Friday, February 28, 2014

Chelsea in Northern Ireland

This blog title doesn't include a city name because the majority of our day was spent traipsing through the countryside. We were set to check out of our first hotel and make our way northwest to Donegal. We had grand plans for getting up early and making the most of our day.

Apparently we were both more exhausted than we realized, since our 7am alarm didn't wake us up, and when my mom nudged me away, it was 10:20! Speaking to my priorities, my first question was "Did we miss breakfast?!" My mom skeptically stated that yes we did, unless I could get up, get dressed, and get down to breakfast in about 2 minutes. Challenge accepted, mother! We were down in the dining room by 10:24, and were allowed to be seated. I literally pilled my plate high with everything I might want to eat before the staff could clear the buffet tables.

I was so happy to have made it to the "free" breakfast, I didn't even mind that we were getting a very late start. By the time we were ready and checked out, it was a little past noon. We decided to stick to our original schedule despite the late departure. Our route was Dublin --> Belfast --> Giant's Causeway --> Donegal for the night. I had actually wanted to stop by the ISA office at Queens Univeristy in Belfast, to take a photo and say hello, but I found out that the staff weren't in the office that day.

We headed north, following signs for "THE NORTH". I wondered when we were going to come to The Wall and Castle Black (Game of Thrones, anyone? hehe) The weather was intermittentedly sunny and beautiful then suddenly black and raining. At one point we even had some hail! I mean, talk about bipolar weather.

As we left the city, the scenery grew more and more beautiful. I was trying to snap photos out of the car window, but when we saw a sign for a view point right off the highway, my mom indulged my need for photos and took me on a little detour. We wound our way up and around the side of a hill and eventually came to a tiny parking lot and lookout point with a picnic table. We took some photos but it was so cold that we didn't stay too long. The time we were there, though, served us well as the view was absolutely gorgeous!! Green as far as the eye could see. Thankfully the sun was out when we hit this area.

After the detour, we headed back on the highway heading north towards Belfast. The road noise lulled me into a cat nap, during which we crossed into Northern Ireland. I was a bit sad to have missed this "landmark" and potential photo op, but my mom said it was out of no where and the sign wasn't very big or impressive. I resolved to get a photo on our way back into the Republic of Ireland at the end of the day.

Since we were in Northern Ireland (a separate country entirely), not only was the currency in GBP, but my SIM card data stopped working. UGH! At least our route north was already plotted, so we didn't get lost but it was a bit frustrating. We decided to stop in at a petrol station to use the WiFi and get another bottle of water. I had to ask the woman at the counter for the password for the WiFi. She told me "oh, ess, ay, two, three.." so I typed in "OSA23" but when she saw that, she say "No no! Not Ahh, Ayy!" Um, what? I typed in A again. She laughed and shook her head again, emphasizing AYYY. Thoroughly bewildered, she used a pen and wrote "e". I laughed and said "Oh, eeee!" She goes, "Yes, ay." Holy crap accents can make communication within the same language very difficult! But, it was a pretty humorous exchange.

Just down the road, I spied a Marks and Spencer's shop (department store with a grocery store) where we had a pit stop to get salads. The majority of the best salads I've ever had have come from here, so I was pumped to get another one, or three... We got 5 different varieties - small sizes of course - then grabbed a bottle of wine, some fresh and warm baguettes, butter and cheese, and of course a bar of chocolate. I think our little shopping stop was one of my favorite moments of the trip thus far. It sounds silly, but to bond over our love of simple but delicious food and drinks was really awesome. I totally love my mom. :)

After we left the shop, we passed through Belfast, which didn't seem too large or impressive to be honest. After another quick catnap on my part, we got close to our destination: Giant's Causeway. We arrived a little after 5pm, and the visitor's center was closed. I didn't mind though becuase the lighting was absolutely gorgeous as it was nearing sunset.

Since it was technically closed, we couldn't get the bus out to the proper part of the causeway, but were able to walk partway around the coast. Even though we didn't get to see the actual basalt columns up close and personal, the views were breathtaking. I took so many photos trying to capture just how magnificent the cliffs, rolling waves, and winding paths were. Due to temperatures in the 30s, plus high winds coming off the ocean, we weren't able to walk too far down the path, only about a quarter mile, before our faces and fingers numbed beyond what we could handle. But, it was worth it regardless. We headed back to the car when I spied another path that looked to promise great views as well.

