How To Day Trip From Dublin to Giant’s Causeway (without a tour guide)

When we added Dublin to our itinerary, we decided to add a day trip out to Giant’s Causeway. It was going to be a long trip, but if we were that close, I couldn’t really pass up the opportunity. We vetoed the overpriced, big group, organised 15 hour day trips we saw online and decided to just hire a car and do it ourselves.

Some rotten weather meant we had to adjust our plans a little and miss a few stops we’d originally planned. But we still had an awesome day and would definitely recommend the DIY route over the group tour. Here’s how to do it…

 

OUR PLAN:
Collect the car and start driving north, then make our way around to see:
– Castle Ward
– The Dark Hedges
– Old Bushmill’s Distillery
– Dunluce Castle
– Giant’s Causeway
– Dunseverick Castle
– Ballintoy Harbour

WHAT WE ACTUALLY ENDED UP DOING
– The car hire places in the city didn’t open until a bit later in the morning, and we wanted to get started early, so we caught a bus from city (we stayed near Dublin Cathedral and there was a pick up point just around the corner) to airport to collect car. This was going to be cheaper than a taxi, and cost us €7 each – just have correct change ready to pay for your tickets.

– We picked up the car at 7.30am and got started without any issues – navigating was pretty easy, thankfully.

– First stop was Castle Ward, the site of some of Game of Thrones’ Winterfell scenes. A beautiful 18th Century mansion sits on the enormous grounds, which were something else when we visited. Autumn leaves + castle grounds = magic. We only saw a few other people on our way in, both groundskeepers. And the lovely lady working in the bookshop. Otherwise, we were the only visitors. It may have been because it was low season there was no one there to take our admission fee (£8.60 per person), and we didn’t actually go into the mansion, but instead we wondered around and enjoyed the gorgeous grounds in peace. Great idea heading there first.

 

The Dark Hedges was our next stop, which starred in Game of Thrones as the King’s Road. I guess we were lucky that the weather played it’s part – it was grey and overcast and a little somber when we arrived, so it looked even more dramatic and foreboding (even though they’d recently been pruned and the branches remaining were losing their leaves because we were there in November). What you don’t realise from the photos is that it actually is a road. Lots of people walk it. And plenty of cars will drive up and down in while you’re trying to take your lovely photo. There’s nothing else around it, either, so if you’re just going to get the shot, you’re probably going to be a little frustrated. We took a few snaps in between groups, but honestly, it was just really cool to walk to walk through these giants planted back in the 18th Century and look out over the fields alongside them.

 

– By the time we got to Dunluce Castle, the weather was really starting to take a turn. The wind was enough to almost knock me over while I stood near the cliff edges to take some photos, and the water below was furious. That’s the only word I can think of to describe it; absolutely, viciously, furious. But it was stunning – even when you can barely stay on your feet, looking at this ruined castle up on the cliffs is a pretty incredible experience. Because the weather was getting so nasty, we didn’t stay long – we physically couldn’t, the wind was so strong. We were also getting pretty hungry, so we moved on to our next stop to wait the wind out a bit…

 

– … at the Old Bushmills Distillery. Irish whiskey is meant to be some of the best in the world, and my husband is a whiskey man, so off we went. We didn’t really want to spend the time doing the tour, so we thought we’d just have a bite to eat and maybe try a few of their whiskeys. By then, it was starting to get a bit later in the afternoon, so we jumped back in the car.

 

Giant’s Causeway was to be our final stop of the day. And despite the horrible weather (it was starting to rain at this point, on top of the torrential wind), it was super busy.

To be honest, it wasn’t the wonderful experience I imagined it would be, for a few reasons:
* The Giant’s Causeway itself is a natural phenomenon. You’d think that would make it available to the public. You’d be wrong. The National Trust let you know once you’re already there that you can visit it for free, but you have to pay for parking. Given there’s no where else to park in the general vicinity, the extortionists are making a bundle from car parking.
* There were tour bus-sized hoards of people there, who were clearly there for no other reason than to take photos for social media accounts. To the point that I had a middle aged woman try to shove me out of her photo. Yup. All of this natural beauty and magic has been reduced to the perfect Instagram shot, and that took a LOT of the experience away for me. We’d come all that way and been forced to pay our parking, so I made my way out onto the stepping stones to check it all out a bit more, but that feeling of “wow, how incredible” just wasn’t there.

By the time we finished up at Giant’s Causeway, the rain and wind were both getting heavier, and we were conscious of having to drive back in such crappy conditions in the dark, so we decided to cut our loses and make our way back to the airport to drop off the car by 7.30pm. I guess Dunseverick Castle and Ballintoy Harbour will still be there for our next visit!

