P.S. I Love Ireland…. My 9 Day All Ireland Paddywagon Tour
When I was planning my trip to Ireland, I knew that I didn’t want it to be a short one. I wasn’t content to just fly in and out of Dublin and say that I’d crossed Ireland off my list.
When I was imagining Ireland I was thinking of beautiful coastlines, green fields, farm animals, old castles and misty cliffs. To see any of that I was going to have venture further out of Dublin.
Whilst that sounded great in theory, the practical part of my plan was a little trickier. Whilst there are buses that run all over Ireland, getting around can be a little difficult. It is easy enough to get between cities but it’s harder when you want to go out and do things like explore the Causeway Coast or drive along the Ring of Kerry. All of these things require a car or a tour.
Hiring a car was out of the question. As I was travelling alone, it was really cost prohibitive. Not to mention the fact that I had heard terrible things about Irish roads and Irish drivers. So I started looking into tours and was super excited to discover what must be the best valued tour in all of Ireland.
A 9 Day tour of essentially the whole island with Paddywagon tours including all transport, all accommodation and even lots of included activities was priced at €559. I’m pretty sure that even with a friend we couldn’t have booked our own accommodation and hired a car for as cheap as that.
And while the Paddywagon tour is a budget option the only real complaint I had was that some of the hostels we stayed in could definitely have been better. But our guide was incredible- he knew so much about Ireland and its history. He was friendly, funny and almost always patient with my million questions and opinions.
Hence this post is basically a rundown of the 9 magical days I spent exploring Ireland with Paddywagon Tours, our guide Malcolm and some very awesome new friends.
Day 1- The Guinness Factory, Rock of Castle Dunamase and Adare
It was only when I boarded our tour bus that I realised the tour started with a visit to the Guinness Factory. That had me feeling incredibly stupid because I hadn’t remembered and had visited the Guinness Storehouse the afternoon before on my free day in Dublin. Well all there was for me to do was to journey on up to the top floor and try once again (and fail once again) to stomach a pint of Guinness.
The first day was a big driving day, as we needed to get from Dublin all the way to the Dingle Peninsula on the very southern tip of Ireland. But none of us seemed to be worried about the distance, it gave us some time to chat and make new friends.
But we did make a couple of stops along the way that gave us our first taste of what exploring Ireland was going to be like.
The first was the Rock of Castle Dunamase. This castle dates back to the 12 century and it used to be one of the most important fortifications for the Normans in the area at the time.
Regardless of the history, Dunamase made all of my Irish castle dreams come true. We passed through tiny country lanes to arrive there, the area around it was green as far as the eye can see, and the weather wasn’t quite sunny which gave it this mystical atmosphere. I loved it!
Ireland kept living up to all of its clichés when we arrived in the countryside village of Adare, home to a row of beautiful thatched roof houses. The one word that came to mind as we wandered around Adare was ‘quaint’. W checked out the cathedral, snapped photos of the thatched houses and ate icecream produced from a local farm.
Our stop for the night was the tiny village of Annascull, on the Dingle Pensinsula where Paddywagon have their own hostel. Annascull was another quaint town that is most well known as the birthplace and hometown of the famous Arctic Explorer, Tom Crean.
Day 2- Slea Head Drive
The Dingle Pensinsula ended up being one of my favourite days in Ireland. We got lucky with amazing, clear weather which made everything more beautiful.
Slea Head drive was a stark contrast to the tiny, countryside villages and green lanes we had explored the day before. It felt wild and untamed. Which isn’t surprising given it’s one of the most famous parts of the Wild Atlantic Way. It seemed whenever we stopped that day, the coast had something new and incredible to offer us.
But the absolute highlight for me was definitely the Dunqin Pier- it was seriously epic!
Our night ended in Killarney, one of the main towns of Southern Ireland. It’s full of bed and breakfasts and was fully booked out for the bank holiday weekend. We had a roaring night at one of the pubs with lots of the locals and managed to just stumble back to our hostel (via fried chicken of course) before curfew.
Day 3- The Ring of Kerry
The Ring of Kerry is a famous coastal road that I had heard so much about. It was one of the things I was most looking forward to doing while in Ireland. Unfortunately Mother Nature had other plans.
Bad weather is kind of something you have to deal with while in Ireland. Not that I can say I ever dealt with it fully while I was travelling the country. I just couldn’t get over how miserable it was in August, which was meant to be Irish summer!
But if there is one thing I wanted good weather for it was exploring the Ring of Kerry. Instead most of the beautiful scenery was covered up by a layer of fog, which put a dampen on all of our moods. Luckily we got some visibility when visiting the Lakes of Killarney and the Torc Waterfall.
I definitely need to try and return to do the Ring of Kerry in better weather.
Day 4- The Blarney Stone, Cobh and Cork
The first stop of the day for us was Blarney Castle, famous for the Blarney Stone which is meant to give you the gift of the gab (gift of eloquent speech) if you kiss it. We had the bad luck of arriving just as hundreds of people off a cruise ship did. After looking at the huge crowds our guide, Malcolm, immediately gave us more time at the castle.