We drove around to another angle on the top of the outlook, and I walked along the narrow path I'd seen from afar and through a gate (was I actually allowed in this area? I have no idea) all the way to the edge of the cliffs. My mom, attempting to thaw out, stayed behind in the car. I felt like I was chasing the sunset, trying to drink in as much nature and scenery as possible before she set beyond the horizon, shadowing the outlandish beauty. I attempted to get myself in photos, but I just couldn't get the focus right for a timed selfie. It's probably good though, becuase I feel a bit like that was "my spot" and it's kind of nice that I can't actually share that with anyone else.

After about 15 minutes, I realized that I was probably going to worry my mom that I'd fallen off the cliff if I didn't get back soon. I headed back to the car and we set off. Since the "sat nav" (satellite navigation aka Google Maps) wasn't working without data, we guessed in the direction we needed to head. At a petrol station I went inside and looked at an atlas and asked the young cashier where we needed to go to get to Donegal. Once again proving how kind and helpful the Irish can be, he and another customer conferred about the best way for us to go. It seemed pretty easy, so I snapped a picture of the map and memorized the directions he gave.

Following my directions, we headed toward the town of Londonderry, on the border of Ireland and Northern Ireland. By then the sun was completely gone and even if it'd been out, there was literally no demarkation about entering or leaving either country. Bummer we missed out on that photo, but we were both so ready to get to our next hotel that we didn't mind too much.

Once we entered into Ireland, my service resumed, although on extended network, and we were able to get actual directions to continue to our destination. While we couldn't actually see the countryside we were passing through, I think it was pretty beautiful and the towns we passed through were charming and quaint. I wish we'd been able to see more of them.

Finally, after a pitstop for more chocolate, we found our hotel for the night: Loughe Eske. The previous hotel we'd stayed at was a "castle" but THIS PLACE is a freaking castle!! Even the first sight, shrouded in night, was gorgeous. The room is immaculate and seriously fancy. After we got our stuff in the room, I headed down to the bar to get some dinner. I ordered a kids meal of bangers and mash (sausage and mashed potatoes). It was cheap, by five-star hotel standards, and I wasn't overly hungry. But when it came out, holy crap it was MASSIVE! Okay, that's a bit of an overstatement, but it was definitely larger than a normal kids portion. I guess for the price it wasn't a bad deal! And it was so delicious.

Now I'm back up in the room, ready for a nice sleep after a lot of traveling (6 hr total in the car!) and sightseeing. We're going to do some more geocaching tomorrow as well as explore the wild area surrounding Donegal.


Thursday, February 27, 2014

Chelsea in Dublin Part II

Today was a great first real day of vacation. I woke up to an alarm (unfortunately) and had a really nice 3.5 mile run around the grounds of the castle hotel as well as the village we are in. It was pretty brisk but thankfully it wasn't raining. I bundled up as best I could and headed out. The first half of the run was fairly boring, as I was running along a main road with little to see except some fields and cars. But after doing the bigger loop around the town, I ran through the village center and through a neighborhood. I hadn't realized it but apparently around 9am is when the kiddos go to school here, because I was like frogger dodging all the children and mums walking to school or theh bus.

When I got back I took a quick shower so we could get down for breakfast. We sat at a small table by the window and enjoyed a very good buffet breakfast. The eggs looked really weird but ended up being my favorite thing. We didn't eat too much because it was a bit late and we needed to finish getting ready and head into Dublin itself.

Since my mom is still a bit wary of driving, and since Dublin is a big city with traffic, and since parking can be expensive and desiel sure is expensive, we decided to take the bus into town. We had checked and thought that it left at 11:05, so we rushed out the door and literally ran to the convenience store to buy a bus pass. After standing in an annoyingly long line, I was told that the store was out of passes. So I went to find mom who was supposed to be finding out about where to get the bus, but she didn't have much luck with a surly bus driver.

We walked to the stop and waited about 10 minutes for the bus, realizing that we must have read the timetable wrong and that it would come at 11:15 instead. When the bus pulled around, we were told we needed exact change. Frustrated and flustered, my mom pulled out a handful of change and we sorted through the coins. A gentleman who had boarded the bus before us came up and offered to help with some change, and he spotted us the last 0.05 we needed to board the bus. He was very friendly and began to chat with us about where we were going, tips on Dublin transportation, and various other topics such as his summer home in Italy and his prior career as a French teacher (which conversation was prompted when mom noticed he was reading a book in Italian.) We found out his name was Dermont and he agreed to be photographed for your viewing pleasure (although he assured me that he would probably break the camera just by being a subject of a photo). He entertained us the whole way into the city and ensured we alighted at the correct stop.

