I was excited to say the least, but also slightly concerned. I had taken a full week off work to bring my friend from America and her teenage daughter around the Burren
. It was a graduation present that promised memories of a lifetime for them both. I was excited because despite being Irish and further, being from Cork (in the same province as the Burren), I had never explored this part of the country.
As I told people about the upcoming trip, I heard many involuntary yelps of envy, so I knew there must be something in it. On the other hand, a full week in rural Clare?! How could I possibly entertain two people of two different ages and interests in one tiny part of the world? Did I have enough ideas for things to do in the Burren to last us a whole week? Beauty can only wow somebody for so long… Or can it?
My two US travel buddies arrived into Shannon airport full of stories after their three-day stopover in London. We drove towards the Cliffs of Moher Hotel
in Liscannor, which was to be our base for the week. I had picked the location because it’s perfectly located for visitors along the wild Atlantic way, is in the heart of the Burren and always attracts a crowd due to its proximity to Doolin, the Cliffs of Moher, one of Ireland’s best links golf courses in Lahinch.
On the short drive to Liscannor, they shared stories of Big Ben, the tube, Harrods, Westminster and Hyde Park. I smiled on the outside and inside the pressure was mounting. How can I compete with the New York of Europe?!
After they animatedly told me tales of their trips, my friend said “Now we are really looking forward to
The Wild Atlantic Way
. It sounds beautiful, rugged and adventurous. It’s going to be such a contrast with London!” Suddenly I realised that I didn’t have to compete with anything. Australia has the Great Ocean Road. Ireland has the Wild Atlantic Way ! There were more than enough things to do and see in the Burren to keep them wowed for several days (The Poulnabrone Dolmen picture below).
As we progressed past Limerick and Ennis and then off the main road as we delved deeper into West Clare, my friend said “Oh look at that, I have to get the camera!” I looked around to see what extraordinary object she had spotted. I scanned the horizon and saw a simple, typically Irish landscape of sheep, fields, walls and a road, so I politely asked what all the fuss was about. She said “Look at that beautiful rainbow… Can we get to the end of it and find the leprechaun?!”
We arrived at the Cliffs of Moher Hotel
in Liscannor and there was a collective “Ooohh!…” at the stunning view across the beach to Lahinch. We gathered ourselves together and walked in to meet Laura, the most welcoming receptionist. She greeted us warmly, gave us our keys and told us that if we needed anything, it was “No bothers!”
I took in the fabulous view from my balcony before sinking into the comfortable mattress for a little while, then I had a rejuvenating shower with the luxury toiletries, took everything out of my suitcase and put it into the ample wardrobe space before meeting up with my two friends for a lovely glass of wine. During that evening, we met Ronan Garvey, the Cliffs of Moher hotel owner and he gave us some fantastic recommendations for what to do in the area. In fact, he basically mapped out the week’s activities to us! His love for the area is contagious and it was clear that he genuinely wanted his guests to fully appreciate the experience. Well, we had every intention of it!
Before driving up to the Burren, I thought we could spend some time in Cork, my native county. When you’re looking for things to do in the Burren , don’t overlook the surrounding area. It would be a pity to come all the way to County Clare and miss other world-famous attractions in the nearby county.
The teenager mentioned how she loves animals and might want to visit a sanctuary in Africa one day. I told her that she didn’t have to wait that long to see lions at all. We drove back towards Limerick and down through winding roads of Buttevant before joining Cork on to the North Link road and then headed east for Fota Wildlife Park
I had reservations that this might be aimed at people younger than her, but took the chance. It was a fantastic morning! There were animals from all over the world. Imagine that you can see a zebra in Cork! It was excellently designed with lots and lots of room. There were feeding times, shows, train rides and lots of extras, so that a family could really make a day of it. It was amazing.
I took the opportunity to show them the Sminky videos : Andrew James, the artist who created the Tornado clip, is based in Cork.
In keeping with the nature theme, I took the circuitous route right around the perimeter of the city to arrive at
Griffins Garden Centre
, Dripsey. Griffins Garden Centre, as the name suggests, is of course a garden centre, but it’s so much more than that: it boasts an award-winning café, a playground, a home decor store, and themed “inspirational gardens”.
