From Ireland’s Capitols to its Countryside

We’ve thoroughly enjoyed our time in this island’s two capitols: Dublin and Belfast. But now it’s time for a change of pace, so we hit the road to experience the castles and cliffs of the beautiful Irish countryside.

We departed from Belfast by way of the “leafy suburbs”. As is the case in most countries, the wealthier areas were spared the violence and disruption of “the troubles” discussed in earlier posts. The beautiful homes facing the water were much like those in many of the wealthier neighborhoods in the USA.

At one time, oh so many years ago, I could never have imagined that I’d be taking a bus tour. But let me tell you, at this stage in my life, it’s a great way to travel. No getting lost, no speeding tickets, no fruitless searches for rest rooms. It’s all taken care of. All I have to do is sit back, gaze out the window and chat with my fellow travelers.

Our group

We really lucked out, with a huge, comfortable bus for only 11 of us, and a delightful driver, Michael, who clearly loves his job. The repartee between Joe and Michael keeps all of us entertained and laughing.

Our drive to Ballycastle was broken up with multiple stops. At the first one, Joe, our guide, pointed out that this white rock is composed of the exact same material as the White Cliffs of Dover. About 350 million years ago, this very rock was being formed somewhere south of the equator. I don’t know about you, but I find that little fact fascinating. I’m sure my geologist neighbor, Ed, would agree. He would undoubtedly have been able to identify the dark streaks in the rock as flint, which was highly prized for its sharpness, and its fire making properties.

Our route along the Antrim coast took us past picturesque little fishing villages like this one.

I loved that the windows of this vacant building were painted to look like they were festooned with flower boxes.

Our final stop before Ballycastle was at the Glenariff Forest Park, which gave us the opportunity to get out of the bus and stroll along the river to our restaurant.

One of the waterfalls in Glenariff Forest

Ballycastle’s Marine Hotel was a bit quirky, but the entire staff was so friendly and accommodating, and the location across from the beach was fantastic.

Because the weather was so wonderful, we couldn’t resist a walk along the beach, before we strolled into town for a delicious and inexpensive dinner at the Anzac Restaurant.

Ballycastle was the perfect jumping off point for the following day’s excursions to Dunluce Castle and The Giants Causeway. Although Dunluce Castle is in ruins, you get a feel for what life was like way back in the 1600’s. The castle was built high on a cliff, surrounded by water, with access only via a drawbridge. Clearly, those were scary times!

Joe quickly figured out that Janet and I are the walkers in this group, so he always made sure to tell us about more challenging hikes. The Giant’s Causeway offers several trails, plus a shuttle bus for those who prefer to ride. We chose the red course, labeled the most difficult, because of the spectacular views Joe promised us. He was right!

Even if you do opt for the easier trail, the scenery is still pretty dramatic, especially if you are intrigued by rocks, volcanic activity and ocean views.

Our last stop in Northern Ireland will be Derry —or Londonderry, if you are aligned with the British, or the Protestants, before heading back into the Republic of Ireland and to our hotel in Donegal.

Belfast: The Troubles and The Titanic

We left the Republic of Ireland, crossing into Northern Ireland two days ago, just in time to get our first experience with legendary Irish weather. Our walking tour was soggy, and although we were undaunted, we were grateful when our Tour Leader took us on a quick detour into the nearby mall. Not only did we get a chance to dry off, we also ascended to the mall’s top floor to take in this magnificent view.

Okay, so maybe THAT day’s view wasn’t all that magnificent, but you have to admit, it is pretty cool to have a glass dome atop a shopping mall.
The next day’s panoramic view was significantly better because we were higher up, and the weather cooperated.

This photo was taken from the Grand Central Hotel’s cocktail lounge. No, we didn’t have a drink there, because I suspect the cost of a cocktail would have been as much as our full dinner at a nearby pub. Joe, our tour leader, took us there for a “ gawk”, and that’s exactly what we did.

Although the city is lovely, and I have many photos to prove that, the real highlight of our time in Belfast was our visit to The Felon’s Club. We spent the morning with three men who, back in the day, were formerly enemies: a loyalist, a British soldier, and an IRA member. They each told us a little about themselves, their backgrounds, their activities during “the troubles”, their time in prison and what their lives are like today. It was a riveting discussion that was particularly relevant now, given the divisiveness we are currently experiencing in our own country. What was encouraging was where they are NOW. All three have been working toward reconciliation and educating others about “the troubles”. All three are committed to the peace process.

