Ireland, a place to make your heart beat fast

There are those places in life that captivate your mind and enchant your soul. They are the places that envelop you with the quiet sense that you belong, the places that catch you unawares and completely capture your heart. Ireland is that place for me.

Three years ago I was lucky enough to get to spend five days gallivanting in Dublin with my best friend Jennifer. Nineteen, and our first European adventure sans supervision, we were swept up in the glow of liberation. This trip was our chance to explore the wondrous and enticing lands we share the same intense passion for. We strolled through the streets of this beautiful city with an enthusiasm that was almost tangible, taking in the sites of Trinity College, O’Connell St., St Patrick’s Cathedral, the Georgian houses, Dublin Castle, the Temple Bar, and of course the famous Guinness Storehouse. Within the first hour of being in Dublin we were sporting matching smiles and we knew without having to say it that we were falling fast.

We stayed in the lively Temple Bar district, which is constantly filled with the buzz of music and the bustle of moving crowds. It’s the perfect place for travelers seeking an energetic and fun-filled atmosphere. Temple Bar, the cultural hub of Dublin, still retains its medieval cobbled streets and hosts a variety of street markets, sure to delight, whatever your fancy. At night this bustling district turns into a lively local hotspot where you cannot fail to find a sampling of the vivacious sparkle that is undeniably Celtic. If you’re in search of the quintessential Irish flavor then look no further.

Dublin not only boasts many historic and cultural attractions of its own, it is also located within an hour of the scenic Wicklow Mountains and the Valley of Glendalough. Taking a tour of this picturesque area was one of the highlights of our trip to Dublin. Over the Top Tours takes you through the Dublin Mountains and into the hidden lakes and waterfalls of the Valley Glendalough, known as “the Garden of Ireland”. This wonderful tour also includes the stunning area of Sally Gap and Lough Tay (the famous Guinness Lake) as well as the ancient monastic settlement of St. Kevin. I was awed by the pastoral splendor of County Wicklow and the proximity of this rural oasis to the largest city in Ireland. This tour is a definite must.

This being my introduction to the wondrous country of Ireland, it is not surprising that I was itching to get back as soon as possible. I got my chance to return this year and was fortunate enough to have my very own local tour guide. I spent three fabulous weeks touring the whole of Ireland, top to bottom, with my good friend Warren.

Fittingly, my first day back in Ireland was in Dublin; though this time it would only be a fleeting visit. I arrived early in the morning so we had the full day to take advantage of seeing all the sites in Dublin before moving on to the next location in our all-Ireland road trip. Prior to my arrival, Warren mentioned that he was worried that I would be bored on this trip since I had already been to Ireland. I told him not to worry, that I was going to be like a kid in a candy store the whole time I was there. I was right. I could not have been more dazzled than if I were five years old and standing in a room bedecked with every sweet treat imaginable.

By pure coincidence the first place we stumbled upon as we were exploring Dublin was the Temple Bar district where Jennifer and I had stayed. It was such a surreal feeling to be back. I smiled brightly as I recognized places that I had gone to on my first trip: Botticelli’s, where we had gelato that could rival Italy’s finest, Gallagher’s Boxty House, where we sampled the delectable local fare, and of course the string of pubs such as The Quay’s Bar, Oliver St. John Gogarty’s Bar, and The Temple Bar where we reveled in the traditional music and festivities.

We spent the rest of the day leisurely wandering through the streets of Dublin. We strolled down the pleasant walk along the River Liffey and crossed the footbridge over to the city center. We passed the famous Spire of Dublin, took in the impressive architecture of O’Connell St, meandered through the historic grounds of Trinity College, browsed in the stores of Grafton Street, picnicked at St. Stephen’s Green, and visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It was such an invigorating experience to simply sink into the day, the city, and to let myself be completely enveloped by it. The character of Dublin enlivened me and as we took a dander (Irish term for stroll) through this dynamic city I fell in love all over again.

That evening we returned to the Temple Bar where the pubs were packed, despite it being a Sunday night. Tipperary had just won the All Ireland Hurling Final (a fascinating ancient Gaelic sport) over Kilkenny and the fans were out in full force celebrating. The energy that evening was infectious. The pulsing spirit of the people was palpable and as I stood there in the midst of the excitement I found myself totally enraptured by the charisma of this city.

