UK and Ireland 2014: Is álainn é an saol

No, we did not cross the Carrick-a-Rede, gaze upon the Cliffs of Moher, or frolic on the Dingle Peninsula. But rest assured, when we finally made it to Ireland, we did more in our 5 short gifts of days than I could have ever imagined, let alone added all of the aforementioned spectacles to our “Return to Ireland” wishlist.

Now, if you read my previous entry, you’d understand fully our desire for the day on Monday to just be…over. Experiencing life can be tiresome, so we were happy to spend our first night quietly in Dublin in the comfort of the apartment of our host, Liam.

The next day brought us to Killarney, the land of fulsome greenery. To give a brief background on the area, Killarney is situated in the southwest of Ireland in Country Kerry about 3 hours from Dublin via train. It is actually a fairly lively tourist town, with plenty of Americans abound. Its close proximity to the Ring of Kerry is a large attraction, but the entire area is stunning and perfect for hiking, biking, and horseback riding.

Once again, though, we came with an agenda differentiated from the rest: to rent bikes and see the petting zoo at Muckross Farms. Behold, my vast display of “AAAAWWW!”-inducing morsels:

GRAWRARARARARA
GRAWRARARARARA

ghlkglj hk; iyi j the puppies ty u wtw

We were hungry and stopped at Molly Darcy’s, which is attached to the Muckross Park Hotel and literally a quarter of a mile or so from our romp at the farm. While swarming with tourists, the food was great and the entertainment provided by Irish band Onóir made for quite the entertaining environment. Do I even need to mention that June and I served as catalysts for the dance party?

The rest of our time in Killarney was spent horseback riding with Killarney Riding Stables (to be updated with review) and visiting local landmarks Ross Castle and Torc Waterfall. The sore butts our four-legged gentlemen (named James and Paul) gave us were worth the stunning views of Killarney National park and Loch Leane, and we felt we had covered a generous portion of the area through our ride. It should be noted that we stuck to the nearby attractions as we regrettably did not book enough time in Killarney. Per unanimous inquiry, the region itself takes at least 4-5 days to experience properly. Did I mention we already have a return itinerary?

torc
Torc Waterfall and it’s token goddess.
Ross castle
Ross Castle. The small but mighty.

even more riding fieldhorsesmore horse riding tree

We were weary by the end of this short side-adventure in the South. By the time we returned to Dublin, we were ready to get a bit bougie at the Gresham Hotel. Which brings me to a helpful tangent for the reader.

If you’re trying to figure out whether to do AirBnB or hotels, consider the following a guide:

AirBnB is awesome for:

  • Saving money
  • Getting to know new people
  • Getting advice on where to go
  • Getting breakfast right when you wake up
  • Having a more “homey” environment

Hotels are awesome for:

  • Coming and going as you please (though, most AirBnB hosts are pretty flexible with this as well; it’s just checking in that might take some coordination).
  • Getting some privacy and/or spending quality time with your travel partner(s) alone (AirBnB’s hosts run the gamut from absent to becoming your new best friend/brother/sister/uncle/dad/mom/grandma, etc.; I’ve experienced all of these)
  • Having more “built-in” things generally, like restaurants, gym, pool, etc.

We upped the ante and made an impromptu visit to The Gate Theater to see Oscar Wilde’s comedy, An Ideal Husband. Forget any stereotypes you’re inundated with about British or Irish theater; the sharp wit and luscious Victorian drama of this piece was both perfectly audible and able to be enjoyed by anyone. Of particular splendor was the costume and set design. I respected the cast by not taking pictures during the show, but I instantly regretted it. The costumes were INCREDIBLE. I was, however, able to get a discreet snap of the stage right before we started.

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Those mirrors, those frames…why isn’t my house decorated like this?! Watching the set changes in between acts was a show in and of itself.

