Ireland is the perfect place to get lost with someone you love a whole lot. Like, for example, your little sister Christine. We’re usually separated by the 2,086 miles between Brooklyn and Los Angeles, but there’s nothing like a road trip in a tiny European car to smoosh you back together. Anyway, I'll tell you in a bit why I've decided to call this blog post "the perfectly imperfect" road trip.
They don't call it the Emerald Isle for nothin
The rest of the world knows her by "Christine" but to me, she'll always be my Tine. Tine and I booked a 7-day trip in November with the goal of spending a few days in Dublin and then driving around southern Ireland. We specifically picked this time of year to enjoy the perks of low tourist season like fewer crowds and less traffic. Plus, we had both gotten time off of work.
Christine was our fearless driver to the Cliffs of Moher along the Wild Atlantic Way.
Before I dive into the details of our perfectly imperfect Irish road trip, I want to share a moment on one of our first stops, that for me, set the tone of the entire trip. The first person we met on the road was John of John’s Bookshop in Althone. You can’t miss his cheery storefront next to a 12th century castle that was closed for the winter (boo!), but open to visitors in the spring and summer. Since the castle was closed, we decided to look around John's Bookshop for a bit before lunch. When John heard we were driving part of the southern route of the Wild Atlantic Way to the Cliffs of Moher, he said in that gentle Irish lilt, "Ah, yes. You go to the west of Ireland for your soul."
Tine found several plays she wanted to read, including one by Irishman, Oscar Wilde
Boy, did my soul need restoration. Our family had recently experienced the loss of our grandfather to a long and complicated battle with cancer. I'd just gotten laid off from a job I loved (so my time off for the trip was irrelevant now) and I wasn't sure what the next step of my career would be. In addition to the spiritual heartache from these losses, I was really sick from something I had picked up recently on a trip to Mexico. So like I said, perfectly imperfect timing.
Getting a subtle reminder from some street art in Althone
My soul needed Ireland. I wanted the icy chill of the Atlantic Ocean to rattle the sadness out of my bones. I wanted to ride a horse or pet a sheep or something. I wanted to be far, far away. But I didn’t want to be totally alone, I wanted to be with my sister. Tine and I didn't have a precise itinerary in place, but we knew we really wanted to visit the Cliffs of Moher, which are soaring rock formations along the southern part of the Wild Atlantic Way. The Wild Atlantic Way is a 1,553 mile drive along the country's coastline which as the name suggests offers insane views of the Atlantic Ocean. Our drive would take us through four of Ireland's counties: Mayo, Galway, Clare, and Limerick.
Here are my "steps" to have a perfectly imperfect road trip in Ireland.
Step #1: Pick Your Road Trip Partner
Well, obviously. Pick someone you really, really like because you'll be spending a lot of time with this person in a tiny space. I knew I'd love traveling with Tine because she is:
One of Christine's new favorite places is the student quad at Trinity College.
Things can go wrong on any trip, but especially an overseas road trip so it's important to go with someone who travels with a sense of fun and flexibility.
Aside from learning to drive safely on the left side of the road, Tine went to great lengths to take care of me during the trip since I was still fairly weak from the effects of Montezuma's Revenge. Yes, I could write an entire blog post on the whereabouts of every public restroom in Dublin.
Getting taking care of by Tine in our hotel room
Things didn't look good on our first night at the Academy Plaza Hotel (€140/night) in Dublin. Because my symptoms escalated overnight, Tine called an ambulance. The Irish paramedics were awesome and gave instructions on how to recover as quickly as possible.
Step #2: Spend Time Exploring Dublin
Dublin Airport is a major international airport and flights into Ireland are often relatively affordable. Tine and I flew in from our respective cities, Los Angeles and New York, and stayed for three nights at the Academy Plaza Hotel near Grafton Street. We saw most of the city by foot, including some of Dublin's most popular sites:
An unexpected highlight for me was the Dublin Writers Museum where I learned all about famous Irish poets, playwrights and authors. Tine already knew about them all from her theatre studies at Manhattan College. My biggest takeaway was that Bram Stoker, who wrote Dracula in 1897, was a born and bred Irishman. Who knew?!