Dublin is a city overflowing with character, history, and culture and one which begs to be visited. From the Book of Kells, which is housed at Trinity College, to the brightly painted doors of the Georgian houses, to lively festivities of Temple Bar, Dublin has a wealth of attractions to offer.

The next day it was off to the seaport city of Cork. It was the first time either of us had been to Cork so when we arrived we decided that the best thing to do would be to just take a walk around and see what the city had to offer. This was definitely new for me since I usually like to plan out a structured itinerary for all my trips; however, the leisurely pace of life in Ireland lends itself to being discovered in such a spontaneous manner. It was refreshing to let go of all my strictly planned schedules and discover the charms of Ireland without my usual checklist. In fact, stumbling upon the hidden gems haphazardly ended up being surprisingly more rewarding than strategically planning it out.

We wandered through the streets of Cork taking in the sites of this bustling port city. Warren and I had “tourists” written all over us, as he stood looking intently at the map and the shutter on my Nikon was going into overload. We had only been out walking for about ten minutes when we were approached by a charismatic Corkonian – a quirky old man who ambled up to us looking just the part of the quintessential Irishman, complete with flat cap. “How long ye in Cork fer?” he asked us amiably. We responded that we only had a day in Cork. For the next fifteen minutes he proceeded to rattle off an extensive list of things for us to see and do in Cork, only to contradict himself after every suggestion saying in his broad accent “But don’t do that.” With every suggestion it became harder and harder for me to contain my laughter, especially as I watched his antics and the reactions on Warren’s face.

Finally, he ended up deciding that the best thing for us to do would be to “go and find the craic.” “Yes, go and find out where the craic is and have yerselves a couple pints. That’s the best ting to do.” He explained, with expressive hand gestures, that the craic he was referring to was not the kind you smoked, but rather the traditional Irish music and festivities. Given that Warren is Irish we already knew this fact, which made our wee man’s (as we appropriately dubbed him) explanation all the more comical. This was by far the most hilarious encounter of my entire trip and one of those magical moments that occur through pure happenstance.

After our chance encounter with our wee man we decided, despite his laundry list of recommendations, to just walk around Cork and see where we ended up. The skyline of Cork is dotted with many church steeples, and being an avid photographer and someone with a certain partiality for “old things,” as Warren termed it, I naturally gravitated towards those areas. We wandered all over the hilly streets of Cork from steeple to steeple, joking that there wouldn’t be any need to go on the sightseeing tour because we had just about seen everything. It was beginning to get dark by the time we had traversed the city, and with rumbling stomachs we made our way in search of a place for dinner.

Attracted by the bright lights and cheerful atmosphere, we wandered down Mutton Lane into what happened to be the oldest pub in Cork, The Mutton Lane Inn. I was intrigued as we entered this dark and mysterious pub – the air aromatic with scents of strong ale and the candlelight dancing on the walls. There was a sense of good-natured merriment in the air that made me feel instantly welcome and certain that this was a place the locals frequented. Though the Mutton Lane Inn does not serve food it is certainly a fabulous place to have a pint and enjoy the craic.

That evening we dined at The Bodega, a superb restaurant that offers a location of sophistication, a diverse range of patrons, and a truly sinful array of culinary triumphs. Adorned with chandeliers hanging from high arched ceilings, the Bodega exudes a delightful elegance; however, this restaurant boasts much more than simply aesthetics. Pure gastronomic bliss is the only way to describe my meal. Traditional Irish stew: succulent lamb, tender potatoes, and savory root vegetables in a decadent gravy. To complete my night of utter indulgence I ordered an Irish coffee for dessert – a perfect way to end the day.

The next morning we got an early start and went on a bus tour of the city. Although we had already wandered around the day before it was nice to go on a tour that allowed us to sit, take in the sites, and hear about the history of Cork. This tour provides an excellent way to see all the sites that Cork has to offer, allowing visitors to pick and choose where they want to get off and spend more time. Consisting of a diverse range of Cork’s attractions, the tour highlights: Cork City Gaol, University College Cork, St. Finbarr’s Cathedral, Elizabeth Fort, St. Anne’s Church, and the English Market. Though Cork offers many points of interest, my personal favorites were Cork City Gaol, where we explored the cells of 19th century inmates, St. Finbarr’s Cathedral, where we soaked in the history of the patron saint of Cork, and the English Market, where we satisfied my taste for old world charm. This wonderful tour imparts a real sense of the history and character of this ancient town.

