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Final 14 Day Best of Ireland for 2015 Review from a First Timer

I've been back in the drudgery of the real world for just over a week now & it's been quite frustrating, what with no one making my bed or serving me breakfast on a daily basis. Quite frustrating indeed.

While I understand the itinerary for next years 2 week tour of Ireland is changing somewhat, what follows is my somewhat protracted review, which is intended for people who, like me, have never been on a Rick Steves' tour before & are not entirely sure of what to expect from the experience. Rest assured however - the short version is that you will be quite pleased overall.

My tour was from October 4th through October 17th. I booked well in advance & chose the single room option, as I was traveling alone & while the option exists to share a room with a stranger, & form lifelong friendships & all of that, I like getting up at 4:00 a.m. going for a run, or watching random stuff tv. The single room option is worth the extra bit of money. The tour began in Dublin & the first meeting with my tour group wasn't until 5:00 p.m. on a Sunday night. With this in mind, I decided to spend a couple of nights prior to the tour in Liverpool, which was an easy 40 minute flight via RyanAir to the John Lennon Airport. I know there have been other threads about RyanAir & I will just say that it's fine if you go in prepared. Print your tickets in advance or you will be charged a fee. Make sure your baggage is of the right weight, or you will be charged a fee. I paid for a business class ticket, which allowed me an extra bag & "priority boarding," which amounted to little more than a 10 second head start as dozens of people walked to the plane. I'll spare you a summary of my adventures in Liverpool, except to say it's certainly worth a visit & for more than just The Beatles. There's a good deal to do with The Titanic, which would fit in quite well with the time spent on Belfast on this tour.

First bit of advice: do plan for your free time. I arrived back in Dublin at 7:30 Sunday morning & took in as much as I could of the city on my own. St. Stephen's Green, Grafton Street, the grounds of Trinity College, lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe (yeah, yeah), Temple Bar District & Dublin Castle. Our first & final hotel was Buswell's, which was very close to the National Library of Ireland, the National Museum of Archaeology & Bram Stoker's home, among other things. Or, get blitzed at the Guinness Storehouse, which Rick Steves' skips over. Just fill your time. We were a small group of 20 people, which was an excellent number. During this initial meeting, we introduced ourselves, met our guide & learned the expectations of the tour. We then went to dinner & did a bit of a walking tour to orient ourselves to Dublin (O'Connell Street - a touristy strip that is also rather rich in history). The next morning, we met for a walking tour of Dublin, led by a local guide, who was a graduate of Trinity College & working as a magazine editor. After this, we visited Trinity & saw The Book of Kells. We split up around noon & had the rest of the day to ourselves.

At that point, I went off & had a business meeting near the Ha'Penny Bridge, & then took in the Jeannie Johnston (a famine ship with about an hour long tour), & took in the moving sculpture of starving, famine era Irish citizens marching toward it. On that first night (your last in Dublin for a while), consider dinner & music in the Temple Bar District. You'll get some suggestions from your local guide or from your Rick Steves' guide, but as for music, I'd suggest just going where your ear takes you.

Each morning, the tour bus, which in our case, traveling with only 20, allowed for us to have a seat open next to us, would generally leave the hotel around 8:45 - sometimes a bit earlier, rarely later. This gave everyone ample time to get cleaned up, enjoy breakfast in the hotel (all breakfasts were included as part of the tour) & if necessary, check out & load their bags on the bus.

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You will probably find, as I did, that it will be the same people on a daily basis, that are the last to board the bus - whether leaving the hotel in the morning, or when you're leaving a museum or other stop. There was only one instance on our tour that it got to the point we almost left a few behind - it's just very important that everyone is back before the agreed on time. We're all adults & that shouldn't be too difficult, but that's easier said than done when traveling with different personalities. I was also the youngest person on the tour by roughly a decade, so being on time wasn't as much of a challenge for me as it might have been for others - I confess I was the last on the bus 1 day in Galway because I went for a walk early that morning & got turned around a bit. But I didn't let it happen again.

Leaving Dublin, we visited Glasnevin Cemetery, where noted Irishmen such as Michael Collins, Daniel O'Conell & Eamon De Valera are buried & then it was on to the Rock of Cashel. If you weren't aware, the Irish? They were quite big on churches & rocks. You'll see a fair few on this tour. We were fortunate enough to have a geologist in our number, who could drop some science on us from time to time & enhance the natural wonder of it all, but the beauty of the ruins was near unparalleled.

