Saturday, July 2, 2016

IrelandbyBike(Wild Atlantic Way Donegal)

So we were two couples in search of a destination for our 30th anniversary and we had in mind a European cycling vacation.  We are typical Americans--3 kids, Southerners, and respectable avid cyclists.  We have traveled together frequently; a guided inn-to-inn tour of Vermont and a self guided, self planned inn to inn tour in N California.  We wanted something challenging in Europe.  My wife and I had been to both France and Germany and thought perhaps we were ready for Italy or Spain.  We speak better Spanish than Italian which is not saying a lot but it is a plus when the scenery is going to be different no matter which country we go to.  We have come to the conclusion that self guided is the way to go--not because we don't like traveling in groups but because it is expensive to pay for someone to ride with you and drive a sag wagon in case you get tired.  Their historical expertise and jocularity may be worth the extra cost but we are content to bring our own friends and count on Fortune to bring enough satisfaction.

When we began to focus in on Ireland as a possible destination, I had some concerns that the weather is not optimal.  Not optimal means cold and rainy.  Our planned travel time would be Memorial Day week which could be considered "early" for a trip to Ireland.  In addition, this year our very own State Department put out a travel advisory to Europe for the summer which struck me as stupid since for every Paris there is an Orlando.  One can be shot anywhere.  But Ireland seems pretty safe. But because of it we might have more frightened Americans clogging up the roads.  This is a serious concern because Americans driving in Ireland is its own special brand of danger.  I'll take the odds on random terror over bicycling on a narrow Irish road with American drivers.  We, Americans,  are a lot more used to SPACE and frequently Irish roads just don't have it.  It is a truism that the cycling experience is negatively affected by interactions with cars but share the road is my mantra and I hope those drivers desperate to get where they are going, view cyclists as fellow travelers on the road of life rather than obstacles and road hazards.

We researched self guided bicycle tours with a focus on the Galway area (Conemarra) and southwestern Ireland (Dingle Peninsula, Ring of Kerry).  There are many available and we almost opted for the Galway- Conemarra area but at the last moment happened to notice a tour operator in NW Ireland for County Donegal.  It seemed satisfactorily off the beaten path and looked particularly challenging.  If you have done any cycle touring you are aware that some cycle trips are glorified hikes because they plan distances of 18-30 miles or not enough to really get warmed up.  We desired a more serious tour in the 30-50 mile range.  We were not gluttons for punishment trying to do daily metric centuries but wanted to spend a lot of the day riding.  We noticed that a 7day-6night tour sometimes includes only 5 days of riding--the first day and the last day are arrive and depart. Irelandbyike plans tour in the far Northwest of Ireland up where the peat bogs are surrounded by Gaelic-tongued natives.  This is not the "we love England" part of Ireland. The Donegal tour sent us all around county Donegal  and into N Ireland and then brought us back to Donegal Town with 75 km of cycling on the last day--in other words 6nights in inns and 6 days of cycling. A comprehensive trip with beautiful remote areas.   We reserved our places in January with a $100 deposit and paid in April one month before the trip(Euro710 for bikes, B&Bs, maps, GPS, and a phone number for emergencies or questions.   Our tour director was Seamus with IrelandbyBike and he and his wife Nora do a masterful job.  I'm sure there are plenty of other good tour operators because almost everyone we met in Ireland was friendly and that is saying a lot from a bunch of Southerners.  We like to talk with strangers and the Irish are very obliging.  IrelandbyBike has been in business since 2010 and has perfected an hospitable tour.  We can't say enough about the detailed planning, the excellent route maps with GPS devices and extensive historical footnotes.  Seamus gave us his cell phone to call any time if necessary.  We took advantage of that and called to trade out a bicycle half way through the trip and he was there to make the exchange and keep our vacation on track.  You may get better service with daily guides but I doubt it.  Our first day arriving in Donegal Town we met with Seamus to fit the bikes and he gave us a day by day summary of all the possibilities detailed in his travel booklets.  If you can read English you don't NEED a person telling you what you are seeing.  Don't misunderstand me--guided tours are great but you can go on 3 self guided tours for the price of one full service tour.  Remember this then--IrelandbyBike. Great hosts.
     So let me tell you about the trip.  Trips come in easy--medium--hard.  I don't know about you but I don't want to do "hard" on a vacation.  However--many of us vary widely in capability. If you like to ride around your neighborhood and the thought of doing a 20 mile ride makes your rear end wince with pain--go for easy and/or an e-bike.  If you do club rides--go for medium. We tried challenging which is 60-105km daily.  On a scale of 1-5, I thought ours was a 4.5.  It was more than enough for us.  Let me say right out, the weather was almost perfect on our tour.  We went from May 25th to June 1st and it could have been wet and wild and windy.  They call the tour the Wild Atlantic Way and it is likely that you are going to spend some time in your wet suit.  We did.  On the second day--lollygagging our way to Ardara- we happened upon a thunderstorm that tested our capacity for fun in miserable conditions.   We hung out in a glorified porta potty to get out of the rain and were dogged by an elderly gentlemen worried that we would use the bathroom without paying the 1 euro fee. He was friendly about it.

