The Ring of Kerry, May 2018

Sneem in County Kerry was our next destination. We knew nothing about it except that there was a cottage there with overwhelmingly positive reviews. Three hours after leaving the Rock of Cashel, we were keen to see if our accommodation lived up to expectations. The ten minute drive from Sneem itself had postcard-worthy views – stone bridges, rugged hills, newborn lambs and rushing streams. The road (lane really) got narrower and narrower and with the owner’s detailed directions, we arrived at The Valley of the Hare.

Scenery along the lane to our cottage

Valley of the Hare

True to its name, the hares appeared!

It turned out to be the perfect place for us, a haven in the hills. It was cleverly created by combining two ancient stone farm buildings and a more recent house. Its plain facade gave no hint of the luxury inside. The hosts had thought of everything: underfloor heating, high quality linen, five star hotel type bathrooms, beautiful toiletries, a fantastic kitchen and delicious provisions for the first few breakfasts. Highly recommended! http://www.kerry-cottages.com/ourcottage.asp

The surrounds were beautiful with only lambs to keep us company. We spent time walking in the hills behind, enjoying the absolute silence.

Sneem turned out to be a very pleasant village set around two village greens. We read that it was busy each afternoon as the One Day Ring of Kerry tour buses passed through, but we avoided that time and found a colourful quirky place. There were a few sculptures, including ‘Crusher’ Casey, a local who was a world champion wrestler, a panda donated by the Chinese government and a statue commemorating the visit of Charles de Gaulle. There was stone bridge over a waterfall, a river walk to a small pier and several pubs. We enjoyed D O’Shea’s, the pink one, recommended by our hosts.

Instead of racing around the Ring of Kerry in a day, we took our time exploring different sections over our five day stay. After a few days on the move, we all enjoyed staying in one place and not packing and unpacking. Some people had commented that this area was very touristy, but, as we have found elsewhere in the world, places are popular for a reason – in this case the gorgeous scenery. We hoped that by getting off the main Ring, we would find peace and quiet and our plan worked. It also helped that we travelled in May – it could be a different story on those narrow roads in July and August.

One day we set off towards Waterville, clockwise against the general recommendations. We stopped to have a quick look at the rocky beach and Charlie Chaplin statue, but after that saw very few buses as we turned off onto the Skellig Ring, where big buses can’t go. We definitely recommend this route. We hardly saw a soul at Ballinskelligs. The 12th century ruins of the abbey were surrounded by more modern graves. Looked a nice place to end up!

Waterville Beach

The road to Portmagee was on one of our maps, but not the other. It did exist and was spectacular with great views of the Skellig rocks. Having heard of the Skellig Chocolate Factory, we had to stop at this unexpected manufacturer in the middle of nowhere. It was lunch time and we were hoping for some sustenance as well, but alas they only served sweet treats. We did a bit of sampling and can vouch for the quality and variety of their offerings.

On the road to Portmagee

With our newly bought confectionary gifts (couldn’t resist!), we continued to charming Portmagee and found the newly opened Skellig Rock Café, recommended by one of the chocolatiers. We had soup and sandwiches in the open air, before crossing the bridge to Valentia Island.

Portmagee

The bridge was only built in 1971. While we were reading about the ferry boat that until then was the only way across from Portmagee to Valentia island, a woman started chatting to us telling us about her cousin who built the boat. She had often travelled in the boat. Conversations like this enriched our Irish travel many times.

Valentia Island was wonderful. We first went to Bray Head, then the spectacular Geokaun Mountain, described as the only mountain top in Ireland accessible by car. It was €5 per car admission and we judged as well worth it for the four of us. Standing on the top of the highest point of the island, we had 360 degree views that were amazing, if a bit blustery! There were interesting plaques describing the views, the slate mine and the first cable across the Atlantic which went from here in 1858. Amazingly they met their Canadian colleagues halfway across and spliced the cables together. We enjoyed the walking paths but not the picnic tables which would have been perfect for a non-windy day.

Calling a place “Kerry’s Best Cliffs” was a clever drawcard, so after a hot chocolate at the fairly unexciting ‘Skellig Experience’ visitors’ centre, we headed back to these rugged cliffs. We couldn’t disagree with the name – they were high and wild (and very windy). We spent another hour admiring Mother Nature’s work before returning to Sneem.

Another day, we saw places closer to ‘home’, starting with Staigue Fort. Depending on where you read about its origins, it is from either 1500 BC or 300 AD, but either way it’s ancient. We loved this well preserved and not too busy stone fortress with intact circular dry stone walls. Climbing the walls and getting a sea view made me ponder who had been there before us. €1 donation to enter, with a simple honesty box.

Not too far away was Derrynane House, former home of Daniel O’Connell. Interestingly, he was ‘given’ to his uncle who did not have an heir, a common practice in those days. We toured the house (included in the Heritage card) after watching a video about him. He is mainly remembered for gaining rights for Catholics, but was also interested in equal rights for all and religious tolerance. The house was lovely as were the gardens and adjoining sandy beach. Unfortunately we had reserved elsewhere for dinner and did not have time to go to much recommended Blind Piper pub nearby.

Derrynane House

Killarney was another destination. From Sneem, the inland road was very quiet. The scenery was stunning yet again. We stopped briefly at Lough Barfinnity where a few people were fishing for trout.

We rejoined the Ring of Kerry at Moll’s Gap which was busier, though thankfully it was too early to meet the ROK buses going the other way round. We admired Ladies’ View though did not quite think it was the best view ever as Queen Victoria’s Ladies in Waiting had proclaimed, hence the name.

Ladies’ View

Muckross House was our destination. Friendly and knowledgeable guide Eileen took us around the house (included with our Heritage card – we really got our money’s worth). It was a stately home similar to others we had visited over the years in the UK, but what made it interesting were all the details about the owners and Queen Victoria’s visit. With six years notice, various alterations were made to accommodate her visit. We were amused to hear that she only stayed two nights! The house was bought by wealthy Californians in 1911 and given to their daughter as a wedding present, before being given to the Irish state in the 1930s.

