THE BEST OF IRELAND, a Tauck Small-Group Tour, May 24-June 6, 2018

Photos are by the author unless otherwise noted. They are best viewed on a laptop or device other than a phone. Click on a photo to enlarge it and read the caption, then use your forward button to scroll through the set.

I chose this tour because others I looked into were much shorter or not all-inclusive, and because  Tauck always delivers a first-class travel experience. I didn’t want to change hotels every night, and Tauck planned two nights in all hotels except one. The itinerary took us all around the island starting in Dublin, the Republic of Ireland, north to Belfast, Northern Ireland, across the north then descending the Western coast, called “the wild Atlantic way,” then south and east again, finishing in a deluxe hotel 90 minutes from the Dublin airport. Our  small group had 24 participants, all couples except for me and one single woman. The size worked out well since the group bonded quickly and logistics on the coach are so much easier than with a large group.

Ireland map

Google provides great maps.

Thurs. May 24.

The tour began with a reception and dinner in the Westin Hotel, central Dublin, but I had to fly in two days prior to take advantage of a Delta business-class mileage ticket and an additional free night at the Westin, a Tauck bonus for previous travel. The package included only a half-day coach tour of Dublin, so I was glad to have more time to explore the delightful capital on my own.

I took the hop-on/hop-off bus without getting off to decide priorities, then found a lunch spot at the highly recommended Stag’s Leap pub, one of the oldest in Dublin. A building on the site was dated to 1770, but the pub was rebuilt in 1895. It has provided scenes for many movies and TV series. Here I enjoyed my first taste of seafood chowder with brown bread which I enjoyed on several occasions when seeking a light lunch.

From there I returned by the bus to Dublin Castle because a travel article recommended the garden behind the castle. I had other places to go so I didn’t enter the castle which was on the agenda for the tour package. As I entered the garden, I overheard a guide telling a group that 80 percent of Dubliners didn’t know the garden existed. There wasn’t much in bloom this early in the season, but the garden is pretty enough that I would urge the local guide to add ten minutes to the castle tour.  Below are a few photos.

A short walk from the castle is the heart of medieval Dublin is Christ Church Catedral, Anglican, founded about 1030 with additions in later years. Many scenes from The Tudors TV series were filmed here, in the castle, and in other parts of Ireland, and the crypt displays some of the gowns and costumes from the series.The burial monument of Strongbow is in the nave. He was one of the leaders of the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in the mid-1100s that ultimately brought the island under British rule. The crypt houses the treasures of the cathedral including “one of the best collections of 18th century silver” according to the display caption. Best of all is a silver communion collection including a huge silver tray donated by William III in thanksgiving for his victory over the Catholic armies of James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. (James had fled to France seeking help from Louis XIV. Prince William of Orange was from Holland, an enemy of Louis XIV, and married to English Princess Mary II, a Protestant. They had acceded to the throne of England and Scotland in 1688. William and Mary College in Virginia is named after them).

From there it was a short walk to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, also Protestant, founded in 1191. (Why two Protestant cathedrals is a long story, best googled). I found it unimpressive and would not recommend it to others.  The pupit was used by Jonathan Swift who was once prior here and is buried beneath the church. The organ was used by George Frederick Handel in a concert in 1742. At least the cathedral holds a restroom for needy visitors.

Perhaps the most popular tourist site in Dublin is the Guinness Storeroom where a tour includes a tasting of the brew on a rooftop praised for its great view of the city. When I arrived there by cab I found a long line to buy tickets and only one sales person. Another line formed for those who had bought tickets online. I am not a fan of lines and I realized the tour and tasting would take the rest of the afternoon, so I wasted 16 euros round trip  taxi and returned to the hotel. Across from the Westin are a number of fast food venues, not my usual fare, but I knew we had a large welcome dinner later.

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The enormous Guinness Storehouse is one of the most popular tourist sites in Dublin.

The Westin Hotel is an impressive five-star hotel in center-city Dublin.  My room was beautifully appointed but had the worst view I have had in any of my hundreds of hotel stays. The public room for the welcome reception and dinner was elegant.  Our tour escort for the next two weeks, Georgina Day, introduced herself, then asked each of us for a brief introduction. The plush dining room was set up with just four tables for our group of 24. Beautiful Waterford chandeliers glistened from the ornate ceiling and a harpist played while we enjoyed a 3-course dinner with wine. My first impression of the group was that they would make fine companions on this adventure, and they proved me right.

 Friday May 25.