We flew into Dublin and rented a car to drive to Donegal Town.  I believed this would be cheaper and easier than a bus/train public transportation option(if you have 4 people).  It's a 3 1/2 hour drive but more like 6 hrs. with public transportation.  I should warn you that the cost of the car rental is not bad but the insurance is a killer.  What I mean is that the standard collision damage waiver that we frequently shrug off because we have coverage through our credit card AND through our personal car insurance carrier does not apply in Ireland.  Ireland did not sign the international treaty or whatever was required to allow international coverage so our State Farm insurance did not cover us for accidents in Ireland. My understanding is that France, Germany, Spain, Italy, yes but Ireland NO.  I did not want a $35,000 bill and a liability judgment hanging over me so I clarified with my American Express that I would be renting in Ireland and they said sorry we don't cover accidents in Ireland. Ouch.  I had a $260- 9 day Priceline rental from Hertz but no insurance.  I would have to buy it at the counter when we arrived.  Well, folks that is expensive.  We had 2 choices:  full coverage or $5,000 deductible for something like $62 and $42/ day.  So you can see driving can be costly.

We disembarked from the plane at 9:30 and were in our rental car by 11:00AM.  Our first destination was Newgrange.  Reading up on the site had unfortunately not impressed upon my mind that the only access to the historical site was through the visitor center.  Our GPS took us on back roads to the actual site of the mound.  There is no entrance there (though you are only 50 yards or so from the structure)so we had to drive 30 minutes back around the Boyne River to go 2km to the visitor center.  Just go to the visitor center first. We had a merry hunt through the rural roads of County Meath wondering how on earth so many people could come to such a remote spot.  They don't drive there.  They walk across a pedestrian bridge at the visitor center and take a bus to the site and back.  It's also popular so we couldn't get tickets until the last group even though we were there on a Thursday.  Unfortunately, we had to be in DonegalTown by 5:30 which is on the other side of the country and were unable to view the chamber.  The mock up at the visitor Center with movies is good and the food is serviceable so we got lunch and the gist of it:  Neolithic people build amazing structure celebrating the winter solstice.  Older than Stonehenge.  Time to drive to Donegal.

Driving in Ireland is a challenge.  Now that I'm back I might look up the accident statistics but I wouldn't do it before you go.  Actually, when I think about it, Americans should not be allowed to drive in Ireland until they take a driving test.  It doesn't need to be difficult but it is probably foolish to allow visitors to whip out a card and 30 minutes later drive off the airport around a clockwise roundabout and join a stream of traffic on the interstate M1, the busiest road in the country.  Everything is backwards (to our way of thinking), right side driver side, left hand shifting (who shifts in America anymore--it's what, like, 2% of the population?).  We assume that roads are built to allow 2 cars to safely pass--Irish roads are built and you are expected to use your common sense not to try and pass someone who is taking up the entire road as many buses, trucks, and farm equipment do.  The standard speed limit on a non-interstate road is 80km which is pretty dicey taking a blind corner into a one lane bridge.  They also do not like to waste any space between their cute rock walls and the lane stripping.  There is usually enough space to grow a layer of moss on the rocks and a weedy Queen Anne's Lace on the 1 inch of dirt between the road's lane striping and the wall.  The sound of weeds on the passenger door alerts you to the presence of jagged rocks if you move over another inch or two.  Buy the insurance.

It was a pleasant overcast day as we set out from Newgrange to Donegal Town.  We took the backroads to Enniskillen in Northern Ireland so I could use up my 10 pound note that I had had in my useless money collection from our trip to Cambridge, England in 1995.  I would not call Enniskillen - vibrant- but I like European, well contained towns with center shopping districts that concentrate what people are around into a defined area.  Even with numerous empty shuttered buildings on the outskirts and no obvious factories, the downtown was busy.  We went right around Lough Erne for no particular reason and drove through some boggy unpopulated areas that looked like a mining tailings site.  There was scrubby growth on the piles of dirt but didn't have much in the way of stately forests.  The road was not close enough to the lake to get many vistas.

We arrived in DonegalTown a few minutes late for our bike fitting with Seamus but he was not there yet either.  The bikes are sturdy (heavy) 27 speed touring bikes with Schwalbe tires that do not require much attention.  They are great for potholes and off road traveling but not so great for climbing.  I would not want to have my regular Trek road bike for this trip though my touring Cannondale would have been fine.  The roads are a little rough in places for small tires.  We brought our own shoes and pedals which Seamus put on the bike.

