A City Unknown: Diving into Dublin

 
Dublin during St. Patrick's Fest

Dublin during St. Patrick’s Fest

As soon as the seatbelt sign clicked off following a bumpy take off, the plane ended its brief stint at cruising altitude and hastily made its way back down to terra firma. At scarcely over an hour away, Dublin and London are practically neighbours. And on the surface, the two capital cities have a lot in common.

In addition to geographic similarities, there is some architectural and aesthetic overlap. Dublin, as a tour guide described it, is very much a Georgian city – a stamp left by the British Empire who claimed Ireland as its own until the 1920s. Of course, Westminster left much more of a mark on Dublin and the rest of the Emerald Isle than a few stately buildings.

A sign stating Fáilte Ireland greeted me as I exited Dublin Airport. Fáilte is a Gaeilge (Irish Gaelic) word for welcome. And while the Irish accent, with its heart-melting diphthongs and sing-song tones, is beloved around the world, it is Gaeilge – not English – that is the national language of the Republic of Ireland.

A result of a concerted effort on the part of the British Empire to suppress Gaeilge and align the Emerald Isle closer with the crown, English became the de facto primary language of Ireland. A globalised economy means that this is unlikely to change, but I was told by more than a few locals that Gaeilge is experiencing a bit of a comeback.

St. Patrick's Day Parade

St. Patrick’s Day Parade

My visit to Dublin coincided with St. Patrick’s Fest, a multi day festival culminating in a St. Patrick’s Day parade through the centre of town. To celebrate, the city was doused in generous proportions of green, white, and orange – the colours of the Irish flag. Filling the streets of Dublin were tourists, mainly from the US, donned in Kiss Me I’m Irish t-shirts, orange leprechaun beards, and green Viking helmets.

St. Patrick’s Fest, admittedly, is probably not the best time to witness Dublin at its most authentic. However, the national holiday does provide an excellent opportunity to discover the history and heritage of Dublin and its people.

Amidst the endless pints of Guinness and bright green regalia, this worldwide-celebrated holiday honours St. Patrick. St. Patrick’s Cathedral on the outskirts of central Dublin marks the site where Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, baptised 5th  century Dubliners, thus aiding in driving the snakes (paganism) from the island.

Floor of St. Patrick's Cathedral Dubline

Beautiful floor tiles in St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Walking in the footsteps of St. Patrick, my guide led me through the story of Dublin. From its original settlers to clashes with Viking invaders and the British Empire, it became clear to me that Dublin was nothing like London. Looking past the Georgian buildings and peeling back the English language, I discovered a city previously unknown to me.

Yes, St. Patrick’s Fest is for tourists. But alongside the shots of Jameson and tourism dollars, the festival beautifully showcases Dublin as an Irish city, with an Irish heritage unmistakably distinctive from its neighbour to the east.

Getting to Dublin

Ireland’s national airline Aer Lingus operates regular flights from multiple destination in the UK as well as the US.

Where to Stay in Dublin

Buswells Hotel Dublin Ireland

My room at Buswells Hotel

I stayed at the three-star Buswells Hotel. Occupying an elegant Georgian home in the centre of Dublin, it was clean, comfortable, and had a fabulous pub and restaurant. It did feel, however, a bit dated.

For more modern accommodation, try the Conrad Dublin. The hotel is located a little further out from the centre, but it’s not a bad trade off considering the modern facilities.

Dublin’s most famous, historic, and prestigious hotel is The Shelbourne. This five-star establishment was the site where the Irish constitution was drafted and boasts a long and proud history. Former guests include President Kennedy and Jackie-O, among others.

Where to Eat in Dublin

Irish_Stew

Irish Stew and Soda Bread.

Tucked away in Dublin’s photogenic Georgian quarter, Matt the Thresher serves up heaps of delicious seafood in a modern setting and attracts locals and tourists alike.

Quite possibly Ireland’s poshest supermarket, Fallon & Byrne in central Dublin also boasts an impressive upstairs dining area where guests are treated to delectable local dishes. Fallon & Byrne is an active participant in the slow food movement, which focuses on preparing food using ingredients from local sources.

Dating back to 1198 (no, that’s not a typo), the Brazen Head Pub is far and away the oldest pub in Dublin. While it’s worth a visit for that reason alone, patrons also come for the live music, Irish storytelling, and the free flowing pints of Guinness.

