Every Day Is a Winding Road in Ireland
When it feels like every moment of your life is scheduled, maybe your vacation shouldn't be.
Waking in the middle of the night, I pondered the name of the B&B. Strand View House certainly implied a view of the strand--in this case, Ireland's longest beach. So why, when the other three rooms were unoccupied, had we been placed in back? I asked Mary about our room at breakfast, which was the best of our trip: amazing pancakes--more like crepes, really--and Ireland's excellent smoked salmon, served with scrambled eggs. We'd checked in early, she replied, so she'd given us the only room ready at the time. (The best room, Mount Brandon, has a stunning view of the ocean.) Before leaving, we handed over the voucher dated for the previous night's stay--so much nicer than a credit card or cold, hard cash.
Adare Manor came next. The 18th-century stone castle, all towers and turrets, sits on 840 groomed acres, with a golf course and massive cedar, birch, and oak trees. Our palatial room--we received an upgrade for no discernible reason--was decorated in black, gold, and red, with a stone fireplace. And dinner in the Oakroom was outstanding: a table set with candelabra and white linens, a meal that included seared Atlantic scallops and herb-crusted rack of lamb, and a window overlooking the parterre. Though we were there on a package, we never felt like second-class citizens. The staff was unfailingly pleasant and courteous.
We planned to wing it the following night--wandering around Galway until we came upon a B&B we liked the look of, and ringing the doorbell to see if there was a room. Bad idea. Galway's B&Bs were full--the photo in the Irish Independent of Matt Dillon at the Galway Film Festival should have tipped us off. In the late afternoon we stopped at a Tourist Information Center (they're all over the country; a big "I" marks the spot) to spend a half hour with the determined Vincent, who pledged to find us a room nearby. (Staffers at any TIC will perform the service for $5 per booking.) Vincent consulted his computer system and made several calls--all the while displaying his masterful gift of gab. The B&B he found, Lake Side Country House outside the town of Oughterard, turned out to be one of our favorites. "She sounds lovely on the phone," he confided after speaking with Mary O'Halloran, our host-to-be.
Galway is a youthful, artsy city, full of people enjoying life. Dave and I strolled the maze of pedestrian-only streets, ducking into bookstores, listening to buskers playing flute and guitar, and inspecting sidewalk vendors' jewelry. After gorging on seafood at McDonagh's Seafood House--we should have split an entrée--we left to arrive just before sunset at Lake Side Country House, on the undeveloped shores of Lough Corrib, Ireland's second-largest lake. Joe O'Halloran has built a rock garden with the oddly shaped pieces of limestone he can't stop collecting (that one looks like a little fox! and there's a spaniel!), while a pasture beside the house provides a home for Connemara ponies and the chicken coop.
Lake Side was a peaceful haven, though Dave was disturbed by the whirring sound made by the tiny electric shower ("I always thought water and electricity don't mix"). The next morning, yet another huge breakfast--besides juice and a selection of cereals, there were always eggs, usually accompanied by sausage, ham, tomato, and toast. Many of the B&B hosts are accomplished bakers, and we quickly developed a taste for Irish brown bread, slightly sweet with a cakey texture. At Lake Side, too full to get back in the car right away, we took a short walk down a country lane lined with blackberry bushes to see Aughnanure Castle, a six-story stone tower where O'Flaherty chieftains barricaded themselves against the British in the 16th century. Our kids would have loved reading about the resident bats and seeing the "murder hole"--an opening above the front door that allowed defenders to drop stones onto anyone who had managed to breach the fortified walls.
From Oughterard, the landscape opens up to Connemara's high, lonely moors, with their peat bogs, fragrant wild roses, and countless lakes and streams. By now the generally rainy weather hadn't just broken--it had turned sunny and hot. Heat-wave hot. Few Irish B&Bs have air-conditioning, and we were soon lamenting the absence of even a fan in the bedroom.
I booked our three remaining B&Bs the easiest way possible, by simply asking our host at one place to call the next. Each did so willingly, and offered helpful advice as to choices. We spent a night at Winnowing Hill, a hillside B&B with a solarium overlooking lush rosebushes, a manicured lawn, and, beyond that, the steeples of Clifden, Connemara's main town. Then, since I still yearned for a B&B with a lot of history, we traveled deeper into Connemara to Kylemore House, a high-ceilinged Georgian villa more than 200 years old, beside Lough Kylemore. Kylemore Abbey, a big-ticket attraction for Connemara, was a five-minute drive away. Built as a private home in 1867, the Gothic Revival castle later became a Benedictine abbey, whose nuns now run a girls' boarding school there. While the $13 entrance fee seemed pricey, for that we were able to view several beautifully restored formal rooms and take a 10-minute shuttle ride to the six-acre Victorian walled garden. Mitchell Henry, son of a Manchester cotton tycoon, spent four years building the castle for his wife and nine children. Only three years after moving in, his wife died in Cairo--a tantalizing detail (nine kids and she was vacationing in Egypt?) that made her death seem that much more tragic. Henry built the exquisite chapel in her memory.