After breakfast we met in the Westin lobby at 8 am to get our excellent ear buds that allow everyone to hear well at some distance from the guide and the guide. Our excellent local guide Suzanne led us to Trinity College just around the corner from the hotel. It’s Ireland’s most prestigious university. Suzanne is a graduate of the university and explained some of its history and policies. The beautiful library long room houses the famour Brian Boru harp, dating from the late 14th or early 15th century. Its provenance is disputed, but it is the national symbol of Ireland. The college allowed the Guinness brewery to trademark it in 1876 but right-facing, while the national symbol on coins and heraldry is left-facing. The museum is internationally famous for housing the Book of Kells, dating from about 800. The book is actually several gospels copied on vellum by monks and illustrated with beautiful illuminations. It is regarded as the most precious of Ireland’s treasures.  One can take photos in the impressive library and other buildings but not in the room holding the manuscripts. For a detailed history see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Kells.

After the university we walked to our waiting coach for a tour of the city, covering much of what I had done on the hop-on/hop-off bus but with more expert narration. We passed beautiful Georgian doors of solicitors’ offices, the monument to Daniel O’Connell,  the nationalist hero of the early 19th century, and the obelisk to the Duke of Wellington, the Irish-born general of the English army that defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. We ended up at Dublin Castle, so I was glad I hadn’t entered the day before when I saw only the garden.  The ornate palace was the seat of British governance over the island until 1922. Republic of Ireland events like the presidential inauguration are now held here. The coach passed many hundreds of posts throughout the city, plastered with Yes/No posters prior to the referendum on abortion. On May 25, voters repealed the 8th amendment to the Irish Constitution, forbidding abortion under almost all circumstances.

The city tour ended by 11:30 and we had the rest of the day at liberty to explore the city. I chose to walk to the National Gallery with fine works by European masters from 1500s to 1950, including a fine Caravaggio and works by Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, and other modern masters. I think I had a case of pre-meditated saturation after spending hours in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC just a few weeks earlier. I viewed the exhibitions rather quickly because I wanted to see the Museum of Archaeology and History that includes many artifacts from the Viking founding of Dublin. Many pieces were discovered in peat bogs and are well preserved, including mummies. Both museums were within walking distance of each other and of the hotel. I was too exhausted to add the Museum of Emigration that the guide raved about. While walking I stopped in Mirrion Square to snap a photo of the statue of Oscar Wilde who studied at Trinity College. My favorite of his quotes: ” I can resist anything but temptation.”

We were on our own for both lunch and dinner, a disappointment, but we were scheduled for multiple meals in the coming days.  I just grabbed a quick fast-food lunch and returned to the hotel to collapse, enjoy a long jet-lag induced nap, then start uploading photos and notes to my laptop. If I don’t do that daily I would never remember all the details at the end of the tour. By posting photos for family and friends on Facebook, I have a kind of draft for the blog post when it comes time to edit.  For dinner I searched seafood restaurants near the hotel and found Catch 22, 32 Clarendon St. just off Grafton pedestrian street, about a 12-minute walk. I enjoyed three dozen mussels (only 10 Euros) and some pan-fried halibut with a pint of Guinness. Then back to the Westin to pack for our 9:00 am departure for Belfast.

Sat. May 26.

We left Dublin early for the two-hour drive north to Belfast, crossing into Northern Ireland which is part of the UK and the currency changed to the British pound. We went directly to the Titanic Museum where Georgina gave us entrance tickets and 20 pounds each for lunch on our own. The Titanic Experience is a fascinating museum of photographs, videos, and displays of the ship’s features including a deluxe cabin and the porcelain china service of the White Star Line. One interesting room dealt with ship building in Belfast that employed thousands of worker and impacted significantly the national economy. The largest dry dock in the world was constructed for building the Titanic. There is no ship building in Belfast today, but the company H & W does military contracts and ship repairs. A feature film explains how the sunken ship was discovered at almost four thousand meters below the surface.

After a cafeteria lunch, good seafood chowder and brown bread again, our city guide Rosemary joined us on the coach and led us through Belfast. She did not hide the bitter remnants of “the Troubles,” the decade long violent conflict between religions and socio-economic groups, evidenced for example by a fence at no-man’s land higher than the Berlin wall. I was pleased with how optimistic she was on the reconciliation and the improvements in social conditions. She gushed about the significant roles played by President Bill Clinton and his special emissary George Mitchell of Maine in bringing about peace.

