Enchanted by the Emerald Isle on a tour of western Ireland

By Cindy Palmer
This article appears on page 42 of the December 2018 issue.
The facade of Kylemore Abbey.

Any travel adventure can be enhanced by staying mostly in one place and using it as a base to branch out to enjoy a rich and splendid experience, establishing a genuine connection with the local people. I found such an adventure in the west of Ireland, a place of wild beauty, ancient sites and welcoming people.

My October 2017 8-day visit, arranged by friends with County Galway connections, wins my strong recommendation for any traveler. The cost for each of us, including nearly all accommodations and meals as well as round-trip airfare from Massachusetts, was $1,970.

Beginning in Bunratty

The early-morning landing at Shannon Airport found my husband, Ted, two friends with whom we were traveling and me bleary eyed as we boarded our bus to Ashgrove House B&B (Low Road, Bunratty, County Clare; phone 353 61 369 332, ashgrovehouse.com) for tea, scones and bed. (Note: There are other B&Bs with the same name, so be sure you have the right place when booking.) Double rooms with private bath cost 45, or $52, per person, sharing, or 60, single, including breakfast.

By afternoon, we were en route to Dromoland Castle, a magnificent stronghold and the ancestral home of the Dromoland O'Briens. Now a luxury hotel, it comprises more than 400 acres of manicured grounds, forests and lakes.

The high-tea tray we enjoyed there was loaded with finger sandwiches, fresh scones and delightful cakes (35 per person, including service charge). Time and drizzle regrettably limited our walking exploration of the estate.

Returning to Bunratty, we shopped at the Blarney Woollen Mills (www.blarney.com) before crossing the road to sip a pint with the living as well as the 400-year-old ghosts in the snug Durty Nelly's (www.durtynellys.ie). Of the many Irish pubs to sample, you'll find charm, antiquity and genuine welcome there.

Later in the evening we became the designated royalty at the "Bunratty Castle Medieval Banquet" (booked online at shannonheritage.com for 60 per person), where only a knife was provided to each guest to enjoy delicious ribs, roasted vegetables and brown bread accompanied by mead, singing and other amusements.

The next morning, our tour bus turned northwest toward County Galway, stopping at a fascinating marble factory in Moycullen, our first introduction to Ireland's prideworthy mining industry.

Continuing on, we made a brief stop in the historic seaside city of Galway, at the mouth of the River Corrib, tempting us for a return later in the week. We fully recommend everyone spend an entire day there.

Home base

We finally were delivered to Oughterard, a picturesque village on the shores of Lough Corrib, our home for the next seven days. From there, we branched out to discover the wealth of historic, cultural and artistic sites in the area as well as gaze in awe, rain aside, at the natural beauty of the Wild Atlantic Way.

Cindy and Ted Palmer (left) with friends Dan and Robin Skowera on the Quiet Man Bridge near Oughterard.

Each day, we were bused in different directions before returning in late afternoon to relax and enjoy tea or a pint and a delightful dinner in one of the many charming Oughterard pubs. The locals treated us as long-lost relatives. I could have stayed a month!

The choice of accommodation for most of our group was the comfortable, charming Connemara Lake Hotel (theconnemaralakehotel.com). We, however, joined another group to stay in the thatch-roofed Connemara Country Cottages (connemaracountrycottages.com), located 5 miles outside of town.

There, authenticity married modern convenience in a quaint country setting under a hillside dotted with sheep and cows.

Venturing out

While we didn't see everything in the area, we truly enjoyed our visit to Kylemore Abbey & Victorian Walled Garden (kylemoreabbey.com), an hour's drive (via N59) west toward what Oscar Wilde dubbed the "savage beauty" of the Connemara landscape.

We learned how Mitchell Henry built this impressive mansion for his beloved Margaret in the mid-19th century. In 1920, Benedictine nuns took residence, running an international girls' school there until 2010.

We were awed by the walled Victorian gardens, restored to their early grandeur, and can recommend the most scrumptious deep-dish apple pie, which is sold in the on-site café.

A few miles outside Oughterard, we discovered Glengowla Mines, a "hidden gem." With Jonathan as our guide, we learned of the chance finding of silver, copper, octahedral crystals and other precious minerals on a farm, which led to the dangerous mining operation — using tallow candles and dynamite — that provided local families a living during the devastating mid-19th-century famine.

I wasn't keen on climbing into the center of the Earth on a ladder, but I am glad I did. After the mine tour, farmer/owner Keith Geoghegan demonstrated his working dog's herding brilliance.

Almost walkable from Oughterard's center is Lough Corrib, the Republic of Ireland's largest lake.

Garden visits

Stone arch of St. Patrick’s Church on Inchagoill Island in Lough Corrib.

A cruise boat (corribcruises.com, or call 087 994 6380) ferried us first to Inchagoill Island, then to the Ashford Castle hotel. Inchagoill Island is home to churches dating back to the 5th to 12th centuries, including ancient St. Patrick's Church. Though uninhabited now, the island also bears remnants of the old stone structures of long-gone residents.

The boat moved on to the Ashford Castle hotel pier, where we drank in the grandeur of this 5-star destination for the truly wealthy. Beefeater-costumed footmen blocked our entrance to the hotel, but our cruise ticket included the opportunity to walk around the 350-acre grounds. I would happily pay to return, if the day were sunny, as the grounds defy fair description.

Less than a mile's walk from the pier, we found the tiny village of Cong, essentially unchanged since the 1951 filming of "The Quiet Man." Everyone in the group snapped pictures of the life-sized statue of a robust John Wayne hoisting a free-spirited Maureen O'Hara.

Brigit's Garden (brigitsgarden.ie), southeast of Oughterard in Rosscahill, is a multiacre Celtic garden that combines nature, beauty, heritage and mythology. I wished my grandchildren were with me to help pick out the giant "Earth Mother" resting on her side in the garden.

Our trip was hugely enhanced by the pub experience in Oughterard. There are several, and each is worth a visit.

When I return, I will consider a walking trek on the Golden Mile, part of the Heritage Walk, starting in Clifden, and will wander more of Oughterard to see the 19th-century Workhouse and graveyard there. I feel certain I will again be welcomed, as will you!

Travelers' tips

• Know your roots. If you have Irish heritage, be ready to share, as locals might ask.

• Get your flu shot before traveling. Close quarters on planes breed germs.

• Have 600 in pocket, as taxi drivers and some B&Bs prefer cash. AAA offered the best exchange rate at home, and I found ATMs in Shannon Airport and Galway.

• Request a Horizon Card, available at gift shops or convenience stores, to more easily track the VAT (value added tax) you pay, which can be reimbursed upon departure. In Oughterard, you can get it at Keogh's gift shop. A variable processing fee is charged, based on the amount of each purchase, when using this card.

Statue of John Wayne lifting Maureen O’Hara in the village of Cong.

• Consider an international phone plan. The airport and most restaurants offer free Wi-Fi.

• Our recommendation for a professional driver with car or minibus is Tierney Mini Bus Hire (phone 353 091 552 103), out of Oughterard.

• Pack lightweight, casual clothing. (No one we encountered was dressed fancy.) Include rain gear and expect daily, gentle rain. Layer clothing for temperature changes, and select shoes that are comfortable for walking through mud or for light climbing.

• Save space in your luggage for an Aran sweater, hat or vest, a marble egg, crystal and Belleek pottery.