A Cheapskate’s Guide to Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman

.001 Miles of Grand Cayman's Seven Mile Beach
.001 Miles of Grand Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach

A decade an a half of working in the travel industry has taught me several universal truths about those who travel:

  1.  Some people are better off staying at home
  2.  The world would be a better place if they did
  3.  No matter what your income, race, nationality or net worth, there will always be a sizeable percentage of cheapskates who will traverse heaven and earth at great sacrifice to their comfort and enjoyment, just to save a few bucks

This is in no way a backhanded reprimand to budget travelers. I myself – mostly due to necessity – have conducted most of my travels on a very limited, if not microscopic budget. However, I always ponied up when it come to what really counts. Instead of splurging on a lavish four course dinner in a fancy restaurant, I’d invest in a hotel that was more than just basic. Instead of blindly taking taxis everywhere, I opt for less expensive public transport, or even walking. I don’t consider that being a cheapskate, but rather a balanced use limited funds.

Such thriftiness can often be misunderstood. As a case in point, when docked at the gorgeous island of Moorea in French Polynesia, I wanted to take a hike to a lookout point with stunning views of both Cook’s and Opunohu Bays. After consulting with a local, he told me it was a simple walk, “maybe 5 kilometers“. Calculating that this is just over 3 miles, and having the whole day at our disposal, I figured we’d walk it for the sake of soaking in the scenery. Turns out that with the stifling heat and steep incline, the only thing I was soaking in was my own sweat –  this despite a 2 km break when a local woman in a pickup offered us a partial ride for my one and only hitchhiking experience. As we neared the top, I was both out of breath and very overheated. While resting on a rock I saw my wife approach, imagining that she would have pity on the pathetic looking man that she married as he gasped for air and tried to stay conscious despite the unrelenting heat. Instead, she sat calmly sat down next to me, looked me in the eye and said, “Let me just kill you now, you big cheap-o.”

So I know what it means to be falsely accused of being a cheapskate, even if your intentions are good. However, for those who have the means – or even way more than just the means – and still quibble over every nickel as if they’re about to go bankrupt, in my book that’s the threshold for crossing from ‘being thrifty’ into a full-blown cheapskate.

On the island of Grand Cayman, home to gorgeous resorts and pricey shore excursions aplenty, there is an option for both deliberate and accidental cheapskates alike located on its famed Seven Mile Beach. I’ll now tell you what it is, how to get there, and why it’s worth it even if it requires surgery to separate small coins from your tightly-clenched fists.

Going Public

Grand Cayman
The Armada of cruise ships as seen from Seven Mile Beach

Just a few miles and a few minutes drive north from the capital of Georgetown, there is a small public park – I can’t even seem to find a name for it. As far as parks go, this one isn’t very special. What IS special is its access to the stunning white sand and turquoise water that Seven Mile Beach is known for. If you’re visiting Grand Cayman via a cruise ship, and all you want to do is spend some time at the beach, this is your least expensive option, since the price is currently set as FREE.

Getting There

With a constant flotilla of cruise ships anchored offshore, there are an equal number of cab and van drivers ready to meet the throngs of tourists disembarking from their tenders. I recommend that you tell the driver you’d like to go to the public beach, negotiate a price and return time, and then enjoy your time in the sun. Larger groups can get a better price, and I believe we paid $3 each for a van full of people. If you’re a cheapskate, bite the bullet and take the ride – you’ll be glad that you did.

Making the Most of Your Investment

Seven Mile Beach
Sea that’s Free

Now that you’ve parted with your hard-earned cash to the tune of $3-$5, you will likely see a virtual carpet of cruise ship tourists baking in the sun in rosy shades of pink. You could stay under the palm trees or lay yourself down on any sliver of available sand and be just fine, or you can take the opportunity to move further down the beach where the crowds thin out a bit. While fancy resorts line the shore, you will still have access to the beach, as I did when doing a bit of exploring. However with this particular stretch of beach, the sand and water are mostly the same wherever you set yourself down, so lay out your towel, slap on some lotion and soak in the sublime water that brings people to this Caribbean island in the first place.

