LAST UPDATED APRIL 2019
One of the reasons I quit my demanding PR agency job was a lack of time off. I loved the work and really didn’t hate long hours, but I knew I’d never taste the far-flung corners of the globe in itty bitty 5-day nibbles. Even with (a generous-by-American-standards) three weeks off per year, it wasn’t enough for me to go everywhere I wanted.
The only way to escape the pesky confines of the embarrassment that is the American vacation policy was to leave corporate life and go into business for myself. So that’s what I did. For years, I spent weeks and months working remotely in single destinations, absorbing cultures, getting to know real people, finding favorite local foods and eating them over and over.
Three weeks in New Zealand, six weeks in Australia, a month in Bali, another month in Thailand, another month in Greece. Two years went by and I still couldn’t get enough of slow travel. After being that intentional with my trips for so long, I vowed never to go back to a real job that would prevent me from seeing the world at my own pace.
And then I went and married someone with a normal American vacation allowance.
(It’s a good thing I’m crazy about him!)
Of course I still travel on my own, but in much smaller chunks. In order to travel together, Rick and I have to strategize and plan and coordinate every vacation hour he gets. And that’s how we ended up planning an Irish road trip that was chock full of great fun, Instagram gold and actually a little bit terrible at the same time.
Yes, slow travel is better. Yes, drinking Guinness all afternoon in a pub with colorful characters that we may or may not be related to would’ve been ideal. But what do you do when you have to choose between getting to know one county’s charms really well without your hot husband, or seeing as many highlights as you can together in a week?
You drive fast, you get up early and you move your butt like an Olympic speed-walking champ.
Rick has never been to Europe. Rick has never driven on the other side of the road. Rick and I have never taken a vacation that wasn’t mostly about snorkeling, umbrella drinks and lolly-gagging. So, logically, renting a car, sticking to a jam-packed schedule and driving almost 1,000 miles made sense in my overachieving, Enneagram 3 brain.
I figured having a rental car would give us freedom to spend more time at the sites we wanted to photograph and shoot with the drone, and it did. But we also spent a lot of time lost on narrow country roads, taking the wrong exit on interminable roundabouts, encountering wayward sheep and feeling rushed.
You’ll note this is a departure from my usual deep dive into the day-by-day activities of my travels, but since so many of you have asked how we saw so much in such a short time, I thought I’d share our itinerary first and some behind the scenes outtakes before getting into more detailed accounts of our accommodations and activities. The real nitty-gritty is going to take a while!
Ready for part one of our Irish road trip? Here we go!
Day 1 | Dublin
We landed in Dublin at 6 a.m. and made our way to the rental car desk for a confusing conversation about insurance in the still dark morning hours. So confusing, in fact, that we didn’t actually end up with insurance on the car. (You can imagine the stress this added to our fearful driving once I realized it!)
Overnight flights seem like a good idea in theory, but in practice, I’m a zombie that first day on the ground. We vowed not to nap once we checked into the Fitzwilliam Dublin, but thought it best not to drive in a new place while exhausted either. So we bought tickets for the hop-on, hop-off bus and prepared to absorb as much of the city as we could before we passed out.
First stop: the Guinness Storehouse. Even though I am not a beer drinker, and even less a Guinness drinker, I’d heard enough about this interactive, multi-story museum to know it was a must. We really enjoyed it, despite the fact that my memories of the experience are foggy. I do recall sipping complimentary beverages in the 360-degree rooftop bar.
When Rick caught me dozing on the bus a few hours later, we hopped off and returned to the Fitzwilliam for High Tea, a really fun, really filling way to cap off our first day in Ireland. We promptly passed out on top of the sheets in our clothes at around 8 p.m.
Jet-lagged, I woke in the middle of the night and smashed my face on the bedpost on the way to the bathroom. Poor Rick didn’t budge despite my howling. It was a fitting way to kick off our 2nd anniversary.
Where we stayed: Fitzwilliam Dublin
Day 2 |Dublin to Winterfell to Belfast
The car rental place talked us into getting a GPS for an extra however-many-hundred bucks, and it was the least useful expenditure of the trip. It took 15 minutes to program it each time, and you had to know a postal code and county for every destination. Who knows the postcode for anywhere off the top of their head?! We mostly relied on my iPhone and Google Maps, which worked some of the time, but it also left us in the middle of a remote field of spray-painted sheep more than once.
