Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Dublin Town

We had thought we would do a weekend in Dublin but by the time August rolled around it was clear that our weekends were full of other priorities and chances were that we wouldn't make it there as a family.

Maybe that is why planning Dublin was so difficult for me.

We left it kinda late in our trip to plan this one. I still had a wee list on my phone of things that I had wanted to do way back in April when we thought we would be in Dublin for the summer. I looked into hotels without much luck and ended up booking a day fare by rail for the four of us.

When we arrived in Dublin we set out on foot to Trinity College to visit the Old Library. Another featured spot in our 500 Places book, we when to see the Book of Kells. The Exhibition was a beautifully laid out account of the history and craftsmanship of the 1000 year old book. No matter what your religious affiliations, you have to appreciate the amount of work and the dedication it took to not only write out the four gospels but also to decorate them as intricately as they are. There were three other manuscripts on display, also beautifully decorated. The idea that each stunningly colourful letter was unique to any other embellished letter in the entire book spoke of how creative and proud the monks were that worked so tirelessly on this collective work. Beyond that art, the craftsmanship involved in making the vellum from stretched calves skin and binding the pages together makes you look at the new fangled books we have just a little bit differently.

Upstairs from the exhibit was the old library. I think this was the highlight for all of us. We climbed up the stairs to 'that old book smell' and were in awe as we turned into the landing that led to the Long Room built in 1712. Pictures cannot be taken inside and you can only walk the centre aisle but the contents of the walls command their appreciation. Over 200000 of the Colleges oldest books filling shelves that stretch up through two stories. Each shelf end is accented with a marble bust like that of Dublin's own Jonathan Swift and ladders on rails are modestly tucked into each corner. It wouldn't be far off to say that you feel just a little smarter taking in the atmosphere, but a small part of me would love to climb that iron spiral staircase, thumb through the old pages and swing on a ladder like Belle in Beauty and the Beast. Some other interesting pieces on display are the skeleton of a 7' tall man and the oldest harp to survive from Ireland.

From here, we got on a hop on hop off bus for a quick tour of the city. It was here that it sunk in just how much I really would have liked to have spent more time. I would have loved to have wandered around the Temple Bar, taken a closer look around the stunning Christ Church Cathedral and the Kilmainham Gaol (the largest unoccupied jail from the late 1700s), but we just did not have the time. We stopped at the Guinness Storehouse- no fun when you are single parenting for the day and would like to try your hand at the perfect pour and ended our tour at one of the National Museums where Kyra really enjoyed the collection of Irish silverware.

We returned to Hillsborough shortly after 9 p.m. tired and slightly disappointed that the taste we took of Dublin was little more than a tease for what the lively city has to offer.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Hurling in Newry

I had an opportunity to take in a Gaelic football and hurling game before the family came and had been talking about it since we arrived.  We tried unsuccessfully to watch an Antrim GAA Football match earlier in July but weren't able to get in and ended up watching it on T.V.

Saturday, after visiting Hillsborough Castle, Elliot, Gavin and I headed out to Newry to watch the GAA All Ireland under 21 Hurling Semifinal between Dublin and Antrim.  Unfortunately both Kyra and Jenn were feeling under the weather and didn't join us.  After nearly firing my replacement navigator for the half hour fifty five minute trip, we finally arrived at Páirc Esler just before halftime.

We were able to get fantastic seats about five rows up from the field near centre and were in awe at the speed and bravery of the players.  They were slashing and swinging their hurling sticks wildly, with deliberate "incidental"contact without the benefit of any padding.  I think our foreigner status was quickly revealed as we cringed and gasped as the players clashed for position of the ball with hands, feet and sticks. 

Antim held the score close but in the end Dublin's power was too much and won the game 3-23 to 0-06 (32-6).  I was impressed that Gavin was able to follow the game and enjoyed watching the players hit the ball.

It was after the game that made the trip truly worthwhile.  The fans are allowed to walk on the field with the players.  It was apparent that every child and teen watching the game had also brought hurling sticks and balls with them to the park and impromptu games of pass and shots at goal broke out all over the field.  With a little coaxing shoving Elliot was encouraged to talk to a few teens and try his hand at actually picking up a stick and seeing how far (once he finally made contact) he could hit the ball.  His seventeen year old confidence took a hit as, like every sport, it is actually harder than it looks.  He got the hand of it and had a few good hits.  Gavin seemed to enjoy walking on the field but I didn't actively look for a stick for him thinking he was happy just to watch.  As we were leaving the field big crocodile tears appeared in Gavin's eyes as he really wanted to try too.

*Fast forward a week and after numerous conversations about going to watch hurling and Daddy not letting him play and after declaring that what he REALLY wanted for his birthday next month was a hurling stick, the little guy got his wish.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Boulder Thing To Do- By Elliot

Today I went to Castlewellan to go bouldering near Bloody Bridge in Newcastle. Waking up at 6:00 in the morning, I took several bus connections to get south for our 9:00 session. When I got to the forest park where the company that I was bouldering with was located I found a beautiful lake and castle, and checked in to get ready for the adventure.
After putting on a spiffy yet literally breathtaking wetsuit, extremely tight at the neck, I put on a buoyancy aid and helmet and waited for everyone else to get ready while contemplating how much fun the adventure was going to be.  Ready to go, all 12 of us piled into the van and we headed off to bloody bridge, a 15 minute drive away while feeling extremely cramped with a wetsuit, life jacket, and helmet equipped. We went down the trail to the bloody bridge and climbed down the rocks. Our guide proceeded to splash water on the rocks so we could slide down into the water. After I slid into the water with my hands forward to stop myself from hitting the rocks, I swam across the pool of water to where one boulder sat in the middle of the pool while shivering in the icy cold water. After we were all in the water or on various rocks, the instructor stood on the same boulder I was standing on and asked me to move other to the edge of the rock so everyone could see and hear him. As I moved over, he shoved me into the water and said that you needed to be careful when you walk on rocks as they can be slippery.
We began our climb up stream and inland by clambering over boulders and through the water. I always stayed near the front of the group and whenever the water was deep enough I laid in the water, letting the buoyancy aid keep me afloat while I waited for the others in the group to catch up. After climbing several waterfalls and helping others reach the top by offering a helping hand, I felt as if I could climb any obstacle that might block my path upstream. We continued climbing to where we could jump in from 15 or 20 feet above the water and then climbed an extremely steep waterfall or, if we wanted, could just swim around freely. After doing this several times, we all climbed back down the mountain by taking the mountain trail.
When we got back to the centre, we all had showers, which was extremely refreshing in contrast to the freezing water, and changed back into our normal clothing and had lunch together and I was lucky enough to get a lift back home.

