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.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Like, Totally Megalithic

Our drive back to Hillsbourough, was a trip back in time- more than the imagination could even fathom.

We started out at the Hill of Tara. Unfortunately, we didn't have cash for the tour and these remote places don't tend to take credit cards but the grounds are open to the public so we did have a chance to walk around the grounds. At first sight it really doesn't look like much, grassy mounds and depressions and a few pillar stones, but imagining life in the iron age while the little ones enjoyed the open space was magical, after all, kings were crowned on that very hill top.

As the luck of the Irish would have it, not taking the tour had us arriving at the the Newgrange visitors center in time to get the very last five stickers allowing us to visit the monument. I hadn't realized, that unlike other tourist spot where you show up and  join whatever is happening at the time, here they cleverly limit the number of people that visit each site. Frustrating to those behind us that day, but those stickers with the times to be at the bus stop that takes you to each of the monuments made it so that small groups could really get more out of the guided tours and the grounds of each passage tomb. The UNESCO heritage site is older than the pyramids in Egypt and Stonehenge. Like those two well known examples it proves that prehistoric doesn't necessarily mean primitive. These feats of engineering have lasted over 3000-5000 years.

We visited Knowth (rhymes with mouth) first. Not quite as large as Newgrange, this ones is much more complicated. It has two passages, east and west, and has evidence of other civilizations who unknowingly built castle courts on top this hidden tomb.  Elliot, Kyra and Gavin Climbed through one of the sous terrain tunnels that only Gavin was able to walk though upright. We were also able to climb to the top of the mound and see first hand why this location would have been so desirable for a community in civilization throughout time.

Newgrange was just as impressive and dating back to the stone age made the artwork on the kerbstones that much more appreciated. We entered the passage and were able to see the corbelled roof construction. Sharing a small space in the center of a passage tomb accessible by only one narrow passage way was not for me. I left the tomb after about five minutes. Happy that I made it inside to see I was also relieved that I had left before the guide turned off the lights inside demonstrating that the tomb is only lit naturally for 17 minutes a day for two days before, after and on the solstice. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

My Dear Old Galway Bay

We drove out west towards Galway today and found ourselves on a hop on hop off bus tour around the city, walked through Eyre Square, down Shop Street and stopped into Dillon’s Jewellers on Quay Street which houses a very small museum in the back dedicated to the Claddagh ring’s history. We even saw the world smallest Claddagh ring which is only visible under magnifying glass. At the very end of the street was a small tea shop that we had spotted while on the bus and decided to stop in for tea and scones. The kids had rainforest tea (hibiscus and fruit tea) while Elliot Chris and I enjoyed the Galway Cream tea. We shared scones with jam and clotted cream and enjoyed the tea shop that was decorated with an eclectic selection of tea sets and antiques tables and chairs.
Back in the car, we headed west to Spideal (Spiddal) were we visited the local craft shops and explored the rocks and sand on Silver Strand Beach. Kyra and Gavin took their shoes off and walked ankle deep in the water. We were careful though as the beach was spotted with jelly fish stranded on the sand.
Back in Athlone, another restaurant we wanted to try was closed for a function. Hungry, tired and arms easily twisted, we returned to Thyme, which was only a few steps away, for another delicious meal.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Vikings and Normans and Celtics Oh My!

After such a busy day yesterday, we thought we would stay near Athlone and really discover the area. We started with breakfast at the hotel and ventured out along the Shannon and after looking around Athlone castle, we hoped on a Viking Boat cruise up the Shannon. Gavin slept for the entire cruise. And while Kyra was offered the chance to steer the boat she was too shy to take the helm.
We later took a short car trip toward Clonmacnoise. The tour of this Holy site, a cathedral, a castle, and eight churches was a fascinating look into not only the religious heritage of the land but also into the Viking and Norman histories as well as what some of the Celtic markings mean. It was a beautiful site that I wasn’t expecting to take so much from. After several days of jumping on rocks it was a challenge to keep Gavin from jumping on the grave slabs in the ground. The gothic whispering arches were a personal favourite.   
Our drive back to town had us stopping on the side of the road to photograph the neatly stacked bricks of peat drying in the fields.
Back at the hotel, we all went for a swim. Although we had to purchase and wear bathing caps in order to enter the pool, it was one of the best hotel pools we have visited. The main pool had three smaller pools off of the main one, one was a hot tub, one had strong jets under the water and one had large fountains. There was a bench to relax on between two of the pools. Sitting in water up to your shoulders, you would be massaged by bubbles from all around you. The pool was a real highlight for Kyra.
We dined at Thyme tonight. It was a fantastic meal enjoyed by all of us. The kids had a pasta dish and garlic bread. Gavin wanted two brownies for dessert and Kyra hummed and hawed about whether to have the brownie or ice cream sundae.  She was delighted to find that not only did the brownie come with whipped cream but also ice cream and chocolate sauce. Gavin was appeased by simply cutting his brownie in two and somehow Elliot ended up finishing the plates of three desserts.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Challenge Accepted

