Monday, June 19, 2017

Dear Friends:

OK, don’t run away, but you know that notes like this are going to ask something of you. And I am. 

One of the goals of our Grand Tour of Ireland and the UK last summer was to produce a photography book with original poetry. This is not a Road Trippin’ Book, this is a serious artistic endeavor. I know, I know, seems a bit out of character. Still, it was something we wanted to do. 

Well, the book, Stones-A Journey is done. And I need help getting it printed. My source for all my other books doesn’t offer what I am looking for in this book: landscape format, glossy paper, hard cover, and a dust jacket. This means I have to turn to a more expensive printer, and pre-order a bunch of books. That takes money up front that I don’t have, so I’ve started a “kickstarter” project to raise the money. 

The way Kickstarter works is, I set a goal (in this case, $6000), and offer rewards for investors at a variety of levels. Everything from a $10 donation to a $500 (or more if you’re a REALLY good buddy!) will get you some great rewards. The key one is of course, a Premium Copy of Stones-A Journey at the $75 level. This edition is hardbound in genuine leatherette, has a full color dust jacket, heavier gloss paper, and will be limited to 50 signed and numbered copies. 

What happens next is that you donate on the website below, and IF AND ONLY IF the goal is met, you’re credit card is charged. If I can’t raise the $6000, you pay nothing. So, it’s a no-risk arrangement for you. 

Kickstarter is a well known site for fund raising, and is totally secure. They don’t share info or personal data. They’ve been around for several years and have a great reputation. Have no worries about using them. 

Essentially, what I’m doing is pre-selling books to cover the cost of printing, so that I can put this project out there in order to inspire, to make available what I believe is a thought provoking, stimulating work of art. 
The Link:
Feel free to email me with any questions. 

Thanks for your consideration!

Stephen McCarthy

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Old Haunts and New Discoveries

Road Trippin’
with Steve McCarthy

Another 2700 miles in the books, another trek to Olympia, WA, and in keeping with our usual practice, we of course shunned the normal routes. Since we hadn’t done Nevada in a long time, the eastern leg up was in order. But not 395, and not Death Valley. Instead, it was up the I-15 to breakfast in Barstow, then towards Lost Wages, but at Baker (still home to the World’s Tallest Thermometer-which they got working again!) and up towards Beatty, NV. 

Constant Reader may recall the Drive we hosted a number of years ago that used Beatty as it’s hub. We found a good Jerky Place there, paused for a pee and headed further north to our goal for the night, Tonopah, Turquoise Capital of the World. Constant Reader will also recall Marianne’s lust for the blue-green jewelry. 

We got to town early enough to take in the sights and get the Big Disappointment of the trip. The Royston Mine had closed! Seems the scion of the family passed away and the kids were squabbling over what was to be done. Hence, no mine, and worse, NO GIFT SHOP! The Horror! 

Deeply depressed, we had lunch in the hotel cafe (quite good, by the way) and went in search of what else the town might offer. Sadly, not much. Other than a very good mining museum. This was a great place. Tonopah has an amazing history, centered on silver and gold (and later copper) mining. And as a mining town, its share of tragedy.

In 1911, there was a massive fire in one of the mines. Twenty-seven miners lost their lives, among them, Big Bill Murphy, the town Hero. Big Bill went back into the mine several times to rescue miners, but was killed in his last descent. There’s a stature and mural to his, and the other lost miners in front of the local post office. 

Now, the hotel we chose was, as suits our taste, an old one. As in 1908. The Mizpah Hotel is the oldest in Nevada, and at a whopping five stories, once Nevada’s tallest building. The Earp brothers stayed there often, and Jack Dempsey worked there before the fame of the boxing ring took him off to greener pastures. And, of course, it has a ghost. The Lady in Red, a murdered lady of the evening, was stabbed and strangled on the fifth floor, leaving her ghost to walk the halls. No, she did not make an appearance. 

The Big Find in town was the Tonopah Brewing Company. Excellent craft beer (the Irish Red is outstanding) and great BBQ! We shared the Burnt Ends with beans and cornbread. It’s also a short saunter from the Mizpah. 

Back on the road again, we headed to some of the longest, loneliest roads in the country. East for a bit on US 6, then north on Nevada 376. They say US 50 is America’s Loneliest Road. I’m not so sure. Hwy 376 is REAL desolate. The scenery is spectacular and varies from sweeping sage plains to snow capped mountains, to dead lake beds. Even in mid-May, it was still green. It was a wet winter there as well. Several times I could set the cruise control on The Ton and let the miles slip away. It’s not all straight line, however, a couple of climbs through the mountains keep everything entertaining. 

In Winnemucca, we found another New Treasure. the Martin Hotel, ca. 1911. This is a Basque hangout now, and we all know that means great food. This time it was Garlic Soup and a Solomo Sandwich. As in French bread, sliced pork loin, and MOUNDS of GARLIC! YEAH BABY! You gotta try this place. 

Sated on garlic, we headed towards Burns, OR for the night. Up US95, and across OR 78, this is another long lonely drive. At least Oregon has gotten somewhat sensible. Last time up, the 95 in Nevada went from a 70 MPH “speed limit” to FIFTY-FIVE in Oregon! Somewhat happily, they’ve upped it to 65. You DO want your radar detector in Oregon. The Statzpolizei do a lot of revenue gathering all over the state. 