The three of us split and went different directions. My friend headed straight for the plants , getting ready to perform a comparative study of her own hydrangeas and the plants at the back of the garden centre. I love everything that bastes, sautés, slices, crushes, blends, mixes, core, peels and presents food and I was exceptionally happy in the home decor shop . My friend’s daughter immersed herself in theLara in Griffins Garden Centre landscaped themes : the secret garden, the children’s paradise, the country home, the elephant fountain (with another Sminky reference!). She used a significant part of her phone’s memory card with photos of every creative detail (Picture: My American friend Lara in Griffins Garden Centre)
As we eventually all came together, we met Margaret Griffin herself and she was telling us about the company’s latest award: Ireland’s best scone . Then the unexpected happened. The teenager said “What’s a scone?” Could you just imagine the look of surprise, shock and horror that met this totally innocent question? “Well,” said Margaret, “we are going to have to fix that … and fast.” She instantly walked us over to the counter offering plain, brown and fruit scones. We chose one each for variety. Next, did we want butter, jam and/or marmalade? Now, do you want them heated and with cream?
After the scone ceremony, we had another display of cultural diversity. One of our “party” as the Americans say, needed the restroom. A restroom? As in, a room in which to rest? At 3 pm in the day and in a garden centre? Surely, “one could rest” in the car. After a little polite questioning, I realized what the purpose of this resting actually was and I knowingly answered “Oh you mean the bathroom…” My equally polite guest replied with a cheeky smile: “No, there doesn’t need to be a bath in it.” Touché. I said “No, no, that’s ok. I will show you where the toilet is” and she jokingly curled up her nose: “That’s a bit descriptive isn’t it? Imagine doing your makeup in the toilet?” As I directed her to the restroom, I thought she might have a point. I’m going to start calling toilets “restrooms” now in Cork. It might take off around the place.
We went out to the food and gift shop. My friend found Scottish fudge for her Dad, her daughter found cupcake-shaped (or buns as we would call them) candles as favours for her friends and I found a smoothie and juicing book. Before we had completed our multiple transactions at the till, Margaret came buzzing out after us and gave us three scones, with butter, jam and plastic knives for our journey.
I thought it would be awful to be so close and not see Blarney so we drove back towards Cork and took a left turn, through Tower and then arrived into the history-steeped village. I drove around the square while my passengers closed one eye and nervously muttered “Isn’t this one-way? Surely there isn’t enough room for two cars here?” Given our longer-than-expected stay in Dripsey, Blarney Castle
had closed. We hopped over the barrier and into the car park to get a better view. We met the gardener who told us all about “the Blarney” and then directed us to a great vantage point for a photo.
As we drove off, I explained how if you kissed the Blarney Stone , you get the “gift of the gab”: you don’t stop talking. I could see they were exchanging looks and trying very hard not to giggle, so with a straight face I said “Some people think I ate it (and my husband certainly holds that view).” They burst out laughing. As we drove back to the Cliffs of Moher hotel, the conversation petered out as the sun dipped down behind the horizon. The mix of the Cork air, the last vestiges of jet lag and the hearty laughs throughout the day led me to have to wake the two Americans when we arrived back in Liscannor. Success!
4km run, Cliffs of Moher, coast road
I slept exceptionally well, so I was up early and decided to go out for an early morning run before breakfast. I got a nod of impressing approval from Laura as I power-walked out the door. I turned left and started jogging along the rugged coastline to Lahinch. The landscape was astoundingly beautiful, with sweeping views of the sea and lush green hills with sheep and dry stone walls, down to the beach of perfect white sand.
I ran along Lahinch Golf Club
(One of Ireland’s famous Golf Links) , with the good humoured early golfers shouting “good morning” as I passed, then I turned around at Lahinch and completed the 4 km route to arrive back to the Cliffs of Moher Hotel, windswept, puffed and Lahinch Golf - Cliffs of Moher Hotel ready for a hot shower!
I met the girls for a lovely, leisurely breakfast at 10 am. We had fruit, granola, juice, coffee and the cutest little loaves of bread in the beautiful morning sun. Around noon, we set off to see the Cliffs of Moher
itself, one of the most famous things to visit in the Burren.
At the Cliffs, the entire centre and gift shop was nestled right into the rock side and cleverly concealed so as not to spoil the raw natural beauty of the place. We walked through the turnstile and started to walk up along the cliff. We expected there to be some sort of protection between the edge of the landmass and the sheer drop down into the ocean, but there wasn’t any. We walked about a metre in off the edge and saw others jaunt along just centimetres away, but as we progressed along the track we became more comfortable with the terrain. There were a variety of different walks to suit everybody, from a short stroll along one of the most photographed parts of Ireland to a hike that stretched all the way to Doolin.
