Ireland: From Northern Ireland to the Ring of Kerry...and lots of places in between
Updated: Jul 16
We departed Edinburgh on a quick flight across the Irish Sea and landed in Dublin to begin our January tour of the Emerald Isle. Having been to Ireland a number of times, we loved what we experienced but we knew we didn't get the full flavor of what this diverse and beautiful place had to offer. We planned out a route that would take us all the way around the island, through cities, small towns, wonders of nature, and all the sheep and pubs in between.
We were excited to make the short drive north across the border to Belfast, the capital city of Northern Ireland, but we were quickly met with disappointment when our rental SUV dashboard lit up with a warning. Ugh, delay. But that was quickly solved when they found us a much better replacement. Boom, free upgrade! Okay, this was actually starting off wonderfully.
Now, to just make sure we stay on the left side of the road! We were fully expecting a border crossing in between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. But to our surprise, we sailed straight through and later learned that the border is now effectively invisible and has been since 2005.
We found our way to our apartment in the city center of Belfast and set about exploring and enjoying for several days. Belfast is a lovely little city with a great pub culture and restaurants galore. Belfast is notable for being a major ship building center in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and most famously for building the Titanic. We looked forward to touring the Titanic Museum, but to our disappointment the museum was closed for renovations! Oh well, there's more sightseeing to do.
Wandering the city, you can't help but notice the artwork and occasional signs and sights that reference what is commonly known as "The Troubles." I'll spare the detailed history lesson, but it was a dark time of 30 years of conflict over British rule of Northern Ireland versus independence and uniting with the Republic of Ireland. It is said that there are still Protestant neighborhoods and Catholic neighborhoods and Unionists and Irish Nationalists. But thankfully the conflict is in the past and the people of Belfast and Northern Ireland are incredibly warm, friendly, and fun loving, which is exactly what we wanted to experience on our journey. I stopped into a barber shop one day for a haircut and had a wonderful chat with my barber Jerry. About midway into the cut the conversation turned to the conflict, and he told me that the very shop I was sitting in was obliterated in the 90's by a car bomb in a vehicle parked just outside. A stark reminder of the dark side of the human condition.
One of our goals from this visit was to experience a traditional Irish music session, and Belfast did not disappoint. We wandered into a pub just as the local musicians began to arrive and find themselves a cozy corner. They sat around a table, pints of Guinness lined up all around, and traditional Irish instruments in hand. A guitar, an Irish banjo, a flute, and a Bodhrán (handheld drum made of goat skin) sing to life and the music instantly takes you back to simpler times. The bar crowd claps along, and the musicians smile and sip their pints in between tunes. Another round please...
To enjoy the countryside, we took a 15-minute drive to a wonderful hike in the mountains surrounding the city one sunny afternoon. The views across the city and out to the Irish Sea were fantastic as was the tour of Belfast Castle at the base of the hills.
After Belfast it was time to head north along the coast toward Giant's Causeway.
The coastal views along the drive were amazing, and the incredible rock formations we were to see were just astounding. After several mostly sunny days in the city, the skies grew darker as we approached.
The attendant directed us to a parking lot about a 15 minute walk away from the site. No sooner did we lock the car and start up the hill and the skies opened up and a torrential rain and 40mph winds erupted. Do we turn back? No way! We were going to see this if it killed us!
50 million years ago, lava oozed from the earth and quickly cooled and contracted, forming giant columns of solid rock in nearly perfect hexagonal shapes. It was otherworldly!
The rain let up just enough to allow us a few photos and a brief walk around. Was it worth it? Yes, because it is surely a must-see attraction. But also, because this geologic wonder is a mere 10 minutes away from the Bushmills distillery and they have...whiskey!!!
When we started planning this trip, we knew we had to stay in a Castle! So, our next stop was back across the border in the Republic of Ireland to the town of Donegal and the breathtaking Lough Eske Castle.
With origins dating back to 1474, it was reconstructed in the 1860's, destroyed by fire in the early 20th century, and rebuilt to today's beautiful and modern standards. It was a delightful place to call home for a few days while enjoying some fine food and amenities. Although the town was a tad…quiet, to say the least, it was a great place to serve as a home base to explore the coast. January is not the time to visit Ireland if you’re looking for action. Or lots of open restaurants. Or people.