In Burns, we stayed in the decent Best Western (actually in Hines, but who’s counting) and dinner was at the Apple Barrel. We’d eaten there before and enjoyed it. This time? Not so much. “Hot Off the Griddle” waffles topped with apple pie filling were cold, took 20 minutes to get there and when I sent it back, had only improved to tepid. Marianne’s vegetable beef soup had stewed too long and again, was tepid. Not sure if we’d chance it again. 

From there is was off to Bend, OR, then, by way of  US 97 and US 26. These are great roads, up and over the shoulder of Mt. Hood. Oh, and should I mention that it SNOWED ON US IN MID MAY? Pretty crazy. No, the climate’s not changing. Nope, not at all. 

In Oly, it was family and friends (and a nice brunch with Pam and Joel!) for a few days, then, back south. Naturally, we took veered off the I-5 in Grant’s Pass to the 199 and then the 101. Always a great drive. A brief stop at the Trees of Mystery (of course) and then to another new find, the Requa Inn. 

What a gem! Dating from 1911, and now (for the first time) owned by a member of the Yurok Tribe, this wonderfully restored inn sits at the mouth of the Klamath River. Filled with antiques and history, this is a “must stop” place. It ain’t cheap, and neither is the dinner (but at $38/per person it ain’t bad, but wine and tip will jack up up!). The food was fantastic. Served family style and a fixed menu (vegetarian options are available but limited) we were stuffed on starter, salad, veggies, pork loin, and dessert, all overseen by the son of the owner who’d trained in New York. Really fine fare! 

Constant Reader will also know how much we like Family Style eating. We sat with two other couples (one of whom was also a travel writer!) and swapped lies as the wine and food flowed. After dinner we sat in the lobby’s comfy leather sofas and carried on as only vacationing couples will do. 

The others went off to bed and we were attracted by more conviviality back in the dining room. We stuck in our heads and were invited to sit with Jan, the owner, and a couple of regular guests as they finished off a few previously opened bottles. What a great evening! 

After breakfast, we headed off to Clearlake to see our old friend Bill, his lady, Dannie and Bill’s son Casey. For this stay, we opted for a place I pointed out on our last trip through Clearlake, the Featherbed B&B in Nice, CA. We booked the “Casablanca” themed caboose (of course) and were delighted. Lots of neat touches inside, from the piano with “As Time Goes By” sheet music, to a hat rack with a trench coat on it, to “Here’s Looking At You, Kid” etched into the mirror, it was great stuff. After dinner with Bill, et al, at the Boat House up the road, we settled in to the hot tub INSIDE the caboose and watched THE movie. Breakfast next morning was excellent. Ham and asparagus and cheese crepes with banana/Nutella dessert crepes. Yum. 

The original plan was to head home, but we figured “why push it?” From Nice, we hopped over to Hopland over CA 175. WHAT A ROAD! I understand The Melee (NoCal’s version of the Iron Bottom) uses this road. It’s spec-freakin-tacular! Winding through solid oak covered hills, it tops out with a great view of Clearlake, then down to the 101 in Hopland. From there is was down south, skirting Frisco on the freeways, then to Paso Robles for the Night. Dinner at Pappy McGregor’s of course, then home. 

So, some well remembered roads and sights, some new discoveries. That’s what Road Trippin’ is all about. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

So, What Did We Learn?

Road Trippin’
with Steve McCarthy

I’m about 2/3 done with the book I’ve been plugging away on, chronicling our Grand Tour, and all the pearls of wisdom I want to impart to others, and have begun to ponder: “What Lessons Did We Learn?” How did we change? What did we take away from this Adventure?”

The easiest, and most important one to highlight, I’ve already discussed in an earlier missive: :The Kindness of Strangers.” Scroll down to the post from 7 September. Without the Kindness of Strangers, we’d have been in real trouble. Serious trouble. Hopes Dashed Trouble. But, because of a few people who went out of their way to help, in small ways such as a kind gesture or comment, to large ways, like letting us keep the Blue Meanie in a garage and taking over the details, we were able to continue our journey and all the enjoyable moments that followed.

And it wasn’t just about that incident. It was everywhere we went. People who’d patiently explain how to use the train station turnstiles, people who’d give directions, people who’d have a chat in a village pub. It’s amazing that, amidst all the trouble and strife, people will so often do the right thing. 

Think about that, next time you come upon someone in need. All you have to do is be kind. It’s not really that hard, takes no real time from your oh-so-important tasks, and it’s free. 

We also learned to slow down, to stop and see the sights. To not be so focussed on the destination. Or, perhaps, to re-learn that lesson. It’s all too easy to obsess about the end of the journey and not the trip itself. It’s the trip that’s important, it’s the things along the way that tickle your fancy. That’s what Road Trippin’ is. It’s a state of mind. Hell, think about it, Life is a journey, how fast do you REALLY want to reach the end? 