We spent the next couple of nights in Kinsale. If you're familiar with it, Kinsale reminded me quite a bit of Plymouth, MA. We stayed in a hotel called The Friar's Lodge. Kinsale is a seaside town with many shops, that thrives on tourism. Here, you'll have a good chance to send your first postcards to friends & family, as there's a post office in Kinsale Village, which you'll encounter on your way back from Charles Fort, if you decide to walk back, rather than take the bus. In the town, as part of the tour activities, we were treated to a walking tour, where we learned a good deal of the history. As for free time activities? A walk down the colorful Chairman's Lane, music at Kitty O'Shea's, & definitely, the Kinsale Ghost Tour. Perhaps Castle Desmond, which was very close to our hotel, but closed for the season during my tour.

With the tour materials you'll receive, they describe the amount of walking as light, moderate & strenous. In Dublin, you do very little as part of the tour, save for the walk with the local guide, which is roughly an hour & then when you walk through Trinity College's Library, it's at your own pace. Anytime we went out on an orientation walk with our Rick Steves' guide, it was basically to see a few main streets & didn't take much more than 30-45 minutes. It was a good way to walk off your 3 course meal.

Kinsale was where the true walking began. Charles Fort itself overlooked a beautiful landscape & was itself an impressive sight, but on the way back, we were given the option to either walk back to town (as nearly everyone did), or hop back on the tour bus. It was entirely at your own pace, so that's the sort of thing you need to judge your fitness level for, as you will later in the tour when you are visiting places like the Cliffs of Moher or the Giant's Causeway.

We left the comforts of Kinsale for a visit to Kissane Sheep Farm, where we saw an expert demonstration of sheep herding & shearing then drove through Killarney National Park & stopped at Muckross House for lunch & to tour the grounds. Here, we had the option to ride a pony cart, stroll through the gardens, visit Torc Waterfall or simply shop until we dropped & continued on to Dingle, stopping periodically to look at landscapes, like Ladies View, along the Ring of Kerry.

In Dingle, where we stayed for the next 3 nights, our group was split into 2 hotels right next to each other, overlooking the Dingle Bay. These hotels are owned by two brothers, who are in a friendly competition with each other as to who can serve the best breakfast.

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I stayed in the Castlewood House & was very pleased with both the food & the service. Here in Dingle, you will also have an opportunity to do your laundry. Reading the forum beforehand, I saw that some people do their laundry themselves, washing their clothes in the sink & letting them dry overnight. No offense but 1) I find that bloody savage 2) I'm on vacation & the last thing I want to do is laundry, so I was thrilled to learn that for only 14 euros a bag, the hotel would take it & have my laundry done overnight. As this was basically midway through through the trip (including my stay in Liverpool) this worked out very well). Like previous stops on the tour, we did an orientation walk & these hotels were a bit farther from the main drag than others had been (roughly a mile).

The next morning, after an amazing breakfast, we saw a crystal cutting demonstration done by a guy who does work for Bono & his missus. I liked his work so much I went back to his shop in the town & bought a vase to have shipped home.

We then met up with our local guide. Dingle is near a remarkable stretch of road known as the Slea Head Drive, along which are beehive huts, filming locations for movies like Ryan's Daughter & Far & Away & other sights that our local guide pointed out en route to the Great Blasket Centre, which is devoted to one of the few parts of Ireland where Gaelic is still used exclusively.

The final day in Dingle was essentially entirely on your own, so do plan well. I went horseback riding in the mountains for a couple of hours early in the morning (Dingle Horse Riding - very good & maybe a 15 minute uphill walk from the hotel), then toured a church that featured some art & stained glass windows (Harry Clarke Windows - 3 euros - not really worth it). Also on Green Street however is Ireland's smallest record store - The Dingle Record Shop, for a nice taste of Irish music. Then, perhaps stop by Murphy's Ice Cream & try the sea salt or butterscotch flavors for something a bit unique. You can also take advantage of your proximity to the bay - charter a boat, take a ferry & spot Fungi, the local celebrity dolphin, or rent a kayak & explore some caves. I reconnected with my tour group for a concert at the Dingle Music Shop, another music store turned after-hours concert venue, for a grand performance of traditional Irish music by a local trio that featured the proprietor of the shop, a woman who'd recorded a CD featuring her interpretation of the Brendan Voyage & a man who'd recorded with The Chieftains.

