Thursday, May 20, 2010

Captain's Log: Day 12 - Cliffs of Moher

Today was probably my second favorite day of the trip so far. We visited the legendary Cliffs of Moher.

The cliffs were simply astounding. We were standing over 600 feet above the ocean in a near vertical drop. One misstep and it is all over. There were plenty of precautionary handrails and fences but of course nobody listens to those signs and fences because they have to get close to the edge.

I, of course, was also one of those people. And I fell.

No but it was really amazing and simply breathtaking. There was even a small tower on the edge of the cliff that Kristen and I climbed to the top of to get the ultimate view of the cliffs.

After the cliffs, we made the 1.5 hour trip back to Limerick and our hotel. The area surrounding our hotel is quite shady so there will not be any late night exploring tonight.

The dinner we had was really fun. We went to a castle for a medieval dinner and entertainment. There are medieval restaurants in the United States but they do not exist in 500 year old castles and that is what made this dinner so special. It was a great way to send off our trip and our amazing experience.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Captain's Log: Day 11 - Day in Killarney

Today we had a free day in the lovely little town of Killarney.

The day started with the traditional Irish breakfast. I think that is the one thing I will miss from this trip -- full breakfast every morning.

After breakfast, a group of us decided to be tourists and to hit all the local shops. I had already filled my quota for gifts and luggage space so I did not buy anything although several items caught my eye.
Frankie and I went exploring in the sporting goods shops and saw some amazing English Premier league jerseys, Rugby national team jerseys, and even local GAA jerseys. The Munster Authentic Rugby jersey was calling my name but I did the responsible thing and did not purchase it.

We then stopped at a local sandwich shop and got some amazing freshly grilled paninis and took them to Killarney National Park for a picnic in the park. The picnic in the park turned into a photoshoot across the beautiful scenery of Killarney.
After the park, we went back to the room and relaxed for an hour or two before we went out to find ourselves some dinner. We ended up eating one of our best meals of the trip at this small but very nice restaurant. I got myself some lasagna that was to die for.

Ice cream followed dinner and then we just went back to the hotel to blog, talk, and relax. It was a very peaceful day.

Captain's Log: Day 10 - Ring of Kerry

Today we had to pack up early and leave the beautiful and wonderful Bella Vista Hotel and made our way to Killarney. Unfortunately, today was our first day with bad weather -- the Irish mist was blowing and raining most of the day.

We decided to go a round-about route to get to Killarney by stopping at a replica 18th century village and by driving through the Ring of Kerry.

The village was very interesting because it allowed us to take a glimpse into what life was like for the Irish during the years of the famine.

After the village, we entered the Ring of Kerry and got to witness a real life working sheepdog demonstration. The dogs were amazing and could hear their master and his commands up to half a mile away. They were very accurate and efficient. It was a marvel to see.

We then drove through the rest of the Ring of Kerry at breakneck speed and saw some amazing, but wet, vistas.

Once we made it back to Killarney, we went to dinner at a traditional Irish pub. The food was amazing, the drink great, and the live entertainment from the Irish Weavers was simply spectacular.

The music had everyone in the pub clapping and cheering along with the songs but the best moment of the night was when one of the guys decided to play the Titanic theme song on the tin pipe. All of the sappy girls with our group decided to sing the song for the entire pub and it was amazing.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Captain's Log: Day 9 - Red FM and Ol' Blarney

This morning we visited the most popular radio station in Ireland, Red FM. The station targets the 15-35 market with their musical and program choices.

I was very surprised how similar Red FM was to an American radio station in nearly every way. Red FM plays similar music, has similar contests and promotions, and even similar equipment.

We heard from their Irish language programmer Eilish Berry about how she prepares and produces the required amount of Irish language programming for the station. She was very interesting but was occasionally hard to follow because English is almost a second language to her because she did all of her school subjects in Gaelic.

Eilish told us that the Irish language was incredibly complex and difficult to learn and that almost nobody in Ireland can understand it or speak it. She does all the programming for the station and her job is very important because she is one of the few in the country who can do it.