Muckross House

Walking around Muckross Lake was listed on our brochure as a two hour walk so we set off enthusiastically, not realising that it was 10 km and was going to take us a little longer. A stop at Dinis Cottage for scones and tea was the perfect break about halfway round.

While staying in the cottage we ate several meals in, given that we had a fabulous kitchen and great views. One night we ate at The Boathouse at Drumquinna Manor, near Kenmare, recommended by Irish friends. An excellent meal in sublime surroundings. An artisan platter to share, fish pie full of delicious seafood and a bottle of French wine while looking out over the water in the long daylight was perfect.

The Boathouse restaurant

Reluctantly leaving Sneem after 5 nights and heading back towards Dublin, we stopped at Ross Castle (yes, the Heritage card again). It’s a 15th century tower house on the lake near Killarney. We just made the 11 a.m. tour and had an interesting time, including hearing descriptions of all sorts of deterrents to intruders – like holes to pour boiling oil down, murder holes and staircases making it difficult for anyone going up with a weapon. There are boat trips from here to a nearby island but we had no time as we wanted to get to Dublin at a reasonable hour.

A short stop in Adare confirmed that while some call it ‘Ireland’s Prettiest Village’ it has been well and truly discovered, dare I say overrun, by tourists and tour buses. We were lucky enough to get a parking spot, so had a 30 minute stroll past the thatched cottages and were on our way.

Thatched cottages in Adare

Having said “Never again!” after an experience years ago when we were racing to catch a plane after a three hour drive, we were spending our last night back in Dublin, before our lunch time flight the next day. The M7 freeway had a 120 km speed limit so we made good time and returned the car at the airport with a minimum of fuss.

Having spent a week in Dublin itself, we didn’t mind being a bit out of the centre, somewhere towards the airport and Clontarf Castle seemed a perfect choice. Though not much remains of the original castle, the hotel plays up the castle element with castle type furniture and armour. Coming from a young country, staying in a ‘castle’ was a fun experience for us. We celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary in the restaurant, mutually toasting a newly engaged couple at the next table.

The long Emirates flight home was comfortable and we were settling back into our normal lives when I was struck down unexpectedly with a serious illness. Two months later (and almost back to normal) I am very thankful that we had a great trip to Ireland, blissfully unaware of what was to come.

Wicklow, Kilkenny and the Rock of Cashel, May 2018

Hiring a car at Dublin airport when we were heading south seemed illogical but it was the only option available on a Sunday. After queuing up for a while, the woman at the counter tried to get us to upgrade at nearly the cost of our total rental. We politely declined and she ended up giving us the upgraded car anyway at no charge. It was the same category – we were adamant that we didn’t want a bigger car – but a bit fancier and (we found out later) a GPS included. We headed south, past Dublin, then got a bit lost before discovering the GPS as I was trying to find a decent radio station. Finally found the road to Sally Gap, passing green rolling hills en route.

Sally Gap was quite bare and brown – it was interesting how quickly the landscape changed. There were lakes nearby, including Lough Tay or the Guinness Lake, so called because of its colour and white beach on top.

We were headed for Glendalough. Alas, so too was half the population of Dublin. Not surprising given that it was a Bank Holiday weekend and it was a sunny 23 degrees, but it meant that we were soon in a big rural traffic jam. A badly parked car meant that a bus could not get past, so we were all at a standstill. Luckily the resourceful gardai managed to lift the car to applause from the crowd and we were on our way. After a quick lunch in Roundwood, we again encountered traffic problems in Glendalough itself. The car parks were all full and we were on the verge of giving up, having already turned around, when suddenly a car park opened and in we went. We were directed by a somewhat fraught man and finally got out of the car. So glad we persevered as it was glorious. Glendalough means the Glen of Two Lakes and as well as being a beautiful glacial valley, it was the site of a monastic settlement founded by St Kevin in the 6th century.

We walked to the Upper Lake, along with many others. An easy walk amongst beautiful trees with great views along the way.

It was great to see so many people enjoying the sunshine (just wish they had come in fewer vehicles!)

We spent the night at Stirabout Lane B&B in nearby Rathdrum. Not only was this a charming place, with fantastic breakfasts, it also had a beautiful garden with outdoor furniture. A perfect spot for our pre-dinner bottle of wine and the friendly owners Daphne and Pat even provided wine glasses. We ate at the local pub and had a fun night with a very cheery waitress.

Years ago, we had enjoyed the TV program Ballykissangel so I was excited to find that it was filmed in Avoca, very close to Rathdrum. Of course we had to check out Assumpta Fitzgerald’s pub and the delightful town.

We had seen beautiful Avoca shops in Dublin and at Malahide castle, not realising that the original mill was here in Avoca. We had a look around this historic place. We watched a video about the mill, its processes and the family who bought it. We loved some of the sweaters and scarves in the shop but ended up only buying some Avoca socks as a little memento.

We had thought of going to the Powerscourt Estate, but Daphne at our B & B suggested the Mount Usher Gardens as a spectacular but less formal alternative. It was an excellent suggestion. Designed in the 1880s in the style of William Robinson’s ‘wild garden’, Mount Usher has over 5000 trees and plants. It was stunning – as was the weather on the day of our visit. With long grassy areas, winding paths, a central river and abundant azaleas and rhododendrons, it actually felt bigger than its 22 acres. It has been voted Ireland’s best garden several times and we could see why. We loved the tree guide too – identifying and describing feature trees as we wandered. The gardens are now owned by the same family who own the Avoca Woollen Mill, so there was an excellent Avoca café there for lunch.

We picked the perfect time of year for our visit!

Our next destination was Kilkenny but we had read of Graiguenamanagh and Inistioge so made a detour to see these two small scenic towns en route.

Graiguenamanagh had a spectacular bridge across the Barrow river, once blown up in the 1700s to stop British troops crossing. This lovely village also had canal boats, a castle and an abbey founded in 1204 – it was a pity we only stopped for a short time.