After seeing the museum, we reunited over tea and scones with my friend, Chantal Murray, who I met 20 years ago when we were fellow travelers and fanatics in the Titanic Historical Society. I was literally 11-years-old when she last saw me, so our reunion was hilarious! She's so much fun to be with and I wish we lived in the same city. Like, what have you been DOING for the last 20 years? We had a blast at Bewley's Grafton Street, an iconic place for coffee, pastries and friends to collide. Chantal and her husband, Kieran live just outside the city with their three beautiful and ultra-athletic sons.
After our third night in Dublin, I finally felt well enough to begin the road trip portion of this adventure. We got a little booth at the pub next to our hotel, Murray's, and mapped out our tentative route old-school with pen and paper. The next day, we hit the road.
Here's Tine at the Dublin Writer's Museum in Ireland.
Step #3: Rent a Car for Your Road Trip
You cannot see Ireland without renting a car, so make sure that someone in your party can drive a car with manual transmission. Something to know about my sister is that she doesn't back down from a challenge. Drive on the opposite side of the car? On the opposite side of the road? Puhhlease. Tine didn't bat an eye as the sales associate walked us through what to expect on the road, such as the country's many roundabouts.
We had a great experience at the Enterprise Rent-A-Car location at Dublin Airport, but I highly recommend waiting to rent a car until after you've spent a few days in Dublin (where you don't really need a car and will just have to pay to park it while you walk around the city).
Driving along R478 on Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way is a beautiful way to see the country
Step #4: Visit John's Bookshop in Althone
As I mentioned earlier, we found ourselves in John's Bookshop after making a pitstop in Althone, a riverside hamlet en route to Galway. It's about 2 hours from Dublin and a nice place to stretch your legs. Althone is also home to the Sean's Pub, the world's oldest bar! I was too sick to eat or drink anything, so we just waved to it.
Tine was starting a new job on the day she got back from the trip and wanted a fresh haircut. It was a blast to hang out with the local ladies at Downtown Hairstyles and learn more about their views on politics, tourists and local theatre. I had no idea who their Head of State was, but they raved and raved about this poet turned president so I looked him up. Um. How CUTE is Ireland's 8th President, Michael D. Higgins?
We had a lovely visit with hairstylist, Debbie at Downtown Hairstyles in Althone.
Step #5: Visit a Pub and Tip a Busker in Galway
After the brief stop in Althone, our first overnight stop was Galway, a seaport town where the iconic Claddaugh ring was famously forged. You might even know Ed Sheeran's popular song Galway Girl which we blasted on repeat in our rental car.
Galway was a fun little town to visit for the night
After dinner at a local pub, we wandered around Eyre Square and listened to live folk music. We met a talented busker named Katie O'Connor who performed a few of her songs in the town square. A busker is an old British term affectionately used by street performers like Katie who work for tips. We chatted with her for a bit and found out she was performing the following week in Manhattan near Tine's old apartment. You've got to check out this live performance of one of her original songs, Common Thread. Always keep a few Euro coins on hand to tip awesome street musicians like Katie. You're not only supporting the local arts scene, but helping maintain a vibrant downtown experience for everyone to enjoy!
We didn't get the visit The Claddaugh Museum, but it's right in the heart of historic Galway.
Step #6: Keep Your Eyes On the Road (it's hard)
Driving in Ireland is hard, because it's so dang beautiful. The roads along N67 were so narrow that I would literally shift my body weight in the passenger seat when we made sharp turns. Thanks to Tine's expert driving skills, we managed to avoid running into the heather bushes, horses and stone walls along the road. These were the moments when I was really glad I didn’t rent us the Range Rover.
