Coach tires crunched over the gravel lane of Harlaxton College as we watched from the circle drive, our rain hoods pulled low over our faces while our suitcases sat at our sides. The coach creaked to a halt before us, we threw in our luggage, and off we rode to Birmingham Airport. Once there, we endured the familiar drill of checking bags, braving security, and scanning tickets. But excitement was thick in the air. Dublin, Ireland was only an hour’s flight away.
We descended upon Dublin Airport early that same evening and from there we went straight to Abraham Hostel. Located inside a historic townhouse, they offer a variety of room types, from private quarters for solo travelers, to bigger rooms for large groups, such as my own. The hostel is only a 15 minute drive from Dublin Airport, and less than a 15 minute stroll from attractions such as Grafton Street, Temple Bar, and Ha’Penny Bridge. The hostel also offers free Wi-Fi, a free breakfast, and most importantly, it’s affordable.
After settling into our room, a spacious place with three bunk beds and our own private bathroom, we staggered outside in search of food. We turned left on a whim out of the hostel, then left again onto Talbot Street. Not 5 minutes later, we came across a quaint pizza joint that looked like a garage beneath a skinny apartment building. The greasy aroma of melted cheese and juicy, crushed tomatoes drew us in nonetheless. This quirky place is called Star Pizza and it was perfect for a quick bite. They offer a fantastic deal: a 9-inch pizza, a small order of fries, and a canned soda for 5 euros. College students can’t resist a deal like that, so we ordered our food, filled our tummies with the hearty meal, and ambled back to the hostel with enthusiasm for the next day stirring in our chests.
The next morning, I stumbled down from my top bunk (still recovering from the pizza overload), threw on some comfy shoes, and sauntered outside. The River Liffey, which cuts through the city center, is only a 5 minute walk from Abraham Hostel, which is quite convenient. Many hostels along the river also offer free walking tours for their guests. If your hostel does not offer this, you can sometimes pay to reserve spots on other hostels’ tours. We didn’t know this at the time, so we were left to wander alongside the winding river on our own. Which was no problem at all. We explored at our own pace, browsing shops and bars on our way to Ha’Penny Bridge, a walking bridge that connects the north and south sides of the river. Opened in the early 19th century, it acquired its name because of the toll to cross it: a half penny coin. Being such a gorgeous day, we snapped a multitude of photos. The sky was blue with wispy clouds, and the rows of brick buildings along the street impressed their crystal reflections upon the still blue waters.
After that, we walked another 15 minutes to Trinity College (when it comes to transportation in Dublin, they have trams and buses and taxis, but we preferred walking because it’s an easy city to maneuver and most attractions are consolidated). Trinity College was founded in the late 16th century and modeled after England’s most prestigious universities, Cambridge and Oxford. It houses the Book of Kells, an ancient Latin manuscript from the 9th century that details the 4 Gospels of the New Testament with lavish illustrations. It only costs 9 euros to see it and our tickets granted us access to the famed Long Room of the Old Library as well. This library houses over 7 million texts and it was straight out of my imagination. You stroll peacefully along the polished hardwood floors, the wood-beamed ceiling arches high above you, and to your left and right are pillars of ancient texts, the browns and golds and mahoganies of their spines creating monochromatic mosaics of literature and history. It is the kind of beauty that a bookworm craves. I’m also told that it looks like the Jedi Library from Star Wars. Go figure.
We left Trinity College around lunchtime and headed west until we stumbled across KC Peaches, a trendy little café that sells soups, sandwiches, pastry deserts, and a variety of vegan options. They have mixed reviews online, but we thought the food was decent. Besides, we had other things on our mind that day, particularly our afternoon tour at the Guinness Storehouse.
We took a customary photo in front of St. James Gate when we arrived. We bought our tickets beforehand, which is the best thing to do. Standard tickets cost about 25 euros and that includes an in-depth tour detailing the brewing process and sacred history of Dublin’s beloved Guinness. We also received free samples and were allowed to pour our own pint. They even printed off personal certificates to document the accomplishment. I was rather nervous to pour the pint while an Irish beer connoisseur stood over my shoulder, and I think that’s why my dark brew had such a thick layer of creamy foam, but hey, I still got my certificate and I’ll never forget that first sip of Guinness. My face scrunched in disgust and a shiver ran down my spine. I hated it and unless you have an acquired taste for beer, you might hate it too, but the Gravity Lounge made up for my disappointed taste buds. This place was located at the top of the facility. Shuffling out of the elevator, we found ourselves in a breathtaking glass room with 360 degree windows all around, offering the most spectacular view of Dublin.
Coming out of the Guinness Storehouse, we bartered with a horse-drawn carriage driver until he gave us a discounted ride back to the city center, then we ate dinner at Norseman’s, treated ourselves to dessert at the Queen of Tarts, and finally trudged back to Abraham Hostel.
Day One on the Paddy Wagon
On our second full day, we woke before the sun and crowded outside, huddled together in the chill of morning. A few minutes later, an obnoxiously green tour bus plastered with gleaming shamrocks and dancing leprechauns screeched to an unsteady halt before us and out popped our Paddy Wagon tour guide, a raven-haired young man with a devilish grin. He bounced with raw energy and excitement, as if it wasn’t 7 o’clock. Once we were all on the bus, he introduced himself as Valentine O’Brien, but we were only permitted to call him Val. If we dared address him any other way, we would be sacrificed to the Irish gods of old.
