The Wild Atlantic Way – Ireland in Four Days
I told myself I wasn't going to shop on Black Friday this year. I told myself that until I received an email with the subject line: "WOW Airline's lowest fares ever." Well, they say travel is an addiction and this certainly sent some flares of dopamine surging through my brain. The aformentioned fares (to glorious European destinations, all) were indeed low, so low that they were cheaper than it costs us to fly home to Wisconsin for the holidays.
So, against our better budgets, we decided to book two trips: to Dublin in Spring and Barcelona in Fall. For less than $2,000 total we'd have an amazing year of travel.
As the trip approached, I began to wonder if it was the best choice. Though the fares were cheapest for the shorter trip (Thursday through Monday), I worried that I'd end up exhausted and regretful of things I missed. But, this proved not to be the case.
In fact, it was perfect. Yes, we had to move quickly. Yes, I was tired. Yes, we missed so much. But every minute was a delight, and I left the country dreaming of the next visit.
In the end, Ireland made an indelible impression on me – green, cozy, storied and steeped in lore. in just four (and, really, three-and-a-half) awestruck days.
The WOW Experience – Surprisingly good
After booking with WOW, I had some moments of reflection. What exactly were their cost saving techniques? Did they fly older planes? Did they do less maintenance? Was I going to die, and everyone would be like "Well, she shouldn't have flown WOW Air." Would our flight get delayed, ruining half of our short trip?
Turns out, it was fantastic – here's a short FAQ:
- Don't they nickel and dime you, and it adds up to more than regular fares?
Yes, you pay for checked bags and carry-ons. You pay for your seat. You pay for water. But, in our experience, we still paid far less than normal European fares.
- But, they don't even give you water, right?
Nope. But when has the water on flights ever been enough to prevent you from turning into a human mummy? Never. You'll need to bring water. Like, usual. You can also just bring food so you don't have to eat a reheated soggy pasta dish.
- Were the seats tiny and uncomfortable?
Nope. They felt pretty normal. On the way out they accidentally (?) gave us XL seats, which were fantastic. But on the way back our standard seats were just fine.
- Didn't you get so bored without movies?
There's no screen, which isn't awesome. So, I found this product on Amazon that clips your phone to the seat so you can watch it at normal eye height. I fell behind on my favorite shows for a few weeks, downloaded them all beforehand, and watched them on the flight. Time flew – no pun intended.
We arrived in Iceland after a relaxing first leg of the trip. The WOW terminal is gorgeous, and I enjoyed an overpriced juice. At this point, we also met up with my in-laws Mark and Dawn, who were seasoned Ireland travellers and amazing companions for the trip.
Now, on all WOW flights, you can elect to take a longer layover in Iceland. We didn't for the purpose of our trip, but I'd love to come back to explore the country. We only had a single hour layover, so we gave a quick wave to the rocky terrain, enjoyed the insanely clean, futuristic toilets, and boarded for Dublin.
Day One: Old Town Tourism in Temple Bar
After grabbing the rental car, the four of us headed to our Airbnb stay in the Temple Bar neighborhood of Dublin. As we drove in, it became clear that Temple Bar was the tourist hotspot. But, as I've often found in Europe, the most touristy parts of the city are often the 'old towns' where the city actually had its roots and they're usually worth the time. This differs greatly from the U.S., when you generally want to avoid tourist centers (Times Square, Fisherman's Wharf, etc). and certainly not stay there.
Temple Bar is worth your time, with cute cobblestone streets and innumerable bars/restaurants. Yes, there are Hard Rocks and drunk dudes, but you can't beat the convenience. Though I will say, if you're staying in Dublin for more than a few nights, it would definitely be worth it to visit and perhaps stay in other neighborhoods.
Our friend Shaun happened to be in town for business, so we met up with him for dinner and then headed over to Temple Bar for our first Guinness. (Temple Bar is a bar within the neighborhood of Temple Bar. Confusing, yes.) This is also worth your visit – it's one of those cavernous bars that reminded me somewhat of Szimpla Kert in Budapest – there's a new room or alcove around every turn with pockets of people and music.
The bar sits where Sir William Temple, a former provost of Trinity College, had his house and gardens. Given its proximity to the Liffey River waterfront, the neighborhood eventually housed warehouses, brothels, all that seaside stuff. After a period of decline, it saw resurgence in the 80/90s to become the nightlight center it is today.
Now, this is where tourists drink Guinness and start to really feel their Irish heritage. After sufficiently celebrating our heritage, we headed back to the stay to recalibrate our bodies and get some rest to take on Ireland.
Day Two: Old Books + Ancient Recipes
In the morning we headed to Trinity College, a university established in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth I. I love a good college, and this is one of Europe's finest.
Our destination was the The Book of Kells, a religious text of biblical importance created by Monks in 800 AD. We snuck into the back of a tour, and learned that the creation of the book was an organizational feat. The book is really four books – four volumes representing the books of the new testament. Hundreds of monks worked many years to created the illustrated volumes – with surprising hierarchy among their ranks as some were more skilled in completing certain tasks. The highest-ranking brothers, for example, handled the most complex illustrations, while some of the lowly guys were literally 'shading' and filling in outlines. Because the colors used for illustration were derived from natural elements, like Lapis Lazuli, that are dangerous to handle, the monks often suffered ill health. No joke – preservationists have found tiny hidden messages in the images with complaints from some of the worker-bee monks.) But the colors are still vibrant today, and it truly is a incredible artifact.
Upstairs we found the Long Room. This library houses 200,000 of the library's oldest books, and is just an incredible piece of library porn. The library is lined with busts of famous philosophers and writers. And, fun fact for the Star Wars Fans, George Lucas used the Trinity library as the model for the Jedi Archives.