As the bus pulled away, we waved goodbye to Dermont at the window and headed down Bow Street to the Old Jameson Distillery. Our trip package had included these tickets at a discount rate and we wanted to take advantage of that. Since my Nana was supposed to be here, we were given 3 tickets. The tour itself wasn't too impressive. Jameson is now distilled in Co Cork rather than in the original location we were at, so everything was simulation and replication. However, at the end of the tour, I got to be a whiskey taster!

My job was to taste three kinds of whiskey and judge the qualilty. Using my newly obtained knowledge about the process of making and distilling whiskey, I was quite the professional. There were 10 of us total to do the testing, only about a quarter of the tour group. We were sat in front of three mini shot glasses. In the middle was Jameson 5 year, to the left was Johnny Walker black label Scotch, and to the right was Jack Daniels. We were given a description of the whiskeys, which may have contributed to the overall judgement, but I found it helpful. The Jameson, triple distilled, was the smoothest and had the best taste, in my opinion. The Johnny Walker was alright, but had a very smokey flavor that I didn't care for, and the Jack Daniels was just a disgrace to America. Literally it was the only one I didn't finish the shot. My mom brilliantly captured my reactions as you will see when I update with photos.

After the taste test, I got a certificate proving that I am a Certified Whiskey Taster! Then we were all given a choice of a glass of Jameson neat, or a Jameson and ginger ale with lime. Since we actually had three entry tickets, we got three glasses, so I got one of each and my mom got the Jameson and ginger ale. By the end of the Jameson straight up, I was feeling a bit buzzed, and I very much enjoyed the Jameson and ginger ale, as well.

 As we were finishing our drinks, two British girls started to chat with us and asked us how we liked the tour. I told them honestly that it wasn't very interactive but I liked the tasting part. It turns out that they are working for Jameson to try to improve their tour quality and marketing. We chat an interesting chat, then they were on their way to Guiness (to compare the tours, I assume. What a hard job!)

We left the distillery and went to search out some nearby Geocaches (google it if you don't know what it is!). We were hunting for one and had just found it when a really odd looking woman approached us and said something indiscernable. We frowned and said "No thank you!" She again mumbled something then turned to point at a man flat on his face behind her on the side walk (we'd seen him fall over; high or drunk or both), and said "Me and him". Still unsure of what she even wanted, and less inclined than ever to interact with her further, we again said "No thank you" and walked away quickly. There seemed to be quite a few drunks and drug addicts around, now that I was paying attention.

We went a few blocks over for another cache, which I found quickly. We decided to get some lunch at that point and after consulting trusty Yelp, we headed for a restaurant very close by. We had the best meal ever; cheesy chicken with mash and salad. For the portion size, it was so cheap at 7 euro 50. We shared the meal sitting outside enjoying the sunshine. As we were both checking our phones, a shadow fell across the table. ANOTHER weird guy had approached us and started mumbling incoherently. I literally had no idea what language he was speaking. I glanced up at my mom from under my bent head, trying not to give the man any attention so heh would leave. My mom returned my freaked out look and we tactfully ignored him; he stumbled away 10 seconds later. What a weird neighborhood! It looked so unassuming, but there must have been an asylum with a security lapse nearby.

Finally we left the area and walked several blocks over to a shopping district near the Spire of Dublin. My mom wanted to look in a store called Penney's (like Primark in the UK), and she found a few things. A few shops and a lot of walking later, we ducted into a cheap but highly rated bar on Yelp, called O'Reilly's. We had a beer then a cider (much cheaper than the bar at the hotel!) before deciding to make our way back home. We stopped for some fish and chips, then got the bus heading to the hotel. On the way, I fell asleep for about 20 minutes and it felt amazing. Between my run in the morning, all the walking we did, as well as just being out and about for 8 hours, I was exhausted.

Once we got into our room, my shoes came off and I realized how bad my feet hurt. My boots aren't the best quality and I think I really messed up my feet. I'm now resting them after a relaxing bath and we plan on an early night, since we have a very long day with a lot of driving (aka stress) tomorrow. We will go north into Northern Ireland then west to Donegal for the night. It should be an adventure!