Suggestions if You’re Not Too Cheap

If you’re prepared to surpass the $5 budget threshold and splurge on some activities, there are two I highly recommend. Stingray City, while completely touristy and even cliché, is a great opportunity to interact with its namesake stingrays, or as I call them “the puppies of the sea” (the Crocodile Hunter notwithstanding). These friendly creatures are a marvel to behold up close, and I think that any activity that dispels ignorance has its merits.

The second recommendation is for certified scuba divers. Grand Cayman boast some amazing underwater scenery, both in terms of reefs and wrecks. I can still remember descending on what was my first dive in the Caribbean and just marveling at the amount of sea life, the vibrant reefs, and the kind of visibility that left me feeling as if I was just sitting at the bottom of the coolest swimming pool ever.

So there you have it: a cheapskate-approved option for a day on Grand Cayman’s most gorgeous natural attraction that could very well be everything you ever wanted out of a visit to the island. If all you want to do on vacation is lie on a beach somewhere, this place is as good as any to do it – and it won’t even cost you much. Best of all, as you lie on the powder white sand and splash in the gentle aquamarine water among rich and poor alike, you can be sure that nobody will call you a “cheap-o”.

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A Really (& I Do Mean Really) General Introduction to the Seven Continents From Someone Who’s Been There

DSC00548 Giving travel advice is often like finding a file on your computer. Before you can find the appropriate document, you first have to find the general folder it would be filed under. That’s because travel – like many other things – falls under certain general categories. And in terms of geography, you can’t get any more general than the seven continents. So for the geographically challenged/curious, I’ve decided to provide a baseline of what each continent has to offer, the reasons to go, the downside of going, and the best way to do so.

North America

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View from Shoshone Point, Grand Canyon USA
I’ll start with North America because that’s where I start my own travels. This heading also includes the many island nations of the Caribbean, which while not on the North American mainland, still have to be filed somewhere.

Overview

North America has it all – from the frozen tundra of the Canadian Arctic, to the impressive Sierra Madre and Rocky Mountain ranges, to the endless prairies of the Central US, to the deserts of the US Southwest and Mexico and the steamy jungles of Central America – just about all geological features make an appearance. On the cultural side, it is a living history lesson of the results of colonialism and an amalgam of European and indigenous heritage.

Why go?

A better question would be why shouldn’t you go? If you love nature, the National Parks of the Western US and Canada are some of the world’s best. Plus the Grand Canyon and Paracutin – two of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World – are located here (well, technically three, since the Aurora Borealis doesn’t have a fixed location and the northern latitudes are prime viewing points). Cities like San Francisco, San Antonio and Quebec City bristle with character and charm, and New York City, the de facto capital of the world, is one of the most recognizable metropolises anywhere. And if all you want to do is relax, the beaches of Mexico and the Caribbean aren’t world famous for no reason.

The downside

Despite having a very developed infrastructure for the most part, there are a few downsides to traveling about the continent. Those coming from less affluent countries might find countries like the US and Canada expensive – especially in the cities – and even getting around the Caribbean by air can be pricey. Then there’s the relatively vast distances involved between sites of interest, which means you’re not going to see all that’s worth seeing in one trip. In Mexico and Central America there are security concerns that should be considered before setting off on your own.

How to see it

With excellent air connections from around the globe, you can fly into virtually any corner of the continent to begin your travels. In the US, taking a road trip is a traveler’s rite of passage, and will allow you to see various aspects of the country along the way. In Canada there’s the amazing rail journey from Quebec City to Vancouver if you have the time and money available. And the Caribbean is best visited by cruise ship for an excellent ‘sampling’ of what the region offers.

South America

Sugarloaf
A cable car ride to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain is a rite of passage and great place for city views in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Heading southward, the landmass of South America is almost as geologically varied as North America, but in a more compact space. It’s a wonderful blend of adventure and familiarity that has to be seen to be understood

Overview

This is a continent with much natural wealth – which is pretty much evenly distributed – even if there’s a great disparity when it comes to literal wealth. Most of the continent is Spanish speaking – with lots of indigenous languages – aside from Brazil, where its heritage as a Portuguese colony is preserved in its language and architecture. From historic towns to modern cities, South America is at the cusp of the Old World and the New. Add in such natural marvels as the majestic Andes Range and the Amazon rain forest, and you’ve got a mixture that is sure to draw all types of travelers.

