“They’re just cliffs… “

On our most recent trip to Ireland, one of the places we visited, though ranked high on the very touristy list were the Cliffs of Moher. They were supposed to be Ireland’s number 2 attraction. It doesn’t help that a lot of movies were filmed around the area, such as, The Princess Bride and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. Being a fan of those two movies, I have to come see this attraction, touristy or not.

The night before our scheduled trip to the Cliffs, we hung out at our hotel’s bar  with hubby having his regular Guinness run, and I was just there to keep him company. Not that he needed it. My husband can talk to anyone anytime anywhere much unlike me.

While having a conversation with the hotel bartender, we asked him for suggestions on what to do or where to go. We told him that we wanted to see the Cliffs and if there is anything we should check out before or after going there. Much to our surprise, he said something like, “It’s not that spectacular, they’re just cliffs! You should check out Connemara or the Aran Islands instead.” I was flabbergasted he would say that to one of his country’s most popular attractions which was almost akin to one describing the Grand Canyon as a mere crack in the earth.

Then came another stranger who stopped by to talk to us. He was this nice older gentleman whose thick Irish accent I loved dearly. So like we always do on our trips, we always ask locals for suggestions. Lo and behold, he said no to the Cliffs and suggested the Aran Islands too like the bartender before him. We learned he was born and raised in those islands and in about 15 mins, we had a haphazardly drawn map of where to go and what to do when we get there. We learned about his family and what he did. Ah, those friendly Irish people!

Now if we had more time, we would probably head out to the Aran Islands too because I’ve read about them in my research. So, off to the Cliffs we go against locals’ advice. I was thinking the same of us when people ask us about Disney World, it was just ho-hum, just another theme park in Orlando. I guess when you’re local, you take for granted the popular attractions.

The Cliffs of Moher are not just your ordinary cliffs. They are 320 million years old and spans 8 miles along the western coast of Ireland. The highest point is 702 feet near O’Brien’s Tower and has more than 20 species of birds living and nesting on its steep rocky face.

There is a visitor center which was built into a hillside near the cliffs and the vicinity around it have walkways, viewing areas and importantly, walls protecting visitors from accidents. But you can walk around the walls if you wish to get closer to the edge.

There are numerous tours going to the Cliffs. Timing your visit would be a challenge as there are always tour buses around. But if you can learn to just go with the flow and find a not so busy spot for your photos then you are good to go. The weather can also be tricky. I’ve heard and read that some days it can be so foggy that you won’t be able to see anything. They close on those days. And rightfully so. Or it can be so windy or rainy. Either of those conditions don’t make for great pictures or for safe walking along the cliffs. On the day we went there, we were nothing but blessed to have a beautiful day…no rain, no wind and no fog!

As you can see, hubby definitely doesn’t have a fear of heights. I thought I didn’t too until I walked the trails and felt the dizzyingly pull of gravity. Ack! I wanted to take a shot of me sitting on the edge legs dangling but no, I was too chicken. The hubby did it for me instead.

The cliffs as magnificent as they are can also be very dangerous, obviously, and a few people have lost their lives either by accident or intentionally. Hence, the walls of the visitor center and the numerous warning signs.

Of course, a visit to an Irish attraction would not be complete without seeing animals. We spent about two hours there majority of our time taking photos. I would have wanted to hike the trails but we were both starving and didn’t bring anything substantial to eat so off we go in search of Chinese food. Did I tell you I was having rice withdrawals in Ireland?

So, do you think they’re just cliffs? Or that they’re just amazingly spectacular cliffs?

 

The Ring of Kerry: Tour Bus or Self Drive?

May the road rise up to meet you,

the wind be always at your back.

May the sun shine warm upon your face,

the rain falls soft upon your fields.

And until we meet again,

May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

                                        -old Irish blessing-

One fine sunny day, we took a road trip around the Ring of Kerry, Ireland’s most famous scenic drive. We hopped into our trusty little red rental car, this time with my husband almost quite getting the hang of driving on the opposite side of the road. Starting early in the morning was recommended because it can be a whole day drive, although 9 am wasn’t really considered early, we just wanted to beat the huge tour buses and crowds.

With a rental car being part of our Ireland trip package, it was a no brainer that we would use it to explore more of the countryside and not just a transport in between cities. Initially, I asked my hubby if he preferred to drive along the Ring of Kerry or join a tour group where he doesn’t have to worry about directions and driving. He insisted we drive to which I was just all too delighted to agree with. I didn’t mind being the navigator at all.

