“Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life – and travel – leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks – on your body or on your heart – are beautiful. Often though, they hurt.”-Anthony Bourdain
I have yet to be really hurt by my travel experiences. My heart ached for the people of Serbia, their long, bloody history, their economic hardships, the beauty of the country, but I have never been ripped apart because of something that I have seen around the world. This quotation resonates with me so much at this point in my travel journey, because all of the marks that travel has left on me are beautiful. They are beautiful, wonderful, incandescent marks on my heart that fill me with joy when I contemplate them.
Ireland left some pretty nice marks on my heart. Ireland helped me recognize an aspect of my character that has been dormant for years, and brought me closer to My Creator (regardless if you believe in God, or science, or nature, I believe we all have those aha moments, where life just seems to make perfect sense; I had one of those moments in Ireland. If you just want to read about that part of my journey, scroll down to where you see “The Cliffs of Moher”).
But, for those of you seeking more practical advice, let me offer you just a bit on how I planned, and what I saw on the Emerald Isle.
The Planning Phase
Ireland is another one of those places that I knew I would love even before setting a foot in the country. Why? Well, I love the outgoingness of Irish people, their love of life, happy, outgoing personalities, and that red hair, need I say more?
I’ve gotten wildly off topic, bottom line, I knew I wanted to visit this magical green island, filled with such an interesting assortment of people. Ireland has always filled me with wander. It’s the land of leprechans, magic, beautiful emerald mountains, and rainbows and pots of gold.
From a planner’s perspective, Ireland was a bit more difficult for me than any of my other trips. When visiting a country for the first time, I always research using tripadvisor, my favorite blogs, and lonely planet (and lets be real, bing.com image search also steers me in the right direction) so I can start with a list of “must dos”. But, my must dos were really far apart in Ireland. And, Ireland does not have the kind of transportation system that the rest of Europe has; in addition, the must see places are mostly small towns, or in the middle of no where.
My friends who had visited Ireland previously suggested I rent a car and drive around, but I didn’t really want to drive around Ireland by myself. And I was downright terrified of having to drive on the left hand side of the road. When driving around the country I wanted to blissfully look out the windows without being scared I was going to accidentally run into someone or something.
I weighed my options and decided the best thing to do would be to buy a bus tour. A bus tour would include all transportation, hostels, and select entrances to attractions. The prices weren’t all that bad, probably less than I would have spent if I tried planning the whole thing by myself. By buying a tour, I knew I was giving up some of the freedom that I am used to as a solo traveler. My time at each place would be limited, and who knew what type of people I would get stuck on a tour with. But, it seemed like a bus tour was going to be my best option to see as much as possible in a short amount of time.
There are lots of tour companies in Ireland, I chose to go with Shamrocker tours. They looked fun, had good reviews, they seemed to cater to 20-30 somethings, and had a tour that hit most of my must do spots for a reasonable price.
I chose the three day Southern Rocker tour. The tour included the Cliffs of Moher, the Dingle Peninsula, Blarney Castle, and Galway (we also visited Killarney and had a few magical stops along the way).
And I’m so glad I picked Shamrocker. Our guide and bus driver were superb, taking us to little off the road places, giving us a history of Ireland and every city we drove through, and telling us some cool folk tales and fairy tales.
My group was also pretty awesome, I got really lucky. I’m not a huge partier, but I do enjoy going out to bars and dancing a bit. Our group ended up being very laid back; we spent a night listening to Irish music at a pub and then dancing to the equivalent of top 40 music. It was the perfect mix.
The tour started and ended Dublin, a city that I didn’t really love all that much. We began the tour by heading to the famous Blarney Castle. A fair warning if you decide to do a group tour in Ireland: there’s a lot of driving. There’s really no way to get around this. But our tour guide and bus driver did a great job of giving us time off the bus to see interesting little attractions. I don’t think we were ever on the bus for more than an hour and a half or two.
To break up the drive, we stopped at a few castles by the side of the road.
Yea, no big deal. There’s a castle on the side of the road? Cool, yea, lets get out and check it out.
