It took a while to determine the bird we heard everywhere in Donegal, and whose trilling song sounds just like a modem, (Google it, young ‘uns!). It turned out to be a skylark, an unforgettable sound.
Our rented house, which was ear-ringingly silent, awoke on our final morning to a distinct tap-tap-tap. It was a fat magpie rapping its beak against the window before fanning its feathers indignantly and strutting off into the grass.
After a glorious week in the cottage — a three-bedroom house, architect-designed, (and it’s available the week of July, book here!) — in Donegal, we returned to Dublin, a four-hour drive. My husband was kind enough to do all the driving. We rented a VW Golf, diesel, and liked it a lot: quiet, comfortable and very economical on fuel.
It was tough to find hotel rooms for the week in Dublin on a month’s notice, and every single hotel was booked the night of July 1 — for an AC/DC concert!
I scored! A hand-knit wool sweater for five euros, a mirrored Indian bag for 10 euros and five silver-plate forks for five euros. That’s my kind of flea market.
Our vacation has been filled with surprises, most lovely, a few less so.
— The driest Dublin June in 40 years. Yay! We had only one day of rain. I’m returning with, (yes, really) an Irish tan.
— The tree-shaded canal a block from our hotel, lined every few feet with comfortable benches, where I sat and watched a duck with her five palm-sized ducklings
— The worst public transit system I’ve seen in any major city of comparable size. There are only two tram lines and they’re very short and they don’t intersect. Yes, there are plenty of yellow double-decker city buses, but no official bus map available. Even locals agree it’s a disaster.
— A ton of construction all around Trinity College (as they expand the tram system), making road traffic and pedestrian traffic a big mess.
— The best foie gras I’ve ever eaten at L’Gueleton. Go!
— The Titanic Museum in Belfast, (a 2.5 hr train ride north of Dublin) was well worth the cost of trainfare and the time to travel there. We spent 3.5 hours at the museum itself, which is typical, and enjoyed every minute.
— Getting to know a dear Dublin friend’s husband and adult daughter, and renewing a 30-year-old friendship forged on a fellowship we shared in Paris
— Salmon, salmon and more salmon!
— Oysters, oysters and more oysters!
— Cheap and plentiful Dublin taxis
We will dearly miss a nation of people who still thrive on lively, engaged conversation. It was blessedly very rare indeed, anywhere, to see people staring at their damn cellphones while sitting with others in a social space like a pub, bar or restaurant.
We will miss the extraordinary light, a sky that stays lit until almost midnight.
We will miss the glowing green of stone-walled fields.
We will miss the warmth of new friends.
We will miss the silent, craggy beauty of Donegal, where only the wind could be heard.
We will miss being able to cross an entire country within a few hours’ driving.
I will miss seeing my family name — Kelly — on shops and trucks and signage everywhere.
I’m writing this from a gorgeous hotel in Dublin called The Schoolhouse, which was converted from a red-brick Victorian schoolhouse into a hotel with a small, lovely garden. Jose and I are here for seven nights.
As you can see, we prefer places the Irish would call characterful to the mass-market chains — places that are small, intimate, quirky and historic. We typically rent or borrow an apartment when in Paris or are lucky enough to stay with friends.
Having — so far — been to 39 countries, and often on a tight budget, I’ve learned how to have a great time out there, whether a road trip near home or a long-haul flight away.
Here, a few tips; we have no children, so these are likely most useful for people without them.
What do you want most from your vacation?
I think this question is the single most important of all. If all you really want to do is slarb out, sleep/eat/read/repeat, own it! Nor do you have to head to a beach to enjoy a lazy time of it. It might be a cottage in the woods or a luxury hotel or a rented flat. If your partner/spouse/BFF wants to be up at dawn and hitting all the official sights the second they open, how will that affect your vision of happy time off?
A full, frank discussion before you start booking lodging or travel is a good idea. Few things are more miserable than arriving somewhere with a person, (or a crowd), with wholly different notions of what “holiday” means.
What makes your pulse race?
For me, it’s armloads of natural beauty — so places like the Grand Canyon and Thailand and the coast of British Columbia, not to mention Ireland! — fit the bill perfectly. But I’m also a big city girl, and love to shop, eat, sit in a cafe and people-watch for hours. So my perfect vacation combines both. Your great love might be the craps table or flea markets or museums or a cooking class or…
Fewer/slower beats seeingeverythingallatonce!
I realize that, for many people, a distant journey might truly be once in a lifetime, so the compulsion to try and see and experience everything is a strong one. Resist it!
Our three weeks in Ireland, which is my fifth time here and my husband’s first, has included only two stops, Dublin and Donegal. The Oklahoma couple stepping into our rental car reeled off the list of their destinations and it made me dizzy. I loved getting to know Donegal much better, and doing quick day trips — an hour each way or so — from home base, (a rented cottage), easily allowed for that.
Know/respect your own typical rhythms and those of your travel companion(s)
Few things are as nasty as fighting endlessly on vacation, a limited time as it is, about who’s sleeping in too late, “wasting” hours on a late-afternoon nap or partying too late into the wee hours.