There are tons of tour operators and companies in Ireland that do all sorts of trips to the Ring of Kerry and to all the four corners of this country as well. You just have to chose which ones you like best. Traveling made easy. Of course, you can also always rent a car and make traveling more challenging and adventurous and tailor fit to suit your needs.  Whatever floats your boat.

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For us, it is self drive all the way! 

The Ring of Kerry is a 179 km loop around the Iveragh Peninsula in Southwest Ireland, which takes you to different landscapes and sceneries, from the rugged and craggy sheep-filled mountains to rolling green valleys to the tumultuous waves of the Atlantic coast.

After reading different websites and travel blogs, we decided to travel clockwise. The buses go in an anti-clockwise direction so if you don’t want to get stuck behind them (and I wouldn’t really recommend passing them in those super narrow roads!), then drive the opposite way. Just be careful also because those big buses come barreling down the roads like they own it. Another caveat, when you get off the main Ring road, say you want to explore a certain town, the Ring of Kerry signs all point to the anti-clockwise direction. Again, just go the opposite way.

A day before, we explored Killarney National Park which is along the Ring of Kerry. That was a whole day affair too as there are lots of sights to see and activities to do around the park itself. On the day of our Ring of Kerry trip, we started from Killarney town and drove South to Kenmare. Along the way, we stopped at one of the Killarney Lakes where we accidentally discovered an unmarked trail down to the beach.

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After enjoying a few quiet moments in this “secret” spot with the early morning air and the sound of the waves lapping gently on the shores, we then proceeded to head on to our next destination which was the Kenmare stone circle. The drive was, for the most part leisurely, except for those twisty turns and hairpin bends what with the road already being narrow and with speed limits set at 100 km/hr (62 miles/hr). Seriously, they need to lower the speed limit as no one can go that fast on those roads. Wait, I think the buses do.

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These photos are just a small sample of the breathtaking vista that is the Ring of Kerry.

We get to the town of Kenmare, find parking and head to the Tourism office for directions to the stone circle. Across the Tourism office, we find a directional sign and walked for about ten minutes along what appears to be private homes and offices. At the end of the road is a  private residence with a large yard/garden/farm. The stone circle was part of the private property with a separate entrance for the public and an “honesty box” with an admission fee of 2 Euro. (I got more photos of the stone circle here)

One thing I like best about doing it yourself is the ability to stop anywhere you want and for however long you want. There were so many random stops we made along the way that truly made for a great road trip.

This was one of them. We stopped to admire the view and what do I find when I looked down? A road leading to the beach, which also looked like a place to launch boats.

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This was another unplanned stop.

Waterville is a charming little village facing the ocean with quaint shops and restaurants. When we got there, the lunch crowd was in full swing. There were I think four tour buses parked along the road. Four doesn’t feel like many but these buses have the capacity of 60-80 people so when you stick that number in a small town, it can get too crowded.

We wanted to have lunch there but skipped it because of that. We just strolled over the Promenade to enjoy the pebbly beach.

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From here you can either chose to take another smaller ring road called the Skellig Ring or continue with the Ring of Kerry. The Skellig Ring is about 20 km. more rugged natural beauty. Whats awesome about this ring, there are no tour buses! If the Ring of Kerry road was narrow enough for you, try the Skellig Ring, your heart drops to your stomach when you have an oncoming vehicle specially one that does not appear to slow down. The road really is a one lane road but no, not in Ireland.  Maybe with horses then?

The Skellig Ring is named after the Skellig Islands, Skellig Michael (Great Skellig) and Little Skellig, two rocky craggy islands off St Finian’s Bay. Skellig Michael is known for its Christian monastery founded sometime around the 6th century and later abandoned in the 12th century. It is a UNESCO world heritage site. Recently, it has been made more popular due to Star Wars which filmed one of its final scenes in the episode The Force Awakens. Little Skellig is famous for its bird population, a colony of gannets, the largest in Ireland.

There are boat tours to these islands but unluckily for us, they were closed for the season which ends in October. You can land on Skellig Michael and explore the monastery site but not on Little Skellig. The tours are also weather dependent as the waters can be very rough and it can be quite a challenge docking the boat. Strong winds can also be dangerous when you are on those steep narrow steps that lead up to the monastery.

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I never really expected to see the islands because the weather in Ireland can go from cloudy to foggy to rain to sunny in five minutes. But when we saw THIS, I was squealing with delight! That boat trip will have to wait another day.

Mission accomplished and feeling quite high we drive on and get off the Skellig Ring. Next on our list was Ballycarberry Castle, off the town of Cahersiveen. Just another castle ruin but charming in its own way.