Inistioge (pronounced In-ish-teeg) was another gorgeous village on the same river, with a similarly impressive bridge and attractive village green. We enjoyed seeing hurling training just in front of the car park.

Our next B & B was Mena House in Kilkenny. Again we had very comfortable rooms and an excellent gourmet breakfast. We stayed two nights which gave us a full day for looking around the medieval city of Kilkenny. Our host Katherine gave us great advice and maps. It was an easy walk along the river into the centre of town. We enjoyed leaving the car and having no concerns about parking. Our first stop was the castle, again included in our Heritage Card. It was built in the 12th century but restored in the 1800s and finally given (sold for €50) to the state. Unfortunately all of the furniture was sold, but they are trying to match it from old photos. We especially liked the Moroccan style staircase and the Portrait Gallery.

Opposite the castle was the Kilkenny Design Centre, in the former stables and behind this was an elegant Dower House (Butler House) with formal gardens, a restaurant and accommodation.

We wandered along the Mediaeval Mile, seeing St Mary’s Cathedral and the Black Abbey, before going into the Rothe House. This was actually three houses built by merchant John Rothe, beginning in 1594. He had 12 children so they had to expand. The Kilkenny Archeological Society has restored the house and it gave a great insight into the lives of a wealthy family of that time. We especially liked the oak truss roof, make with no nails. The other surprise was a spectacular orchard and garden, reconstructed in only 2008 but flourishing.

Oak Truss Ceiling in Rothe House

In the 13th century St Canice’s Cathedral, we were provided with a walking tour though we seemed to miss a couple of the numbers. The highlight for us though was climbing the round tower, one of only two in Ireland that can be climbed. There were seven ladders, (yes, ladders, not staircases) and I was having second thoughts halfway up. Glad we persevered as the views were great.

I can’t believe I climbed seven ladders to get to the top of this round tower!

View from the top

In Kilkenny we ate at the Glendine Inn the first night, which was the usual pub food and very convenient to our B & B. We had a giggle when our very earnest young server explained the difference between buying wine by the glass or bottle “It comes in a bottle, then I can pour some into a glass and that’s a glass.” We were actually asking about the quality. On our second night, on Katherine’s recommendation, we went to Matt the Miller’s to listen to some beautiful and haunting Irish music, before eating very well at Langton’s, a smart restaurant in a nice boutique hotel.

After glorious weather, we had a rare rainy morning when we visited the Rock of Cashel. Somehow this only added to the atmosphere of this ancient place. It’s an amazing structure perched on a rocky outcrop with views all around (even in the rain!) It was a former seat of the kings of Ireland and was then given to the church in the 1100s. The guided tour was informative though unfortunately Cormac’s Chapel was closed for a long renovation.

Down in the village below the Rock, we ate a delicious and hearty lunch at Café Hans, the simpler version of the highly recommended restaurant Chez Hans. Then we were off to the west of Ireland and the beautiful Ring of Kerry.

Dublin, May 2018

Breaking the long journey to Dublin from Australia and getting some Grandma time made a few days in Hong Kong the perfect stopover. After multiple stopovers there, I’m now a Registered Frequent Visitor (free for any Australian passport holders, but you fill in a form initially) meaning that I just scan my passport and fingerprints and I’m on my way to my almost second home. This works in reverse too, so after three days of sightseeing (the Science Museum, 1887 Heritage Building, Star Ferry and the local area) and fun grandparenting time, I was back at the airport, scanning and zipping through immigration and heading for the Cathay Pacific lounge (mmm, delicious dumplings!)

Cathay had just announced direct flights to Dublin, but only from June, so I was a month too early. Instead, I cobbled together a flight to London with points, then a night at Heathrow and a BA flight timed to arrive in Dublin at the same time as Mr Frequent Flyer’s flight from Australia. All was going well, including a night at the comfortable new Premier Inn Terminal 4 Heathrow for a very reasonable £45. Then the one short flight of my trip, London to Dublin, was delayed and delayed. It would sneak up – every time I looked at the board, they seemed to have added 15 minutes. When I finally arrived in Ireland, I had a message from Mr FF that he had already gone to the Airbnb to meet the contact person. We had decided that whoever was there first would do this – it seemed an amazing coincidence that both our flights were due to arrive at 12.05 and we knew it was not likely to happen in reality. So I caught a taxi and we met up at the apartment, close to the Conference Centre that would keep him busy for the next week.

First impressions were great. The sun was out and we walked along the river Liffey seeing the famine statues along the way. We noticed that all signs were in the Irish language as well as English – this had not been the case on my previous short stay in Ireland way back in 1980. We found a great M & S food place nearby and bought some delicious pasta for dinner, toasting our arrival with some French wine. Two days later our travelling companions arrived, my brother and sister-in-law. Over the next week, the three of us saw the main sights of Dublin while Mr FF was occupied at the conference. We can assure anyone that you won’t run out of things to do in a week in Dublin!

Haunting Famine Statues

We had surprisingly sunny weather all week and ate outside several times, something we had not expected given Ireland’s rainy reputation. We had a chuckle when headlines suggested that temperatures would ‘soar’ to a ‘sizzling’ 21 degrees one weekend, but thoroughly enjoyed the balmy (if not sizzling) days.

We each bought a Heritage Ireland card for €30 (over 60) which was well worth it (Dublin was followed by some time in Wicklow, Kilkenny and the Ring of Kerry). After our first few days of walking everywhere, we each bought a 3 day Visitor Leap card for going further afield (Kilmainham Gaol, Howth, Malahide and Farmleigh).

With its stone buildings and long history, it was not surprising that Trinity College had the feel of Oxford or Cambridge. A definite bonus was that (as in most of the places we visited in Ireland), we were there at the right time for blossom and flowers, something we often seem to miss in our travels! We were all awake early with time changes so went straight to the Book of Kells one morning. A short wait in the queue and we were inside enjoying a great display before the actual book. It was hard to get our heads around the fact that it was produced in the 9th century. It was dazzling and we all felt that we got a good look and were not rushed, without the crowds we had read about. We were not in the peak tourist season though – if you are, it is probably worth booking ahead.

