Times change and trends and fads come and go in Ireland as they do everywhere. With that in mind, I've found that when you visit the Emerald Isle, you really can't go wrong visiting some of the tried and true attractions and events.
Aillwee Cave -- Many years ago, we took the kids to Aillwee Cave in the Burren in Ballyvaughan, Co. Clare. The cave tour was fascinating and we all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The kids marveled at the other-worldly shapes of spotlighted stalagmites and stalactites and, being boys, they also loved the darkened passageways and the overall eeriness of being inside a cave.
This year, I decided to visit again – sans kids – to see if the Aillwee allure was still there. Again, the guided tour and narrative was fascinating and informative. I enjoyed a homemade snack in the cozy tearoom and a stroll through the well-stocked craft shop in the Cave Access building as I waited for the tour to begin.
The story of the cave's discovery is so interesting. It seems that Jacko McGann, a Ballyvaughan native and herdsman, discovered and crawled through the cave in 1940 with only a flickering candle to light his way. He explored much of the cave over the ensuing years but didn't share his discovery until 1973 when he talked with a group of cavers from Bristol University.
In 1975, the Aillwee Cave Company bought the land and began work to create a show cave that could be opened up and made safe to welcome the public. Blasting cleared much of the way through narrow caverns, handrails were installed as was extensive lighting and a pathway was paved with locally-quarried Liscannor flagstone. Parking lots, roads, and a mountain walk were added over the years.
In 1988, Aillwee Cave welcomed its millionth visitor
Down the hill from the cave – and new since my last visit - is an outstanding Birds of Prey Center and a farm shop where you can try some of the award-winning Burren Gold cheeses. I bought two flavors: Nettle with Garlic and Oak Smoked, and both were much enjoyed back at my accommodation.
When you're at the farm shop, do enjoy the cheeses and check out local produce such as pickles, jams, pestos, oils and spiced vinegars, fudge, jams, and bread mixes. These make nice gifts to take home and I usually pack a jar or two of very well bubble-packed jam inside a shoe in my suitcase to keep it from breaking. I have to say that method has worked great so far.
The show presented at the Birds of Prey Center was well worth the price of admission. Mark Barrett, the presenter on the day I visited, put owls, hawks and an eagle through their paces and talked about the birds and their attributes, diets, and habits. After the show, you can walk through the center and see all sorts of birds of prey – vultures, falcons and many types of owls - in cages that replicate their natural habitats.
Aillwee Cave and the Birds of Prey Center is a fun way to spend a day in Ireland with your family or on your own. For more information, go to aillweecave.ie.
Burren Centre in Kilfenora -- As I drove around the Burren this spring, I passed through the Co. Clare village of Kilfenora, called “The City of Crosses” for the medieval high crosses at St. Fachtnan's 12th-Century cathedral there. I stopped at The Burren Centre, which is open daily from mid-March to Oct. 31.
I have always been captivated by the magnificent and magical Burren moonscape so an informational centre was right up my alley. The centre features a 12-minute comprehensive film (offered in many languages) by the brilliant environmentalist and independent film producer Eamon de Buitlear that traces the formation of the Burren some 320 million years ago. The images are absolutely stunning and the film has ended before you know it.
After watching the film, I walked through the exhibition, had homemade soup and brown bread in the tearoom and looked longingly at some of the wonderful items in the craft shop.
More information is available at: theburrencentre.ie.
Before you leave Kilfenora, be sure to walk around St. Fachtnan's. The crosses are truly magnificent and the cathedral is well worth a visit. It's right next door to The Burren Centre.
Co. Clare Area -- While you're there, be sure to:
• Stop at the former Doolin Crafts Gallery and say hello to gifted jeweler Brian Hackett, who took over the space last winter after having a studio in Wicklow for 20 years. Brian now makes his beautiful silver and gold pieces – some set with gemstones – in his design studio in Doolin and plans to set up a website soon but can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com
• Have dinner at Roadford House (roadfordhouse.com) and Cullinan's (cullinansdoolin.com) restaurants in Doolin – both have outstanding food and offer accommodation as well;
• Stay at Riverfield House (riverfielddoolin.com) in Doolin for a wonderful B&B experience;
• Take a Cliffs of Moher or Aran Island cruise aboard Garrihy's Ferries (mohercruises.com or doolin2aranferries.ie) from the pier in Doolin;
• Listen to music at one of Doolin's many pubs – our personal favorite is McDermott's (mcdermottspubdoolin.com);
• Stop for delicious fruit jams, marmalades, chutneys, and jellies at the Clare Jam Shop just off the coast road in Doolin and try the smoked salmon or send some home from the Burren Smokehouse in nearby Lisdoonvarna;
• Drive the coast road from Doolin to Ballyvaughan to see some of Ireland's most magical scenery;
• Check out Go Cycle Ireland (gocycleireland.com) for short breaks for leisure cyclists, mountain bikers, and other athletes.
• Listen to great jazz at the Doonbeg International Jazz Festival June 4-7. See doonbegjazz.com for details.
Blarney Woollen Mills -- I was sorry to see that Blarney Woollen Mills was closing its flagship store after more than 20 years on Nassau Street in Dublin. High rent and an inability to strike a reasonable rental agreement with the landlords was said to have caused the shutdown.
Stock was discounted and if you were lucky enough to be there to cash in on some of the great deals, then you were lucky indeed. The Woollen Mills stores have always been known for quality product.
Blarney Woollen Mills stores around the rest of the country – including Galway, Killarney, Blarney and others, were said to be unaffected by the Dublin closing.
Sadly, the crime and murder mystery bookstore, Murder Ink, on Dawson Street, Dublin, was also scheduled to close this spring because the owner is ill.
ELSEWHERE IN IRELAND
There's a lot to do in Ireland in June from all kinds of water sports to equestrian activities to cycling, walking, hiking to music and art, garden, and museum visits.
The local tourist board (marked with a big green shamrock) is a great source of information about everything from accommodation to activities in the area you're visiting.
If you're in Dublin, the Dublin City Council has announced plans to add 100 more bikes, increase the number of bike stands from 795 to 1,087, and introduce four new stations. The rental scheme has been in effect since last September and you can buy a subscription for ten euro a year or pay two euro for a three-day ticket. Wouldn't it be fun to see the city by bike?
• The so-called “Dead Zoo,” also known as the Natural History Museum in Dublin, has reopened after three years of renovation work. The museum is free and open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m. It's closed Mondays and bank holidays.
• The Glasnevin Cemetery, resting place of more than 1.5 million including Daniel O'Connell, Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins, recently opened a museum that is expected to attract some 200,000 visitors a year. Admission is six euro for adults and four for children.
• Do you like festivals? There are a series of such coming up for literature lovers including: Listowel Writers Week (writersweek.ie/2010), June 2-6; Flat Lake Festival (theflatlakefestival.com), in Co.Monaghan, June 4-6; Immrama, the Lismore Festival of Travel Writing (lismoreimmrama.com) in Co. Waterford, June 10-13;
• Some 20,000 spectators are expected at the National Sheep Shearing Championships in Portlaoise, Co. Laois, on June 5-6. The event will include sheepdog trials, a food village, a carnival, arts and crafts and a free children's entertainment area.
• Achill Island hosts a half marathon on July 3, which would be fun to watch. Some 2,000 runners have entered and the field is full. Find more information at: achillmarathon.com.
Enjoy your trip to Ireland whenever you go and don't forget to check the internet for the latest travel specials. Aer Lingus offers web deals on flights and ground travel as do other airlines that service Ireland.