A lovely pause in my budget travel adventure came when I met my mom and two of my siblings in Ireland for a more luxurious travel experience. Mom had graciously handled all of the arrangements for the two weeks we planned to travel together, beginning with a four-day coach tour of some of the most famous and beautiful parts of Ireland. The experience was even more amazing than we could have imagined.
After arriving sleepy-eyed on on early morning to meet our Railtours Ireland group at the Dublin train station, we took a 7 a.m. train to Cork and then boarded a comfortable coach bus for the start of our tour. Our guide, Jonathan, began our inauguration into what would be an incredible visual, cultural, historical and emotional journey of Ireland.
A historian and a native Irishman, Jonathan’s breadth of knowledge, storytelling ability and sense of humor ensured that we were entertained and educated during every hour of the coach ride. Throughout the trip, he used seemingly insignificant sights and landmarks outside our windows as the inspiration for stories and illustrations that helped us understand and appreciate Ireland better.
While we made additional stops to take advantage of great opportunities for photos, the first day focused on visits to Blarney Castle and the town of Cobh (formerly Queenstown), where Titanic made its last port of call.
Because of its fame, I expected Blarney Castle to be very commercialized. I was pleasantly surprised to find, instead, a beautifully-maintained castle and grounds, tastefully presented. Yes, visitors can stand in line to kiss the Blarney Stone…and are invited to purchase a photo of the experience afterward…but otherwise, the travelers can explore the castle ruins, gardens and other buildings without being bombarded by vendors selling trinkets or ugly signage blocking historic views.
Of course I was among those who stood in line to kiss the Blarney Stone, and I had a laugh watching my mom do the same! The Blarney Stone is a rectangular stone built into the very top of the castle. To kiss it, visitors must stand in line for their turn, then follow the instructions of a man who’s job it is to make sure that visitors move as quickly as possible while avoiding injury to themselves and others while attempting the kiss. This gentleman (I call him the ‘kissing assistant’) tells each visitor to lie down backward, grasp a handrail above their heads, scoot beneath the stone, kiss it (while another gentleman snaps a photo) and then scoot back out and stand up again…all within about 20 seconds. The kissing assistant has a good Irish sense of humor and an infectious laugh, so you won’t mind being pushed along your way after your 20 seconds is up.
Kissing the Blarney Stone is only a small element of the attractions at Blarney Castle. Before returning to the coach, we peered into underground caves, read about the interesting uses of each room in the castle, admired views from the top floor, enjoyed a cup of coffee from a cafe in a converted stable, and strolled through the “poison garden,” which features a number of lovely poisonous plants and small signs detailing the errant healing methods for which they were used in the past.
After enjoying the full experience of Blarney Castle, we boarded the coach again and traveled to the picturesque town of Cobh (pronounced Cove). The skies were gray and occasionally dispersed misty droplets as we drove through the town. First, we visited St. Colman’s Cathedral, where Jonathan pointed out the thousands of tiny, identical shamrocks that had been fashioned by hand and used to decorate the floors and walls of this impressive cathedral.
From the cathedral, we made our way to Cobh port. Jonathan set the scene during the ride, pointing out that the seaside town looked very much like it did when the Titanic passengers arrived. We were asked to imagine ourselves in the place of those passengers, most of whom would be riding in the ship’s second and third class accommodation, leaving their Irish farms with hopes of a better life in America.
We passed White Star Line’s former offices and the dock from which passengers had been ferried out to the Titanic before arriving at a Victorian railway terminal that had been converted into the Cobh Heritage Centre. This museum detailed the experience of Titanic passengers. It also provided information about Ireland’s Great Famine (sometimes known as the “potato famine”) and Irish Emigration, which Jonathan discussed extensively throughout the tour. I did not realize that so many Irish natives had left Ireland, but three million people departed the country through the very port we were visiting.
In addition to the main attractions of Blarney Castle and Cobh, we stopped to enjoy the scenery and take photos along the roadside. This is truly an area where beauty lies in every direction. We frequently found ourselves staring wide-eyed at the views!
After a full day, we traveled to Killarney and checked into a bed and breakfast. Later that evening, we met Jonathan and several other members of the group at a bustling pub in the town. We were treated to a traditional Irish meal (I enjoyed a fantastic lamb stew) and great live music by a guy sitting on a stool with a guitar and a microphone. My favorite kind of performance! During the meal, Jonathan explained that fruits, meats and vegetables in Ireland are all organic and usually produced locally. I took that as an excuse to finish my entire bowl.
After enjoying a full Irish breakfast composed of an egg, rounds of black and white pudding, Irish bacon, tomato and mushrooms (I promise I’ll stop talking about food!), we joined our tour group for the Ring of Kerry tour.
The Ring of Kerry is a route known for its outstanding natural beauty. It circles the MacGillycuddy Reeks and runs through beautiful villages and open valleys along the shores of Dingle Bay and Kenmare Bay.
The skies were again moody and again overcast, but we happily cruised through short bursts of rain while listening to Jonathan’s descriptive and entertaining commentary and gazing at the impossibly green, quintessentially Irish views outside the coach’s windows. The hills and valleys, dotted with sheep and intersected by ancient gray stone walls and occasional ruins, were as breathtaking as the guidebooks had promised. The gray weather only served to magnify the beauty and drama of the country.
