Biking Western Ireland on folding bikes and trailers

This was a piece first shared on Crazyguyonabike.com

Special thanks to Charlie and his amazing wife Audrey for this Bike Friday tour story which will inspire us all to raise our glasses and say Erin Go Braugh!

Introduction: 100 Ecuadorians Descend on Drogheda, Biking Ireland, July 2018

Thursday July 12, 2018

The local Irish paper reported “100 Ecuadorians descend on Drogheda for statue unveiling”. Bicycling Ireland had not been on our radar when several cousins announced plans for a family reunion in Drogheda to honor an ancestor born there. For many years several members of my family have researched family and related history concerning our mothers’ home country of Ecuador. This ancestor, recognized as a national hero of Ecuador, joined the British Navy as a child (think movie/book series Master and Commander), and became one of the many Irish leaders of other nations. Through trips and research, they made contact with living relatives and made friends with the Drogheda community who embraced us in typical Irish fashion.

Needing no further excuse than a good party to build a vacation around, we decided to add time for bicycling and to see some of the biggest cities in Ireland. The complication, for relaxed bike travel, was that the family event coincided with peak tourist season and the World Cup. My wife Audrey found a good book on biking Ireland and checked out all the Ireland guidebooks from our 2 libraries, we did some online research, ordered some maps, and decided that seeing the west coast of Ireland was the priority. The route took in some of the best of the Irish Wild Atlantic Way (https://www.wildatlanticway.com). Roughly, we bicycled a section of the Connemara north of Galway and then did Galway to Kinsale and Cork crossing the Burren, seeing the Cliffs of Moher, Dingle Peninsula, the Gap of Dunloe, and other parts of the Ring of Kerry.

Even though we’ve bicycled together for years (our first date was a 65-mile ride) and we’ve done a number of bike trips, none were more than a week-long together. This was going to be a test of equipment and stamina though I did several long, self-contained pannier/camping bicycle trips in my youth. From past trips to Australia and Spain, the time had to be built in for site seeing and picture taking so we planned around 50km or 30-40 mile days.

From the experience of an earlier trip where we rented bikes and paid for a great week of self-guided riding, seven years ago we bought Bike Fridays with full packing trailer equipment so that we could be freer in our choice of routes and timing. Our Bike Friday’s come apart and fold to fit inside a suitcase that converts to a trailer pulled behind the bike. These “fly” at no extra cost as one of our checked pieces (if you keep them to about 50 pounds). We double our time out expense wise so the bikes have paid for themselves. The downside is that you are dragging up to 45 pounds behind you, another factor along with our age, in setting daily mileages. We both qualified for the senior discount in Ireland!

We flew from Chicago, arriving in Dublin on July 12 and joined the family in Drogheda for the non-biking part of our trip. I had a backup plan and map of biking from the airport by bike but after an overnight flight and knowing the hassle of having to repack the bikes to go to Galway, the temptation quickly passed.

 

Ireland Logistics: Transportation, Dublin Airport, Bikes, Food, Accommodations, etc.

Transportation1. Buses: Ireland has an extensive public bus network with Bus Eiriann: http://www.buseireann.ie/ serving within major cities as well as travel between cities, towns, and even villages. There are numerous private tourist charter services and competing private companies serving the Dublin airport and major cities. We used a combination, Bus Eiriann to get to and from Drogheda and the Dublin Airport and then CityLink to get from the airport to Galway as well as to get to the Connemara region. CityLink let us put our assembled Bike Fridays in the luggage compartment for our trip to the Connemara region (https://www.citylink.ie/).

2. Trains: Ireland has a well run and on time train service that increasingly accommodates bikes. We used an express service between Cork and Dublin’s Heuston station that has a baggage car at the front for roll-ons (Irish Rail at http://www.irishrail.ie/). You do have to indicate that you are bringing a bike on the long-haul trains though we saw people walk on with bikes for a separate commuter style trip we took to Cobh from Cork. You can book trains in advance and print out a ticket at the station or just buy tickets at the kiosks.

3. Tram service in Dublin – there are electronic ticket booths that take Euros or credit/debit cards. It was rather crowded when we used it.

4. Hop on Hop off Bus Dublin – several competing services: Not sure which is the best but we broke even using the Dublin day pass combination for the private Gray Line service in conjunction with museum entries. The 24-hour aspect is a bit suspect as the service does not run 24 hours. There are lots of caveats with these day pass combinations. Buyer beware!

5. Taxis – these are all over major cities and two apps can be used: Lynk and MyTaxi. Rather than hassle with trying to get to one of the many bus services that serve Dublin Airport, we scheduled a taxi the night before our return via Lynk and it only cost 26 Euro with tip. A bus trip would have been at least 14 Euro so the hassle savings here with our 50 pound packed bikes was easily worth it. Taxis are cheaper than Uber.

Dublin Airport

When we arrived, there was one customs checkpoint that asked the reason for our visit, stamped our passports, and then we collected our bike suitcases walking out of the airport following the signs to the buses. There are taxis but no train service. The bus service is located outside and down, in the middle of the horseshoe that is the airport. Follow the signs out of baggage claim but it helps to know which bus stop to go to as there are at least 14 of them, some of them subdivided. The express service we wanted was the very last, at 14b! You can buy tickets (cash) on the bus or from a kiosk (cash or card).

They say to allow 3 hours to get through security for outgoing flights and that’s not a bad estimate – why is noted below. We left in our taxi at 9:15 am for a 12:25 pm flight back to Chicago. There were no traffic issues getting to the airport. Having boarding passes in advance allowed us to go straight to United baggage drop where we were also met by an Irish immigration official who was wandering around checking folks off using a portable scanner. A very nice use of technology…you need to sign out of the country so there is probably a desk somewhere you should plan on stopping at if you don’t see one of these strolling agents. We saved at least 45 minutes of standing in line by being able to use the baggage drop. There are two Terminals: 1 and 2 with Delta, United, and American sharing one end of Terminal Two, to the left end as you walk in the front doors, on the 2nd-floor departure area.