The tour finished about 3:30 pm at our hotel and our home for the next two nights, the top lodging in the city, the Merchant Hotel in the city center. I was thrilled with the beauty and size of my suite and pleased at the rapid internet speed.  We had time to walk around the hotel to nearby sites, though most of us were pretty tired by then. I took advantage of the free time to catch up on my notes and upload photos to my laptop. Below are some photos of my deluxe room at the Merchant Hotel.

Dinner in the Great Room was a spectacular nine-course tasting menu taken from menus on the Titanic, with a carafe of wine per person, some photos below. I doubt anyone had the energy to seek out the city’s night life.

After a fabulous breakfast in the Merchant Hotel’s Great Room,  we were back on the coach at 8:30 for a scenic drive north along the County Antrim coast of the Irish Sea. I don’t have much luck with photos taken from the moving-bus windows and resisted. We did have a photogenic rest stop at Carnlough with a small marina and pleasant sea views before heading on to Bushmills, famous for the distillery that makes the Irish Whiskey of that name. Our whiskey tasting was scheduled for the  Jameson distillery later in the tour so we had no tasting here. But we did enjoy a wonderful lunch at the charming Bushmills Inn, a boutique hotel and restaurant that has catered to travelers on that site since the 1600s. A carving board featured half a dozen different roasted meats, roast potatoes and a variety of vegetables. The lamb was superb!

From Bushmills we continued on for a short drive to the Giant’s Causeway, a rock formation of 400 thousand basalt columns formed by volcanic activity. On a sunny Sunday of a bank-holiday weekend there were hundreds of people scrambling over the rocks.  It was hard to get photos without scores of people in them. I imagine this would be a fascinating place for geologists, but I was glad when we departed for a return to Belfast by 4:30.  We had such a large lunch that supper was on our own, and I doubt anyone suffered hunger. I was satisfied with a light snack before checking out some nightlife.

Monday May 28. 

After another great breakfast, we checked out of the sumptuous Merchant Hotel and boarded our coach for an excursion to Londonderry-Derry. (Although it’s part of the UK, many in the city refuse to use the London part.) It was the scene of much violence during “the Troubles” that started in 1968. It took us two hours to get to the visitor’s center with clean restrooms where our guide Charlene met us and led us on a coach tour through the city. She gave her version of the troubles with great passion and insisted that the city was reconciling and was now attracting international tourism with many high-profile visitors like the Dalai Lama and Bill Clinton. We walked the ancient walls of  the city which was besieged during the conflict between James II and William of Orange. The lovely walkway on top of the walls offers a great view of the “ bogside” which is 97 percent Catholic. Most schools are now integrated and Charlene said her two children go to a completely integrated, multi-cultural school where they celebrate holidays like Passover and Ramadan. We walked to the memorial honoring the dead of the two world wars, then to the Guild Hall or City Hall with its magnificent architecture and stained glass windows. We had lunch on our own but Georgina gave everyone 20 pounds. I joined four people from the group in a nearby pub and enjoyed breaded cod and a wonderful Red Devil beer. After lunch, I walked out to the peace bridge with a view of the Foyle River for more photos.

We boarded the coach again at 1:30 and drove an hour to the Ulster-American Folk Park, a delightful recreation of life at the time of the famine and the migration of the mid-19th century. It’s like colonial Williamsburg except the homes are those of the poor migrants, most brought to the park stone by stone and re-erected. The only middle-class buildings are those of the Mellon estate, the original property on which the museum is built. Thomas Mellon migrated to the US and eventually founded the Mellon Bank, and his art collection formed the basis for the Smithsonian’s National Art Gallery. Among the numerous buildings is a one-room stone cottage that held a family of ten, the home of a spinner,  the school house, an entire 19th century street of stores, and an embarcation  port where there is a reproduction of one of the steam ships that carried migrants to US cities. One could understand why the crowded holds and led to the name “coffin ships” since so many died of malnutrition and infectious diseases before arriving in the promised land. One enters the ship in the Irish port and exits on a typical street of arrival in the U.S. with a general store and other businesses. Then there are log cabins, other frontier structures like barns and workshops illustrating the struggles of the Irish-immigrants. There are 44 buildings altogether, one of which is an indoor visitor’s center with excellent displays on the immigrant experience including visuals of the Five Points in New York City and other tenement areas, the rise of Tammany Hall, and the biography of the first archbishop of NY who laid the cornerstone for St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I spent two hours visiting the buildings and listening to some of the costumed guides. The site more than compensated for missing the Museum of Emigration in Dublin.