I had forgotten the important role George Mitchell and Bill Clinton played during peace negotiations. One key element of the negotiations was a referendum (with no date specified) on whether or not Ireland should be reunited. When asked if the referendum were held today, only the former member of the IRA was able to say for sure how he would vote. The other two wanted to know more about the impact the change would have on their lives. Their focus was on the issues, not on former identities as a member of a particular group. I would have loved to spend more time with them, but our Black Cab Tour was scheduled, so off we went to view the murals painted on Belfast’s walls.

During our tour, the final song from the Broadway musical “Hamilton” kept playing in my head: “Who lives, who dies, who tells our story”.

In the photo below, our cab driver is holding a rubber bullet, to show us how huge they were. He then pointed out the names of civilians, carved into the wall, who died after being hit by rubber bullets. By telling their stories, the black cab drivers and the members of the Felons Club are keeping their memories alive.

The afternoon was spent at the Titanic Museum, an experiential museum, where another sad story was told—not only about those who went down with the ship. We also learned about the workers who built the ship.

It was a rather poignant day, so we were only too glad the sun was shining as we walked back to our hotel.

We are all quite happy that we were leaving Belfast BEFORE King Charles III arrived. Yes, I know it is a historic event, but the crowds and traffic might have made it difficult to see as much as we did.

Three Glorious Days in Dublin

Spending our last night in Dublin at the Castle Vaults Pub was a wise decision indeed. I had my best sleep yet, and am feeling grand this morning.

I’ve either been too busy or too tired to write, so this is a stream of consciousness, unproof-read post, hastily done before we board our coach to Belfast.

The Belvedere Hotel is perfectly located, close to a HOHO stop, and within walking distance of all the sights, but away from the madness of Temple Bar. Although it has great WiFi, I was glad that I had purchased the Aíralo eSim, because I used it frequently while walking around Dublin. My sense of direction is legendary, and I soon discovered my travel buddy, Janet’s, is equally bad. Fortunately, Aíralo has been working great and it has helped us to avoid wrong turns more than once.

About the HOHO: in an earlier post, I talked about the three different Dublin options, and my research pointed me in the direction of Do Dublin, the green bus. It was the perfect choice for us. We spent our jet lagged arrival day hopping on, and didn’t hop off till the end of the route. It gave us exactly what we needed, a very helpful overview of Dublin’s most important sights, and it was over just when we were ready for lunch. The Parnell Pub was recommended by the driver who picked me up at the airport, and he didn’t steer us wrong. The soup of the day was wonderful and the bread was out of this world, but the chicken wings could have been skipped. Best of all, the price was right—only 11 Euros.

Our HOHO ticket included two freebies. We used the ticket to The Little Museum on our jet lag day. It is located in a Georgian House, near St. Stephen’s Green, and is packed with memorabilia, including a room devoted to the band U2.

I’m not a fan, so instead, here’s the model of Admiral Nelson’s column, which was blown up in the ‘60s.

It was replaced by the Spire, affectionately dubbed by the locals “the stiffy by the Liffey” or “the stiletto in the ghetto”. I didn’t find the Spire visually pleasing, so haven’t included a photo. The nick names, however, should give you a really good idea of what the Spire looks like!

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the Trinity area, until it was time for the early bird special at a restaurant recommended by my blogging buddy, over at Aging Gracefully My Ass. Thank you, AGMA.

This was NOT false advertising. The food WAS great, the service friendly, and their Early Bird Special offered excellent options. Luckily, we went with the 2 course option because their portions were so generous, we were unable to finish them. In fact, weliked this restaurant so much, we actually toyed with returning, but Dublin offers far too many attractive alternatives.

The other freebie that came with the Do Dublin HOHO was the “Paddy Liddy Walking Tour”. Here in Ireland, though, it is called the PAT Liddy Walking Tour. And yes, there really IS a Pat Liddy, who is now in his 80’s. We saved that for our second day in Dublin and we were SO glad we did. Jim, our tour guide was AMAZING! He knew so much about the history of Dublin, and walked us around to spots we never would have found on our own.