After all all-too-brief whirl through Dublin, we checked out and drove north toward Belfast. No sooner did Rick come to terms with paying in € and driving in kilometers than we crossed the border from Ireland into Northern Ireland and everything changed to £ and miles. And our rental car odometer was in kilometers, so on top of the mental gymnastics that come with driving on the other side of the road, there was math involved to make sure we weren’t breaking the law. If that isn’t the right combination for marital bliss, what is?
In my daydreams about this romantic anniversary escape with my sweetheart, I imagined I’d read the guidebook aloud to him while we languished safely through the countryside. The reality couldn’t have been more opposite. It was more like co-piloting with a brand-new teenage driver. No, go that way! No, don’t drive off the cliff! Stop sightseeing! Turn here! Wrong lane! AHHH SHEEP!
I couldn’t complain too much though, because then I would have to drive, and we’d be goners for sure. We nearly crashed the car 14 times in the 136 miles from Dublin to Castle Ward, the site of Game of Thrones’ Winterfell. And the GPS lead us a solid 30 minutes out of the way down the narrowest walled country lane to the back gate – NOT the actual parking lot. Then we had to backtrack all the way around, as the area’s most intrepid 80-year old drivers zoomed by us at top speed.
It’s possible my hand-prints are still memorialized in the rental car door handle.
Once we finally parked and I stopped hyperventilating, my inner Game of Thrones nerd came out to play. Northern Ireland is the place to be for GoT fans. Since Castle Ward was/is the site of many of the Winterfell scenes, we thought it the perfect place to really kick off our Irish road trip and unofficial pilgrimage.
Castle Ward offers a ton of activities from “direwolf” interactions to onsite glamping to bicycle tours through the various filming sites, including the Twins and Robb Stark’s camp. I tried my hardest to book a day full of activities for our anniversary, but we could only get Ned’s Archery Experience.
Check pricing and availability for Winterfell tours here
Fortunately for us, we were the only ones in the archery class – bonus! Our guide, who like everyone else in Northern Ireland has been an extra in multiple episodes, was a wealth of GoT trivia. After donning actual costumes from the show, we found ourselves right in the middle of the set where Bran learns to shoot in Episode 1.
Rick is quite the sportsman as you know, so naturally he was all bullseye and no instruction. Me, on the other hand… I had to be constantly reminded not to point the arrow at the instructor while speaking to him. I caught on quickly though, so you can just call me Arya from now on.
Afterward, we did some wandering around the rest of Castle Ward, took a million photos and had dinner a few miles up the road at The Cuan, a restaurant and inn popular with Game of Thrones cast members. It’s also the site of one of the 10 GoT-themed doors made from fallen trees from the Dark Hedges (see below) and the only place where you can drink Hodoor beer.
It was dark by the time we checked into the Fitzwilliam Belfast, the sparkly sister property to our Dublin accommodations. The décor was different but the service was equally fantastic. We immediately became best friends with concierge Philip, who told us where to grab a pint in the neighborhood and shared all the Game of Thrones lore we could gobble up.
He printed out tons of info for the continuation of our Irish road trip, a drive up the Causeway Coastal route. He also offered to book us a morning tour to learn about The Troubles. We had to pass due to time constraints, but it’s at the top of the list for the next visit.
As we wandered around Belfast that evening and the next day, we ran into not one, not two, but FIVE Game of Thrones cast members. It was like, boom, Sansa Stark. Oh hey, Ser Jorah! Top of the mornin’ to ya, Brienne of Tarth. Hi, Bran, or should I call you the Three Eyed Raven?!
WHAT IS LIFE?!*
To top it off, we spent our anniversary night having drinks and dessert in the same bar as Jon Snow. I was thisclose to buying him 12 martinis and trying to convince him to tell me what happens in the last season, but I behaved. I know, I kinda regret it now in hindsight.
Thanks to Belfast for setting the bar a little too high for our next anniversary!
*I’ve already shared most of those details in my newsletter, so if you’re not signed up, do it and check out the archives.
Where we stayed: Fitzwilliam Belfast
Day 3 | Belfast to Bushmills
We’ve already zipped through the two capital cities on the Emerald Isle and barely had time to breathe. We were sad to leave Belfast, the Starks of Winterfell and the elegant Fitzwilliam, but we had the whole Coastal Causeway route to drive and had to get a move on. Are you noticing a trend?