Monday, August 15, 2011

One Giant Step

We left the B&B this morning and headed straight to the Giant’s Causeway. Roughly 40,000 hexagonal basalt columns were formed  by volcanic eruptions nearly  60 million years ago and now they creates tightly packed honeycomb stepping stones that stretch from the sea right up into the mountains. Scientific explanation aside, ancient people believed the formations to be the work of Giants. Another romantic legend tells the tale of Finn McCool, who built it as a land over the sea to bring his great love over the sea from the Isle of Hebrides that has similar rock formations.  
Arriving bright and early and before all the tour groups allowed us to get some great pictures:

Gavin pointing out the rainbow he has spotted.

40000 of these all squished together to make a remakrable landscape

Tried to capture the dissappearing rainbow to their right

What used to be a working bridge that allowed salmon fisherman access to the 30 m high rock formation on the other side, Carrick-a-Rede is now a tourist attraction. And after not being able to cross the Capillano suspension bridge in Vancouver five years ago, I wasn’t sure I would be able to cross.  The pictures make the 20m bridge look longer that it does up close- more of a beginner bridge compared to Capillano but that’s not to say that the guy jumping across before us on the way back made it any less stressful. Because of the rain the whole area was quite slippery and I must admit that I found the really steep stairs down to the bridge slightly more nerve racking. Kyra got a certificate for crossing the bridge and I got a fist bump for facing a fear.
There was one place I had seen pictures of several places but looking into it before we left for the weekend had me frustrated beyond. Looking at a map and various postcards and tourist pamphlets, I had three different coordinates within a ten mile radius of each other. The tourist center at the causeway had given us clear directions and we were on our way.  Gavin fell asleep on the way there but as we turned the corner to see our destination a quiet, excited little boy’s voice called out “Tree Tunnel!”from the back. Three hundred year old beech trees arch over the road making the Dark Hedges truely magical.
We headed back through Bushmills to on our way to Dunluce Castle and happened to pass near the Bushmills Distillery. Hungry for lunch we stopped into see what they offered. Once again, Kids aren’t allowed on certain parts of the tour but we did manage to stop by the gift shop and picked up a bottle of the Distillery Reserve only available at the Distillery itself. A request has been made for some homemade butterscotch pudding so we all should be able to have a taste form Ireland’s oldest whiskey distillery.
Dunluce Castle was a frustrating to get to. A U shaped road led up from the main coastal route and we were trapped by cars parked on either side (one trying to leave and tour buses before and after us. As we understood there was no coach bus parking and we had no idea how long the tours would stay.  We were stuck for a few minutes but all in all those tourists could not have been given more than ten minutes to look around the beautiful grounds and that was a shame for them. Naturally, the stones that made up the castle would have been sourced close by. It was nice to see the hexagonal shapes of the stones in the walls that would have come from the Causeway. What set this castle audio tour apart from others we have done was the little screen in the audio guide. After talking about each section we were given a visual of what the rooms would have looked like. This castle is set right on the edge of a cliff and we were able to explore right down to the bottom of the cliff where Elliot went underneath the castle to a cave that looked straight through to the sea on the other side.
On our drive back home we were lucky to stumble on a dairy farm that had ice cream for sale. With our cones in hand we watched the cows being milked by a robotic milker. It is an interesting contrast to how dairy farms work back home.  Rather than having the rows of cows indoors in their own stall and all milked at the same time three times a day, the cows here graze outdoors and come into the barn as they like to be milked by this one single robot. We were told that the do enjoy the feed that they get at the robot and cows will often try to be milked up to eight times in the day but the robot will only milk them three times. 
A scenic detour we took had steep ascents and descents high above the coast. Having crossed the rope bridge did not help my nerves on these narrow roads to Torr Head. The times I did open my eyes, the views across to Rathlin Island and across to Scotland were gorgeous. It rained fairly steadily on our way home but, just as we had been treated to in the morning; we spent most of the drive chasing vibrant rainbows.

Butterscotch Pudding
  • 4Tbsp Butter
  • 1 cup Brown Sugar
  • 1/4 tsp Salt
  • 4 T Cornstarch
  • 2 1/2 Milk
  • 3 Eggs
  • 2 tsp Whiskey
  • 1 tsp Vanilla
Melt butter and brown sugar together in a sauce pan and remove from heat. Add sea salt. Combine cornstarch with about 1/4 cup of milk and whisk in eggs. Pour in remaining milk into sugar mixture and whisk in cornstarch mixture. Whisk continuously until bubbling and strain through a sieve for best texture. Add whiskey and vanilla, whisk together and place plastic wrap directly on the surface of the pudding to prevent a skin. Cool in fridge. Best served with fresh unsweetened whipped cream. Makes enough for six servings, some of the time.

