Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Emerald Shores of Ireland - Part 3

The Emerald Shores of Ieland
A trip journal by David Bowers
Part 3

Soon thereafter, John boards the bus and we are on our way out of the airport. We are welcomed with the traditional "Cead Mile Failte" greeting (a 100,000 welcomes), and we take the time while we are exiting the airport's car park ("What's he doing in the car park? Parking cars, what else do you do in a car park?") .Jerry took the time to go over the tour housekeeping details, and really airport parking lots really aren't that interesting. He mentioned their scheme to handle our checked luggage, he then mentioned that we are expected to handle all carry on bags ourselves throughout the tour, although there may be some room under the bus for those wishing to put their carry on bags there in the morning, then claim them when we get to the hotel. We are also welcome to leave our personal belongings up in the passenger compartment in the bus, and there are overhead bins to assist in this. He then mentioned that he is required to inform us that items that are left on the bus not in the cargo holds are left there at our own responsibility, but he quickly countered that by saying that he has been conducting bus tours in Ireland for 20 years now, and only once has he had anybody claim their bag was taken, so it's a mostly safe environment. Speaking of legal requirements, Jerry then mentioned that Irish law requires all passengers to wear seatbelts while on busses. At this point most if not all of the 56 people in our group reach down for the seatbelts, as we had ignored them as we would on busses in the United States, if they were even installed. Okay, we have been dutifully informed of the law, can we lose the "Fasten Seatbelt" decals pasted to the big large touring windows above every row of seats. They really got in the way of my photography. As a side effect of this, it also means you can't stand or move about a bus while it is in motion. They also mentioned that yes, we are in a restroom equipped bus, but just like almost every other tour leader I have had, he discouraged its use for, shall we say environmental comfort issues, but besides since it is illegal to be out of your seat while a bus is in transit, it also means you can't get up to go to the on board restroom even if you needed to, He countered that by saying that they have planned suitable rest stops into any drives longer than an hour. He also stressed the importance of punctuality and minding the return times given at any stops, and that the bus is equipped with a rear door, its use will be at the sole discretion of the driver. Interestingly enough while the main door is on the right hand side of the bus when looking at It from the front, the back door is on the left hand side. Which brings up an important point, Ireland is one of those nations where people drive on the left side of the street, which means that in traffic the back door would open directly into traffic.

After our briefing at the start of the trip is over, we started the touring, first up was the Shannon Airport which we just left. Jerry mentioned that in the early days of aviation, Shannon Airport was the chief refueling stop. In those days, Shannon Airport was just about the range of the aircraft of the day, meaning that almost everybody stopped off at Shannon before heading to their real destination. These days, that need has been mostly abated as aircraft now have the range to go all the way to their European destinations without the refueling stop, but that doesn't mean its not a popular airport both for civilians, but also military flights, including, he said our own United States military. I recall reading that Ireland has tried to artificially keep Shannon integral by saying that if a North American airline wants to go to any other Irish airport, they had to either stop at Shannon on the way into Ireland, or the way out of Ireland, this was later changed to say they had to offer an equal number of flights to Shannon than they do to other Irish airports. According to Wiki, this arrangement is either going to end or has ended. Jerry also mentioned that one legend says that Irish Coffee was invented at the Shannon airport bar by travelers waiting to change planes in the morning. He also mentioned that some local attractions, such as Bunratty Folk Park which I will visit later in the week were built to give airport customers things to do while they wait. We soon were out on the road, and you know that saying about "The grass is always greener on the other side?" Well, it most definitely is over in Ireland, vivid green grass. A lot of the countryside is taken up with fields seemingly divided into smaller fields. Jerry mentioned that either heather or stone are used to divide fields. Different fields do not necessarily mean different owners, instead a farmer may own multiple fields, and then they don't have to be continuous. Every now and then we would spot a house, almost all in very good condition. Sometimes we'd spot a stone outbuilding, and Jerry mentioned that those were probably houses at one time.