We had a final one-hour drive through lush green hilly country with lots of sheep and cattle, arriving at Lough Eske Castle, a renovated five-star resort hotel, our home for the next two nights.(https://www.lougheskecastlehotel.com) Lough is pronounced Lock (a guttural ending) and means Lake. The suites are enormous and beautifully decorated. I  barely had time to shower, take a few photos, and head to our 6:30 dinner in the elegant dining room. Tauck’s policy allows one to choose any three dishes from the menu. I had crab cakes followed by a sampler of lamb cuts, and our table of four shared two dessert samplers with five small desserts each and a glass of prosecco. Below are some uncaptioned photos of the castle and its gardens.

 Tuesday May 29

It was nice to lounge in bed until 8:00 am since the morning excursion to the Belleek pottery factory was optional, (at no extra charge). Those who went raved about it. I was glad I chose to to explore the lovely castle grounds  and gardens, taking many photos on a glorious balmy morning. Sculptures and flower beds abound on the castle grounds. One can walk the tree-lined road that leads to the highway to Donegal Town, where a turnoff leads to an inviting path to the lake shore. A wooden boardwalk along the marshy shore allows for walks even when it rains. Rhododendron grow wild in abundance. A turn down another path led to the serendipitous discovery of a tall Coptic cross, a burial monument to an army major general who died in 1906.

The coach returned from the pottery factory at noon and set out again at 1:00 pm for a guided drive through Donegal Town whose streets are lined with nice shops. Magee (1866) is the best known shop, famous for its tweeds. Other shops feature mostly souvenirs. I was the only one in the group that opted to take the 3:00 pm boat ride around Donegal Bay. Actually, there wasn’t much to see in the bay other than residences on the hillsides and a group of seals basking in the sand. The sun was too hot to sit on the top deck and the promised air conditioning below barely cooled the passengers. I don’t recommend the 20-Euro 90-minute voyage.  It cost 12 Euros for the cab back to the castle. An excellent dinner was included in the castle dining room.

Wed. May 30

We checked out of the castle for another early departure and another splendid day of adventure. We had a rest stop at Drumcliffe where a tea shop offered toilets to customers and Georgina treated to coffee or tea.  William Butler Yeats is buried next to the church (he died in 1939) where his grandfather was once rector.

Our next stop after two hours was Galway city where we had a bit over two hours to explore on our own and have lunch. We had a list of recommended restaurants, and pub menus were posted outside. I enjoyed a tempura cod and a local red ale, then found a shop with better-than-souvenir quality polo shirts. Now I have something to wear to the annual  St. Patrick’s Day party in Mexico.

I have always loved the song about Galway Bay and was disappointed we didn’t get to see it! But we were in for a spectacular event that was the highlight of the tour. Our coach passed the entrance gate to Ashford Castle but went on to the dock where we boarded an 80-passenger vessel chartered exclusively for our group of 24. There was a delightful breeze on the top deck and Martin Noone played accordion and sang Irish songs. Now 87, he was in the cast of The Quiet Man that was filmed in the area with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in 1951. It’s the claim to fame for the nearby Cong village which clings to the memories of the film making there.

The half-hour boat ride had a superior purpose other than aquatic pleasure. We learned that the Guinness family that once owned Ashford Castle arrived for vacations there by train from Dublin to Galway, then a boat to the castle dock, and we imitated the arrival by boat. We thrilled to a musical greeting at the dock by a piper who piped us up the ramp to the entrance to the castle where some of the staff lined up outdoors to greet us. Downton Abbey couldn’t have done it better, and the castle is arguably more spectacular.  Even more thrilling when we stepped into the elegant hotel where many U.S. presidents and other dignitaries have stayed. The photos don’t do justice to the magic of the surroundings. A staff member led each of us to our rooms to explain the incredible electronic systems for lighting and even the curtains. Shortly after a waiter arrived with a bucket of ice and lemon for the bottles of water or other liquids.

Dinner in the sumptuous George V dining room was deemed a dress-up occasion, so I donned my blue blazer and the new pink tie and pocket swab from Magee’s in Donegal. The dinner lived up to the elegance of the castle. I chose a squab appetizer and a  superb main course of fresh cod over a lobster risotto with lobster sauce. Drinks were not included and my two glasses of Prosecco were very expensive. In fact the whole menu has luxe-Manhattan prices so I was glad the meals were included. After dinner I strolled around the grounds and took some twilight photos and some shots of interior features pictured below. It had been our most glorious day yet, and still not a sign of precipitation.

Thurs. May 31.

