Jennifer Evans Gardner embarks on a road trip to the Emerald Isle with with her son and mother in search of castles, fine food and their family roots.
I was driving on the rim of my tire. I have been told never to do that, but in this remote area of County Mayo on the West Coast of Ireland, calling AAA for a blowout was not an option. With my 76-year-old mother and 14-year-old son in tow, I continued to drive, very slowly, as though that would make a difference. I winced at the kaplunk-kaplunk of the flat tire on the road. “Look mom, I think there’s a gas station up there,” said my son. I squinted. He was right. Not only was there a gas station at the edge of this small village, but a tire center as well. After a brief scolding by the mechanic for nearly destroying the rim, the tire was replaced while we enjoyed a cuppa. The luck of the Irish was with us, indeed.
We were on the third day of a five-day, four-night road trip through Ireland, a place I have long wanted to visit. For my mother, the trip was a lifetime dream, which kept moving farther and farther away from her as the years wore on. Like many Americans, she had always identified with her Irish heritage, and she made my brothers and I proud that we, too, were “part Irish,” however miniscule the percentage might be. With the “Gathering 2013“— a year full of celebrations in which Ireland calls home its descendants (and anyone else feeling an Irish connection) – coming up, it seemed like the time to go. We decided to get the jump on things, and scope it out for everyone else.
The best way to go to Ireland from California, of course, is through Boston, which is rumored to have the largest population of Irish people outside of the country. As we were traveling from different states and needed to meet up, Boston was the perfect place to rendez-vous and break up the trip to keep travel fatigue at bay. Plus, it gave us an excuse to stay at the ridiculously comfortable and perfectly located Mandarin Oriental Boston, just steps away from Newbury Street. And to check out Island Creek Oyster Bar for a meal of freshly shucked Beach Point oysters, steamed clams with housemade bacon, and the best lobster roll ever—all washed down with a pint of Guinness. (You don’t have to go to a pub for Irish beer in this town.) After a restful sleep, we enjoyed a day in Boston before settling into our Aer Lingus flight to Shannon, which only took about five hours.
A funny thing happened when we landed in Ireland, at the crack of dawn after stumbling off of a red eye. They simply handed us a set of car keys and off we went to drive on the opposite side of the road. It’s really quite shocking when you think about it. The Dooley Car Rentals clerk was perfectly cheery about the whole thing, advising us simply to “stay left, look right.” We had no idea that this phrase would become our life-saving mantra for the road trip. Driving on the left side of the road was utterly terrifying at first, so best not to do it on an empty stomach. After fifteen minutes of navigating roundabouts and trying to stay on the left side of the road, we stopped at the Queen’s Hotel in Ennis for a full Irish breakfast of eggs, bangers, black and white “pudding” (a mixture of pork and oats, formed into little patties), thin crepe-like pancakes, and mugs of coffee topped with globs of clotted cream (beware of asking for cream in your coffee if milk is really what you want).
Recharged, we were ready to continue our journey, though I continued to get into the car on the left side, not an easy habit to break. We traveled to the breathtaking Cliffs of Moher, to Galway for a Claddagh Ring and Aran Sweater for a shopping break, and finally, to the picturesque village of Clifden, set amidst the Twelve Ben Mountain Range in County Connemara on the sea. All in one day.
You can throw a rock in Ireland and hit a castle, but the Abbeyglen Castle Hotel was a beautiful sight that day after traveling on those first narrow roads in the rain. Like many castles in Ireland, this one was lovely, but slightly tattered, sort of like a beloved teddy bear. It was welcoming and cozy with its complimentary champagne served from a grand piano in the bar and its elegant dining room upstairs where exceptional local fare such as lobster, Galway Bay oysters and succulent pork belly were served. We loved that the waiters placed tiny flags on tables to represent countries guests hailed from. After a glass of wine and a few laughs, the stress of that first day’s drive melted away.
The next morning it poured rain as we piled into our car to head to Kylemore Abbey, the romantic castle built by a Manchester man for his bride. The Abbey later became a haven for Benedictine nuns fleeing World War I. At this point, I felt like a pro at driving on the left side of the road, but the roads were slick, and I saw my life pass before me each time an oncoming truck approached. These roads were not meant for two cars. So the rain gave us the perfect excuse to warm up in Kylemore Abbey’s tea salon next to the walled garden, where we gobbled our first Irish scones with clotted cream and homemade jam.
Less than an hour away from Kylemore Abbey, we found Ashford Castle in County Mayo, and though we were getting sort of used to castles by then, we were not prepared for the sheer drama of this jaw-dropping 16th century beauty, which is revealed fairytale-style as you enter via a winding road.
Frankly, I didn’t need to track my heritage down; it was obvious I belonged here with my very own moat and drawbridge. Festivities for The Gathering will undoubtedly liven up villages such as quiet Cong, but it will take a lot to get you to budge from Ashford Castle, where everything from golf and equestrian to the ancient sport of falconry is offered – something my son shockingly warmed to. The icing on the cake, though, was the food. I am still dreaming about the plump Galway mussels in a pesto wine broth served with warm Irish bread and butter. I didn’t want to leave, but sadly, we had to, dragging ourselves away the next morning. There was so much more of Ireland to see.
