April 15, 2016 Winter Adventure | Part one | Northern Ireland
As those of you who follow me on social media know, I visited Ireland and Iceland in March with my mom! This post was actually written mostly on the plane ride home. It’s super wordy, which is mostly so we don’t forget the experience. So if you don’t feel like reading all of the nonsense, feel free to just scroll through and look at the pretty pictures. Though hopefully if you do read it, it doesn’t feel quite as long as it looks :) I do talk about how we got to travel affordably, the experiences with our airbnbs and driving on the wrong side of the road. The Iceland part of the trip will be recapped later in a separate post!
My mom has wanted to go to Ireland for what seems like forever. I can’t remember the first time she mentioned it. It was definitely long before she got her passport, and that’s now seven years ago (this was only her second time using it, sad.) My dad is quite the world traveler, and has passed that addiction on to me. However, he’s never really had any interest in going to Ireland. So I figured I’d take one for the team and go with my mom. I say that being silly of course— I’m always up to travel! But if I’m being completely honest, I really wasn’t super pumped about Ireland. That’s actually how we ended up adding Iceland to the itinerary. We’d go somewhere for her, and somewhere for me. It didn’t hurt that WOW Air has very affordable flights from BWI to Reykjavik, Iceland, and connecting flights to Dublin. My compromise ended up working out well for us. Between flying a budget airline and staying at places booked through airbnb.com this trip ended up being affordable, and surprisingly comfortable! This was my first experience using airbnb.com and it will most definitely not be the last. We used it for five different apartments/cottages during our stay and every single one was much more spacious than a hotel and much cheaper. Highly recommended.
Onto the trip. Ireland and Iceland were both absolutely amazing! As I’ve said many times on this blog in recapping my travels, expectations are everything for me. Since I didn’t have high expectations for Ireland, it ended up being the part I’m probably the most excited about now. I didn’t expect to enjoy it nearly as much as I did. It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. We had a very relaxed pace the days we did our exploring, the weather was comfortable, and we were able to see and do so much. Not to mention, the people in Ireland were easily the nicest people I’d ever encountered. Literally every single person we interacted with was friendly and kind in a way that I’ve never experienced. Iceland was also amazing, don’t get me wrong. I had high expectations for Iceland and it more than lived up to them! The difference is that Iceland felt like an amazing place to visit, and Ireland felt like home. There are only two other places I’ve ever been that I’ve felt that way about, Vermont and Maui. We go to Vermont at least once a year and since we were married on Maui, we plan to go back regularly—our first trip back will be later this year for our five year anniversary! I already can’t wait to go back to Ireland and bring Steve along. I know he’ll love it just as much as I did.
We actually spent most of our time in Ireland in Northern Ireland – which is a part of the UK. There are flights to Belfast but it was so much more expensive to get a flight to Belfast than Dublin and they all had 2-3 stops, so we decided it made more sense to fly into Dublin and drive since it wasn’t that far. We had about an hour and a half drive ahead of us to get to our first accommodation for the trip. We arrived in Dublin and headed straight to pick up our rental car. The first Irish person we interacted with was the guy at the rental car place. He was so sweet and talkative, and not in a small talk kind of way- like he genuinely cared about who we were and wanted to have a conversation of substance with us. It was such an unusual experience compared to the strictly transactional interactions we tend to have in the U.S. This is totally a topic for another day, but I feel like so many of us rush through interactions with the people we interact with when we’re going through a transaction: whether it’s the cashier at the grocery store, the rental car clerk, etc. I’ve been making it a personal goal to slow down during these interactions lately, make eye contact (it’s sad when you realize you didn’t once look anywhere but at the screen or your wallet while in a checkout line) and smile more. Being in Ireland just felt good. There was more humanity to even the briefest of human interactions. I feel like I’m always in such a rush, and this was a great reminder to slow down.