Here’s Jim, standing in front of a Clery’s department Store, which will be reopening in October. He’s explaining that, back in the day, the favorite Friday night meeting spot for his contemporaries, was under the Clery clock at at 7 PM. (The clock is that black thing on the building, right behind his head). If, by 7:30, your date hadn’t shown up, that meant you were being stood up. Sometimes, though,when you looked around, there were members of the opposite gender who shared a similar fate, which presented an opportunity to make a new friend and possibly experience a Hollywood ending.

As you walk through Dublin, be sure to look down occasionally. You’ll see plaques like this one, which shows Viking artifacts that were taken from the ground below. When I did 23 and me, and discovered that I had Viking ancestry, I had assumed that it was from a “rape, pillage and plunder” Viking excursion into Ireland. Maybe not. Apparently, the Vikings had a trading settlement in Dublin.

I couldn’t get a good shot of the Music Hall where Handel’s Messiah debuted. Every year, since 1772, it is played on April 13 at 1 PM to commemorate its first concert. During COVID, on that date and time, one of the area residents placed her speakers in her open window to keep up the tradition. Can’t you just hear the hallelujah chorus blasting through the neighborhood? That must have lifted the spirits of her neighbors at a time when spirits definitely needed to be lifted.

During our tour, Jim walked us through the Temple Bar area. Prior to coming to Dublin, I had mistakenly thought there was ONE bar, called Temple. Nope, it is the name of the land, formerly owned by a guy named Temple, and the “Bar” part was shortened from the “Barricades”, which were built along the Liffey River.

I was horrified to see that the hotel I had booked for my return trip to Dublin was in “ party central”, right next to a Hard Rock Cafe. After listening to Jim’s description of what the area was like on most weekends, I decided to look elsewhere, so at the end of the tour, I asked Jim for hotel recommendations. Well,that question turned into a delightful 2 hour lunch with our wonderful, fascinating guide at his favorite pub. At the end, we followed his recommendation to visit the National Portrait Gallery, before heading back to the hotel for the official start of our OAT trip.

There are 11 of us on the tour: 3 couples and 5 singles. We had an opportunity to converse over our welcome dinner, and I feel very lucky to have joined such an interesting and congenial group. I’m looking forward to getting to know them better over the next two weeks.

We started our final day in Dublin with a brief tour of the city. It wasn’t as in depth as the Pat Liddy walking tour, and because there was only a slight overlap, I was glad we were able to do both. As you can see from the photo of the Oscar Wilde statue atop this blog, we were blessed with fantastic weather.

Our next stop was a tour of the fascinating, multi media EPIC Museum.

This beautiful sculpture shows the evolution of transportation from the early ships to modern aircraft
Recognize any Irish Americans in this collage?

There is so much more to say about this fascinating city, but I’ll end this post by saying I’m so very glad I’ll be returning to Dublin in 2 weeks!

Dublin HOHO

What’s a great way to get over jet lag and get a feel for the lay of the land/city? A Hop On Hop Off bus checks all the boxes. Simple, right?

Not so in Dublin. In THAT city you have THREE choices! There’s Do Dublin, The Big Bus and City Sightseeing. During my working days, I’d show up in the city, and take whichever option I stumbled across first. No more. No sir, I’m a retiree, and one thing I have in abundance is discretionary time. Enough to allow me to check out each website, read a few reviews, look at maps and compare prices and then share what I learned with my followers (who I dearly love).

Right off the bat, I eliminated City Sightseeing. According to their website, buses run every 45 to 60 minutes, while the other two choices run every 20 or 30 minutes. Not only that, but the top is completely open–which might not be such a good thing with Ireland’s usual weather. Plus one of the “Traveler’s Tips” on their website was: “Drivers do not stop at each individual stop so advance notice needs to be given.” If you aren’t familiar with the city, how are you supposed to give advance notice? Still, I’ve provided the link in case you want to see for yourself.

The other two options have very informative websites, with great interactive route maps. The routes ARE different, so that will probably be the deciding factor for many.