Additional Reading

For more information on what Ireland and Dublin have to offer, visit Ireland.com and VisitDublin.com.

(My trip to Ireland was sponsored by Tourism Ireland. However, all opinions are my own.)

Has anyone else been to Dublin before? Fill us in on what you thought about the city and your favourite attractions in the comments section!

Planning a train trip from London? Book in advance and save A LOT of money

 

I just came across this really eye-opening infographic on train fares from London to other popular cities across the UK. It really highlights how much you can save on train tickets if you plan advance . . . at least 10 weeks in advance to be exact. I’ll be honest, until I saw this I had NO IDEA train fares fluctuating like this. I do know that from now on I’ll be booking all my train journeys well ahead of time.

trainfares600px-2

Infographic Credit: VoucherCloud

Weekend Break: Cardiff, Wales

 

After living in England for three years, I finally made it out to another UK country a few weeks ago. My trip to Cardiff was a bit of a last minute affair that I squeezed in between visiting Iceland and Thailand. It’s only about two and a half hours by train from Paddington Station in Central London, and provided a nice break from frantic London.

Rush hour in Paddington Station

 

Cardiff may be the capital of Wales, but it’s population hovers around 300,000, as opposed to the over 8,000,000 people who reside in Greater London. Upon arriving on a chilly autumn evening, I made my way through the rail station, baffled by Welsh-language signs featuring impossibly long words with no vowels. The city was easy enough to navigate, and I made it to the Cardiff Novotel in no time.

The Cardiff Novotel was my second choice of accommodation, behind the Radisson Blu. However, thanks to a big rugby match, the Radisson was fresh out of rooms by the time I tried to make a reservation.  Despite being a bit further out of town, the Novotel still suited quite nicely and offered plenty of space along with a decent free internet connection, which was paramount as this was a working holiday.

My first full day in Cardiff was mainly spent working while enjoying the novelty of television (I don’t have one at home). After the work day was complete, I headed out to explore downtown Cardiff.  A mix of old and unabashedly new, the city is pretty compact and pedestrian friendly. Most of the shops were already familiar to me, as they didn’t differ much from what could be found in London. Hungry, I meandered into a sushi restaurant inside a shopping mall and had my first taste of a Welsh-produced cider called Black Dragon; it was delicious and I’m disappointed to announce that I haven’t been able to locate it back home in London.

Downtown Cardiff

Downtown Cardiff

The northern edge of downtown Cardiff is flanked by one of its biggest tourist attractions – Cardiff Castle. Like all good castles, the one in Cardiff features a terrifying winding staircase that offered unparalleled views of the city. Seeing it as my duty to capture the essence of the UK, I went against my better judgement and made my way up the steps with a bad knee. Here are the results:

View from Cardiff Castle

Other highlights from Cardiff Castle include the interior of the structure itself. There’s a lot of great woodwork and other detailing here, particular in the ceilings of the main dining hall and the famous Arab Room.

Cardiff Castle Ceiling

Cardiff Castle – Arab Room Ceiling

Aside from downtown, Cardiff’s other main hotspot is Mermaid Quay, which is full of restaurants, bars, and sits along the water. It’s a short walk from the Wales Millennium Centre, which is perhaps the country’s most famous building, along with a striking Norwegian church.

Wales Millennium Centre

Juggling work and sightseeing, my final major stop in Cardiff turned out to be the best. Located on the outskirts of town, St. Fagans National History Museum was the highlight of my trip. St. Fagans (yes, it’s pronounced how you think it’s pronounced), is an outdoor museum that features all kinds of typical Welsh buildings and structures spanning nearly 500 years. Most of the buildings were transported to the site and rebuilt using traditional techniques.  Though it’s incredibly popular in the warm summer months, I found that it was almost deserted in autumn, which gave me plenty of time to enjoy the fall foliage and the charming old buildings.

Thatched farmhouse @ St. Fagans

Old shophouses @ St. Fagans

Autumn foliage @ St. Fagans

St. Fagans

Now that I’ve completed a successful trip to Wales, I’m looking forward to visiting Scotland and Ireland in the near future. Next year I’m planning a tentative getaway to the Scottish Highlands (contingent on my driver’s license status), and a quick weekend break in Dublin.

