Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Thanksgiving in Ireland

Dublin Castle
I just got back from an extended Thanksgiving weekend on the Emerald Isle, and I'm not quite ready to start working.  Traveling can be exhausting, but it is definitely rewarding!  I got a lot of "looks" when I told people how I would be traveling to Ireland for a few days over Thanksgiving weekend.  Most of those looks were followed by comments like "Isn't that a long flight?"  or "Only a few days?".  Well folks, here in the US we don't get as much vacation time as elsewhere in the world, and I have to seize these breaks whenever I can - even if they are short!

Wednesday evening, I caught a short flight to Philadelphia and then the red eye to Dublin for my weekend in Ireland.  Fortunately, I slept for most of the flight and was ready to go when my plane landed.  The Dublin airport is not very far from the city center and after doing some research, I decided on taking the AirCoach bus for 12 euros round trip to my hotel.  I was able to buy tickets right at the currency exchange counter by baggage claim.  The Trinity Capital Hotel was only 3 stops from the airport.  When I arrived around 10 am, I got lucky because my room was ready much earlier than the 3pm check-in time.  I was able to shower, change, and freshen up before my 1pm Sandemans free walking tour of the city. 

Christchurch Cathedral
Reading about the tour online, I expected to meet the group in front of the city hall building.  As it turns out, my idea of front is not their idea of front and after a few minutes wandering, I found the group in the side courtyard area.  The next three hours were spent exploring the city.  For a very cold and rainy day, three hours walking outside were a bit torturous.  Even though my tour guide was very knowledgeable and passionate about Irish history, I don't think I can recommend going on this tour in poor weather.  Actually, even in nice weather, I'd say to skip it unless you are a really big history buff.  Definitely don't take kids.  They will be very bored.  Perhaps the stout and the city tour would have been a better option?

After the tour, I needed to go somewhere to warm up before dinner.  What better way to do so then to visit the Jameson Distillery and enjoy some quality Irish Whiskey?  While they don't actually make Jameson at the site in Dublin, it was still a fun tour.  It reminded me a lot of the Sam Adams tour here in Boston.  We learned how the triple distillation process works and got to have some samples.  There was even a group of people who were taste testers and got to compare Jameson against some of the leading Scottish and American whiskeys.  Though I would not appreciate "tasting" different shots of whiskey, I did enjoy sipping on my complimentary Jameson and ginger.  I would recommend coming here on your trip. It is a bit out of the way from the other landmarks, but you can walk there if you want or hop in a cab like I did. 

Jameson Distillery
My initials plans for dinner fell to the wayside because I was not going to walk all the way back to St. Stephens green in the rain.  A much better plan was to pop in to a pub in the Fitzsimmons Pub in Temple Bar area and listen to some live music while sipping on a Guinness and chowing on fish and chips. It felt like a very authentic experience, to a tourist at least.  Happy Thanksgiving from Ireland!

I blame the time difference as well as walking a good portion of the previous day on not getting up in time for breakfast on Friday.  When I finally did get up and moving, Temple Bar was calling my name for a cornish pasty from Hamley's.  The reviews online all made it seem outstanding, and while it was quite good, I wouldn't say it was incredible.  At this point, I was 2 for 2 when it comes to having potatoes in my meal.  From there, I wandered into a few shops and past some landmarks. 

Gradually, I made my way to the Guinness Factory Storehouse.  It is crazy how different this was from my Jameson experience.  It is like walking into Disneyland.  Everything is very "mass" oriented.  There is no guide, but over 7 floors of random Guinness stuff, including an entire floor dedicated to marketing materials and a bar where you can learn how to poor the perfect pint of the black stuff - which I am now certified in, thank you very much.  The gravity bar on the top floor provides nice views of the city, but it packed with people and nowhere to sit.  I'm pretty sure I spent close to 2.5 hours in here, with at least 1/2 hour in the store.  This is also a must-do while in Dublin!

The perfect pour of Guinness
That afternoon I wandered through the city some more in search of a post office so that I could mail some postcards.  At this point, it became pretty obvious to me that Ireland is in a recession right now and a lot of people are struggling to find work.  There were a lot of social services offices and I passed by several homeless shelters.  Most of the shops are not very fancy (with the exception of Grafton Street) and the city just didn't feel like it was at its peak.  It would have been really interesting to visit prior to 2008 so that I could have made a comparison to when it was doing really well.