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After the castle, we were ready to go home, hit the pubs, grab some beer and dinner. It took us about seven hours to do the entire Ring of Kerry plus the extra kilometers for that Skellig detour we took. We never really got a proper lunch stop but thank God we brought along snacks and water. There was too much to see to stop for an hour break.

Was it worth driving? YES. I didn’t drive but my hubby didn’t complain or regret it one single bit. You can also go slow and don’t have to do it in a day. Sleep overnight in one of the Bed and Breakfasts. Take one hour lunch stops. We didn’t have the luxury of time so we decided to overachieve. We met our road trip goals and that is what matters.

Sheep anyone?

The Giant’s Causeway: Legend or Science?

Some 50 to 60 million years ago, volcanoes did their magic, like they always do, on the Northern coast of Ireland creating what we see now as the Giant’s Causeway. These are the 40,000 or so interlocking basalt columns scattered along the coast of Antrim. They were declared as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1986 due to its unique geological formation.

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However, most Irish folks would like to believe in the alternative story of how they were formed. Legend says that an Irish giant, Finn McCool built this causeway so he can fight with the Scottish giant across the seas named Benandonner. When he realized that the other giant was much bigger than him, he asked his wife to help him. So his wife disguised him as a baby and put him in a cradle and dressed him in baby clothes. When Benandonner came over and saw this massive “baby”, he realized that its father could be even bigger, he ran back to Scotland and destroyed the causeway so that McCool couldn’t come get him. On the other side of the ocean, on Scottish shores, there lies the same basalt formations that stretches out to sea thereby backing up the story of the two giants.

The whole area is stunning with raw natural beauty. There was a visitor center which we skipped and went straight down to the coastline. It was about a 15 minute hike or you can take a free shuttle ride from the visitor center and back. We took our lunch with us and had a small picnic along the stones in a not so overcrowded spot. There are restaurants near the visitor center too but we were advised that they were on the expensive side. It was way better eating lunch out there as you soak in the breathtaking views.

There were LOTS of people and it can be a challenge getting your shots right but, this is a popular place so expect a huge crowd. Don’t worry, there was plenty of room for everyone! I also liked the fact that there were staff from the National Trust manning the site. As it was a windy day, it could be dangerous climbing up those rock formations.

Here they are up close and personal!

Most of these stones are hexagons, though some have five sides, maybe even more!

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Some are slabs and some are columns.

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Some are almost irregularly roundish and some are perfectly angular.

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Some have white spots and some are volcanic black.

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Some appear to be like pavers while some are in mounds.

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Some are stuck on the mountainside and some stretches out to sea.

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This whole day tour was made possible by Finn McCools tours of which we spent an hour and a half on the causeway. Of course, there were so many other companies to chose from. It really is up to you. I just happened to chose this one because aside from the good reviews, they have the best value for your money. There were other stops along the way too, each beautiful by their own right. You can also drive up there yourself and enjoy the scenic ride at your own pace.

So, which one are you most inclined to believe in?

Giants or science?

Castles, Churches and Ruins along the Irish Countryside

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who dreamed that she was a princess living in an enchanted castle in a far, far away land. There she would meet her knight in shining armor who would rescue her from the evil clutches of this ferocious dragon whom he slayed after a long battle. Then, they both lived happily ever after….. or so they say.

Fairy tales, you either love them or hate them. I suppose Ireland is the land of legend and magic. I would also like to believe, that it is the land of fairy tales. Call me childish or childlike but all my childhood dreams were coming true. Medieval castles, gothic churches, ancient monasteries…. all these were but found in my books or in the movies or in my imagination. As I come to see them before me with my very own eyes, I felt like I was transported back in time.

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Muckross Abbey

There were so many castles and ruins we saw along the way it was impossible to visit them all. So many oohs and aahs and wows were said either aloud or in quiet disbelief as I wandered into empty halls with my hand touching the stone walls wondering about the people who once lived there. My inner Lady Belle was working it. 🙂

According to one source online, there are over 30,000 castles in the island of Ireland! Most of them were built in Medieval times. It is also interesting to note that most of these castles were not built for kings and queens but rather as forts or defensive fortresses or what they call tower houses.

We took a tour at Ross Castle and actually, learned a lot of things about how they lived during those times and how each part of the fort from the wooden doors to the stairs had a purpose in helping defend its occupants from invading armies.