The best part of our preparation though was the 1 hour that Seamus spent going over the routes and options for every day.  We had maps, GPS devices with each days course listed, and a book with the relevant historical sites marked.  Thus every day we had a regular route to our destination, a shortcut, and several additional add-ons if we wanted to ride farther or see something in particular.  Very thorough and comprehensive.  It was almost too much to take in because the next morning when we started the GPS devices they did not work flawlessly in our inexpert hands.  Eventually we figured out which buttons needed to be pushed to get the display to work correctly but the first day had a certain learning curve.  We had maps but I would recommend using the GPS routes because it is easier in several instances to simply ride where it seems reasonable and it will beep if you are off the route.  The map distances are accurate but if there are a lot of turns one is constantly stopping to make sure you are going the right way. After our introduction to Donegal and the bike fitting we walked through a graveyard and a fine mist to downtown for dinner.  Our B&B was at most 1/2 mile from the downtown.  Donegal is not the largest town in the county(I think Letterkenny is) and so it did not take us long to walk around the square after dinner and back to our lodging on the outskirts of town.  We went to bed "early" because sleeping on planes these days requires serious drugs.

Day 2-  First day in the saddle.  Overcast but not windy.  Feels like rain.  Our overnight B&B was called Water's Edge.  Staying with us was a farming couple from Oregon who had completed a mini short tour of southern Donegal and were turning in their equipment before driving back to Dublin. They gave us some good tips about some of the small towns we would be staying in.  They were extremely positive about their trip.  Breakfast was  a slow and languid affair since we were waiting for Seamus to bring another helmet.  We must have given the impression that bringing our pedals and shoes that we were bringing our helmets as well.  Every time we went outside it felt like it was just about to rain but by now it was after 9:00 and no precipitation.  Our trip today was 75km from Donegal Town to Carrick(including the side trip to Slieve League). Here we are dressed to ride.
We get on our bikes and it starts to rain.  For about 5 minutes.   Thankfully.  The GPS does not start at the B&B but at a hotel downtown so we make our way there.  Another shot as we start the ride.

Our trip today is along the Northern edge of Donegal Bay. Our first little peninsula was a glorious cycle right along the bay where we could admire the view across the bay to Sligo and County Mayo and note the fancy homes of the Irish well off with their large swaths of green front yards overlooking the Bay.  All trimmed and neat I wondered who the Mexican landscapers were here in Ireland.  Coming back to MountCharles we had our first hill, a reminder that Ireland is not flat.  After 6 days that is pretty much burned into our muscles and consciousness.  Most of the roads are narrow but not busy.  Several of the roads were "paved" in name only they were more like parallel cow tracks.  But lovely views.

The next peninsula tapered down to a fairly narrow spit of land that went out 5 or 6 km to St. John's Lighthouse.  We could see the view from the ridge in the middle of the peninsula and the road back just 1km away along McSwyne's Bay so we passed on the additional miles and headed to Rahan Castle.  A castle in Germany is a huge looming presence over the countryside and any adjacent water.  A "castle" in Ireland is frequently a pile of rocks.

 We did not see any easy way to go to the ruins so we headed to Killaghtee Church and Cross where we opened a gate and hiked through knee high weeds to the historical site.  Somewhat overgrown but steeped in 1000 year old ghosts.  We had one more peninsula to get around before lunch in the town of Killybegs.  My favorite view across the water was the view of Benbulben, site of Yeats grave and final poem.

Killybegs is a bustling historical town that in retrospect was one of the busiest towns we saw on the trip.  It is a fishing center and undoubtedly a processing center because it smells like fish from a mile away.  We had lunch overlooking the fishing fleet on the wharf and by then the sun was shining and the skies were glorious.  A nice hotel (Bay View)overlooking the slough fed the schoolchildren at lunch.  Apparently the schools have no cafeterias so kids go home or have some deal with the hotel to serve lunches.
  The afternoon trip to Carrick was more of the same beautiful countryside.

 We arrived at the B&B about 3:30 and I decided to go ahead and ride to Slieve League, just 4km down the road and 4km up the mountain to the overlook.  It's a nasty climb.  Well worth it.  Do not be suckered into stopping at the bottom and hiking--that will take all day, and don't stop at the first parking lot where all the tour buses stop--you will have a 2km hike. Go ahead and open the gate and do the 20 degree leg busting climb to the final parking lot.  Slieve League has the highest cliffs in Ireland some 1800feet straight into the sea, somewhat taller than the cliffs of Moher.