No trip to Ireland is complete without a visit to the Blarney Stone and that was the next stop on our road trip. The day couldn’t have been nicer for walking around the verdant grounds of Blarney Castle. We basked in the sunshine as we strolled through the historic grounds and learned about the history of the word “blarney” and the infamous story of the Blarney Stone. We then made our way up to the castle itself and scaled the narrow, winding staircase to the top of the battlements and each took our turn kissing the stone fabled to instill the “gift of the gab.” The grounds of Blarney Castle offer not only the lure of the stone of eloquence, but also stately Blarney House and gardens, and Rock Close a mystical place of waterfalls, caves, and woodland walks on the site of an ancient druidic settlement.

Our travels then took us to one of the most awe-inspiring places I have ever been, the Cliffs of Moher. I was stunned to silence by the astounding beauty of the plunging cliffs against the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. The sunlight glistened on the sparkling water as the waves broke onto the cliff face. I was completely spellbound as my senses were enraptured in a symphony of delight. The wondrous view bedazzled my eyes, the salty sea air tickled my taste buds, the cool Atlantic breeze sent a shiver through my body, the seagulls cawed and the waves crashed in a harmonizing rhythm, and I was enveloped in one melodious gulp.

After spending hours entranced by the majesty of the Cliffs of Moher we were off to Galway. It was with a feeling of deep reluctance that I prized myself away from the spot that I was convinced would be my favorite part of the trip.

Bright and early the next morning we set out to explore the sites of the engaging city of Galway. The narrative of Galway’s intriguing history beckoned to us as we wandered through the cobbled streets. The ruins of the medieval city walls whisper of an ancient time of fortifications and invasions. The Spanish Arch, a relic of the 16th century, recalls Galway’s days of merchant trade. And the Claddagh, a small fishing village on the shore of Galway Bay, imparts the mythical tale of the famous Claddagh ring. Coupled with its rich history, Galway boasts a thriving cultural atmosphere and hosts a diverse range of festivals throughout the year. This beautiful city is alive with the influence of her past and the buzz of her present, making it a joy to discover her many secrets and hidden gems.

After touring the Republic of Ireland, we headed to Northern Ireland where I lost my heart and found myself. Warren lives in the quaint town of Comber, just outside of the capital city of Belfast, which was to become my favorite city in Ireland. To introduce me to the sites on my first trip into Belfast we took the open top bus tour, which provides an excellent view of this exciting city, features key attractions, and gives visitors a sense of its history. Highlights on the tour include the Titanic Quarter, the political murals in East Belfast, Queen’s University, The Grand Opera House, The Albert Memorial Clock, Stormont Parliament Buildings, St. George’s Market, Belfast City Hall, St. Anne’s Cathedral, and one of my personal favorites, the C.S. Lewis statue. Although the top deck affords spectacular views of the city and all it has to offer, if you are more of a history buff I would recommend sitting on the bottom deck where you can more easily hear a detailed history from a well-versed guide.

My adventures in Belfast did not end with the bus tour; I was fortunate enough to spend quite a lot of time exploring this incredible city. I have a “thing,” shall we say, for covered markets and the renowned St. George’s Market did not disappoint. The City Food and Garden Market takes place every Saturday from 9 am- 3pm and offers shoppers a richly enjoyable experience. As you walk into the market your senses are immediately enticed as the luscious intermingling scents of savory and sweet, local and exotic, waft through the air. The Saturday market is a smorgasbord of vibrant delights from fresh produce and continental delicacies to live music and arts and crafts. This gorgeous Victorian market has all the charm of bygone days and evokes the romantic timelessness that makes Ireland so alluring.