Our OPEL drove just a few feet past this gorgeous horse en route to the Wild Atlantic Way.
Step #7: Check out Dunguaire Castle in Kinvarra
If you don't visit a castle while you're in Ireland, you're missing a wee bit of the magic. We stopped at the Dunguaire Castle, a 16th century castle that was closed for the winter but fun to walk around. It’s built in the center of Galway Bay, which adds to the mysterious atmosphere of the place. Dress for warmth if you're visiting in November as the wind really whips right through ya. It wasn't freezing cold during our trip, but my grandmother's beaver coat from the 1970s kept me warm
We wandered around the grounds for about 45 minutes and enjoyed a rainbow
Stop #8: Experience the Solitude of Ballyvaughn
Bookshop John spoke of the peacefulness along the Wild Atlantic Way and he was right. We passed through a small harbor village called Ballyvaughn that was dotted with cottages and farms and I remember wondering where people got their groceries. It dawned on me while writing this blog post that the ~258 residents probably grow and raise just about everything they need. The biggest natural resource here is limestone. As we drove through the hills of Connemara, we listened to moody show tunes, talked about life and enjoyed the peaceful surroundings.
Green. As far as the eye can see!
Stop #9: Feel the Breezes at the Cliffs of Moher
The Cliffs of Moher (€6) in County Clare took my breath away. It's an intense experience to see something that has been standing for more than 350 million years. The cliffs stand like soldiers guarding Ireland from the wild, vast uncertainty of the Atlantic Ocean. The wind is fierce along the coastline, but it felt refreshing after being in the car for a few hours. I recommend wearing a wool hat, warm jacket and gloves. Tine and I met up with one of her friends, Adrienne who was born and raised about an hour away!
We loved spending time with Adrienne at the Cliffs of Moher!
Stop #10: Stay a While in Killarney
Killarney was the highlight of our trip in Ireland! The city itself is packed with pubs, shops and restaurants so there's lots to do. We picked out matching bobble hats (€20) at the Aran Sweater Market, which we still wear all the time. I even did a little Irish jig for Tine in the store. I'll do just about anything to make that girl laugh.
Killarney is just the best
We were also drawn here because the surrounding scenery is beautiful. Killarney is a wonderful place to stop on your Ireland road trip because the area is so diverse - there's something for everyone. We both loved our visit to the Muckross House, Gardens and Traditional Farms which was an easy 15 minute drive from our hotel.
Remember how I wanted to pet a sheep? WELL, AN ADVERTISEMENT IN TOWN SAID YOU COULD DO THAT HERE! Sadly, we found out that the farm was closed to visitors in the winter. We were about to wander around the grounds on our own, but decided to splurge on a private horse carriage ride (€50) led by a third generation footman. The ride was amazing and we even had the chance to hike to a waterfall.
We were obsessed with our sweet horse, Molly
On the way home, we swung by Ross Castle, which was a great stop and easy to get to. It was built in the 15th century so ya know, it's basically brand new. It's in Killarney near a lake and it is completely free to visit the castle and walk around the outside. You can even rent a little boat in the summer, how cute is that?
Weird photos with the cannons are not necessary, but recommended
Stop #11: Ride a Horse in Killarney National Park
Booking a two-hour trail ride through Killarney Riding Stables was the best choice we made on the trip. I'll never forget the experience of trotting on a horse for the first time, because I was bouncing all over the place like a moron and laughing so hard that I started crying. It was a challenging but exhilarating adventure.
Since Tine and I are both beginners, we borrowed riding boots, helmets and raincoats from the stables for the trek. It was so special to ride through this pristine natural environment with my sister. We even saw a spectacular rainbow!
An adventure of a lifetime in Ireland at Killarney National Park
They say that timing is everything and I believe that to be true. At this exact time in this beautiful country of our ancestors, I believe that Tine and I were meant to be together for this grand adventure and our sister trip was the perfectly imperfect trip that I dreamed it would be.