On our way to our next stop, we picked up the Wild Atlantic Way, a narrow coastal road that follows the entire western coast of Ireland, across cliffs, hills, bogs, farmland, and cute little towns. We headed to Sliabh Liag (pronounced sleeve league), the second highest coastal cliffs in Ireland. The views were amazing, the sun was shining, and we were preparing for a hike up along the cliff edge when once again, the skies opened up and winds blew the rain sideways.
Fortunately, we were just steps away from the car, so when the rain and wind finally proved it was ready to blow us right off the cliffs, we motored on. Luckily, at the bottom of the hill was a wonderful pub called the Rusty Mackerel. Perfectly situated for a bustling tourist business, we found ourselves alone in the pub because, well, we were just about the only tourists to be found in mid-January. But that was okay with us, the warm peat fire was inviting and cozy and the chowder, mussels, and freshly pulled pints were a welcome respite from the weather outside.
The next sight on our way south was Mullaghmore Head in Sligo. A beautiful coastal drive, with wild winter beach scenes, high cliffs and crashing waves. It was gorgeous but the best sight was the incredible Irish rainbow that stretched from one end of the horizon to the other and followed us around as the sun broke through the clouds! Unfortunately, no pots of gold at the end of this one but it was pretty!
Our next stop was an apartment in Kinvara, only the AirBnB host cancelled on us at the last minute, and we had to find a new one, and the new one didn’t have a washer/dryer. That’s how we found ourselves taking advantage of one of the oddest things in Ireland – an outdoor laundromat at a gas station. Nothing quite sheds light on the reality of ditching everything to travel for a few years than lugging your wet laundry from one machine to another in the parking lot of a gas station, going back to the station attendant three times to get change, and paying €35 for two loads of wash. But you do what you gotta do!
Although it rained the entire time in Kinvara, we enjoyed fresh oysters in this sleepy town and took a day trip to Galway for lunch. When the time came to leave, we were definitely ready to head to Kenmare for a few days around the Ring of Kerry.
Kenmare was only slightly livelier, but this time we upped the ante and stayed at the amazing Sheen Falls Lodge. This place is a far cry from a gas station laundromat. The entire hotel overlooks a waterfall at the bottom of the Sheen River as it flows into the sea at Kenmare Bay.
Every morning we woke up to the bay and mountains out our window - and one morning the rain finally turned into snow!
In the springtime the salmon can be seen leaping up the falls to spawn upstream. (We must come back for that!) It is one of the most beautiful and scenic places we’ve ever stayed. It also has classic country activities, including horseback riding, falconry, and even sheep herding! Unfortunately, the falcon master (as we called him) was sick and we couldn’t do that, which was a real bummer. So, we mounted a few horses and went on a lovely ride instead. And, of course, halfway into our ride, it rained on us. There was a pattern emerging!
This was our home base as we explored the Ring of Kerry. This scenic 179 km drive circumnavigates the outer edge of the Iveragh Peninsula via a mostly narrow and winding road, along the rugged coastline, through small towns, farmland and bogland, mountains, rivers, and yes of course, thousands of grazing sheep.
The weather was typical Irish January. Intermittent spurts of sun, rain, sleet, and even a little bit of snow. We saw jagged coastal cliffs, mountains, offshore islands, waterfalls, ancient ruins, sheep, goats, deer, and even a snowman. The tiny road is crowded with tour buses and rental cars during the summer, but we had it all to ourselves and we loved it! Sure, it was quiet and so many places were closed for the season. But the natural beauty was truly breathtaking, and the people as warm and welcoming as ever. And, the detour along the Skellig Ring was even more spectacular and off-the-beaten path. We highly recommend visiting!
On our way back to Kenmare we made a stop at Muckross House in Killarney. This incredible 65 room mansion originated in 1843, passing through many hands over the years, including Sir Arthur Guinness, the great grandson of Arthur Guinness of Guinness stout fame. Now a public museum, it has incredible grounds and gardens and is well worth a visit.
