Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Adventure #18: Cork and The Ring of Kerry

We've just returned from Easter weekend vacation, where we visited the most beautiful corner of Ireland we've laid eyes on thus far: the southwest coast.

County Kerry consists of the famous Ring of Kerry, as well as the bucolic Dingle Peninsula. We stayed in the city of Cork, located about an hour east of the Ring of Kerry, which made for a good base to also reach western County Cork sites, as well as its southern coast.

Heading south from Galway, we stopped at Carrigafoyle Castle and Ardfert Cathedral on our way to the Dingle. We spent our first day driving around the Dingle Peninsula, and first stopped off in the coastal town of Dingle, the home of Fungie, the dolphin, but didn't take the boat ride out to see him. (Full refunds advertised if the dolphin doesn't come out to say "hi!"). Heading west along the coastal highway R559, we visited Dunbeg, a promontory fort along the coast. Two sheep charged up onto rolling hills near the fort and butted horns right in front of Damon. They weren't camera shy. Nearby, the southern slope of Mount Eagle falls steeply away to the sea to form Slea Head, the most south-westerly point of the Dingle Peninsula. At Slea Head, where the road turns to head north on the peninsula, there is a white sculpture of the crucifixion known locally as the Cross with gorgeous ocean views. As soon as we turned the corner, the Blasket Islands came into view. Then we drove to Dunmore Head, mainland Ireland's most westerly point, for a picture and more views of the Blaskets.

Dingle Peninsula (+ northern County Kerry sites):

The next day, we did a walking tour of Cork, the second largest city in the Republic of Ireland. We saw Miller Genuine Draft signs in the pub windows and three guys carrying cases of MGD on their shoulders. Then we learned that Beamish & Crawford, a huge brewery in Cork city, brews MGD and many other beers near the river in Cork. I emailed my step-father, Bill Crawford, to make sure he traces his lineage back to his brewmaster relatives and gets some royalties from the bustling beer business they've got over here!

Cork City Photo Album:

Then we drove to Blarney Castle, so that Lisa could kiss the Blarney Stone, which is said to bring the gift of gab to those who kiss it. (Like that is needed...) The castle is surrounded by beautiful gardens, where we saw exotic plants that looked like the one from the movie, "Little Shop of Horrors." There were also Wishing Steps, which you're supposed to climb up and down backwards, with your eyes closed, to have your wish granted -- and a place called the Witches Kitchen, a gigantic, moss-covered tree with an old cave dug under it with ruins of a fireplace.

We spent the rest of the day in west County Cork. We toured the Jamesons Old Midleton Distillery in Midleton, where Wash Still, the largest pot still in the world, is located. It was built in 1825 and has a capacity of 31,648 gallons. Lisa participated in the Whiskey Challenge, a comparative tasting of whiskies from Ireland, Scotland and the U.S. Lisa learned she doesn't like whiskey straight, and was severly outpaced by the Polish, Irish and English folks who also participated.

Close to sunset, we drove through the town of Cobh, the pretty seaside town that was the Titantic's last port of call before it sank in the Atlantic. We spent the evening in Kinsale, considered one of Ireland's most charming villages, and it didn't disappoint. Kinsale sits at the mouth of River Bandon and is known for its yachting marina and annual food festival. We visited Charles Fort, on the coast just outside of town, before doing a walking tour of Kinsale and having dinner at a pub.

County Cork Day Photo Album:

We saved the best for last, spending our final day driving the Ring of Kerry. The Ring of Kerry is a tourism trail on the Iveragh Peninsula. We stopped first at Torc Waterfall, located at the base of Torc Mountain, about five miles from Killarney, before driving through the town of Killarney to Muckross Estate inside Killarney National Park. The park spans more than 25,000 acres and includes the Lakes of Killarney. Amazing views. We walked 1.5 miles along a trail to see the ruins of Muckross Abbey. We then drove to Ross Castle on the lake shore, where you can rent boats and row out to the little islands in the middle of the lake. (If only we'd had more time and less rain.) The highlight of the trip for both of us was Ballinskelligs Bay, where we visited a sandy beach that's home to Ballinskelligs Castle and Priory. The stones and pebbles on the beach were a beautiful lavender color. The tide came in while we visited the priory ruins, so we had to get a little wet in order to reach our car. The mountain and ocean views were absolutely breathtaking! Would anyone who saw these turquoise waters in a photo think this is Ireland's coastline? Check out the slide show and see for yourself. We could see the Skellig Islands in the distance, home to puffins during the summer months. We would love to come back and take a ferry ride out to see the birds perched on these cliffs. We stopped off at Staigue Fort, a round stone fort with sea views, before driving back through Ballaghbeama Gap and Moll's Gap on our way home. The fog and misty rain didn't allow us to fully appreciate the Gap views; we had no idea Ireland had such steep valleys and high mountains.

Ring of Kerry Photo Album:

It probably would take two days here to experience all The Ring of Kerry has to offer, so we hope that maybe we'll have time to come back this summer -- although we loved visiting southwest Ireland without all the tourists!!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Can we get some directions, please?!?