In Ireland, cars are righties and you drive on the left side of the road. I volunteered to be our chauffeur for the trip – partly because I get motion sickness as a passenger, and partly because I wanted to cross off the experience of driving on the opposite side of the road from my bucket list. I was excited but mad anxious. When I got into the car, I stalled for a good 10 minutes before finally putting the car into gear. This was going to be interesting. I had read in one of my travel books to drive around the airport to get comfortable with driving on the opposite side of the car/road before heading out. Perfect! That’s exactly what we’ll do. Oh wait, as soon as you pull out of the rental car area, you’re thrown into a three lane roundabout with people speeding through it. Not a great confidence booster. It was terrifying, but we survived, and we were off on our way to Northern Ireland. The highway was straight for a long time, and that was a great place for me to get comfortable with the speeds, practice changing lanes, using my mirrors and overall just maneuvering the car. You’d think it would be easy to adjust to things being swapped, but it was very strange at first. Especially since there was a giant blind spot for the entire left side of the car, so any time I merged left, I had to rely about 90% on mirrors.
I though that roundabout after roundabout after roundabout was scary, but that’s only until we got to country roads. They were narrow, windy, and had a speed limit of 60 mph for most of the time. I was pretty anxious at that point considering I had been driving a rightie for all of 45 minutes. Oh! Another fun fact. Ireland speed limit signs are in kilometers, and Northern Ireland are in miles. But when you cross over the country border, there’s no sign to let you know that you have – and the speed limit signs look exactly the same, with no indicator on them that you’ve switched. It’s just the number in a circle. Thankfully our GPS switched over for us and I could use it as a reference. I bet the traffic cops love that spot.
A good three hours after we landed (whoops!), we finally ended up at our accommodation for the night where we were warmly welcomed by our first Irish host, Jay! He was so sweet and helpful and got us settled in our space for the evening before heading out for some exploring! No more than a 10 minute drive from our airbnb were two of the places that were high on our list to visit – Dundrum Castle and Tollymore Forest Park. The castle was listed on all sorts of travel sites as a hidden gem – free, underrated, and well preserved. I was decidedly underwhelmed by it. I didn’t really have much interest in seeing any castles anyway, but this didn’t do anything to change my perspective on that. Still, we got some decent photos and quickly headed on to our next stop.
Tollymore was gorgeous! I was a little skeptical when we arrived and it was just a national park with hiking trails. We have plenty of those in Maryland – and this reminded me greatly of them. Still, we headed off on the 5+ kilometer hike. Just a hundred yards or so onto the trail and I was already seeing amazing photo opportunities. What should have taken us only about an hour to hike took closer to two with all of the stopping! But it was so worth it, everything was gorgeous.
The next morning we headed out along the Antrim Coast for a day of sight seeing along the Coastal Causeway. We were about 10 minutes from our first stop, the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge, when I saw a sign for Ballintoy Harbor, and decided to spontaneously turn down the road and see what was down there. Little did I know, that this was going to be my favorite stop of the whole trip. The harbor was absolutely gorgeous, we had the place pretty much to ourselves, and we had the time to explore, take photos and soak it all in. We met and chatted with a painter named Sean, and watched a group of young boys dive into the harbor – even though it was only about 45 degrees outside. I can only imagine how cold the water was. One of the boys exclaimed “[email protected]#% it’s cold!” His diving instructor yells after him “Don’t ye be cursin’!” We couldn’t stop laughing.