Why go?

There are still many places where nature is relatively untouched – such as the Amazon basin and stunning alpine parks of Ecuador, Chile and Peru. The beaches of Brazil are every bit worth the hype, cities like Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro offer vibes (and in the case of the latter – views) unlike any others. And if that’s not enough, I’ve got two words for you: Machu Picchu

The downside

Compared to other parts of the world, the infrastructure is still in development. In practical terms that means long bus rides, bumpy roads and even seasons where certain destinations are inaccessible. The stark contrast between wealth and poverty is often in full display – especially in the large cities – and one should be wary of their surroundings and belongings. This shouldn’t stop you from going, but you should pay more than the usual attention.

How to see it

For the larger countries of Brazil, Chile and Argentina, air travel is the most effective way of transiting the long and undeveloped hinterlands between sites of interest. In the Andes, there are bus services that while long, do offer economical travel between cities in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. For cruisers, the Round the Horn itinerary from Valparaiso to Buenos Aires is a regular staple.

Europe

Amsterdam canal
Amsterdam Street Scene
For better or worse, much of the world’s history (and tragedy) originally sprang from the nations of Europe. Perhaps more than anywhere else on earth, there is a strong concentration of different cultures and language – most of which have left their mark even in places far, far from home – in a relatively small area.

Overview

Blessed with a mostly temperate climate and fertile, arable land, Europe boasts pleasant, if not idyllic landscapes of forests, rolling farmland, and beautiful rivers. Add to that the gorgeous mountain ranges of the Alps, Pyrenees and Apennines together with the majestic Norwegian Fjords, and there’s a wealth of natural beauty on display. Culturally speaking, there’s a smorgasborg of language, food and architecture unmatched anywhere else. As the home of many former seats of empire such as the Romans, Greeks, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch and British, it seems that nearly every city, town and hill is somehow historic.

Why go?

In my opinion, the best thing about traveling through Europe (with or without a backpack) is the proximity of so many unique and delightful cultures. For instance, if you flew into Switzerland – which is gorgeous in its own rite – you are just a few hours drive from such varied and worthy destinations as Bavarian Germany, the Italian Lake Region, Austria’s Wachau, the French Riviera and much more. Cities such as London, Paris, Venice and Rome are absolute must-sees, and for those looking for more laid-back vibes, it’s hard to beat the Irish/English/Scottish countryside or the beach destinations of Spain’s Costa del Sol, the Amalfi Coast or the Greek Islands. Plus, getting around by air, car or train is more dependable and accessible than anywhere else in Earth, with infrastructure that’s the world’s envy.

The downside

Compared to much of the world, Europe is a very expensive destination when it comes to lodging, transport, and if you’re in Scandinavia – eating. And while all those cultures make for a fascinating trip, the language barrier is heavily pronounced (pun intended) when hopping from country to country.

How to see it

There’s a wealth of options for the potential traveler to Europe. Renting a car is an effective option if you don’t mind selling one of your kidneys to pay for gas, as driving is on an excellent network of roads where people generally respect traffic laws – Naples notwithstanding. There are cheap flights between cities on budget carriers so long as you’re not carrying much baggage – be sure to read the fine print. And while not cheap, A Euro-rail pass will take you pretty much anywhere worth going, both comfortably and effectively. In addition, cruise ships ply the waters throughout the Mediterranean, Baltic and North Seas along with most major rivers such as the Rhine, Rhone and Danube if you’d like to do your sightseeing via watercraft.

Africa

Zimcon 1400
No filter needed on the Zambia side of Victoria Falls
Even with one of the planet’s fastest growing populations, Africa remains a byword for mystery and adventure. I can tell you that it’s all true. And while with a few exceptions people don’t come to Africa for the cities, there’s a mystique about Africa that continues to mesmerize all those who visit, and creates a powerful urge to return. For a place that has seen and continues to see more than its share of tragedy and injustice, its inhabitants remain some of the warmest and friendliest on Earth.