Customs/Security

Leaving the country, you go through the usual baggage and electronic detection security – keep all your liquids in a separate plastic bag. If you are headed to the US, you go through this whole process again ending with a US Customs agent and they ask about food, duty-free, etc.! We had 30 minutes to spare before boarding began for our flight. But the kicker is that having gone through US Customs in Dublin, you arrive in the US at a regular gate so the time spent is saved on the other end. This is the only location in the world with such an arrangement (outside some places in Canada as I understand). This saved an incredible amount of time in Chicago on our return as we didn’t have to deal with being in the very separate International Terminal 5. We should have scheduled our return bus trip home for an hour earlier! And if you have Global Entry, there’s even more time saved.

Other Airports: https://www.discoveringireland.com/fly-to-ireland/
Possible to fly in and out of 5 different international airports so you aren’t stuck in Dublin.

Maps

Our starting point was the book Around Ireland on a Bike by Paul Benjaminse. This is referred to as the “Green” route by bicyclists we met on the road. This was supplemented by a waterproof country map from National Geo (Ireland Travel Adventure) and smaller regional maps picked up at tourist information type places as we rode around. The Benjaminse routes are supposedly available for GPS download somewhere though I used RideWithGPS to create a set of 10 or so routes based on our modifications that I downloaded to my Garmin Edge 610. I also use the OpenStreetMap Ireland map found here: http://garmin.openstreetmap.nl/ which combined with the RideWithGPS .fit files worked perfectly for turn by turn including the elevation profiles of upcoming climbs. Note that Ireland is not flat and we had several 10-14% grades to deal with.

Remember to back up your existing Garmin provided maps and I recommend backing up all of your Garmin settings as well as I’ve had to restore too many times. I recommend using a separate micro-HD card for each map you download. I even created a backup HD card to take with me and since I had a laptop, even created a new route on the fly the night before riding. For more on Garmin backups and maps see for example: https://www.dcrainmaker.com/2013/05/download-garmin-705800810.html

Some bicyclists do the full Wild Atlantic Way (https://www.wildatlanticway.com/home) but this involves many main roads with little to no shoulder though Irish drivers are very considerate. However, you do want to visit some of these scenic locations!

Bikes

We use Bike Fridays where the suitcase converts to the trailer that you can pull your gear in. We find that we can travel with a book bag sized backpack and a Rick Steve’s bag and all fits. However, we can’t combine air travel with hauling our camping gear unless we have a way to store the bike packing gear in a location we come back to so as to make space for the camping gear (which we’ve done for example, by parking a car). There are many bike planning/travel services as well as luggage hauling options between locations. We haven’t tried hanging additional panniers off the bikes for camping gear but this clearly could be done if you can handle pulling the weight. We met one couple out for a week and they had a luggage service for about 40 Euros per day. We’ve used the Bike Fridays flying into Australia, California, and Nicaragua. In Spain and Ecuador, we rented bikes and hired a service to both plans and haul our stuff. We were on the road for 15 days in Ireland for the cost of a week in Spain.

Accommodations

We did most of our stays at B&Bs that ran about 75 Euros a night. Hostels are slightly cheaper and Hotels more expensive. We did use Airbnb in Dublin and Galway as we stayed 2 nights in each. Booking.com was a convenient way of organizing most of our stays. With time, you can save money by booking directly with the B&B as many are not listed through Booking.com where a commission is charged. I did find many B&Bs with vacancies even in the height of tourist season but Booking.com makes it sound like everything is full (and many places were) but it’s nice to know where you are staying the next night! I was also able to route us directly to many of the B&Bs with RideWithGPS by knowing them in advance and marking them on my routes. RideWithGPS, when used in a very magnified mode, notes many B&Bs, hotels, food locations, and so on though I did find that several pubs were closed or no longer in existence. Camping is doable but not very easy in Ireland. Warmshowers.org is another possibility but we didn’t really look into this. We spent 40-50 euros more per day eating and such.

Food

Lots of pubs to choose from as well as more upscale restaurants in bigger/Tourist locations. We shopped at a variety of grocery stores too including Tesco, Aldi’s, and Supervalue. Aldi’s probably had the best prices. Cheese and yogurt from Ireland are very inexpensive and very good. The fruit was available and of similar quality and price to the US. Irish strawberries were in season and these were delicious.

Smart Phones/Cell Phones

Wireless is widely available though speed was an issue in several places we stayed. Good cell coverage in Ireland is provided by Vodafone and Tesco. Tesco provides a low-cost pay as you go plan that competes with Vodafone though it is 3G. We successfully used Vodafone sim cards in our Samsung 7 phones in Australia and we got one phone on Tesco’s 15 Euros for 5gb data service in Ireland. Make sure you have an unlocked phone or know how to bypass the supposedly “unlocked” Verizon phones that we have where the ADT has to be manually set. We did rely on Google Maps via my Irish sim card on several occasions making life much easier!

Guide Books

Audrey downloaded a copy of the Moon Guide to Ireland to her smartphone and consulted it regularly. She also read a number of books beforehand including Rick Steves and we had a copy of the Lonely Planet Top 10 guide to Dublin. She serves as our guide on most trips. We’ve used a lot of Rick Steves tips through the years and he’s pretty spot on for many things. For example, we tried to use cash except for the big things like B&Bs (though some only take cash) and expensive meals. I found the Bank of Ireland ATM machines reliable and safe.