The Old Library with its domed roof and 200000 old books was included in the ticket. The roof was originally flat but was raised in 1860 to house more books. After a wander around the gardens, lunch was in The Buttery, very much the student ‘caf’ with the requisite big helpings and bustling atmosphere.

The nearby Archeology Museum held many treasures, including a wonderful exhibition called Ór – Ireland’s Gold, described as ‘One of Europe’s most important prehistoric gold collections’. I must admit I was completely unaware of the existence of Irish gold which somehow made it even more exciting. The bracelets and necklaces from 800-700 BC were stunning. There were torcs (ribbon spirals) that have only ever been found in Ireland and Scotland. I loved it all.

There were also Viking displays and bodies preserved in bogs and all sorts of other interesting exhibits. I only had time for a quick look but was impressed with both the displays and the building itself.

We walked along O’Connell Street in our travels, seeing James Joyce, the Post Office, the Spire and of course Dan O’Connell’s statue. We would learn more about him when we visited his house a week later in Kerry. Grafton Street and its environs had classier shopping and the Molly Malone statue nearby. As we approached, a group was singing ‘In Dublin’s fair city……’ which we all remembered from our childhood. We loved the nicknames supposedly used for these landmarks – The Stiletto in the Ghetto for the Spire, The Prick with the Stick (Joyce statue) and The Tart with the Cart for Molly Malone.

Naturally we wandered through the Temple Bar area though unlike many tourists we focused on the flowers everywhere.

We enjoyed crossing the Ha’penny Bridge without paying a ha’penny but I was sad to see the ubiquitous padlocks on it. I have signed petitions against these in Paris after bridges were seriously damaged. How anyone thinks that this vandalism is romantic beats me. People, buy your significant other a nice dinner and/or tell them you love them, but leave historic bridges alone. Rant over!

EPIC is the Emigration Museum, housed in a stunning old cellar along the river Liffey. Interesting for us as we have Immigration Museums in Australia. All the reasons for emigration were covered: famine, conflict, employment, prisoners, adventure etc. Lots of audio visual displays and personal stories – it was very well done, with plenty to interest children as well as adults.

Dublin Castle was described in one of our guidebooks as a bit disappointing if expecting a ‘real’ castle, but we found it anything but. It is more of a palace than an ancient castle, though one tower still remains. There were elegant state apartments, rooms used for dinners for visiting dignitaries and a large room used for the inaugurations of the Presidents of Ireland, amongst others. The Terrace Café was perfect for lunch in the sunshine, with delicious wraps, quiches and salads. The ‘Coming Home’ art exhibition about the famine in the grounds of the castle was something I came back to, later in the week.

St Patrick’s Hall, where Ireland’s Presidents are inaugurated.

Kilmainham Gaol was the one place we booked ahead. We were able to do this as Heritage card holders (so no charge) even though we had not actually purchased the card when we booked. We bought it on the day of our visit, at Dublin Castle, then just showed it and all was fine. We caught bus 79 from Aston Quay and some helpful passengers told us when to get off. The Gaol was much more than just a tour, it was a lesson in Irish history. Our guide Adam was passionate and animated in bringing the Easter Rising and famous figures like Pearse, Connelly, Collins and De Valera to life. After the tour, there were excellent displays to peruse.

IMMA (the Irish Museum of Modern Art) was walking distance from Kilmainham Gaol so off we went. We were surprised by the French chateau style building. It’s a former hospital/home for old soldiers, modelled on Les Invalides in Paris and described on their own website as ‘the finest 17th century building in Ireland’. After exploring the varied modern art (is an installation of shopping dockets really art ??) and having a cup of tea in the lovely café, we discovered the section about the history and heritage of the building. Unfortunately it was closing 5 minutes later, so it was a very quick look. The French style formal gardens were gorgeous and were planted comparatively recently after falling into disrepair.

St Stephen’s Green was bathed in sunshine the day we visited. We ate our delicious M & S sandwiches surrounded by tulips and enjoyed our good fortune before doing a circuit, looking at the various statues and monuments.

We also enjoyed the Georgian houses and gardens (lots more beautiful tulips) of Merrion Square. Loved the statue of Oscar Wilde, unusual for its colours and very realistic shoes! Lots of his famous quotes were displayed nearby. A couple of my favourites were ‘I can resist everything except temptation’ and ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’

Farmleigh, the Irish State Guest House, was fascinating but our excursion did not start well. I had looked up the directions and figured out that we should catch the number 37 bus to Castleknock Gate which we did. Then with great enthusiasm we saw a path right at the bus stop and thought that was where we should go – sounded right for ‘Enter Phoenix Park and take the narrow pedestrian path through the field…’ but alas we ended up in a very swish housing area and were heading away from Phoenix Park. A friendly real estate agent put us on the right track and we eventually arrived at this beautiful place. Handy hint: get off the bus and turn around to face the way the bus came. You will see Castleknock Gate ahead of you. Go through and turn right along a grassy footpath.

Lunch was in order after all our wandering and the Boathouse café on the lake was a perfect venue.

Then to the house itself, included in our Heritage ticket by the way. Formerly owned by The Guinness family, it now provides accommodation for visiting heads of state and other dignitaries. We were given a small group tour by the lovely Sarah who explained that the house was bought by the government for €20 million and then a further €26 million was spent on renovations. The tour had just the right balance of information and anecdotes. We didn’t feel overwhelmed or bombarded with facts, but felt we got some insight into its past. The Guinness family used it as a country retreat, for only a few weeks each year. Apart from beautiful rooms and interesting art works, there was an amazing conservatory and walled and sunken gardens. More information on their website: http://farmleigh.ie/the-house

Wonderful gardens surrounding Farmleigh

Huge Phoenix Park

Our other mistake for the day was presuming that Dublin’s efficient bus service would have stops in the huge Phoenix Park. Blissfully unaware of the long walk ahead of us, we set off along the main road through the park seeing deer on the way. We walked and walked, passing the Irish President’s House and the American Ambassador’s Residence, until we finally arrived at the other end. I ended up doing 24000 steps that day and that didn’t include the steps when we hit the dance floor at the conference dinner!

