Exploring the Emerald Isle

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EXPLORING THE EMERALD ISLE
Cruise from the Emerald Isle to the Land of Fire and Ice in Ultimate Comfort – Part 1
by Debbie Stone

I am easily enamored with all things Irish and my affinity with the country and its people is apparent as soon as I step on the soil of this magical, mystical isle. I adopt O’Stone as my new last name, attempt to speak with a lilting brogue, drink Guinness for breakfast and can belt out the words to “Molly Malone” with the best of them, albeit off-key. Sadly, my strong Germanic genes and Yank accent are dead giveaways, making my transformation to an Irish lass highly improbable. But, hey, you’ve got to give me credit for trying!


Although I’ve been to Ireland a few times over the years, I’ve never gone via a cruise. This time, I chose to do a ten night Ireland and Iceland trip with Celebrity Cruises aboard the Celebrity Eclipse. The cruise line has a stellar reputation in the industry and has received many notable awards and honors. The company is known for its sleek ship design, culinary excellence, outstanding service, well-appointed cabin accommodations, surfeit of amenities, extensive menu of destinations that span the globe and select shore excursions that allow passengers to explore ports of call in a myriad of ways. All of these distinctions factored in to my decision to sail with the company. Additionally, I was intrigued with the unique itinerary of this particular cruise, as it paired two countries together that are not often visited in one trip. Though very different in many aspects, these destinations share a few commonalities. They are both islands with stunning landscapes, amicable and welcoming people, colorful histories and weather that has a mind of its own.


The cruise began in Dublin, the capital and largest city in Ireland. Described by National Geographic as having a “friendly, village vibe,” this is a place that’s easily explored at your own pace. Take a historical guided walking tour to get an introduction to the town’s stirring past. Then hit the highlights, including Trinity College, Ireland’s most famous school, which boasts the treasured Book of Kells, a highly significant piece of art from the Dark Ages; 700-year-old Dublin Castle; the National Museum with its collection of Celtic artifacts from the Stone Age; Kilmainham Gaol, an historic jail once used by the British as a political prison, now a museum that tells a moving story of the suffering of the Irish people; Christ Church Cathedral; and the Irish Emigration Museum.

Stroll through St. Stephen’s Green, a lovely oasis in the middle of the city, shop ‘til you drop on pedestrian-friendly Grafton Street, grab some fish and chips or a hearty bowl of seafood chowder, then head to Temple Bar, a colorful pub district and a great spot for live music.


The pub has always been the social focus of Irish culture and it is one of Ireland’s most popular attractions. In the Temple Bar area, there are plenty of options to imbibe and enjoy the tunes. However, if you want to learn about Irish music and visit authentic establishments in the city, join a Traditional Irish Music Pub Crawl. Led by two professional musicians who play the fiddle, guitar and bodhrán (Irish drum), you’ll hear the story of Irish music and its influences on contemporary world music. And yes, having a pint or two in the process will only enhance this entertaining experience.

There are five themes in Irish music: drinking, war, emigration, lost love and death. In most cases, musical talent runs in the family and is passed down through the generations. Many musicians learn by ear and not by reading the notes. When they get together to play in pubs, there’s typically no set list and no one really knows what piece will be played next. If you’re in the audience, don’t clap along –instead, tap your toes. It’s the Irish way, as most of the traditional music was made for dancing.


No trip to Dublin is complete, however, without a visit to the Guinness Storehouse, as everyone knows that Guinness is synonymous with Ireland. The production site at the legendary St. James Gate Brewery has been home to the company since 1759. Here, you’ll discover the age-old art of brewing that makes Guinness so distinctive, learn how to pour the perfect pint in the Guinness Academy and of course, enjoy a multisensory tasting experience designed to help you appreciate the nuances of this iconic stout. Don’t leave without stopping in at the Gravity Bar, where you’ll have unparalleled panoramic views of the city.

During the cruise, we visited two other ports in Ireland: Cork and Belfast, the latter which is actually located in Northern Ireland. Cork originated as a monastic center and then the Vikings came and left their mark. It was also influenced by the Anglo-Normans, as well as planters, landlords and industrialists, and is the only city in the country to have experienced all historical phases in its urban development. The ship docked at the port town of Cobh, where you can take a train or bus to Cork. Cobh is an interesting place in itself, as this is where the Titanic paid its final visit in 1912 before departing on its ill-fated journey. You can retrace the steps taken by the passengers prior to boarding the ship on a city walking tour, followed by a visit to the Titanic Experience, which is housed in the original White Star Line Ticket Office.

Cobh is also the site of the famed Annie Moore statue. The seventeen-year-old local girl, along with her two younger brothers, traveled on the S.S. Nevada in 1891 bound for the U.S. The trio arrived on New Year’s Eve, and Annie was the first immigrant to pass through Ellis Island. A second statue of Moore and her two siblings can be found on Ellis Island.