A note for actual scotch drinkers: I usually like to use Dalwhinnie Single Malt Scotch. It's light to medium body, smooth tasteand  hints of vanilla and honey lend nicely to the flavour of the custard. For non-scotch drinkers, it was a nice choice because it doesn't taste like someone mowed the lawn, smoked a cigarette, rolled around in the dirt and then sweat in your dessert.
Adapted from David Lebovitz's recipe.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Sand on my Feet

This is the weekend we have all been waiting for. This is the one choice destination that has been front of everyone’s mind since we started looking into the area- The Giant’s Causeway. Along the north coast, the Giant’s Causeway is a UNESCO World Heritage Site made up of hexagonal shaped columns that form the stepping stones on the shoreline tourist attraction. The kids all absolutely loved Peggy’s Cove on our trip to Halifax last year and this would be the ultimate in what they call “rock climbing”, hopping from rock to rock to rock, preferably with a body of water close by. We had looked into the area and knew there was way more that we wanted to cover than would be possible in a day trip. Our original thought was to go the first weekend in August, however, rooms seemed hard to find so when we found a B&B that had a family room to sleep five that had availability this weekend we were more than happy to change the dates we had in mind (besides, this was the weekend we had penciled in a trip to London should a good deal come up on a flight- can’t say I disappointed that one never came to be).
We got on the road early, and partially because of the weather forecast, we decided to do the loop in the opposite direction that most traffic would flow. We drove first to Limavady. I was drawn to the town by mention of the Limavady Workhouse on a tourism website. It is described as one of the best preserved buildings of its type in Ireland. The blind fiddler, Jimmy McCurry, who wrote the melody for Danny Boy is said to have died. It all sounds very interesting to me, and aside from a small 19th Century section at the Ulster Museum the day before, we hadn’t really heard that much about life around the time of the Famine that claimed a million lives and influenced the emigration of about the same number.  We drove up to the site and it was not exactly as we were expecting. The Workhouse had been converted into a hospital in the mid 1930’s and has since become and outpatient clinic. Closed on the weekends, the property was being used today for a family fun fair. The lawns that had once separated young inmate boys from girls were today spotted with bouncy castles and other amusing games.  We took a quick peek inside and what is now a cafeteria had art work and words painted on the walls that reflected what went on within the original building. We were asked to leave, because the group had really only rented the lawns for public use. There is so much to be learned from the property. While not a happy history, so many have ancestors that may have lived in these workhouses before the emigrated to North America. It would have been nice to have had a tour and heard more about this part of Ireland’s history.
Now joining up with the scenic Causeway Coastal route, we stopped at Downhill Demesne. The views approaching the property are spectacular. We came around the bend and while Chris said “Oh, look at that” I agreed to the waterfall on our right while he meant the temple perched at the edge of the cliff, high and straight ahead. With the white sand beach below us and to the left, we were surrounded by postcard images.
We borrowed a tracker pack for Kyra and Gavin to share. The backpack included binoculars, compass, maps, bug identification cards and bug jars. Most items were used (and some fought over). The grounds include the Demesne (fancy word for estate), Mussenden Temple (cliff-top library), and Mausoleum, Dovecot (a stone dove condo that housed one hundred pairs or birds) gardens and Belvedere (fancy word for any architecture that incorporates the view, not the eighties sitcom).
We wandered around the grounds enjoying the view from every point of the cliff. We filled up the bug jar to take a closer look at a red a black butterfly and used the compass to confirm that the windows in the temple looked directly north east and west. Our imaginations helped us explore the 18th century manor that now lies in ruins. I was impressed that the older two kids are now able to notice where fireplaces and stables would have been as well as clues to a staircase that would have led to another level above us.
After having looked down from the temple at the beaches below we decided to stop down by the water. We drove down and parked directly on the sand only 30 or so meters from the water. We looked for seashells and dipped our toes in the water. The kids found that if you stood still on the wet sand you would slowly sink down into it. Kyra was not patient enough and wiggled her toes too much to sink neither Gavin and Elliot had a problem sinking in ankle deep.
As we were driving down the road, we spotted Hezlett House.  Built in 1691, the house is one of the oldest thatched cottages left standing in Northern Ireland.  The building was not as large or overtly stunning as some of the castles and breathtaking views that we’d seen earlier in the day but the National Trust property was very well laid out.  The house was furnished as it would have appeared in the early 1800s.  The property had red ribbons tied around tools and other items and they encouraged the children to lift touch and guess what they were used for.  Gavin seemed to enjoy turning the tables on Chris by asking him to identify objects and heaped praise as he correctly identified a saddle, bed and was proud when he stumbled on the water bottle and encouraged him to ask the guide.
Not so much feeling like we really needed to go to another beach today but interested to see what a beach protected under the National Trust had to offer, we drove down onto Portstewart Strand. OMG. I can’t even begin to tell how stunning this stretch of sand dunes are. We ventured away from the water following the sand covered pathways between tall lush grasses. The golf course we passed on the way to the shoreline was something that would make those without any interest in the game want to take the walk. The path that we took brought us into a clearing, still heavy with tall grasses, but there was one steep, sand covered incline that a grown man, obviously in training, would sprint up the incline to a marked point partly up the hill, run back down and rest, before sprinting up once again. It was a great spot to burn off some energy and while the Chris, Elliot and Kyra tried to conquer that incline, I headed up to the top of the hill opposite to try and capture the fun they were having in a picture. When I got to the top, I knew they would be just as excited as I was to se that the next clearing had not one but three of these steep inclines. Shoes removed we all enjoyed the sand in our toes. Gavin took a few tumbles (the first one startled him but I am convinced he thouroughly enjoyed each tumble after that) and Kyra and Elliot raced each other to the top and then back to the bottom again. This was certainly an unexpected highlight of our day. Gavin even had sand in his belly button by the time we left.
Kids are happily sleeping now. Our family room here at the B&B has bunk beds. One of the twin beds will go unused tonight since Kyra and Gavin have decided they will share the juvenile thrill of sleeping on the top bunk.  Only a few minutes from the Causeway itself, I can’t think of a better way to start our day. If only I could get up the nerve to cross that suspension bridge tomorrow. We’ll cross that bridge... well maybe not.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Welcome to the Jungle