We spent another hour wandering around the fantastic gift shop. It had music, t-shirts, bodhráns, books, jewellery, Arran jumpers, scarves, chocolate, toffee, tin whistles, coasters and so much more. It was the best quality Irish gift shop I had seen. The two girls got lots of Irish gifts and I bought some beautifully illustrated Irish books with stories of Cúchulainn and the Children of Lir to send across the globe to my friend in Australia who had just had a baby.
To end the day with more natural beauty, we drove up the coast road to Lisdoonvarna, looped around into Ennistymon and then back to Liscannor in the evening sun. I slowed right down as we travelled this path because the views stunned us all to silence.
By the time we arrived back at the Cliffs of Moher hotel, we were ravenous and decided to eat at the restaurant in the hotel. The menu is simple and offers familiar Irish dishes, but the food was absolutely fabulous. My own starter was superbly presented: goat’s cheese nestled in a fresh green salad, beetroot chunks and orange pieces. My friend and her daughter had a creamy, filling seafood chowder. Next, we all chose the sirloin steak with peppercorn sauce and fries, and it was delicious. As we sat back with full stomachs we admired the art on the walls and had a very high brow conversation about what each of the creations “said” to us. Simple memories, but ones that I will hold with me for a very, very long time.
Galway, Kinvara, Athenry
I’m an NUI Galway graduate and spent four fantastic years in the City of the Tribes Galway
, so I was keen to show off the place to “the two Americans”. Laura gave us detailed directions towards Galway, adding mysteriously that I should take my time going down “Corkscrew Hill”
Map in hand, we walked out the door wondering if Corkscrew Hill might be some sort of secret vineyard, but instead, we learned very quickly that it is the windiest, twistiest, turniest road that I’ve ever driven in Ireland. To make up for it, the views are breathtaking and there are several spots where you can stop to take in the views and shoot some postcard-worthy pictures.
When we arrived in Galway, we parked at the Cathedral, as it’s conveniently close to both the city and the beautiful grounds of NUI Galway. I showed them the library where I spent many days soaking up financial market concepts and mathematical algorithmic processes. The teenager wasn’t impressed. “Sounds like fun”, was her deadpan retort. I showed them the new buildings that “weren’t there in my time” and the college church where I used to go in times of stress, struggle, appreciation and gratitude.
Then we walked into town and went to my favourite café in Galway, Java’s on Abbeygate Street. There was never a problem that couldn’t be solved in Java’s. If “he” (i.e. the latest college crush) didn’t text, if you felt you were toast for next week’s exam or if you were in the mood for discussing existential issues on a Tuesday afternoon, Java’s was the place to go. It has the most gorgeous French menu, with ridiculously amazing bread and a must-have “café gourmand”: a cup of delicious coffee with three tiny (and hence calorie-free, right?) desserts on the side.
We walked all around the Spanish Arch, Shop Street and Eyre Square. Every step is steeped in memory for me: Galway is the place I became an adult, where I had so much fun as a student, and where I met my husband.
We drove on to Kinvara to experience the farmers’ market. We walked around the stands selling fresh vegetables, home decorations made of wood, quilts, and cakes. We had a fabulous crepe bursting with fresh strawberries, to sustain us for the afternoon ahead!
Next, we went to Athenry . I lived there for the early part of my time in college and thought I would show my travel buddies a little bit of rural Galway. We stopped at the Esker monastery , a national retreat centre. We walked through the woods and enjoyed the deep serenity, with trees that have weathered storms and enjoyed sunshine for hundreds of years. We spotted lots of the local inhabitants, of a feathered and four-legged kind. At one stage a scurrying passer-by invoked squeaks of “oh look at the cute little Irish squirrels” from my two visitors who I was enjoying more and more with each passing day!
As we were all feeling peckish, we repaired to the “Old Mill” in Athenry. It has a gorgeous protein power salad that’s filling, crunchy and very tasty. As we walked in, the teenager looked at the dessert blackboard that hangs over the kitchen and asked me what a banoffee pie was. Can you imagine my surprise?! As if that wasn’t bad enough, just then her mother said “I also don’t know what that one up there is either.” She was pointing at the “Rocky Road”. How had they lived until then?!