Another vital lesson was Adaptability. Go With The Flow. When traveling, it may be the single most important consideration. YOU have to adapt to the way the locals do things. They aren’t about to change for you. Why should they? Sometimes, it’s frustrating. Miserably so. Sometimes, you’re forced to take a single track road as a diversion with lorries and coaches and a sixty mile per hour speed limit and it scares the hell out of you. Sometimes you learn that “scampi” isn’t what it means here, and that mayonnaise (yuck!) is an over used condiment. Adapt. And take that home with you, so when you meet a stranger, you can help them adapt, meet them half way. 

We also got more together time than we’ve ever had in 36 years of marriage. All our vacation trips have involved the kids and family. Here, on the cusp of retirement, we got to know each other again. Learned that we can, still stand each other, 24/7. We’re still each other’s best friends. That’s important. REALLY important. We learned that we can still rely on each other in a crisis, that we can adapt together, that we can enjoy being with each other. Good thing, that. We'll spend the rest of our lives doing just that. 

Travel, they say, is broadening. “They” for once are correct. It widens one’s horizons, exposes one to new ideas, new methods, and forces one to consider broader perspectives. Road Trippin’ (as we’ve defined it for so many years now) multiplies that ten fold. Taking a prepackaged tour has a way of insulating one from the rigors of life, from the people through whose area you’re traveling. You sit in a big, air conditioned bus like a moveable fish bowl, looking through tinted windows, separate from the reality outside. Your only contacts with locals are carefully arranged, major dealings are taken care of. 

Go ahead, take up the challenge. Travel on your own, break the comfortable bonds of familiarity. Stop at the funky diners and road side attractions. Stay in the small, out of the way places. Road Trip. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Dingle, Blarney, and Beyond

Road Trippin’
with Steve McCarthy

Well, having dangled in Dingle and getting freaked out by a patch on the wall, we headed back to Dublin. But not without a few adventures along the way. 

First, I got so caught up about connecting with my late brother’s spirit, that I didn’t say much about the Dingle Peninsula. It’s a remarkable place. Yes, we finally got seriously rained on (and frankly were kinda glad for a car with a roof and heater) but it was everything we’d  been told. Far less traffic than the Ring of Kerry, and pretty much, no tour buses. Dingle is home to some of the greatest coastline in Ireland, and some great early Christian sites. 

There are some of the best preserved “bee hive huts” (actually dating from pre-Christian times, but a design copied for millennia), a neolithic fort at Dunbeg, a High Cross at Slea Head, for us, the most powerful sight, the Gallarus Oratory. This last is a small church, of indeterminate age (somewhere between 600 and 1200) and its simplicity is a vivid counterpoint to the massive monasteries of Clonmel and Cashel. It’s simple, one room, mortarless, almost pyramidal stone building. One door, one window. The stones are such a precise fit that the interior is dry as a bone. THIS is a church for a simple Carpenter. 

From Dingle, we headed to Kinsale, and like our last trip to Ireland, found it too crowded to find parking to look about. It appears to be a great town, we just didn’t have the time to spend. After that, we headed to Blarney for a return visit. Early in this trip, we took the family to see “our” castle and kiss the Stone. We decided to stay at the Blarney Woolen Mills hotel. VERY nice place, and a bargain on! We poked about the shops, got some great deals on jewelry for Marianne and had a pleasant dinner in the hotel’s restaurant. Next morning, it was up and off on the rocky road to Dublin.

Because our original plan was to then turn the TR in to the shipper and enjoy a couple of days in Dublin, we’d booked the Holiday Inn Express near the airport. WHAT A MISTAKE! This was THE worst place of the trip. First, while I was having to PAY to park, Marianne ran in to answer the call of nature that had been yelling at here for the past half hour. At the desk, she was directed to THE OTHER HOTEL NEXT DOOR for a rest room! Later, I spotted one 20 feet away in our hotel’s lobby! NEXT, having booked for THREE days, we were told, with no apologies, that they had us down for only TWO days. And of course, they had no other rooms. The place was about as amenity free as the worst Hotel 6 in the states, just more expensive. The bed was terrible, and the halls had THE ugliest carpet we’d ever seen.  We did manage to find a very good Italian restaurant around the corner, the Little Venice. Veery nice place, great food. Sadly, no local pub anywhere near, so we settled for the hotel bar. BORING. 

We did manage to repack everything and sort some stuff for shipping home so we’d be under the 50 pound weight limit per bag (get yourself a hand held luggage scale. Invaluable) and found a place for our last night in Ireland. 

But First: One more side trip. We headed to the North and the Giant’s Causeway. We had this on the original itinerary, but had to give it a miss because the early problems with the TR delayed us. So, we figured, why not? We left at O’Dark-Thirty, making sure on checkout to register our displeasure at the substandard stay in this corporate dump, and headed out towards Belfast. Now, here’s a tip. Gas up in the Republic. Fuel is far cheaper than in Northern Ireland! 

We kept to the motorway, needing to make time. It would be almost a 400 mile day. At home, that’s a full day’s drive. In Ireland, it’s an epic trek! Three hours later, we were in Bushmills, home of the oldest legal distillery in Ireland, and gateway to the Causeway. Evidence of solid Unionist sentiment was all around us, so I had to make sure to keep my trap shut about politics. Never a bad idea really! 