Dinner that night was set for 7pm at the Brazenhead.  This is supposedly the oldest pub in Ireland.  I made my reservations in advance and walked into a pub with no hostess or waiter/waitress in sight.  I've found that this is very common in the places I ate.  Most of the pubs are self-seated, however the bartenders are usually happy to help answer questions.  Imagine my surprise though when their website encourages reservations.. hmm.  I finally asked the bartender about it, and he pulled out a piece of paper from behind the bar and "found my reservation".  A group of very loud men were sitting at the table that was supposed to be reserved and I ended up waiting a little while before being seated in an isolated back room.  Eventually other people came in to sit down, but at first it was very odd.  I ordered the Irish Stew and a Bulmers.  I love hard cider and this was pretty good.  My stew was delicious!  For dessert I had a Baileys coffee and some cheesecake.  A Baileys coffee is actually very different from an Irish coffee.  It is very delicious though and should be tried by everyone at least once.  I also feel the need to point out there were a few scoops of mashed potatoes in my stew, so I am now 3 for 3 with potatoes in my meal.

King John's Castle on the River Shannon
The next morning I got up very early and caught an Extreme Ireland bus for my day tour through the countryside.  I actually booked the tour through Viator, but looking back on it, it probably would have been better to do it directly through the vender.  I didn't realize at the time that Viator outsourced this tour and I don't like having to pay a finders fee when I can avoid it.  Our itinerary for the day started with several hours on the bus heading southwest out of the city.  The first stop was in Limerick to view King John's Castle across the river Shannon and the treaty stone.  This was a quick stop and was mostly for pictures.  For those of you who can't keep your kings straight, King John was the bad guy in Robin Hood.  :)

Around 11:30, the bus arrived at the Cliffs of Moher.  We really lucked out because the skies were clear and we were able to see the cliffs very well.  Our guide mentioned that the previous tours didn't see the cliffs at all because of all the mist.  Recently, they built a nice museum type of thing with a cafe and look out points right into the side of the cliffs.  It's not as fancy as the lookouts at Niagara Falls, but it is a nice place to come in and warm up after being out in the wind.  There are a few walking paths to take around the cliffs, but apparently this doesn't keep people from getting too close to the edge.  I wonder how many people get blown over the edge in a year?  That drop does not look too fun.  In the summer, you can actually hop on a boat to the Aran Islands and view the cliffs from the bottom looking up.

The Cliffs of Moher
After spending a few hours at the cliffs, we drove into Doolin for a lunch at a pub.  I opted for another authentic meal and had the boiled bacon and cabbage.  It was hear I learned that the American word for bacon is not the same thing as the Irish interpretation of bacon.  In fact, when they say bacon, they really mean ham.  Either way, I enjoy eating piggies, so I was content with my meal. Yes, this also came with three scoops of mashed potatoes and I am now 4 for 4.  I washed it all down with some Guinness and I was ready for the second part of the tour.

After lunch, we had some time for a small trek around the karst region of the Burren.  This was pretty cool!  The entire region is covered in limestone that was deposited along the coast by glaciers a long time ago.  In the summer, there is some pretty unique plants and flowers, but we didn't really see very much because it is winter.  From there, we made a quick stop at the 12th century Corcomroe Abbey.   At this point, I've seen a lot of ruins in Ireland, but this was by far, the creepiest!  There were a lot of very old graves and you couldn't really walk without stepping on one.

The Burren
After a very long bus ride back to Dublin, I dreaded having to pack for my return flight home.  Because of my poor planning and lack of a dinner reservation (I should have known better, it was around 8pm on a Saturday night), I ended up at TGI Fridays for a not very delicious meal.  Sadly, I did not get any potatoes here and my potato dining record concluded with 4 for 5.   I did get a Caesar salad with "bacon aka ham" and one last Bulmers before I went home to pack.  The next morning I was up and on the Aircoach back to the airport.  At this point, I was really looking forward to picking up some chocolate at the duty free stores in the airport.  I was very disappointed to find that there were no Kinder Schokobons anywhere!  Cadbury has a monopoly here!  How unfair is that?  In addition, the airport has incorporated US Customs prior to leaving the country, so you had to leave the main airport section and wait in a tiny little area with no restaurants before your flight.  When I finally boarded the plane, I left Ireland without a full belly or any chocolate.

Maybe next time.

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