After lunch we had a lovely walk around town and a most fabulous hour in Peggi Browne’s gift shop. It’s full of lovely little trinkets for your home, plates with funny quotes that remind you instantly of somebody and every colour and pattern of pashmina. We all left with bags full of presents for people… and for ourselves!
After the day’s adventures, we set off to return to Liscannor. As we were driving through Clarinbridge, I was just about to point out the very famous Paddy Burke’s restaurant famous for “The Oyster Festival”, but I noticed that my car companions had fallen asleep…Again….
The Burren Perfumery, Lisdoonvarna and traditional Irish music!
Over breakfast we planned the day’s outing and agreed we wanted to take a good look at the Burren itself. Mark, the General Manager, highly recommended The Burren Perfumery
, so that’s where we started.
We drove into the heart of County Clare and I couldn’t help but marvel at the landscape. It’s that landscape Ireland is renowned for the world over – it felt like we were travelling right through a Tourism Ireland brochure.
Following the signs, we turned off the main road and seemed to be going up the side of a mountain before turning off again down a bog track. The road was so narrow that, had I met a car, one of us would have needed to reverse to a gate so as to let each other pass. I thought that I must have taken a wrong turn, but the signs were still there.
Even though we hadn’t seen a human being for miles, the Burren Perfumery was full of people milling around. We spent about two hours enjoying the way the place can fill every one of the five senses. . There was a video documenting the history, flora and fauna of the Burren in a little movie theatre, there were constant demos about how the perfume is made, a really lovely, bustling café, and of course there is a fabulous shop with lots and lots of Burren Perfumery products.
I’ve never had a favourite perfume – until then! I walked up to the counter where the demos were taking place and a lady took me through a whole smelling process. She sprayed four different fragrances on to four different sheets of paper and guided me through them. Each one related to a season, each one so wonderfully evocative and different.
“Try this one,” she said, “it’s called Winter Woods. Now, imagine that you’re walking through the forest and the ground is damp after a shower of rain. It’s cold and you’re wrapped up in warm clothing. The sun is bright and the trees are glistening with raindrops. You can smell pine and freshness.” I took a liking to it, so she sprayed some on my wrist (her advice: don’t rub your wrists together, let it dry naturally) and recommended I return after it had time to settle before making my choice.
By the time I had had coffee in the busy café, I had fallen for Winter Woods hook, line and sinker. Now that same scent has a different connotation. I don’t bring it with me when I travel, so I only use it when I’m at home. The perfume brings me back to my trip to the Burren, evokes that rich wintery scene and represents that content, grounded feeling of being at home.
As we got back into the car, we agreed that this place was fabulous as well as totally unexpected! The location, the experience, the perfume itself were all well above expectations. We had noticed a sign for a chocolatier called “Hazel Mountain Chocolates”
on the way and sought it out next. The owner brought us around to the showroom and explained exactly what everybody was doing and the entire craft that goes into gourmet chocolate. The artful process was a joy to watch – the sad, mass-produced bars at petrol stations just don’t compare…
We bought some individual pieces to enjoy outside in the sunshine. We weren’t hungry enough to eat lunch, so we simply sat outside with a coffee and the chocolate. It was simply amazing, with rich and complex aromas, so that after just two pieces each we were completely satisfied!
We got back into the car and drove towards Lisdoonvarna. I don’t know whether it was the labyrinth of country roads, the conversations, or a misaligned signpost, but we got totally lost! Delightfully so, as we ended up driving all over the Burren to find completely unspoilt parts of the country that didn’t have a familiar name. There was this natural sense of liberation and relaxation when you can drive, literally, wherever the road takes you. There wasn’t any signal, so my phone hadn’t a hope of linking in with Google Maps!
We eventually found our way to Lisdoonvarna. We parked in the big car park of the Burren Sleepzone Hostel
just off the road. We walked up past the Burren Smokehouse
, famous for fabulous salmon and wine, but we wanted to eat out so we kept going. The Wild Honey Inn looked like a cosy spot with great atmosphere, but in the end we chose The Roadside Tavern
as the menu looked great, and there was the added bonus of traditional music.
We settled in for a fine feed of mussels and then smoked salmon. This pub gets very busy as the evening progresses and we found ourselves getting closer and closer to our nearest neighbours as tables were shuffled over to make room for new guests, a sure sign of a popular spot! We talked about the differences between the lives of kids today and our own respective childhoods, until we couldn’t hear our voices over the toe-tapping music.