Day 0: Getting to Galway by Bus

Monday, July 16, 2018, 8 miles (13 km) – Total so far: 8 miles (13 km)

We left Drogheda on Monday by bus, switching at Dublin Airport for a Galway Express, arrived around

4 pm, and assembled our bikes at the station in a quiet corner. I was surprised that no one seemed at all curious about our bikes as they usually attract at least a few curious folk. We walked out the door

and andjumped into rush hour traffic, at first going exactly the opposite way we wanted to. I thought I had the route to our AirBnB in my head.

The distractions of family and tourist events in Drogheda like visiting Slane Castle, touring New Grange, seeing Oliver Plunkett’s head in a church, and sampling a variety of adult beverages with family as well as having another party for the world cup final had delayed us getting sim cards for our phones as we had done in Australia. Luckily, I had looked at Google Maps while previously connected wirelessly for our Airbnb so found it using the downloaded cache information (remember this useful Google maps feature!).

That night, we rode back into downtown Galway for dinner at the Pie Maker, explored the old quarter by bike and walking, and then biked along the harbor in the twilight. One advantage of peak tourist season in Ireland is the sun setting at 10 pm (and rising before 5 am) so maybe we wouldn’t get caught out in the dark as has happened in the past (though we do travel with great bike lights now). We were anxious to get on the road.

 

Day 1: Connemara National Park and Loop – A Test Ride

Tuesday, July 17, 2018, 32 miles (52 km) – Total so far: 40 miles (65 km)

On a whim, I had grabbed a 15 euro data package and sim card at a Tesco store where I was getting food supplies as we like to have one meal on hand when we ride. In hindsight, I should have grabbed one for Audrey as well. I had just enough time that morning to swap it with my American one over breakfast as Audrey had decided that we should hop a bus to the Connemara region (www.connemara.net) and get in a test ride without our loaded trailers.

We caught the 2nd bus to Recess on Tuesday around 10 am storing our bikes in the luggage compartment underneath laying them on their sides. We could have folded and bagged them but this wasn’t required and the spacing was perfect. From Recess, we bicycled to Letterfrack where we had an excellent early dinner at the Cloverfox. Our meal was the first of many to contain Seafood Chowder as there are almost as many recipes as there are pubs. And did I say it was loaded with potatoes? We spent the day bicycling the area including walking in Connemara National Park and getting all the way out to Rinvyle Castle and Tully on the Connemara Loop, returning to catch the bus in Letterfrack back to Galway. We even ran into a group of my cousins who were sightseeing by car doing a similar Galway to Cork route. I was stressed out by there being only one bus back to Galway as I did not relish biking all the way back another 100km!

Early on in our planning, we were concerned about the 2-month heat wave that was leaving some towns short of water but we had perfect temps for bicycling. We had our first experiences with rain and mist, coming on for 10-20 minutes at a time. I was riding with a wool jersey and shorts as well as wool socks expecting 60ish degree weather and light rain. The mist was handled with a light bicycling jacket but I found myself alternating hot/cool so adjusted zippers a lot. There was a lot of jackets on and off for both of us. We use Keene bicycling sandals and I also use a pair of off-road bike shorts without liner over whatever pair of bicycling shorts I plan for the day to have an extra set of pockets for stuff. Fenders and rain gear are a must. We were pretty satisfied with our choices for clothing and bike performance.

Jackets off mist comes
Rolling hills climb walk drop fly
Road work muddy hell

 

Day 2: The Burren – Walls Walls, Everywhere a Wall!

Wednesday, July 18, 2018, 45 miles (72 km) – Total so far: 85 miles (137 km)

On Wednesday, we hit the road via CityLink Lost and Found for Audrey’s biking gloves (recovered) negotiating the traffic through downtown Galway, walking on some sidewalks. Street signage is tricky as roads are labeled with arrowed signposts, street names hard to find on the sides of buildings, and a variety of one-way streets. It took about 10 minutes and help from a passerby to realize the road out of town was sitting in front of us so practice in advance with using Garmin routing or whatever system you are using! Over the course of the trip, I learned to resize the navigation window on my Garmin to see the actual route instead of relying on named turn by turn. Oh, and don’t forget, you bike/drive on the left in Ireland!

The route to Lisdoonvarna is about 30 miles of flat and then 15 miles of climbing with a quick descent to our destination. We knew this would be our longest day as we couldn’t find a B&B with a vacancy in advance around Curran which was our original idea. Six miles out of Galway and noonish, we had to stop at Castle Oranmor for lunch on the harbor. For those who haven’t guessed, we are not early morning riders and do our best “work” in the afternoon. Arriving early somewhere is rare.

Right after leaving the “suburbs”, we stopped for a moment only to have someone ask if we needed any help and to invite us in for tea at his house down the road! We were thankful but explained that we were very early in our ride for the day and politely declined. Down the road, he showed up at the end of his driveway with ice cream treats! We were to discover that any time we stopped, the generosity of the Irish would inevitably lead to someone checking on us.

The route (https://ridewithgps.com/routes/27880392) gets you off the beaten path very nicely moving from County Galway to County Clare, from suburbs to farmland. It was a beautiful clear day perfect for the slow uphill into the Burren where the farm roads were one lane and lined with rock fences and hedges. A number of flowering plants were in bloom, plants we would see for our entire trip. The Irish fascination with fences began to dawn on us as we rode. It was hard to understand the purpose of thick stone walls leading way up into the rocky hills and even harder to see how cattle, let alone people, could find habitable space here.