Our classiness was ephemeral, as we later went for our Last Dance at Copper Face Jack’s on Harcourt Street. Now, you probably have noticed that I’m not one to easily dole out negative reviews. That’s true, I’m not. I figure this is due to my general aptitude in picking solid places to go, thanks to my trusted friends Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Mama Google. I must, however, give the Reader a fair heads up about CFJ’s.

Ask a local about it, as I did, and you’ll probably make out the following words in relation to it: trashy, scuzzy, and, my personal favorite, “ratchet”. Indeed, our first impression upon walking in was no less than incredibly ratchet, as American dudes proceeded to sliver over and take, not ask, for our hand in a sloppy dance. Expertly we initiated our escape, an easy one given the inebriated state of our would-be captors. Throughout the night, it was definitely necessary to assert ourselves, as we had made the mistake of dancing conspicuously in a clearing near the ATM. I even had to put my hand in a guy’s face at one point, which should tell you how bad it was getting. No drinks or sweaty cadres of tourists for us, no. Those were luxuries to the stagnant people who hung by the bar like normal patrons. Us danceaholics got to deal with the creepy men who wouldn’t disappear. The music wasn’t initially terrible until they switched to American novelty dance songs like “Cotton Eyed Joe” and whatever that other chipmunk abomination is. Some of you probably know it and can help me out here, yeah?

This didn’t stop the 4 am pedi-cab journey back to the hotel from being splendid. I’m trying to remember how many drunk people we high-fived; so brilliant.

Friday was our last day. As I write this on a protracted Wednesday afternoon, it’s hard to believe that this was only five days ago. The main events on Friday were undoubtedly Kilmainham Gaol (pronounced “jail”; don’t be like me and tell the taxi driver you’re headed to Kilmainham GOWL) and our Gaelic Games experience, which I cannot say enough good things about. As we learned about and played handball, Gaelic football, and hurling, we were burning calories and bonding not just with our fellow teammates, but with the country of Ireland in its national sports. Our instructors were unbelievably helpful and patient. And I do mean patient, because they needed to be with me. The gaol also provided an incredibly interesting tidbit of Irish history, specifically regarding the Rebellion of 1918.

June Kilmainham
Fortunately, June was not imprisoned in the gaol for long.
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Clear champions, here.

Dinner at The Lebanese Chef near Dublin’s food-mecca of South Great George’s Street was spectacular. I think my Yelp review does it some justice, so check it out when you’re there. However, per the advice of a local, it’s quite difficult to get bad food on South Great George’s Street, so you’ll probably good picking anywhere. Other recommendations we had were Yamamori Noodles, Rustic Stone, 777, and Whitefriar Grill. Are you taking notes?

Heavily debating on whether or not to go out, we ended our final evening in Dublin with a stroll through the (in)famous Temple Bar. Ahhhh, Temple Bar. So interesting a place it is. It’s like an Irish Cabo. I don’t even think any real Irish people hang out there. But if you’re looking for a party, it’s the place to be.

As much as we wanted to indulge in the unique culture of the ‘Bar, we were okay with getting some much needed rest before we set a course for return to LAX.

Having been through a few days of the “post-return stress syndrome” that accompanies any vacation, I can say that looking back on the adventures had in this corner of the world has been difficult at times. I remember the littlest things so vividly: The smile of the adorable stingrays at the aquarium. Taking a picture of the Scotsman Hotel for June’s father-in-law during our 2:00 am tour of Edinburgh. How cinnamony black pudding tasted for the first time. The look of the suggestive mountain beyond the fairy pools. The taste of the cheesecake at the Plockton Hotel. The rain in my hair during our horseback ride.

It takes a little while until I realize that adventuring and new experiences are never limited to vacations. Every day is an adventure lying dormant under our obligations or fears; it’s up to us to unearth them.

Until the next adventure.

– H

Thought of the day: Woops, I may have already written it just now.

The Fabulous Misadventures of J&H

I don’t want to write this entry with the intent of complaining. I mean, come on. One does not simply travel through Southern Italy, surrounded by amazing people, other-wordly food, and incredible scenery and go, “Yeah man, that SUCKED.” Despite my scribblings the past two weeks, there are not even words to describe how amazing our trip was. That, my friends, is why I feel comfortable writing about yesterday’s going-home experience. It’s almost comical. Like, they should make a movie about it, it was that bad.