I wonder if my morning workouts just increased my appetite. The breakfast buffet at Ashford Castle takes the prize for temptation. It included an enormous whole ham that had been slow cooked for eight hours that a waiter sliced on request. It went well with eggs benedict, smoked fish, and just one tiny sweetroll from the huge array offered.

Half the group opted to relax and enjoy Ashford Castle while the rest of us took the 9:00 am excursion to Kylemore Abbey in Connemara, County Galway. The mansion was built in the 1860s by a textile magnate turned politician and passed through other owners until 1920 when it was purchased by Irish Bendictine nuns after their abbey in Ypres Belgium was bombed during World War I.

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Kylemore Abbey.

As soon as Georgina passed out the tickets I rushed to the shuttle bus to the Walled Victorian Garden, beautifully restored by the Benedictines. It once held over 20 glass nurseries that grew exotic food like figs and bananas for the family dining room that hosted hundreds of guests. After the garden I took a brief look at the public rooms in the abbey and enjoyed a film on its history. At noon we gathered in the cafeteria with a large selection of hot and cold food, like my spinach and salmon quiche. Georgina waited at the cash register to voucher our meals, and we enjoyed a private dining room away from the hundreds of people getting off a score of tour buses.

We were back on our coach at 1:00 pm for the return to Ashford Castle by more rural back roads with beautiful scenery. We passed Kerry Fjord, the only one in Ireland, famous for its productive mussel beds, and hundreds of wild rhododendrons along the road. We had a photo stop in view of the lake and village of Lough McFooey before returning happily to Ashcroft Castle. Below are a few photos from the scenic road.

After a nap and time to upload my photos to the laptop, I enjoyed a leisurely walk into Cong Village. It’s small and picturesque and apparently survives on its memories of the 1951 filming of the Quiet Man. There is even a museum to the movie and a bronze statue of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara on a street corner.

New friends I chose to dine with wanted to skip the elegant George V dining room and try the more casual Dungeon restaurant. I asked if it was a chain restaurant. Groan. I found it dark, gloomy, and noisy and asked for a flashlight to read the menu. I was more tempted by the appetizer menu and chose two, the fois gras terrine and the seafood platter (though priced as a main dish). Before bed I settled my bar bill, a shocker due to the high taxes in Ireland, paying 64 Euros ($77 US) for four modest drinks over two days.

Fri. June 1

I think everyone was sad to leave the luxurious comfort of Ashford Castle. The staff gathered outside to wave us off as the coach departed at 8:30. It was a long but scenic two-hour drive to the Cliffs of Moher along the Wild Atlantic Way. During the drive Georgina covered social issues like education and taxes and she fielded our questions knowledgeably.

The large number of coaches in the bus park at the Cliffs of Moher indicated its stature as one of the most popular tourist sites with over one and a half million visitors annually. The official walkway stretches for 17 kilometers above the seaside cliffs of shale and sandstone with heights from 390 feet in the south to 702 feet in the north.  It was somewhat overcast with a brisk wind off the Atlantic, but photos came out reasonably well. We had plenty of time to walk along the cliffs’ edge, although I saw some visitors far in the distance.  We arrived at 10:45 and departed at 12:15, longer time than I needed, but the visitor’s center had some interesting videos, interactive displays, and a well-stocked shop.

It took another hour to arrive at our next stop for an overnight in Ennis, the county town for County Clare, famous for its nightlife and pub music. This was our only one-night stop and the the Old Ground Hotel in the city center was the least elegant of our tour accommodations, though the rooms are more spacious than any four-star hotel I’ve booked in Europe. We were on our own for lunch and the hotel restaurant was overcrowded and noisy. I walked along O’Connell Street, stopping at the Town Hall restaurant because the posted menu included seafood chowder. I wandered a few streets near the hotel, looked in shop windows, and stopped at a liquor store. My bill for four drinks at the Ashcroft Castle was so steep I decided to buy a bottle for the room to replace one I had bought at the airport that had evaporated. A fifth of Dewars Scotch cost 48 dollars due to all the taxes. Most Americans don’t realize how much less prices are in the U.S. for most goods.

At 6:30 we gathered at 4 round tables in the ballroom of the hotel for a superb dinner with several choices. I chose a crab tart followed by a large rack of lamb done perfectly to my taste, medium rare, with family-style bowls of potatoes and vegetables. An accomplished harpist played while we dined, and at 8:30 we were treated to a superb dance performance. It was a wonderful evening and I was too tired for any pub crawling since we had an early departure on the morrow.

Sat. June 2.