More walking was on the agenda with our day trip to Howth. Very easy to get to from Hueston station on the DART and included in the Leap card. As we got close to Howth (rhymes with both), I was surprised to see the sea on the left when I’d expected it on the right, but of course it’s a promontory and it was on both sides. We had a beautiful sunny day and even the station was attractive.

The town itself was picturesque but the cliff walk was our main aim, so after getting a map from the tourist office, off we went. We did the Lower Cliff Loop which was around 6 km and were rewarded with spectacular views.

We included Malahide in the same day trip, so after managing to eat our lunch of fish and chips without the help of the ever present and huge gulls, we were back on the train to Howth Junction. Then on Irish Rail to Malahide and a short walk (then long driveway) to Malahide Castle. This gorgeous castle, surrounded by 268 acres of gardens and parklands was home to the Talbot family for around 800 years.

The vast gardens had tulip, rose gardens and traditional European plants but the big surprise for us was the large Australian section of the gardens, complete with a rather corny carved kangaroo. Apparently Lord Milo Talbot had a particular interest in Southern Hemisphere plants, particularly those from Australia and Chile. The others took a tour of the castle which they loved, but I had to get back to meet Mr FF and some of his colleagues for dinner.

We went to the Barracks site of the National Museum towards the end of our stay. In hindsight, it may have been better to go there first. The Easter Rising exhibit entitled ‘Proclaiming A Republic’ (in the adjoining Riding School, in case you can’t find it) helped us understand the significance of other places we had visited (Post Office, St Stephen’s Green, Shelbourne Hotel). We saw the original Irish Republic flag and read about all the important people. We were fascinated by Countess Markievicz – definitely a feisty woman ahead of her time.

There were also displays about fashion, furniture and Irish silver, in a huge former barracks building. There was a reunion of Irish members of the French Foreign Legion in the courtyard the day we were there so the military origins of the building were emphasised as they paraded with Irish and French flags. And again there was a a great museum café for lunch.

Restaurants

When not enjoying the bounty of M & S meals at ‘home’ or conference events, we enjoyed some of Dublin’s restaurants.

Ely Bar and Grill CHQ was in the same building as the Emigration Museum, with the same atmospheric vaulted brick ceilings – it was originally a wine warehouse in 1821. The bar upstairs was bustling but we booked at the downstairs restaurant. Thoroughly enjoyed our meal of soused mackerel with a selection of breads (including Guinness Treacle bread) for a shared starter, then rack of lamb and steak bearnaise for mains. A bottle of Spanish wine and some friendly service made it a great night.

Peploe’s was chosen by our Irish hosts and we had a wonderful meal. It’s an Italian restaurant opposite St Stephen’s Green. I had a delicious main of Irish lamb, but all the meals looked great and service was excellent. Plenty of wine flowing and it was a fun night, topped off with a nightcap at the elegant Shelbourne Hotel nearby.

Despite being a hotel restaurant, not something we would usually choose, we enjoyed a group meal at Stir. The set menu had lots of choices and they seemed flexible, allowing us to select from the early dinner menu even though we were well past that time. I enjoyed my Wicklow lamb and everyone around me seemed to enjoy their choices.

A busy week in Dublin still left us with many things unseen. This though gives us a perfect excuse to return.

For now, it was time to get out of the city. We were off to Wicklow and Kilkenny on our way to County Kerry.

Mauritius October 2017

Despite a bit of a convoluted journey including a night in Perth on the way across from Australia’s east coast, then a 4 hour delay due to an Air Mauritius pilots’ strike, we made it.  Even in the dark as a driver took us to our Flic en Flac apartment, we could see some of the big rock formations that dot the landscape of Mauritius. Next morning Mr Frequent Flyer had an early start for work commitments but I had a walk along the beach over the road and found this:

Unfortunately this beautiful weather did not last – the first two days were the best of our nine day stay. After that, we had overcast and windy weather most days, particularly in the afternoons. I had four days on my own while Mr FF worked and still enjoyed exploring the area and its blend of India, France and Africa. I loved the quirky beach shacks selling delicious local food. I walked miles each day along the beach, read my books and admired the tropical flora. I liked speaking some French, though it was definitely different. I took the local bus to the Cascavelle shopping centre one day for 24 rupees (only about $A1). The bus was a bit rickety and was ‘air conditioned’ by having the windows opened, but was fine – I enjoyed being with the locals. The buses had names like King of the Road, Road Warrior or Perle du Jour.

The driver who had taken Mr FF to and from his workplace for the first four days was made available to us on the fifth. Good timing as I felt I had seen most of Flic en Flac. With his help, we planned a day of sightseeing in the north. Our first stop was the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanic Gardens at the charmingly titled town of Pamplemousses (grapefruits). The gardens were begun in the 1700s and had some fantastic lily ponds and pads and a great variety of palms.

The Mon Plaisir chateau in the grounds was reminiscent of the planters’ houses in the Deep South of the USA – not surprising really with the French having colonised both places.

L’Aventure du Sucre was a Museum describing the history and importance of sugar in Mauritius. Very interesting but at times a bit too detailed for me. It was amazing though to read about the immigration and slaves – it really was a history of Mauritius not just sugar. We tasted different rum, jams and sugars at the end.

The simple little church at Cap Malheureux was our next stop. (It’s so named because boats ran aground on the reefs here – the name means Cape Unfortunate). It was a picturesque spot right at the north of the island. Some of the islands nearby were used to quarantine immigrants with infectious diseases way back.

Our driver’s suggestion of Pereybere beach rather than Grand Baie for our beach stop was perfect and we spent an hour or so enjoying this little cove.