I will briefly recount the day we had yesterday, mostly courtesy of Alitalia Airlines.

The day started at 3:00 am at the Masseria San Domenico. With dreams of melanzana ripiene and spumone still in my head from the night’s dinner, we woke up and said our final goodbyes to the gorgeous resort that had housed or last Italian hurrahs. Goodbye, thalassotherapy pool! Goodbye, 200-year-old olive trees! Goodbye, out-of-place room in the hotel bar that looks like a British hunting lounge!

A car picked us up at 4:00 to head to the Bari airport. Tired as we were, and as Mercedez-Benzy as the “taxi” was, sleep didn’t happen, so we both settled for intermittent, meditative rest to prep for the day ahead. But oh, did we miscalculate the prep we truly needed.

What do you know: we arrive in Bari, still without our coffee, and our 6:30 am flight to Rome is canceled. No problem, the lady at the front counter said: a 7:30 flight is available. Enjoy your middle seats at the very last row of the plane! Cool, we said. But remember, 7:30 am in Italy means 8:00. Try 8:20. No big deal, we didn’t have a Rome to Frankfurt flight at 10:15 that we needed to be on or anything…

We arrived in Rome at around 9:20. The back of the plane was a great place to be at that time, because it forced us to get some HIIT-training done the minute we got off the plane. To the counter in Rome we went, to see if we could make our flight to Frankfurt despite cutting it close…

No chance. We left the Alitalia counter and went to Lufthansa. Here comes one of those pinnacle moments in comedy, the kind that become “famous scenes”. When we explained what had happened to the counter clerk, he informed us that because we missed our Rome-Frankfurt flight, we were also going to miss our Frankfurt-LAX flight. If we wanted to fly business class our of Frankfurt the next day, however, that was no big deal at all. We just needed $6,000 – per person. For a seat that folds into a bed. And maybe the privilege of asking for extra rolls with dinner.

We were relegated to booking a flight to Munich and flying from Munich to LAX on economy. For now, we thought, the battle has been lost, but not the war. We would go on to try and get business class multiple times from other sources.

Guys, I am in no way trying to offend anyone or come off as snooty when I talk about economy class. I fly economy class EVERYWHERE, including when I went to Europe in 2011 for study abroad. But flying economy after having flown business, living in unbelievable excess for a week, getting almost no sleep, and expecting to fly business going home is kind of a recipe for first-world-problem disaster. I admit that it’s ridiculous. I admit that it’s absurd. But there’s a reason I call the 11.5 hours we spent on the way home yesterday a “Spartan journey”…

Anyway, the fun didn’t end when we found the line to security. We were in it for about an hour. I kid you not, from the looks of the line, it rivaled that of the Vatican. It was absolutely soul-crushing. Had I not been so frustrated, I would have taken a picture. We got through it, found our gate, and once again had a delayed departure to Munich.

On the bright side, the Munich airport is SWEET! One could have a lot of activities there with enough time. We proceeded to talk to about 3 people from different Lufthansa desks, telling them our situation and attempting to get our business class seats back for the ride home. We came to find out that because there was an emergency landing in Rome and crazy weather throughout Germany, our flight was THOROUGHLY booked with waiting lists out the wazoo. One Lufthansa clerk, who was actually the most helpful, even told us that flying in economy was going to be “terrible”. I admired her honesty.

Our final attempt to get back into business occurred at the gate desk. We were on the waiting list and remained there. And that was that. To economy class we went, and stayed.

So…was it that bad? Actually, no. We both had books (mine: “Unnatural Creatures”, a series of stories compiled by Neil Gaiman) and access to the same TV as business class. The biggest difference is the sleeping/space situation. I will admit that compared to business class, this is absolutely miserable. We also didn’t get little “care packages” with toothbrushes and eye covers and stuff, so I smelled and looked like a homeless cat when I got off the plane.