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Chelsea in Dublin Part I

It's been quite a while, hasn't it, blog followers?! I'm back for the next few days to document my travels with my mom to Ireland! We planned this trip a while back to spend some time with the women in my mom's side of the family, but my Nana ended up not being able to come. So, it's just me and mommy on the trip! So, here we go into another adventure...

I spent all weekend preparing for our departure. Most of this was admittedly beauty-related: highlights, brow wax, manicure, etc. I planned to take approximately 3,000 photos, so I figured I would do my best to look good! I spent a busy Saturday running errands (much to Romeo's annoyance), then on Sunday I finished up everything and started my drive to Dallas,

Since we were flying out of DFW on Monday afternoon, my mom and I decided to meet on Sunday in Dallas so that we could wake up refreshed for our transatlantic journey, I intended to be at the hotel by around 4:30pm, but things happened and I ended up pulling in around 8pm, After dinner we hit the sack early to be well rested for a long day ahead.

Monday morning we headed to the airport early. My dad had driven my mom to Dallas and needed to get back, so he dropped us off earlier than we needed to be there. Our flight to Chicago was scheduled to depart at 2:40pm... we were at the gate by 11am. Thank goodness for iPads and the food court. Finally we boarded the plane and were given Economy Premium seats (an upgrade) for free. Woohoo!

That flight was pretty unremarkable. We chatted and iPad'ed the whole way. We got into Chicago and navigated the maze of terminals thanks to GateGuru (only the best airport travel app imaginable). After finding our terminal, riding the inter-terminal train, and going thru security, we hit our first "roadblock".

While DFW security had not noticed or worried about my hand lotion in my purse, apparently when we went thru security in Chicago, they did their jobs a bit more thoroughly, Some of my fancy pants hand lotion was "noticed" and they told me I had to toss it. Loathe to get rid of it, I chose to go back out of security and check another bag we had originally intended to carry on, so that I could pack the hand lotion. In my defense, my mom was the one who really wanted to be sure we had the lotion since she had forgotten hers. And, it was her bag that we checked.

After going  to the airline agent and checking the extra bag (thankfully not being charged for a second bag), I headed back through security. I was so grateful that the lines were pretty short and we got thru fairly quickly. After that hoopla, we wove our way through the barrage of unavoidable duty free shopping areas and to our designated gate. I attempted to flutter my eyes and convince the crew to bump us up to Business class, but with no such luck.

Side note - how do people get these upgrades?! I have literally never been able to sweet talk my way into that coveted front section of seats and free alcohol. What am I doing wrong?!

Anyway, we boarded the plane and found our seats. The flight wasn't full and we were able to spread out. My mom went and got a seat that had a charger port so that we could keep our iPads and iPhones juiced up. The flight was scheduled to be about 8 hours, or a bit less. However, a strong tailwind estimated us to land over an hour early!

We waited for beverage service and our meals, then I attempted to get some sleep. Thanks to my neck pillow and the open seat next to me allowing me to put my feet up, I think I got around an hour and a half of rest before the lights came up and the flight attendents were serving a small breakfast.

Not too long after that, at around 1:45am my body time, we made our decent into Dublin airport. At a full hour and a half early, I was just keeping my fingers crossed for an early check in at the hotel! But, before that, we had border control, baggage claim, car hire, and travel to do.

In line for immigration, we noticed that everyone had landing cards...except us. I was sure that they hadn't handed them out on the flight or I would have gotten one. I looked around the big hall and saw literally nothing that could have served as a desk or stand for the cards. I shrugged my shoulders and resolved to keep our place in the ever-growing line. We were shuffled into another line, which subsequently stopped moving. Some guy in a wheel chair was taking forever and we couldn't get anyone through in the mean time. That, plus a loud know-it-all behind us in line made for a very irritating wait in the queue. Finally the line began filtering through another agent and we were able to move quicker.

When we got to the gentleman in the booth, we handed over our passports and apologized for not having our landing cards. He said it wasn't a big deal and waved us on after a quick stamp in the passport.

With that over with, we collected our bags (none missing thankfully!) and headed to car hire. On the way, a guy called over to us. Warry of being sold something or played for fools, we attempted to keep walking. But the guy was persistent and we were nice. So we ended up chatting with this young guy who worked for the Red Cross. He literally just wanted to talk to Americans. He was hilarious and extremely charismatic. After a great introduction to how awesome Irish people can be, we finally hit the car hire line.