Another day, we hired a little car and went to the south of the island. We definitely recommend doing this. The driving was not difficult, being on the same side of the road as we are used to. The flexibility and the chance to get out to some small villages and rugged scenery made it a great day out. The Slaves’ Memorial was our first stop. Lots of sculptures from various worldwide sculptors depicting slavery. The mountain of Le Morne was an appropriate backdrop. It was here that some slaves, unaware that they were finally free, jumped to their death after seeing police approaching.

Le Morne was a great walk despite its sad history. We had to sign our names in a little book then sign out again on our return. We did not not go right to the top – apparently you need to be with a guide for that – but even from halfway up, we got great views. Not as spectacular as some we saw on postcards because of the cloud, but we got the idea.

We continued around the south coast through undeveloped small villages. We stopped at a big rock with steps up, then at Riambel beach for some noodles in the rain.

After some lunch, we turned inland on the A9 and the road climbed. We had not planned on visiting the Bois Cheri tea plantation but it was afternoon tea time so why not? We enjoyed the tea tasting – a bargain at 100 rupees for as many as you would like to try. Initially we parked at the front and started to walk in, but realised we could drive in further and park near the lake.

The Grand Bassin had a huge Hindu temple complex complete with a sacred lake, statues of Shiva and a massive but empty car park. On searching for more information I found out that half a million people come for the major festival each year. We continued to Alexandra Falls and the Black River National Park. No hiking though, as it was getting late and we were not keen on night driving.

Because we had to check out in the morning and were leaving at night, we spent our last day in Port Louis. After leaving our bags with the security man, we caught the local bus from Flic en Flac. It was an old bus but it was fine and very cheap. We enjoyed seeing the different areas on the hour long journey. The (‘Immigration’) bus station was conveniently opposite the Aapravasi Ghat. Once slavery was abolished, this was where the indentured labourers (really not so different from the slaves who preceded them) arrived. It’s now a World Heritage Museum site and is free to get in. Very interesting with lots of personal anecdotes, photos and some interactive activities to bring the history to life for younger people. The labourers mostly came from the Indian subcontinent and very few went back, although they were technically allowed to at the end of their contracts. Thus Mauritius gained its Indian influence that remains to this day.

There were symbolic footprints and steps where the labourers stepped onto Mauritius and some buildings remained from that time.

The nearby Central Market was definitely a real market. While there was some tourist tat, it was predominantly fresh food for the locals.

Le Caudan waterfront had a surprising number of eating places. It’s a shopping area combining some older buildings with more modern ones, reasonably successfully. After a delicious thali and a coconut pancake, we continued on our walking tour.

Government House, built in 1738, is the oldest building in Mauritius so we had a quick look. It is a colonial building surrounded by other old buildings, right in the centre of Port Louis. Not open to the public as it is still in use for the parliament.

The shade of the big banyan trees in the nearby Company Gardens gave us a tranquil break. Sadly the nearby yellow Natural History Museum (complete with Dodo skeleton!) was closed for renovation.

We found the return bus easily and were glad to have a seat for the journey back to Flic en Flac. Then off to the airport, back to Perth and finally home the next day.

Travel for 2016 was over but a few things are planned for 2018.

Flic en Flac Restaurants:

We had good fish (sea bream) at Bougainville both grilled and in a curry. With complimentary chili bites and a carafe of pleasant local wine, this was a great introduction to Mauritian food. We ended up going back a second time on our last night.

Zub Express was a cheap and cheerful place. We had samosas, butter chicken, fish curry, naan and saffron rice and could not finish it all. It was our cheapest meal out, partly because they serve no alcohol.

La Marmite Mauricienne was okay, but I was not crazy about the spices in the Fish Vindaye – they tasted like pure mustard to me, but maybe that’s how it should be. They also asked if we would like noodles or rice with our meal and we presumed this was included, but were charged extra for another main course. Not a big deal, but annoying.

We really enjoyed Rib and Reef especially the fish skewers. It was a bit smarter than some of the other places, though the service was a bit slower.

Casa Pepe was reasonable – not the best, nor the worst pizza we’d had.

We ate in a few times, getting food both from the Spar in F en F and Monoprix in the Cascavelle shopping centre. Monoprix was the better of the two but both had the French influence with delicious baguettes and pastries.

p.s. Only two places to eat in the airport, both fast food. We opted for Subway as the slightly healthier of the two. Eat before you get there if you can!

A Wee Stay in the Highlands, September 2017

Before we even collected our hire car at Edinburgh Airport, I knew what our first stop would be – The Kelpies.  Zooming past these on my ‘Hairy Coo’ tour a few days earlier had me wanting to see and know more.  So after collecting our little Peugeot, off we went.  These huge statues are a tribute to the role of horses in industry, pulling canal boats and wagons.  (The name Kelpie comes from mythological creatures that were super strong.)  The statues are 30 metres high and are set in Helix Park next to a canal.  We loved them and spent time wandering around and seeing them from all angles. 

En route to Stirling, we saw a sign for Bannockburn and wanted to have a quick look at the battlefield.  We were tossing up whether to go to the whizz bang audio visual visitors’ centre but then realised there was no need – we could just walk out to see the battle site and statue of Robert the Bruce.  Stirling Castle was our next stop and we joined a free guided tour after paying to go in.  Went to the amazing Great Hall (converted to army barracks during WW2), the chapel, kitchens, palace and gardens.  We were surprised to see an exhibit about the Terracotta Warriors in China. We saw them on our trip to China in June so enjoyed another look at this small example.  Lunch was from the excellent on site Unicorn cafe and the weather was mild enough to sit outside.

A surprising exhibition in Stirling Castle!

 The Wallace Monument was next.  We had stopped there on my tour from Edinburgh but I hadn’t climbed it, knowing that Mr Frequent Flyer would like to.  I was right and we had a much better day for the views from the top.  Displays about William Wallace described his life and his death (in gory detail!)   

Well deserved afternoon tea after an uphill walk and 246 steps in the tower.


