How to drive around Ireland
WHEN: July 2-19, 2017
Highlights and tips:
TO AND FROM: We flew into Dublin, rented a car in town when we were ready to leave, drove clockwise nearly all around the island including Northern Ireland, then returned the car at Dublin airport.
DRIVING: It does take some courage to drive on the wrong side of the road on the wrong side of the car. But just be patient--those enormous tourist buses crowding you know what they're doing. But get the smallest rental you can. And pay the premium for automatic transmission!
By going clockwise you are in the outside lane with unobstructed views along the coast.
WEATHER: We overpacked cold garb, but you never know. Just bring lots of layers and rain gear.
CROWDS: Not terrible, except for occasional pockets on the roads and key tourist sites. It was a mob at the Cliffs of Moher visitor center but thinned out on the cliff paths; the car lot at the Giant's Causeway was filled at 1 p.m. so plan to park at the village and take the shuttle.
THE SKELLIGS: Make time for this outing from Portmagee! Just the boat ride to the two islands is great fun. (see images below)
Skellig Michael is a must for any Star Wars fan (it's where Rey finds Luke). The hike is steep but fairly short and relatively easy with puffins all about.
Little Skellig hosts 70,000 Gannets
There are NO facilities on the boats or islands. If you must, you know, you'll have to figure it out.
Accommodations: We stayed at 11 hotels/B&Bs--most do not have individual climate controls. It was not efficient to stay multiple nights in one place. We would spend more time in the northeast and southwest corners.
Top highlights and tips for circling the Emerald Isle
We nearly circled the Emerald Isle over 16 days, driving 1500 miles through some 1500 wrong-way-roundabouts–or so it seemed.
Ireland exceeded our expectations for natural beauty and charm, as well as weather. In July, 2017, it was often overcast but seldom really cold or wet. In fact, our host in Dingle said he was already “booilling” one morning when it was about 65 degrees.
We gained a deep appreciation for Ireland’s history: its numerous Neolithic ruins (as far back as 3200 BC, centuries before Stonehenge or the Great Pyramids) and its mansions and castles galore; its key dates, from the famine of 1845-52 (a blight overnight led to 1 million deaths and the start of the great migration) to the 1916 Easter Uprising (which led to independence in 1922) to the lingering remnants of the “troubles” of Northern Ireland (see below).
Here are our top 10 highlights.
No. 10: Driving
Driving on the “wrong” side of the car and street, and navigating 6-pronged roundabouts going the wrong way was terrifying in the moment, though exciting in the memory. We rented a tiny Hyundai I10 that seemed to grow in size as roads shrank into cow lanes and tour buses hurtled by. While humming to the best Irish pub songs, my husband Randy did nearly all the driving while I tried to navigate and translate the GPS. Good thing we always take full coverage on foreign rentals: we ended up replacing two tires! The road trip was worth the anxiety as we admired the lush countryside and sweeping coastline, dotted by sheep and ruins and 40 shades of green.
No. 9: Kilkenny
This is a darling town with a marvelous medieval mile, starting with Kilkenny castle and ending at the Cathedral of St. Canice, which has one of the few round towers you can climb. (Climbing towers is one of my obsessions in case you didn’t know. See my collection of towering views!)
No. 8: Lady of the Manor
Enough touring historical mansions; this was the chance to live in one. Temple House near Ballymote is a Georgian manor that’s been the Perceval family home since 1665. Roaming the authentic house, enjoying the idyllic grounds (with its own Knights of Templar ruin!) and hanging with the sheep was simply delightful. (Hubby humored me, but would have preferred a regular hotel with a TV for Wimbledon, thanks.)
No. 7: Dublin
Dublin was a great welcome to Ireland: a terrific walking city bursting with vibrant energy, music, dining, and historical landmarks and treasures.
No. 6: Castles and mansions and gardens and ruins oh my
We passed by many evocative ruins and castles just driving along. But standouts were the Rock of Cashel, Powerscourt gardens and Kylemore Abbey.
No. 5: Black Taxi tour of Belfast
Driver James Gibson gave us a fascinating tour and insightful commentary about the “troubles”–nearly 40 years of guerrilla warfare between the British-backed Protestants and the IRA/Catholic/Nationalists who wanted to end British rule in Northern Ireland. It’s estimated that nearly 4,000 lives were lost, including “soldiers” as young as 12. We were astonished by the miles of “peace walls” with barbed wire still separating the Catholic and Protestant areas, along with gates that are closed nightly (not unlike the Palestinian areas of Jerusalem we saw earlier this year).
The goal is to demolish the walls by 2023. “Things are changing,” James said, with sincere optimism.
(By the way, we saw nothing to mark the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, although you suddenly have to pay in pounds instead of Euros.)
No. 4: Cliffs of Moher
There’s you, five miles of cliffs and the ocean. You can tune out the crowds and just appreciate the immensity of nature. The cliffs, which rise to 702 feet, attract nearly 1.5 million visitors a year, most of whom ignore the warning signs about staying on the path. I was delighted to learn this site was used as the Cliffs of Insanity in The Princess Bride, one of my favorite books/movies!
No. 3: The Antrim Coast, especially the Giant’s Causeway
Along the northern coast of Northern Ireland is the most unique and beautiful 40 miles you’ll ever see clustered together. At the western edge, we stumbled upon Downhill beach (one of many Game of Thrones filming locations), a wide swath you can drive upon. At the other end, the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge was great fun to cross, albeit touristy–it once was used by fishermen to catch migrating salmon passing by the little island.
The top highlight was the Giant’s Causeway. Carved by ancient volcanic eruptions 60 million years ago, there are some 40,000 hexagonal basalt columns, stacked like steps with some as high as 39 feet. It was such fun hiking along the cliff and scampering among the columns, which stagger down to the sea.
No. 2: Hawk walk
I happened across this in a Rick Steves’ guide and it sounded so appealing I booked two walks: at the Birds of Prey at the Burren, and with the Ireland School of Falconry at Ashford Castle (giving me an excuse to drive onto the spectacular property).
What an enchanting experience! I got to handle two Harris hawks, 6-year-old Juan and 9-year-old Earrach, while strolling through wooded paths with a guide. They would fly off to some perch, then soar onto my gloved arm for food treats (pieces of meat, chicken and mice, as well as chicken heads). We did this repeatedly for an hour each, giving me a remarkably intimate view of their speed and power.
And, our No. 1 Ireland highlight: The Skelligs
Some eight miles into the Atlantic off the Iveragh peninsula lie two islands called Skellig Michael and Little Skellig. The first is famed as a remote monastery founded in the 6th or 7th century. More recently, it was used as the closing scene in the last Star Wars, where Rey finds Luke. Little Skellig is home to the second largest colony of breeding Gannets, some 70,000 of them!
You can take exhilarating boat tours from Portmagee to circle the islands, or to land on Skellig Michael. Randy did the first; I did the second, hiking up the 618 stairs to the beehive huts of the monastery, passing puffins all along the way. We both loved this close encounter with the mighty ocean, multitude of birds and majestic jagged peaks.