At 7:00 am the breakfast room was already packed and service was slow but the choices were adequate.  An earlier rain had turned to a light mist, the first daytime precipitation since the tour began. No rain gear was required, so the group’s luck with the weather continued as we drove almost two hours to the Malonna dairy farm in Kilfinnane near Kilmallack. The farm has been in family hands since the 17th century and owners Paddy and Margaret Fenton made us welcome in their modern home. Paddy took us to the original farmhouse and narrated a long-winded history of the farm with many anecdotes. After a guided walk about the barn area and the milking house, we returned to their home for a cold lunch plate of sliced turkey, potato salad, cole slaw, assorted breads, fruit cake, and a sherry trifle with coffee or tea.

We were on our way again at 1:00 with an hour-long drive to the Killarney lake country where we stopped for a tour of the Muckross House and gardens. We had 45 minutes to enjoy the gardens while waiting for a 3:00 pm guided visit to the mansion. The gardens are spectacular with scores of 20-foot rhododendrons and a lovely view of Muckross Lake. I have toured numerous mansions far better appointed than this one, but I particularly enjoyed seeing the service area and kitchen with an explanation of kitchen tools and how things worked. The 30 bells on the wall connecting to every room in the house reminded me of the bells the servants responded to in the television series Downton Abbey.

The mansion was just a short ride through County Kerry near Killarney to our next five-star accommodation, the Aghadoe Heights hotel and spa, set on a high hill with a spectacular view of the Lakes of Killarney. The building is an architectural nightmare not worth a photo, but the views were incredible. Our large suites featured comfortable chairs before a wall-to-wall window facing the lake and an outdoor porch.  There was time to rest and upload photos before a 6:30 dinner in the elegant dining room. It was a long but truly enjoyable day.

Sunday, June 3.

Ring of Kerry map

Google Map of the Ring of Kerry.

Today’s excursion featured the scenic Ring of Kerry. Our first photo-op near Craigh offered great views of the countryside and the Kenmare River. Further on we could see the Dingle Peninsula and Dingle Bay. It took two hours to arrive at our rest stop in the bus park in Waterville, a charming seafront town with a rocky beach on Ballinskellig’s Bay. After a brief time on our own we were treated to a wonderful three-course lunch at the Sea Lodge in full view of the bay. Leaving Waterville, the road climbed to a high hill that offered another photo-op looking back on the town and beach on one side of the hill. On the other side looking south we had beautiful vistas of Derrynane where the bay meets the Kenmare river. Our last photo stop was called Ladies View, allegedly the only place Queen Victoria allowed her ladies to get off the coaches and enjoy the view when she visited the area. The coach passed through Killarney and we could have gotten off to look around or shop with a promised pickup in an hour, but no one took that option. We were back at the hotel at 3:40 and several of the group walked across the road to take more photos with a closer view of the lower lake.

Our evening dining venue was a short walk from the hotel. but the winding road had no sidewalks and pedestrians would be endangered, so we boarded the coach again for a 6:30 appointment at  Killeen House. We were greeted on arrival by Michael Killeen, owner of the charming hotel/restaurant where we enjoyed another three-course dinner. Back at the hotel before 9:00 pm, we were treated to a demonstration and explanation of Irish dance by a mother/daughter team, a cheerful ending to a wonderful day.

Monday June 4

We checked out of Aghadoe Heights hotel and left Killarney at 8:15 am with full sun again. We had a lot of driving today so we were lucky it was a bank holiday in the Republic with schools and businesses closed, so there was very little traffic. We passed through lovely Cork in the county of the same name and continued about ten miles east to Midleton by 10:30 for our guided tour of the famous Jameson Irish Whiskey distillery. I didn’t have high expectations since I have done so many such tours: rum in Puerto Rico, port in Portugal, sherry and brandy in Jerez, Spain, and numerous wineries in three countries, but I really enjoyed the historical film, the walking tour, and the tasting. The Jameson brand dates from 1780 and the history of the Irish whiskey and of the distillery is quite interesting. See   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jameson_Experience,_Midleton.

We enjoyed a comparison tasting of small shots of scotch, bourbon, and Jameson followed by one drink from the bar, a choice of Jameson on the rocks, neat, or in a cocktail. After an excellent three-course lunch, we had time to browse in the expensive shop. One can buy a good whiskey or scotch in the U.S. much less than the Jameson prices per bottle, probably due to taxes.

We left Midleton at 1:30 and drove on fast motorways rather than scenic country roads to Kilkenny, county town for Kilkenny County, about 70 miles from Dublin.  Our home for the next two nights was the Lyrath Estate, a mansion dating to the mid-17th century, to which were added 139 modern rooms, a deluxe spa, and a convention center on 170 acres of park land.