Biking the hedges
Fairy rings forts and henges
Stone walls for fences

Around 30 miles, we hit our first real climb meeting a pair of German tourists out for the day on rented electric bicycles. They zipped out of sight quickly. It was late afternoon when we finally got to Curran and a steep climb, a marked Strava challenge! But I forgot to check how I did. The next couple hours were spent dealing with 3 climbs ending in a nice downhill to the Burren Hostel. The steepness of one drop was such that Audrey walked it, the fear of meeting an oncoming car being very real (and it happened). We ended with a very late dinner at the Burren Storehouse, an old hotel converted to restaurant and media space. The locally made brew was pretty tasty!

Day 3: The Cliffs of Mohrer

Thursday, July 19, 2018, 31 miles (50 km) – Total so far: 116 miles (187 km)

Riding towards the Cliffs of Moher (https://ridewithgps.com/routes/27884622) via Doolen began as a quiet day where we tried to sneak in the back way via a gravel farm road. A mile or so in, we discovered bicycles are banned along the actual walking trail which we didn’t really see earlier as many people were walking this same gravel road. But we took advantage of the site and another lunch overlooking the sea with a view of the Aran Islands resulted! Biking our way back out, we got on a rural road overlooking the farmsteads with incredible views of the ocean and Islands. We explored several abandoned structures and finally had to negotiate the main road for several kilometers to the entrance of the actual Cliffs of Moher park area.

Every tourist in Ireland was on hand. A nice, historic/archeological touch, where the gift shops built right into the hillside leading to the information center. Since we biked in, our entry was free. Those driving pay to park. At the edge of the shops is a bike parking area along with a bike station. Unfortunately, the tools were all rusted as one might expect next to ocean corrosiveness. The views are pretty spectacular but the castle tower isn’t really worth it as the views are obstructed by the depth of the walls at the top. We failed to see any puffins and we have since learned that their numbers are dwindling, probably from loss of habitat, global warming, and loss of food supplies. The protective walls along the trail on these high cliffs are lined with tourists so you just have to sort of wait your turn to get a good vantage point. The Irish seem pretty obsessed with safety as everyone from bus drivers to road workers were in green safety vests, warning signs abound, and there are lifesaving rings everywhere there is water.

Along the ocean, at many points on our trip, we enjoyed the fresh ocean smell of low tide. I joked that it is always low tide in Ireland. The smell brings back some of my favorite memories of clamming in Oyster Bay as a kid. This was driven home when we stopped at the highly recommended Vaughn’s Pub for a late lunch in Liscannor. Their seafood chowder would turn out to be the best of the trip and tasted like that special wonderful fresh low tide smell.

Sheer cliffs Isles abound
Henges old houses castles
Where are the puffins

We had planned this as a short day so that we could take in lots of sites. On arriving in Ennistymon and checking into the Station House B&B (a converted RR station), we decided to take a ride to Kilfenora where old Celtic influenced burial crosses can be readily seen. Only one cross has been left standing in a field, the remainder moved into an old church and cemetery for safety. A quiet, sleepy town with several pubs/B&Bs as well as a visitor’s center for the Burren (which was closed by the time we got there). There’s even a bike shop servicing local rentals and electric bikes.

Cemeteries and old churches would become one of the themes of our trip. I lost count of how many we visited as the old churches double as burial grounds with graves right up to and in most cases into the old churches themselves. The fascination with or need to build walls has extended itself to what in many cases, are family plots containing 2 or 3 generations. The plots are surrounded by a low 4 inch or so stone or cement wall, covered in stone/gravel, with a monument listing several generations. Others have both old and new monuments to the deceased. Many also have some kind of dedication noting “erected by … loving husband/wife/children of…”.

 

Day 4: Roller Day

Friday, July 20, 2018, 34 miles (54 km) – Total so far: 150 miles (241 km)

Lingering in Ennistymon the next morning, we discovered that due to the drought, the town’s famous cascades were dry. Dry was not the theme of the day though and our ride to Kilimer can best be described as roller day: light rain, mist, constant rolling hills, and messy road construction. Early into the ride, we were passed by a young woman from the Netherlands who asked us if we were following the “Green Route”. She was traveling from hostel to hostel using what turned out to be the same book we based our routes on.

The two places that I had listed as possible food stops were closed and we ended up eating cheese, crackers, and fruit trying to stay out of the wind and mist next to the second of these pubs. I was able to fill water bottles at a faucet in back though. Given the massive Irish breakfasts we were having at B&Bs, we ended up having late lunches when convenient or a mid-day snack and a good supper at a pub at our next destination. We got spoiled by the excellent dairy (cheese and butter and cheap yogurt), very good bacon, and pork in general, as well as smoked salmon with breakfast.

With the EU, the Irish have specialized in all things cattle, mostly grass fed, at the expense of their fishing industry through fresh seafood was readily available. Many are unsure what effect Brexit will have as the Irish seemingly enjoy being in the EU but their biggest trading partner is England, let alone issues related to N. Ireland.

At the watershed ridge, we found a wind farm and dense fir plantations on old bogs that were impenetrable to the eye and generated a sense of magic or haunted forest right out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales or Lord of the Rings. More ups and downs as well as a several mile road reconstructions that we made it through during a light rain, left the bikes and trailers covered in muck. The never-ending rolling hills somehow suggested to Audrey that haiku was in order. Taking the challenge, I started composing in my head, calling out ideas to Audrey or recording to my phone, as well as thinking back on what we had seen and done already.

As we made it to the River Shannon, biking along the rolling banks, with several miles to go to our B&B, Audrey quoted my Law 3 of Bicycling Thermodynamics: There is no last hill. And the first haiku of the trip followed.