Another of my favorite experiences in Belfast, and one not to be missed, was having lunch at the historic Crown Bar Liquor Saloon. This opulent Victorian bar, with its gilded ceiling, brocaded walls, and ornate wood carvings is one of the jewels of Belfast. The Crown Bar offers its patrons a unique experience which will transport them back to Victorian times with its “snugs,” ten uniquely decorated and elaborately carved wooden booths complete with stained glass windows, gun metal plates for striking matches, and an antique bell system to “alert the bar staff to your liquid needs.” Having lunch in an intimate snug in this lavishly decorated bar is an experience quite unlike any other, especially for anyone with a fascination with the Victorian era. The Crown Bar boasts excellence not only in its plush décor, but also in its cuisine – my steak and Guinness pie was a meal to tantalize the taste buds. This Victorian indulgence is one that I definitely recommend! Be sure to book a table in advance because the Crown Bar is very well known and notoriously full for lunch and dinner.

A visit to Belfast Castle is another definite must. This eye-catching castle, with its Scottish baronial style architecture and manicured gardens, is sure to impress. Situated next to one of the highest points in Belfast, Cave Hill, Belfast Castle offers visitors a panoramic view of Belfast Lough and of the city itself. Explore the grand rooms of the castle, hike through the surrounding parkland and woodland, search for the nine cats in the garden said to bring luck to the castle, take a gander in the antiques shop, have an intimate meal in the cellar restaurant, or simply take in the beautiful view of the capital city from one of its most famous landmarks.

Titanic Quarter, where the “ship of dreams” was built, is an area that is well worthwhile to spend time exploring. The imposing forms of Harland and Wolff’s Samson and Goliath and the chasm of the dry dock where Titanic once sat, elicit a real sense of the sheer magnitude of Titanic, of the enormity of the ship’s construction, and of the industriousness of the Irishmen who built her. The Titanic Quarter tells the fascinating story of the heyday of shipbuilding in Belfast and is currently in the midst of an extensive waterfront development project which will commemorate the centenary of Titanic’s launch and departure from Belfast.

Cathedral Quarter, Belfast’s oldest quarter, is an area filled with aesthetic and literary wonder. As I walked through the cobbled streets of this historic area I could not help but imagine what life must have been like in old Belfast. I envisioned horse-drawn carriages rolling through the streets, women with parasols and full-skirted flowing gowns, men in tails and top hats. I saw them strolling through Writer’s Square, taking inspiration from the quotes of famous Belfast authors, attending church at St. Anne’s Cathedral, and gathering at the Duke of York for an evening of witty banter. There was something about this quarter that was evocative of the rich and vibrant past that is still so much a part of this dynamic and charismatic city.

Queen’s University, with its handsome red brick façade and magnificent Victorian architecture, is truly the gem of Queen’s Quarter. A stroll through the leafy grounds of Queen’s and a visit to the lush Botanic Gardens on a sunny day makes the world slow down and the hustle and bustle of city life disappear. There is a pulsating vitality that this center for academia, culture, and entertainment emits. This historic quarter offers a diverse range of art galleries and museums, a mélange of international dining options, and a wide array of bars and clubs. Queen’s Quarter truly is a cultural center which harmoniously blends the history of the past with the vitality of the present.

After all that gushing it has most likely become apparent that Belfast holds a special place in my heart. The vibrant and magical city that inspired Gulliver’s Travels and The Chronicles of Narnia became to me a place that felt very much like home and one which I have every desire to get back to as quickly as possible.

My journey through Northern Ireland did not end with its capital city however. The dramatic and ruggedly beautiful landscape of the North Coast awaited me. This was the part of the trip that I had been most looking forward to and planned from the travel brochures I had perused (ok, read eleven times over) prior to my trip. As we drove up to Warren’s holiday house in Portrush I felt every part of my body tingling with anticipation. I was finally going to get to visit those dazzling locals that made me gasp just seeing images in a brochure.

Our adventures began with Dunluce Castle. The striking ruins of Dunluce Castle, perched precariously on a rocky headland plummeting down to the Atlantic, are a sight straight out of a medieval novel. I have seen a lot of castles on my travels, but none to rival Dunluce. An extraordinary relic of Ireland’s vibrant and intriguing past situated dramatically against jaw-dropping coastal scenery, Dunluce Castle is in a class all of its own. The history of this medieval stronghold surrounded me and I was overcome with a sense of child-like wonder as I walked through the haunting ruins.

