Before my trip, my knowledge of Ireland and the Irish was restricted to cheerful rugby fans swilling plastic cups of beer, Brian O’Driscoll, Roy Keene, Roddy Doyle’s Angela’s Ashes and the leprechaun. There was some mild curiosity why there is one Irish rugby team but two Irish football teams and 2 Irelands at the Olympics. £ or €? Dublin or Belfast is the capital? After my trip, all is clear.
Ireland is a beautiful country. Add good food on top of that and you have a great holiday destination. Ireland is best seen by car. But if you research car rentals in Ireland, you are likely to throw your hands up in surrender and switch to packaged tours. But no worries, I have set out the results of my research and experience below to assist you.
Dublin resembles a mini London. There are the majestic old buildings, the cathedrals with spires reaching up into sky, the cosmopolitan feel of the people and restaurants, the HOHO buses plying the tourist routes, the pubs, and even a river running through the city. But it has an Irish charm and is definitely worth a visit.
The Uprising and their independence from British rule are a source of pride for the Irish. These and the Great Famine are themes which are ingrained in their psyche (and on souvenir T-shirts). Then there is the literary Dublin – Jonathan Swift (remember Gulliver’s Travels?), Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, W.B. Yeats. The beautiful Trinity College further adds to the culture of learning (besides contributing thousands of young people to the city).
Dublin, like London is a magnet for tourists. But here, a distinction arises. Unlike London which sees a good mix of tourists, Americans predominate in Dublin and the rest of Ireland. Perhaps the descendants of the O’s and the Mc’s who migrated to the Promised Land during the Great Famine are now making the pilgrimage home. It is easy to spot or rather, hear the typical American tourist who seems blessed with healthy lungs.
Driving in Dublin in definitely not recommended. Our Airlink 747 bus from the airport practically crawled through the congested city streets, exacerbated by massive road works.
We were early for our check in at Paramount Hotel in Temple Bar. So we sat in the lobby and tried to get our Lycamobile SIM card to work. We had pre-ordered the free SIM and it was waiting for us at the reception when we arrived. Just as we were congratulating ourselves on how central and comfortable our hotel was, a woman’s shouts of “Stop him! Stop him!” rang out. A well-dressed white man ran past, chased by a woman and a passerby. Well!
After a hamburger lunch at Bunsen, voted “the best burger in Dublin”, we walked to the Dublin Castle, only to be told that we had to come back for a later tour in the afternoon. Booking ahead is recommended for the popular sites, such as the Kilmainham Gaol (we had to make two trips to visit the Gaol). No matter, since a lot of the sites are nearby, we went on to visit the Chester Beatty Library, Christ Church Cathedral and Trinity College first.
Before leaving the counter at Dublin Castle, we bought the €25 Heritage Card which gives free entry to all sites managed by the Office of Public Works throughout Ireland. Excellent value.
The Chester Beatty Library is just behind the Dublin Castle and houses beautiful Asian works. Entrance is free. While you can freely walk around Trinity College, you have to pay to visit the old library (think Harry Potter) and the Book of Kells.
In the evening, when all the shops are closed, the Temple Bar comes (more) alive. The more popular bars and restaurants have people spilling out onto the street drinking even on weekdays. Some of the bars have live bands and Irish dancing.
For the second day, we used the HOHO bus to go further out such as to the docks and the Kilmainham Gaol. There are a few HOHO bus operators in Dublin – red, green and yellow. We chose the green one operated by the Dublin city bus company. The buses were frequent, had good route coverage and service was excellent. We had purchased our tickets online using the discount site Pigsback. At €10 for the 1 day tour, it matched the yellow bus which is less frequent (and who did not answer my email enquiry).
The HOHO bus stops at all the tourist spots so just pick those that interest you – the Guinness Storehouse, St Stephen’s Green, Merrion Square, Famine Monument, Grafton Street, etc. The Guinness Storehouse is a favourite stop for tourists. I suspect it is because you get a free pint at the end of the tour. But not being fans of beer in any shape or form, we skipped this “attraction”. The Guinness name dominates Dublin – employer, happy hour supplier and benefactor. Sir Arthur Guinness bought and gifted St Stephen’s Green to the public. In return, he got a statue.
You are spoilt for choice in Dublin when it comes to food – fresh and of good quality. The Fish Shack has great fish and chips and wonderful service. But I have to reserve my favourite for Banyi where I had the best Japanese meal. The beef tataki melted in my mouth and I polished off the matcha fondant despite the old stomach protesting full house, full house!
On Day 3, we took the Airlink 747 back to the airport to collect our car from Budget. To ensure we didn’t get billed for other people’s dents, scratches and knocks, we made Adam, a young good-natured Budget employee mark all the beauty spots on the form. For good measure, I whipped out the tablet to film and date all the marks for posterity. Talk about being “kiasu, kiasi”!