It seemed that there were musicians from all over Clare with fiddles, guitars, accordions, tin-whistles and other instruments that I couldn’t name. It was clear to see that the pub was going to be lively with great craic that night! It took a while to explain what “craic” was: the first time anybody says that word to an American tourist, they get a look of sheer shock and horror on their faces! I reassured them that “craic” refers to fun and good spirits and nothing else!
As we drove back to the Cliffs of Moher hotel, I taught them the “Fields of Athenry ”
, so they could have an Irish party piece on their return.
You know that feeling, as the holiday draws to a close you are just a teensy bit in denial and want to stretch it as much as you can, wishing time would slow down before the madness of your life takes over again? That was exactly our mood on Saturday morning! So we decided to just relax on the beach, just across the road from the Cliffs of Moher hotel.
We enjoyed a leisurely lunch at the recently opened Sea Salt Bakery. They had some gorgeous pies and sandwiches that filled us right up and we sat outside and watched the world go by. We knew that we had just a couple of hours left in the Burren and so we decided that we Aillwee Cave The Burrenwould go on one last road trip. We asked Ronan, the owner of the Cliffs of Moher hotel, for a recommendation and he suggested taking in the Aillwee Cave
By 2 pm we were off, enjoying the scenery of winding roads and lush green landscape we’d grown familiar with over the last few days. The car climbed the almost-vertical road up to the visitor centre – not the best place to practise a hill start for a learner driver!
We bought our tickets and whiled away the time until the next guided tour walking around the gift shop. You’d think we would have had enough by now, but once again I was secretly giving a thumbs up to the Irish tourism sector at the quality of the merchandise available. There was nothing tacky in the shop and we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly.
I had been to a cave before on a school tour so I didn’t expect anything earth-shattering. After all, if you’ve seen one stalactite you’ve seen them all, haven’t you? Not exactly! I was surprised at how good the tour was: it wasn’t just about the rocks, but about the people who lived on this land long ago and how they made the most of meagre resources.
The tour was planned like a show, with clever use of lighting to attract your eye to the dramatic underground rockscapes. At one point, they switched off all lights to give us a sense of what it might have felt like discovering the cave for the first time, not knowing how far it went, and whether you would find the right path at the next junction in blind darkness!
The tour was excellent but at the end we were somehow glad to be back in the overground world! The teenager suggested we walk up a little bit of the mountain and we headed up the hillside. We went up higher and higher for about an hour, and then we decided to go one more little bit for that last hill because it was the summit. We found ourselves “going one more little bit” for another hour and a half!
The air was so pure and clean. You could see for miles all around, over as far as the Cliffs of Moher and Doolin and the sparkling sea. Eventually we started to descend back down to find the gift shop closed and everybody gone home! Our car sat alone in the car park and we made our way back to the Cliffs of Moher hotel in great spirits.
We were absolutely starving by the time we arrived, so we went downstairs and ordered pizza. I had the Meat Lovers’ with chicken, chorizo and mince. You have never seen a pizza disappear so quickly! To round off the day with some Irish tipples, I got us three hot whiskies and we sat outside. We reflected on the high points of the week but somehow not one of us couldn’t come up with any low points. As the sun set over the horizon, we retired to our rooms pleasantly tired after all that fresh sea air, not to mention the plentiful dinner…
“It’s really going to take something to beat this vacation!”
On our last day together, we set off after a hearty breakfast and waved Laura goodbye. Gradually, we left the winding byroads of West Clare, turned towards Limerick from Ennis and we were back on the motorway.
I wanted to give my US visitors one more stop before they left the Emerald Isle, so that they could shop for something special, just for themselves. We made an hour-long stop at Kildare Village where they picked up some fabulous L.K. Bennett and PINK bargains to bring home.
Then it was back to Dublin and the airport. As we took our goodbyes my friend said “It’s really going to take something to beat this vacation!” And to think I’d been worried there wouldn’t be enough to keep them entertained!
On the way home I couldn’t help thinking how proud I was of the amazing country I call my own – and how it had provided an incredible vacation not only for first-time visitors, but for me too, even though I’ve lived here all my life.
The Positive Economist
4kms from both the world famous Cliffs of Moher and Lahinch Golf Course, on the Wild Atlantic Way