I really liked Jerry's style, which was to engage in sort of a two day dialogue at times, where he would describe some facet of Irish life, and then solicit from us how things are back in the United States. I'm sure he's heard about the USA numerous times from leading various groups, but I think that format helps put people at ease, as it helps break up the long stretches of lecture style presentation common on group tours. We started out discussing that perennial topic, the weather and how it compares, then he asked where we are from. Jerry noted we are on a modern highway, and commented that those of us who were expecting to spend some quality time on Ireland's quaint country roads, to not fear, as we will be spending quite some time on them later. He had mentioned that the road system was an area that Ireland really benefited by joining the European Union. It seems that when Ireland going the EU in 1973 it was one of the poorest, if not the poorest nation in the Union. One of the things the EU said, was that Ireland's road system needs to be brought up to European standards, which has greatly benefited Ireland. Jerry confirmed the common belief that not too long ago there was a rush to emigrate from Ireland "Will the last person out of the country, turn off the lights!", but in the last ten years or so a lot of technology firms and other high tech industries have moved into Ireland, which has caused a tidal wave of economic prosperity to flow through Ireland, and now people are seeking to immigrate. He quipped that they don't have the illegal immigrant problem we do, as Ireland is an island, which means everybody has to arrive by boat or plane, and they think they have a pretty firm grasp on those ports.

Our first touring destination was the Cliffs of Moher but on the way we passed the Lenisch Golf Club. This particular golf course is famous for a links style course that is particularly interesting due to its dunes style landscape that puts you in positions where you can't see the flag you are aiming at. Jerry mentioned this course cost about three times as much as the average course in Ireland. Across the street from the Old Course, is the Castle Course. No, this is not a miniature golf course, but when they built their newer more traditional style course there happened to be a castle ruin on the property. They decided to keep the castle and built the course around it. The same complex does offer the short game in a format called Pitch N Putt, which is somewhere between Par 3 Golf and Minigolf. We then passed by another castle ruin. Jerry mentioned that Ireland is dotted by such castle ruins because even though they don't get too involved in international conflict, they have had a history at going at each other. When one group would capture another's castle, it was common to reduce it be tearing down half of it, and leave the one half standing as a warning to what happens to those who dare fight them.

Ireland - castle ruin on hillside

Castles were an important part of early Irish life, as we would learn progressively more about as the tour went on. It was a feudal society with large land owners, called land lords, who would then rent out small parcels of their land to numerous small families, and that for those land owners life was quite good. But, in Irish society it wasn't enough to be rich, you also had to have influence and connections. Castles were built not only for defense, not only for a place for the landlords to live, but also a place to entertain. The Cliffs of Moher happened to be on the OBriens land, and the Obriens used then as an attraction to bring Irelands most influential people to their property, "Come here and check out our amazing view" They even build an observation tower which still stands, Obriens Tower. We were soon pulling into the Cliff's parking lot.

Ireland - Cliffs of Moher visitors center

Jerry gave us a brief orientation after we were parked at a bus drop off area. Direcly ahead of us is the visitors center. I had a feeling I had just arrived at the Shire, as the visitor center is literally built into the hillside with doors and windows literally built into the hillside. There is a trail leading up the hill to the left, the trail splits into two. Jerry advised us that the left path goes to a higher but more popular area, the right trail is shorter and offers a very similar view. Jerry didn't mention the row of storekeeper's who had shops along the path to the right. Past those shops I noted what looks like a little gatehouse, and as I noted as I was leaving that's exactly what it is, so it looks like the bus parking area drops you off inside the paid admission zone. Orientation over, it was announced that we would have time to enjoy the Cliffs and grab lunch, there are some restaurants in the visitors center. He also pointed out the Irish flag on the pole just to our left, which was proudly flying briskly in the strong wind, as a way of indicating the wind is strong right now, and to watch ourselves at the top of the Cliffs. A return time was set and we were headed to the Cliffs. We did find it humorous when a bright green fun looking tour bus pulled up alongside of us, the name of the bus company - "The Paddywagon" That, of course, has a totally different meeting back in the states.

Ireland - Cliffs of Moher - Flagpole at visitor center

We left the bus, and indeed the wind is strong. We decide to go and see the view at the top of the Cliffs first. I was going to toss my empty drink bottle into a garbage can until I spotted a conveniently located recycling center at the base of the trail. We started up the first section of trail, up to the fork Jerry had mentioned. At the fork of the trail is a multi-lingual safety sign. I noted that Gaelic took the spot of honor as the first language with English a close second. The sign gave the basic don't climb on the safety wall lest you fall off the cliffs warning, but also gave a reason. The reason is the Cliff face is still eroding, and if you walk on what you think is solid ground it could erode away under you. I admit I didn't read the sign until I was looking at the photo of it on my computer, but the signs along the cliff edge that read simply "DANGER CLIFF EDGE" looked to be more effective.