We got to the Giant’s Causeway, and all I can say is WOW! This is one of the world’s greatest stretches of coastline. It’s a basaltic rock formation of hexagonal columns that march out to sea and eventual erosion. The formation stretches along miles of coastline. There is an excellent visitors’ centre and it’s a short hike to the sea from there. Try to get there before too many tour buses! The Selfie-Stick Wielding Morons were out in force, worse than Stonehenge. ugh. 

So, why is it called the Giant’s Causeway? There is a similar formation in Scotland, and the legend is that the Irish giant and hero, Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool) was challenged to battle by the Scottish giant, Benandonner.  who built this bridge from Scotland to Ireland. There are various iterations of the story, one is that Finn kicked Ben’s butt and sent him home, ripping up the causeway. Another is that Fionn dressed like a baby and had his wife carry him out to meet Benandonner. When the Scots giant saw the size of the “baby”, he panicked, worried about how big a full grown Irishman would be, ran back to Scotland, ripping up the causeway behind him. So, brute strength or guile? Which wins the day? 

The area also has other attractions. One is a steam tourist railway that will take you along the coast. It’s a three foot narrow gauge train that’s a lot of fun. (See the appendix for details). The other, of course, it the Old Bushmills Distillery. It’s the oldest licensed distillery in all of Ireland. While, personally, not my favorite whiskey (note the “e” in whiskey, only Scotch is spelled “whisky”) the tour and the cafe are worth the visit. 

The town of Bushmills is a great example of a small town that dates from the early Protestant Plantations that began in the time of Elizabeth I. The farms in the area are neat, clean and tidy, as opposed to the crazy quilt, random stonewall farms of Catholic Ireland. 

The drive back is along the coast and is spectacular. Stunning cliffs, small fishing villages, infinite vistas, and a great winding road. What’s not to love. In addition, for the Not-Faint-Of-Heart is the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. Check it out. We were not that daring, but, if a 70’ long rope bridge that’s 100’ above the jagged rocks is your thing...

After a good lunch at the Distillery, we headed back for our last night. Naturally, we didn’t take the direct route. The coastal road rivals the better known roads in Donegal, Clare, and Kerry. One of THE best drives in the world. Finally, sated with scenery, we headed back to one last splurge, the Johnstown Hotel and Spa, a few miles outside of Dublin.

This was at one time a manor house that has been added to with all the modern amenities. The lobby   (complete with original furniture and facade are all that remain. The bar is excellent and I’d recommend it over the fancy restaurant. Our steaks were over cooked and the meal was a bit bland. In the bar, we had dessert (chocolate Guinness/whiskey mousse) and it was excellent. The room was palatial and comfortable. Overall, a fine end to this once in a life time trip. 

The next morning, it was up early, head to the airport, drop off the rental and lounge in the Gold Circle Aer Lingus lounge. It was well worth the extra seventy bucks. On the way to the customs (and the cool thing about Ireland, US Customs has a facility there. You get prescreened, so when you get home, you just pick up your bags and head to your waiting limo! After a 14 hour flight, it’s heaven) we stopped in the duty free area. Now, I’d THOUGHT I’d been good and used up all but about 15 Euros of that funny money, and only a couple of British pounds. I checked my security wallet and DAMN if there wasn’t 100 Euros stashed in there! So, a bottle of Connemara 22 year old peated single malt later, I managed to divest myself of that unwanted cash. Aw, what a pity. 

The flight home was the usual. As was the drive from LAX. We slept for a week, getting back to the sad normality. sigh. 

So, was it all worth it? Hell Yes. In Spades. In Hearts, Diamonds, and Clubs. Even the couple of jokers we were dealt didn’t spoil it really. “Don’t be sad it’s over, be happy it happened”-Dr. Seuss. Now, when can we go back? 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Dangling in Dingle

Road Trippin’
with Steve McCarthy

As the New Year approaches (and what a year it’s been), I need to get on with our tale of our Epic Road Trip. Lessee, I left off in Doolin, drinkin’ pints and listening to the best Irish music of the trip, if not a lifetime at McGann’s. 

Part of the Plan was to take a day to see at least one of the Aran Isles. The first thing we did after settling into our digs was to visit the local Tourist Board (Bord Failte) and see about tickets. “Nope, no tickets for the next day, sea’s too rough, try tomorrow.” And we did. Sure enough, we could book tickets for Inish Oirr and a cruise past the Cliffs of Moher. Perfect. So, after another grand night in McGanns, including dinner this time, and the now familiar stagger home in the dark, we were up early to get to the ferry port. 

It had rained that night, but the weather was looking decent. Or as decent it gets in the West of Ireland. The sea looked a bit choppy, and there was a good wind, but the brilliant rainbow that led probably to the pot of gold we’d already spent was a good omen. 

We lined up along the quay (pronounced, key) and boarded the tiny ferry. Going out, it was a good “D Ticket Ride” but not horrible. A short 20 minutes later, we landed on Inish Oirr and were greeted by a good dozen horse carts with old guys offering tours. Ten Euros each. Sure, why not. Help the local economy. We climbed in along with four Swedish ladies and off we went. Seamus, our guide, pointed out the usual stuff as we bumped along between rock walls that divided the landscape into a crazy quilt of small plots of land. Each had been laboriously made cultivatable by decades of bringing crushed rock and seaweed to form a kind of mulch. Talk about a hard life! The stone cottages dotted the landscape and the ruins of a castle loomed over all. 

