Heading to greener pastures: Ireland 2017 (Part I)

If you look at a map, Ireland looks so close to England. Yet, depending on how you travel and where you’re coming from, it can be a long old haul to get there. Still, it’s Ireland: “a timeless land of enchantment and mystery, breathtaking scenery, peace and tranquillity”, as the brochure says. I was also promised “uncrowded roads and lazy rivers, rugged mountains and crumbling castles and…mild Gulf Stream air”, which would “combine to make [my trip] an unforgettable experience”. Nature, ruins, and scarcity of people? As far as I’m concerned, those are definitely worth the journey, no matter how arduous.

I’d set my heart on Ireland because I wanted to go on a proper retreat in a destination that was not near home but also not too far away (travel time and money being critical factors). I wanted a place that was beautiful and relaxing and inspiring in its own right, but also that provided access to hiking and sites of historical interest. Also, green; I wanted to be surrounded by green. And where else but Ireland do you think of when you think “green”?

Quintessential Ireland

As I poked around online, I was spoiled for choice. There were spots near lakes and rivers, others on the coast and halfway up mountains; places near interesting towns and cities and others so remote I worried I might become Jack Torrance (a particularly troubling vision given that I’d pictured myself doing some writing during the trip). It was difficult to find the perfect balance between solitude and access, a decent journey time at the start of the trip and ability to take short day trips throughout, scenery that was gorgeous to look at and habitat that could actually be interacted with and enjoyed. I settled on the southwest of Ireland because it seemed to have it all: access to beautiful and dramatic terrain, trees and bodies of water, ruins and gardens. It was only a few hours’ drive from the ferry dock in Rosslare, which itself was a mere four-hour crossing from Pembroke, which was but 3.5 hours from Exeter. A negligible trip, really. Only 10 hours, at night, at the end of a long work week. The perfect way to start any vacation.

I am joking, of course, because that sounds awful and sometimes I do ponder my sanity when I pause for a moment of reflection. Despite appearances, I did actually conduct research and consider the itinerary carefully. I investigated flying and renting a car versus hopping the ferry to Dublin versus taking the ferry to Rosslare, and no matter how I looked at it, the most logical option in terms of timing and cost was the one I selected. And it worked out! It was a bit of an adventure, but that just made it exciting and interesting, and, by god, if I ever get to the point where I am not willing to try something new, then I do not deserve to be alive.

The ferry was scheduled to depart Pembroke at 2:45am, so my original plan was to leave Exeter around 8pm in order to leave plenty of time for the drive itself and for any emergencies that might crop up along the way (including the possibility that I would need to pull over and take a brief nap). However, as the week went on I began to get nervous about this because I was feeling particularly tired and worried that all the caffeine in the world wouldn’t be enough to keep me awake that late at night. I decided to leave right after dinner instead so I could get to the dock while maximally alert and then nap or read while waiting until departure. On the evening of my trip, however, the motorway suffered extreme congestion and portions of it were briefly closed, so Plan B went out the window and I reverted to Plan A so I could avoid the traffic jams. I drank two cups of tea and packed a third in a travel mug before hitting the road. Two mice dashing cross the road in front of me, and one fox lounging on the shoulder later, and I arrived in Pembroke.

I’d been worried about what sort of situation I’d find at the dock because, really, what woman traveling alone wants to go to a dock after midnight? I’d read all the Irish Ferry FAQs and even exchanged emails with friendly but unhelpful staff, and I still couldn’t visualise what I would find when I arrived; in particular, I couldn’t figure out where I would wait, how I would queue, when queuing would begin, and, most importantly, whether there would be facilities where I could use the toilet and buy another dose of caffeine.

I just had to trust that it would all make sense when I got there and, of course, it did; the company has been making this journey back and forth for years, and they know what they are doing. I pulled in around 12:00am and there were already several dozen cars lined up in rows outside the gate; those were the folks desperate to exit the ferry first on the other end, but they must have arrived at least an hour before I did and only bought themselves maybe 15 minutes at Rosslare, so I’m not sure the sacrifice was worth it. Once I had parked, I could run into the terminal, which looked just like a small airport and had toilets, a café, and plenty of seating. The entire area was lit by floodlights, so even though I kind of felt like I was in the middle of an emergency military operation, I also felt much safer than I’d imagined.

Enjoying the delightful weather at Pembroke Dock

People with vehicles could check in at 12:15am; this involved driving up to a kiosk, getting boarding passes, then going through a gated checkpoint into another parking lot where we again lined up in rows. This is where we would sit until 2am, when we would drive onto the ferry. I had anticipated setting my alarm and dozing until boarding, but I hadn’t counted on getting hungry again. Nobody packs snacks as diligently as I do, but somehow it hadn’t even occurred to me that I would of course be hungry five hours after my last meal; it’s just not a thing you really associate with a time of day when ordinarily you would be asleep. After I’d visited the café and eaten, I only had time for a quick power nap before it was time for the next phase. Oh well; who needs sleep?