For the long weekend, Chris booked a hotel, rented a car, and we headed off to Athlone Friday night. Not twenty minutes on the road and Chris realized he forgot his wallet at home. Lucky for us, the next exit was an outlet mall. Kyra and I got out of the car in search of shoes and a rain coat for Elliot. Mission accomplished, we met the boys back at Starbucks to refuel and hit the road.
The journey to Athlone was all highway driving but we unexpectedly spotted cows crossing a bridge over the highway.  Cows and sheep were always in view for the three hour drive.
After checking in and tucking the kids into bed, Chris and I wandered out of the hotel in search of a pint.  A short walk over the River Shannon, tucked behind Athlone Castle, was Irelands Oldest Pub, Sean’s.  A small place no larger than our living room, it had live music and an eclectic crowd of people young and old, local and tourist.
Today, our goal was to hit a number of places recommended in ‘Frommer’s 500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up. It has quite a few places in listed in Ireland and many of them are in County Clare. '

We were given Google map directions from the tourism office but missed one of our turns. We did have several maps in the car. One had each and every little village marked, but the roads were not actually labelled. The other had all the numbers of the roads but not lacked a bunch of information too. It would take a little while to realize that using both maps would give us our best chance. We drove towards Ballyvaughan to see an audiovisual presentation about the Burren.  Unfortunately, or fortunately as it would come to be by the end of the day, we took a wrong turn and ended up learning fairly quickly that in the future, we need to try to avoid the ‘R’series of roads. We were now stuck on a road with no place to turn around, driving along the coast of Galway Bay, up to Black Head where the Bay joins the Sea.  The views were spectacular, but the two way roads were no wider than a drive way and twisted and turned. Needless to say, by the time we hit Doolin Chris really needed a break from driving. We stopped into McGann’s Pub and had a small bite to eat before continuing on to the Cliffs of Moher. They were very dramatic and musicians were sprinkled in the pathways playing traditional Irish instruments and providing a beautiful soundtrack to the outing.  Pathways and steps were placed nicely back off the cliffs with a few meters of grass between ourselves and the drop-off making it much more tolerable for acrophobic me.
Our next stop was Bunratty Castle and Folk Park. We didn’t make it in time to get a reservation for the small banquet the hold each night, but I can’t say I am too disappointed. Bunratty is Ireland’s most complete medieval castle. It was built in 1425 and fully decorated with 15th and 16th century furnishings. We made our way though up a few flights of narrow spiral staircases to the great hall where the banquets take place nightly. We looked through the Earl’s kitchen with adorned with Turtle shells that would have been used as serving pieces. “Freshly” hunted pheasants and rabbits also hung around the room. We navigated through spiral stair case after spiral staircase to find bedrooms and chapels and also take in the never tiring countrside views from the top of one of the six story towers.

Bunratty Castle was built on that site, but much like Upper Canada Village, they have assembled the rest of the folk park to recreate the environment from Ireland over a century ago. We visited rural farmhouses, a village street, formal gardens, many animals and even a castle themed playground.
Once the grounds closed and we knew there were plenty of daylight hours left, we decided to head back towards the main drive of the Burren that we had missed earlier due to that wrong turn.  We drove through more country roads and narrowly missed a run in with a stray bull on the side of the road.  We enjoyed the scenic drive and stopped at Poulnabrone. The kids enjoyed jumping from rock to rock. The Burren looks as though you could be on the surface of the moon and this particular spot has a portal tomb to marvel at that dates back to 2500 BC.
Our drive back to the hotel included a stop just east of Ballyvaughan where we explored the shoreline of Galway Bay. More ‘rock climbing’ for Gavin, we enjoyed the panoramic view that included the mountains, both rocky from the Burren and green as they stretched east, the bay itself with Castle ruins in the distance and the magnificent shore. Kyra and Elliot looked for shells and explored the crevices between the rocks.
They will sleep well tonight!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Adjusting, In My Own Way