The next destination after our exploration of Dunluce was the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. The rope bridge takes thrill-seekers across the wide chasm between the mainland and Carrick Island. It couldn’t have been a windier day for our excursion, but that only added to the drama of the landscape. My legs were shaking, my heart racing, but the smile on my face couldn’t have been wider as I crossed the rope bridge. Carrick Island affords phenomenal coastal views and on a clear day the astonishing vistas of Rathlin Island and Scotland can even be seen. If you have a taste for adventure and a desire to be in the midst of unparalleled coastal scenery then Carrick-a-Rede is something not to miss out on.

The journey continued with a trip to Downhill Estate. Upon entering the estate, you are greeted by the fairy tale like gardens of Downhill Demesne. As you wander further into the estate the eerie and formidable ruins of Downhill Castle come into view. But it is Mussenden Temple that is truly the gem of Downhill Estate. This gorgeous eighteenth-century library sits right at the dramatic coastal edge of the Atlantic Ocean and offers spectacular views of County Donegal to the west and Castlerock beach, Portrush and Portstewart to the east. With an obvious eagerness to my step, I sprinted towards this arresting monument that I had so longed to see and began taking countless photographs. Warren held me as I perched on the edge of the stone wall overlooking the coast desperately trying to capture the magnificent scenery I beheld. I stood there for a while just gazing out at the stunning coastline, watching a man and his dog running along the beach below us, a rainbow forming in the distance, and I breathed a deep sigh of contentment at the simple pleasures in life.

A cold and rainy morning on the North Coast did not bode well for outdoor excursions, but this land of natural beauty offers visitors many other attractions to explore. Ireland is known for its whiskey and the North Coast is home to one of the oldest licensed whiskey distilleries in the world, dating back to 1608. The Old Bushmills Distillery offers an interesting tour that takes visitors through the distillation process from the mashing of the barley to the bottling of the finished product. At the end of the tour you even get to sample a wee glass of whichever whiskey you choose – the 12 year Distillery Reserve is a superb choice, befitting the likes of any whiskey connoisseur. After spending some time at the distillery, might I suggest heading over to the historic Bushmills Inn for some good old-fashioned traditional Irish fare.

Our last day on the North Coast was devoted to one of the coastal wonders of the world, the Giant’s Causeway. This World Heritage site is an absolute marvel to behold; simply being in the presence of this geographic phenomenon is a truly humbling experience. As I looked out on the astounding volcanic formations I stood in complete awe. Speechless, spellbound, stunned. These words do not even begin to convey the visceral impact that this magnificent natural wonder elicits. This magical place captures your senses in an exquisite whirlwind that awakens every part of your being. We trekked through the causeway and with each formation I became more and more entranced. The interlocking basalt columns stretching out into the Atlantic form the mythical stepping stones of the Irish giant Finn MacCool, and the wonders continue with the intriguing formations of the Giant’s Boot, the Organ Pipes, and the Chimney Stacks.

Though each of these formations are fascinating in their own right, it was the cliff top walk that swept me up in a haze of rapture and was the first thing to rival my beloved Cliffs of Moher. Walking along the cliff top trail was the most wondrously exhilarating experience as I stood there being buffeted to and fro by the spirited Atlantic winds and gazing out on coastal scenery of unparalleled beauty. The view of the plunging cliff face, the rugged headlands, and the turbulent waters from the Amphitheatre was absolutely mesmerizing. I laid down at the edge of the drop longing to fully immerse myself in this breathtaking scenery and in a hypnotized state of euphoria I found myself contemplating with envy what it would be like to be a bird, able to soar freely through this majestic coastland.

The raw and unbridled beauty of the North Coast makes your heart quiver and your body tremble in pure amazement at the majesty that you behold. This is a place to captivate your mind, warm your heart, and free your soul. It is unlike any other place I have ever been or I am sure, will ever go. It is a place that refuses to be tamed and that wildness makes it all the more bewitching.