Dingle seemed to be the favorite of many of the tour group for a number of reasons. For me, it was the first hotel I'd visited since Liverpool that had a clock radio, which doesn't seem like much, but handy for waking up in the middle of the night & knowing at a glance what time it is.

We departed Dingle for Galway, but before that, we visited the majestic Cliffs of Moher, near County Clare. After days of pretty light walking, this might be another bit of a test for some, as you will be facing a time limit & want to see as much as you can & probably also want to grab a bit to eat. I managed to take in the view from both sides of the cliff (your ticket won't include the tower), & visit the museum & gift shop in the time we had, but skipped getting anything to eat.

We then moved on to the Burren, which is miles & miles of rocky terrain left over from the glacial period. We had a naturalist guide who led our exploration of this area & she told us how it came to be. We met at one specific point in the Burren, but it really is massive. And then it was on to Galway, where we checked in to the colorful, trendy & centrally located House Hotel....

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Sadly, even though we were there for 2 nights, Galway was more a base of operations than anywhere we had a chance to really explore. When we got back from the day's activities, most things were closed, but it's home to the original Claddagh Ring shop & a museum & many other worthwhile shops. We did visit Eyre Square, where you'll find monuments such as the Galway Hooker & one dedicated in memory of JFK's 1963 visit to Ireland.

The House Hotel in Galway was near "the Latin Quarter," there was one main street that sort of jutted out into a couple of extensions, where all the best shops seemed to be. On our free night, I had dinner at the King's Head & would go back.

The first day in Galway, our bus boarded a ferry across the River Shannon to Inishmore (Sweater Land), where our group was split into 2 smaller buses & had local guides drive us through the area telling us about it, before we were left out to explore a bit on our own. And of course, shop. We also visited an ancient fort named Dun Aengus.

The next day, we visited Cong, where we parked not far from a replica of the cottage from The Quiet Man & a statue of John Wayne & Maureen O'Hara, before we walked to Ashford Castle & the School of Falconry. This was extraordinary. With the help of a charming & enthusiastic guide, we each took a few turns launching a hawk from our gloved hand into a tree & then calling it back to us with a morsel of food. I then hurried back into town & took in the Quiet Man Museum, spending as much time as I could, as it's long been a favorite film of mine. There are some original items from the film, some period pieces & replicas & a number of framed newspaper articles about the filming of the movie. There's also, of course, a gift shop. I expect it will be an even busier attraction with the recent passing of the beloved Maureen O'Hara. While others might have skipped the museum visit or took a slower walk back from the castle & found someplace more formal to eat, I grabbed a quick sandwich from a grocery store for the bus, as we made our way to Westport, driving by Croagh Patrick, although sadly, we had no time for a climb.

We only stayed in Westport for one night (at the Clew Bay Hotel). The breakfast there was somewhat sparse, as I recall. I think I had eggs on toast in addition to the continental selections. but the hotel was in a great location for exploring the town. I did a bit of shopping & after our group dinner, I enjoyed a session of live music at Matt Molloy's Pub.

After Westport, it was onto Northern Ireland, where our first stop was Derry. At this point, of course, you'll need to switch from euros to British pounds, so be prepared, rather than wasting time at an ATM. Derry, like Galway, Donegal & later Belfast, was a place we only stopped in briefly for lunch or on a quick tour with precious little time to explore on our own.

Our Guide in Derry had lived there all his life & had witnessed The Troubles firsthand. As we drove through the Bogside, he recounted one particularly moving story of a young girl who lost her life during those awful times - of her father, who after she was killed, would come out & sit on a stoop facing a mural painted in her memory & speak to her for 5 minutes every morning until the day he too died. We walked the Wall of Derry & saw how the city is coming to grips with its troubled past in search of a lasting & peaceful future.

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We then moved on to Portrush, which might be comparable to the low rent end of Atlantic City - beautiful views but not much to do in the immediate area. We stayed at a Ramada, which was converted from an old Victorian building right on the waterfront & the rooms were amazingly spacious. After the extraordinary food we'd had for the better part of 2 weeks in Ireland, I found the British food bland by comparison, although perhaps it was just this hotel & the service.