 

CAR HIRE TIPS
– We used Dan Dooleys and they were fantastic to deal with from start to finish. On the day, we went to their airport office, fixed up the paperwork, and  used their shuttle to take us to parking lot (which is the same location the car was returned to).

– There is an Applegreens about 10km from airport where you can stop to fill up fuel.

– In terms of fuel cost, we had a hybrid SEAT Ibiza, we drove 600km and it cost around €50 to re-fill the tank.

– We picked up our car at 7.30am, and returned it at 7.30pm – the 12 hours hire, including Excess Waiver Insurance and an extra driver cost just under €100.

– I’d highly recommend getting a small car for the narrow Irish roads!

– We went in November, and it gets dark early at that time of year, so you’ll need to be prepared to drive in the dark.

– Pack snacks and water. You’ll be travelling mostly on expressways, so there are not many stops unless you want to turn off.

– Have money ready for the toll booth – they weren’t expensive, but the booth attendants will like you a whole lot more if you have some change on you.

An Introduction to Mardi Gras – and a visit to Mardi Gras World, New Orleans

Other than flashy parades and copious amounts of drinking, those of us not from New Orleans really don’t know a hell of a lot about Mardi Gras. Before our last trip to New Orleans I’d read a few books about it and seen some documentaries, but there was still a lot I didn’t understand. So we decided to visit Mardi Gras World to learn a little more. Before we get to that, let’s look at the basics…

WHAT IS ‘MARDI GRAS’?
Those of you familiar with Easter celebrations have probably heard of Ash Wednesday. And if you’re an Aussie kid, you’ve definitely heard of Shrove Tuesday and ate pancakes for breakfast at school to celebrate; Mardi Gras, which translates as “Fat Tuesday,” is the same thing as Shrove Tuesday, falling the day before Ash Wednesday.

 

GREAT, BUT WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH THE PARADES AND PARTIES THAT GO ON IN NEW ORLEANS?
Ok, let’s break it down as simply as possible for those who don’t have a Catholic background…

– Ash Wednesday = the first day of Lent.

– Lent = the 40 days leading up to Palm Sunday during which practicing Catholics often give up something they usually enjoy (like chocolate or their favourite TV show) as a symbolic act of repentance and fasting.

– Palm Sunday = the Sunday before Easter, the first ‘celebration’ day of the season after the 40 days of fasting.

AND THE TUESDAY THAT IS MARDI GRAS?
Mardi Gras = the last day before the 40 days of fasting and repentance begins. The celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans is basically rooted in the idea that if you’re going to be fasting and repenting and behaving for the next 40 days, why not overindulge in good food and booze and party like a maniac the night before?!

 

OK, SO WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH THE PARADES NEW ORLEANS HOLDS TO CELEBRATE?
No doubt you’ve seen photos or footage of the apparent carnage that is Mardi Gras in New Orleans; it’s actually a lot more organised and symbolic than it may first appear. To understand that, let me go back a bit and explain the ‘who’ behind the parades first.

Parades are organised by krewes, which are essentially social aid clubs. Membership is incredibly prestigious, can be quite pricey, and members take enormous pride in the events they organise and partake in. The New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation kindly list the city’s krewes on their website if you’d like to see read a little more about them.

The parades you see, with the big floats and costumed marchers are the culmination of what is usually 12 months work from the members of the city’s krewes (as in, once Mardi Gras is over, they start working on next year’s almost immediately). They commission and finance the floats and costumes, spending endless hours working on them, and the end result is those visually overwhelming parades. And the parades are fabulous, but knowing more about the work that goes into them has given me a much bigger appreciated for it all this year.

It has to be said that this is a very basic explanation of an event that is incredibly intricate and steeped in more tradition than I could possibly hope to cover in one blog post – we haven’t even touched king cakes, Mardi Gras Indians or the beads you see revelers wearing! You can head on over to Mardi Gras New Orleans to learn a little more, but hopefully that all makes a bit more sense, and will help explain what made us decide to visit Mardi Gras World…

 

Mardi Gras World
1380 Port of New Orleans Pl
http://www.mardigrasworld.com/

When I talk about the floats used in the parades, they’re not some cute little hand pulled wagons. They’re enormous – as in, the size of buses or coaches. Absolutely huge. So it’s fair to say the krewes couldn’t be making them all themselves – who’d have a workshop that big?! That’s where Mardi Gras World come in; Mr Blaine Kern, who started to learn the craft from his father, Roy, and later apprenticed with float and costume makers around Europe, started working on behalf of the city’s krewes (you can read more about the Kerns here). The family business now has 15 warehouses around the city where they build floats all year round for the Mardi Gras season. And you thought it was just a day of partying once a year…

For USD$20pp, you can tour one of their warehouses, see some of the artists at work, and learn a hell of a lot about the process of creating these colossal works of art. A few fun facts we learned during our tour…

– The large floats are owned by individual krewes and are stripped each year and re-decorated with new pieces.