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Dunluce Castle. Location: Co Antrim, Northern Ireland

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Ross Castle. Location: Killarney National Park, Co Kerry

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Ballycarberry Castle. Location: Cahersiveen, Co Kerry (along the Ring of Kerry)

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Bunratty Castle. Location: Bunratty Village, Co Clare

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Dunguaire Castle. Location: Co Galway near Kinvarra

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Churches, Monasteries and Abbeys

My world history was being refreshed big time on this trip as it was actually fascinating to see all these history passing before us. At one point in our bus tour to the Giant’s Causeway, I thought of the thousands of people that were persecuted and had died defending their religion, i.e., the Catholics vs Protestants war in Ireland had me so troubled that I can say that we are so lucky today because of the freedom of religion.

St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork

St Mary’s Cathedral, Killarney

Muckross Abbey, Killarney National Park, Killarney

Random church along the Ring of Kerry

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Inisfallen Abbey, Inisfallen Island, Killarney National Park

Ruins (and a Stone Circle)

Ireland is dotted with them. Some you can’t really identify whether it was a castle or a farmhouse. All you see are scattered stone remnants of some sort of structure. And don’t get me started on stone circles. Although I only saw one at Kenmore along the Ring of Kerry, Ireland has a couple hundred stone circles scattered around. But it was enough to get my geek hat on.

There was that one day when I told my hubby though that I was afraid I was getting “castled out”! Eek! But I eventually resumed to my otherwise enthusiastic self the next day after having my 6th Irish breakfast in a row. Go figure.

Are you a history fan? Would you rather live in the past or in the present?

Ireland in 7 Days

Ireland, also called the Emerald Isle, is a country known for it’s wild natural beauty and friendly people, leprechauns and Guinness and of course, St Patrick’s Day. This widely popular holiday is a religious and cultural celebration of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. It is celebrated every 17th of March the day he was believed to have died in 461 AD by not just the Irish but in other parts of the world with a large Irish population as well.

When I was in the 6th grade, I represented Ireland in my elementary school’s annual United Nation’s pageant. I do not remember why I was “Miss Ireland”. I do not look Irish and I certainly do not have Irish blood. Maybe, it was just meant to be. But I was 5th runner-up in that pageant and memories of my younger self in that light pink lacy gown walking up the stage pretending not to be nervous I can still vividly recall.

Fast forward present time, I come to visit my adopted U.N. country at last! My mom laughed as I told her that my elementary pageant days was the reason why we were traveling to Ireland. Of course, the main reason was Guinness but that is another story for another day.

So what did we do in 7 days? We visited 5 cities and saw lots of interesting places in between. It helped that we mostly drove ourselves around. Here is a summary of the highlights of our trip. I will be eventually blogging about all the little details in separate posts. So, stay tuned!

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  1. Dublin

To visit Dublin and not pay homage to the Guinness storehouse is a mortal sin. This is the number one tourist attraction in Ireland most sources claim. Even if you are not a beer lover, the experience itself is like no other as you make your way up seven floors learning all about the history of Arthur Guinness and his family and what goes into the making of every pint of this world famous beer. At the very top of this building, is the Gravity Bar where you will get a 360 degree view of the city while enjoying your free pint (included with admission). Hubby swears the Guinness tastes better here!

If you are a history buff, you will surely geek out over this one. I have never heard of the Book of Kells until I did my trip planning. The Book of Kells is an ancient manuscript containing the four gospels of the New Testament written in colorful intricately designed calligraphy. Today, it is on display at the old library of the Trinity College in Dublin. It seemed like a pretty popular attraction so this got added to my check list. Unfortunately, photos are not allowed inside the exhibits.

Coming out from the Book of Kells, you walk into the Long Room which is the main chamber of the old library. This is also Ireland’s biggest library housing over 200,000 books. I could feel my jaw drop the moment I walked into this great room and its’ hallowed halls.

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We ended up our day in the Temple Bar area, a perfect place to people watch as we replenish our stomachs with food and drink. It can be touristy but sometimes, touristy can be fun. There’s lots of restaurants and pubs, some with live Irish music. You can also find all sorts of shops here.

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2. Northern Ireland

The following day, we took the only bus tour in this trip to the Giant’s Causeway. We started really early in the morning at 645 and made a quick stop at Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, for breakfast and to pick up a couple of people. We learned some about the bloody history and political turmoils of this city and for those who are not aware (like I was), the Titanic was built here. Belfast is also not a part of the Republic of Ireland but of the United Kingdom.

We then proceeded to our next two photo stops. The Dark Hedges and Dunluce Castle. If you are a Game of Thrones fan, you will recognize this pretty neat tree-lined road in one of its scenes. As I am not, then I can only appreciate its natural beauty. These beech trees have been planted by the owner who lives at the end of this road over 300 years ago. Beech trees live only to be about a hundred making this one of the most photographed natural phenomena in Northern Ireland.