And it was LONG. We waited for about 15 minutes, the queue growing steadily behind us. Finally we got to speak to a person and they helped us out. Up to this point, literally everyone we had met from the flight attendants to Mr. Red Cross to the car hire worker were all so NICE. We decided not to fork over an extra 50 euros per day in order to allow me to drive (10 for the extra driver, 40 for insurance on an under-24-yr-old) and headed to get the car. The shuttle driver gave us a recommendation on where to look for a SIM for my iPhone and gave some vague directions.

Once we had the car, we attempted to follow his directions, but mapless in a new country, driving a manual on the LEFT side of the road, did not a good combination make! My stomach was in knots as my mom navigated roundabouts and got (to my eyes) dangerously close to the left shoulder (or wall in some cases). We were driving aimlessly for 15 minutes until I spied a convenience store and directed her to pull off.

I popped inside to ask if they could give me some advice on where to get a SIM and directions to get there. Three workers collaborated to decided where to send me and the best directions. A fourth contributed by phoning the other store to make sure they had the nano SIM for my iPhone. After about 15 minutes I left with handwritten directions to a Tesco Mobile store. Finally we had some direction (literally and figuratively) and made our way there.

When we arrived, once again the man working was incredibly nice and helpful. For 15 euros, I got 5GB of data and unlimited calls within Ireland and credit towards texts and international calling. It made me so happy on so many levels: finally we had access to MAPS; it was a great deal; I had the ability to communicate with the outside world! At the same time, I reflected on how terrible the American wireless services are. We have so few options, especially for those of us who own our phones (rather than have them subsidized by our carriers). 15 euros, about $24, for a month of unlimited calling and 5GB of data. That would easily be $80 in America!

Anyway, after happily being able to check Facebook and confirm our route to the hotel, we stocked up on snacks and cider and headed off to our first real destination: Dunboyne Castle Hotel!

Before we could head to our hotel, though, we had to back out of our parking spot. Somehow, the car hire man forgot to tell us how to put the car in reverse. The gear stick had a "map" of where R was, but it was proving impossible to find in practice. So, my mom kept the car in Neutral and I jumped out to physically push the car backwards. I have no idea why I thought this was a good idea, or that I would be capable of doing such a thing. As it turns out, I can't push a car by myself against the wind when it's parked still. Thankfully, however, from my vantage point I could tell that the car would fit through the pillars dividing the parking spots and we were able to pull forward to leave instead.

Finally, we were on our way! The insane tension in my stomach subsided with the ability to give my mom clear and correct directions via Google Maps, and even though she was still struggling a bit with the lefthand side driving, I felt myself finally relaxing a bit.

We arrived to the hotel about 11:45am and were pleasantly surprised that they allowed us to check in. We got to the room and just about collapsed on the bed. With only an hour or so of sleep, our bodies feeling every minute of 6am, we lapsed into a much-needed NAP!

Four and a half hours later, we awoke much refreshed but starving. We showered (another much needed activity) then headed out to find some food. Via Yelp, I found a chipper (fish and chips place) nearby and we headed off. (I called the car hire place and finally figured out how to go into reverse!) We found some places to park near the pubs, but there was one problem: parallel parking. My mom is actually great at this, but when doing so on the left when you can barely drive on the left, it was pretty amusing. After one failed attempt and a trip around the block to get back into position, I jumped out and helped her by directing her into the spot. I won't say how many "points" it was, but I can say my mom successfully parallel parked on the left in Ireland!

We got out and headed in search of food. The chipper didn't have any seating, and smelled weird, so we ventured on. We hunted a bit, then we found a place with a take away special - 12" pizza and soda for 6 euros. Compared to all the other places, that was dirt cheap. We ordered and then took our pizza back to the hotel. While watching The Voice: Ireland, we finished every single crumb of that pizza. (For the record, Ireland doesn't seem to have a huge pool of talent when it comes to singing...)

By then we decided that, while relaxing, we weren't in Ireland to sit in our hotel room! So we ventured down to the bar. We each had one drink, and walked away 20 euros poorer. I don't think we will be doing that again! I'll stick to the cans of cider from Tesco, thank you very much!

After a quick chat with Romeo via Skype, my mom and I planned out the next day. Then she  convinced me to take the time to write a blog. So, here we are. :) Photos will come when we get back to America!


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