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Castles, Castles and More Castles: My Perfect (and Insane) Road Trip Through Ireland and Northern Ireland

Castles, Castles and More Castles: My Perfect (and Insane) Road Trip Through Ireland and Northern Ireland

  • As we ‘wandered purposefully’ through the Emerald Isle, I realized that the Irish grass is the greenest of green whichever side you are on.

Ireland, I am going to say at the risk of sounding cliched, is green. But what excites you is that vibrant, young-leaf shade of green that the entire island is covered in. The Irish keep their trees pruned and lawns manicured to near-obsession that our mouths were agape the entire time we were driving through the countryside. In fact, they are so particular about keeping their country green that they decided to allocate very little space for roads. The narrow country roads that do not even qualify as bike paths where I live in the U.S. are two-way, shared by cars, trucks, tractors, bikes, and even pedestrians in Ireland. Makes you wonder if the process to lay roads in Ireland is to measure a four-wheeler and generously add a couple of millimeters for that extra wiggle room. Needless to say, I did not get any speeding tickets.

Kylemore Abbey is a 1,000-acre estate and a must-see site. Top photo, Kilkenny Castle. 

The capital city Dublin is fun and enjoys its notoriety as one of the World cities with the highest alcohol consumption. The countless pubs offer exciting (and slightly dangerous) nightlife and the city only settles down to rest in the wee hours. The famous Guinness Factory tells how close the Guinness story is to Irish culture. Alright, we even dined at a pub that was originally a church and at this point, I was thinking that this could only happen in Dublin. To be fair though, Dublin is like any other European city with full bars in most restaurants and hotels. The good thing is Dubliners eat good food with their liquor; I loved how fresh and delicious their fruits and vegetables were.

Trinity College in Dublin.

The Riverdance at the Gaiety Theatre was my first time watching an Irish dance show and gave me goosebumps. The Spire of Dublin is a large 120-meter tall steel monument and is a landmark that the locals endearingly refer to as ‘the pointless point’ or ‘the needless needle.’ A stroll along River Liffey with its numerous bridges is like a walk through History with each bridge with its own story. Ha’penny bridge, the first pedestrian bridge cast in iron got its name as they used to charge pedestrians half a penny to cross the bridge. The bustling Temple Bar area houses several cultural institutions, restaurants, and pubs and is a must-see tourist attraction. A tour of Dublin is not complete without seeing the Dublin castle, the Christ Church, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and Trinity College.

I took it as a challenge to execute this insane road trip itinerary put together by a friend who lives in Ireland. Got used to driving on the left side of the road quickly enough but to my frustration turning on wipers instead of turn signals continued for the next several days. Adding to my driving woes are the roundabouts in the cities, which seem to appear every few yards. I swear I was experiencing g-force injuries from all the circling we were doing. Pushing all obstacles aside, my son and I, along with another friend who trusted us, set off to discover the treasures this island nation has to offer.

Dublin Castle, now a government complex.

To my relief, our first stop at Malahide Castle came soon enough. After enjoying a tour of this 12th-century castle and surrounding gardens, we set off to Ardgillan Castle, which is only a half-hour drive. I am starting to grow jealous of the number of castles Ireland has.

Our next stop, Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland, which I was surprised to learn, is a separate province and is a part of the United Kingdom. The southern part of the island is the Republic of Ireland. The entire island of Ireland was England’s first colony and lived under British rule for over 700 years, only gaining freedom in 1921. The island was divided into two separate political entities and Northern Ireland chose to stay with the UK after 30 years of civil war. I started wondering if Ireland got its name for their ire at the British. Whatever the political maps and people’s opinions are, the borders are free between these two countries today.

The Spire of Dublin, which the locals endearingly refer to as ‘the needless needle’ or ‘the pointless point.’

Belfast, although not as big as Dublin, has a lot to offer. We spent nearly two hours at the Titanic museum, yes, the Titanic (ship) was built in Belfast. As we were getting lost in the numerous artifacts, galleries, and overwhelming numbers about Titanic, an interesting thing about Belfast really excited me. I love wearing linen and learning linen was a major industry in Belfast made me feel that kinship with the city. Belfast castle was the most photogenic of all the castles we visited so far I thought. Belfast Cathedral and Crumlin Road Gaol, a prison that now offers tours about paranormal activities are among the other attractions we were able to fit in.

Belfast, although not as big as Dublin, has a lot to offer. We spent nearly two hours at the Titanic museum, yes, the Titanic (ship) was built in Belfast.