Tip: try to come early if you are driving by car otherwise you will not really get a good picture as hundreds of tourists in tour buses flock here. I ended up frustrated and took photos of its surrounding scenery instead!

Dunluce Castle, or rather what remains of it, sits on the edge of a rocky cliff. Stories tell of how part of its kitchen fell into the ocean after which, the owners left because they didn’t feel safe.

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We spent the next hour and a half at the Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO world  heritage site, where millions of years ago a volcano erupted and caused the unique geological formation of these interlocking basalt columns. The locals would like to believe though in the legend that says the Irish giant, Finn McCool built this causeway so he can fight with the Scottish giant, Benandonner but when he realized that the Scottish giant was much bigger than him, he asked his wife to help him. So his wife disguised him as a baby and put him in a cradle and dressed him in baby clothes. When Benandonner saw this massive “baby”, he realized that its father could be even bigger so he ran back to Scotland and destroyed the causeway. Yay for having a smart wife eh?!

I like the giant’s theory better. 🙂

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Our next stop was the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge. First built by Salmon fishermen in 1755, it is now managed by the National Trust. There is a fee to cross the swinging bridge. I was looking forward to doing that but unfortunately, the bridge was closed due to the strong winds that day. So we took a long walk around the area and just enjoyed the coastal views.

3. Cork

We only stayed overnight here so there wasn’t much time to really do anything but head on out to downtown and eat. Cork is Ireland’s 3rd largest city known for its culinary flair and cultural scenes. We made a beeline first to the English Market, Ireland’s most popular covered food market. It opened in 1788 and continues to sell fresh produce, meat, cheese, seafood and even chocolates! The Queen herself made a visit here in 2011 on her Ireland tour.

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I have this fascination with markets when visiting different countries and cities. If I find one by accident or learn of one that is in the area, I make it a point to stroll through its stalls and observe the local people going about their daily business. Sometimes even sampling the local fare. This also makes for great photo ops.

St Fin Barre’s Cathedral is by far one of the grandest churches I have ever seen. I haven’t been to Italy or Spain yet which I’m sure have more bigger and grander churches but for now, this tops my list. This church was consecrated in 1870 and is Ireland’s most complete example of French Neo Gothic architecture.

4. Killarney

Killarney National Park located in the town of Killarney is Ireland’s first national park. It comprises more than 10,000 hectares of mountains, lakes and woodlands and Ireland’s only native herd of red deer. This was just a tiny sample of what our next day itinerary would be as the park is part of the Ring of Kerry, one of Ireland’s scenic drives.

The following day, we woke up earlier than normal to start our drive around the Ring of Kerry, a 179 km circular scenic drive around Southwest Ireland. This road takes you to some of the most stunning sceneries, quaint little towns and rugged landscapes. There are plenty of things to do here. You can drive around the ring in one day or go slow and stay for a night or two in one of the picturesque towns along the way.

5. Galway

Galway is a city located on the western part of Ireland and like every other Irish city, has lots of things to offer from shopping to hip places to eat and drink, local pubs and cute Bed and Breakfasts (Ireland is FULL of bed and breakfasts!). I would like to explore this city some more if only we had the time. Photo below was taken after we had a late lunch of rice and a couple of other Asian food as we were seriously having some rice withdrawals from eating Irish food for six days!

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Spanish Arch, originally a 16th century bastion protecting merchant ships from looting. This is located on the left bank of the river Corrib and is close to the Latin Quarter on Quay street where you can stroll on its cobblestone pedestrian-only streets filled with pubs, boutiques, hotels, buskers and other quaint shops.

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If visiting Guinness was my hubby’s reason for coming, this is mine – the Cliffs of Moher.  “They’re just cliffs”, says the hotel bartender when we asked him if seeing the Cliffs of Moher was worth it. I think when you are a local you tend to downplay the awesomeness of a tourist attraction. It’s either you’ve been there and not impressed or you’ve never been there at all. I’m not saying don’t trust a local’s opinion because surely they are a plethora of information but when your time is limited, you go with what you really want to do.

Let’s just say after Guinness, the cliffs are Ireland’s number two most popular tourist attraction. Easily an hour and a half drive from Galway, the cliffs are made from shale and limestone and are over 300 million years old. They stretch for 8 km along the Atlantic coast and it’s highest point is 702 ft.

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There. My Ireland in a week.

I could say it was a very ambitious itinerary as we basically hit all the major spots in the country from the North to South, East to West. You might want to go slower and explore more off the beaten path places but with the time that we had, we had to do what we had to do.

Happy Exploring!