As we traveled back to Comber, the scenery of the North Coast continued to shock and amaze me with its unending beauty. The Dark Hedges, an avenue of ancient beech trees, creates a mysterious intertwined canopy over the Bregagh Road in Ballymoney. We spent some time soaking in the aura of magic that hung in the air and were lucky enough to witness a wedding taking place in this mystical grove. We then traveled through the Glens of Antrim, which has been named an area of outstanding natural beauty. Sheep frolicked freely next to our car as we traveled the winding roads through glacial valleys, wooded glens, and vast forests. This pastoral haven filled with mountain streams, waterfalls, and reflective pools is pure Arcadian bliss. We then made our way down to the quaint coastal village of Cushendun, which offers scenic views with charming cottages dotted along the harbor. We stopped here for a picnic and were soon befriended by a local dog who had mastered the art of sad puppy eyes – of course the con artist was only after our food, but that didn’t make him any less adorable. We affectionately christened the wily Border Collie our “Cushendog.” The enchanting North Coast charmed us all the way home.

By this point it was nearing the end of my stay in Ireland and there were still a few sites that I had yet to see. Thankfully, my trusty tour guide got me to those last places. To fully experience the history of Ireland I had to visit St. Patrick’s Country. Downpatrick, the town of Ireland’s patron saint, is bursting with history and culture just waiting to be discovered. Here you can visit Down Cathedral where St. Patrick’s remains rest, learn about the history and culture of County Down through the educational exhibits at Down County Museum, and experience the story of St. Patrick though state of the art presentations at the Saint Patrick Center.

The walled city of Londonderry, voted the UK City of Culture 2013, can be described as the cultural epicenter of Northern Ireland and is a site not to be missed. Dating back to the 6th century, Londonderry is the only completely walled city in the British Isles and within those walls lies a vibrant and thriving city just as rich in ancient history as it is in modern creativity. As we meandered along the 17th century walls the magical city of Londonderry came alive. These historic walls provide a promenade which frames the city’s many attractions from Tower Museum, where you can discover the extensive history of Derry, to St. Columbs Cathedral, a magnificent surviving relic of the Siege of Derry, to the striking Guildhall which features some of the most impressive stained glass windows in Ireland. Londonderry is a city pulsing with life and bursting with culture and history. It is easy to see why this gem of Northern Ireland has been voted a City of Culture.

One of the most well known and scenic regions of Ireland, the Mourne Mountains, is a site I could not miss. This majestic mountain range, consisting of twelve peaks, is an area that makes even the most metropolitan person feel in tune with nature. For the adventure-junkie, there is an endless list of activities to be done in the Mournes from hiking and rock-climbing to horse riding and fishing. For those seeking to enjoy the beauty of the Mournes on a slightly less adventurous level, Silent Valley reservoir offers an overwhelmingly beautiful view of the mountain range as well as picturesque parklands and lakes. Just as the sleeping giant of Belfast inspired Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the mountains, valleys, and forests of the Mournes are said to have been a contributing inspiration for C.S. Lewis’ Narnia; for a literature-buff, being able to see the landscape that inspired such a notable author was thrilling. The sight of the mountain range rising up over the placid reservoir, a mysterious haze hanging in the air sent chills through my body as I was overcome once again by the intangible allure that seems to emanate from every corner of this captivating island.

Our final stop was the small village of Downings in County Donegal. This beautiful village on the west coast of Ireland offers landscape akin to that of the California coast. As we traveled the winding coastal road towards a hidden gem only a local would know about I almost forgot that I was in Ireland. The sun shone brightly on the sparkling waters and it was surprisingly warm for late September. As we turned the corner the secluded cove appeared. Grassy mountains veiled tranquil, azure waters that softly washed up on a snow white beach. This scenery was wholly unlike any that I had seen on the trip and had a stirring beauty all its own.

The incredible diversity of Ireland’s landscape struck me as I thought back on all the places I had seen on my travels. Each place was distinctly its own and each held its own unique appeal. From the rugged drama of the wild coastal lands to the lively bustle of the major cities, to the quiet serenity of the pastoral villages, Ireland boasts a wealth of allures.

There is an elusive vibrancy, mystery, and magic about Ireland that takes hold of your soul in an electrifying embrace. It is a place to fuel the imagination, a place of mystery, wonder, and excitement. After spending three weeks traveling through this enchanting country I was, in the words of Jane Austen, “bewitched body and soul.” There are neither words, nor turns of phrase eloquent enough to convey the exquisite experience of Ireland. I can only urge you to travel to this wondrous country whose history, culture, and people are sure to win your heart. Ireland is calling. Don’t wait!