The scenery was spectacular as we drove on via Callander, Loch Lubnaig and Lochearnhead to Killin.  Killin is small so it was easy to find Dall Lodge.  We chose this place on its wonderful reviews and can only confirm and add to them.  It was excellent.  Our hosts Monica and Roman were originally from Switzerland and have somehow combined Swiss efficiency with local knowledge and genuine warmth.  Very comfortable, if slightly dated, rooms, but wonderful hospitality and exceptional breakfasts.  Really exceptional – as in porridge slow cooked all night, the best quality fruit selection I’ve ever had in any guesthouse or hotel, (including fancy places), homemade yoghurt and bread, and Scottish favourites like haggis and black pudding.  

Dall Lodge from the side

Private dock and parklands opposite

Dall Lodge – best place to stay in Killin!

Our lovely hosts booked us in for dinner at two of the town’s best places.  The first night it was the Bridge of Lochay Inn, a delightful old inn next to a rushing stream.  We walked there on a beautiful clear evening.  We were a bit early so sat outside next to a stone bridge with a drink until our reserved time. We ate scallops with black pudding wontons plus haddock fish cakes for starters, then fish and chips and fish pie for mains – all delicious. 

Monica helped us plan out a driving loop the next day.  The single track road was an experience, but thankfully we met very few other vehicles, though quite a few sheep. 


We actually missed our intended walk towards Ben Lawers and unknowingly set off on another longer one in the heather. It was serene and scenic though we had to do a bit of guesswork to return to the car!

Glen Lyon Post Office was a welcome sight after a morning of walking and driving in fairly remote areas.  It still operates as a Post Office, but it was its tea room facility that interested us. Delicious soup and sandwiches with a view before we continued our journey.  Some cyclists were eating up before going the opposite way to us.  We didn’t envy them as we had come over a pass then had a long downhill drive into the valley.

The actual Glen Lyon was narrow and surrounded in parts by high hedgerows so driving was a bit of a challenge at times, but nobody seemed to be going too fast.  Fortingall was an attractive village anyway, but we were there to see the world’s (possibly) oldest living thing – the Fortingall Yew Tree.  We were looking for something huge, but actually it was not the biggest tree around.  It is believed to be around 5000 years old and has two ancient trunks.  Unfortunately it had to be fenced off to preserve it and stop vandalism. 


Kenmore was a picturesque stop at the other end of Loch Tay from Killin.


We walked to Taymouth Castle, built in the 1800s on the site of a former castle. It is in the process of being renovated and will be an upmarket golf hotel. 


Crannog was a word I had never heard but crannogs were ancient overwater dwellings.  This reconstruction was on the south side of the Loch and shows what life was like 2500 years ago.

The 17th century Ardeonaig Hotel

Loch Tay in the rain

Despite the drizzle, we took our wonky umbrella and for dinner walked to the charming Courie Inn, again reserved by our host Monica.  She also ensured we got the best table in the place.  Again we had delicious fish and good wine.  People eat early here – we were the last people in the place at 9.15 but there was no pressure to leave.  In fact we had a great chat with the owner.

We heard the rain before we even got up on the third day.  We lingered a bit longer over our second huge breakfast and planned our day.  We decided to do a simpler version of Monica’s walking tour around Killin, driving where possible.  We parked near the ruins of Finlarig Castle and explored them.  Lovely to be the only people there – the drizzle probably had something to do with it.  We walked along the edge of Loch Tay and admired the lone angler, then returned to the car to search for Killin’s own Stonehenge – an ancient stone circle, admittedly a tiny version of its more famous cousin.  We found it but admired it from afar in our warm and dry vehicle.


The Falls of Dochart, thundering down at the entrance to Killin, were our last stop in this lovely village.  Even in the rain (or perhaps because of it) they were spectacular. 

The rainy weather meant that our views of Loch Lomond were virtually non existent so we headed straight to Luss, singing ‘..the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond..’ (badly) as we went.  Luss had charming cottages whose owners seemed to be competing for best floral display.  Our destination was the Coach House where for lunch we had a huge bowl of soup and wedge of bread each.

Mr Frequent Flyer mentioned that his favourite whisky was Glengoyne, once recommended to him by a Scot.  I noticed that their small distillery was almost on our way back to Edinburgh so we made a short detour.  It was surprisingly busy, perhaps because of the dismal weather.  We went on a slightly difficult to understand tour, as our guide was Russian with a strong Scottish accent, but we got the gist.  Glengoyne only has single malt whisky and the water used originally all came from a nearby waterfall.  We had the obligatory taste and learned about the colour changing over the years and the amount of evaporation (known as the ‘Angels’ Share’). 

Each bottle represents one year. The colour changes and the ‘Angels’ Share’ evaporates (from casks, not bottles).

Our final night was at the Premier Inn near the airport.  This was our first stay at this chain and it impressed us with a very comfortable bed, reasonable price and pleasant decor.  Ideal for a one night stay with an early start.  

Our Scottish sojourn was over.  Next we were off to Mauritius.

Edinburgh, August 2017

The long journey from Australia to Scotland was eased considerably with an unexpected upgrade to First Class on the Dubai to London leg.  A bucket list item ticked off!  I must have looked like I had a sign round my neck saying ‘I’ve never been in here before!’ as the lovely flight attendant quickly asked me if I’d like her to show me the features of the ‘suite’. I happily agreed. We were able to eat a leisurely and delicious meal together and time passed too quickly – not my usual feeling on a long haul flight.  Then, crunch, back to reality, the Heathrow to Edinburgh leg in economy and if we’d needed any food, we would have had to pay. 

After one night in a comfortable Airbnb in the West End, we walked to our accommodation for the next week, Distillers’ House in the same area.  This building was recently refurbished and 10 apartments of a high standard were created.  Ours (number 10) was excellent – very spacious and luxurious with everything we needed.  We were slightly concerned about reviews saying it was noisy, so armed ourselves with ear plugs just in case. We had no need for them as our apartment was at the rear and top of the building. We had keyless entry which worked well and there was no ‘Who’s got the key?’ problem when we went out separately.