Up Down torn up Road
Riding to River Shannon
Mist Rain no last hill

We finally made it to Cois Na Sionna, cleaned up, and strolled across the street to eat at the Old Brogue Bar. Both are on the north bank right at the Ferry Terminal which we proceeded to explore after eating. On my asking about a way to clean up our bikes, the owners of the B&B whipped out a hose in the backyard and helped us clean up everything before storing our bikes in their shed.

 

Day 5: Tarbert to Tralee

Saturday, July 21, 2018, 41 miles (66 km) – Total so far: 191 miles (307 km)

Tralee (and the Holiday Lodge) was our next destination, a fairly easy and uneventful ride from Tarbert that began with a ferry ride across the River (https://ridewithgps.com/routes/27884682). Once we got our fix of shorebirds

along the bay, we found the route dotted with old churches and cemeteries. Of particular interest were the old monastery and churches in Ardfert where we spent considerable time walking on and in the walls and grounds of the Abbey as well as getting a very informative explanation of items and architecture at the cathedral museum up the road.

In Tralee, we stayed at a hotel a couple blocks from downtown and were met by the most energetic manager of the trip. Patty got our bikes stowed, recommended where to eat, where to catch music, and did all this while handling a bus full of tourists staying overnight and to whom they were serving dinner! Not taking her advice, we were disappointed by dinner at Finnegan’s which had been recommended by one of the guidebooks Audrey was consulting – it was good but standard Italian though in a very romantic atmosphere.

It was not a quiet night for sleeping. At one point, a drunk tried every door on our floor looking for his room. Someone was yelling in the parking lot and then the tour bus left early. Audrey slept through it all. The highlight was a couple hours the next morning at the Kerry County Museum where there was a very good timeline and explanation of the life of one of the leaders and martyrs of the 1916 Easter Uprising that ultimately led to Irish independence.

In Drogheda, we had stayed at the Scholars Hotel, a converted Christian Brothers School, that also had one of the best restaurants in town but most importantly, had really great coffee. We figured Ireland would be like Australia and every little place would have great coffee. Not quite. Like Australia, instant coffee, tea bags, milk, and a hot pot in every room. But the $10K espresso machines were harder to come by and we couldn’t find one this morning. It was hit or miss in some of the places we stayed and a search for good coffee would start some days if French Press wasn’t part of breakfast. As Americans, we missed our drip coffee.

 

Day 6: Over Conner Pass

Sunday, July 22, 2018, 32 miles (52 km) – Total so far: 223 miles (360 km)

The route to Dingle is mostly flat with a view of the bay and a big climb at the end. The route starts fairly busy until the road splits. The big buses and most tourists use the main road, leaving the old road for use as the “scenic” route (https://ridewithgps.com/users/596344/routes). We stopped for lunch, dropping towards beach territory at Castlegregory, to Moe’s Café where we found very good coffee and a satisfying brunch. We spent considerable time looking for a pub and the matching picture in the guidebook, never finding it. Names change, no one knew what we were talking about, maybe that pub up the street.

We climbed back to the main road via a quiet farm road and 33 km into the ride, the signs started with a warning to bicyclists of the 7.2% grade, 5km climb ahead. It took us just under an hour to get to the top where there were misty but expansive views. We couldn’t see the tops of the mountains but it was still impressive. Up and down, cattle, goats, and sheep were our companions. The sheep and goats have been color-coded with red, green, and/or blue dyes which in combination with the terrain, evoke a very sci-fi realm. There’s a reason for Star Wars and Lord of the Rings to have used these environments! And of course, the goats ignore the stone walls. It only took about 12-14 minutes to descend on “Spa Road” where we had to keep an eye out for that night’s B&B. As a light sleeper, I much prefer being away from the center of towns for a quiet sleep.

Into the Irish mist
Conner Pass Dingle dangles
Tourists and Trad mix

The Ring of Kerry is jam-packed these days but thanks (or no thanks) to Rick Steves, Dingle has been discovered too. Dingle has the Shea’s Head loop with a number of historical and archeological treasures and many bicyclists consider it one of the prettiest loops in Ireland. Duinen House, where we stayed, is about 1km uphill from downtown Dingle and we planned for 2 days thinking we’d have a “rest” day of sorts and ride the Loop.

Our hosts were very nice, offering tea and information, and even a ride into town if we wanted. Their breakfasts were made to order and expansive. This was the best of the B&Bs we stayed at, their 9.6 Booking.com rating well earned!

After unloading our trailers and grabbing just the dirty laundry, we finished the descent into town where we found a downtown outdoor laundromat with 2 sizes of a washing machine and a single dryer, a new experience for us. We were too tired to hang out and listen to music but it was coming out of several pubs along Main Street. We grabbed some food supplies and ate in our room that evening.

 

Day 7: Shea’s Head Loop

Monday, July 23, 2018, 41 miles (66 km) – Total so far: 264 miles (426 km)

The morning found us looking at very grey skies as we started out on the Shea’s Head loop. Counterclockwise is recommended as the buses go clockwise and we found this good advice. About 5 km into the ride, the rain really got started and we were soaked by the time we got to the old archeological site Cathair Na.

BhFionnurach at the very north end of the extended loop. We trudged up a hill to find it, not well marked but well protected. Hard to imagine a clan living in these conditions as all that’s left are the stone walls and bases of their housing, complete with underground space.

In southern dwellings

Ancient rock lords fence out foes

Monks save Civ Oh Christ

We found our way to the café and tourist destination, Gallarus Oratory, drying out over coffee and cake. Audrey decided to go back to the B&B so we split up for the day and I finished the loop. Of course, the rain stopped and I spent the rest of the afternoon with better and better views.

Since I said I’d be done by 5, I rode hard between photo stops and did more mileage and climbing than expected. So much for a rest day! It’s hard to describe the scenery except that it changes and is never boring. The Blasket Islands, the Three Sisters in the distance, archeological sites, beehive huts, and an old fort (which was heavily damaged by the hurricane last year so is closed to the public) (https://www.dingle-peninsula.ie).