Oh, there a shrine to fairies that will heal your eyes if you wash your eyes in their magical water? Why not?
Leave a tie on the fairy tree for someone you love and a fairy will grant that person protection? Uhh, okay.
Wander around a landscape that is similar to that of the moon? Duh. The Burren was one of my favorite parts of the bus trip.
Take a dip in the magical ocean in the Dingle peninsula ensuring that the ocean will take a part of your soul and in return, give you a bit of it’s own. I will partake.
Of course, I was the only one crazy enough to actually submerge in said ocean, but hey, I’m a romantic and I love fairy tales.
My tour guide later told me that only young crazy boys usually dunk on account of the cold water and windy weather. Whatever. Everyone who knows me knows I’m weird.
But the main attractions were also pretty awesome. Blarney Castle was a decent sized castle with lots of ground around it. There wasn’t much time to wander around, although we did see a lot of plants in the poisonous garden that I only recognized from reading Harry Potter.
The Blarney Stone is interesting, because you have to lay on your back, angle your head and upper part of your body down, as you grip a bar overhead in order to kiss the thing. For some reason, I had this idea of a pretty purple stone on top of a majestic podium in my head that I would gently kiss and magically receive healing powers and the gift of gab. Sadly, it took a little more effort than that. But all the best things in life usually do 🙂
Another big stop was Killarney and the national park there. The park was beautiful, two Australians (one currently living in London) and another American (currently on a year long trip around the world) and I spent a couple hours walking around said park. I did some yoga in front of a beautiful castle, and wandered around a big lake.
Every single second of this tour was an absolute pleasure. And I highly recommend Shamrocker to anyone who would like to see a lot of Ireland in a small amount of time. Now, my favorite part of the tour, and the last thing I’ll share: The Cliffs of Moher.
The Cliffs of Mother
The Cliffs of Moher and the Dingle peninsula was my favorite part of Ireland, hands down. The scenery was beautiful, mountains jutting out from every which way, sheep grazing gently on the rolling green slopes, the gray, overcast sky with the ever-constant breeze from the water made this my favorite part of Ireland. If I had my way I would have spent days just driving around this part of the countryside, ignoring all manner of people and spending time in nature.
Well, maybe not totally ignoring people, there’s no better way to end the night than wandering into a cozy Irish pub, talking to old, Irish men, while listening to some of the best music in the world.
The Cliffs of Moher are always a gamble because this part of Ireland can come under heavy cloud and fog cover, making the cliffs invisible some days. Luckily for my group and I, we had a sunny, albeit windy day.
The Cliffs are magnificent, when you approach the cliffs you can go to the right (where most people go) or go to the left (which is a bit more of a hike).
I followed my friends and went to the right, and snapped some pretty awesome pictures.
But, for some reason, I felt this pull to go onto the other side of the cliffs. So, ignoring the gift shops and exhibits, I began hiking on the left side of the cliffs. And I’m so glad I did.
I loved venturing out onto the less-traveled section of the cliffs. The foam from the water at the base rose up, like snow from the sea gods circling in the air. Wind slammed into my face, I felt alive. It was probably the mix of hundred-foot cliffs that I could have easily fallen off of, the sharp bite of the wind, and the astounding beauty of my surroundings.
A verse came to my mind as I towered over the water, God did not give me a timid spirit, but one of power, of love, and self-control. I felt my spirit, that spirit, and it wasn’t fearful or weak or cowardly, but the strongest, most trusting, content, self-assured thing I had ever felt. And to know that I possessed such a thing was so empowering to me. I’m not the most confident, self-assured person, there are things about myself that I do not like, and that I wish I could fix; but in that moment, I felt perfect.
Traveling constantly changes you, makes you realize things about the world and about yourself. As a teacher, I’ve dedicated myself to be a life-long learner; but as a traveler, you dedicate yourself to the same thing. As Anthony Bourdain said, you leave marks on things that you touch, and they leave marks on you. Ireland was just one of my marks.
The journey doesn’t end here.