Overview

Africa can basically be categorized into the four points of the compass. North Africa boasts the ruins of ancient wonders such as Egypt and Carthage (Tunisia) along with the present-day Arab influence and architecture until it fades into the mighty Sahara. West Africa offers vibrant culture and the appalling history of the slave trade. East Africa is rightly famous for its vast Savannah, game parks and Mt. Kilimanjaro. And Southern Africa offers some of the continents best game-viewing opportunities to go along with the ultimate natural attraction – Victoria Falls.

Why go?

Africa is nature at its rawest, and often, most impressive. I can attest that seeing such majestic animas such as lions, hippos and elephants in the wild is a thrill unavailable on any other continent. This is the ultimate place for a safari. Then there are the sunsets, bejeweled by the dusty African soil, that to this day inspire those who witness it to stop, reflect, and have a drink. While certain cities such as Capetown and Johannesburg are currently hopping and ready for business, the real draw is the people and their humble lives in the villages of the interior. And while many wouldn’t think of Africa as a beach destination, the unspoiled coastline from Kenya to Mozambique – and island chains such as the Seychelles – are certainly capable of giving the Caribbean a run for their money.

The downside

Sub-Saharan Africa is still one of the world’s poorest regions, with all the crime and instability that comes along with it. Unfortunately, many areas are unsafe or politically unstable, which is a true shame in view of the beauty that is off-limits. Infrastructure too is sketchy at best, and getting around almost always fraught with delays. Surprising too are the costs involved, as procuring accommodations and services that are up to Western standards involves a rather hefty price tag. Unless you’re willing to do without many comforts, this is not the destination for someone on a budget.

How to see it

With the exception of South Africa, where you could comfortably and safely rent a car to visit the best attractions, it is usually worth booking an organized tour – whether private or with a group. This spares you the inevitable logistical headaches of moving around and dealing with often fickle officials and establishments, while generally giving you a good value. This goes doubly so when organizing a safari or a stay at a game reserve.

Asia

Hoi An
Time to party in Hoi An, Vietnam
As the largest landmass on the planet, it’s no surprise that Asia has the world’s largest population, with all the variant cultures, landscapes and history you would expect. In the Far East, modern cities have sprung up seemingly overnight, though a closer look will still show the traditional ‘bones’ of the historic sites where they are built. Asia’s worth seeing if only to witness it the way it is, before it completely rewrites itself.

Overview

Spreading across half the globe, Asia encompasses a wide array of geological features. From the deserts of the Middle East, to the jungles of Indochina, to the mighty Himalayas, Asia has it all. Culturally, heavy hitters like China and Japan boast centuries of history and culture, but so do smaller lands such as Thailand and Sri Lanka. Then there’s India – arguably one of the most fascinating places on Earth.

Why go?

Asia is where it’s happening. Cities like Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong are among the world’s best skylines, while up and coming destinations like Thailand and Vietnam offer a delicious blend of urban chaos and natural oases in close proximity. Natural beauty abounds in the interiors of China and Japan, the islands of the Philippines and Borneo, and the beaches of Thailand and Indonesia. Then there’s the Taj Mahal – the most beautiful structure on Earth.

The downside

Being so big, even with a year at your disposal, that’s not enough time to see all there is to see in Asia. Outside of more developed nations such as Korea, China and Japan, infrastructure can be rough at times, making land travel a less appealing option. Air and rail travel can be very crowded, as are many sites of interest, especially during national holidays. And don’t get me started about traffic in India . . .

How to see it

My advice is to pick a region and see things one section at a time. Depending on the country you’re in, you can get by comfortably on relatively little money. As a rule of thumb, the more modern the country, the easier for you to explore on your own. So while I’d recommend seeing Japan, Korea, Singapore and even most of Thailand independently, for other destinations it would just be a lot easier to have a tour operator take care of all those things for you.