Do Dublin’s buses are green; Big Bus‘ are red (like City Sightseeing). Both have partially open tops. Both have 25 stops, and a complete loop takes roughly the same time. Both offer live and recorded commentary, with Do Dublin’s type of commentary marked on the front of the bus. Do Dublin provides a voucher for free access to the “little museum”. Both offer walking tours: Big Bus provides a tour of Dublin’s small streets, while Do Dublin offers a Paddy Liddy walking tour, which means nothing to me, but apparently they think it is a selling point.

The cost for both is comparable, although Do Dublin offers a senior rate: $30 for 48 hours if you buy direct, ($30.49 if you buy from Viator- a negligible difference–but if you use Viator, it’s still worth going to the other vendors’ web site–they are that good). Big Bus’ prices are $36 for 48 hours and $27 for 24 hours, pennies more if you book through Viator. The 48 hour passes cost only a hair more than the 24 hour passes, so it made sense to me to get the flexibility of the 48 hour pass.

Big Bus also has a night tour that you can add for $18. Do Dublin offers a “freedom ticket” which includes free access to the public transportation system. Big Bus regular tours end at 6 PM, while Do Dublin goes for an additional hour, until 7 PM.

So which one will I choose? I’m going with Do Dublin, because within one hour of sending them a question, they responded with the answer I was hoping to get. Although I will have to specify a date to purchase a 48 hour ticket, I learned that the ticket will be valid for one year from that date of purchase. Perfect! If I’m so badly jet lagged on arrival date that I’m in danger of falling asleep on the ride, I can use my ticket for the two days after arrival. I’m impressed with their customer service, so they are getting my business. I’ll let you know about Paddy Liddy in a future post.

Five and a Half Weeks, Carry On Only

This fall, I will be experiencing three different kinds of travel: a sixteen day OAT trip to Ireland, two weeks with friends at two different vacation rentals in England and eight days on my own in London and Paris. After reading about the problems with lost luggage and flight cancellations, it seems prudent to forgo checking luggage.

It can be done. I know, because I’ve done it before, but the aging process has killed a whole lot of memory cells. (Or was it copious amounts of wine? Or both?) Covid has put a damper on the frequency of our travel, and climate change has made it very difficult to predict what weather will be like in September and October. All of the above has made me feel like a travel newbie, so this blog post is primarily for me (as a memory aid) and for my travel buddy, Sally, who asked for packing tips. Okay, so that was fair warning that this will be a stream of consciousness post–but I hope others will find the information helpful.

It all starts with the right luggage. Back in the day when I was traveling regularly, I saw many travelers using a 4 wheeled clamshell carryon, so I ordered a cheap one from Amazon, in a very distinctive color. I’ve used it many times since my 2018 purchase and have been very pleased with the amount of stuff it can hold.

The blue bag was a recent purchase, made after I saw it demonstrated on a very misleading Facebook video. The video showed the bag standing upright, which made it very easy to pack, with double zippers on the bottom, so it could be compressed and used as a shoulder bag. You’ve probably seen it too. Take a look at what it REALLY is like. Although the photo doesn’t show there is no 2nd zipper on the bottom (so no shoulder bag option), trust me. It doesn’t have one. You CAN see that it CLEARLY is incapable of standing upright. Having said that, I’m finding its light weight and many pockets make it an attractive 2nd bag. Plus I discovered a “work around”. If you stick a full packing cube in the bottom compartment, the bag WILL stand upright (sorta), making it much easier to load. That bottom compartment is jammed with clothing that I don’t expect to use during my first 8-10 days traveling.

Okay: Luggage chosen. Everything I take has to fit into those two bags. Next step: what are the airline rules? For the international flight, I decided to cash in my miles and fly business. Ordinarily, I would have saved those miles for a much longer flight, but during covid, I figured the additional space business offers was worth using those miles, plus two carryons will be no problem. My regional flight from Dublin to Newquay, however, is a different story. The best I could do was buy a slightly more expensive ticket that allows one carry on and one checked bag, so I just need to make sure that my carryon is not too heavy. With less than 80 people on the flight, a small destination airport, and a little luck, all should go well, but just in case, I have purchased an Apple Air Tag so, if necessary, I can hunt down my checked luggage.