No matter, as Potrush, like Galway, was more a base of operations, as we made our way to the extraordinary Giant's Causeway, home to a legend of Finn McCoul, the Wishing Chair & other marvels. It was after this that the stragglers on the tour were almost left behind because we had an appointment at the Bushmill's Whiskey Distillery for a tour & tasting & then finally, a walk across the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge for more magnificent views. This day concluded with a trip to the ruins of Dunluce Castle & a sad, sad story of a ghostly young girl trapped in a tower.

As the tour neared its end, we visited the grave of W.B. Yeats, who some of us enjoyed an extensive exhibition on in the National Library of Ireland, near the hotel in Dublin. We then made our way to Belfast, where we began with a tour through through its troubled history, before arriving in the Titanic Quarter.

Here, our Rick Steves' guide took center stage, as she is a descendant of an engineer who died on The Titanic & is herself very active in the Belfast community & the legacy of the ship. We visited the Harland & Wolff Shipyard, saw its slipway, passed around artifacts related to The Titanic & its sister ship, The Olympic & heard her family's moving story. While I would very much like to have seen the Titanic Belfast exhibit in the museum (there's a massive complex that includes a dark ride (think Mr. Toad's Wild Ride through a shipyard), that was not to be, as our coach departed for the city center, where we were given a little time to explore the City Hall, roam about a bit, enjoy lunch, etc. Sadly, not enough, in my opinion.

And then, it was back on the bus for our return to Dublin. We made it back to Dublin & checked back into the same hotel where our adventure began before 4:00 p.m. This gave me a bit of time to do a few final things (my brother & his wife had just arrived in the city for their own vacation, so I met with them), Bram Stoker's home is just around the corner from Buswells, so I thought it might be worth a visit - it's not much more than a plaque on the exterior, unfortunately, although maybe his birthplace on the outskirts of Dublin might be more of an attraction, & a visit to Tower Records on nearby Dawson Street, for a final bit of Irish music spending.

Dawson Street is also where you'll catch the 700 bus back to the airport, FYI, right outside the Pink Shirt Shop. On arrival, you'll be dropped off in a different location (still very near Buswells), just because of the one way roads. I reconnected with the group for a farewell dinner & we said our goodbyes.

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This was a well written and comprehensive trip report. I have been considering this tour so it's good to hear your personal experiences and thoughts. Thank you for the review.

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The morning after that final dinner, there are no group activities planned. You can enjoy the hotel breakfast, unless like me, your flight leaves too early. I reconnected with my brother & his wife after the group dinner & saw a bit more of Dublin together before we went back to our hotels & I packed for my flight back home.

We lucked out with weather. It really only rained once, at 5:00 a.m. & I was out running in it. Aside from that, there might have been a bit of drizzle when we were driving, but otherwise, it was 50 or warmer & sunny most of the rest of the trip - amazing for October in Ireland.

You'll enjoy this tour. Our Rick Steves' guide was extraordinary & we did have a sort of apprentice guide briefly, who also contributed a bit to the experience, as we traveled through Northern Ireland. Our driver was friendly & very helpful & the people we toured with? Aside from the people who tended to be late, which was usually little more than a minor annoyance, they were fine - no personality conflicts, no fisticuffs, nothing of that sort.

On the bus, you will have a little time to rest, but not much, so don't count on it. Your guide will tell you a bit about the day's events & also about the history of the area, which does help pass the time considerably. You're also passing through some of the most beautiful country on the planet. Do you really want to do so with your eyes shut?

There really was something for everyone, though a good deal of it depends on you, too. I'd recommend that you don't wait for your Rick Steves book to arrive in the mail. Go to a library & check one out. Research on Yelp or Trip Advisor for places to eat or things to see & do. Make the most of your free time. How often are you going to be in Europe? Well, maybe you wipe your bottom with hundred dollar bills & can travel on a whim, but that's not what I'm used to, so I wanted to maximize my enjoyment. While there's something to be said for discovering places on the fly, it also can't hurt to know what you're getting into.

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Terrific Trip Report Shawn! Glad you had fun. I, too, stayed at Castlewood on my RS tour and thought the breakfasts there were the most amazing I have run in to.

Laughing at your post-vaca let down. Yes, having to actually think about preparing meals etc is very difficult!