Australia

Dives 028
The Great Barrier Reef – One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World
Other than the continent itself, I’ll include the South Pacific nations of New Zealand, Polynesia and the rest of “Oceania” in this section. Long held as being exotic for its remoteness (unless you live there), this far-flung collection of islands and landmass makes the very long trip to get there worth the time and money.

Why go?

Culturally, the islands of Polynesia still hold the allure that they once did – as do the gorgeous jungle-clad mountains and crystalline lagoons. Australia itself – despite having its most popular attractions inconveniently located far from one another – boasts an arid yet interesting interior, ringed by wet tropics in the north, dynamic modern cities on the east coast and the famous “outback” wilderness everywhere else. There’s the unmissable Great Barrier Reef in the northeast, and just across the Tasman Sea is in my opinion the most beautiful place in the world – New Zealand.

The downside

For most visitors, getting to Australia involves a really (really!) long plane ride. Even getting around is most conveniently done by air, as distances are great. And getting to those remote island chains dotting the Pacific can be harder still, and certainly not cheap. A trip here is an investment of both time and money.

How to see it

Again, choosing a specific region is a good way to go, as there’s a lot of ground to cover. Sometimes airlines will allow for stopovers in island chains on the way over, which is a good way to see some of the remoter parts of the ‘continent’. If you’re in New Zealand, then renting a car is your best bet. Not only are the roads and infrastructure excellent, but a road trip will bring you through some of the most amazing scenery anywhere.

Antarctica

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Blue Iceberg, Near Elephant Island, Antarctica
That giant white blob on the bottom of your map will no doubt be the hardest of the continents for you to get to. Add to that the fact that there are no towns or cities on the continent – only research stations – and you’ll get a sense of just how remote it is. But for any seasoned traveler, visiting Antarctica is a feather in your cap and a stunning reminder of the superior forces of nature.

Why go?

For many avid travelers, Antarctica is the only continent left to visit – and for good reason. Most of the year weather conditions are far too unfavorable, and even during the ‘summer’ a flight to one of the research stations (itself an enormous monetary investment) has only about a 20% chance of being able to take off. But once you’re there, the stark beauty of water, ice and snow, with a liberal sprinkling of penguins is a sight you’ll never forget.

The downside

As I mentioned before, weather is a major factor here, with temperatures that drop into regions that can be truly life-threatening. With no trees, grass, or shrubs, you’re exposed to the elements and need to dress accordingly even in summertime. Trips to the White Continent are also among the most expensive out there – costing upwards of over $4000 US for a sea voyage that will likely bring you across some of the roughest waters on the planet.

How to see it

The vast majority of visitors arrive by ship, making stops at research stations and cruising the iceberg-riddled waterways. The Argentine port of Ushuaia is the most popular starting point, though there are trips also possible from Australia. A typical itinerary will cross the Drake Passage, visit the South Shetland Islands, then cruise the icy finger of the Antarctic Peninsula. For a better value, some mainstream cruise lines offer itineraries that will bring you to Antarctica, but you won’t be able to leave the ship.

Summary

Now that you know the general ‘folders’ of the planet, you should be able to narrow down your areas of interest. Armed with this cursory overview of the globe, I hope you’re able to select the ‘file’ that’s most to your liking. See you out there!

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Chichen Itza as a Shore Excursion from Cozumel? It Depends

Tucked away on a jungle plain of the Yucatan Peninsula is one of the “New” 7 Wonders of the World – Chichen Itza. For a cruise ship passenger, getting to a monument tucked away on a jungle plain is something of a problem – something to do with access I suppose. For all their striking advances in mathematics and architecture, you can fault the Mayans for the shortsightedness of building one of their most impressive complexes so inconveniently far from what would become the region’s most popular cruise ship port. The way I see it, if you’re so bold as to predict the end of the world (strike 1), you should start by predicting your future source of revenue. Well,  revenue until said world ends. Regardless of the reasoning, this incongruity leaves the culturally-minded cruise ship passenger with a bit of a conundrum: How can you visit the greatest area attraction in the woefully inadequate amount of time spent in port? And even if such an option is available, would it be worth it? Let me give you the clearest answer possible to those questions: It depends.
Chichen Itza
El Castillo – Chichen Itza, Mexico