Our First UK Road Trip: Cornwall and the Eden Project

 

If there’s one thing you should know about me, is that I love myself a good road trip. There’s something about the combination of the open road and the confined space of the car that I love. Back in the day when the life partner and I lived in the US, we’d regularly pack up our designated road trip car (a tiny two-door coupe) with tasty treats, picked up our Starbucks drinks of choice and set off into the desert. After moving to England, I left my car behind and haven’t driven in nearly two years.

After some considerable planning, I booked my under-25 Hertz rental car online and was pumped to get behind the wheel of a car again. Our destination was Cornwall and the Eden Project which contains the world’s largest greenhouses. On a bright Saturday morning, we set out to Heathrow Airport – our car pick-up point. After an hour of travel and half an hour of wandering around the airport, we finally found the Hertz shuttle and proceeded to get our car. Much to my dismay, the less-than-pleasant Hertz employee was unable to give me the car I booked, which was an automatic. He offered me just one other option – a tiny manual car. Well, it turns out that as an ugly American I can’t drive a stick. My road trip dreams were instantly crushed and I was contemplating either collapsing into a mini-meltdown, or just turning around and going home.

The Open Road

Luckily, in a stroke of both luck and genius, my over-25 life partner remembered that he had taped his driver’s license to his passport (weird, I know) and was able to save the day by taking over my booking. The only problem was, he had never driven on the left-hand side of the road. So after a few perilous laps around the Hertz parking lot, we tentatively set out onto the British motorway.

The life partner and I work like a team when it comes to road trips. In an odd twist on gender roles, I’m typically the hot-shot driver, and he’s my pit crew, keeping an eye on the competition whilst I hug the corners of the road in a crappy compact. This time however, the roles were reversed. I was the wingman handling the navigation and in-car entertainment. And since we were now “on the wrong side of the road”, I took on a newly created role of proximity alarm. Every once in a while we’d veer left, dangerously close to a shoulder or retaining wall upon which I would announce “LEFT, you’re too LEFT!” while simultaneously knocking on my passenger-side window.

The first 30 minutes were tense, but we eventually got the hang of it. The weather was less-than-ideal and we hit waves of showers en route to our final destination, the Carlyon Bay Hotel in St. Austell, Cornwall. Along the way we passed the gently-sloped hills of the English countryside, dotted with roadside pubs, farm villages and sheep. We also cut through Bristol and Plymouth, adding to our limited exposure of larger cities outside of London.

Carlyon Bay Hotel

View from the hotel room

After almost 6 hours of driving (there was a Burger King pit stop in the middle), we reached our destination at the end of a tiny country road which led out to the sea. The Carlyon Bay Hotel is a well-known 4* resort that attracts a lot of weekenders. It sits prominently atop a cliff overlooking its namesake Carlyon Bay. To my surprise, we ended up with a sea view room which also overlooked part of the golf course.

Weary from our travels, we chose to indulge in a little room service which featured a lot of local dishes and ingredients. I went for a salmon sandwich with chocolate cake and devonshire clotted cream. The life partner chose a BLT and a local cheese platter.  The salmon was as good as I could hope and the chocolate cake was mind-blowingly delicious, especially when paired with the clotted cream.

The cheese platter, however, was another story.  Without being too critical, I think cheese is better left to the French and Italians.

Trying out the Local Eats

After fueling up on local foods, we set out to explore the bay and surrounding beach area.  The hotel had a footpath through its property towards Carlyon Bay.  We followed the path down to the shore and explored the beach.  The weather wasn’t ideal, but the scenery was still marvelous.  England’s countryside is gorgeous and in Cornwall, its little grassy fields and tree-lined property borders run right up to the sea.

The views were lovely, as were the locals walking their dogs along the beach.  I wanted to stay longer but with the tide and clouds coming in, we ventured back through the footpath towards the hotel to prepare for the next day’s travels.

Checking out Carlyon Bay

Carlyon Bay

The next morning the weather was much better. The sun was shining and there was hardly a cloud in the sky.

Eden Project Biomes

Inside the Eden Project

Inside the Eden Project

After checking out of our hotel, we programmed the sat nav to take us to the Eden Project, which is perhaps the best garden attraction in the whole of the UK. The project consists of a series of biomes, each mimicking a different ecosystem. It boasts the largest captive rainforest in the world, as well as a large Mediterranean biome, gardens, cafe, educational facilities, and a whole lot more. Even if plants and gardening aren’t your thing, it’s a pretty amazing place to visit.