I always make a packing list, which helps me remember what I need to pack, what I HAVE packed, and serves as an inventory for insurance purposes should my luggage get lost or stolen. I start laying out everything in the guest room a couple weeks before departure. I sort items into two piles: need to have, nice to have. I won’t insert everything into my luggage until the day before departure, but this advanced gathering helps me identify any gaps that a shopping trip needs to rectify.

In addition to packing cubes, I also use jumbo zip lock bags, which allow me to see the contents AND if you sit on them, they compress very nicely. Jumbo zip lock bags also can be used as a washing machine. All you need is a little soap and water, some dirty clothes, then zip and shake, shake shake. My OTHER friend named Sally recommended the various clips and hangers–all available through Amazon. The microfiber towel is a “nice to have” that may or may not make it past the final cut.

I expect that I will only have to hand wash during the 16 day OAT trip, because the following two weeks will be spent in vacation rentals (one with VRBO and one with AirBNB, so I will have access to washers and dryers.)

Dressing in layers is always good advice, especially for longer trips and particularly with the climate changes we have been experiencing. Although I’ll do a last minute weather check before packing, with a trip this length, it makes sense to be prepared for warm, cool and wet weather.

Because my iPhone 11 takes photos that suit my purposes (internet posts, memory jogs, and photo book creation), I no longer carry a camera. But my electronic devices keep increasing, along with their various cables and connectors. My Apple Watch and iPad both use the new USB C, while my iPhone uses the Lightening charger, which has a USB A dangling on the end of it. And of course, because I will be in the UK and Northern Europe, I need two different types of plug adapters–a G for the UK (that sucker is HUGE) and an F for France. I have those. But what if I want to charge multiple devices? I don’t want to carry an adapter for each. And what if there aren’t a lot of outlets in the room? Well, take a look at this very cool, very compact “power strip” that accommodates both kinds of USBs. And it only requires ONE G plug. Being obsessive compulsive, I had to try it out at home to make sure I could fit everything in, and that I had the correct combo of electrical “thingies”. It may look like spaghetti to the untrained eye, but to ME it looks like success. (I took the photo with my iPhone, which is why the lightening cable is just dangling there.) Best of all–these plugs and wires take up less room than my camera did.

So now that I have space efficient charging equipment–the next step is finding affordable internet connections. In the past, I have used a variety of plans: for short trips, I used Verizon’s Travel Pass, which charged $10 for every 24 hours you accessed the internet. For our trip to Australia in 2019, I purchased a local plan, which required me to install a different physical SIM card on my phone. That was much less expensive than the $100 Verizon monthly international plan with 5 GB.

Now there is a MUCH better option that Ann Bouey (who I’ve never met) posted about on the Friends of OAT Facebook page. She suggested that I check out Airalo. For $20, I was able to purchase an eSIM with 5 GB of data that would work in 39 European countries (I only need 3!) for 30 days. Best of all, I will be able to “top up” another GB for $5 to have access for 7 more days– all for 1/4 of the cost of a monthly Verizon plan.

Here’s the catch: You have to have an unlocked phone that will accommodate an eSIM. Airalo only provides access to the internet, no phone line. I rarely use voice while traveling anyway, but if the need arises, I can use WhatsApp or some other application–like FaceTime, or Google Duo.

Remember a few sentences ago, I mentioned that I used a physical SIM card in Australia? I knew that the iPhone 11 allows owners to have two different phone numbers via a physical SIM and an eSIM. So, I figured I’d set the phone up so that I could add a physical SIM card when traveling, with my Verizon phone and internet connection utilizing the eSIM slot. (Yeah, I don’t know what it is either–I just know the words and what it does). That caused a bit of a kerfuffle when I downloaded the Airalo eSIM. After consulting with Airalo customer service, then spending time in both the Apple and Verizon stores, the Verizon rep finally figured out that she had to replace my current SIM card and start again. If that all sounds like technical mumbo jumbo, it is. Here’s hoping that it is information you never need! If you don’t, then the Airalo download is very, very easy. The 30 days don’t start until I arrive in one of the European countries, and turn it on.

What else have I learned during my trip preparation? I discovered the Rick Steves app, which allowed me to download talks, including, for example, a guided tour of the Orsay Museum, and a Dublin City Walk, complete with a map–and a whole lot of other stuff.

Well, the consciousness lingers, but the stream has run dry.