Terms and Conditions

Allow me to further elaborate on my earlier point. Can a day trip to Chichen Itza be done as a shore excursion from Cozumel? Yes. Should it be done? Again, it depends. To reach Chichen Itza from Cozumel requires more than the usual investment of time and money. First, guests will disembark at the bustling tourist dock on the island of Cozumel, where they will be quickly transferred to a fast ferry for the approximately 45 minute ride to Playa del Carmen on the Mexican mainland. From there, they will then be boarded onto a bus or van that will pass through the congested roads of the town and onto a straight highway through low-lying jungle for about two hours. Counting all the various transfers and regrouping, figure on at least 3 hours of travel ONE WAY, which unless you wind up being sacrificed atop the main pyramid, will then require you to take the same trip in reverse. It is for this reason that I would very strongly suggest only booking such an excursion through the cruise ship. While I am notorious for going it alone when in port, considering the very stringent time constraints, you’re going to want to be sure that if there’s any holdup or delay the ship is going to wait for you. And while prices start at around $150 per person (check with your cruise line) it really isn’t all that bad a deal if you’re still insistent on making the trip.
Chichen Itza2
Columns for Days, Chichen Itza, Mexico

Is it Worth it?

The pressing question now, is whether or not all that travel, hassle and money is worth it. Well, let’s see…I’d say it depends. Perhaps a little more information will help you make up your own mind. The tour operator that Royal Caribbean teamed up with did a really nice job when I made this journey myself in February 2018. During the long ride out to the site, each couple was handed an iPad with photos and diagrams that our guide explained in detail so that we could make most of our limited time at the destination. He regaled us with lots of details on Mayan culture and history, but honestly the only thing that stuck in my brain is that the name Yucatan is actually derived from the Mayan term “you talk funny” uttered by the natives upon first contact with the arriving Europeans. Sufficiently equipped with a knowledge of what we’d see and what to look for, most of us ate our very meager bag lunches (like, ham and cheese sandwiches you would have brought to school, only without the note from your mom) and marveled at the throngs of tourists flocking to this remote outpost in the jungle. While it’s hard to imagine so many people visiting the location on their land-based tours, it did confirm that we were about to witness something rather special. Passing through the crowded visitor center, our guide took us down a long walkway lined with vendors, that in view of the time constraints, are best browsed on the way out. The main attraction was up ahead on an open field – El Castillo, the iconic pyramid that characterizes what is really an enormous complex of ruins. While our guide directed our attention to all the details I tuned out on the ride over, I went to town taking pictures, looking for unique angles and basically just absorbing the vibe of the place. We did a somewhat hurried tour of the main attractions like the ball field and some impressive colonnades, but again, the main draw to non-Maya scholars is the scenery and the vibe. Cue the rolling boulder. After about an hour of circling the basic tourist track (there’s a ton more to see if you have the time) we passed through the gauntlet of vendors, used the restrooms and were back in the van. Here’s where your own sense of math comes in: Is 6 hours of travel equal to or greater than 1 hour of sightseeing? The answer is, of course, it depends.
Chichen Itza3
Ancient Mayan Emojis? Chichen Itza, Mexico

My Professional and Personal Opinions

So was it worth it to me? Professionally speaking, if my travel clients had never been to Mexico before, and weren’t tremendously interested in world heritage sites, I would not recommend this excursion. You can get a similar flavor by going to Tulum or other sites that don’t require such exertion and would still leave you time to shop for liquor on the way back. Personally, since I’ve been to Cozumel a few times, and had spent approximately 80% of my time there underwater (the diving is superb) I found that being able to see in person such a historic and iconic site with my own eyes was well worth the effort. Now the important question is this: Is my professional or personal opinion the one you should trust? Come on people, you should really know the answer by now. But just in case you don’t, I would 100% absolutely without hesitation say:  it depends.