We have spent the past few days expanding our horizons slightly. Tuesday we took the bus to the big box mall that had a Boots and M&S. We picked up a few household items and looked through the grocery section. It surprises me how inexpensive the food is here. Two litres of milk is less than a pound.
I am frustrated trying to cook meals and feel I need to do so that we can spend more experiencing what is around us.  We have minimal supplies for preparing meals, no large bowl for tossing salad, no oven mitts or towel to take things out of the oven, no tongs. I guess I am spoiled that a great, well equipped kitchen at home makes it so enjoyable to cook for the family. We will pick up a few of these needs along the way, however £10 for a pair of tongs I only really need for 7 weeks doesn’t seem worth the value. IKEA is apparently having a great sale right now and I am hoping Chris can stop by after renting the car on Friday and pick up the items on my list.
 Another frustration is the lack of internet. Although we have acquired quite the information centre on the back table, even most brochures point you to the website for important information.  I am having a hard time planning activities not to mention figuring out the transportation systems.  The web is fabulous, when you are able to use it.
Yesterday, we took the bus to Lisburn. We visited the Linen Museum, a small but very well laid out exhibit, and the Castle Gardens. We explored the shops and the leisure centre. We are all still tired and adjusting and need some down time in the afternoon.
Tomorrow holds a quiet day to catch up on rest. A trip to the playground, the butcher to pick up dinner, an afternoon nap for Gavin and some research for our weekend trip to the Athlone/Galway area is on the to do list. We are very much looking forward to exploring the Irish Countryside this upcoming long weekend.

Monday, July 4, 2011

NI Bound

We made it here safe and sound, albeit a little late, yesterday afternoon. Our flight out of Toronto was delayed due to thunder storms in the area. We had quite the light show in the lounge before we were finally able to board the aircraft.
Both Kyra and Gavin were real troopers in our travels. Gavin fell asleep just before boarding the plane and Kyra settled in to a short television show before taking off and fell asleep not long after we were off the ground. She only woke just before we landed. Gavin woke bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about two thirds into the flight. He watched a few movies and had a very hard time using his indoor voice with everyone around us trying to sleep.  All in all the Toronto – London flight was extremely rocky. The storms we flew through made more people than I can count air sick. Our group was so oblivious to what was going on around us, that I felt the need to tell Elliot to keep his “LOLïng to himself while he watched Modern Family.
It was a great time of day to fly through Heathrow airport. Our midday arrival made the, usually very busy airport easy to navigate and I was not nearly as anxious as I thought I would be. Our flight to Belfast was also delayed. A large group tour was on the plane. They had checked in on the internet, which would have normally saved them  time but this particular group were all wheelchair bound and web check in does not take special needs into account. Needless to say the crew at the gate had to reconfigure seating of the aircraft to make it so these passengers were in appropriate seats, all the wheelchairs needed to be tagged for sky check and the passengers of that group had to be loaded on one by one before the rest of the plane could board.  When we did finally get on the plane, Gavin fell asleep fairly quickly and since I once again dozed in very short spurts.
We finally arrived in Belfast two hours late, tired, but anxious to see Chris. Gavin had told everyone close enough to listen to him at the last gate and on the plane that he was going to see his Dad. We had a short drive to our new home and the kids excitedly checked out their new stopping ground.
We took a walk up the main road in town towards the queen’s residence when she stays in NI and took a picture of Elliot standing in one of the guard’s stands. He has joked with Kyra that all the money has his initials on it and of course, the guard stands have the same, ER, and insignia on them.
We had a lovely dinner at the local pub, The Parsons Nose. The food was fantastic and we hobbled home stuffed. The kids all easily went to bed and Gavin was the first to wake up at 11:30 the next morning.
Our Monday has been fairly laid back. Since we all slept off the time change and didn’t have our breakfast until after noon, we took an afternoon walk up to the local tourist information office and got enough brochures to make one of the reception rooms, here at home, look like a tourist office too. We took a look around the courthouse here and Kyra got in a slight bit of trouble...

On the other side of the road, a beautiful gate led to the old fort.  The lawns are well kept and a great spot for a future picnic. Behind the fort is a small lake with many resident swans. We took the trail that wrapped around the lake and enjoyed the forest for the different trees to what we are used to back home.
Our walk back home took us back through town. We stopped at the fruitier and butcher, where the kids were offered “lollies”, and picked up a small sponge cake for Chris.