in Limerick and the charming village of Adare. Our third Hidden Treasure – Limerick’s market – allowed me to stock up on chocolate, while my fellow travellers opted for knitted hats and bread. The local cheeses, sharp like Parmesan, were also delicious.
Upon arrival in Killarney, we took another optional excursion that featured a ride in a traditional, horse-drawn jaunting car and a cruise on the lake in the local national park. We were eventually dropped off at our hotel on a jaunting car – surely one of the more unusual ways to arrive at your hostelry.
The next morning we departed early for yet another photographer’s paradise: the Ring of Kerry, a 179km loop through County Kerry that takes in plunging cliffs, picturesque lakes and jagged coastline, replete with ancient castles, churches and other sights. After a day of breathtaking photo ops, we were treated to another Trafalgar specialty: a Be My Guest dinner with an Irish family. Dad was the chef, mom the hostess, and their three sons the bartenders – and the authentic meal (complete with three potato dishes), was a hit particularly with the meat-eaters, who raved about the lamb.
Off we went to Waterford, the home of the crystal brand, with a stop at the world-famous Blarney Castle along the way. With my bad back, leaning backwards in a cramped space to kiss the Blarney Stone wasn’t really an option, but there’s a lot more to see than that. Blarney Castle’s grounds boast several interesting gardens, a baronial mansion and a horse’s graveyard, which I found after wandering through a forest on a path of wood chips, wild garlic and tulips all around.
The Waterford Crystal Showroom, too, is something else. We were blown away, observing the time and great effort that is lavished on every piece. It’s not for nothing that Waterford crystal is among the world’s most expensive, but I at least managed to purchase a stunning photo frame without breaking the bank.
The final day on the road brought the holiday’s greatest highlight of all – at least, as far as I’m concerned: the Irish National Stud in County Kildare. It certainly is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited, the horses were truly in a class of their own, and the stud’s famous, century-old Japanese Gardens were a sight to behold. What a way to round off a holiday full of unforgettable experiences!
All too soon, alas, we were back in Dublin and saying our goodbyes. Our 43-strong group, which included Australians, New Zealanders, Americans and Canadians, had bonded strongly during the trip and it was a bittersweet farewell.
I winged my way back to South Africa, saddened to leave behind such a fascinating country and its hospitable citizenry, but happy in the knowledge that I had ticked off a key entry on my bucket list.
• Nicole Elisio is a reservations consultant for Trafalgar. This holiday was a personal trip
Issued by marcusbrewster on behalf of Trafalgar
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