The next day, on our way to the bustling village of Westport, we got the blowout, but in the end, it only cost us an hour or so. Unfortunately, we just didn’t have enough time to see everything in Westport, such as the neighboring Cough Patrick, St. Patrick’s sacred mountain, but this was the price we paid for a short road trip. We hit the shops before a dinner of fish and chips at the West Bar and Restaurant, followed by a visit to the famous Matt Molloy’s, owned by the flautist of the Chieftains and said to be the hottest spot for traditional music in the area. Nothing like singing along with your 76-year-old mother, teenager (children are welcome in pubs in Ireland) and a crowd of complete strangers, all hoisting pints of Guinness. Seriously. Highly recommended.
The next morning, we woke early to get a jump on traffic, and I nearly wept at the sight of a glorious four-lane highway, the first we had seen in Ireland. I would no longer have to fear sideswiping a stone wall or one of the hedges that seem to line every country road. I’d even mastered the roundabouts with the help of my son, whose reminder of “stay left, look right” kept us from getting blindsided by cars coming from the right. We made it to Dublin in 3 ½ hours, however, I had one stop to make before we hit the city: the airport rental return. We’d made it this far alive, but there was no way I was driving in Dublin. I didn’t want to push my luck.
It was a sin to spend only 24 hours in Dublin, but I’ve never been much of a saint. We dropped our bags at the elegant historic landmark Shelbourne Dublin, at which the Irish Constitution was signed in 1922, then walked a few blocks to Grafton Street to check out the trendy shops and department stores in search of Irish linen. We managed a quick peek at Dublin Castle followed by a drink in a Temple Bar pub, and, of course, I couldn’t leave without seeing Ireland’s crown jewel, the mystical, exquisitely beautiful Book of Kells at Trinity College.
Later that evening, I watched as my son held hands with his grandmother as we walked over to the Merrion Hotel for cocktails. This tri-generational trip had been a bonding experience; something we would never forget. I wish we’d had more time to hang out at The Cellar Bar, located in the original 18th-century wine vaults, with its brick walls and vaulted ceilings, however, we had reservations at Patrick Guilbaud a few steps away, considered by many to be the best restaurant in Ireland. The truth is that you don’t need to eat fancy in Dublin; you can get a great meal in a pub for a fraction of the price. However, mom wanted to treat us to something special, and special it was, from the amuse bouche of fragrant lobster soup to the stunning green apple parfait, complete with a crowning silver ring made out of sugar.
The next morning, we indulged in our last full Irish breakfast at our elegant hotel, a buffet of bangers, eggs, puddings, pastries and so much more. I would miss these breakfasts, especially the ever present crispy toast triangles in those pretty sterling toast racks. As my mother and son finished packing their bags, I took one last rainy walk through St. Stephen’s Green before joining them in our taxi to the airport. The doorman tipped his top hat to us as we bid him goodbye, then I sat back, breathing a sigh of relief that someone else was driving. Well, at least for the time being. I was already planning to come back.
LAX TO BOSTON – VIRGIN AMERICA
Ambient lighting, personal monitors and on demand dining make this a great choice for the LA-Boston route.
BOSTON – SHANNON – AER LINGUS
A short nonstop 5-hour flight on brand new air buses. Really, it’s the only way to go.
WHERE TO STAY
Mandarin Oriental Boston
This sumptuous hotel not only has top notch service (welcoming beverages and an on-call chauffeured Mercedes for guests’ use are just a few examples), it is perfectly situated steps away from the Prudential and Newbury Street, not to mention the New England Historic Genealogical Society, where you can look up your Irish ancestors before you get there. Rates starting from $395 USD
Just finishing a remodel, the Langham continues to be one of the loveliest hotels in the city, and always comfortable. Located in the financial district, it’s close to Faneuil Hall, the North End, and the Institute of Contemporary Art. Rates starting from $256 USD (21 day advance purchase)
AbbeyGlen Castle Hotel, Clifden, County Connemara, Ireland
Though it’s showing some wear, this elegant castle hotel is set amidst the charming Clifden against the backdrop of the Twelve Bens Mountain Range by the sea, one of the most beautiful spots in Ireland. The staff is friendly, rooms are spacious, and the restaurant is excellent, serving local seafood, Connemara lamb and pork. They even have a helicopter pad. Full Irish Breakfast buffet included in room rate. Rates starting from 79 Euros.
Ashford Castle, Cong, County Mayo, Ireland
A fairytale castle, complete with moat and drawbridge. Rooms are spacious and elegant, and there are plenty of activities to keep the whole family busy, including golf, equestrian, falconry, clay pigeon shooting, archery, a spa, and everything in between. Full Irish Breakfast buffet included, live music in the lounge at night. Rates starting from 175 Euros.