Colm O'Sullivan, the Program Director and Assistant CEO of the station, also offered input on his radio station and radio as a whole in Ireland.

The main difference is the restrictions placed on the radio stations in Ireland. They are not allowed to advertise alcohol in any capacity. The radio station is also not allowed to hold promotions at pubs, bars, or nightclubs that serve alcohol. I have found the Irish are very conservative towards their media despite the fact that their social life is centered around the pub and a pint of Guinness. It is much easier to swear on live radio than to advertise a local pub.

After Red FM, we hopped on the bus and headed off to the world famous Blarney Castle. The castle was very impressive and was over 13 stories tall. However, I was disappointed with how commercialized the castle has become. I understand that you need to make money to keep the castle in working condition but having a gift shop in the basement of the 1000 year old castle feels like a sell out to me.

Besides that, the castle was amazing. There was a series of caves in the foundations of the castle that were quite fun to explore. The line to kiss the Blarney stone was a long one that winded up and the castle staircase. The staircase was almost vertical and it was a nerve wracking climb to the top. Kissing the stone itself was not as scary to me because I knew that thousands of people before me have done it so there was no fear of falling.

After Blarney, we made our way back to Cobh and went off to explore the town. We ate some good old fashioned greasy American burgers and walked up the steepest hill in the town for no reason. Good day.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Captain's Log: Day 8 - Cobh

Captain’s Log: Day 8 – Cobh

Today we left Dublin early in the morning and our new tour guide, Joe, had our group drive into the Wicklow Hills outside Dublin. The hills are more mountains than hills since they are approximately 2,000-3,000 feet in height.

We were all packed into a large bus for the short journey into the hills. The bus driver, named Tige, was an amazing driver – he maneuvered that bus around hair-pin turns at 50 mph on a small two-lane highway high up in the mountains. I have come to realize on this trip that American’s drive quite slow and safely compared to these maniac Europeans…

Back to the trip. The hills were simply breathtaking. The scenery was more what one would expect when visiting Ireland. Our group was robbed of seeing the scenery by being essentially dropped into the heart of a very large city. I was really glad we got to experience the beauty of Ireland as well as the modern culture located at its capital.

After scaring sheep at 50 mph, we arrived at St. Kevin’s Monastery nestled in the Wicklow Hills. The monastery was built over 1000 years ago and the old gravestones and buildings are still standing to this day. What is even more amazing is that no mortar, cement, or other binding agent was used to build the structures.

My favorite building was the round tower that stood over 150 feet over the monastery. Joe’s information about the uses of the tower, why the doorway was so high up, and the architecture that has allowed it to survive so long was extremely valuable and made the trip so much more enriching for the group and myself.

We ate lunch at an attached café. My food was delicious (breakfast panini) but Brittany and Abby hated theirs (roast beef with hidden mustard/horseradish sauce).

After lunch it was back onto the bus and through the rest of the Wicklow Hills and then the 3 hour drive to Cobh (pronounced Cove). I slept much of the way once we exited the beautiful scenery because a highway in Ireland is like a highway in the U.S. except the bus is on the other side of the road.

Once we arrived in Cobh, we departed the bus and made our way to our new rooms. The 5 male students had a suite with 5 beds in it. I feel as if this hotel was much higher quality than our Dublin apartments which were basically glorified hostels.

After settling in, we then were greeted by Michael Martin, a Titanic historian, who took us on a walking tour of the Titanic’s last port of call before it departed for North America. Michael really knew his information and some of the information he imparted on us is very contradictory to many of the information we had been led to believe was fact back in the United States. For instance, the photo taken of the last people to board the Titanic was actually a photo taken 12 days later at the same place.

We finally got some dinner after the Titanic tour in the Chinese restaurant attached to the hotel. I got a sparerib appetizer and a chicken lo mien main course. This was pushing my boundaries because my usual choices for Chinese food are between Chicken or Beef and Broccoli. It was delicious though.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Captain's Log: Day 7 - Free Day

Today was our first free day of the entire trip and I made full use of the free time.

