Ireland is like a dream. The moment I came home I wanted to turn around and go straight back, but then again I knew I was going to fall in love with this country. Ireland had been very high on my travel wishlist for a long time, for many reasons. I am obsessed with greenery, trees, and rampant nature, I love rainy and chilly weather, and I have always had a thing for faeries and fae folklore. I had conjured up an idea of what Ireland might be like – magical, beautiful, calming, and inspiring. I imagined folklore influences to peek out from parts of daily life, I expected to forget that there are colors other than green, I thought about days filled with cozy pubs, traditional music, and jolly encounters – and this country was everything I had dreamed of plus more. The essence of this place is like an early, cozy morning, damp with dew and filled with the hum of family members nearby and the rustling of trees out the window. Do you remember how it felt to wake up on Thanksgiving or Christmas morning when you were a child? That is what Ireland feels like every day. I knew this place would speak to me, but it has captured my heart in ways I didn’t expect. When I tell people I enjoy traveling they always ask which visited country was my favorite. My default answer is “probably Japan, just because I lived there and it became a second home,” but I have not given that answer since returning from Ireland. This place was made for someone like me, and I am already looking forward to my next trip out there.
We experienced Ireland as part of a Rick Steves tour group. We took the “Ireland in 8 Days” tour, which explored Ennis, Dingle, and Dublin, plus some spots in between. I was very skeptical about the whole tour group thing, and while most of my concerns were justified, there were also some really great things about being part of this group. For a first-time or time-restricted visit to a new country, I think it is worthwhile to look into a tour experience, despite the downfalls.
My main concern was that we wouldn’t have time to explore on our own. I wanted to wander off, go on hikes, and get lost. I’m not big into sightseeing; I prefer experiences that immerse you in the culture and allow you to see the place from the eyes of a local. I like to visit local coffee shops and people watch, I love visiting major grocery or department store chains to see how they differ from ones in other countries, I seek out opportunities to have conversations with locals – not about the country or about traveling necessarily, but just a conversation with a human who lives a life that is different from my own. Even though the tour was definitely on a very tight schedule, and there were some activities with not nearly enough time allotted, the tour guide also presented us with opportunities to have experiences of the sort that I mentioned. Rick Steves guides are actually locals, so they are given the freedom to arrange activities during downtime that show you the country through their eyes, and our guide arranged some really fun things while allowing us to have a little bit of time to explore each area on our own.
Another concern I had was that the Rick Steves tours are geared a bit more toward an older crowd. Most of the pictures I had found showed tour members between the ages of what seemed to be late 30s to early 60s; I am 26. Our group’s members did fall in line with this age range, but I was actually surrounded by some really fun, incredibly sweet people and I legitimately enjoyed getting to know them. I was also worried I would be bogged down by museum after museum and be put to sleep by the country’s rich history. I enjoy museums a fair amount, but they are rarely something that I seek out. I will do a cursory swoop and stop at a few stations that peak my interest, but history has never been a great love of mine. I have to admit, this was the area that I was the most surprised by. We did visit quite a few museums, but they were all vastly different from one another, and this was one instance where the restricted timeline was in my favor. We had just enough time at each stop to explore the exhibits, but not enough time to get too bored.
Plus, our tour guide was an absolute history nut and an incredible storyteller. During our travel periods, which were between one to six hours on the bus, our guide gave us the rundown of Ireland’s history through engaging and entertaining stories. I have never in my life learned so much history in such a short period of time. He managed to summarize years of history and culture into chunks that were interesting, to the point, and memorable. Often times he would give us information that related to the sights were were headed to, so that by the time we arrived we already knew all about the area – I feel like it helped us to experience each sight with more clarity, and to see them through the eyes of a local. He also told us about wars, crucial events, important figures, cultural influences, and even relayed stories from his own life and childhood. I was surprised to realize that I knew jack squat about Ireland’s history or culture – I know all about faerie folklore, and this absolutely is a large part of the culture there, but I now know so many interesting things about Ireland’s current culture, and how it has been shaped by years of political and religious turmoil. It was really amazing to learn about how religion has been such a defining factor throughout most of Ireland’s past, as has the divide between the ancient Gaelic culture and the influence of England through Ireland’s previous role as part of the United Kingdom. Did you know that the Irish flag represents a unity between the Catholic and Protestant populations, or between the Gaelic traditions and King William of Orange?
Our tour guide was actually one of the aspects that made the tour experience so worthwhile. It was really nice to let someone else be in charge of organizing everything, setting the schedule, and making sure we got from point A to point B, all while keeping us excited informed about the next leg of the journey. He was very down to earth, and yet very enthusiastic and pointed out everything that made Ireland the best. In fact, everything around us seemed to be the biggest or the best, whether within Ireland or within the world. It became a bit of a slogan, and he mentioned that other groups had pointed it out too. We learned about the country’s Tidy Towns awards and stopped off at the 2016 tidiest town in all of Ireland. Our bus driver, Allan, was the 2016 driver of the year; this, coupled with how sweet and welcoming he was, naturally made Allan the best bus driver in the world. We passed a sign for a place called Crag Cave, and of course when I asked our guide about it he informed me that it is the home of the largest stalactites in Ireland. He told my mom and I where to go for the freshest seafood dinner in all of Dingle, and we got to see a performance by David Geaney, who has the fastest feet in the country. Along the way he pointed out which local spots had the best pub food, the best music, or the most of whatever. I can’t even remember most of the “best of” facts he gave us, but he mentioned all kinds; it really made me extra excited and proud to be experiencing such a robust and incredible country. Of course upon parting we all made sure to let our guide know that he was the best tour guide… in the world!
The whole trip was an absolute whirlwind. I can not believe how many things we did, how many places we saw, and how many memories we made while we were there. As I mentioned, it was definitely a benefit to experience the country for the first time as part of a group because we hardly had to lift a finger. All the travel, lodging, activities, and most of the meals were included and organized for us. There is no way we would have been able to fit in as much as we did if we were also organizing the details for ourselves. The guide was scheduled so that we experienced the most popular spots outside of peak hours, we got to try all kinds of different foods, and we were given opportunities that you would be hard pressed to find on your own. Plus, we learned about lots of spots that we would love to visit next time (Gallway, Cork, Killarney and its National Park, Tralee, Crag Cave, various castle ruins, Phoenix Park, and Northern Ireland to name a few), and we are aware of which spots from this trip we would like to experience again (Dingle, Cliffs of Moher, Hore Abbey, Dublin pubs, etc.). I now have some solid experience under my belt that will make planning my next non-tour trip a breeze.
I will be posting more in-depth accounts of all the amazing things we did in each place, the incredible music we heard, and the delicious food we ate, but there was no way I could fit it all into one post. I could write 100 posts and not be able to express how incredible this country is, but hopefully you will keep an eye out for those posts to come soon, and altogether they can give you a general idea of why I could hardly wipe the smile off of my face the entire trip. I am absolutely in love with Ireland, and it has become my favorite country … in the world!