Jose and I often take a “toes up” while traveling to recharge us after a day out before heading out again for dinner. On this trip, we bought a small bottle of gin, cans of tonic water and even a few lemons. Nothing like a shower and a fresh G & T in the room at day’s end! We also bought biscuits, nuts, dried fruit and fresh fruit so we had some healthy snacks waiting for us.
If you long for a lazy lie-in and an hour’s bath, do it! Dragging yourself all over the place to satisfy someone else’s schedule, or your own expectations of doingitallorelse! is no fun.
Pack lightly, and carefully
Especially in Europe and in smaller hotels, (i.e. no bellhops), you’ll be humping your own baggage, whether up and down the London Tube stairs or across a cobble-stoned street. Ireland is known for offering all four seasons every day, even in summer, so I packed light wool cardigans and plenty of over-sized scarves while Jose layered cotton T-shirts beneath his dress shirts. Unless you’re in the wilderness or a very poor country — (both can make great vacations, obviously) — you can likely buy whatever else you need in-country. My bag was six kilos under the allowed weight on the way over to Ireland, and I planned to ditch several books here. I knew I’d also be shopping!
It’s tempting to spend your precious vacation driving long distances every day and/or racing from one tourist site to the next. I saw a fellow guest here with a very long list in his hand. Sigh. We had only six days in Donegal and a very ambitious list of what we hoped to see. Hah! Instead, we enjoyed lazy mornings and headed out at 11:00 or so for lunch and exploration; daylight til 10:30 pm helped.
But there is much left to see, even in that one county, and we’re already planning a return trip. On our one rainy, cloudy day I read, painted, snoozed.
The whole point of vacation is to restore, refresh and recharge our work-weary souls.
Consider renting a place
We don’t use Air B & B but have rented apartments in Paris and a cottage in Ireland. It’s great to shop local food markets, get to know the local baker/butcher/produce store and see what different products are on offer in the grocery stores.
Washed Roosters?! It’s a potato.
Aubergine = eggplant.
I also like being able to cook breakfast and dinner at home, which is both cheap and healthy; our groceries for a week (in which we also ate out), were 70 euros which bought so much food we took some away with us when we left.
Being able to do loads of laundry, even daily as needed, saves a fortune on hotel laundry costs and allows you to pack much less. (More shopping!)
Leave room for serendipity
Highlight of this trip?
An unplanned exhausting/exhiliarating golf game with two retired schoolteachers on a links course on Cruit Island, (pronounced Crutch); if we’d had a rigidly-planned schedule and insisted on sticking to it, we’d never have had this amazing experience. It was one of the most enjoyable days I’ve ever had on the road: spectacular scenery, 2.5 hours of vigorous/fun exercise, making new friends, experiencing one of the most Irish of sports — links golf, (from an old English word for ridge, hlinc.)
Another night we headed to Dungloe’s Corner Bar, and ended up listening to one of the nation’s top musicians who just happened to be in the bar that night.
In Dublin, where the flea market is held only one day a month, it was the one Sunday we were here. Yay! I scored a gorgeous plum-colored wool sweater (five euros), an antique Rajasthani mirrored bag (10 euros) and a set of five silver-plate forks for five euros.
Make time for yourself, all alone
If you’re dying for a haircut, massage, mani-pedi or some shopping, do it. By yourself. Maybe you’d rather take photos or just sit still and read a book, magazine, email or newspaper. Jose and I already share a small apartment and now both work from from home — so three weeks’ vacation joined at the hip can feel a bit oppressive.
There’s nothing wrong with taking a day or two off from your companion(s) — or vice versa — and coming back with fresh stories and photos to share.
Sit still and just be (there)
In a world of constant connection, turn off your bloody phone!
Ignore email/Twitter/Instagram/your blog.
The only way to truly savor where you are is to be there. To remain fully present. To sit in total silence, whenever possible.
One afternoon, I spread out on the spongy vegetation of Arranmore Island and just napped. I sat on the edge of a cliff and stared at the gulls below me, the waves crashing against the rocks, the bobbing orange lobster-pot markers.
I treasure the combination of a blessedly-emptied mind and eyes filled with beauty.
There are only a few regions left in Ireland known as the Gaeltacht, where the Irish language dominates — without a bilingual map (which we have), you’re toast! Only 2.1 percent of the country’s population now speaks Irish, according to the 2006 census.
County Donegal, where we’ve rented a house for a week outside the town of Dungloe, is one of these areas.
How did we choose this most northwest, rural, tourist-free and wind-swept county for our vacation?
My great-grandfather was the schoolteacher in the seaside town here of Rathmullan, which my father and I visited a few years ago. So we re-visited the town, which has a huge, beautiful beach on Lough Swilly, and chatted with a local woman who hopes to buy the schoolhouse and use it as a holiday home for her visiting relatives.
I found the house we’re renting, (3 bedrooms, two bathrooms, two floors, flooded with light from huge windows and multiple skylights) on Google. Fingers were crossed!
We love it. Designed by the owner’s cousin, and only seven years old, the house is lovely. Absolute silence, great views, a deep bathtub right in front of a window with fab views — and no close neighbors.
