Driving the Emerald Isle is a gem of a trip
DUBLIN, Ireland We careened through the hectic maze of a traffic circle and spun off onto a seemingly quiet side road. A yellow-and-blue double-decker bus, its horn blaring, thundered toward us.Whats he doing on our side of the road? I screamed to my friends.Were on his side of the road, one answered.
Could it be? The three of us had been in Ireland fewer than two hours and were about to be incinerated in a head-on collision. We swerved off the highway onto a dusty shoulder as the bus blew by.St. Pat might have cast the snakes out of Ireland, but he didnt do anything to improve highway safety. The country is bedeviled by road hazards and hindrances, which include driving on the left side of the road, which stupefies many Americans. Then there are those cursed roundabouts (traffic circles) and those maniacal Irish drivers.Its enough to make you feel as though youve been catapulted onto Mr. Toads Wild Ride. Or, as Phoenix tourist Liz Kirchgatter put it: Driving here? Mercy, now thats a challenge.But the payoff is Ireland itself, a magical place where the journey takes visitors along spectacular coastlines, through wild glens and to small towns overflowing with character and characters. The best way that I have found to see it is by traveling the Emerald Isles crazy highways and byways.Another plus: An Irish road trip is an economical way to go. Weeklong packages, with round-trip air fare from Los Angeles, car rental and bed-and-breakfast lodgings, start as low as $855 a person, double occupancy, in the fall and winter off-season (August high-season rates are $1,350 per person). And you can choose from hundreds of bed-and-breakfast inns that annually put out the welcome mat. They offer a nights lodging, huge breakfasts, companionship, advice, driving tips and a glimpse of Irish hospitality at its best, all for less than $50 a person a night.Two friends and I sampled that hospitality on a weeklong driving trip in the autumn that we booked from Sceptre Tours. Our itinerary took us from Dublin to Northern Ireland and then on a counterclockwise tour of the Emerald Isle; we hoped to see some of the major highlights along the route and visit some pubs.We hadnt expected the white-knuckle twists and turns as we drove through the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. At times, we felt as though we were sitting on the inside pole in a NASCAR race, but the experience was worth the thrills and chills.We werent so sure about that, however, the afternoon we left the rental car facility outside Dublin International Airport and nearly became road kill.It was our fault, of course; we were typical American tourists. Wed been confident we could handle any driving dilemma Ireland put in our path. But driving on the left wasnt the only issue. Everything in the car seemed backward turn signals, wiper blade controls and headlight switches.As semis, vans and cars whizzed by, we found ourselves wishing we were ensconced on a giant Gray Line tour bus piloted by an Irish driver.After the near-debacle with the bus, we hit a low point as we sat hyperventilating on the shoulder. A group of highway workers blocked traffic while we turned the car around as the crew foreman explained, Theyre Americans. Just go around them.The drivers smiled or nodded and dutifully steered their cars around us. I doubt the response would have been the same if we had caused a similar problem on Pacific Coast Highway.We were trying to find our way to the motorway, an interstatelike divided highway that would take us to Northern Ireland. Wed been told the drive to Browns Country House, a bed-and-breakfast north of Belfast near the North Channel seacoast, would take about three hours. But we got lost so often it took six.We tumbled into Browns after dark in a driving rain. Several people had warned us not to drive at night or in the rain. Good advice. Its hard enough to find your way around under perfect conditions. Many roads dont have signs; others have so many signs you cant tell which way to go. Then there are the lights. At some intersections, both red and green lights are illuminated at the same time.Our GPS seemed as confused as we. When we made a wrong turn, it repeated, Recalculating. Recalculating. Then it would really get wacky and say Impossible. Impossible in a clipped British voice that seemed on the brink of a breakdown.We felt the same way after a 10-hour flight across a continent and an ocean, topped by six hours of tense driving.But Jean Browns country house took the edge off. The good Mrs. Brown had tea and coffee waiting, directed us to comfy rooms with private baths and invited us to join other guests in the sitting room for what she promised would be spirited conversation.We asked directions to the closest pub instead.In less than an hour, we were quaffing Guinness and savoring aged, peppered fillet of beef flamed in Irish whiskey in the dining room of the Bushmills Inn, a quaint re-creation of an old coach inn and mill house. For dessert, we soothed our stressed psyches with sticky toffee pudding, a restaurant specialty.The inn, along with Bushmills Distillery, are focal points of the charming village of