It felt like I had traveled to the end of the earth.
After flying to Dublin, catching a 3-hour bus to Galway, the small town of Letterfrack in western Ireland was still another hour and a half away, and the site of my college bestie’s wedding was a rocky peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic another 20 minutes from there.
This summer I was lucky enough to visit the green hills of Connemara, Ireland, and the bestie was lucky enough to be blessed with clear blue skies for her big day. The air was chilly and humid – a solid 60 degrees in late-June – but you don’t travel to Ireland for the weather.
Or the food, for that matter.
Yes, yes, try the fish and chips and a full Irish breakfast, but don’t be surprised if you are less than impressed with the cuisine. Except that I was impressed. I stuffed my face until I was counting down the days until I was to leave, sure that my gluttony wouldn’t stop until I was forced to fly out.
Entering Galway after a week in the poetic silence of Connemara is like going to a frat party after visiting your grandmother. Galway is known as the gateway to the wild west of Ireland, but the town will keep you entertained with plenty of crooked alleyways to explore and of course, plenty of pints to be had. Tourists and college students overflowing from the pubs into the cobblestone streets give this medium-sized town its jovial air.
Here are my picks in Galway and beyond:
Renvyle House Hotel (Renvyle, Connemara, Co.Galway)
This sprawling country house sits on a cushy green lawn overlooking a sprinkling of tiny black rock islands disappearing off the coast. Located 20 minutes from the town of Letterfrack, Renvyle reminded me of an old-fashioned family hotel in the Adirondacks, complete with cozy, wood-paneled rooms and food to die for. We ate like kings for 4 days and I never had anything that wasn’t utterly delicious.
The drive from Galway to Letterfrack through the inland valleys offers stunning scenery of foggy hills and peat bogs, and this area is best explored by car. Warning: This will be terrifying. The roads are extremely narrow and full of hairpin turns and blind spots… and the Irish drive on the left.
Catch a bus to Letterfrack to visit Connemara National Park for a day of hiking and 360 degree vistas of the rolling countryside. Tours are also available to the famous Cliffs of Moher and the uber-Irish Aran Islands, and leave daily from Galway. Choose from any number of tour operators advertising on Forster Street near the Galway bus station.
Guinness is not a gimmick in Ireland – the Irish are quite proud of their pint. Make like a local and get yours with black currant syrup – it made it a lot more bearable for me.
The Pie Maker (10 Cross Street Upper, Galway)
When the weather sucks and it’s cold outside, it’s time for pie. Which means there is never a time not eat pie in Ireland. From rhubarb ginger, to sausage and veal gravy, or spinach and feta pie, The Pie Maker has you covered, all from the cozy confines of a hole-in-the-wall straight out of Harry Potter.
Ard Bia at Nimmos Restaurant (Spanish Arch, Galway)
Just when you thought the locavore organic movement could not have survived in this land of fried chips and meat of questionable origin, think again. Nimmos serves the gourmet organic food made from local ingredients in the requisite rustic atmosphere that you’ve come to know and love from your favorite Brooklyn haunts. Artsy locals crowded the place when we visited its charming location behind the Spanish Arch and overlooking the water.
Cupan Tae (8 Quay Lane, The Latin Quarter, Galway)
It’s hard not to feel loud and American when dining in this traditional Irish tea house, especially when trying to decipher the long list of teas, from the traditional to the exotic, all served by the pot. They offer freshly baked pies, cakes, and scones and I highly recommend a slice of the zucchini cake with lime frosting. If the mismatched floral tea sets and lace doilies are off-putting for your male companion, the handwritten sign on the door insists that they will love it, too.
Sometimes the best moments traveling are those most unexpected.
After a week of revelry in the Irish countryside, it was time to go home, tracing my steps back the way I came. I couldn’t leave from Dublin and not visit it, so I decided to tack on a weekend in the capital to see the difference.
After what was already a long day, a man standing outside a pub stopped me from walking into traffic as I was looking, of course, in the wrong direction. At first I dismissed him as another drunk (I had passed quite a few) and told him I wasn’t a day drinker when he offered to buy me a pint. On second thought, I opted for coffee instead and didn’t regret it.
Gerry was a painter-turned-teacher for delinquent teens, working all year in Dublin and going home on long weekends to Innishmaan in the Aran Islands, where he lived in a cottage with no water or electricity and fished all day. Originally he is from Northern Ireland, and when I asked if he had ever been to the States, he said he had not been past the airport in Boston. The authorities had labelled him a “terrorist” and returned him promptly to Ireland. He had been in the IRA, of course! Left the British army and figured he would rather bomb the Brits than fight against his own. Served 15 years in prison, he said with a chuckle. We talked for over an hour, Gerry all the while ordering “one last” round of Irish whiskey. When I teased him for diluting them with water, he said indignantly, “Well how else do you ‘spect me to drink ten of these a day?” I had found the quintessential Irishman.