We travelled into Belfast today to see a stage production of The Jungle Book. Kyra had been looking forward to checking this one off the list. The Lyric Theatre is a smallish theatre that is beautifully designed. The theatre was only about a third full (Tuesday matinee). I had purchased the ticket and liked the Row C option that was given to me. I was happy to be nice and close (although any seats in the theatre likely would have been great) but not right in front in case something might startle Gavin or should he even fall asleep. I had no idea that rows A and B would be taken out for the stage so we ended up being front row, stage right. I was felt a little uneasy for the same reasons I had liked the idea of the third row but was pleasantly surprised that Gavin was focused the entire time.
All of us really enjoyed the show. The Man that played Mowgli was very acrobatic and the small cast of six not only plays all the parts in the musical but also plays all the instruments. The show was closer to the original Rudyard Kipling story rather than the Disney-fied version and with original songs and music it was a real treat. Kyra really enjoyed the portrayal of Bagheera the panther and Elliot liked that Baloo the Bear was played by an actor who looked remarkably like Zach Galifiankis of ‘Hangover’ fame.
Having waited in line during intermission to get their faces painted and running out of time, Kyra and Gavin were thrilled that the face painter was still there after the show. They waited in the short line again and were lucky to see and talk to the actors that played Mowgli and Baloo out of character. When asked if he liked the show, Gavin told “Baloo” he saw jungle book two times! All flattered that we must have really liked it, I clarified that Gavin enjoyed both Act 1 and Act 2.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Lough, Stock and Teardrops

Friday we celebrated Jenn's birthday. We picked up a lovely lemon coconut cake that was absolutely delicious! I even brought home a BMW (from Avis) for her birthday. It was nice to drive for the weekend but was a little smaller than the Peugeot we had been renting and Elliot seemed to feel the squeeze in the back seat.
After another Avoca breakfast and Market trip, we dropping our goodies at home and headed back to the city for the Belfast Taste & Music Fest in the Botanic Gardens. It is an event where some of Northern Ireland's best chefs were cooking up a storm. The festival had children's activities in the afternoon. Kyra and Gavin tried their hands at Sports Stacking. The rain started so we pulled up a table and chairs under some trees and enjoyed some delicious nibbles while listening to live music. Some of the selections we enjoyed were: Strangford Prawn Fish Cakes, Local Lamb, Pepper berry Marinated Kangaroo and Crispy Short Ribs of Beef. Surprisingly, we found a tiger in Northern Ireland that loved to eat ice cream and to roaaarrrr.

Sunday morning we headed up the Ards peninsula to Mount Stewart. The grounds are popular with both tourists and locals, many brought picnics to enjoy on the lawns. They had activities that day for the kids. An Alice in Wonderland Tea Party was being held in the house and as well as crafts and a scavenger hunt throughout the grounds. Local kids had dressed in costume: a paper mache tea pot, brothers dressed as Tweedle Dee and Dum, a well executed white rabbit were some of the favourite among the many Alices. 

We toured the neoclassical house which was home to many political and society figures. It was a well done tour. Kyra's favourite item in the house was a crystal chandelier that hung in the high near a bay window. Shaped like a ship and designed by Cunard ship building company, is said to be hung at the precise height, before the trees grew between the house and the water, to look as if it was floating on the lough. Equally interesting is a piece of art that hung in the grand staircase. Painted (mostly) by George Stubbs, Humbletonian was initial painted as the horse running, beautifully showing off the muscles in action. The background and person in the picture were added later by a different artist when the owner was not happy with what he had had commissioned.  I have never seen a tour guide look so deflated when someone commented to him as they were heading up the stairs, that the horse could not have physically stood that way, both right legs off the ground. Clearly this was a moment the guide looked forward in the tour, when he would mention it, and watch a crowd of people tilt their heads and say a collections of "oh yeah"s. During the house tour we even saw Lady Rose, the resident of the house. It must be difficult to get accustomed to having groups of 20 tourist walking through your home each half hour every afternoon from March to October. 
Mount Stewart has absolutely gorgeous gardens that Gavin and Kyra enjoyed being able to explore. The mild climate around Strangford Lough makes it possible for a spectacular array of plants to be grown here. The the bark eucalyptus and myrtle trees made parts of the gardens seem like they were our of watercolour paintings. 

After a quick snack we headed up the hill toward The Temple of the Winds which promised magnificent views of Stranford Lough. Not everyone appreciated the views- regularly scheduled programing was interrupted by a preschoolers temper tantrum over a piece of garbage he was not quite ready to part with.

Castle Espie was our next stop located on the opposite side of the lough. A wetland reserve named for a castle that no longer exists, it has the largest collection of ducks, geese and swans in Ireland. The grounds have a an interesting past. Before becoming the lush wetland, the grounds were rich in limestone buried under clay, both used widely for building up the area. We joined a tour conducted o
n medieval living that was very well done and brought us out to tour The Crannog to share how people would have lived 5000 years ago. Our guide made a lot of the tools himself as they would have been made in the stone age and was obviously proud to share his research and efforts with the group. Elliot noticed the atlatl right away and remembered throwing one in Whitehorse with Michael Pealow and Atlatl Mike.  

With bags of bird feed in hand we headed out to feed the birds that anticipated why we were there. Gavin, who earlier this year freaked out about a bunny looking at him seems to have mellowed a little and was happy to feed the ducks, albeit not by hand. Kyra and Elliot seemed to enjoy feeding them as well. We visited the hatchery and saw the ducklings and goslings and then got dirty in the woodland play area.

We got back into the car just before it poured again and headed home for a wonderful dinner of fresh local Hake.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

HeeeeRE Fishy Fishy - guest post by Elliot

Today I travelled from Hillsborough to Bangor, excited for my deep sea fishing trip on the Bangor Boat with Brian yesterday. Managing to once again catch the 7:40 train to Bangor and losing track of time by diving into my book, I had sooner realized that the train had come to its final stop at the Bangor railway station. Although spirits depressed in the realization that I had missed a fantastic day yesterday with beautifully clear skies, it looked as if the weather might remain dry with only some grey clouds blotched across the sky.

Upon arriving at Eisenhower Pier, I observed the motions of the waves back and forth while waiting for my guide to take me out to the fishy world, noticing the apparent dullness of a seagull’s mind as it failed to notice a bright red frog lying motionless upon an algae covered rock. On the dot at 9:15 as stated the previous day, Brian arrived and invited me to join him on his ship, the ‘’Blue Aquarius.’’ As we crossed to the other side of the marina to pick up passengers who would also be joining us, I strolled to the stern of the boat to select my weapon of choice against the fish of the sea.  Upon greeting the other passengers when they boarded the boat, we started off into the open water.