Rainy mist lifts clear
Blaskets Aran Skellig Michael
Views to die for too

Back in Dingle, I picked up tickets for a show that night featuring some excellent local but nationally known talent: Gerry O’Beirne, Jon Sanders, and Eoin Duignan. I discovered that I’m just another tourist sucker for the uillean pipes. And of course, dinner beforehand at a well-rated pub, the Ashes Bar, complete with their version of seafood chowder.

 

Day 8: Herding Cows

Tuesday, July 24, 2018, 34 miles (55 km) – Total so far: 298 miles (480 km)

Leaving Dingle via the southern route, we avoided the main road almost completely and found ourselves herding calves (https://ridewithgps.com/routes/27884918). The owner told us they were hungry from the drought so he was moving them with help from his two young children and a dog using a small pickup like a horse giving commands to the dog and children both. At one point I thought we were about to move onto a dirt road but it was just a well-used farm road covered in what cows do.

These roads are a bit bumpier and probably hillier but so quiet compared to main roads and very similar to the chip and seal roads we have at home. The views though are a lot nicer than our corn and soybeans! From our first days on these narrow roads, we had learned to use the pullouts just as the vehicles do. And don’t forget a friendly wave! I started to think that having 1.5-inch tires would have been better than the 1.35’s we were riding on, the usual debate of resistance versus comfort that I find myself increasingly having inside my head.

Off the busy road
Moving little doggies along
On shite lined bike path

Just before Annascaul, as we were coming off the country road, there’s a very short jog on the main road and then a steep uphill. I waited at the top for Audrey to show up. Realizing she missed the turn, I went looking for her along the main road. She had turned off at a small gas station and was looking at a neat old railroad bridge that we would have missed taking the side streets.

Just after passing through Annascaul, where major reconstruction of the main road back to Tralee was ongoing (complete with multiuse lanes for sidewalks), we moved to the coastal road, another difference from the Green route. This was a scenic and not busy secondary road that I’d recommend over the green route. Not sure how the author missed this great route. Interestingly, we’d talked to several locals who recalled Benjamanse having passed through doing his research on his book.

We found ourselves at a very popular beach, Inch Strand, where we sat at the outdoor café and enjoyed lunch guarding our food to the ever-present and hoovering seagulls. In Whitegate, we took a side road and visited the very old, retired Keel cemetery where most gravestones were obscured though a directory had been developed for historical purposes. Evening found us at Leahbrook House outside the village of Castlemaine. We were in the mood for some live music but nothing was happening that night, we checked!

Day 9: The Gap of Dunloe, Where the Manure Flies

Wednesday, July 25, 2018, 34 miles (55 km) – Total so far: 332 miles (535 km)

We discovered that the backroad to rejoin the Green Route was closed adding a few miles on a busier secondary road this morning (https://ridewithgps.com/routes/27885152) where another deviation from the Green Route was to take us through the Gap of Dunloe via the popular tourist destination of Kate’s Cottage. The Green Route crosses on the other side of the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks range. With more time, it would have been fun to do both sides and get out to the tip of the Ring of Kerry.

Some pie and coffee before the start of the climb had us holding onto everything as the wind was really blowing. Chairs, hay, and related from the horses used to ferry people up the gap were whipping by. Joining the hikers and buggies (cars are restricted) we set off discovering a series of climbs, some of them with short 12-14% sections up a series of 4 lakes. There’s a 9-mile circuit trail up to the highest peak in Ireland, Carrauntoohil, that folks regularly hike taking something like 8 hours.

It was a clear day with the blue skies contrasting with the stark rock and green growth making it very surreal and awesomely beautiful. This turned out to be my favorite day of riding. As much as I like oceans having grown up near them, my earliest memories of childhood are from the mountains of Ecuador.

Manure flakes flying
Horses hoof it up the trail
Colored sheep abound

Once at the top, you really can’t see all the way back to where you came from and then you drop into the Black Valley. Quickly too I might add. This is another scenic section but very different in that it runs along a creek/small river for a bit in addition to the regular farmland viewing predominant in Ireland outside cities.

There are places to fish and picnic along the creek. Horseback riding seems to be a popular activity through here as well. A short climb at the end of the route brings you to Moll’s Gap and a fun descent on the main road into Kenmare. Once again, we were watching at the end for our B&B which was about 2 km from the center of town. One thing I should have done was edit each of the ride with gps routes to end at the actual place we were staying.

Lakes rocks sheer beauty
Wind blows through Gap of Dunloe
Molls Gap at last, Whee

Our B&B was an actual farmstead and, over tea, of course, we found out that he farmed, she ran the B&B, and they closed up at the end of tourist season to go to the Canary Islands. She didn’t indicate how they met but she was from County Clare south of Galway. For many Irish, county identification seems important, much like Americans refer to the state they are from. We even saw houses and cars with county flags. In talking about Irish ancestors, knowing what county they were from is important. You see county affiliation on many gravestones as well.

We dropped down to Kenmare for dinner where we found a very nice pub for dinner and live music at TJ McCarthy’s. As it was starting to get dark, we quickly toured the town to get the layout making plans for where to visit in the morning on our way out.

Old men keep fiddling
The sky still bright with twilight
Bats foxes full moon

 

 

Day 10: The Drought Ends!

Thursday, July 26, 2018, 27 miles (43 km) – Total so far: 359 miles (578 km)

Our route leaving Kenmare would take us away from the Ring of Kerry. To the west there’s more of the Wild Atlantic Way to see and the lesser known Ring of Beara. Instead, we were headed for Ballylickey and County Cork. But first we had to check out a church and the local henge where it started raining. We weren’t too concerned and put on our rain gear. It was warm enough that we skipped the pants.

