For years Ireland has held a magical and mystical image to a lot of Americans. What do you think of when you hear about Ireland? Leprechauns, green beer, St. Patrick, rainbows and Game of Thrones. If you ask me, all that sounds pretty mystical. September to March is a great time to go visit the Isle of green. Why? Because the crowds disappear and the prices plunge as soon as Europe starts cooling down. There’s great deals that include castle stays, a rental car, a flexible B&B schedule and airfare for under $1000. It’s not easy to find a European vacation from the U.S. for so little green, but the Irish have always been enterprising about showing off their country.
The down side is that the weather isn’t always wonderful. However, to be honest, the weather in Ireland usually isn’t wonderful even in it’s peak travel time, the summer. The reason the island is so green is that it rains a lot. So suck it up and buy a good umbrella. If you’re going to get rained on, it might as well be someplace cool like Ireland.The days are shorter during the fall and winter as well, but you can always find a warm pub once you’ve exhausted the daylight tramping around castles and sightseeing.
Ireland is divided into two parts: Ireland and Northern Ireland or “Ulster” as it’s called by the locals. The two parts are divided by religion, politics, economic differences and soccer teams. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, while Ireland is completely autonomous. How do the two countries get along sharing one island? Very carefully. The “Northern Ireland Troubles” is the euphemism to describe the former conflict between the IRA and the Northern Irish that ended over 10 years ago. Why do you need to know this? If you’re making your way to the northern part of the country, it’s nice to know that you’re much safer than 2o years ago and a tour through the backstreets and murals of Belfast will make a lot more sense.
On the popular drive and fly vacation Ireland packages, there’s usually a couple of options. Besides your airfare and a car, you can choose to have your nights pre-booked at various inns and/or castles. The other possibility is a package that includes a supply of prepaid vouchers and a book of participating B&Bs. As you’re traveling to whatever town suits your whim, you contact an inn near your location and if they’re not fully booked, you can stay there and use one of the vouchers. This allows a lot of freedom but might not be the best choice for those who like their holiday structured.
Dublin is a fascinating city with a lot of energy and fun vibe. The biggest draw is Temple Bar. Temple Bar is actually not one bar, but a street full of bars that seems a little like an Irish version of Bourbon Street. You can walk down the street and pop into any one of these pubs. Some of these establishments are hundreds of years old and are exactly what you’d expect. I was shocked to find that pubs in Ireland are EXACTLY like Irish pubs elsewhere. The people are friendly, the beer tastes the same and you might even run into one of Ireland’s celebrities like I did. Bono was standing right next me and I didn’t realize it was him at first. Why? Because he was treated just like everyone else. No hordes of people surrounding him for pictures. Nobody bugging him for autographs; and he had to wait in line for a beer just like the other commoners. The Guinness beer factory in Dublin has an interesting tour and there’s quite a few famous churches to visit such as St. Patrick’s (yes, it was a real guy) and St. Michan’s. One of the most famous illustrated gospel books in the world is called The Book of Kells and can be found at Trinity College Library.
If you head north, you can visit a lot of filming locations for “Game of Thrones”. There’s several castles along the northern route, some rugged coastline and just outside of Belfast you can see the place where the Titantic was built and launched. The docks are there as well as an interesting museum. Belfast itself has some beautiful historical buildings downtown such as the opera house and city hall, but the most interesting part of the town, in my opinion, is a trip to the backstreets and the Protestant murals. You can find many of them with a map and GPS or do it the cool way in a black taxi tour (www.belfasttours.com). Belfast has it’s share of pubs as well including a few somewhat semi-famous ones where Brad Pitt hung out to work on his accent for “The Devil’s Own” and “Snatch”. Many would argue that it’s one of the worst Irish accents ever, but I used the same exact cadence and fooled almost everyone in my pub crawls. I know. I was just as surprised.
Further north is the most famous landmark of Northern Ireland, The Giant’s Causeway. These strange basaltic columns are most famous for being the location for the front cover of Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy Album. You won’t see any blonde babies climbing up the steps like on the album, but it is an awesome visit and a world heritage site. One of the strangest facts about this stone structure is that extends under the sea all the way to Scotland. Nearby is the Old Bushmill’s distillery where you can see how the whiskey is made and sample a bit if you choose.
If you prefer to head south instead, you’ll find the rolling hills that you expect from the Irish travel brochures. The Ring of Kerry and the Ring of Dingle might sound like bad jewelry, but they’re actually scenic drives around the Kerry and Dingle peninsula. This part of Ireland is some of the most scenic and has all that you expect to see in Ireland: Ancient buildings, castles, and and colorful towns dot this entire area. If you love castles and churches, Ireland does not disappoint. Kilkenny and Kilarney are great places to stop, spend a night, wander their streets and check out their castles and other historical buildings. If you love Waterford crystal, you can fill up your bags at the source. Waterford was founded by Vikings in 914 AD. It’s the oldest town in Ireland and is most famous for it’s chief export, Waterford Crystal for almost 240 years.
Wherever you go in Ireland, you’ll find scenic coastline, great castles, amazing pubs and a rich history of a people who are probably more like Americans than any other Europeans. Most everyone speaks English, the people are fun and the time to book an off-peak season trip is now. Travelzoo.com and Gate1travel.com are both good places to start.