We trotted up to The Sight on Inish Oirr, the shipwreck of the MS Plassy, washed onto the rocks in 1960 and left to rust. It’s a testament to the unforgiving nature of the Sea. It’s also used in the opening credits of “Father Ted”, the outrageously irreverent TV comedy. It island has other attractions as well. Ancient monastic sites, stone walls, an early Christian church, stone walls, limestone formations, and yes, you guessed it, stone walls.  See for more details. 

There is also a great pub with good food. We grabbed the last two pasties and a pint of local beer and enjoyed the view of the increasingly hostile Atlantic. Yeah. 

Our ferry back was to leave at 2PM, so we hung around the quay, just enjoying the laid back life of the island. Finally, our boat pulled in, and as we got on board, we were told “No trip to the Cliffs of Moher, too rough.” That should have been a warning! 

The weather really started getting rough, our tiny ship was tossed...The trip back was beyond an E Ticket Ride. I’d put it somewhere around an M Ticket. As in MOTHER #*&$@%! I have NEVER been in seas so rough. Some rogue waves launched us into what felt like a 90 degree plunge. I had to hang onto the seat, brace my legs and keep both Mari and me from sliding onto the seat across the aisle! Nobody tossed lunch, but a few were a bit green around the gills. By the time we got back, the pouring rain was blowing sideways in a wind strong enough to push us along. We got a refund voucher for the lost Cliffs of Moher part, headed back to town to cash in, and back to our rooms to warm up. It was GREAT! That night, it was back to McGanns for one last meal, a few pints, and more great music. 

By the way, I don’t think I mentioned how really small Doolin is. We had to drive eight miles to Lahinch to find the nearest ATM, and cell phone service was mostly non-existent. Same with the WiFi! The struggles of the modern world. 
The next morning, we were off, headed along the Wild Atlantic Way. What a drive. Tiny villages, soaring cliffs, pounding seas. Everything you’d expect to see in the West. Just past Kilrush, we jumped on a ferry across the Shannon River, avoiding the traffic and dirty poetry of Limerick, then back to the coast for more spectacular scenery. 

Now, our original plan was to see the Ring of Kerry. One of Ireland’s top tourist attractions. Several people warned us off, saying it was crowded with buses and not as great as the Dingle Peninsula. Besides, to get to Dingle, there’s one of The Great Driving Roads Ever, the infamous Conner Pass. 

Just before the village of Camp, just past Derryquay and Derrymore, you bear right off the N86 and take the R560 towards Aughacastla. There are signs saying the trucks and buses are NOT allowed. The road has “GO MALL” painted on the surface. GO SLOW! It’s a narrow two lane drive with some of the best views in all of Ireland. It’s rugged, rock strewn, and about halfway up, there’s a great turnout near a waterfall that has an incredible view. We stopped and ate the last of our Cheddar Cheese, some salami, and bread and enjoyed the view. What there was of it. It was, of course, raining. 

From this point on up, the sign on this really narrow road said “Road Narrows Ahead.”  Yep, single track. Like in Scotland. By now, I was a hardened veteran of one lane twisty roads, and generally people headed downhill would yield to the uphill traffic. At the top, you can see both sides of the Dingle Peninsula. If it’s not raining. Down we headed into town, and after a bit, found the Dingle Harbour Lodge, the place we’d booked for the night. Less of a B&B, more of a hotel, it was comfortable and the breakfast was good. Once we’d dried out and warmed up, it was off to find dinner. In Dingle, there are a lot of options, but we’d been told by Larry Wade, a fellow Road Tripper and E-Type driver that “Out of the Blue” was a must. 

Out of the Blue is a seafood restaurant that serves whatever is fresh off the fishing boats that day. If the catch isn’t too their liking, they don’t open! And they have a huge sign, “NO CHIPS!” The didn’t open until five, so we shopped a bit, finding some great stuff for us and family, then about quarter of, we dropped off our goods and headed to the restaurant. 

It wasn’t yet five, but we saw a couple go in, so we followed. “Have you a reservation?” “No.” “Oh, sorry, we’re booked.” ARRRGH! The other couple were in the same boat. Disappointment loomed. I looked at the other man, and said “Share a table?” He liked the idea and we asked. Seems a table for four was easier to seat, and it was early so...

The other couple were from Idaho, very pleasant, and we ate the second best meal of our trip. This fish was amazing. The “menu” was a chalk board. We got a starter, main, and dessert. It was fish that we’d never had and it was wonderful. So, St. Serendipity was still with us. We didn’t know just HOW with us he was until later. 

Dingle is also known as a music town. Almost every pub has live traditional music and pub crawling is highly recommended. The first place we hit was John Benny’s. No, not Jack, John. There we were, sitting near the bar, enjoying a pint. The place is one of the (sadly to us) renovated pubs, made cleaner and “nicer” for the tourists. On the wall were an assortment of shoulder patches from a variety of American police departments. You see a lot of this around Ireland. Most are east coast, attesting to the reality of the stereotype of the Irish Cop from 1930s movies. One however, caught my eye. “Pasadena Fire/Paramedic.” Wow. Pasadena? 