Some people had a late night last night so Brittany and I decided to take explore Dublin by ourselves.

After eating breakfast, we made the 10-15 minute walk to Saint Patrick's Cathedral. The Church was amazing and very very old (established in 1191 AD). I was quite surprised by how commercialized the church was. There was a small entrance fee into the church but the money is used for the maintenance and upkeep of the church and its extensive grounds.

The inside of the church is gigantic and very dimly lit. The ceiling was so high and it looked exactly like a church scene straight out of a movie. There were two stones in the corner of the church that were over a thousand years old. One stone was used as the cover to St. Patrick's Well, where he used to baptize the newly converted native Irish people.

The altar was very impressive as well. There were old helmets of knights lined up on the sides of the altar as well as flags from all of the provinces around the country of Ireland. The floor was also beautiful because it was a very old and very amazing hand laid tile floor.

After the inside, we went outside into the square and sat down on the lawn. There were children playing everywhere and many people, locals and tourists alike, were there visiting the beautiful site.

Our next destination was Grafton Street and St. Stephen's Green. We went shopping for our families and friends in the many shops located along the popular walking street. There were also many street performers out tonight. There was someone making a sand sculpture, someone making large bubbles for the children to play with and live bands giving free concerts.

Once all of our souvenir shopping was done, we headed back to our rooms and had a quiet dinner in anticipation of our early morning and long day of travel tomorrow.

Captain's Log: Day 6 - Long Day

This morning I woke up for the first time at 5:15 am - a new record for me I believe. We had to meet downstairs for our walk across town to the train station at 6:30am.

The train was a very comfortable train but it was listed as a high speed train. I have been on several trains in the U.S. and this train was not much faster than any of them. The views from the train, especially the first half of the trip, were very beautiful and amazing. Either way it took us two hours of training through the Irish countryside to reach Northern Ireland and Belfast, the capital city.

Once we arrived in Belfast, we loaded into another tour bus and we were shown all around the city of Dublin by an excellent local tour guide. Our first stop was the amazing Stormont Parliamentary Building which was located at the top of a hill allowing all of those people in the surrounding areas a great view of the building. It has a 1/4 mile driveway that is perfectly straight right up to the front door. It was quite amazing but security inside was extremely strict and we could only see the lobby of the building due to that security.

We then visited Belfast Castle, an old castle located in the hills of Belfast. It was amazing to see an old time European castle. The grounds and views were also spectacular which included a view of the Titanic shipyards.

After that we drove through the troubled areas of town and saw dozens of murals on the sides of buildings commemorating the lives lost during the troubled times of the 20th century. My favorite mural read: "Prepared for Peace, Ready for War". This phrase is an example of the tensions that still exist between the Catholic and Protestant sides of the city despite their current ceasefire and peace agreements.

It was amazing to see the difference between Belfast and Dublin. Belfast has barbed wire everywhere left over from the troubled years. The police stations in Belfast are heavily fortified with bulletproof glass, steel plating, razor wire and armed guards. The schools also are heavily defended making it seem as if the troubles are still very much a factor in these people's lives.

Next, we had lunch at the Titanic Shipyards. The dry dock where the Titanic was built still exists and it was a marvel to see such a large hole in the ground. It really gave scale to how large the ship really was.

We then met with Gerry Patterson, the Director of Digital Development at the Belfast Telegraph. He was very interesting to talk to because he shed some light on the almost combative nature of the print reporters versus the web journalists at his company. He also described the amazing website the newspaper has and the success it has received among locals and expatriates alike.

This website success is the complete opposite of the newspapers in the Republic. Due to the widespread internet access, people in Northern Ireland are very active on the Internet. However, they still use it less than people in the U.S. and England.

One interesting fact from Patterson is that 100% of Northern Ireland has broadband internet access - compared to the ~30% number of the Republic of Ireland.