We've been here six months, and we just got voicemail on our home phone line in Ireland. When NTL installed our phone in September, no one told us we had voicemail (there's no answering machine) or gave us directions for using the service. Over here, you have to figure things out for yourself. Sure, if we would have called 1908 and asked NTL, they would have told us. But we didn't want to make a fuss -- that's too, ummm, American. A friend from Minnesota who is living here finally told me last month that she had to call and ask for instructions, which NTL happily offered. Damon tried to set-up the voicemail last week without contacting anyone (just used the instructions our friends gave us). It didn't work. You know a company isn't providing good user directions to its customers where then are Yahoo! Answers pages set up for people trying to figure out how to use their NTL voicemail. Maybe we Americans are just too spoiled!

To save others the time and headache, here are the voicemail directions I received today:

To set up voicemail:
(From your home phone in Ireland)
Call 1571
Password 8899
You will be prompted to create an outgoing message. Please note: this does NOT mean your voicemail is active.

To activate your voicemail:
*77 (then press "send")

To activate call waiting:
*76 (then press "send")

To turn off voicemail:
#77 (then press "send")

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Adventure #17: St. Patrick's Day in Dublin

I returned from Tuscany on Saturday night (into Dublin) so that Damon and I could celebrate my birthday (and St. Patrick's Day) together in Ireland. (How ironic that our 17th adventure fell on March 17.)

St. Patrick is one of the patron saints of Ireland. Many Irish people had told us American celebrations on St. Paddy's are larger than the Irish ones, but the Dublin festival did not disappoint. The St. Patrick's Day parade in Dublin is part of a five-day festival; more than 650,000 people attended the 2008 parade. We think we saw more Americans and French than Irish! Lots of people traveled to Ireland to celebrate on the home turf; the immigration line at Dublin airport (non EU citizens) took one hour to clear!

We spent one night at Howth, an oceanside fishing village northeast of Dublin, where we visited the Howth castle, pier, farmers' market and Bull Island, where we watched some kite surfers. Then headed into the city centre on Sunday for my birthday and stayed at the 5-star Conrad Hotel (for free, thanks to Hilton points). We walked around Grafton Street and Temple Bar, had a couple pints of Guinness, then went to dinner at Itsa4 restaurant. They are known for their burgers, so we had to try them -- incredible -- and they should be at 18.95 euros a pop!

This was probably the best parade either of us have ever seen. The costumes were amazing. Everyone in the parade was dancing, smiling and having a good time. Nearly every band was from the United States, which was kind of cool. Unfortunately every pub was packed with people spilling out into the street, so we didn't get to have a Guinness in a Dublin pub on St. Paddy's, but we still had lots of fun. We listened to traditional Irish music at an outdoor concert near St. Stephen's Green park before heading back to Galway.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Adventure #16: Tuscany (Lisa solo)

Okay, maybe I shouldn't give this trip blog adventure status since Damon could not attend. It was a work trip, but lots of fun. The Wilson Daniels sales & marketing team spent a week in Tuscany, with Florence as our base. We took day trips to visit our clients Castello di Volpaia (in Chianti Classico), Tenimenti Angelini (estates in Chianti Classico, Montepulciano and Montalcino) and Marchese Lodovico Antinori (estates in Bibbona and Bolgheri in the Alta Maremma along the Tuscan coast). Our visits to the wineries were absolutely wonderful, and the sun came out as the week went on. The meals, wines, conversations and bus rides throughout the week were unforgettable -- lots of great memories already. Almost every night we were back in Florence in time to have dinner and wander throughout the streets on our own. It was great catching up with all my co-workers; it seemed more like I'd been gone one a short trip and just returned than being away for six months. Very relaxing for a company trip. Florence was much dirtier than I remembered it from our honeymoon, but still a charming city. I found some time to visit the San Lorenzo market to buy gifts for family and friends. Our imports director and I jogged up to the Piazzale Michelangelo on Saturday morning to see the city from its best vantage point before heading to the airport.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Tagine Initiation

We have finally used our new tagine, a gift from Damon's mom and Gary. It's not that I didn't want to cook with it; it's just that its cone-shaped red top and thick base intimidated me a little bit. I had to work up the courage to tackle it and the nearly 15 ingredients that needed to be prepped and cooked inside the tagine. They also gave us a really cool cookbook, and after a half-hour of thumbing through recipes, I decided on a lamb dish that is very similar to this recipe: http://www.recipetips.com/recipe-cards/t--3400/beef-or-lamb-tagine.asp.

The dish probably took about 3 hours to prepare, including prep work. I was so wrapped up in the cooking that I forgot to take a photo of the actual ingredients cooking in the tagine. But we took a couple pictures of the plates afterwards.

This lamb dish tasted a lot like pot roast to me. It was good, but not nearly as flavorful as I expected - probably because I've never eaten North African food and I assumed it would be rich in exotic spices. We also found a recipe in the book that calls for prunes, honey and more spices, so I am going to give that one a try later this month.

A tagine is such a cool, original gift for anyone who likes to cook and try new things. I'm still hoping we can make it to Morocco some day.