From here, it gets weird. REALLY WEIRD. See, my brother Scott was a Pasadena Paramedic. He died about fifteen years ago. OK, you say, so? Well, he got married about 1985 or so, and they honeymooned in Ireland. That’s when I got to thinking. I showed Marianne the patch and she was just as stunned. Naw, couldn’t be. I found a waitress who was a bit older and asked if she knew how long the patches had been there. She’d only been there ten years, so, sorry. I told her why I was interested. She was intrigued. The owner, however, had taken over the place only 15 years previously, but wasn’t in. sigh. 

The more I thought about it, the more convinced I was. After all, how many Pasadena Fire/Paramedics would ever visit Dingle? Only one way to find out. It was about 10AM back home, so we sent a text to my mom and to my sister, adding a photo we took with the phone (ain’t technology wunnerful?). And waited. After another pint, we got a text back. THEY WERE BOTH FREAKED OUT! My sister was in fact, driving my mom somewhere. They had to pull over to the side of the road. YES, Scott and his bride had indeed spent a few days in Dingle. It HAD to be his patch! After all our trials and tribulations, we took it as a sign that, yes indeed, the trip was worth it. We’d paid a steep emotional price, what with the Triumph hors de combat, the missed connections, the having to adapt, keep calm, and carry on. Besides all the great things we’d seen, the wonderful people we’d met, this seemed to be the real reason for our trip. 
Thanks Scott. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Back to Ireland-The Last Lap

Road Trippin’
with Steve McCarthy

We schlepped our bags from the ferry in Dublin, hailed a cab to the airport and picked up our new rental car. Remember, we had to drop the UK registered car in Holyhead or incur a £1000 charge! What a racket!. We made a mistake and opted for a nicer, larger car. From our experiences in Scotland, we should have known better. The Opel was more comfy, but proved to be a liability at times. Here’s a tip, always rent something small.
Anyway, we headed west, not sure where we’d stop, figuring we’d let St. Serendipity guide us. It was getting on to the later afternoon, and we just asked Sean the Less-Than-Reliable for a place to stay. He sent us to Mullingar and the Mullingar Park Hotel. Looked a bit fancy, but we were tired. turned out well. Not only a room for under €100, but the bar had the last minutes of the Dublin/Mayo Gaelic Football match for the All-Ireland Championship! Mayo hadn’t won since about 1951, so most of Ireland was rooting for them. Dublin dropped back into a “prevent defense” and prevented themselves from winning, giving up the tying point in the closing seconds! Match ended in a tie with a replay match (no sudden death here!) in two weeks time. Sadly, we found out when we got back that Mayo didn’t have the luck of the Cubbies and lost.
St. Serendipity didn’t let us down for dinner. There’s a Chinese restaurant in the hotel complex that was FANTASTIC! Place is called “Mr. Wong” and had some of the best Chinese we’ve ever had. Got to compliment Mr. Wong himself. Remember, we live in SoCal. Some of the best Chinese food in the world is here. We told him this and that his was as good as the best!

The next day, the good saint led us to another great find. Marianne loves checking out the binder most hotels have in every room about local stuff. In it, she found Fore Abbey as a recommended stop. So, off we went. Great ruin of an old abbey and pair of small churches. We got there early, so had the place to ourselves. Not only a neat ruin, but there’s a Sacred Well there too. Very peaceful place. We also cruised through Longford. My great-great-great grandfather emigrated to the US from there, escaping the horrors of the Great Hunger. His pregnant wife died in childbirth on the way.

From there, we were off to Clonmacnoise, a much larger monastic site, filled with tourists, but the view of the gently flowing Shannon River made it well worth the side trip. Both of these are well off the beaten track and required some deft driving on the narrow lanes.
After Clonmacnoise, it was getting towards lunch and since the cafe at the abbey was full of tourists, we headed out. In Shannon Bridge, we found a great old pub/market called Killeen’s. A real local. Old guys in a booth solving the problems of the world, good food, good beer. Nothing better!