After tearing ourselves away from that old-book smell, we headed out into Dublin to pay homage to Oscar Wilde, whose quirky statue resides in front of his original home. I've always found him a moving figure in literary history – convicted as a sodomite for having an affair with a man and sentenced to hard labor. His health gone, he died in his 40s. His story aside, it's awesome to see how historically Catholic Ireland has now embraced gay rights and celebrates figures like Wilde – surprisingly so much more than parts of the U.S.
Having spent time with Oscar, we decided to squeeze in a visit to the Guinness Storehouse. And, damn, a lot of money has gone into this facility. It's seven floors of incredibly engaging, high-tech displays about both the beer-making process and the history of Guinness. Guinness's history connects to the overall history of Ireland, so the story is so much more than 'here are hops and they make beer.' It tells you about how Guinness was transported, how the industry of cask-making came and went, how the marketing changed to match the historical context.
Most importantly, of course, we received our official certification for learning to pour the perfect beer. (I lost mine, so you'll have to take my word for it.) The tour ends on the top floor Gravity Bar, featuring sweeping panoramic views of Dublin. This alone makes the tour cost worth it. If you go, I recommend grabbing reservations as you can get right in versus waiting out in the cold– with no beer.
Upon leaving the Storehouse we piled in the car, gripping our empty souvenir glasses, for one last stop before we departed Dublin – The Kilmainham Gaol.
Before arriving in Ireland, I knew embarrassingly little about Irish history. I mean, very little. The Gaol helped fill in some of the gaps as it housed the prisoners (and executions of the prisoners) of the Easter Uprising – one of the first times the Irish rebelled against British rule. While the initial rebellion wasn't particularly popular, the executions of the young men involved turned the tide of public opinion for the revolution.
The Gaol was built in Victorian style, and as much as a prison can be, it's quite beautiful. The Victorians apparently believed that natural light led to rehabilitation, so the blue sky served as the ceiling. The prison also housed rebels involved in the 1922 revolution that eventually resulted in a free-er Ireland. Our tour guide told us that many older Irish people still don' talk about the revolution - the turmoil of it is apparently still so deeply seated in the public psyche.
After the Gaol, we departed for Galway City, our pitstop in western Ireland on the way to the Cliffs of Moher. As if we hadn't done enough that day, we spent some time wandering the festive downtown– stopping to graze tourist shops and listen to street performers. Galway is like Ireland's Austin, except with traditional Irish music and no hipsters. We could have easily stayed days in Galway for days, walking its cobblestones, and listening to spoons played in pubs.
Day 3: The Gift of Gab atBlarney Castle
In the morning, sure, we were tired. But we were also ready to take on the Wild Atlantic Way. This drive takes you past miles of ancient stone walls, crashing waves and castles ruins so frequent they simply become part of the landscape.
Our destination was Doolin, where we'd catch a boat ride past the Cliffs of Moher. Doolin was quintessentially adorable – we bought thick Irish wool sweaters and claddagh rings, and drove through cottages nestled on the hills above the dock.
In true style, I got seasick the second I got on the boat (yes, I know the word psychosomatic) but held it together for the hour-long ride. The cliffs loomed above us, and we loved hearing that our boat had ferried Harry Potter cinemetographers when they captured the cliffs for use in the Necklace Horcrux Cave scene.
Puffins flew all around us, grazing the water with their wingtips, and tiny figures on the cliffside peered down at us from hundreds of feet up in the sky. The scene was idyllic.
After docking, we jumped back in the car for our trip south to Kinsale. On the way we stopped in at Blarney Castle to gather up some gift of gab by kissing the famed stone. Surprisingly, this ended up being my favorite destination in Ireland.
First of all, the grounds were charmingly speckled with flowers of every color, and the gray stone walls juxtaposed with the green fauna were the epitome of Instagrammable.
The Blarney castle itself was an interesting glimpse into feudal lifestyles – it dates back to the 1200s and exchanged hands hundreds of times over the years. In the 1800s, the house (featured above the post) was built on the site, overlooking a lovely lake.
After wandering the grounds, and looking for faeries (though they evaded us, I secretly hope some might have stowed away in my luggage), we headed for Kinsale.
Day Four: The tidiest town in Ireland
Our last day was spent traipsing round Kinsale, a southern seaside town where the locals are serious foodies and the houses are painted all shades of the rainbow.
We took a walking tour (recommended if you have a chance to visit) and learned about Kinsale's role in Irish history. It's seen some interesting moments in Irish military history - it was where the Lusitiana inquest occurred after the boat sunk nearby from torpedo in the first World War. And, it was also the site of a famous battle between Spain and England during the last time Spain looked to lay claim to the British Isles.
The colorful houses and great eating have apparently won it billing as the 'Tidiest Town in Ireland' many years running. It was lovely, calming and a bit chilly (the guide joked that the "Californians can't take it" and I'm like, "Yes, we can, but no, I can't.") We enjoyed a few last hours perusing its cute shops, and making some unnecessary purchases, before beginning the drive back to Dublin to catch our flight back home in the morning.
Day Five: DUB > KEF > SFO
As they say, all good things come to end. And when you don't have unlimited PTO, that end is too soon. As our WOW flight took off for back home on Monday, I settled in for a good nap and some reflection after the crazed travel pace. Two key thoughts emerged: 1) How will I ever stop drinking Guinness? and 2) I can't wait to return, see more of the country, collect more wool sweaters, and revel in the chilly sunshine.
Until next time, Emerald Isle.