 There are all kinds of hiking trails around the area if you have plenty of time.  The return to the O'Neill's B&B was speedy.
    Our farmer couple had told us that  restaurants in small towns like Carrick can close early so we headed off to dinner by 6:00.  It's a 1km walk by a lovely path through several pastures where one should be attentive to stay out of the sheep pies. We saw Minnie Mouse had escaped from Disney World and was also on vacation in Ireland.

Minnie Mouse does Carrick

Day 3- I might have mentioned that the Irish were friendly but we found numerous instances where they are even more than friendly, in fact creatively helpful.  Rob, Polly, and Lynne had elected not to ride to Slieve League yesterday and our host Gabriel would not let them leave the area before seeing it.  So he offered to drive us there at 9:00AM after a delectable breakfast by his wife Brid.  The trip is easier in a car.... There were maybe 50 people there when I was there the previous day but early in the morning we had the glorious views to ourselves.  Returning to their house we set off for Glenties by way of the western coast and Glencolumbcille and Ardara.

We were a little pokey today.  The backside of the cliffs at Slieve League are pretty impressive too and as we rode out to the coast we were surprised at how open and uninhabited the area was.  Just a few houses scattered to the horizon.  I envisioned Ireland being a lot more crowded.

We stopped at Cloghanmore Court Tomb, the oldest "structure"in Ireland from 3,500BC.  Again, suspiciously like a pile of rocks but accessed through a gate with no big signs saying stop here oldest structures in Ireland.  We were walking around when a German photographer stopped and said he was glad we were walking around because he couldn't find it driving up and down the road.  Thanks go to Seamus for having it on his historical guide. 
And then we stopped at a woolen's store where the bleak landscape made you want to purchase some sweaters in case it got as cold as it appeared it could.  Next stop the coast.  Dramatic!

The little tower in the distance on the cliff is a signalling station above Glencolumbcille and can be hiked in an hour or so if you haven't already lazied your way to this point.

We took a tour through the folk village at Glencolumbcille and saw how the Irish lived in 3 cottages in 3 separate centuries.  Nice stop.
The climb away from the coast put us in peat bog land.  We were to find out that digging peat is some kind of therapeutic activity for the average Irishman.  They go out from the crowded cities and chop up the earth to return to their roots.  We saw a number of cottages with peat fires  smoking but if we were ever actually in a room that was burning something, it was invariably coal.  It think it is cleaner.

The views here in Donegal are expansive.  Not much in the way of towns but a lot of sheep.
We miss a few turns because we can't believe the right way to go is straight up hill after we have just come down.  So we study the maps.

Yep we are on the right path.  Uphill it is.
The air feels suspiciously like rain.  We have gotten so used to cloud cover without rain that we don't want to trust our noses.  It definitely smells like rain.  Time for another amazing descent and we can see that we will be descending right into a rainstorm.
Half way down, we get drenched.  At the bottom is a parking lot where you can hike out to the Maghera Beach and Caves and there are a few hardy souls making the trek.  We opt for staying dry in the porta potty.  We hang out for 30 minutes but the rain looks about the same so its off to Ardara if we want to get lunch before 2:30pm.  We ride all the way into Ardara accompanied by a drenching rain.  I don't get the camera out to take many pictures.  Parking the bikes in Ardara in the rain we seek out some shelter and HOT FOOD with beer.  Found it at a place called Nancy's.  Warm spot with coal fire that didn't seem to mind us dripping on the floor.  Great pub food and a nice little sign that said it was pub of the year for 2013.  It didn't say out of how many.  Ardara is not a really huge place.  Well we enjoyed the soup, bread and beer while the rain washed our bikes and then we re-emerged with sunshine and all is forgiven.  Polly wants to check out the stain glass window in the church so we head down there and as we are parking the bikes a lady leans out of her gold Camry and says are you going to Glenties tonight?  To which we can only say Yes and she says oh, I'll look for you, you're staying with me!  Saw your bikes and knew you were with IrelandbyBike.  Come round to the back and dump your wet clothes in the bins and I'll wash them up for you.  See, creatively helpful.  We were still wet so we headed straight for the inn at Glenties called Lisdanar.  It was pretty sweet. Hot showers, hot tea and all...

Again we walked to town found a pub with a football game on and then tried to figure out what we were watching.  Gaelic football is a wee bit different than our US style football.  The guys in the pub were switching back and forth from some important rugby game where an east team from somewhere around Dublin was playing a west team from somewhere around Galway and we could tell West was the favorite.  And then it was back to run and kick.  Guys are just born with a channel surfing gene.
We ate at Kennedy's next door and listened to Van Morrison, Stones, and John Denver music and asked about the "local" music which was an impossible 5km away.  You can also walk around Glenties pretty fast so we were back home for nightcaps in a jiffy. 

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