By Carol Sorgen
“Are you sure you want to drive?” I asked my intrepid traveling companion while planning a vacation to Ireland.
Having been to the Emerald Isle before, I was somewhat familiar with Ireland’s small country roads, roundabouts (or traffic circles) every which way you turn, and shortage of such safety features as guardrails.
After arriving in Shannon on a dark and rainy morning, we picked up our rental (spring for a GPS!). With itinerary in hand, we began our weeklong adventure in the western part of the country, wending our way south and east, eventually ending in Dublin.
Dromoland Castle Hotel
Our first destination, Dromoland Castle Hotel, is (theoretically) just 20 minutes from Shannon Airport in County Clare. It didn’t take long before we came upon our first roundabout, followed immediately by our GPS chirping in her Irish brogue, “Recalculate, recalculate,” a phrase we were going to become all too familiar with over the course of our travels.
We soon arrived at Dromoland, which dates back to the 16th century. It was the ancestral home of the O’Briens, Barons ofInchiquin, one of the few native Gaelic families of royal blood and direct descendants of Brian Boroimhe (Boru), High King of Ireland in the 11th century.
The following morning we took part in one of Dromoland’s signature activities, a “Hawk Walk.” The walk is just one of a number of programs for experiencing this ancient sport, during which you learn about the natural history of birds of prey and their role in the environment, and (if willing) take part in handling and flying of one of the resident Harris hawks. This really is an experience not to be missed, especially in the midst of the Castle’s 410 park-like acres.
Having survived the experience of serving as a human landing strip, it was back into the car for an excursion to the nearby village of Bunratty, complete with its own 15th-century castle and a re-created village to tour (and shop your way through). The castle offers a medieval dinner in the evenings.
While it is a tourist attraction, it was —much to my surprise — a thoroughly enjoyable one. If you’re hungry or thirsty during the day or want to skip the banquet, the authentic and historic Durty Nelly’s pub is steps away from the castle and makes a nice stop for a pint of Guinness and a platter of fish and chips.
One more night at Dromoland and then it was time for Adare, billed as the “prettiest village in Ireland,” with its many traditional thatched roof cottages.
Back in the car and it was off to Killarney, in southwest Ireland’s County Kerry, accompanied by the much-too-frequent “recalculate” admonishments from our disembodied traveling companion. By late afternoon, we arrived at the Killarney Park Hotel our digs for the night. Located right in the center of town, the Killarney Park is a sleek, contemporary hotel with all the “mod cons” and amenities you could ask for. The town of Killarney, long popular with the Irish themselves, gained international exposure when Queen Victoria first visited in 1861.
The town itself is a bit touristy, but adjacent to our hotel was the 25,000-acre Killarney National Park, a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts who come to enjoy the combination of mountains, lakes, woodlands, waterfalls, and wildlife. For history and architecture buffs, there’s also the 19th-century Muckross House and Gardens. You can explore all this on foot, bicycle, horseback, or a horse-drawn “jaunting car.”
Ring of Kerry
Along with the park, the biggest attraction when staying in Killarney (indeed in all of Ireland) is the nearby Ring of Kerry, the 110-mile circular route of truly spectacular coastal scenery.
Keep the car parked in your hotel lot and leave the driving here to someone else. Buses are one way to go, but we opted to hire a private guide recommended by the hotel, which graciously made the arrangements for us. With our driver’s skill behind the wheel and expert commentary, we were free to sit back and enjoy the scenery that neither of us would have been able to concentrate on had we been driving ourselves.
Leaving Killarney the next day, we made the scenic drive to the picturesque fishing village of Kinsale in County Cork. This holiday destination is not as well known to Americans as it is to Irish and European visitors, who come to enjoy fishing, sailing, and annual gourmet and jazz festivals.
Only one last drive remained this time to Dublin, where we had already done enough research to know that we didn’t want to —and didn’t need to — drive in the city. Dublin is well worth more than a day’s visit, but if you do have only a day to spend, you can opt for a hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus tour of the city, or narrow down your itinerary. Any or all of these would make for a perfect Dublin day — stroll down lively GraftonStreet, with its boutiques, cafes, pubs, and entertaining street performers; visit the Book of Kells at Trinity College; cruise the River Liffey; and enjoy an Irish beer and music at one of Dublin’s many pubs.
Sadly, it was home to the States the following morning, though we were happy to finally be able to leave the transporting to others.
For information, visit irishtourism.com.