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5 Unorthodox Tips for a Road Trip Through Ireland

Road Trip Through Ireland
The breathtaking views of the Dingle Peninsula

As an admitted travel snob, for years I put off seeing the Emerald Isle because it all seemed too mainstream and touristy. After all, which sounds cooler: “I went whitewater rafting in the jungles of Borneo” or “I drove around on the left side of the road in Ireland”? But as I’ve mentioned at least once before, there’s a reason why touristy places are considered touristy – they’re really worth seeing. That epiphany really proved true on a recent trip to Ireland, and in the process of asserting my independence from the busloads of tourists via a road trip through areas less-traveled, I also stumbled upon what I would consider to be good, if unorthodox advice for anyone seeking to do the same.

Tip #1 – To Prepare for your Road Trip, Prepare for the Roads

The Dark Hedges
The Dark Hedges, Northern Ireland, UK

First off, I should say that the roads in Ireland were unequivocally in good shape, well-paved, and at times scenic to the extreme. What you need to prepare for, are their dimensions. To put it in perspective, first go into your living room, sit on the right side of your loveseat,  and picture the steering wheel in front of you. Then look at the space  three inches off each side of your loveseat. That’s pretty much the size of all secondary and tertiary roads in Ireland. At times they even had a “shoulder” demarcated by white lines, just in case you’re skinny enough not to occupy more than 1.5 inches of clearance.

To compound that effect, bear in mind that these roads allow for oncoming traffic. To compound things even further, the roads are quite often bordered with the quaintest, most idyllic-looking stone walls just dripping with tufts of grass and colorful wildflowers. If that seems like a lot of detail, just remember that you will have a good look at them when they’re whizzing by just inches outside your window. So prepare yourself mentally for tight quarters and close encounters, otherwise you might just want to take the insurance offered by your rental car agency.

Tip #2 – You Don’t Have to Stop At Every Castle

Kilronan Castle
Have fun storming the castle, Kilronan Castle, County Roscommon

Coming from North America, just the idea of a castle conjures thoughts of romance and adventure, fairy-tales and lore. I can tell you that there’s no lack of castles in Ireland – in fact, it would be pretty difficult to avoid them even if you wanted to. But after seeing my fair share, I have some advice on how to keep from suffering castle overload – you don’t have to stop at every one.

Basically, you can break down the castles into three categories – ruins, tourist traps, and accommodations. Personally, I found the ruined castles most evocative. There’s no greater way to comprehend the amount of history involved more than witnessing the ravages of time. My particular favorite was Ballycarbery Castle across from the town of Cahersiveen along the Ring of Kerry. Smothered in ivy and fenced off from tourists in view of its obvious structural instability, it makes a great photography subject sitting perched on its grassy hill at the edge of the peninsula.

The tourist traps, such as Dunguaire Castle in County Galway for example, are generally in good shape and will give you an adequate – if touristy – idea of what life was like back in its heyday. For a tour of the inside, you’ll often have to pay anywhere from 8 Euro on up, so think long and hard if seeing a few stone-lined hallways is worth it to you.

The best option, in my opinion, is to actually stay in a restored castle, which gives you access to its often ornate interior, along with the subtle bragging rights of saying “I once slept in a castle”. Seeing as that I’m married to a beautiful princess, I had no choice but to stay at least one night in a castle. And while it definitely isn’t a budget-friendly choice, it certainly enhances the whole Ireland experience. Personally I chose to stay at Kilronan Castle in County Roscommon. Set up against a peaceful lake in the middle of a sprawling lawn, it was a relaxing highlight of my trip.

Just one more note: if ruined castles aren’t your thing, there are lots of crumbling monasteries and abbeys that dot the landscape. Two in particular that were worth a half hour’s exploration were Muckross Abbey in the middle of Killarney National Park, and Corcomroe Abbey tucked down a gravel road in County Galway.

