Cead mille failte! A hundred thousand welcomes!
If you’re planning a trip to Ireland, look forward to meeting a lot of friendly people the minute you step off the plane — or even before. We fly into Shannon on the west, Dublin on the east or Belfast on the north, depending on the itinerary we have chosen.
On a flight into Shannon Airport, we chatted with an elderly Irish seatmate. While we got our rental car, she just hopped on her bicycle and pedaled off toward a nearby village, cheerfully reminding us to stop by her cottage for a cup of tea. We nervously get accustomed to the driver sitting on the “wrong” side of the car and driving on the “wrong” side of the road, but we find that both the cars and the roads have improved greatly over the years.
The “Board Failte” (the Irish Tourist Board) is a very active presence at airports, in all cities and most small towns. There are bus tours and boat trips available through “Board Failte,” and private tour guides, such as John Cunningham with Erne Heritage Tours, will customize a tour to fit your interests. Travel by train is possible, but not to all points.
If you prefer a big city travel adventure, Dublin is the place you’ll want to visit. But remember, “Dublin is not Ireland is not Ireland is not Ireland.” We suggest a tour of the rural areas to get the real flavor of Ireland after a few days in the city.
On a recent visit we flew into Belfast, staying at the Premier Inn in Carrickfergus. The 800-year-old Carrickfergus Castle loomed a short distance across the harbor — about a five-minute walk along the docks lined with tugboats and sailboats. It was a thrill to watch the moon rise over the castle from our window each night. The hotel restaurant offers excellent fish and chips, as well as apple pie topped with caramel sauce and drizzled with “pouring cream” and, of course, the traditional hearty Irish breakfast. Irish cuisine has greatly improved over the years, although old favorites remain on the menu.
On day one, the high point of our Belfast city tour with local Irish friends we met on Longboat Key was the view of the harbor and city from Belfast Castle, with its manicured gardens and grassy hills for the kids to roll down. We visited the Ulster Museum, saw the childhood home of U.S. President Andrew Jackson, toured the Falls Road and Shankill Road areas, and stopped at the Titanic launching site and museum.
The next day we left Belfast behind, driving leisurely through the countryside to Enniskillen, about 75 miles west of Belfast. We had booked ahead at Killyhevlin Hotel, on the banks of Lough Erne. It was a pleasure to wake at dawn and watch the swans and skulls glide by in the morning mist. The 70-room hotel was built on the site of an ancient castle and specializes in pampering guests with its spa and five-course dinners by candlelight.
Driving further west we spent some time at Fermanagh County’s Lough Erne Golf Resort, a Nick Faldo course where Rory MacIlroy is the touring pro. A collection of antique cars shuttle guests around and set the stage for the first-class service this unique resort offers. Round towers and castellated-style architecture meld perfectly with the lakeside setting, and the Thai luxury spa provides a relaxing interlude for tired muscles.
A few miles further west up a winding country lane is Castle Brae Cottages, a rental complex that includes a stone farm house and collection of stone cottages high on a quiet hilltop overlooking Tully Castle ruins and the myriad islands in this vast chain of lakes. Cows munch contentedly in the pastures and wooly sheep peer at us as we relaxed on a settee near the pasture gate. A peaceful, poetic setting.
Then we’re off to Counties Sligo and Mayo, stopping at the seaside resort town of Enniscrone on the shores of Killala Bay. With Championship Enniscrone Golf Club close by, this is a popular destination for summer vacationers. We like to travel in September and October when the town is quieter and were lucky to book the spacious Presidential Suite at the Ocean Sands Hotel, which offers a balcony with a view of the bay, a spa tub and skylight. Fresh flowers in our room were a special surprise.
Ocean Sands was recently built on the site of the old Atlantic Hotel on Main Street. The hotel offers banquet facilities and meeting rooms, while its restaurant and bar features live Irish music. Locals gather to mingle with the visitors for a congenial Irish dining experience.
The hotel is within walking distance of the Gala convenience and take-away store where on Sunday morning we were pleased to meet a 9-year-old Irish lass, named Sinead. Wearing a pink sweatshirt emblazoned with MICHIGAN, she was ordering breakfast for herself from the deli cases, selecting “one of those, and one of those” very expertly and very much in charge — rather like Eloise at the Plaza in NYC. Turns out she is the daughter of the proprietor of the store and the princess of a lovely little kingdom.
Down the hill from Main Street toward the bay is the delightful Waterfront Inn. Sparkling new in its look and luxury décor, it also offers spectacular views of the crashing waves and horseback riders along the strand. Nearby is a unique spa experience, Kilkullen’s Seaweed Baths in its original 1912 Edwardian building, offering hot seawater baths and a traditional seaweed soak, the last of its kind in Ireland.
Belleek Castle, situated on the banks of the River Moy in a 1,000-acre forest near Ballina, offers elegant, historic accommodations. The castellated manor house looks like a Harry Potter set, rather dark and austere as you drive up the ancient tree-sheltered lane. Two dogs were guarding the massive front door as we approached, but were very welcoming. In the past we have stayed in the elegant front bedroom with a red-velvet-canopied bed, a rather king and queen-like decor, but the rooms have recently been redecorated in a restful cream color.
Belleek Castle has everything from vaulted ceilings, massive fireplaces in every room, a great room and a bar made from the wreck of a Spanish Galleon. We drank a toast there with old friends during a planning session for the 2012 O’Dubhda (O’Dowd) Clan Gathering.
Every three years O’Dowd descendants come to Enniscrone from all over the world to exchange genealogical information and visit castle and other ruins indigenous to the O’Dowds who lived here for centuries. The next clan gathering is Oct. 11-14, 2012, hosted by Gertrude O’Reilly MacHale, who lives in Enniscrone, and her son, Conor. Both are historians, with a special interest in the O’Dowd clan, and have written many books about the family and locale.
La Playa Condo Manager Dick O’Dowd, my husband, travel companion and driver, has been invited to speak at the 2012 gathering. Many clans have similar gatherings and websites. Just Google your Irish surname, and before you know it you will be on a plane to Ireland to meet your family.
We find staying at an airport hotel the night before flying home works best for us. In Belfast the airport is small and friendly, and we can walk from the car rental return to our hotel, the Park Plaza, which is adjacent to the terminal — an easy walk the next morning. Our driving was almost 100 percent rural. With a good map and planning ahead with “Board Failte,” we arrive where we need to be, on time, and with minimal mistakes.
Of course we always wish we could stay longer. Friendly people, beautiful scenery, historic places to visit, fish, golf, hike — Ireland has it all. And the locals speak English. “One Hundred Thousand Welcomes” is their motto. “Cead Mille Failte” (pronounced kade meelah fawlcha) — and they mean it sincerely in either language.
For more information: erneheritagetours.com, www.loughernegolfresort.com, www.OceanSandsHotel.net, www.waterfronthouse.ie, www.premierinn.co.uk, www.killyhevlin.com or email email@example.com.