Waiting several minutes, while listening to the chatter of the other passengers to Brian, to catch a fish I noticed that the three passengers had obviously been on the boat before. Finally, Ben, one of the other passengers, caught a glistening mackerel and I couldn’t help but feel a tug of jealousy on my rod and jerking upwards expecting to see a fish as well, I reeled quickly to see a one, but saw that it was only the weight at the end of the string and I learned to not be so hasty. Several more minutes passed and as every other person admired their own personal catch, I wished that I would catch one soon to participate in the glory.

Soon enough as the thought crossed my mind, I felt a tug on my rod and jerked upwards and started reeling in. Expecting disappointment again, I didn’t get my hopes up, however, as I saw the lure slowly rising to meet me I saw something large and green on my hook and upon lifting it out of the water saw a mackerel, every bit as big as the first one caught. Receiving congratulations from the crew members, I felt my confidence rise and soon started catching more and more. Catching a trio of fish three times, which were split between all three of our stops, felt extremely good especially after hearing that the first person to catch a fish today, also fished 3 times a week all over Northern Ireland. 

Upon returning to the harbour, we fed the seals and Brian taught me how to fillet a fish... or at least attempted to. After finishing tying up the boat, I said my farewells to the other passengers and headed off to the train station with my bag of filleted mackerel. When I arrived in Lisburn I quickly trotted off to Marks and Spencer, with which I have fallen madly in love with, and bought several items for my mother’s  birthday. After taking the bus home and stopping on the way to get some soda bread, I got home shortly before 4:00. Later I decided to test the taste of the fish by adding some tomato chutney as well as rice with added vegetables, and I daresay it was very tasty (due to my mother's cooking).

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Gavin and Kyra, A Day of Play, Today, W5, For Fun- Why Else?

3 Feet in the air after pulling
 himself up with the help of a pulley.
The little ones and I headed into Belfast today to explore the W5. Four floors of interactive exhibits makes for a great day for the under eight set. One of the many exhibits was a carbon copy of the Kidspark area at the Ontario Science Centre, somewhere Gavin and Kyra really enjoy playing so it was a hit for them.
Kyra really has no chance in this tug of war.
 Gavin ispulling the rope from up high but Kyra
 is pulling from her waist height.
The rest of the children’s museum was just as engaging as they explored animal tracks, designed their own butterflies, used bowling balls to launch tennis balls into the air and even pull their own body 3 feet into the air using pulleys. They explored senses, sound, pressure and lift, fascinated by what they were doing but before they could learn the why in W5, their attention was quickly on to the next what.

Belfast's Big Fish
 A fun place to explore that was not particularly Irish in any way, but the little ones thoroughly enjoyed themselves and got to play the day away

Monday, August 1, 2011

All Socks in This Wardobe are Soaked

Sunday was a wet rainy day here in NI. Considering I had been told that it generally rains every day here, I think we have lucked out weather wise. The rain doesn’t usually stop us since it can either spit all day (as it did yesterday) or it can stop any minute and the sun comes out. Weather forecasts generally aren’t too helpful, especially if you are looking more than a day ahead.
We started the day off with a nice Sunday breakfast using the fresh eggs purchased at the farmers’ market.  The cleanest tasting eggs I have ever had, there was no grassy metallic aftertaste that usually make eggs taste, well, eggy.
Bellies set for a damp day of exploring we headed south east to the Mourne Mountains. We had some great views of the area when we had our extended weekend in Ireland early in our trip. The area is beautiful and said to have influenced C.S. Lewis for The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
We stopped at a small parking lot overlooking the Irish Sea to have a quick look around. The rain had broken and while there were no signs at the parking lot, we just happened to end up at exactly one of the point we had wanted to stop. We walked along the trail towards Bloody Bridge- referring to the 17th century massacre where bodies of slain prisoners were tossed over the bridge colouring the river below.  The path was narrow and wet, high above the waves that crashed up on the shore below us. We happily explored the trail finding giant slugs, snails, unusual flowers, and even catching sight of a seal in the water.
Our drive brought us towards an old corn mill that was closed but the kids at a great time at the park. With the exception of the slide, it was almost entirely made of rope. What was daunting for Gavin was taken as a challenge and a lot of fun for Kyra.
Not much was open along the route and we were a little disappointed that the small shops in the villages we passed through were closed on Sundays. It is certainly something to consider as we plan the next few weekends.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Taste, Sight, Smell, Touch and Sound of NI

We woke this morning and, to tick something else off the summer to-do list, we went for breakfast.
Chris brought me an Avoca Cookbook on his weekend home in June.  It is has beautiful pictures and wonderful ideas. The cafe is on the second floor of a small department store and just my type of store to browse and I am not usually a browser.  A great mix of unique clothes, toys, house wares, books and jewellery; it is basically an Anthropolgie with a similarly styled cafe, whimsical unpretentious and well put together.  They served up a wonderful latte and the vanilla, pear & almond scone I had was superb.  Kyra had hot chocolate with mini marshmallows and a flake bar to go with the pancakes her and Gavin split.  Elliot had a breakfast sandwich and Chris had a basket of assorted breads- all very different, all very good.  Simple food very well made and presented. I don’t think you could go wrong here. I’ll be back for lunch one day.
With a planned trip back home right afterwards we took advantage of the market and picked up some of the fresh fish that we had to pass on a few weeks before. We got some bass that truly looked like it could still swim if placed in back in the water.  It was served it up with some spinach, leeks and new potatoes for dinner.
Our afternoon was spent visiting Patterson’s Spade Mill. Such and important tool to Ireland, over 170 different styles are vital to potato crops, extracting peat for fuel and heat and dug  many of the canals, roads and railways across the Ireland, England and the US. Secrets to the trade were passed down through families and nearly died out before the National Trust (NT) bought this Mill in the 1990’s. Sure it doesn’t sound like much fun for a seven year old to see how spades were made 300 years ago but leave it to NT to make it more fun. Gavin and Kyra were given hats, protective eyewear and suede aprons to wear for the tour.
Sadly the site doesn’t get nearly the amount of tourists they would like, but for us it meant a nice intimate tour with only one other couple.  See that spade that Gavin is holding?  It is only slightly too big for him. I t should come just up to the breast bone. The thought of four year olds regularly using something that heavy is kind of amazing. Wonder if they had the size 9 steel toe boots back then too?
After our tour we headed to Stormont Estate. We lucked out getting parking only steps from the gate.  We followed our ears and walked through the beautiful grounds towards the European Pipe Band Championship. Tartans of all colours dressed the very wee, the Smartphone-totting teens and "experienced" pipers.  Over thirty teams of pipers filled the cricket pitch taking their turns playing for the crowd. There was a great energy it was fascinating to watch the drummers. We only arrived towards the end but it was just the taste we were looking for and a great way to cap off the day.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Seven Whole Years

