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Going Our Way: A family trip to Ireland

By K.C. Summers
Sunday, March 13, 2011; F03

Dan Golden's ancestors hailed from Ireland, so he and and his wife, Jeanette, figure that it's high time the extended family visited the Ould Sod - not that you need an excuse to spend time in this endlessly appealing country. The Goldens, of North Bethesda, have only 12 days for the trip, so they've wisely chosen to limit their wanderings to the east, southeast and southwest regions.

The Goldens, who'll be traveling with their adult son and his new wife, want to drive through the countryside themselves, a terrific and time-honored way to see Ireland. Just a few words of warning: Ireland is compact, but don't underestimate the time it takes to navigate those ubiquitous winding roads - which, more often than not, are lined with unforgiving stone walls and dotted with errant sheep and dueling motorcoaches. When estimating travel times, it's a good idea to double the amount you think you'll need.

In addition, plan for at least one flat tire (I speak from sad experience); ask your navigator to practice shrieking "Left! Left! Left!" at intersections and roundabouts; plan your route ahead of time with the Irish Automobile Association's easy-to-use tool (www.aaireland.ie; click on AA Roadwatch, then AA Routeplanner); and consider renting a car with automatic transmission to reduce the overall stress factor.

But enough with the warnings. Here's some welcome news: Ireland is a bargain compared with other European destinations, according to Hotels.com's Hotel Price Index, an annual survey of hotel prices in major cities worldwide. In the first half of 2010, a room in Ireland averaged $118 a night, down 5 per cent from the previous year - making the country the least expensive destination in Western Europe, according to the survey. No surprise, then, that Dublin is one of Budget Travel magazine's picks for top budget travel destinations in 2011.

When to go: Fall, definitely. Everything's cheaper, it's less crowded, and the weather's still fine. Do bring rain gear, though, and dress in layers that you can add or subtract as needed.

Packages: For the best rates, consider a fly-drive package offered by companies such as Go-today.com, CIE Tours (www.cietours.com/us) and Dooley Vacations (www.dooleyvacaions.com). Most agencies will let you build your own vacation based on your preferences and timing, and can throw in lodging as well. As always, price the components out separately to make sure that you're getting the best deal.

Caroline Feeney of Dooley Vacations, who's been booking Ireland trips for 11 years, thinks that your plan of sticking to Dublin, the southeast and the southwest is a good one. She recommends flying into Dublin Airport and out of Shannon International to avoid backtracking. And don't pick up your rental car until you're ready to leave Dublin. You can get around Ireland's capital easily on foot and via public transportation.

Suggested itinerary: Here are Feeney's suggestions for a U-shaped driving tour of about 500 miles (depending on stops) from Dublin to Shannon, covering the Wicklow Mountains and Kilkenny in the east, Cork in the south, Dingle in the southwest and the Burren to the east and north, with recommended lodging in each, including not one but two castles.

Days 1-3: Explore Dublin on foot or by bike. A three-day rental from Dublinbikes, the city's cycle-sharing program, costs about $2.80 (www.dublinbikes.ie), and trips of half an hour or less are free. Since this is your first time, focus on the city's beloved main attractions: Trinity College and the Book of Kells exhibit, Kilmainham Gaol, Grafton Street shopping, St. Stephen's Green . . . and, if you must, the pub scene. Stay at the Academy Plaza Hotel in the city center.

Day 4: Pick up your rental car at Dublin Airport and head for the Wicklow Mountains (about 35 miles), then backtrack to Kilkenny (about 100 miles). Lots to do in this area, including the monastic settlement at Glendalough and Powerscourt Gardens in Wicklow, but you could also spend this whole segment in the gorgeous medieval city of Kilkenny, with its castles, gardens, museums and more. Stay at the Lyrath Estate Hotel, a 17th-century house on 170 acres just outside town.

Days 5-6: Drive to Cork (about 100 miles). Notice I'm skipping the Blarney Stone and Waterford (the famous crystal factory is now a mere tourist center). Instead, focus on the Cobh Heritage Centre (Cobh was the last port of call for the Titanic) and the lively arts scene of Cork. Stay at the sleek four-star River Lee Hotel.

Days 7-8: Drive northwest to the Dingle Peninsula (about 90 miles), one of the most beautiful places in the world. You'll remember the crashing waves, dramatic cliffs and archaeological sites for the rest of your lives. Great pubs, pottery and music, too. Stay at Dingle Benners Hotel.

Day 9: Now head east and north to Burren National Park, the otherworldly region in northwest County Clare (about 130 miles), and allow time to hike the stone outcroppings. Then backtrack about 20 miles south to Dromoland Castle Hotel, which dates to the 16th century and features stately halls, horseback riding, fishing and golf.

Day 10: To position yourself close to Shannon Airport, spend your last night at Bunratty Castle Hotel, in a Georgian mansion across the road from the 15th-century castle. If you like costumed wenches, you're in luck: The castle hosts a nightly medieval banquet.

For this package, Feeney quoted a price of $2,307 per person, which includes round-trip air from BWI Marshall Airport for four people; 10 nights' accommodations (two rooms per night); a week's rental car (a full-size automatic with four doors; cost includes insurance, which is highly recommended); and full daily breakfasts. Total for four people: $9,228. You'll want to add at least another $2,000 for meals, admissions, gasoline and incidentals, taking you over budget by about $1,225.

Bonus tips for knitters! As a knitter, Jeanette Golden is eager to check out the Irish yarn scene. There are some good options for Irish-produced yarn along her route, says Sinead Cahirl, who co-writes a knitting blog at irishknitting.wordpress.com. (By the way, ask for "knitting wool" instead of yarn when talking to locals.) In Dublin, your best option is This Is Knit, just off Grafton Street. "They stock an Irish spun yarn, Studio Donegal Aran Tweed, which is spun at one of only three Irish mills in Kilcar, County Donegal," Cahirl said. The other mills are Cushendale, in Graiguenamanagh, County Kilkenny (www.cushendale.ie), and Kerry Woollen Mills in County Kerry (www.kerrywoollenmills.ie). Yarn from all three mills is available at the Yarn Room in Ashford, County Wicklow (www.theyarnroom.com). For more yarn info: the Dublin Knit Collective, dublinknitcollective.wordpress.com.

Interested in having us help plan your trip? Go to washingtonpost.com/goingourway.

Who: Jeanette Golden, 62, and her husband, Dan, 63, of North Bethesda, plus son Paul, 33, and his wife, Laurel, 39

Where: Ireland

Why: Family vacation

When: 12 days in summer or fall

Budget: $10,000, give or take

"We prefer to rent a car and drive around the country, stopping at inns or small hotels along the way - maybe even a castle if it isn't cost-prohibitive. No B&Bs, please!"

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