Boarding itself was pretty easy, though the official did have to stop me and ask me to turn on my headlights. That had happened also as I was passing through the earlier checkpoint, and it surprised me both times. The entire area was so well lit that I didn’t need headlights to see, plus I assumed that the ferry staff would prefer not to be blinded by the beams; I guess they just want to be extra careful about safety. Once the official waved me up the ramp onto the ship, there were no more staff until I was actually on the ferry, which freaked me out a little because there were no signs and about eight lanes and I suddenly had this feeling that I’d meandered off course (which would be practically impossible to do in the 200 or so meters that I had to cover, but give me a thing to do and I will worry whether I am doing it right). I was eventually waved down the far left-hand lane and was the very first car in line. You can’t stay in, or visit, your car during the journey, so I grabbed the essentials—which included a pillow and blanket—and headed upstairs to the passenger area.

Driving onto the ferry (full disclosure: this is actually the return trip)
Entering the parking deck of the ferry (full disclosure: also the return trip)

I am not sure what I was expecting of the ferry, but it was definitely not what I found when I alighted at the entrance / welcome area of the boat. It looked like a cross between a hotel check-in, a small casino, and a cruise ship. I guess I have spent so much time on more stripped-down vessels like Scillonian III and the little ferries that run between Falmouth and St Mawe’s, I had forgotten that a boat journey might be somewhat more posh. I hadn’t been able to get a berth for the trip, so I poked around the public seating area until I found a nice corner where I could curl up on a cushioned bench and try to get some sleep.  It feels a little weird to just bed down and nap in public, but when everyone else is doing the same thing, you just go with it. I woke up a couple times but was otherwise able to get pretty decent sleep (all things considered) until dawn. Just before 6am, a couple of boys ran by to look out a nearby window and one of them whined, “The sun’s coming up but we still have a whole hour to go!” I am not sure why (delirium from lack of proper sleep?) but that struck me funny.

Passenger deck on the ferry; this is the return trip but the guy in the right corner is sitting where I slept on the trip out

I rose shortly afterwards because my circadian rhythms refuse to allow any change in routine, no matter how tired I might be. I took the opportunity to stroll around a little and investigate the ferry. I wandered down to the restaurant for some tea and immediately noticed how much more you could feel the movement of the sea, and the ship, there at the prow; I grabbed a to-go cup and retreated to the safety of my original seat, which was positioned close to the centre where things felt much steadier and less sickening.

Once the ferry had pulled into the dock, we were given the all-clear to return to our cars, where we had to sit with our engines off until waved forward by the staff. I was at the front of the second-to-last row to leave, so I got a good view of proceedings while I waited. While looking in my rear view mirror, I saw a local bus approaching and had a little chuckle to myself thinking about a bus journey that also involved a ferry ride. I assumed it was just being delivered from the factory after a repair or something but, no, as it drove past I saw actual passengers sitting on it like it was the most normal thing in the world to hop on a bus in one country, drive onto a ferry, and then disembark in another country several hours later. Maybe that is normal, but it seemed a little surreal to me.

Waiting to leave the ferry after the crossing

After I’d been greenlighted, all I had to do was clear immigration and I was free to begin my cross-country journey to Cork. The guard asked my nationality and, for the first time ever in an official capacity, I declared myself as a British citizen. He waved me right through and I hit the road, which was extremely empty at that time of day. I briefly was stuck behind the world’s slowest tractor but otherwise had no issues thanks to the fact that I was getting a strong GPS signal and had useful directions to follow. I noticed that all the other drivers were extremely careful about driving exactly the speed limit, so I felt compelled to also be a very diligent driver.

Maybe it was the excitement of the adventure, maybe it was my amazing selection of music, maybe it was the lovely countryside, but the drive was very relaxed and enjoyable; it didn’t feel like a long and painful slog despite how little rest I’d had. I stopped briefly in Waterford for some breakfast, which I ate at the Granville Hotel because a) it was an obvious choice right across the street from the car park, and b) it reminded me of the Granville I used to visit in Ohio with my parents. Appropriately enough, this one was packed with an American tour group gearing up to visit the Waterford crystal factory that morning. I did not dally for any sightseeing, but hit the road again so I could make it to my cottage by lunch.

I stopped again outside Cork so that I could purchase groceries at a decent-sized supermarket with lots of options. I was shocked at some of the prices (€5 for a punnet of grapes??) and was glad I had packed all my own pantry items in order to save money; a full stock-up might have bankrupted me. My checkout guy was a true performance artist who scanned and handed things over with extreme flair and panache, all while maintaining a very stern demeanour; I had a hard time keeping a straight face while packing my food.

Not long after I hit the road again, I finally diverted onto the smaller routes that wound in through the hills to deliver you to secluded places like my cottage. Although the scenery had always been pleasant, it became much more so at this point; there were lots of rolling green hills with big jutting boulders, and stone walls dividing sheep fields, and, occasionally, glimpses of the coastline. The speed limit was generally 100 km/h (60 mph), which was absolutely insane given how curvy the roads were; even if you knew the route well and felt safe driving that fast, you would not have a comfortable journey if you did so. I opted to take the slow and steady approach, which not only avoided whiplash but also allowed me to appreciate the views.

I had worried that my cabin would be difficult to find, but actually it wasn’t—though the owner had given me directions from the opposite approach, so I had to drive past to the nearest town and then retrace my footsteps so that I could follow her instructions. From Kealkill, I drove approximately 3 miles, found the big white farmhouse, took the next right, and drove about a mile up a narrow, winding track until I arrived at my home away from home for the next week.

Home sweet home
The view from my cabin window. Not bad.
One of three species of tit that visited the feeders outside my cabin
Many chaffinches kept me company at the cabin

Stay tuned for the next post to find out more about my Irish adventures…