I had time for a nap and the internet before heading to dinner with a charming couple from Victoria, Canada. The three-course dinner was excellent but service was surprisingly shabby for a five-star hotel, and some menu items were sold out, the disadvantage of arriving during  a holiday weekend.

Tues. June 5.

I was disappointed with the breakfast setup in the dining room since most tables were for two people and I had to dine alone. But I ate quickly so I could check headlines and mail online before our 8:30 excursion departed for Jerpoint Abbey. It’s a strange name for a 12th century Cistercian monastery, and neither the guide nor the web  could explain the meaning of the name. The abbey had been destroyed as part of the disollution of monasteries by Henry VIII in 1540. On a scale of ten I’d rate this stop a 6, though he photos came out well.

Our tour of the abbey ruins lasted only 40 minutes with time for restrooms before heading for Kilkenny, medieval city and county town for Kilkenny County in southeast Ireland.  To my mind, this was the most enjoyable town on the tour. Our guide, Rose Love, had lots of personality and knowledge of history and she seemed chagrined that only a few of the group stayed with her until the end of the hour. Some people needed a restroom I suspect, and others wanted to do some last-chance shopping.

One of the pubs Rose recommended was the Hibernian Hotel pub, just a block from our pickup spot at the Castle, so I went there for my last seafood chowder and brown bread. I looked through the shops across from the castle only briefly. I can’t use all those heavy tweeds in Mexico, nor do the Irish tchotchkies work with my Mexican décor. The castle garden was more like a park, but Georgina told me later the real gardens were below and I missed them No matter, my cell camera had lost its charge. I had a nice rest watching  the interesting video on the castle before heading to the coach for our 1:45  return to Lyrath.

Kilkenny-castle

A google photo of Kilkenny Castle.

I had a nice siesta before my 3:45 appointment for a foot treatment in the spa. Everyone in the group was gifted a spa treatment and my flat feet dictated my choice, though the Ukranian masseuse was not as muscular as I’d like.

The waiters were late in bringing drinks to our farewell reception, but no one showed withdrawal symptoms. Almost everyone dressed very elegantly for our final dinner.   We retreated to the wine cellar which had an opening to the garden where we imbibed until the call for dinner. The menu choices were fine and waiters poured the wine liberally. I had prepared a thank-you toast for Georgina but one of our group beat me to it. She certainly deserved the praise and applause.

Having led 150 groups I certainly know how much work went into Georgina’s daily chores and the challenges that accompany herding 24 people for 14 days. She never showed any stress and had remarkable patience with everyone, a constant smile, and many sweet little touches like small gifts and personal favors. To me the group leader and the local guides are the keys to a successful tour.  To say that a Tauck Tour was beyond expectations really says it all.

Wed. Jun. 6.

Due to construction on the motorway to the Dublin airport, departure times were moved up for everyone, mine an ungodly 5:55 am. There was coffee, juice, sweet rolls and a small box to carry away for those who departed before breakfast. It was too early for me to eat and I knew I would get a nice breakfast in the VIP lounge in the Dublin airport. Tauck’s included transfers are always arranged with reliable agencies. My personal driver was punctual and he drove scenic country roads to detour around the construction, yet we got to the airport in an hour and twenty minutes.

I have mixed feelings about going through U.S, customs in Dublin since the lines are long and I could have done it faster in JFK with my global entry. I had a smooth flight on Delta non-stop to JFK and arrived in plenty of time for my connection to Rochester. With the airport transfers and the wait times in two airports, I was 19 hours in transit, actually faster than some of my trips to Europe. I enjoyed six days visiting family and friends in the Buffalo-Brockport-Rochester area before returning home to Cuernavaca June 12, delighted to be back in my own bed once again, and with happy memories of a wonderful tour of Ireland.

SOME AFTERTHOUGHTS.

Of my seven tours with Tauck, this one rates a tie for the best, the other being Central Europe (Warsaw, Krakow, Vienna, Budapest, and Prague) which had more musical events.

I imagined I would not be going back to Ireland again with so many places and so little time for world travel, so I’m glad I booked a 14-day tour plus extra nights in Dublin. We had two nights in each hotel with one exception. Some of the shorter trips would require changing hotels every night and couldn’t possibly cover all the places we visited.