As our tour bus screeched through the streets of Dublin, hurtling northward at top speed, Val commanded the intercom like a flamboyant dictator rallying his troops for a great voyage. He promised an unlimited supply of craic, a Gaelic word pronounced like the English ‘crack,’ but it means ‘fun.’ After breezing through his intro, he said that we had quite a drive ahead and that he would give us time to rest, so he dimmed the lights in the bus. “They’re our sexy lights,” he crooned, “Sexy lights for a sexy bus full of sexy people. Oh yeah.” My consciousness dimmed with those electric blue lights as I fell asleep listening to our guide’s sultry voice.
I awoke sometime later at the prodding of my seat partner. My eyes fluttered open to see the entire bus was abuzz, pointing out the windows and smacking their cameras against the glass, so I glanced outside, and there, streaking between the steely blue clouds, was a vibrant rainbow. A huge grin broke across my face because I knew then, our journey was blessed by the beautiful Irish skies.
Val first took us to the famous Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge which is nestled along the coast of Northern Ireland. I’ve never seen a land so striking. Rippling teal waves lined with silvery sea foam crashed against the mossy cliffs, and the wind danced in my hair while my boots squished over the rich, black earth. And of course, everything really is emerald. We marched along a winding path high along the coast until we reached our destination: a dauntingly skinny bridge of rope and wood that connects the coast to a small island. I crossed that swaying bridge, gazing down at the foamy green sea below. It was utterly amazing. Once everyone was safely back on the Paddy Wagon, we rattled down to the nearby village of Ballintoy and ate lunch at their Rope Bridge Bar and Restaurant.
After lunch, Val herded us back to the bus and we sped onward to Giant’s Causeway. This place is a National World Heritage Site and a natural wonder, created by an ancient volcanic eruption, but if you ask any local, they’ll tell you the truth: it was built by a giant. Giant’s Causeway is famous for its hexagonal columns that rise out of the ocean at peculiar heights, creating a stone beach of whimsical footpaths. After purchasing admission at the visitor center, you can walk or shuttle down to the causeway, but beware of venturing too close to the water’s edge, for those stones are glazed with an invisible, slippery sea moss. One wrong step and you might just take a chilly dip.
Once we were through exploring, we boarded the bus and rode the scenic route back to Dublin. We marveled at the Irish countryside, the fluffy sheep and lowing cattle, the crumbling castles and olden churches. I rested my head against the chilly glass window and tried to keep my drooping eyes open to see it all. Suddenly, the whole bus sighed oohs and ahs as we passed a pure white horse grazing in an emerald field. “Look,” Val murmured over the intercom, “A mystic horse.”
Day Two on the Paddy Wagon
Our final day in Ireland, we once again crowded outside Abraham Hostel in the dim light of morning, but we were ecstatic today because Val was on his way to pick us up. That’s the thing about Paddy Wagon tours, they have extended packages if you want more than one day. When that bright green bus skidded to a halt in front of us and Val poked his head out with that devilish grin, we all grinned too. “I have more craic for you,” he screamed from the window, “You’ll be right addicted before you leave!” We clambered inside eagerly and off we went for the west coast. We stopped by more castles that morning, including Dunguaire Castle. Val lined us up along the gate with our backs to it, ordered our eyes closed, and then we made wishes, as is the tradition. Then, right before it was time to go, he turned to the group and said with a wink, “There’s also a myth that if one circles the castle three times, one can regain his or her lost virginity… We leave in precisely one minute. Be on the bus then or I’ll leave you here.” Several people sprinted off to get their three laps in.
From there we proceeded to the ruins of an old church that was pillaged by Thomas Cromwell during the Dissolution of Monasteries. There we sidestepped over the gravestone floors, slick and glassy with rain (for the roof is gone). There were also skulls under the altar. I planted my knees in the gravel and pressed my cheek to the cold ground just to glimpse them.
Our final destination was the Cliffs of Moher, but we stopped at the Baby Cliffs first (a mini version of the same thing). Because these cliffs were not near as high and because some of us were suddenly overcome with a desire to do something brash, we crouched and crawled to the edge of the cliffs and hung our feet over the edge. I gazed down at the roiling ocean and I looked out at the endless steel sky and I felt my soul soaring out across that briny, ancient sea.
The real Cliffs of Moher were impressive, but I wish we wouldn’t have gone in February. The weather was terrible. Heavy fog and clouds obscured most of it. A harsh spray filtered up from the waters below and moistened our clothes. The ground was extremely muddy and the wind threatened to push us right over the edge if we got too close. That’s the other thing, there are no fences to keep people from getting too close to the slippery edge.
Luckily no one took the plunge during our visit, so we all boarded the bus for the last time. On the way back to Dublin, Val taught us a folksy song called “The Rattlin’ Bog.” We sang it all the way through and there are still days when the catchy tune slips into my mind and I can’t help but sing it aloud. And finally, as sleep came to claim us, Val displayed an old Irish sitcom on the televisions, called Father Ted. It was just kooky enough to keep me awake. Once back at the hostel, we bid our final farewells to our fearless tour guide, Valentine O’Brien, and thanked him for all the craic. Then we stumbled to our bunk beds, drunk with memories of the Emerald Isle. We left the next morning. It was Valentine’s Day.
I recall a trip to Charleston, South Carolina that took place sometime after my visit to Dublin, in which I was sitting in a little breakfast café called Toast, located in the historic district. My waiter, a lanky lad with flaming red hair, approached the table, cordially introduced himself, and claimed to be a Dublin native. My breakfast was late to order that morning, but I didn’t mind. I was having too much craic reliving my memories of the Emerald Isle with a new friend.