After prepaying the M50 toll at Topaz gas station, we were off!
Galway and Oughterard
On the way to Galway, we made a detour to the ancient monastery of Clonmacnoise (free entrance with Heritage Card). In the weak autumn light, the solemn tombstones scattered amongst the well-preserved ruins create an eerie spell over the place, abetted by the visitors who maintain a respectful silence like zombies while clambering over the graveyard. Be warned, an Irish holiday tends to be disproportionately filled with visits to the departed (graveyards, underground vaults and crypts)!
We reached Galway around lunch time. First stop was the vibrant Latin Quarter with many restaurants and shops. Of course, we first had to take some shots of the most photographed street in Ireland, Galway’s waterfront row of townhouses. Thank goodness for modern technology in photography – so many were taken to find the best in the low light of autumn.
Lunch was at the Quay Street Kitchen. It had received very good reviews on tripadvisor but I thought it was a bit overrated. The lamb shank was good, mussels were average and the seafood chowder was disappointing.
After lunch and a bit of sightseeing, we drove on to Oughterard, our stop for the night. As it turned out, Gerry’s Carrowntober B&B was one of the top accommodation for our trip. After we had settled in, he made us coffee accompanied by a plate of chocolate digestive biscuits. The next morning, our hot cooked breakfasts were a full Irish and a very generous portion of smoked salmon with scrambled eggs.
Connemara, Galway and Lahinch
It was going to be a long day in terms of driving and sightseeing. First was a drive through the scenic Connemara national park on the way to the Kylemore Abbey. The Abbey emerges from amongst the woods like a fairy tale castle, complete with a lake and reeds. We had read that it was not worth paying for the entrance ticket as the places that were open to the public were quite small. So we just took pictures of the best view from the car park, as advised by other visitors and headed back to Galway.
Being a Saturday, we made a stop at the Galway Saturday market near St Nicholas church, after making further photographic attempts of the most photographed street in Ireland. I bought a pair of hand-knitted woolen socks from the market to give as a souvenir. All those Irish sheep must give good wool. Didn’t see the small tag until later – Made in Nepal.
Leaving Galway, stretches of the road became a little too narrow for comfort, especially when a truck comes barreling down from the opposite side! Ayayay! Halfway towards the Cliffs of Moher, the deep aquamarine backdrop of a castle ruin made us stop to take pictures; also an excuse to catch our breath from extreme driving. It was only later that we discovered it was the most photographed castle in Ireland – Dungaire Castle.
We had not planned to stop at the Cliffs of Moher – pictures and youtube videos were not convincing. But the sight of trails of tourists like ants along the hillside made us change our mind and paid the €12 entrance fees (for two) to make the trek to the Cliffs. Unfortunately, being at the wrong end of sunset did nothing to enhance the beauty of the Cliffs, which, by the way, reminded me of Uluwatu in Bali.
Our stop for the night was Rosie’s Cois Farraige B&B. Rosie turned out to be a most friendly chatterbox who also happened to be a cleaning fanatic. She insisted on wiping off a stain on the mirror, a stain which I could not see with my naked eye. For dinner, Rosie recommended the Tasty Station and we had the best seafood chowder there.
Killarney and Ring of Kerry
Ireland has many castles and unless you are a castlephile, you may wish to select just a few to visit. For us, it was Bunratty or Blarney. Since kissing a saliva-coated rock while hanging upside down is not my idea of fun, the former easily won.
Bunratty Castle and Folk Park turned out to be a commercialised version of Cardiff’s St Fagan’s Museum. It is still an interesting place to visit. The entrance fee at over €15 is steep but we got ours on Groupon for €8.
After Bunratty, we made a stop at Adare, the prettiest town in Ireland. The centre of town is small but picturesque with thatch-roofed cottages. We had a quick bite for lunch as it was getting late and we still had Muckross in Killarney to cover before ending the day.
Muckross House and Gardens (free entrance with Heritage Card) is a sprawling place just outside of Killarney. As the guide explained the set-up of the stately rooms and their furniture, images of Agatha Christie’s characters at dinner parties before withdrawing to the drawing rooms came alive as did the Upstairs and Downstairs of Downton Abbey. Sadly, Muckross House also stands as testament that chasing titles can cause your downfall. In preparing for Queen Victoria’s visit (of 2 days?!), the owners, the Herberts spent so much in renovation and furnishing that it bankrupted them. Guess who snapped up Muckross from the Herberts? The same Guinness who bought St Stephen’s Green. Oh, watch out for the deers. They run wild in the grounds and if you get in the way of a stag going about his business with his lady doe during rutting season…
Base for the next 2 nights was Ardree House in Killarney. A full day is needed to visit the Ring of Kerry for which we had decided to take a tour. At €20, it was a reasonable price to pay for peace of mind against driving along the narrow road. The driver cum guide must have been good because he had the whole bus laughing except us who could barely understand his Irish accent.