When we finally arrived in LA, we were the last bags of the carriage and moved ever-so-slowly through customs. It was probably about the 9th line we’d been in that day, so when it was finally done, I felt this Shawshank-esque sensation of not knowing what life was like outside lines. I told my mom that I probably have some killer sick delts from carrying around my 30-pound backpack all day, though.

So, what about this story is of interest and use to you? I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps you are amused, or perhaps you will take away the following lessons…

  • Travel, no matter how enjoyable, serene, or incredible, is inevitably composed of uncertainty, whether elongated or brief. Accept the fact that no amount of planning will get rid of the laws of randomness and uncertainty.
  • DO NOT RELY ON ALITALIA. Italy is an all-around amazing country and I will be back again and again and again. However, I’d sooner give up taralli than patronize their national airline again. Okay, maybe I’m being a little grumpy. But seriously, they’re sketch. If you can, book any Alitalia flight you take at least 2 hours before you actually have to.
  • In general, don’t be afraid of leaving long layovers for yourself. This was critical for us. We effectively had little time in between our flights, which meant that things like eating, resting, and using the bathroom came secondary to us getting places on time. I’m not saying you need to waste days in the airport, but be comfortable spending 2-3 hours in between flights just in case you have a delay along the way.
  • Finally, have moments to just sit and laugh about any misfortune you do face. One of the things that got my mom and I through the stress of our adventure was the time we took to make fun of ourselves and the situation. After all, we were lucky to get on a flight to the U.S. in general, and were even luckier to get home safe. Sure, our necks hurt and our stomachs are still turning from the “chicken” we had for dinner (and breakfast), but we’re here. We’re home. We’re happy.

That being said, do I have a thought of the day for this entry? I don’t know. I guess I’ll give one that encompasses everything I wrote above:

Expect the unexpected.

Trite, but true.

-H

IC Special Edition: Why You Should Do the Backroads Puglia Trip

You see the types of trips Backroads provides, which range from scaling the misty cliffs of Bhutan to even-paced cycle rides through the flower fields of Holland. In addition to the incredible locations it services, Backroads seeks to provide the ideal touring experience. Note the distinction between “touring” and “tourist”. There is nothing “touristy” about these trips, as you really get to explore the parts that most other travelers would never see on their own. The trip leaders are virtually all renaissance men/women who can work on bikes, speak the local languages, cook, and give history lessons – to name just a few things – and are probably the best part of the whole experience.

On June 2nd, 2013, I had no idea what to expect of my very first Backroads trip in the region of Puglia, Italy, other than what my mother had told me. She has been on three prior to this one (as well as one with another company) and raved about them. So, when I graduated with my Master’s degree, I knew that that was what I wanted to do. My favorite things in the world are traveling and exercising, so this fit the bill perfectly. So, what are my honest thoughts about Backroads?

The overall experience was the trip of a lifetime. I truly felt like I was immersed into the culture of the beautiful Puglia region and felt accustomed to the warmth of the people, the tranquil beauty of the masserie, and freshness of the cuisine. There were times during my trip where I wanted to say: “Is this real life?” Every day was an adventure. Moreover, Backroads made it possible by not only facilitating these adventures, but providing context, education, and 24-hour support to go along with it.

Without our outstanding leaders, however, this trip wouldn’t have been half as amazing – which says a lot, because this trip was spectacular. Caterina, Stasa, and Jane were not only strong riders, postive, and insanely smart people – they were also so, so, so much fun and so helpful. Each of them made a point to connect with everyone and give their all when people needed help. From the shuttles up the major hills to waiting at the hospital when someone got hurt, they went above and beyond the call of duty and made us, the guests, their priority. I would not have wanted anyone else on these trips with us. I understand that the Backroads hiring process is intense, and for good reason – you’re not going to find many Caterinas, Stasas, or Janes in this world.