Next up: Kinsale (because apparently there are a thousand towns in Ireland that begin with K). Kinsale is a really popular summer destination because it sits right on the water. In January, not as popular. And this time, because we were in a hotel, we did our laundry at…the grocery store parking garage! Gotta love Irish laundromats! We were moving up in the world.
We explored the area around Kinsale, including old Fort Charles and Old Head Golf Course with its beautiful light house (which we couldn’t see because…yes, clouds and rain). It was still beautiful, though! We even found a beach with lots of surfers and kayakers (in full wetsuits, brrr) riding the huge waves. We enjoyed an amazing dinner at No. 19 Restaurant, followed by drinks and live music at Kitty O'Se's Bar, which was packed and by the end of the night we’d been consumed by a group of locals that acted like we were their long-lost best friends. Oddly, we were warned several times, by many different people, to avoid a particular pub on our way home. When we asked why, it was as if they’d have their tongue cut out if they told us, but when one person just pointed to the scar on his forehead, we got the picture. And we stayed away.
Last up on our road tour of Ireland towns beginning with the letter K: Kilkenny. On our way there, we made a wrong turn and stumbled into Kilbrittain Castle, which is the oldest privately inhabited castle in Ireland, dating back to 1035. We were able to get a few photos thanks to two friendly old timers walking down the narrow road who directed us to a proper viewing point. They were also all too happy to regale us with the history of the place and I think we heard about everyone who's occupied the castle since it was built!
As was the trend, Kilkenny was even more bustling than the last K-town (relatively speaking for January of course.) We visited Kilkenny Castle right in the center of town, and the medieval ruins of The Kells Priory, dating back to 1193, just outside of town. Kilkenny is home to 77 pubs, so we tried a few and also visited the Smithwick’s Brewery for a tour and tasting. Jennifer became a huge fan, proclaiming it to be her new favorite beer!
Finally, our road trip around Ireland was wrapping up in the vibrant city of Dublin. No sleepy summer tourist town here. This city is a bustling metropolis with a vibe that instantly inspires good fun, or as the Irish call it, "Craic." As luck would have it, unbeknownst to us, our stay coincided with the annual "Trad Fest" which meant live entertainment was happening everywhere we looked, especially in the vibrant Temple Bar district.
The pubs were packed all day and night and the heart of Dublin's music scene could be heard beating away up and down the streets. We were thrilled and found our way into quite a few pubs to enjoy the talents of the local musicians. Such fun!
On this visit to Dublin we decided to stay in an area that we had never stayed in before. The Grand Canal Dock neighborhood is a thriving, modern, and booming area. Perched along the River Liffey and the Grand Canal, it is home to numerous tech HQ offices such as Meta and Google, a theatre, lots of great restaurants and pubs, and our accommodation, The Marker Hotel. It's a convenient walk to all the nightlife, museums, and parks the city has to offer and we highly recommend it.
Of course, a trip to Dublin wouldn't be complete without a visit to the Guinness Brewery. Yes, we've been there before. But there's something special about drinking the freshest pint of Guinness in the world, right at the source. Not to mention the special Guinness Connoisseur's Experience that we were privileged to participate in. This was a behind the scenes, private sampling experience of many of Guinness' experimental and limited production brews. Then there was the pint pouring...Jennifer poured a perfect pint! Such fun and so very tasty!!
We met some great folks during this event, and we learned a few things. For example, we pronounce scone like it rhymes with bone instead of rhyming with dawn. Which means we must be "posh" according to our new British friends sitting next to us. Our friends then proclaimed, "Americans must stop eating waffles with bacon on them!" because apparently that's how the American waffle house in Manchester, England serves them. And yes, Las Vegas is the number one bucket list of places to visit in the USA? Who knew? We also learned that when you take advantage of someone else doing your laundry in Temple Bar, it's way more convenient than the gas station or grocery store machines - but you'll pay €50 for the pleasure!
Our three-and-a-half-week tour of this magical island had finally come to an end. The incredible natural beauty, amazing historical sites, and of course the wonderfully warm people will be memories that last forever. We will miss you Ireland, but we are looking forward to our next adventure and our next accommodations in Zermatt, Switzerland, complete with...washer and dryer!!!
Enjoy a taste of our travels with drink recipes on Instagram - Worldwide.Cocktails.