There was a man painting a landscape, and we stopped to chat with him a bit. His name is Sean and he let me take quite a few photos of him while we chatted for several minutes. He was very kind and kept with our initial impression of the Irish – incredibly warm and friendly. We talked briefly about our respective arts, and how my passion for photography is mostly for capturing people. He then understood why I asked to photograph him and not just the painting :)
After our pitstop we headed up the street to the Red Door Tea Room and Bistro for lunch. Easily my favorite meal of the trip. It was simple, but beautiful. Everyone there was so kind and warm. It was the kind of place I’d go all the time if it was in my town. We enjoyed speaking with the young servers and the man and woman who owned the place. One of the servers asked us where we were from, and mentioned that he had stayed in Miami for a study abroad. I asked him what he thought of the people during his stay – curious if he had the impression I’d imagine he would, given the stark difference between the attitude and demeanor of the Irish people we had encountered and the people I had encountered over the years across the country – even in the nicest of places, it just doesn’t compare. (Except Hawaii, it was a lot like Hawaii. The Irish definitely have the Aloha spirit.) His response was “Do you want the nice version or the honest version?” – and that told me everything. After thanking the owners for a lovely meal, we were off on the rest of our adventure for the day.
Our next stop was the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge.The bridge itself was a lot smaller than I expected, and there were so many people there, you had to wait in a line to cross, had to cross with a ton of other people, and weren’t allowed to take photos or stop on the bridge. Which all makes perfect sense, but still wasn’t quite what we had envisioned. We walked about 40 minutes round trip to queue across the bridge both ways. Still beautiful, and definitely worth the visit, but it was a lot of walking to the actual bridge to only be there for a few minutes.
There was a similar story for The Giant’s Causeway. Lots of walking to end up somewhere that was flooded with tourists. It was still a really neat location! Natural basalt columns leading into the ocean. Little did I know that we’d be seeing more basalt columns in Iceland – though it was very different both places.
The walks to and from each of these locations were longer than we had anticipated so the daylight was running out when we got to our next stop, Dunluce Castle. It was beautiful and had an incredible view, much nicer than the castle we had seen the day before, but we were short on time so I just took two quick photos from the road and we headed off to our last stop for the day.
Our final stop was the Dark Hedges, and it was gorgeous! Unfortunately, since we were traveling light for this trip, I only brought one lens with me, and the lens I brought didn’t quite do it justice. I’ll have to stop back in the future with a different lens ;)
We ended up making it to our cottage for the night after dark, which made it difficult to find, especially since the GPS tried to tell us it was about a half mile further down the road than it really was, AND on the wrong side of the road, but we figured it out! The cottage was adorable and we had the whole place to ourselves. Our host, Elaine, welcomed us and left us food for breakfast the next morning.
Our final day in Ireland was kicked off by going to the Glenariff Forest Park. There was a beautiful view at the top near the parking lot, but on the drive in we saw stacks and stacks of timber. There were tree cutting operations going on all over the park. It was pretty depressing to see.
After what was an obnoxiously long hike down, with a good chunk of the trail cut off for the logging operations, we finally made it to the waterfall we were there to see. It was gorgeous! However, with the miserable hike back up a huge incline, we both decided it was definitely not worth the effort! Haha. Maybe if half the trail wasn’t closed off, it would have been more enjoyable.
And so we headed off down the coast to enjoy our final day in Ireland.
Enjoy probably isn’t the best word for what happened our last day, if I’m being entirely honest. The disappointing hike with the sad logging set the tone for the day. We didn’t have a plan (which I really don’t do well with if I have no idea where I am or where I’m going) and when you pair that with the anxiety of the high speed limits, windy narrow roads with no shoulder, a steep cliff immediately to my left in the car, and locals tailgating and passing me because I wasn’t going fast enough… it wasn’t the best approach to our final day. We got to see the coast, and it was really beautiful. But we got to see it only from the car. I would have loved to get more photos, but it just wasn’t happening. I literally took four photos that day, three of which made it into the blog. After a very long panic-ridden day, we finally ended up at our last airbnb for the Ireland portion of our trip, and we rested up for our flight the next morning.
Northern Ireland was amazing, and absolutely exceeded my expectations, and I would recommend it highly to anyone considering a trip to Ireland! The Causeway Coast was easily one of the top highlights of our entire vacation. The Iceland part of our trip will be on the blog one day next week!