We easily spent around 4-hours at the Eden Project before heading back on the long journey home. Despite not starting out on the right foot, we ended our road trip with our rental car intact and our heads full of memories.

Weekend Break: New Forest National Park

 

In the thick of it: New Forest National Park

I had been looking forward to visiting New Forest for over a year, and the stars finally aligned for me last weekend. Located in Hampshire (southwest of London), New Forest is an ancient woodland that was first distinguished by William the Conqueror in the 11th century.  Shortly after the Norman crossed the channel and took over Britain, he designated a large area of present-day Hampshire as his “New Hunting Forest”.

New Forest was recently designated as a national park and is well known for its semi-wild New Forest ponies.  There are several notable medieval towns tucked away within the forest that still retain distinctive half-timbered homes with thatched roofs.  Beyond the towns are a myriad of hiking trails that wind through patches of ancient woodland, heathland, and farms.

Logistics

In retrospect, the best way to explore New Forest would have been by car. However, my inability to drive a manual car and fear or driving on “the wrong side of the road” would not allow for this.  Instead, I took a 90-minute train from London Waterloo to Brockenhurst.  Brockenhurst is right in the center of the New Forest, and has  High Street that is often frequented by ponies.  From there, I took the open-top New Forest Tour bus around the national park.

The tour bus only runs in the summer and has three separate routes. The Green and Red lines wind through the thick of the forest, and the Blue line straddles the sea.  Because I was here to experience the forest, I spent Saturday on the Green Line, and Sunday on the Red Line.

Because the towns within New Forest are so small, hotels fill up quickly and are hard to come by.  Due to lack of availability elsewhere, I booked a room at the Cloud Hotel in Brockenhurst. The Cloud Hotel is old-style B&B that appeals to an older set, but was all-in-all a nice place.

Cloud Hotel Reception Room

Cloud Hotel Guest Book from 1948

Where I Went

Riding along on the Green Line open-top bus, my first stop was Beaulieu, which is home to the National Motor Museum, World of Top Gear, and Montagu family palace house.  All these attractions are located on one property, which I found to be quite strange. After a hefty 20 GBP entrance fee, I set out to explore the museum.  It was a decent size and featured cars that had broken land speed records, old cars, modern F1 cars, and the actual cars used in pretty much every James Bond film.  Outside in a separate exhibit were the cars built by the presenters of Top Gear for their various shows. It was all very enjoyable, but the 20 GBP entry fee felt a bit high.

The next stop was Exbury Gardens, a large patch of land famously owned by the uber-rich Rothschild family.  A small steam train takes visitors through much of the gardens, and if you sit in the front like I did you’ll get a nice facial from the steam. Again, however, I thought that the gardens’ entrance fee was too high at 14 GBP.

For me, the highlight of my first day in New Forest was simply riding the bus along the winding country roads.  Wild horses could be seen pretty much everywhere, and there was something so serene about watching them graze and gallop their way across the forest and heathland.

The next morning, I headed to the capital of New Forest – Lyndhurst. Though Brockenhurst may be the larger of the two towns, Lyndhurst had the most historic charm and the better High Street. The town is full of half-timbered buildings adorned with baskets filled with colorful flowers in full bloom.  The shops on the street themselves were nothing special and mainly served local ice cream.

Lyndhurst High Street

It was a bit too chilly to try the ice cream!

From Lyndhurst, I took the Red line open-top bus to Burley. This quirky town was extremely small, and its economy seemed solely dependent on the sale of local ice cream and cider. Nevertheless, it was very pretty and was located right at the transition point between thick forest and open heathland. With an hour to spare, I set out on a short hike outside of the town where I encountered some very friendly wild ponies.

New Forest Pony

Close encounters

If I had to do it all over again I would come back with a car. Though the open-top buses were adequate, it passed so many amazing hiking and cycling trails along the way that it left me longing for more. The size of New Forest National Park is pretty remarkable and I probably missed out on quite a bit.  Luckily, it’s only 90-minutes from Central London, so chances are that I’ll be able to make a second visit next summer.

To view more of my pictures from New Forest on Flickr, click here.