I am also glad I paid a higher price for a small group tour. I got to know the other travelers much more quickly and I think we bonded sooner than previous Tauck trips with 40 or more travelers. The larger groups can be frustrating taking much longer to get on and off the bus at rest stops and photo stops. Obviously, the tour director can give more personal attention to a smaller group, although I’m sure Georgina would excel with a larger group as well.

This program spends only one night in Dublin, a wonderful capital with numerous attractions, so I advise prospective travelers to book extra nights. That way one gets over jet lag and can explore the city in more depth before the welcome dinner and the half-day bus tour.

It was nice to meet the Irish dairy-farm family, but the farm offers nothing exceptional and I would have preferred to leave the hotel later and cut the day shorter. And I would skip the ruins of Jerpoint Abbey in favor of a later start to Kilkenny. These are minor quibbles, and the overall agenda is outstanding. Participants can voice their opinions in the comment section of the blog.

If any readers get this far, I thank you for your endurance.           Mail:   jhornmex@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

20 thoughts on “THE BEST OF IRELAND, a Tauck Small-Group Tour, May 24-June 6, 2018

  1. Jim: What an incredibly thorough report! You remember that Elaine and I took the tour just after yours, and they were virtually identical. Glad, in retrospect, that I didn’t take my camera or take notes. You did it all for me! Thank you! >

  2. Very informative blog and great photos. Ken and I enjoyed our first trip with Tauck and definitely agree Small Group worked well. Thank you for your company on the trip and it was a pleasure meeting you. Hope you enjoy your future travels and keep writing the blogs.

  3. Hi Jim,

    THANK YOU! I am looking forward to reading the blog.

    Just finished the final dinner on our Tauck Scotland tour. There were 22 of us: 7 couples and 8 women! Everyone was nice, but overall not as super friendly as the folks on our Ireland tour.

    Be well,

    Lucille

    Sent from my iPhone

  4. Thanks for your excellent commentary Jim. It was wonderful to relive the memories and I greatly enjoyed your wonderful photos.

  5. Jim,

    This trip through Ireland was wonderful! I did a similar one many years ago, and loved revisiting all these beautiful places with your great photos.

    Thank you for keeping me on your copy list.

    Ann

  6. Thanks Ann. Actually I don’t keep any lists. You must have hit the subscribe button
    so you get the posts automatically from word press. Glad the post evoked some
    nice memories.

  7. Jim,
    What a tour! I got tired just reading your colorful discriptions. And now I’m hungry even though I just ate.
    I expect to see you with your pink tie next time we visit Gusto.
    Lou

  8. A hundred thousand Thank Yous for your blog and pictures! I had the best intentions to capture the Ireland experience but just ended up with a collection of tourist brochures and entry tickets to sort thru when I got home. Thankfully you spent the time to condense highlights and experiences with words and photos, then graciously shared.

    Great to venture around Ireland with you and I look forward to checking out your blog for feedback on future trips we are planning. It was a treat to meet you and our travel-loving group.

  9. I endured to the end! Ha. too bad we didn’t connect when you visited DC!

    Lovely trip!! We used to do a blog and I know how much work goes into it!! Thanks for your travel hints.

    Lynda

  10. Hello Jim! Loved the post about Ireland!!!
    Is it possible to have your email to contact you and ask you a few things please?

  11. Thank you Jim for the marvelous and gorgeously illustrated tour of an exceptionally sunny Ireland. My mother’s parents came from Ballina in
    Galway “God help us” as they used to say. My dear mother was their third daughter, the first one “this country born” after they emigrated to
    Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. Ray and I and my mother toured Ireland with a small group from the Irish Fellowship Club around 1972.
    Northern Ireland was not included so your photos provide my first sight of Belfast and Derry. It gave me great joy to see how much more prosperous the country has become without losing its most attractive feature—the friendliness and charm of its inhabitants.

  12. Jim,
    Well, I did get to the end and could have stayed longer. You always make me wish I had taken whichever trip you take – with you. Your attention to the details and the photography are A-1.
    Pat Baker

  13. Hi Jim, I just finished your Ireland blog. What a treat ! We had done our own trip to Ireland several years ago and you brought it back to us. Beautiful photos,loved the gardens! Glad you had such great weather. We had much rain, but everything was lovely even if a bit gray. Miss you and hope you continue your travels in good health, We are well and will be taking a Viking River Cruise in France in September. Fondly, Judy

  14. Thanks Judy. I wondered if I would have enjoyed Ireland as much in the rain. I took the Viking cruise from Paris to the Normandy battle fields and loved the gardens at Giverny, but there was sleet at Normandy. Glad you are traveling. Hugs.

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