Muckross Abbey
Muckross Abbey, Killarney National Park

Tip #3 Get Ready for Some Tongue-Twisters

Town of Dingle
Twist your tongue on the Dingle Peninsula

Despite the fact that English is spoken everywhere, you’ll find many signs and towns that preserve their heritage by sticking to their Irish language roots – particularly on the Dingle Peninsula (let me preempt your inner 8 year old and say that no, I didn’t see any berries there). As a result you’ll find yourself navigating through towns you can’t even pronounce such as Lisdoonvarna, Annascaul, Ballinskelligs, Bealaclugga and lots of other names that won’t seem to make a lot of sense. Fortunately signage is good, so if you’re coming up to a roundabout (which are everywhere, by the way) and need to decide between Killorglin or Abbeyfeale, just do your best to choose the one that starts with the right letter and leave the pronunciation to the locals.

Tip #4 Find Yourself a Base of Operations

Skellig Ring, County Kerry
Check out the Skellig Ring in County Kerry

Having a general idea of what you want to see and how long you want to see it is essential for planning a road trip in Ireland. My recommendation is to base yourself in a given region and take day trips from there. For instance, in my opinion, the southwest of the country is the most scenic, with the most dramatic views on the aforementioned Dingle Peninsula, the tourist-heavy-but-so-very-worth-it Ring of Kerry (go counterclockwise to avoid getting stuck behind the tour buses) and the even better offshoot, the Skellig Ring, with the rugged coastline and islands as a backdrop. Staying in the charming town of Killarney or its surrounding hamlets would allow you to easily spend the day seeing the sights, and be back in town for a pint of Guinness before dark.

On the subject of accommodations, Ireland boasts a ton of quaint bed and breakfasts and rental homes. We stayed at a genuine thatched roof cottage in the miniscule hamlet of Cordal that was off the charts when it came to character and charm. Again, if you’re looking for the full-on Ireland experience, this is an option to consider.

Tip #5 Remember Which Ireland You Parked In

Northern Ireland
Signs that you’re not in Ireland anymore

When driving through the bucolic landscape, it’s easy to forget that Ireland has had its share of political difficulties. While the entire island is beautiful, don’t forget that it is made up of two distinct political entities – the Republic of Ireland, with its capital in Dublin, and Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom – not that it makes much of a difference to the driver. Honestly, I wasn’t exactly sure of when we both entered and left Northern Ireland, and other than the road measurements changing to miles instead of kilometers, and a bit more traffic congestion, it would’ve been really hard to tell. I suppose the Union Jacks flying everywhere would give it away, but other than that it’s the same landscape of rolling hills, impossibly picturesque meadows and (very) narrow country lanes as can be found in the Republic. Just keep in mind that one of the island of Ireland’s greatest natural attractions – the Giant’s Causeway – is located in Northern Ireland, U.K. I say this because if you intend on taking the bus back up to the top – which you should unless you’re a sadist – be sure to keep a few British Pounds on you, as Euros are only used further south.

Rules of the Road and Parting Advice

I would be derelict in my duties if I didn’t pass on some tips for driving other than preparing for claustrophobically small roads. Driving is on the left side of the road, which means the driver sits on the right side of the car and shifts with their left hand. I know that may sound daunting, but after about ten minutes it starts to make sense. Just be mindful in traffic or under pressure (especially when making turns) that you’re on the correct side of the road.

When traffic approaches one of those tiny lanes I mentioned, it is proper etiquette to pull aside if you have space to do so – meaning more than the 1.5 inch shoulder I referred to before. Whether you’re the one doing the passing or pulling aside, it’s good form to give a friendly wave to the other person. In fact I found the Irish to be very friendly and remarkably polite, so even when driving try to keep your cool – they probably will. And if someone cuts you off, you’re more than likely to get the aforementioned wave, and not ‘the finger’.

For me, Ireland was far more beautiful than I had hoped for or imagined. Almost every landscape was right out of storybook, and the only way I can describe it is bucolic, which is an adjective meaning: relating to the pleasant aspects of the countryside and country life. A road trip through Ireland really is more about the journey than the destination, so be sure to schedule some time to gaze out at the cliffs, wander through the woods and just take in the idyllic nature of the setting. But before you do, make sure you pull to the side, and if someone is coming, be sure to wave.


Have you been to Ireland? Share your own tips by commenting below.

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