On our way out, we spent a few hours at the brilliant Titanic Museum. Since I was little, I’ve been drawn to the story of the ill-fated ocean liner, so seeing where the ship was built and knowing even more about its history just made it that richer, and sadder, of a narrative.
The rest of the day was set aside for driving from Belfast up to Bushmills along the salty, sea-hugging causeway. We stopped for various Game of Thrones sites (like Melisandre’s Cave in Cushendun), played fetch with the most adorable puppy on a wind-whipped beach and made a detour to check out Glenarriff Forest Park. It was on that little jaunt that my sightseeing chauffeur nearly drove us off a mountain. I began to really question why I thought a self-guided road trip was a good idea.
Though it’s easy enough to do from a miles (or kilometers, if you prefer) perspective, the Causeway Coastal route is not a drive I recommend doing in one day. There were so many castles, B&Bs, forest trails, Game of Thrones-themed tea service and cute shops that we had to bypass. All the while I was aching to stop and absorb rather than whizzing by and attempting to work the SatNav.
We were nearly to Bushmills Inn when a wayward pheasant darted in front of the car on a narrow road. We missed it by in inch, but it was just one more fright on a long list of scary moments. You think I’m kidding when I say I white knuckled this whole trip, but every time we got in the car, it was a waking nightmare. The most welcoming sight I ever saw was the cozy Bushmills Inn glistening in the drizzle. Fireplaces, oversized chairs, antlers and warm Guinness pie greeted us. I took a hot bubble bath in the clawfoot tub and slept like a baby.
Where we stayed: Bushmills Inn
Day 4 | Bushmills to Galway
I didn’t think it possible to cram more into a day than we already had, but then we got to Day 4 of our Irish road trip. We woke before light to drive to the Dark Hedges, around 20 minutes from the hotel. We were more than rewarded for our early wakeup call with golden light and only one other couple taking pictures. How lucky for us that they were driving a shiny, red VW bug?
We spent a couple of hours taking photos with all of our cameras from every conceivable angle. (Read more about taking great photos at the Dark Hedges here.)
After a hearty Irish breakfast back at the Bushmills restaurant, we noticed an American flag flying over the inn. Turns out, they fly the flag of whichever guests have traveled the farthest. Today, it was us! Before checking out, we took a tour of the flag room, with hundreds of country and state flags. I thought it was one of the most personal and thoughtful touches I’ve ever seen at a hotel in all my travels.
It’s way too lovely a place to spend just one night. In fact, I felt that way about almost all seven hotels we visited during our Irish road trip. I wouldn’t have minded 3-4 nights in every one, and yet we had around 12 hours a pop. I know, y’all. To this day, I’m still shaking my head at my own over-zealousness.
Alas, we checked out of Bushmills and drove just 3 miles to Giant’s Causeway. Now y’all know I love geology, so this huge area of interlocking, hexagonal basalt columns was right up my alley. I can’t wait to share more about this location!
We spent much more time at the Dark Hedges, Giant’s Causeway and Dunluce Castle than I was anticipating. When a place is this photogenic and the light is this perfect, you just can’t rush it. (Says the girl running through the Emerald Isle and calling it an Irish road trip.)
With a daunting 6-hour drive to Galway ahead of us, we had to skip the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. Yet another thing to add to the list for next time.
Where we stayed: The G Hotel
It took me weeks to plot the perfect Irish road trip and I still found that we missed more sites than we saw. We spent so much daylight time driving from here to there that by Day 4, we resigned ourselves to the fact that you just can’t see all of Ireland and Northern Ireland in a week. In Dublin alone, we didn’t make it to Temple Bar, Trinity College and The Book of Kells, the Jameson Distillery or the Irish Emigration Museum. And that’s just one city and one day.
Even still, as you can tell, we crammed a lot into our Irish road trip. So much so that the rest of our itinerary will have to wait until the next post. Stay tuned for Galway, Tralee, Killarney, Adare, Dingle and the Cliffs of Moher.
Next time, I think we’ll book a tour!
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Tell me: what did I miss that you absolutely loved in Ireland & Northern Ireland? I’ll add it to my list for next time!
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