Today was certain young lady’s seventh birthday. Chris searched out a bakery and brought home a fabulous (chocolate flake) cake.
We hit the rails and headed towards Holywood, to the Ulster Fold and Transport Museum. An odd mix of Transport vehicles displayed in a fairly modern manner right next to a folk park that depicted life in the early 1900 was held together only by the temporary exhibit that bridged the two museums.
I don’t think Gavin knew what to expect but was blown away when we entered a room that overlooked a railway roundhouse full of steam engines. Each of them were quickly given names and both he, Kyra and Elliot enjoyed boarding the various trains, both passenger and commercial. A few very small trains, no taller than me, were used at the Guinness Brewery. Some transported the beer and its ingredients, but particularly liked the one that was basically two park benches placed back to back on a car that transported employees throughout the brewery. The scale of the brewery even in the early 1900s is mind-boggling.   Yes, beer was a safe alternative to water back in the day, but these tiny branded train put into perspective that Guinness is not just an opportunistic tourist grab but an integral part of this culture .
The transportation Museum, built on the side of a hill, continued, downwards for three more floors of road transport galleries and a really well presented Titanic exhibit. Heading into its 100 anniversary, a new Titanic museum will be opening here next year, but for now, there are pieces all over the place. Belfast is where the ship was designed and built.  T-shirts boldly state “Built by an Irishman, Sunk by an Englishman”.  The exhibit itself was very similar to the one we saw in Halifax not more than a year ago. Much of the same memorabilia surrounded a model of the ship sinking. Each of the four corners of the display represented a different class, first, second, steerage and the ships employees. On two tiers, small painted figures represented each survivor and a grey ghost of a figure represented those who had died in the freezing water.  Several buttons surrounded the display but there was only one handset to listen to the commentary.
The Titanic theme continued over to the Folk Museum. Among the many village buildings, a print shop showed the printing process and displayed a backwards letterpress version of a Titanic ticket and a newspaper from the day after it sunk. There was also an impressive collection of over 40 papers upstairs and the articles they printed the same day. The silent movie house showed a news reel from the day where people had lined up at White Star for news.  We had a nice walk throughout the folk park, in and out of old houses and visiting a basket weaver but were forced to avoid the manor house. Gavin, already tired from the walking and sun, was teased by the event being set up. About twenty inflatable bouncy houses and other activities side by side by side resulted in an understandable melt down when we couldn’t visit. A train ride home was plenty time to recuperate especially when there is a stop on the way home to get a balloon and the promise of (secret) birthday cake.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

We Are All Animals

One of the top outings on Kyra’s list has been a trip to the zoo.  We finally made it out today.  The kids really enjoyed seeing the animals and that should go without saying. I spent the majority of the trip comparing the zoo to the wonderful zoo we have in Toronto. There was a strange mix of enclosures that you could not really see into and others that were too easy to access which meant kiddie toes would dangle a little too close to  animals or garbage littered the enclosures. The zoo was actually built on the side of a fairly steep hill so it was a challenging walk day so I was pleasantly surprised that kids held up much longer than I had expected and without much whining.
After climbing up steep incline after incline, Gavin stopped at the top of a ramp that overlooked the Rothschild’s giraffes. The group that had been standing at the very top was leaving so he made his way up and sat. No bench, no matter. We took the opportunity to refresh ourselves and stayed for quite a while. There were about ten fairly small giraffes, six zebras, and an ostrich that held their attention for a good twenty minutes. They marvelled over their long tongues and wondered why the markings were so different on each of the giraffes.  Playful meerkats were just around the corner.
They were equally excited about the penguins and sea lions. Each had their own underwater viewing area and the kids were excited to see them swim by and be able to look at them so closely.
What struck me as strange was that there very few North American animals at the zoo. I didn’t miss them but was taken aback when people identified them anyways. I found it interesting to listen to people tell the story of when they saw a Andean bear (native only to South America) wandering the road when they visited Canada, or numerous people get excited about all the chipmunks ( actually prairie dogs) running around in front of us. Taking for granted we are fully aware of the species of bears and most of the wildlife that live in our own country Elliot and I were stunned when a group identified an animal as a beaver. Easily four times the size, and no water to speak of nearby, it looked to us to be more closely related to a ROUS from The Princess Bride. To their credit, the zoo had obviously not labelled or taken the opportunity to teach about the animals. We later found it to be a capybara native to South America.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


