Highlights of our three weeks in Ireland; not all the quintessential tourist destinations, but fun, fascinating, beautiful beyond description. Come join us, The Café in Ireland, Off the Beaten Path (Part 3)!
We're sharing our final Ireland post today, the last in a three-part series called "Ireland, Off the Beaten Path. Part 1 and Part 2 cover the areas between Dublin, Cork and then up the coast to Dingle. We also shared a post featuring my week at Ballymaloe Cookery School followed by Scott's adventures at Ballymaloe, Behind the Scenes, featuring the 100-acre organic farm, gardens and glass greenhouses. Come join us as we wind our way back down to Dublin.
Belfast and surrounding area
Belfast was not on our original itinerary agenda but we decided about halfway through the trip to finish up our adventures there. That's part of the fun of traveling on your own, without a tour company specifying where and how long the next stop is.
When we looked at travel documentaries and spoke to others who had vacationed in Ireland, no one had profusely recommended Belfast as an amazing destination. So our expectations were somewhat low and we thought a night or two would be plenty of time in this capital city of Northern Ireland.
Guess what? We were wrong! We actually fell in love with the whole Belfast area and ended up extending our stay; as it was so interesting, beautiful and had so much to offer.
We realized we were totally uneducated when it came to the history of Ireland, including the period called, The Troubles. Visiting Belfast gave us a new and clearer understanding of the people and the issues that surrounded these two beautiful island countries. And although the troubles are an important part of the history of Belfast and Northern Ireland, there's so much more!
The architecture in Belfast city center is beautiful with a mix of modern and ancient.
Belfast is vibrant and bustling and the Irish people (and tourists) thoroughly enjoy the green spaces and parks throughout the city.
Not to be outdone by the British, the Irish paint their double-decker buses hot pink! Quite stylish... and fun!
What's a trip to Ireland without a stay in a castle?
Hands down, our favorite accommodation in all of Ireland was a gorgeous Disney-type castle hotel, Culloden, located in Holywood, just northeast of Belfast. We enjoyed Culloden so much that we extended our stay an extra day. It gave us a great base for discovering Belfast and the surrounding area. Check out the pics below to see why we loved it so much!
Everything at Culloden is well done and well kept, both inside and out.
The views of Belfast Lough (Belfast Lake, which is actually more of a bay on the Irish Sea than a lake) were stunning from the magical castle.
Culloden offers a fancy dining room but we enjoyed the little pub (called Cultra Inn) on the grounds the best.
There was a charming winding path leading from the hotel to the pub.
And at night, after dinner, it went from charming to positively enchanting with the glowing castle beckoning us home. Honestly, when we left, we felt a bit like Cinderella when the grand chariot was transformed back into a pumpkin!
The grounds adjoining Culloden Estate included the Cultra Train Station which took us, within 15 minutes, to downtown Belfast.
The trains in Belfast (and to the surrounding areas) are clean, modern, efficient and very reasonably priced.
After our stay in Belfast, it was time to head back to Dublin and catch our 8-hour, winged ride home. Leaving Ireland was bittersweet. We loved it so much but we're also excited to get back to family, friends, church and COOKING!
So to sum things up, we'll close our Ireland travels with the four aspects of the Emerald Isle that we enjoyed the most (not in any particular order).
- 1. The beautiful Irish countryside. We've already shared lots of examples of this in our previous posts. The landscape of Ireland is diverse, vibrantly fertile and stunningly beautiful. Green has taken on new meaning for us and the spectacular cliffs that jut straight down to the clear azure waters will be indelibly etched in our minds.
- 2. The food. Oh my! Any misconception or stereotype we might have had about Irish food being bland or boring was forever wiped away. There are so many creative and innovative chefs in Ireland. Fresh produce is a priority, even in the smallest little cafés and groceries. And the Irish can do some seriously delicious baking. It might have something to do with that wonderful Irish butter. (And it's definitely why we're working hard now to take off the extra "Irish" pounds!)
This Quinoa Sweet Potato Salad was one of the fabulous (and typically Irish) recipes I learned at Ballymaloe, fresh, healthy and so delicious!
- 3. The Irish people. Throughout Ireland, it was the friendly people that made our trip so much richer, fun and interesting. They love life, love to laugh, love to lean in and find out who you really are, all the time, sharing who they are with stories, jokes, limericks and more stories. Here are a few of the wonderful Irish people we were blessed to meet along the way!
These happy chaps were diving from the top of the boat dock at Ballycotton. So enthusiastic! And the water was sooo cold!
Fisnik, the manager of Castello Italia restaurant, just outside of Belfast, with his delicious freshly baked scones! So good!
What a greeting we got from Gerard, a gift shop owner in Carrickfergus, right outside of Belfast.
Kerry and Samantha were the two bright smiles we had the pleasure of seeing each day at the front desk of Culloden Estate!
Sam was our waiter at the delicious restaurant at Culloden Estate. So helpful and a true gentleman!
These wonderful ladies worked at the charity shop in downtown Whiteabbey. They volunteer their time to support a ministry in Africa. Maybe the sweetest, kindest, most fun people we met on the trip! And with hearts of gold!
- 4. The prolific, stunningly gorgeous flowers. Finally, it wouldn't be fitting to leave our beloved Ireland without featuring something that greeted us around every corner, every day, rain or shine! The incredible Irish flowers! At first, we thought that everyone in Ireland must have a green thumb with blooms and greenery coming from every little nook and cranny. But then we discovered wildflowers also grow rampant and dot the green Irish countryside like jewels in a crown. Must be that incredible maritime climate!
And THESE flowers! Growing along tiny lanes and beside cliff walks, climbing over hedgerows and stonewalls, ALL over Ireland, wild blackberries grow profusely. When we first arrived at the end of July, they were towards the end of their blossom stage.
By the time we left (3 weeks later) they were little berry-making factories, the vines all covered with a plethora of tiny, emerald green, purple-tinged, multifaceted fruits. Chris is so sad not to be there this month. September is when all the blackberries ripen and are ready for enjoying fresh or making into dessert fools, cobblers, tarts, donuts, cakes, pie and even soup! If I find her missing, I wouldn't be surprised if she hopped on a plane to do some delicious baking with all those Irish blackberries!
So that's our trip to Ireland, in a nutshell (well actually, five nutshells since we've shared five posts!) We came back with a deep appreciation for the countries of Ireland and Northern Ireland, the beauty of the land, the amazing variety of culinary delights, the fun off the beaten path discoveries and of course, the wonderful Irish people. A part of our hearts will always be there. Thanks for following along with us!