Westport Plaza Hotel, Westport, County Mayo, Ireland
Perfectly situated just steps away from the main street, this contemporary hotel certainly isn’t a castle, but it has everything a traveler needs for a good night’s sleep, though the underground parking garage can be a challenge. Continental breakfast included. Rates starting from 88 Euros.
The Shelbourne Dublin, Dublin, Ireland
This exquisite landmark hotel is a gem, with its history, its sparkling chandeliers and high ceilings, and impeccable staff, and it also has a genealogical expert on staff for guests looking to track down their Irish roots. Doormen in top hats greet you and offer tours of the Irish Constitution room upstairs, and the concierge feels like an old friend. Right across from St. Stephen’s Green, just a few blocks from Grafton Street. Full Irish breakfast included. Rates starting from $203 Euros.
WHERE TO EAT
Island Creek Oyster Bar: Neptune Oyster and B&G Oyster, move over. There’s a new game in town and it’s ICOB. An impossibly fresh selection of oysters, such as briny Beach Points; fragrant steamed clams with house made bacon, and an award-winning lobster roll are just the beginning.
Asana, Mandarin Oriental: Treat yourself to Rachel Klein’s cooking at this Back Bay restaurant where you cannot go wrong with anything from a burger to foie gras. Must try dishes include crispy fried artichokes, and the steak and egg — a Wagyu filet with a flash fried poached egg on top. Exquisite!
Queen’s Hotel, Ennis, County Clare: The only place open when we passed through this village at 8 a.m., this turned out to be a great find. Full Irish breakfast of egg, bangers, bacon, and black and white pudding or buttery, crepe-like pancakes are just a few of the selections.
Abbeyglen Castle Hotel, Clifden, County Connemara: Fresh local lobster (the best Lobster Thermidor I have ever had), oysters, and Connemara lamb are just some of the options. The dessert buffet is decadent, with pies, tarts and other tempting sweets.
Kylemore Abbey Tea Salon: Perhaps the best fruit scones in Ireland, these are the based on the recipe generously bestowed by the Benedictine nuns, who still inhabit the abbey, and what better place to enjoy them than in this lovely tea room situated next to the castle’s walled gardens.
The Cottage at Ashford Castle, Cong, County Mayo: The food at this casual pub at the castle is surprisingly outstanding, making it a major find. Local steamed mussels from Galway Bay are plump and delicious in a pesto wine broth, fish and chips are crispy, and local lamb is tender and juicy, but the bread selections will do you in, including delicious soda bread, potato bread, homemade rye, and pretzel bread, served with your choice of olive tapenade, garlic olive oil and tomatoes, or creamy Irish butter.
The West Bar and Restaurant, Westport, County Mayo: More fish and chips, Guinness, and seafood pie. Unassuming and delicious.
Matt Molloy’s, Westport, County Mayo: A traditional pub, the best for traditional live music. If you’re lucky, you may even get to hang out with Mick Lavelle, a storyteller/singer who is practically part of the establishment. Bring the kids and prepare to sit close to strangers. You’ll love it.
The Cellar Bar, The Merrion Hotel, Dublin: Ambient and beautiful, this bar set in an 18th century wine cellar has vaulted ceilings and exposed brick, not to mention a great wine and cocktails list.
Patrick Guilbaud, Dublin: The only restaurant in Ireland with two Michelin stars, this 30-year-old institution is dead expensive, but when you consider that it’s both food and entertainment, it makes sense. Manager Stéphane Robin is charming, the service is impeccable, and the food is quite simply, edible art. If you’re going to splurge one night on your trip, this should be it.
Thomas Dillon’s – Galway: The Claddagh ring is believed to have originated in Galway (Claddagh) Bay,and this place, established in 1750, is said to be Galway’s Original Maker of the Claddagh Ring.
Mac Eocagain/Galway Woollen Market: This is an excellent resource if you’re shopping for traditional Aran hand-knits and colorful hand-loomed sweaters and capes, as well as linens, lace, and sheepskins.
Foxworth Woolen Mills, Clifden, Westport: This lovely store is filled with Irish throws, scarves, linens and some high end clothing.
Kylemore Abbey Gift Shop: There are museum gift shops that you pass through, and then those which are destination gift shops. This is the latter, with Irish crafts, sweaters, capes, scarves, jewelry, Kylemore Abbey jams and so much more.
Brown Thomas, Dublin: In the middle of the Grafton Street area, surrounded by trendy shops, this classic department store is like the Barney’s of Dublin. Fashion, accessories, home design and more.
Kilkenny’s, Dublin: If you’re looking for Irish linen, crystal, jewelry or any other Irish crafts, this is a great one-stop shopping spot.
House of Ireland: Jewelry, Waterford crystal, Aran sweaters, and Belleck Irish China.
Supervalu & Tesco: Here’s a little secret: grocery stores in foreign locales are a great place to get inexpensive treats to bring back to friends. Visit one of these grocery stores for Irish jams, honey, crackers, cookies and of course, Ireland’s Tayto salt and vinegar chips – all at a fraction of boutique prices.
* Photos courtesy of Jennifer Evans Gardner