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A Lovely Spring Weekend on Jersey Island

 

I didn’t know what to expect when I booked a weekend getaway with my significant other to Jersey Island.  Sitting somewhere between England and France, it’s a tiny speck of land mostly known for being a tax haven.  Upon our early morning arrival I was immediately taken aback by the island’s beauty.

In contrast to the sprawling urban tendrils of London, where sweeping vistas of grey and brown are accented by just the tiniest bits of greenery now and again, Jersey seemed to be (for lack of a better term) in harmony with nature.  Decidedly modern construction jutted out along its green hills, while more period homes blended into the environment seamlessly, covered in ivy and flowers.  The coastal winds which whipped through the island provided it with a constant supply of fresh, clean air.

In the town of St. Helier, the largest on the island, the streets were clean, charming and boasted beautiful views of St. Aubin’s Bay and Elizabeth Castle.  The bay itself was a wide, sandy mouth inviting deep blue sea water to the shores.  Our hotel was nestled on a hill a few blocks up from St. Aubin’s and we were pleasantly surprised with an upgrade to a sea-facing room.

View from Hotel Cristina

The view was nothing short of spectacular with neatly manicured English shrubbery against the deep blue  of the channel waters.  Our short two-day stint on the island took us through winding country roads where we found inland gems in the form of the Durrell Wildlife Conservatory, and the La Mare Wine Estate.

Jersey’s sunny seaside demeanor and fertile soil has been home to a spectacular wildlife conservation park for nearly half a century now.  Sitting on a large plot of land on the northern half of the island, the Durrell Wildlife Conservatory is dedicated to the rehabilitation of endangered and threatened species.  For an incredibly modest entrance fee, we were able to view some of the park’s residents.  Open and lush with flora, Durrell is home to a number of great apes, reptiles and birds.  The conservatory carefully crafted suitable environments for all its animals, allowing them to roam through open-structured environments.

Chilean Flamingos at Durrell

Bringing out my inner Attenborough, I spend the better part of a few hours sitting and observing lemurs, gorillas, various water fowl and orangutans graze and interact in surroundings which at times rivaled the San Diego Zoo.  The conservatory also included an obligatory, yet tasteful, gift shop/coffee shop in addition to an organic farming exhibit and apple orchard.

Not far from the wildlife conservatory is the La Mare Wine Estate, a small vineyard providing the island with wine, sparkling wine, apple cider, apple brandy, chocolate and other confections.  Elevated with views of Jersey’s north shore and a neighboring island, the vineyard is a sight to behold. I took a self-guided tour through the estate, passing vineyards, a small apple orchard and a pony named bubbles. The area was blanketed with tiny white flowers in full bloom and the buds of the grapevines were about to sprout.

Standing is a field under the warmth of the afternoon sun I was reminded of my childhood, growing up about a half hour from California’s wine country. It was at that point, amongst the grassy fields in the cool breeze that everything felt like home.  Jersey has a small-town feel that I suppose I missed after spending the majority of the last year and a half between London and Bangkok. But here on this tiny vineyard in the middle of a speck of an island in the English Channel, I felt the rare but oh-so-sweet comfort of that small town atmosphere, and it felt really good.

La Mare Wine Estate

For our last few hours on Jersey I managed to pry myself from the magnetic pull of its homey country center and head out to St. Ouen’s Bay which flanked the west coast of Jersey.  While St. Aubin’s was a scenic and charming slice of beach, St. Ouen’s was wild, rocky and unkempt  – but in a good way.  Here small idyllic family dwelling were replaced by sprawling hillside mansions with unobstructed views of the untamed seas.  Broad, windy and full of soft but packed sand, the beach was a haven for windsurfers who criss-crossed the sandy plains with alarming velocity.  So vast was the beach during low tide that I couldn’t resist the temptation to run unabashedly  along the coastline; the wind swirling my hair in front of my eyes.

St. Ouen’s Bay

From my perspective, Jersey is a place that’s got it right.  Its mix of urban and rural, beaches and farms, and old and new make it incredibly hospitable without damaging its natural beauty.  Such a short flight from my home in London, I can definitely see myself visiting Jersey again and I’d also like to explore Guernsey, its island neighbor.  As for now, I’m back in London, looking out the window onto a very muddy River Thames.  It may not be St. Aubin’s bay, but it will have to do for now. :)

For more photos of my weekend trip to Jersey, visit my Flickr site here.