By BEN SKINNER
Want to find the best, most beautiful, and cheapest way to travel around Ireland? Put three people in a (very small) car for 20 days, armed with nothing but a map, a Polaroid camera, €500, and a Dorling Kindersley guidebook.
We chose to drive to Ireland, as it was the lesser of two evils: one of us was scared of planes, the other of ferries. We decided it would be much worse to experience a plane crash than a sinking ship, so we loaded up a VW Polo and jumped on the boat at Liverpool. It’s not a long journey, maybe three hours tops, but when you have to sit outside by a lifeboat, it feels much longer. Getting around Ireland was made much easier by having a car: we saw the entire country at our own pace. Hiring a car is possible, but it works out to be more expensive. We didn’t venture on any public transport, firstly due to money, and secondly because we wanted true freedom to explore whatever we wanted, whenever we found it. Ireland’s most beautiful spots can be found in the most unlikely places, and we stumbled upon the most breath-taking scenes as we drove.
2. Play it by ear
Forget about a detailed inventory; the best way to see Ireland is making it up as you go along. Pinpoint a few specific destinations, and wind your own way there, stopping at anything of interest. Locals are more than happy to tell you where’s best at the time of year you’re going. Keeping an eye on the weather is vital: certain attractions are impossible to visit during the winter. We made the mistake of visiting the Cliffs of Moher just as the tail-end of a hurricane hit…
3. Talk to people
Irish culture couldn’t be more different from what we’re used to in England. People want to talk to you, and they’re always happy to help out. We ended up being adopted by an elderly Irish woman after getting locked out of our cottage: she supplied us with food, her family, entertainment, places to see, and one of us nearly got engaged. We only asked if she knew anyone who might have a spare key.
4. Pubs, not clubs
I can guarantee that every club you go to, regardless of where it is in the world, will be exactly the same. Overpriced drinks, music you don’t really like, and not a real representation of the country you’re in. It’s no different in Ireland – the clubs were nothing to write home about. The pubs, however, were incredible. The majority of pubs we walked into (and as a result of, didn’t want to leave) had a live band playing, and people were dancing, singing and drinking. You’ll start believing that you’re in a film (PS I Love You, mainly). Alcohol is decidedly more expensive than back in the UK (averaging around €7 per pint in Temple Bar, Dublin), so we sacrificed food in order to stay in these warm, magical places.
With an environment that varies from the formidable Cliffs of Moher, to the traditionally beautiful scenery of Connemara, Ireland has something for everyone. Most places are free to visit or drive through, and charges only apply if you choose to go in the visitors’ areas. You’ll find yourself stopping every few miles to get out and admire the view if you do decide to drive. There are very few words you can use to describe Ireland’s beauty, and frankly there’s very little point in trying to do so: go and see it for yourself.
The Irish countryside is scattered with the most wonderful castles that are very much open to explore, and are a lot cheaper than many National Trust exhibits in the UK. Our favourite places were the ones you can spend an entire day at: Bunratty Castle, County Clare, gives you a free rein to explore the entire castle – including the canons, the surrounding village, and the horrifically narrow staircases (tip: don’t get cocky and end up falling down the last flight). Connemara’s Kylemore Abbey and its surrounding estate is breath-taking: it’s hard to believe the abbey hasn’t been superimposed onto the forest.
7. Irish cities
Cities are always expensive, and Irish ones are no exception. Though we stayed mainly plan-free, when we got to Dublin and Galway, we did knock-up a rough itinerary: when there is so much aimed at visitors, you need to be selective; we would have struggled to eat/buy petrol/get home if we had done everything on offer. It can be quite tough to choose what to experience (unfortunately the Leprechaun Museum lost out…), but regardless of what you see and what you don’t, you won’t leave disappointed. Put aside a larger part of the budget for Dublin, if you plan on going; we were quite happy wondering around Galway, without paying to get into attractions. The Guinness Factory in Dublin is a must-see, and comes with a free pint (make sure you know the ‘proper’ way to drink it, before you get called out by the band playing, and taught how to do it correctly…).
Though Dublin was wonderful, it was full of stags, so be prepared for that.
Ireland’s reputation for food is apparently great, but unfortunately we didn’t budget enough for eating decent meals, and spent our time away living off soup, muffins, and whatever we found in the reduced aisle in the supermarkets. Not conventional and not healthy, but the hearty dishes quickly fill you up, and prices are relatively low – €5 would get you soup, a sandwich, and a drink in many cafes.
If, like us, you only need a bed and a bathroom, hostels are the way forward. Ranging from €5 – 25 per night, they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. It’s worth booking a day or two ahead, as you can usually knock off a quarter of the price. It costs more for a private room, but we had no problems with staying in shared. If you do fancy splashing out, check out the variety of luxury spas Ireland has to offer.
We had already decided that we wanted a very cultural/historic tour of Ireland, so we stayed to footpaths surrounding castles, and any iconic scenery or landmarks we wanted to visit. However, for those who fancy upping the pace, there are plenty of other options. Horse-riding is one of the most popular choices – the relationship between the Irish and their horses is well-known around the world. If horses are too extreme, try cycling around the many National Parks Ireland is home to, or go kayaking – there are plenty of lakes, lochs, and rivers to spend days exploring.
This article was written by Ben Skinner of competition site MyOffers who run competitions for holidays, cars and gadgets. Visit them at http://www.myoffers.co.uk/