One of our unscheduled stops on the second day of the tour included a sheepdog demonstration. A few of the Irish sheep farmers regularly welcome tourists to a kind of show where they explain how their border collies herd sheep from distant fields and high ridges. This particular demonstration was fascinating. The farmer began by introducing us to the different varieties of sheep on his farm and explaining their key characteristics. The sheep were well-trained and seemed to enjoy posing before the audience of spectators.
The presentation on the sheep was followed by an impressive show by the farmer’s two energetic but obedient border collies, who could discern the farmer’s calls and whistles from long distances and worked together to herd and separate flocks according to the whistled commands. I now have a deep appreciation for the intelligence and vigor of those hardworking sheepdogs.
After returning to Killarney, we joined Jonathan and a few others from our group for an entertaining performance that included Irish step dancing, vocal ensembles and traditional Irish instruments headlined by the Celtic Kings, a male trio well-known in Ireland. Attending this show was a last-minute decision, and it turned out to be one of the highlights of our experience in Ireland. The step dancing was very impressive and the music was beautiful. Because the hall was far from full, we had prime seats in the lower center section. It was fantastic!
After a second night in Killarney, we departed around 7 a.m. with plans to explore Bunratty Castle and the Cliffs of Moher. The ride also included a drive through the town of Limerick, where we passed near author Frank McCourt’s childhood home, which was the setting for “Angela’s Ashes.”
Outside Limerick, we arrived at Bunratty Castle. The castle was completed in 1425, and unlike many of its counterparts around Ireland, it has been restored and furnished. There are plenty of interesting rooms to explore in this large structure. Guides in period clothing are on hand to provide an introduction to the castle and answer questions as visitors explore the maze of rooms.
Many other buildings from the region were dismantled and brought to the Bunratty Castle grounds to create a “folk park,” which I really enjoyed. Thatched roof cottages, an 18th Century church and a village from the 1800s are all available to tour. Many are hosted by costumed guides demonstrating various customs of the time.
After lunch, we headed to the majestic Cliffs of Moher, which are some of the highest sea cliffs in Western Europe. The Cliffs of Moher is one of Ireland’s most popular tourist attractions, and the area features paved (and unpaved) walking paths and a large visitors’ center. The weather was misty and overcast when we visited the cliffs, which added a lovely, mysterious quality to the landscape. We weren’t able to see some of the most beautiful views through the fog, but still we were lucky…a downpour began just as we finished exploring the cliffs!
From the Cliffs of Moher, our coach followed the beautiful coast road with stunning views of the ocean and surrounding farmland. By the time we reached The Burren, the rain had stopped.
The Burren (which means “rocky place”) is a national park featuring an usual formation of limestone and a diverse array of plant life. We enjoyed exploring the unique landscape and snapping a few photos.
Day 4: (Hey, hey, it’s my birthday!)
The fourth and final day of our tour happened to fall on my birthday. How lucky am I? I spent my birthday in Ireland! With three of my favorite people! On a tour that required nothing of me but to listen to great stories, enjoy delicious food and explore the incredible sites! Ahh…
And the icing on my proverbial birthday cake? The sun finally smiled above us, unveiling mountains that had crouched hidden in the mist, and infusing fields, trees and water with a new richness. Apart from the fact that so many of my loved ones were still far away, my imagination could not have conjured a more perfect birthday.
We left Galway that morning and set out for Connemara, a national park and one of Ireland’s Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) regions. The views we took in while driving through Connemara were incredible.
A true highlight of the day was a visit to the magnificent Kylemore Abbey. Have you ever seen a more beautiful estate? This 18th Century castle is now owned by Benedictine nuns. Visitors can tour parts of the Abbey as well as its extensive gardens and enjoy lunch or tea in the restaurant run by the nuns. The food in the restaurant is truly delicious, and most of the fruits, vegetables, breads, baked goods and other items are produced right on the estate.
After departing from Kylemore Abbey, we also stopped briefly in some of the small villages where we were on our own for a little shopping and enjoying the views of Galway Bay.
My perfect birthday ended with a double rainbow out the window on the train ride back to our hotel. Truly amazing.
Our four-day tour of Ireland was a truly incredible experience. This was the first packaged tour any of us had participated in before, and worked perfectly for our family. We visited sites that interested everyone, and we were able to enjoy time together without stressing about the details. They were all handled for us. I would not categorize the tour as “budget travel,” but considering the high-caliber of our four-day tour and incredible tour guides, my mom and I thought the tour was well worth the expense.
If you’re considering a similar tour around Ireland, I highly recommend Railtours Ireland. And no, I am not being paid to say that…and I did not receive a discount on my tour to write this post. I’m recommending this company simply because I had a great experience.
Of course, if you’re interested in a more budget-friendly option, hop in a rental car and duplicate the tour on your own by following the stops detailed in this post! However you choose to do it, visiting Ireland is truly a magical and unforgettable experience. Take my advice, and go.