– Old props are kept at the warehouses to potentially be re-decorated and re-used by other krewes.

– To create the pieces adorning the floats, the artists use a lot of old school papier mache over polystyrene, which they then paint over.

– There are around 60 odd krewes that each hold a parade over Mardi Gras period – that means 60 different floats and costumes for every. Single. Parade.

 

Eating the city: Paris, France

Paris has a great reputation for food, but the city is a labyrinth when it comes to actually finding the best spots. This is by no means an exhaustive list of what to eat there (so if you’ve been to Paris, please add your recommendations, too), but it should give you a pretty solid start to your time in Paris…

 

Pistachio choc chip escargot

Why get it:
Because honestly, it’s probably the best pastry in the city. There was a constant, unrelenting stream of people rolling like tidal waves through the place, and most of them were walking away with an escargot pastry if some variety. But Rachel Khoo said she gets the pistachio, so that’s what we got, and that was absolutely the right choice.
We got ours from: Du Pain et des Idées, 34 Rue Yves Toudic

 

Savoury crepes (galettes)
Why get it: Paris has a tight Nutella crepe game, but did you know their savoury ones are just as amazing? Usually made with buckwheat flour, they can be filled and/or topped with just about anything, but I’d recommend getting some cheese involved; the porous nature of the galette means that when it hits the hot pan, the melty cheese starts o seep through and caramelises on the grill. That’s why you should get it.
We got ours from: Le Comptoir du Commerce, 1 Rue des Petits Carreaux 

 

Deliciously fancy cakes

Why get it:
It’s not all croissants here – there are some ridiculously good cakes, too. You’ll see lots of little individual cakes, because they’re very rich, and more than a few bites could leave you with diabetes. But they’re the ultimate fancy, elegant treat to accompany your tea or coffee.
We got ours from: Le Valentin, 30 Passage Jouffroy

 

A proper, classic French meal


Why get it: French food has a reputation for a reason, but there are a lot of tourist traps in Paris which don’t really live up to the expectations of visitors. If you can get a proper classic French meal, though, you’ll understand why people go so crazy for a real tarte tatin and a beef bourguignon.
We got ours from: Le P’Tit Troquet, 28 Rue de l’Exposition, where a three course meal will cost you around €35.00

 

Steak frittes

Why get it: It’s one of those meals that should be so simple, yet it’s rarely done to perfection. If you’re willing to spend a little money and eat a little further away from the Eiffel Tower, you’ll find some really fantastic steak. Don’t be scared to order it medium-rare; when you’re dealing with high quality beef, anything more than a few minutes each side will take a lot of the flavour away. Oh, and chips.
We got ours from: Le Café du Commerce, 51 Rue du Commerce

 

Perfect, buttery croissants
Why get it:
Because it wouldn’t be a trip to Paris without a truckload of these. Honestly, I didn’t eat a bad one over there, not this time and not the visit before in 2013. It’s always a good idea to take a sight seeing pit stop for a pot of tea or cup of coffee with a croissant in Paris!
We got ours from: Maison Morange Côté Bio, 113 Rue Mouffetard – we ate a lot of croissants, but this was the unanimous favourite for best plain one!

 

Photo Journal: Siena, Italy

When we talk about Tuscany, everyone’s heard of Florence. But not quite as many people know Siena. And the few who do generally only know it for the horse race held there every year, the Palio – horses topped with bareback riders race around the Piazza del Campo in an ode to the times of old. If you’re still unsure about what I’m talking about, maybe this scene from Quantum of Solace will ring a few bells.

But I’m not talking about the Palio this morning, because there’s so much more to Siena than a horse race. The beautiful little city, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site way back in 1995, still looks every bit the picture-book medieval town it probably was back in 30AD when the Romans plonked a military outpost there. There are uniform terracotta roofs as far as the eye can see, those beautiful but somewhat difficult to walk on cobbled paths, and symbolic and religious iconography around every corner. There’s also the incredible Tuscan food, the sweet little corner stores, the steeply sloped alley ways that you just have to wander up and down, and the best door knockers you’ve ever seen.