In Cork County, there is much to see and do from scenic drives along wild beaches and jagged peninsulas to a tour of the Jameson Heritage Center, where you can learn about the history of whiskey making, and of course, have a glass or two of the renowned liquor in the distillery’s traditional Irish pub. You can also take a tour of nearby Kinsale, an historic town with quaint streets and colorfully painted houses, or get a dose of Irish maritime history at Charles Fort.

For many folks, a visit to Blarney Castle is a must in order to kiss the Blarney Stone. The castle, which was built by the King of Munster, Cormac McCarthy, is 600 years old. And the stone that was to become the Blarney Stone, was given to McCarthy by Robert the Bruce of Scotland for helping Bruce fight and defeat England’s King Edward II. McCarthy took the piece of carboniferous limestone and placed it into the battlements of the medieval fortress. According to legend, kissing the stone endows the kisser with the gift of gab, which is defined as great eloquence or skill at flattery.

To reach the stone, you need to climb a steep 127-step staircase to the parapet walk. Once upon a time, you had to be held by the ankles and lowered head first over the battlements to kiss the stone. Today, it’s a more cautious affair, as you lie down on the ground and gingerly lean backwards, while holding on to an iron railing. An assistant is there to help guide you…and thankfully wipe the stone with disinfectant in between kisses! You’ll join hundreds of world statesmen, literary giants and legends of the silver screen who have all performed this same rite.

Make sure to explore the range of themed gardens on the estate, such as the Fern Garden, which is designed to feel like a tropical jungle. The Poison Garden is home to a collection of deadly and dangerous plants from around the world, like the caged specimens of nightshade, wolfsbane and poison ivy. There’s also a Water Garden with lovely waterfalls that create an enchanting backdrop.

Though Ireland is high on many tourists’ bucket lists, Northern Ireland doesn’t always make the cut. This is unfortunate, as it is a very worthwhile destination that rewards visitors with dramatic scenery spanning the gamut from gentle, verdant countryside to exposed moorlands and rugged shores. It’s also the location of the Giant’s Causeway, an UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Eighth Wonder of the World. These unique geological formations, consisting of 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, some as high as thirty feet, were created from a volcanic eruption. And yes, they appear as if a giant placed them there.

Belfast, where the ship docks, is the capital city of Northern Ireland. It’s a bustling no-nonsense metropolis that was once a major textile town and shipbuilding industry hub, known for being the birthplace of the Titanic. To uncover the true legend of the famous cruise liner, head to the Titanic Quarter, where you’ll find Titanic Belfast, the world’s largest Titanic visitor experience. Creative interpretive and interactive displays bring the tale of the ship and the people who brought her to life in a memorable way. The building’s iconic architecture is also notable. At six stories tall, it has more than 3,000 aluminum panels that reflect the sunlight. Each of the four corners represent the bows of ships, pointing along the cardinal compass points.

A tour of the many political murals which dot the city and depict the region’s past and current political and religious divisions provides valuable insight into “the Troubles.” These colorful and often poignant murals have become important symbols of Northern Ireland and are of great interest to visitors. Your tour will take you to Shankill Road (Unionist Protestant) and Falls Road (Nationalist Catholic), two working-class neighborhoods, which are separated by a Peace Wall. Nearly a hundred walls were erected over the years as a means of defusing sectarian tension. Today, “peace gates” are being opened in some of the walls in an attempt to foster greater links between communities. The plan is to hopefully tear down all of these structures in the future.

Among the more unique shore excursions available for Celebrity passengers in Belfast and its environs include opportunities to learn about Irish traditions via music and dance (where I discovered after trying a few steps that I would never get chosen to be in the cast of “Riverdance!”), make traditional Irish bread, have tea at a grand country estate, spend an afternoon in an eerie Victoria-era gaol, and dress up in a “Game of Thrones” costume while trying your hand at medieval archery at Castle Ward (Winterfell), the set of the hit HBO series. For those who don’t wish to participate in a group excursion, there’s always the option to go the independent route and plan your own activities off the ship.

Read Exploring Iceland and Scotland’s Shetland Islands, Part II

Debbie Stone is an established travel writer and columnist, and regular contributor for Big Blend Radio and Big Blend Magazines, who crosses the globe in search of unique destinations and experiences to share with her readers and listeners. She’s an avid explorer who welcomes new opportunities to increase awareness and enthusiasm for places, culture, food, history, nature, outdoor adventure, wellness and more. Her travels have taken her to nearly 100 countries and to all seven continents, and her stories appear in numerous print and digital publications, reaching over 2 million readers and listeners.


 

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About the Author:

Debbie Stone is an established travel writer and columnist, and regular contributor for Big Blend Radio and Big Blend Magazines, who crosses the globe in search of unique destinations and experiences to share with her readers and listeners. She’s an avid explorer who welcomes new opportunities to increase awareness and enthusiasm for places, culture, food, history, nature, outdoor adventure, wellness and more. Her travels have taken her to nearly 100 countries and to all seven continents, and her stories appear in numerous print and digital publications, reaching over 2 million readers and listeners.

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