The light here so far north is also relentless — it is fully light by 4:00 am, (our bed is right below an unscreened skylight!) and the sky is not fully dark until midnight or so.
Best of all? No wifi or phone access.
That’s a vacation.
If we want (as we do, sadly) to be in touch for blogging, email and Twitter, we have to get in our rental car, (a VW Golf, diesel, which we like a lot), and drive 5 minutes into town to a pub or restaurant and order some food or a Guinness.
But what a blessing to be torn away from the seductive tyranny of the computer.
One night we settled in at The Corner Pub to hear live music, a young woman who carried her accordion in a specially-designed backpack, and Martin, who played banjo. It’s not yet tourist season, so it was just us, a couple from Switzerland and the locals — like the newly-retired schoolteacher who cheered “Goodbye tension, hello pension!” — and covered her face with embarrassment when we toasted her.
The young woman asked us where we’re from (Tarrytown, NY, a small town 25 miles north of NYC.) “Oh, it’s lovely!” she said — she knows our area well, and will be playing two local venues near us in mid-July with her band, Cherish The Ladies. Then touring all the way to Minnesota with them; she plays piano. CTL is a very big deal, a 30-year-old band I’ve heard of for years, so this unlikely meeting was huge. (Her cousin owns that pub and her parents live locally.)
We’ve spent our time here making day trips. We went across the county to Rathmullan and enoyed a warm, sunny day.
We drove south to Slieve League, the highest cliffs in Europe — and watched a huge cloud coming towards us across the sea. Suddenly we were enveloped by mist, and everything disappeared. So mysterious! Only after we were settled in with a cup of tea and a scone, in a shop at the bottom of the cliffs, did the sun come out. We’d already done a vigorous 1.8 mile round-trip hike to the top of the cliffs (not the absolute top.) We were sweaty and pooped!
The cliffs were astounding, covered with sheep of all ages and sizes, so accustomed to tourists we got close enough to take lots of photos and listen to them grazing.
We went out another day by ferry, (15 minutes, 45 euros for 2 people and car), to Arranmore, a nearby island. There are 600 people living there and many well-kept houses. But we spent five hours there driving the few narrow roads, and discovered a totally different character to every side and angle around every curve of the road. Some hills were barren moonscapes with piles of cut peat drying in the sunshine. Some were lushly green, dotted with sheep. Some were granite-studded. I lay down in the sunshine on one with thick, spongy vegetation — a perfect natural mattress! — and napped.
Sunburned in Ireland? It’s possible.
Today, as I write this from Doherty’s, a Dungloe restaurant, it’s cool and rainy. A rest day. It’s tempting to rush out every day and see moremoremoremoremore. But we’re a little overwhelmed by the beauty we see here and want time to just rest, read and savor it before our final week back in Dublin.
The tang of burning coal. A whiff of the Atlantic.
The fuchsia of hollyhock and heather and the brilliant yellow of gorse and buttercup.
Piles of peat, cut up and laid out in rows to dry before burning for fuel.
This is my fifth visit to Ireland, the first for my American-born husband. My great-grandfather was the schoolteacher in Rathmullan, County Donegal whose son emigrated to Vancouver, Canada, where my father and I were born.
Hence, back to Donegal!
We’re now in a rented cottage in Dungloe, Co. Donegal, the furthest northwest one can get in Ireland one can go; I found it through a quick Google search and hoped for the best. Then we’ll be back to Dublin for another week, with a likely trip north to Belfast to see the Titanic Museum and maybe a Game of Thrones location tour.
We love our new home for the next week: It is totally silent, filled with light thanks to its multiple skylights, and with clear views for miles across the inlets and hills. Custom-built for a local businesswoman and architect-designed, it’s simple, clean and modern, even with its gorgeous stone exterior.
We flew Aer Lingus into Dublin on Bloomsday, June 16, and spent four nights with friends in Rathmines, a lovely residential neighborhood a mere four tram stops from St. Stephen’s Green, the heart of the city.
I wandered around to get oriented, too tired and jet-lagged to take in official sights. We enjoyed a meal out at Peperina, a neighborhood bistro and a drink at a local pub — just in time to watch a race from Royal Ascot on television. I had a fantastic meal at Avoca, a cafe/shop in Dublin, scored a great pair of suede sneakers and we drove the 4 hours north to Donegal.
There’s so much light! In Dublin there was still light in the sky at 11:45 pm, fully sunlit by 5:00 a.m. — here, further north, there’s even some light in the sky at 3:30 a.m. and it’s fully bright by 4:00 a.m.
While in the north we plan to: visit Rathmullan and Letterkenny, drive around the headlands, visit a few local islands, listen to traditional music, eat some lobster. I’m also hoping to get an Irish-language tutor for an afternoon while we’re in the heart of the Gaeltacht, those few remaining parts of Ireland where most people speak Irish and many road signs are only in Irish.
It’s a gorgeous-sounding language and I’d be thrilled to learn a bit of it.
Here are some photos of our trip, so far; with no phone or Internet access at the cottage, we have to head to a pub for that. Perfect!