Once across the bridge out of town to the south, we were able to get on another back road for a few kilometers before emerging for Lorge Chocolatier. The French owner was giving classes when we stopped by. It had started pouring and we stood there dripping on everything as we enjoyed the chocolate, buying some for the road. Before our trip started, I had jokingly told Audrey that once we got on our bikes, the drought would end. Sure enough, though we’d gotten pretty wet in Dingle, this was rain like the Midwest. All that was missing were thunder and lightning.

With no sign of clearing, and since we were already wet, we decided to head over the Caha Pass with its 4 tunnels and several druid monuments. The area has at least 6000 years of recorded habitation. The ascent was literally a blur in the rain through my glasses. We had looked for cover at the Molly Gavans Visitor Center where we saw two touring bikes parked but didn’t see where to go in the rain so just kept going.

Towards the top, we realized how much rain was falling as waterfalls were appearing everywhere, the only dry being in the short tunnels themselves. The tunnels were an interesting experience where we made sure to turn on our lights and since they are one way for whoever gets there first, we were watching the curves ahead before going into any of them. Audrey said we invented a new sport, swimbiking. Our Gor-tex rain gear was inadequate though our suitcase trailers were staying pretty dry.

The view of the Bonane Valley was pretty phenomenal even in the very wet! We should have found and stopped at the Bonane Valley Heritage Center but we just wanted and needed to keep moving. We did stop at the summit for a picture of me standing next to the County Cork sign. The descent was tricky as the road surface was a bit bumpy and though I usually feel confident and descend quickly, I found myself riding the brakes the whole 9 km down. Audrey was miserable, she hates downhills where it’s easy to exceed 35-40kph. Luckily it was 60ish degrees, not colder. I thought I’d never dry out.

We bike, the rain comes
Caha Pass waterfalls galore
Bonane beauty awe

We knew about a small natural area at the bottom of the descent before getting to Glengarriff so I stopped only to find that there was no visitors center, just an office and a now muddy trail from the parking lot. However, the park ranger recommended a pub/hotel in town and sure enough, Casey’s came through. They had a covered outdoor eating area where we parked our bikes since no one was sitting outside. Took off our wet gear, hanging it to drip, and went inside shivering. A good meal later, we found ourselves drinking a liquor proffered by the owner (Casey’s grandson Doald if I got his name right) to heat us up for the remaining part of the ride to our B&B.

Wet bumpy downhill
Shivering cold stiff and wet
Saved by Casey’s pub

Ard Na Greine B&B is in the country outside town such that we never saw Ballylickey. We turned off the coastal route to find a steep uphill, downhill, uphill by a raging River Coomhola before getting to it. As we climbed the last hill, we were startled by loud bells from the Coomhola Church. Luckily the rain never returned after Glengarriff and we found out that a near record 2.83 inches in four hours had come down. Everyone seemed relieved that the drought might be ending.

This B&B is owned by a pair of teachers with 4 entertaining children and is adjacent to his father’s farm. During the school year, they get au pairs to help out but in the summer, they use the guest rooms for their B&B. That night we had a gorgeous full moon across the farm valley and morning entertainment provided by a kitten, rabbits, and birds. The children proudly showed us their garden projects and one of them was an enthusiastic bicyclist already honing his mechanical skills.

 

Day 11: Off the Tourist Trail

Friday, July 27, 2018, 35 miles (57 km) – Total so far: 394 miles (635 km)

Our route to Bandon was another deviation from the Green route as we wanted to go to Kinsale before Cork. Though I had some country roads in mind, we ended up using fairly busy secondary roads because only a few kilometers into our ride, the rain returned and our bodies wanted a smoother surface.

A very easy crossing of Cousan’s Gap and a stop in Dunmanway for lunch led us to a hole in the wall café owned and run by a German immigrant who at first wasn’t interested in talking. But on complimenting her wonderful vegetable soup, she started to open up and we found out a bit about how she ended up in Ireland. She seemed unhappy at the new Europeanization of Ireland, the only person we met who complained about the changes. She also very much likes living in the country and had a place out of town.

On leaving town, we made a mistake of sticking to the main road to Bandon. We would have been far better off moving to an obvious route on the south side of River Bandon. If I had known how much truck traffic combined with the continuous rain we would have, I would have worked harder to find that quiet country road. We arrived wet and dirty to the Munster Hotel where our bikes were placed in a conference room and 7 wet bikes of German tourists in another! I rinsed my wet bike clothes out in the tub turning the water muddy brown.

Traffic Trucks Tractors
Over Cousans Gap soaked again
Saved by the Munster

Bandon is very much a working Irish town with industry and agricultural services. No obvious tourism here; the shops cater to the townspeople and surrounding community. The town has a long history of commerce where parts of the Norman built stone walls have been incorporated into other buildings or left standing. Two big churches (Catholic and Protestant) and the oldest Methodist Church in existence all lie within blocks of each other. Though we walked the area, the best pub was right across the street from the Munster where one bartender and 2 cooks handled a sizeable crowd handily.

We found a very small farmers’ market the next morning and then visited a big garden shop with appropriately enough, a thatch-covered roof. Several plants amazed us, the Hydrangeas grow to be big bushes and the Buddleia trees, though not native, fit right in.