We then hit Cong. found us a B&B called the Dolman, just out of town, and after dropping off our bags, we headed in for a dose of serious tourism. Cong is where John Ford filmed “The Quiet Man,” one of our favorite movies. They play up the connection of course. We got there a bit late, but one shop was open so we loaded up on the usual stuff: fridge magnet, calendar, t-shirt. Marianne was jazzed!
We toured through the abbey there, then went for dinner Lydon’s Lodge. In Cong, each pub takes it in turn to host the evening’s music, and this was the place. It was there we hit on an idea that would help us for the rest of the trip.
We were seated at a table for four and about to order when in comes a couple looking for a table for two. Nothing available. They’d have to wait quite awhile for a seat. I chimed in, offering to share our table with them. Very nice couple from Belfast on holiday. We chatted away at dinner, steering clear of politics and religion and had a great time. I HIGHLY recommend this as a practice! It’s VERY un-American, but so much fun, and in fact, stood us in good stead for several more meals down the way.
The next morning, the compliments of our hostess at the B&B ringing in our ears (“I wish all my guests were as easy to please as you two!”) we were off for some more sights and the town of Doolin.
First up was The Burren. This part of the west coast of Ireland is amazing. It’s a large, no, make the HUGE limestone dome that covers several square miles. From afar, it looks bleak, desolate, and barren. It’s not. The stoney ground is carved like jigsaw puzzle pieces and the gaps are filled with small wild flowers. Cattle and sheep graze (watch out, this is open range country!), and there is a remarkable feel to the place. There are two places that are “must see”.
First is the Ailwee Cave. Now, neither of us are much for spelunking, but this was pretty cool. The cave was discovered in the 1940s by a local farmer who’d lost his dog. McFido had wandered into the cave and the man, Jack McGann, followed. What he found was astounding. Even more astounding was that he never told anyone about it for some 30 years. In the 70s, the cave was further explored and was developed into a tourist site. It goes back some 3/4 of a mile into the hillside, has remains of giant bear, stalactites and stalagmites, deep caverns, and when they turn out the lights, total, complete, darkness. Impressive to say the least. In addition, they have a Birds of Prey exhibit that is worth the extra euros. Some of the oddest birds form all over, on display and put through their places. Admission also helps bird preservation in Ireland.
Next stop was the Poulnabrone Dolmen. Another spectacular site, well off the beaten path, but a must see. It stands lonely in the midst of the  barren Burren and, as all of these are, older than the Pyramids of Egypt! Great limestone slabs support a limestone top that must have taken a couple of barrels of Guinness and three Irishmen several hours to erect.
Our stop for the next three nights was to be the fishing village of Doolin. This became one of the top highlights of our trip. In fact, when we go back to Ireland, I think we’ll just stay there for a week or two and do side trips. What a great village. We found lodgings at The Lodge, a good sized, newer place. Up THREE flights of stairs, we had an entire suite to ourselves, complete with kitchen. The staff were great, the breakfast good, and the laundry service reasonable.
It’s also an easy walk into town. One of the things we wanted to do was take the ferry to the Aran Islands. We found the tourist shop where tickets were sold, wanting to head over there in the morning. The lady there said to check back the next morning, as the weather was looking bad, and they might not be running. Sure enough, the next day, no chance. Try tomorrow. sigh.
No real problem though, we headed for the Cliffs of Moher, one of the other places we wanted to see in the West. WOW! We got there ahead of most of the tour buses (highly recommended to time things this way) and it was windy and drizzly, and still spectacular. There’s a good reason the Cliffs are such an attraction.
That night, we had dinner at Fitzpatrick’s Bar. Great mussels in a huge pot, great bread, and of course, Guinness. From there we walked down to McGann’s Pub. This was THE discovery of the trip. Our friends from back in our racing days, John and Martha Gianelli (she’s the Irish one in that family) strongly recommended McGann’s Pub. Boy, were they right!
We got there and the place was jumping. Squeezed up to the bar for pints, then stood around, amazed by the music. Best craic of the trip. There was an uillean piper that was one of the best I’d ever heard. Found out later that the man on flute was Donal Lunney, one of the giants of Irish music! The place was rockin’! And as the infomercial says, “But Wait, There’s MORE!”
We went back the next night, early to get dinner (which was great) and got seated towards the back by the woman who seemed to run the place. She could tell we weren’t too happy about being away from the music and, after I mentioned that I was a piper myself, asked if we’d mind sharing a table. “Of course not!” She hustled us up to the table next to the musicians, plunked us down, smiling all the while.
About 9:00, she starts setting up mics and such, in comes a young woman with a harp and an older gentleman with a banjo. They play and our hostess sings. Seems she’s none other than Geraldine McGowan, former lead singer for the Irish band “Oisin” and someone we’d listened to for years! She’s the real deal. Photos of her on the internet with the likes of Sting and Pavarotti no less! By our third night there, we’d been adopted. Geraldine is one of the nicest, sweetest people we’d met in a nation of nice, sweet people. As she was singing, she’d look our way and give us an inquiring thumbs up, which we’d enthusiastically return. Ireland is an amazing place.
The only small fly in the ointment was the stagger back to the hotel. Only a half mile, but in places, dark as the inside of a cow. Marianne was not too happy about it, but using the light on her cell phone as a marker for traffic (all two cars of it) got us safely back. It was good of her to brave it.
So, I’ll leave you all here for now. Next time, the trip to Inish Oirr, the Conor Pass, and Dangling in Dingle.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Dartmoor to Wales-Be Seeing You!

Road Trippin’ 
Steve McCarthy

So, where were we? Ah, yes, leaving Guy and Eunice in Cornwall and setting out for Wales. So much to see! 

Our immediate goal was the Great Dartmoor. The looming landscape of so many Gothic novels, including, of course, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes’ greatest adventure. We did it in daylight, but the brooding landscape, dotted with free range sheep, cattle, and horses; the patches of bog, the fields of gorse and heather; what’s not to love! 

We took the B3212 through the centre of the park, and what a wondrous route it is! Plenty of open road, some tight twisties, lovely inns that are centuries old. Spectacular! 