But it was only I, and my friend Andy that were brave enough to get in the line to kiss the stone. It took us almost two hours to get there but we finally managed to lay our lips on the stone. I’m not so sure it worked though. I’ve still been suffering from some pretty bad writers block lately. But Blarney Castle was also pretty formidable. I just wish we had more time to explore the grounds as well.
After Blarney it was off to Cobh, famous as the last docking point of the Titanic before it’s fateful journey. There is a memorial and museum here and everything. It was also a pretty village to explore. I really liked the coloured houses lined up in a row from the water all the way up to the top of the town. And the cathedral was also worth a climb up the hill to visit.
Our resting point for the night was Cork, where the highlight was the English Market, an old marketplace where you can still buy produce. I horrified everyone by buying a huge amount of anchovies from the deli and proceeding to devour them in one go.
Day 5- Bunratty Castle and the Cliffs of Moher
We made a quick stop by Bunratty Castle for a photo-op, but the real highlight of day five was the Cliffs of Moher. These majestic cliffs are one of the most touristy and visited spots in Ireland. Bus loads of day-trippers make the long journey from Dublin in order to walk the cliffs and snap photos.
The one thing that no one seems to warn you about is how dangerous they are. More than a few people have fallen from their deaths because they have stepped over the boundary line. Although some of these deaths were sadly intentional, others have occurred from people not realising how overpowering the wind can be. Our guide told us a harrowing story of watching someone fall straight off the cliffs after being taken by the wind. Luckily there was small ridge below that he fell on and he lived to tell the tale. But it’s a warning not to step beyond the boundaries- the selfies just aren’t worth it.
We surely witnessed how terrifying the weather on the cliffs can be. We arrived in torrential rain, and my raincoat-less friend Andy soon found himself drenched to the bone. But lucky only half an hour later the rain stopped and a few rays of sunshine peaked through the clouds. It definitely wasn’t the greatest day for photographing the cliffs, but at least the rain cleared!
Galway was a lovely little town that we didn’t really have too much time to explore. One of the disadvantages of the tours was that a lot of the time we arrived in a town, exhausted from a day of travelling and sightseeing and didn’t really have the opportunity or energy to see the town it self. It didn’t worry me so much though, because most of the appeal of Ireland for me was its natural beauty which we got to see so much of during the day. And we still got the appeal of drinking with the locals and listening to local live music in the bars.
Galway was a big night out for us, because it was the night our group split. The tour at the beginning was made up of some of us that were doing a 9 day tour, and some of us that were doing a 6 day tour. Hence we lost almost half of our group in Galway as they were only on the 6 day tour. But if anything the tour became more fun at that point because our group was a lot smaller!
Day 6- Galway, Cong and Derry
Today was a big day for us as we travelled from Galway in Ireland to Derry in Northern Ireland which is part of the United Kingdom. The first stop of the day was the village of Cong, which was the sitting of the old film the Quiet Man. The highlight of the town was the walk to the castle which was definitely beautiful. Even if we didn’t have the time for the visit inside, it was still pretty incredible.
We then drove on to Standhill, a beachtown in the County of Sligo. The one thing that blew my mind about Ireland is how many amazing their beaches are. Standhill was better than most of the beaches I had happened on in Europe, it obviously just didn’t have the typical sunshine that makes the beach experience so much better. It didn’t stop Malcom, the crazy Irish guy, from having a dip during our lunch break here.
We made a quick stop by the grave of the famous poet, Yeats before we arrived in Derry.
Derry is a city in Northern Ireland, and it was, along with Belfast, one of the epicentres of the troubles that occurred there in the end of the 20th century. A huge part of the city was barricaded by the Irish Republic Army, and the whole city is still separated by the river that runs through it. The republicans, who see themselves as Irish and mostly have Irish passports live on one side of the river. The loyalists, who see themselves as British and mostly have British passports live on the other side of the river. This was a history were going to live more about during a guided tour the very next day.
Day 7- Donegal and Derry
We started our day by leaving Northern Ireland and heading back into the Republic of Ireland to visit the Country of Donegal.
We headed straight to Grianan of Aileach, a hilltop fort where locals used to hide and protect themselves from invading forces. It was kind of cool that it was still standing there and we could even explore the small tunnels and climb up the very top for amazing views over the surrounding area.
From there we journeyed to Glenveigh National Park, which was once the estate of more than one wealthy man. The whole area was incredibly beautiful, with an old castle/estate that we got a guided tour of. It also housed pretty gardens that we explored and huge grounds that we caught just a glimpse of as we took a long walk for a view over the estate.
Our day finished back in Northern Ireland and in Derry. This was the part of the day that I was looking most forward to. I was very interested in hearing about the modern history of the area. We had a special local guide for a tour of Derry, a guide that as a boy had lived through the troubles that occurred here. “The troubles” is often a phrase that is used to describe the tension and violence that occurred in Northern Ireland between groups like the Irish Republic Army (IRA) that wanted to be part of Ireland, and the loyalists forces such as the Ulster Volunteer Force.