Bushmills. The next day we returned to tour the manufacturing plant, Old Bushmills, which opened its doors in 1608. Its the only working Irish whiskey distillery open for tours; its also the first recorded whiskey distillery.Early the next morning, I explored the bucolic grounds of Browns Country House. Sheep and cows grazed nearby, and wild blackberries grew everywhere on the 1-acre property.The dining room was my next stop. I couldnt wait to try the fabled full Irish breakfast. Eggs, two types of sausage, ham, tomatoes, toast, juice, coffee, tea. I wouldnt need lunch. And Sam Brown, Jeans husband, seemed a natural entertainer in the lovable-Irish-rogue vein. He told joke after joke, many of them slightly racy.We packed up and headed to Old Bushmills for a morning of sipping and savoring, then moved on to some sightseeing.Among the nearby highlights were the Carrick-a-Rede Island Rope Bridge, a swaying, 60-foot-long rope-and-plank bridge that connects the island to the mainland; and the Giants Causeway, a lunar landscape on the seacoast of Northern Ireland that got its name from a legend about dueling behemoths.Im not sure Im acrophobic, but I didnt want to step out onto that rope bridge and find out, so we stuck with the Causeway, an awe-inspiring place with ominous gray cliffs, crashing surf and bizarre columns of basalt — the result of volcanic action — that plunge downward into the sea.And then we were back on the road.Ireland is about the size of Indiana, with Northern Ireland taking up about one-sixth of that area. Since the 1920s, when the largely Protestant north officially was partitioned from largely Catholic Ireland, it has been plagued by sectarian violence. But intense peacemaking efforts that began in the mid-90s have finally smoothed the waters here.The Irish countryside is green, fertile and crisscrossed by rivers and lakes. It was rare to pass someone on a two-lane road without a greeting of some kind, a smile or a wave.Of course, that might have had something to do with the number of times we stopped to ask directions. Exploring Ireland is a trial-and-error process. And thats not all bad.Every time we get lost, we find interesting things, said traveler Dale Henderson of Alton, Ill. That happens a lot, he added. We get lost everywhere we go. Many of the roads are walking paths, not real roads. But weve come to feel that if we get lost, its just that much more of an adventure.Detours are an ever-present part of that adventure, we learned. One day we spent several hours trapped in a gridlocked detour in the countryside. Eventually we worked our way to a police officer directing traffic. Because no one was moving, he had plenty of time to chat, so we asked about the delay and learned it was due to a double fatal accident.The Irish are bad drivers, he said. We had three fatals earlier today and now two here. Five in Ireland in one day.Statistics back up his concern, and place the blame on drunken drivers. A report published last fall by the European Road Safety Council criticized Ireland for its leniency regarding blood alcohol content.We also asked the chatty officer about the best way to explore the country; we confessed that we had gotten lost several times and asked how we could avoid it. Did we need a better map?A map in Ireland? No. You stop and ask someone. You see a light on in a house, stop and ask.We mentioned our GPS. He laughed. A GPS in Ireland? This isnt America or England, you know.Our next B&B stop was in Galway at Avoca House, a modest two-story family home. Proprietor Kathleen Laffey had warm scones and tea waiting when we pulled in long after dark. The rooms were small but comfortable, and the breakfast table overflowed.We were eager to explore the narrow, winding streets of Galway, which turned out to be a great place to shop. Within a few hours, we had loaded up the rental car with sweaters, T-shirts, hats and other fun souvenirs.Wed arranged our tour to include a one-night stay at a castle, an optional upgrade available with most package tours. (Another, very important upgrade is from a manual transmission car to an automatic. Dont skimp with this one.)Our castle, Adare Manor in County Limerick, was everything we could hope for. Adare Manor Hotel and Golf Resort was set amid 840 acres of formal gardens and rolling parkland, and its towers, turrets and ruins dated back more than 800 years.The 18th-century manor, once a private home, has 63 bedrooms, a spa and a Robert Trent Jones Sr. golf course.The next day, we became commoners again, lodging at a B&B. But that nights stop was anything but common. Ballaghmore House, in the County Laois village of Borris-in-Ossory, was our favorite B&B. Proprietor Carole England has added a health and well-being center, so we could have gotten a massage or other spa treatments if wed had time.Even without the frills, Ballaghmore was noteworthy. The dining room had an open-beam ceiling, giant bricked hearth and seating for 22. Breakfast started with a table full of pastries, cheeses and fruit. Then England handed us a menu with hot offerings: Eight were available that day. It was more like a short-order diner than a B&B.
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