For dinners at Killarney, we chose Quinlans’ Seafood and Cronin’s. Both were really good. Cronin’s fries (or chips) were crisp on the outside but fluffy inside. The duck was delicious.
Cashel and Kilkenny
The last stop before heading back to Dublin was Kilkenny. Along the way, we stopped at Cahir Castle, the Swiss Cottage and the Rock of Cashel. All are free with the Heritage Card. I particularly liked the Swiss Cottage which could have been straight out of Grimm’s fairy tales, Hansel and Gretel perhaps? There is a lovely river walk from the Swiss Cottage to Cahir Castle but regrettably, we didn’t have the time.
The Rock of Cashel is impressive and you have to crane your neck to follow its structure up into the sky. The entrance to the Rock of Cashel is a bit tricky, though, with a sharp turn into a lane before reaching the car park.
We stayed at our second Airbnb in Kilkenny which was a room above a pub. We pushed open the heavy pub door and stepped in. Immediately, all eyes were on us. Wizened, tough-looking Irish men nursing mugs of beer stared at these 2 small Asians, hoodies pulled up, wet with drizzle and out of breath from lugging luggage. We must have looked like hobbits to them.
Culture shock aside, the Airbnb is in a good location. It is a short walk from Kilkenny Castle (free entrance with Heritage Card) and the Medieval Mile. St Canice’s Cathedral is a bit further away – again visiting the dead. As we had to leave Kilkenny the next morning by 7 am, we stopped at Dunnes Store to buy breakfast. Dunnes sells the most expensive plastic bag at 70 cents. When we expressed our surprise, we were given a lecture by the check-out man about the environment. The plastic bag is currently living up to its title of “bag for life” in our drawer as a keepsake.
We left Kilkenny while still dark for Dublin. The drive was easy until we got closer to Dublin where the traffic jam was terrible. It can definitely rival the Federal Highway in KL as the longest car park in the world. Thank goodness we had given ourselves a half hour extra. When we arrived at Budget car drop-off, there were fuel pumps conveniently located to top up on petrol, as required if we wanted our fuel deposit back. But when we saw that the price was 30% higher, we immediately reversed and drove the extra few kilometers to Topaz.
The car return at Budget went without a hitch and we were dropped off at the airport. Unlike arrivals, there is no need to go through immigration. We were soon on our way to Gatwick airport for the final leg of our holiday. London, here we come.
Driving in Ireland
Whatever you do, DO NOT read tripadvisor threads on car rental companies in Ireland. They are so full of you-have-been-warned, stay-clear, do-not-hire, I-came-back-to-a-2,000-euro-charge-on-my-credit-card stories, etc, that you start to think Irish car rental companies are the mafia of Ireland. But if you insist on reading, you may want to note that the bulk of the complaints are from Americans who drive on a different side of the road using big cars on wide roads, all of which combine to give a recipe of knocks, dents and scratches.
So to spare you the nightmare, here are the key things to remember when you choose your rental company:
- Your car rental rate must include the collision damage waiver (CDW) and theft protection which attract an excess. The excess varies between 1,000 to 2,000 euros depending on the car rental company, type of car and aggregator (aggregators like Aer Lingus Cars, Argus, Rentalcars will give you a better rate than the car rental company but the excess may be higher). A hold on your credit card for this excess will be taken when you collect your car.
- You will be asked if you want to reduce the excess to zero, in which case you will be offered the super excess waiver. This peace of mind can be bought at one tenth the price from third party insurance firms such as worldwideinsure or icarinsurance.
- Check the fuel policy of the car rental company. The worst is prepaid fuel where you buy a full tank from them at the start and return the car without having to refill. You need to be a Lewis Hamilton Einstein with inbuilt GPS to be able to time your car return with the last drop of fuel in the tank. The other better option is to return the car full but fill up at a nearby petrol station and not the very convenient pumps at the car return depot. Premium location equals premium fuel (30% higher!).
- Extra driver will be charged.
- Check the M50 toll policy. Some rental companies will pay for you for an admin fee while others leave it to you to pay. At Dublin airport, you can prepay at the Topaz station just after leaving the car rental depot.
Sixt seems to be the cheapest but we decided to go with Budget because of the accident clause. Sixt requires the car to be returned to the office within 24 hours and with only offices in Dublin, this meant that our round Ireland holiday would be ruined. As it turned out, Budget was easy to deal with and we had no problems at all. A lot of reviewers like Dooley’s but their fuel policy is the worst.
There are other toll roads besides the M50. You can pay for these using cash. To check on tolls, driving distance and likely fuel cost, check out viamichelin website.
There are motorways and then there are the local roads which wouldn’t squeeze 2 fat cows through. Do not wish for a gleaming new rental car. The hedges are bound to leave their mark on your car and a nasty rental company may force you to pay for the visible scratches. By the same token, get the smallest car you are comfortable with!