From there, we skirted Exeter, then jumped on the M5 and exited for the Cheddar Gorge and lunch. Cheese, of course! There is one, and, sadly, only one cheddar cheese maker in Cheddar. It makes me sadly shudder at the lack of cheddar. I know, that’s a gouda one. 

This is a marvelous little village at the mouth of one of the most spectacular rock formations in the Isles. We bought a couple of wedges of cheese, one a super aged cheddar, the other, a smokey cheddar. Then, lunch across the street. All the sign says is Good Food, Real Ales. We took them at their word and weren’t disappointed. I had the ploughman’s lunch with TWO huge hunks of cheese, enough to eat half and save the rest for future lunches. We snacked on that cheese for a week! 

One of the interesting, and, well, a bit freaky bits of info we learned was about the mummified remains of a neolithic hunter/gatherer, dubbed “Cheddar Man”. His remains were found in one of the caves that riddle the gorge, and a few years ago, someone got the idea to do some DNA testing on him and the living locals. Shockingly, some 20% of the local population are direct descendants from this guy who lived some 3000 years ago! 

After lunch a a walk through some shops, we headed through the gorge itself. Amazing! Spectacular. It’s not a long drive, but well worth it. Out the top, we headed to Wales. Using good old, we found a B&B in Chepstow, Wales, just across the Severn River. The First Hurdle is a nice place, but we were only there to rest our heads. For dinner, we opted for the Beaufort Hotel. Very nice and reasonable, it’s an old school hotel/bar/restaurant that is clearly the gathering spot for the local Old Farts’ Club. Large Welshmen with booming voices. Well, I’ve heard they do some singing in Wales, so I wasn’t surprised. all in all, a nice place. 

Early in the morning, before breakfast was served, we were on the road, first to Tintern and the abbey ruins made famous by William Wordsworth, the great romantic poet. Pretty far afield from his native Lake District, but it was easy to see why the man who practically invented Romantic Poetry, all filled with a love of nature and a 180 degree turn from the cold hard logic of the Enlightenment, would love the place. 

Again, timing is key. We got there just as the sun was struggling to rise over the gorge of the Wye River (and yes, there is an Abbot and Costello routine in all of this) we had the place to ourselves. No tour buses, no chattering selfie-stickers, nobody. The sun lit up the ancient walls with a golden glow, and there I go, waxing poetic. It’s an easy place to have that happen. 

We chatted a bit with the shopkeeper in the only place open (the Welsh accent is both the loveliest and most difficult to understand), bought some stuff, including the obligatory Welsh Love Spoon. These are a great art form, hand carved from one block of wood, they have interlocking chains, hearts, flowers, etc, each having a meaning. 

From there, we headed through the Brecon Beacons National Park (more great roads and scenery) along the A479/A470 to Tywyn on the coast. Don’t ask me how to pronounce it. Welsh is indecipherable to all but the native born speaker. 

Tywyn is neat because it has the oldest steam tourist railway in Britain, if not the world, and served as inspiration for Thomas the Tank! It’s a delicate little two foot gauge railway that once served the slate mines nearby. The equipment almost looks more like an overgrown garden rail road. The Live Steamers in Griffith Park in LA are almost as big! Mind you, I’m not disparaging it at all. But to an American, used to massive 4-8-4’s and Big Boys, well...Lunch in their cafe was good, and we left in plenty of time to make it to one of The Highlights of the entire Trip, Portmierion, AKA, The Village. 

Now, you’d have to be a fan of the late 60s TV series, The Prisoner to get any of this, but catch a few episodes on youtube and you’ll see why it is quintessential 60s Down With The Man drama. It was all filmed in this odd little resort on the Welsh coast, called Portmeirion. Built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, beginning in 1925, it’s a tribute to idyllic Italian fishing villages. What can I say, it’s what the Madonna Inn wishes it was! Every nook and cranny has something in it, every arch reveals a ready made photo opportunity, it’s spectacular! 

We splurged on this. Our room was in the Cliff House at the top of the Village. The view into the estuary of the  Afon Dwynyd was incredible. There was also a full carafe of complimentary sherry. Walking about, we headed down the hill to the hotel itself, made reservations for dinner and strolled about. Naturally, we hit the #6 Shop (you need to see the TV show, suffice it to say, #6 was the main character-”I’m not a number, I’m a Free Man!) and bought T-shirts, buttons and stuff. 

Dinner was a show in and of itself! We opted for the Tasting Menu. PreStarter (Salmon Sushi); Crispy Duck Egg with black truffle soldiers; Local lobster, heritage tomatoes, iced lobster thermidor, and basil; Loin of Welsh lamb with pine nut crust, quinoa, ratatouille vegetables, torched aubergine and olive tapenade; Sea Buckthorn sorbet with champagne and yogurt; and finally, Chocolate and passion fruit tart with coconut ice cream. And to cap things off, a spectacular full moon rising over the river and a couple celebrating their 40th anniversary with a fireworks show!!! And did I mention that the dessert was a FLAMING one? 

The morning saw us off to Holyhead and the ferry back to Dublin. We said good bye to the trusty rental, and just a bit hungover, took the good ship Jonathan Swift back to Ireland, and more adventures.