In the craziness of the weeks leading up to our departure for NI, Chris booked a weekend away for us in Edinburgh.  Neither of us had looked into the city much before we booked but the price was right and we could surely find enough to keep ourselves busy for a few days.  The weeks went by and we had been busy with so many other things that the planning, at least the way I tend to plan a holiday, went completely out the window.
We caught the plane to Scotland on Friday night.  We had our first hand at flying one of Europe’s discount airlines, Easyjet, and it was a fairly positive experience. The flight was only thirty minutes and, since we had a member of our group in the under five category, we were lucky to be able to have priority boarding, important since there is no assigned seating with the airline.  Limited to one piece of carryon luggage each, we had the five of us packed into two small bags, Kyra and Elliot each had a back pack and I had my purse.  I was expecting the worst but their efficiency impressed me.
We did know from the little research that we had done, that we wanted to get one of the tourist passes that gave you admission to several of the key attractions. We compared the two options over breakfast and realized that the one we really wanted was, according to the website, only available online. You redeem your confirmation code at a specific location and confirmation codes were emailed Monday through Friday only. We thought we were SOL but at least we know knew exactly what we wanted to do, savings or not. We inquired at the hotel concierge and were thrilled to find out that they sell the package that we wanted.
Our first stop was Edinburgh Castle. Our timing could not have been better. With our tickets already in hand, we were able to bypass to long line to enter the castle. There was a free guided tour and we decided not to join the large group that was about to leave. We admired the views from high above Edinburgh and looked over the castle walls.  Ten minutes later there was a much smaller group of people gathering for the tour. Our guide was fantastic and told us many things details to look out for in the various buildings when we looked around on our own later on. While walking between the of likely scripted segments of the tour she made a point of keeping the kids on the tour engaged telling them stories of lions that were rumoured to have lived at the castle which are not able to be part of the tour because it isn’t proven fact. The grounds were spectacular, the Scottish Crown Jewels were fun to see and we somehow missed the one o’clock gun entirely. We were likely touring the apartments were King James would have been born, looking at the many swords and plates of armour that adorned the walls of the great hall, or touring the Castle Vaults that housed prisoners of war in the 18th century.  The Scottish National War Memorial was wonderfully presented on the Castle grounds.
From Royals dwellings of the past to present, we made our way to the Royal Yacht Britannia. Since being decommissioned in 1997 after 44 years serving the Royal Family, the yacht is now a tourist attraction moored in Edinburgh.  A museum preceded our visit on board the ship and introduced the boats history through timelines, pictures and memorabilia. We boarded the ship with audio tour handsets, special junior versions for the kids. Gavin didn’t listen to all of it; he enjoyed randomly pressing the buttons.  We were surprised by the beds. None of them looked particularly comfy. All were twin beds with the exception of the honeymoon suite which was a double.  It was an interesting peak into the lifestyle of the royals and those that serve them.  Particularly interesting were the gifts on display given by the countries visited on the Britannia like a narwhal tusk from a visit to Canada.
Sunday morning started with a trip to the National Museum of Scotland. We focused on the Kingdom of the Scots section and walked amongst interesting artefacts from between 900-1707.  Weapons, a guillotine, clarsaches, jewels, painted ceilings, and a giant ceremonial sword all caught more than a passing gaze. The kids enjoyed piecing together jugs and dressing up in the discovery zone.

Clearly "someone" has some work to do

It would simply be wrong not to have a taste of Scotch in its homeland. The only actual distillery in the area did not allow kids under eight into the production area which meant we couldn’t all take the entire tour. The Scotch Whiskey Experience was a great all ages alternative. A Disneyesque ride in an oversized barrel brings you through the scotch making process from barley to cask.  We were then given a great presentation that broke down the key aromas characteristic of each of the four main regions - citrus from the Lowlands, vanilla from the Highlands, peat from Islay and banana from Speyside. With a scratch and stiff card in hand you were able to choose which of the regions you wanted to sample from. We then visited the world’s largest scotch collection for the tasting. Kids got a glass of Irn Bru and since Gavin is not a fan of fizzy drinks, he desperately wanted a sip of Mom or Dad’s apple juice instead.
We had a nice walk down the Royal Mile past William Wallace himself and many other spirited street performers. Some were far more impressive than others. The duelling banjos (minus two banjos and add in a set of bagpipes and an electric guitar) was truly impressive.
The last of our Royal Ticket package included a tour of the Palace of Holyroodhouse. More than the Queen’s official residence in Scotland, it has a rich royal history as home to Mary, Queen of Scots and was a interesting tour that brought you into history and back to the present. The courtyard itself was being transformed for the wedding of Zara Phillips being held there this coming weekend.  Shouldn’t probably mention that when asked where the washrooms were I was pointed in the direction of an unmarked door just off the courtyard itself. Hopefully they get nicer quality TP for special events ;o)

Friday, July 22, 2011


Never even thought I would have the nerve to do it here, but I drove today. I had truly thought that it would just beyond me, if I couldn’t write with my left hand without having to over-think each and every stroke of the pen, than driving was not an option. 
It would have been only a few dollars more and take much more time, so rather than take the bus to the airport we rented a car instead. Chris picked up the car last night before he and Elliot saw the new Harry Potter flick and since it was easier for him to take the bus into work in the morning, I was left with the car. I googled tips on driving on the other side of the road, hoping to find something I hadn’t already thought about. Nothing jumped out and I thought that was positive sign.  Fully expecting if I did get the nerve to get out in the car that I would turn around and head back home, I went out on my own to pick up a few staples we needed for the following week. I made it to the shopping centre without issue. That being said, it wasn’t until I entered the parking lot that I realized I needed to park too! I parked in the middle of several open spaces.  The automatic car that we rented was not as automatic as I am used to at home. You can feel each gear change and you can’t take your foot off the gas/ brake and expect the car will move a little because it just doesn’t, but the car was really enjoyable to drive and I really liked the practicality of the roundabouts from a driver’s perspective.  After coming home and getting the kids a quick lunch, we all zipped out to the toy store which is otherwise difficult to get to. Kyra and Gavin were thrilled to browse and Kyra bought a Sylvanian Family set (UK Calico Critters).  
I may never drive on the opposite side of the road again but I am glad I did. The fear I had was shrunken and while still present became positive fear in the end. What surprised me the most was that it was easier with the more cars around. Easier to go with the flow and fall into place.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Blame it on the Rain

Street view of St George's Market
Weather-wise, it was a rather wet weekend in NI. For the most part, it rained the entire time but we were lucky enough on Saturday that it was sunny and the precipitation was more of a mist.