It’s a complicated history, and one that I can’t even begin to comprehend from only having spent a few days in Northern Ireland. But Derry was a hotspot of the troubles, with the IRA having blockaded and controlled a large area on one side of the river. Here local police or the British army were not allowed and it was the scene of lots of violent events. The most infamous was the Bloody Sunday where British soldiers shot 26 civilian protesters involved in a peaceful protest.
Perhaps the thing that I took most from my time in Northern Ireland was that even though there has now been a peace agreement for almost 20 years, there is still widespread segregation. The two sides might live in the same city, but they live on different sides of the river. They still hold on to their ideas about whether they should be living in Ireland or the United Kingdom. It’s evident by the constant street art and messages painted on the buildings in the part of Derry that was once in IRA control, as well as in the part that was a loyalist stronghold.
After our super informative tour we headed out to dinner and then to the pub for one of the wildest nights of our trip. It was definitely the most drunk I got of the trip and let’s just say I didn’t exactly wake up in my hostel bed. The locals, as in all of Ireland and Northern Irleand, were exceedingly friendly.
Day 8- The Giant’s Causeway
Nursing a very terrible hangover and only having had a few hours of sleep, we headed off to the Giant’s Causeway. This was one of the days I was most looking forward to of our trip and it did not disappoint.
Despite the hangover I managed to love the hell out of this day, mostly given the amazing natural scenery along the famous Causeway Coast.
First we arrived at Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, a famous rope bridge linking the coast with a tiny patch of land. The rope bridge was cute and made for a great photo, but the real highlight was just how incredibly beautiful the area surrounding the bridge was. We had to walk a while and it took longer because I always seemed to be stopping to take pretty pictures.
After the rope bridge it was off to the Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a very popular tourist spot. You almost have to blink to make sure the causeway is real, as it’s essentially hundreds (actually probably thousands) of block cylinder shaped stones that are pilled on top of each other. It’s a giant set of kid’s blocks that have been stacked perfectly, except for the fact that it was all created by nature. No man has stacked those rocks, the whole coast is formed by the movements of nature. It’s incredible and it was definitely the best thing I saw the whole time I was in Ireland, even if I did feel the need to vomit half the time I was there. No more Irish beer for me!
We finished our day in Belfast, where I managed to fight a huge amount of tiredness to go out and witness the Belfast nightlife. It was actually incredible! We headed to a local bar which was about as Belfast as you could get. The place was packed with bikers in leathers and on stage was the best cover band I have ever heard. The band was full of old guys including a silver fox lead singer with long grey hair that was blowing just the right way. They mostly played Bon Jovi with some great Journey and ACDC covers thrown in there- I was in my element!
Day 9- Belfast
Our final day of the trip was mostly dedicated to exploring Belfast. We started our day with a Black Cab tour that gave us a glimpse of the other side of the conflict in the North. Our guide in Derry had been an Irish republican, whereas our Black Cab tour guides were once part of the Protestant militia. They kept joking among themselves about how one of them had been in prison at the time of the peace agreement (which forced all he prisoners to be released) and I’m almost sure they weren’t joking.
We were taken to both the loyalist and republic areas of the city, where you’ll find murals painted of the military heads of what were officially terrorist groups, as well as houses flying the flags of those groups. It was all kind of surreal, especially because that day there was a protest going on that had tensions rising. The whole of Belfast was full of the armoured police cars that are everywhere in Northern Irleand and our guides had to take us to the republic side early before the protests started.
We finally ended up at the “peace walls”. These huge walls separate the republic and loyalist communities even to this day. At night the gates are closed so as to avoid tensions and street violence. If you want to get between the communities separated by these walls you need to take the long way round. Our guides handed us a marker and we were able to leave our own peace messages on the wall.
We finished our tour of Belfast at the Titanic Museum, located right next to the docks where the Titanic was built and then launched. It was actually one of the best museums I have ever visited. It really took you through the story of the titanic from its inception to its construction and then to the fatetful night that it sunk. It was a sobering experience- I just wish we had a little longer to devour all that information.
Our finally stop of the whole tour was between Belfast and Dublin. Monasterboice is home to the famous Celtic Crosses that date back to 9th or 10th century. They were pretty incredible but the whole experience was a little dampened by us knowing that this was going to be our final goodbye.
Most of us on the tour ended up catching up for dinner later that night in Dublin for one last farewell.
My Final Word
I’m so happy that I decided to take off my solo travel hat and do Ireland with a tour. I got to see so much and at a fraction of the price it would have cost me if I tried to do it alone. I really couldn’t fault our guide. He was a walking Encyclopaedia on Ireland, but not in a boring or dry way. He also recommended some pretty good pubs where we had some delicious meals. But what made Ireland so incredible was the awesome group of people on our tour. I hope to see all of them again one day!