Ireland - Cliffs of Moher - safety warnings

We decided to take the shorter trail to the right and headed up the stairs. The stairs were wide with no railings. I noted that there is accommodation provided by a long zig-zag path that gradually makes its way up the hillside. The safety wall is made to look as natural as possible, its made with several stone like slabs that form a waist high safety wall. At the top of the stairs we came to an overlook area. If we looked straight out, we got a nice view of the Atlantic Ocean from the other side, if we looked to the left we saw a series of jagged cliffs which made for really nice photos, if we looked to the right, we saw aclearing further along the trail containing Obriens Tower. We took some photos and some time to enjoy the awe inspiring view. A rain had started to fall, but it was a real light annoyance rain and had ended by the time we had walked back down the trail to the visitor center.

Ireland - Cliffs of Moher - View from Top

Ireland - Cliffs of Moher - O'Briens Tower

We entered the visitor center built into the side of the hill, and the theme continues on the inside with a cave like interior. On the entry level we spotted a coffee house like restaurant on one side, and the tourist information desk and gift shop on the other side. Straight ahead was a multimedia presentation that is at extra cost and not included in our tour, so we skipped it. We did take the long curving staircase up to the upper level of the visitor center. Those stairs could stand to have more lighting, at the top of the stairs are the restrooms and the cafeteria.

Ireland - Cliffs of Moher - looking out hillside window from restauraunt

We headed into the cafeteria, took trays and started down the line. The station we went to specialized in deli type sandwiches, so we each got a sandwich, bottled soft drink and I went for some sort of peanut butter and chocolate pastry. The seating was at long cafeteria type tables, so we joined up with others from our tour for lunch. To one side we could see out onto the park through the big windows in the hillside. We were enjoying our sandwiches when others came back with Irish Stew, we then discovered the hot food stations were at the far end of the room., Moral of story: look before you leap. I did notice on the Coca Cola bottle that the beverage contains actual sugar, and not high fructose corn syrup, that it was apparently bottled in Northern Ireland (gee, that could get nasty if the two sides started hating each other again), and that it is best served ice cold. Recall that cold drinks and ice are not common in Europe.

It was a pleasant lunch, and we got to meet up with some of our fellow tourists. After lunch, we did head to the restrooms. Now I promise not to make restroom mentions unless there is something extra special about it, and this counts. We pretty much excused ourselves to the restroom one at a time, and when I got there, I walked into a very modern looking facility with a real unique sculpted sink that I will get to in a few moments. The stall doors were of a frosted plexiglass with a floral pattern painted on them. Wait, this is too pretty for a men's room, I was reassured to see the row of urinals along the back wall. So back to that sink, it was one of those curvy low depth models were there are water taps built into it at several points mounted by sensors. I spotted the sensor and saw a metal plate mounted above the sensor, looking like a little shelf. I figured the sensor hides the water tap and thrust my hands under the metal plate at the sensor. Well, I was right about the sensor, but was surprised when the water came out not under the metal plate, but actually came out on top of the metal plate, and then poured off over the front edge like a waterfall. Unique, but I was glad I wore short sleeves. I returned to the table and noticed that while people had damp arms or sleeves, people were not warning anybody.

Ireland - Cliffs of Moher - display in visitors center

After lunch, we decided to not chance the dark stairwell and instead used the elevator. We next headed to the gift shop. I decided to only get site specific souvenirs during the trip, knowing that almost any good tour will include a lengthy stop at a mega gift shop where I could get the general Irish souvenirs. We did take time to look around the store to get an idea of what is available, then I wound up buying a DVD that covers the Cliffs of Moher as well as the Burren. As a clever touch, I noted they claim the DVD is double sided with NTSC and PAL on opposing sides of the disc. €15 later I had the DVD and we headed back out to the bus, making sure there were people behind us, its like the Amazing Race, its not important to be first back to the bus, but you don't want to be last, there is a bad stigma attached to that.

Ireland - Burren

Group collected, we proceeded to our next tour site, the Burren. What makes the Burren unique is the landscape. Instead of nice bright green grassy fields, the Burren has been described as almost lunar like, almost entirely stone covered with grass peeking out between almost like weeds. We also passed by some small villages, and yes, except for the big cities and sometimes even in the cities, the villages and towns do look like they do in movies. That is short two or three story buildings, set in rows usually each one a different solid color with a storefront on the street level. Jerry mentioned that in some smaller villages the pub really is the center of the town as it also doubles as the general store. What operation goes in front depends on the priority of the owner. I believe we also passed a castle and Jerry said that some of the castles act like hotels, and in some cases you can rent the entire castle, in case you want to have the unique experience of staying the night in an Irish castle. Rental houses and smaller bed and breakfast operations are very popular in Ireland, and having rooms en suite (private bath) is a selling point to be put on the marquee.


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