We made our way into Belfast Saturday morning and headed to St George's Market- rated as one of the top 5 UK markets. I pinned over the local Lamb, potatoes and some of the freshest looking fish I have ever seen. Considering we still had a full day ahead of ourselves and no fridge in the car, we passed on the fantastic looking, but quickly perishable fare.

Photo credit: Elliot
We did pick up some fresh vegetables, herbs, hard cheese and some delicious tayberries. A cross between a raspberry and a black berry, they are deeper in flavour and complexity to a raspberry much like a comparison between a Merlot and a Cabernet Sauvignon. We also picked up some "muffins" that were really cupcakes. After a quick browsing trip in Victoria Square and a speedy ( as much as one can expect, anyways) into Ikea, We returned to the car, opened the trunk boot, and it smelled incredible.

Who knew worms could travel so fast?
We headed out towards Bangor, where we visited the fair at the marina and looked into the local tourism office for information on deep sea fishing for Elliot. Gavin chose to ride a mini roller coaster and Kyra rode with him. The smile on Gavin's face could not have been any bigger. His eyes were wide and I would swear I could count the teeth in his grin if they weren't whipping by so fast. Kyra was the same way on the swing ride. Arms outstretched like a bird, she was experiencing the feeling only dreamed of before. This is the year she has mastered the swing at the park, honed the skill of pumping, and competes with friends to reach the highest height. With little more effort than handing over a few tokens, she was in pure bliss.

A short drive away, and many tears from the tired almost-four year old who didn't want to leave, was Crawfordsburn County Park. What is usually a very busy park of beaches, nature trails and an excellent visitors centre was almost deserted, probably because of the sun showers. Under the cover of the trees, we were fine and rambled beside a flowing creek and headed deep into the woods. Of course it smelled fresh, any woodland area would, but there was a disconnect in my mind. It smelled more like a garden centre to me than a forest. Not an evergreen tree to be seen, the aromatics that they lend to the forests we are used to back home were absent. Interesting, to me anyways, that that particular sense would pick up on the subtle environmental change.

The rambling about our rambling, is really only so that I can share more pictures. We enjoyed touching waxy leaves and examining roots in the hillside. We stayed off the path to cross the creek and watch the water rush by around us. Brightly coloured flowers were contrasted by dry, dark pine cones that had grown only inches away. Shamrocks grew, as they should in Ireland, at the bases of trees and the trail ended at a stone wall and series of steps that led us to a waterfall. What is so remarkable is that back on the other side of the glen, about 10 minutes past where we had initially begun our walk, the landscape opens to a magnificent lawn and drops down to a sandy beach. This is one of the places where Chris, on a house hunting trip weeks before we arrived, had seen seals playing in the water not far from shore. We weren't lucky enough to see any yesterday but the views were enchanting just the same.

Our plan was to head back towards Casement Park in order to watch a Gaelic Football qualifier. Late arriving to the area, we saw the sea of parked cars whose passengers were trekking quite a ways to get to the field. Knowing we would miss much of the game merely walking to the field, we decided to go home and watch the game on TV instead.

Cuddling up on the couch, and watching the very entertaining game was the perfect way to end a day.

Showers, and not the warm, wake you in a good way kind, we what we rose to this morning. We were to head south today and a few places we wanted to stop were outdoor activities. Today was cold, wet and damp. Definitely the wettest day since we have been here, it didn't let up. We headed toward the aquarium at the mouth of Strangford Lough. Exploris is Northern Ireland's only aquarium but also acts as a seal rescue centre for orphaned seal pups. Gavin had fallen asleep on the scenic and winding drive around the lough and was particularly clingy and sensitive for the first 30-45 minutes we were at the aquarium. He freaked out when cod fish swam  quickly towards him much the same way he does with dogs that get too close to him. His curiosity finally got the better of him in the middle of the presentation at the touch tanks that enabled us to learn about and touch dogfish sharks, rays, sea urchins, starfish, scallops and even a shark egg. After then, he happily explored all the exhibits making his own fish faces and excitedly pointing out details to the rest of us. We were able to see jellyfish, the same as the ones we had spotted on the beach near Galway, moving through water rather than in the sand. It answered the curiosities that we had had at the time about how long their tentacles were and why they had purple rings inside. We observed back-lit shark eggs just like the ones we had handled that you could see the actual baby shark swimming inside. And we also go to see six rescued seals all between one and four weeks old. They had been rescued from all parts of NI and all named after tropical islands. In two to three months, after they learn to swim and when ready, they will be released back into the wild.

A short ferry ride from Portaferry to Strangford brought us to Castle Ward, an 18th century home that is classically designed on one side and Gothic on the side over looking the lough.The property is 820 acres and not ideally explored on a damp rainy day. there are walking trails, bike trails (and rentals) and you can even explore by horseback if you have a horse and a permit.

The house was magnificently displayed. Self guided tour sheets were given to each of us when we entered the home. The little ones got a scavenger hunt to keep their interest. There were pictures of feet from each room. Statues, table legs, silhouettes, urns and taxidermy squirrels were among some of the feet they had to identify from the close up photograph.

We explored each room in the home open to the public. The dining room had a secret door in the wall and fancy wooden baskets to carry stacks of twenty or so plates. The family business was taxidermy. We were greeted by a bear when we entered the home and series of boxing tail-less squirrels in gloves and shorts showed the family's sense of humour. Boxes of shirt collars, boot hooks and fancy ropes hanging in each room to ring for servants dated the lives lived in the property. It was fun to explore the cellar level that housed the bells for those rope pulls, the wine cellar and kitchen- lined on almost every wall with copper cookware that would have been polished each and every night.

It would have been impossible to enjoy the house as we did had it been a busy day, but the rain kept most people away from the grounds that would take days to take it all in. Elliot spotted archery targets and we poked around the gardens before we headed to the barn that had lots of farm themed activities for the kids: dress up, pedal tractors, books and toys.

Looking at my list of other outdoor activities in the area, we realistically would never have hit any of them anyways, the grounds of Castle Ward were full of things to discover.