 

Day 12: Old Head

Saturday, July 28, 2018, 28 miles (45 km) – Total so far: 422 miles (680 km)

When mapping the route to Kinsale and Cork (https://ridewithgps.com/routes/27885622), I didn’t really have a good guide so I tried to use secondary and farm roads getting some recommendations as we got closer. I thought that routing us near the Bandon River would be pleasant and flat only to discover some pretty steep terrain crossing from one area to another. But along the river, it was scenic and enjoyable and I was able to get some bird pictures. We were moved by the Kilpadder Famine Burial Ground just before reaching the River, a mass grave site near a once populous area. A recommendation led us to stop in Ballinspittle for a tasty lunch at the Diva Cafe.

The beach to the south was recommended as well though I was very hesitant as we’d done some pretty good hills already. Audrey persisted and she got to enjoy a walk on the beach checking out the tide pools. She pushed us on and we did several more hills as we ended up all the way out at Old Head. At the marker for the Wild Atlantic Way, there was also a memorial to the Lusitania. Survivors were brought in at Old Head as well as up the coast in Cobh (formerly Queenstown). There’s a very expensive golf course on this point that uses the remnants of an old castle as the gateway.

I was feeling strangely tired as we biked on to Kinsale where, thanks to a quirk of Google Maps, we were put at the wrong house on the wrong side of the 7 hills of Kinsale. Regrettably, we hadn’t seen or noticed that the owners had sent us specific instructions on how to get to their house. Kinsale is a very old community with very narrow, steep, and twisting roads. Eventually, we found our way to a splendid house overlooking the harbor on Compass Hill. The house was of modular construction designed and built by German engineers in the Bauhaus style and completely different from the usual Irish home.

Round and Round the hills
Narrow Kinsale twists and turns
Thanks, Airbnb

We spent an hour or so talking with our hosts about their house, families, and nutrition. We had luckily stopped for groceries on our way so we had a quick dinner along with the snacks they provided. I slept very soundly, feeling much better in the morning.

Day 13: Cork at Last

Sunday, July 29, 2018, 25 miles (40 km) – Total so far: 447 miles (720 km)

With the owners’ advice, we came up with a new, back roads route to Cork that I mapped out the night before. This would turn out to be our last bicycling day too. Taking advantage of the late sunset, we spent the day exploring more of Kinsale visiting St. Maltose Church, exploring the Charles Fort controlling the entrance to the harbor and having our usual late lunch/dinner at the Spaniard. Dinner included 4 kinds of potatoes: chips, scalloped, mashed, and baked (no skin), 3 of these in one dish. There may have been more potatoes in my seafood pie too! There are jokes about the Irish and their fondness for English Fish and Chips let alone for all things potatoes.

The route up to Cork (https://ridewithgps.com/routes/28194477) turned out to be fairly quiet though it involved several steep ascents/descents that found us walking again. There were markers along the route as well referring back to the uprising in 1600 where the Irish Army of the time camped on this high ground before attacking the fort in Kinsale. This key battle was won by the English after many previous defeats. Had the Irish united and won it, an entirely different subsequent 300 years for Ireland may have occurred. Lots to discuss the constant invasion and various occupations of Ireland over time.

Connemara to Cork
Burren cliffs and sea all green
The steepness, who knew

We hit fairly busy traffic through Cork to our B&B near the train station. Missed a turn onto a pedestrian bridge and was surprised by routing through a large public walkway but with the help of a paper map, the RidewithGps route got us within a meter of the door. We were able to haul all our stuff, bikes included, up the stairs into our room so that we could pack them up later.

 

Wrap Up

Monday, July 30, 2018

We spent the next days visiting Cork, Cobh, and then taking the train to Dublin. Though we had planned to bike to Cobh, since we were staying next to the train station and not having had any rest days, we just hopped a commuter. Cove or Cobh is a historic community associated with early trade through the heyday of luxury liner travel including the last stop of the Titanic. It’s all described in the museum adjacent to the train station.

In Cork we visited the indoor market, the Museum of Art, the Honan Chapel on the very beautiful campus of UCC which has 2 giant sequoias in the central quad along with a display of Ogam stones in their visitor’s center, and had a wonderful meal at Eastern Tandori. We even had time to ring the Shandon Church Bells before leaving town the next morning.

We had, the night before, suit cased our bikes, and loaded with luggage, boarded an express for Dublin July 31. Train and bus service in Ireland, along with 5 regional airports, make Ireland easily accessible. With a bit more time, we could have very easily kept using our bikes in Cork and Dublin or even ridden from Cork to Dublin along the coast continuing on the Green route.

Into the flatland
Train whizzes Cork to Dublin
Many cows and sheep

In Dublin, our AirBnB was near Parnell close to an information office and starting point for many bus tours. Dublin has an active bike-share program, DublinBikes though we didn’t have time to try it out. Others may find it a useful way to get around as they have 3-day tickets. One user we spoke with using it to commute to and from work daily plus run a regular daily errand figured his membership to be 4 cents a day!

With the help of one of those hop on-hop off bus tours, we managed to visit the Tall Ship Jeannie Johnston, the Epic Emigration Museum, the Writers Museum, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral supposedly built next to a well used by St. Patrick to baptize converts. We even walked the Temple bar area where we saw the only real presence of police, on horseback, of our entire trip. The Gaol, the Guinness Brewery, and the large cemetery would have to wait for another day. Dublin deserves at least 3 days to get to all the tourist sites. And we got locked into the World War I Peace Memorial which was pretty amusing though we luckily surprised the guard as he was leaving via the elevator.

Dublin in a day
Coffinships gaol people outbound
So many buses

We left with tired legs, overloaded minds, and a desire to come back and pick up the route again.

 

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One thought on “Biking Western Ireland on folding bikes and trailers

  1. Pauline

    I loved reading this whole journey, but I can’t view the photos– I just see a little sliver of moving panels and the arrows to move right or left. Can you fix this, please? I’m dying to see them! I especially enjoyed the haiku.

    Reply

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