The local guides were a treat as well. The hilarious and effervescent Mimmo, who overflowed with knowledge of Puglia and its many fine wines, was probably the trip favorite, but everyone we met was kind and enthusiastic about sharing in Pugliese culture. In fact, I’d venture to say that the people of Puglia are the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life. And the hotel staff? Wow, can you say “on it”? Needless to say, Backroads picks lodging well…very well.

Don’t even get me started on the hotels! Il Melograno, Masseria San Martino, and our personal favorite, Masseria San Domenico, were magnificent accommodations and a wonderful setting for the Puglia region. While the internet situations at the first two were frustrating at times, we honestly have no other complaints. A little pain will always accompany beauty.

The ethereal bliss provided by the food cannot properly be put into word. Take note – Backroads feeds you well. Breakfast is always provided, and you only need to pay for one lunch and one dinner on your whole trip. The only item not usually included is wine, but even that is provided occasionally – it is Italy, after all. The food is always fresh, local, and characteristic of the region.

Oh wait, don’t let me forget the biking! We were generously provided with bikes, cyclometers, and helmets. Our bikes were aerospace titanium and equipped with a front pack for easy storage of our cameras, jackets, tissues, snacks, and more. We even have a clear front pocket for our directions. Despite navigating a rather uncharted area of the country, the directions were pretty darn good. It would have been nice to have a GPS system, as the Puglia region is easy to get lost in. However, that was obviously not totally necessary, as we all made it back unharmed and tuckered out from the great rides. While the rides were always challenging, I firmly believe that anyone in moderately good shape would be just fine. Besides, there were so many opportunities to shuttle through the most difficult parts, it was never a problem! I’d rate the difficulty of this trip from an athletic perspective as about a 3/5.

Safety is a priority for Backroads, and we received extensive guidance on remaining safe during our trip. Like I mentioned before, all 3 guides did an excellent job with this. I send my best wishes and love to the one person who received a minor injury on this trip. However, I know that she was in good care by her husband and family and received top-notch attention and assistance from Backroads. All this being said: if you are interested in an active travel trip, please do not let the possibility of injury deter you. This is a risk run with any physical activity, and you are missing out on an amazing experience if you don’t go because of that.

Finally, a word about the group we went with: should you happen to stumble upon this review, please know that it was such a pleasure to meet all of you. I understand that many of you are following my blog (Infinite Corners, infinitecorners.com) and have friends and family doing so as well. This is such an honor to me. You all helped make the trip, so saying goodbye to you all was understandably rough. I’m glad I was wearing sunglasses when I left; full disclosure here: I was crying.
Until my next Backroads journey – shall we say, Thailand?

A fresh adventure in a familiar place.

Since returning Home, I’ve decided to make connecting with my family, friends, and surroundings here a priority. As it will be a long time before I return here permanently, I intend to make the most of the few, precious months I have here in California this summer. It’s funny, but no matter how familiar you are with a place, there is always more to see and more to do. Whether you reside in a bustling metropolis or a quaint, country cabin far removed from human connection is, frankly, immaterial (accounting terminology – you saw what I did there).

Doggies are family, too.
Doggies are family, too.

One of the best things to explore, wherever you may be, is the surrounding natural environment. Nature is eternal. Everything from the vast ocean vista to the patch of sand under your feet has a story and has seen more than you can and ever will see. Last Saturday and Tuesday, I decided to explore the beach (Emerald Bay, Laguna Beach, CA) that I have lived right next to for over 11 years. While slowly stepping through the tidepools, I couldn’t help but be delighted while observing the simplest things, like this adorable crab who seemed to be saying “Good morning!” to me.

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How about a hug?

Even after all this time, I STILL found it fascinating and even reenergizing. As I listened to Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (great audiobook, by the way), I couldn’t help but snap a few photos to document my mini-trek and preserve the experience. The following photos were taken with my iPhone.

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Thought of the day: Don’t be in such a rush to “escape” the life you live. You never know just how many amazing things exist just where you are.

-H