Mr Frequent Flyer was busy most of the week with work so I did a lot of looking around on my own.  We did manage to do some things together, including a walk to Dean Village and along the Water of Leith to St Bernard’s Well.  Dean village seemed so rural and village-y for a place just 10 minutes walk from Edinburgh’s centre.

We kept walking towards the Modern Art Museum and got there in the end despite the Water of Leith path being temporarily closed.  Loved this place, its beautiful cafe and interesting sculpture garden. And it’s free to get in, always a bonus.  There’s even a free shuttle bus to the main Art Gallery in Princes street.

Not just attractive landscaping, this was a sculptor’s work of art.

Another place we visited together was the Scotch Whisky Experience.  It was my gift to Mr Frequent Flyer, who doesn’t mind a dram.  The first part of this place was a bit corny, riding in a barrel through audio visual displays, but did explain the process of whisky making.  We then watched a beautiful movie about the different whisky producing regions of Scotland before our favourite part, the tasting.  The guide explained the peculiarities of each region and even gave us a scratch and smell card to reinforce the differences.  I only tasted the lightest one, not being a huge whisky fan, but Mr FF had the ‘Gold Tour’ so had four (small ones) to taste.  We also visited the world’s largest whisky collection, part of the experience.

With the festivals still on, Edinburgh was buzzing.  Lots of buskers, posters and people.

Having been in Edinburgh a few years ago (as well as long, long ago), I decided not to go to the castle, the Britannia and Holyrood Palace, though I really recommend all three.  Instead I went to a couple of quieter places on the outskirts of Edinburgh.

The first of these was Dr Neil’s Garden in Duddingston.  I knew I had to catch the number 42 bus but wasn’t sure where to get off. I thought we were close and asked the bus driver where to get off and he said ‘Here!’  So that was good timing.  For the record, get off at Holyrood High School, walk back the way you came until you get to a car park, then walk through towards the church where you will see a sign.  Follow the path below (this is not the garden as I first thought) , veer to the left at the end and the gate is there.



The garden was wonderful and for most of the time, I was the only person there.  It was very peaceful, full of flowers and had the Loch and Arthur’s Seat as backdrops.  I just wandered and sat. One of those times when I didn’t want it to be over.

Flowers were everywhere in Edinburgh.  Hanging baskets, window boxes and local parks were all ablaze with colour.


I was not aware of the existence of Scottish Impressionist painters, but found them in the Art Gallery of Scotland as well as other works by Scottish painters. It’s a great place, very central and free to get in.  Many famous and not so famous artists from around the world represented.

Cramond was a village I had planned to visit and when the sun came out, I headed out there by bus.  I got the £4 day ticket, as I did several times and it was perfect when I planned three or more trips on the tram or buses.  It can be bought on the bus or from machines along the tram line. After being slightly unnerved when the bus seemed to be on the return journey from Cramond, I asked some fellow passengers who unfortunately were as lost as I was.  We all got off there and then and it was the right place.  A short walk down a street to the right and there we were. In the sunshine, Cramond looked a perfect seaside village with boats, an offshore island, lovely cottages and a long promenade along the shore.


A statue from Roman times, the ‘Cramond Lioness’ (now in the National Museum of Scotland) was discovered here relatively recently, in 1997.  After walking along the promenade, I retraced my steps and went back the other way, along the Almond River Walkway, another lovely spot.  The island was not accessible as the tide was not out.

Back in town, I climbed Calton Hill for great views all over Edinburgh and saw the Nelson memorial tower and the Parthenon like structure.

I had prebooked the free (tip based) Hairy Coo tour for one day,  aware there would be some overlap with our weekend in Killin a few days later. Walking to the starting point on the Royal Mile at 8.15 in the morning, I  had the unusual experience of seeing the Grassmarket and lovely Victoria Street almost empty.

The tour was a fun and full day, leaving at 8.45.


We started with South Queensferry with its three big bridges (the Queensferry Crossing actually opened while we were in Scotland).  We passed the Kelpies statues (more about them in my next post) en route to Stirling where we stopped at the Wallace Monument. We admired Stirling Castle from below, with some ‘hairy coos’ perfectly placed in the field below.

The Wallace Monument

Stirling Castle

The Lake of Menteith, Scotland’s only lake (a technicality- the others are lochs) was a beautiful stop. 

Lunch was at Aberfoyle – the bakery was great.  At the Woollen Mills shop a sheepdog was in action rounding up, not sheep, but ducks.  A stop up in the heather covered hills gave us a chance to wander for a bit.

Next Loch Katrin.  A lovely spot probably but in the rain it wasn’t at its best. Very cute ‘glamping’ cabins had just been put in and a boat trip was still going ahead despite the gloomy weather.  I guess they are used to it!

True to the tour’s name, we fed some Hairy Coos along the way.

The last stop was Doune Castle, used in Monty Python movies as well as Game of Thrones and Outlander.  The amusing audio tour was narrated by the Monty Python team.  Doune apparently means castle so our guide said, so it was ‘Castle Castle’.  

We arrived back in Edinburgh around 6.20.  It was a full day out but great for a quick look at some Scottish scenery if your time is short. My remaining day in Edinburgh was spent doing some shopping and exploring the West End area.

We were looking forward to the second part of the Scotland trip – a long weekend in the Highlands.

Funny Menus and Signs in China

Lots of menus and signs made me smile in China.  Of course with my meagre vocabulary of about 10 words in Mandarin, I shouldn’t have been laughing.  But it was hard not to be amused.  Most pictures are from our Silk Road trip but some are from an earlier visit to the north of China.  Hope you enjoy them.  (Please note, all images are copyright.)

Brain maintenance was probably just what we needed, we who are listed at number 3 below as the ‘old, old people’.

Not a green to be seen in this dish.

Who knew the humble loaf could do so much?

Love a drink of Lattice Gas!

Just don’t use too much paper, ok?

Watch out for that precipitous topography!

..and perhaps Mick Jagger.


…. or you won’t experience the success below.

Watch your soiling or at least keep it small. And put that hammer down!

I was definitely relieved. We need more of these heart warming places!