 

Welcome to Siena, through my eyes…

The Not-So-Glamorous Side Of Travel

Taking 4 months off work to travel the world. Four months of leaving behind the everyday mundane tasks of the real world. 17 weeks of excitement and adventure. 120 days of doing whatever we wanted, with no real obligations or forced commitments. Sounds so glamorous and carefree and magical…

I thought I owed it to everyone who’s ever been jealous of the fabulous life of a traveller to share some harsh and hilarious reality. Anyone who’s stalked an Instagram account and just about been reduced to tears because every shot is SO perfect. Anyone who’s believed that it is all glamorous and wonderful, all the time. Anyone who thinks it was easy and fancy free the whole time.

Don’t misunderstand me; I had the time of my life and wouldn’t trade the months we spent away for anything. This isn’t a woe-is-me, “OMG I like totally freaked out when my hair straightener broke down” post. This is the real shit we dealt with, the parts that didn’t quite make the Instagram cut, the not-so-pretty but completely hilarious, comical, and every bit as memorable stuff.

We like to romanticise travel and imagine ourselves as glamorous Grace Kelly types, effortlessly and gracefully navigating our way through airports and train stations and cities and restaurants while our red lipstick stays in place. It is not always like that. Enjoy a good laugh at my expense; this is the other side.

 

 

Over the 4 months we were away, I’ve had to…

– Spread peanut butter onto a bread roll with a pen because you can’t always get a knife in the Canadian Rockies.

– Dry myself after my showers for several days with a hair dryer when a towel wasn’t provided.

– Carry luggage up 80 rickety old stairs on a very narrow staircase to get to our accommodation.

– Lug around 35kg of luggage a kilometre (mostly up hill) to get to a train station in a ‘cute’ old medieval town with footpaths to match. On a stinking hot day. In a floor length skirt. That was the last day I tried to look like a classy lady traveller.

– Boil water for tea in pots on cook tops when we were lucky enough to have a cook top, or microwave it when I was desperate and with no other options. FYI, microwaved water does not make a cup of tea your nanna would approve of.

– Bathe in a shower with only 3 walls and a defective shower curtain a few inches too short. Water. EVERYWHERE.

– Wash not only socks and undies in the sink, but jeans, jumpers and dresses. And then try to find ways to get them to dry in time.

– Wash my hair with only one hand while the other hand held the shower head to rinse with, while trying not to flood the bathroom by accidentally mis-aiming and shooting the water through the shower curtain. If you know how long and thick my hair is, you’ll understand what a completely ridiculous and inelegant undertaking this would be.

– Move from one train carriage to another, mid-ride, with all of our luggage, after some jerk decided to light up and have a smoke in the bathroom, set off the alarm, then lock the door so the conductor couldn’t get in to turn it off.

– Arrive at a hotel lobby absolutely dripping wet after being caught in a downpour on the 1km walk from the train station. Apologies to the hotel we left puddles of water in.

– Move 2 large suitcases, 3 backpacks, 1 sports bag and 2 boxes of groceries all of 10 metres, from car to front door, in the middle of an Icelandic snow storm, complete with snow, rain and gale force winds, without skidding out on the ice covering the driveway and front steps (because it would have been too easy without steps).

– Walk down 5 flights of stairs to get to the shower because the apartment we stayed in was so small it had no room for a bathroom. And then back up 5 flights of stairs afterwards. Oh, and the toilet was in a separate room, too.

– Carry my own tea bags for the times where ordering a cup of boiling water was easier than explaining how to make a cup of tea (America, I’m talking to you).

– Try to locate an Airbnb apartment in a country where I not only can’t speak the language but can’t even read the writing due to the use of a different alphabet, after being given the wrong address and with no internet. Then I got to be the super unglamorous traveller who had to locate a Starbucks outlet to hover around so I could use their free WiFi (thanks, Starbucks – we love you!!!).

– Find an English speaking doctor in a European country to remove an infected ingrown toe nail. And then walk around the city in thongs (flip flops). In winter. While people looked at me like I was a little mentally unstable.

– Sit in the seat behind a small child for a 2 hour flight who had no parental supervision and had just learnt to recline her seat. I spend most of the flight with the seat in front of me basically resting on my thighs. It was great.

– Put on thermal socks, snow boots, 2 jackets, gloves and a beanie over my PJs to walk through ankle deep snow in -12°C Icelandic forest to get to the bathroom.

 

 

I can’t wait for my next trip…