After driving nearly two hours to Portrush, we were quite disappointed that tickets were sold out to walk across the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, a suspension bridge between the mainland and the island of Carrickarede that is 20 meters wide. The guard at the entrance, sensing my disappointment, not only let us in but let us in for free and that made the walk across extra wobbly and extra fun. Interlocking columns at Giant’s causeway looked almost manmade the way they were laid out by Mother Nature. Ended up visiting Dark Hedges from “Game of Thrones” on a bright and sunny day but after the free ropewalk, I am not complaining. On that note, Ireland was experiencing unusually warm weather and even star hotels not having air conditioners or fans was a little inconvenient.

Belfast Castle.

An afternoon at Glenveagh National Park was what we needed before calling it a day. The park felt more like an estate with a castle, gardens and walking trails. We found our own Elephant God, Lord Ganesha, sitting comfortably on a rock with his own pool filled with lotus flowers, a zen zone in the park.

Cliffs of Moher, which is often listed as “the most beautiful to visit.”

After a two-hour drive from Letterkenny, where we stayed overnight, we found another Zen spot — Glencar waterfall. However, the Zennest and the most photogenic place happened later that day — Kylemore Abbey, a thousand-acre estate I highly recommend visiting. The Abbey, this granite wonder against a mountainous backdrop reminded me of Tiger’s nest in Bhutan and its reflection in the water makes it a beautiful sight to watch. Staying that night in Galway was my first experience at a hostel and it only ended up being that way because I read “hostel” as “hotel” when making reservations. My 15-year-old son thought it was an indie experience and loved it.

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At Dark Hedges from “The Game of Thrones.”

Indie or otherwise, travel comes with its own share of woes. Oh, I am not even talking about the missed flights, the lost passports, or the swollen feet. Nope, it is also not about the unpredictable weather that finds you in shorts on a frigid day. It is the topic of bathroom fixtures that I want to touch upon. The first thing my family checks out as soon as we check into our hotel room is the bathroom. Yes, bathrooms are more important to us than the beds we sleep in. What I find interesting (read it as annoying) is how different (read it as weird) those bathroom fixtures are. Who knows what one has to do — wave, turn, twist — to get those faucets working. The showers that do not have markings as to which side is for hot water is another annoyance. Even if they do, sometimes a quarter millimeter could mean a thousand degrees in temperature that you are twisting yourself to get out of the water stream. Let’s just say every shower is a tiny adventure when you are traveling.

A two-hour drive takes you to the Cliffs of Moher, a natural wonder often listed as one of the most beautiful places in the world. After a walk on top of the cliffs and a boat ride to get a closer look, and several dozens of pictures, we were still reluctant to leave. An afternoon at the Bunratty castle and Folk Park was relaxing. The castle itself is a massive tower house and the interior rooms were a little creepy, I think staged to be that way. Folk Park with a village street experience, animal farms, a fairy trail, and farmhouses was fun.

On Ha’penny Bridge on River Liffey in Dublin with my son.

Driving through Killarney National Park and enjoying its beautiful sights, we reached the Ring of Kerry. With the time we had left, to do or not to was the question, and I am glad we took the plunge. The scenic loop through the towns of Sneem, Kenmare, etc., and the breathtaking views of the beaches made the drive worthwhile, and we even managed to reach our next attraction, Rock of Cashel, on time. By the way, for most attractions in Ireland, we had to buy our tickets ahead of time to ensure entry, but some of them were timed so scrambling to get there on time was a feat. Perched on top of a green hill, the Rock of Cashel was fun to explore. Stay in Kilkenny was my first Bed and Breakfast experience — our hostess was hospitable but was complaining about water shortage.

With only a day left to explore, we spent some time exploring the streets of Kilkenny. In all its grandeur, the Kilkenny Castle was a good one to end our tour with, before heading to Newbridge to meet with my generous friend and his family who not only put together the itinerary but made sure that we were tracking to it each day. Driving was a little stressful in the beginning but given the high concentration of attractions — castles, forts, and natural wonders, I would do it again in a heartbeat. Thank you, Ireland for your hospitality!

Padma Nadella is an IT professional who lives in Eagan, Minnesota with her husband and 15-year-old son. She manages a Facebook group for Minnesotans to collaborate on events and activities related to health and fitness. The group now has over two thousand members. Jack of all trades, she enjoys playing volleyball, traveling the world, and entertaining mostly, but dabbles in everything else.

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