Exploring the Emerald Isle by bus and train

A misty sky hovered over a pastoral patchwork of emerald and lime. White-capped waterfalls cascaded in glistening sheaths along the green hillsides and weaved through the wild heather and forested terrain. In the distance, a glimmer of sunlight struggled to lighten the lavish landscape drenched by days of rain.

“Looks like a bit of sunshine. Not very typical for Ireland, love,” said our bus driver, John, with a cheery lilt that belied the inclement weather.

We edged our way through narrow, curving roads toward the lakes and the sixth-century monastic ruins of Glendalough, the wonder of County Wicklow, less than an hour’s drive southeast of Dublin.

The sun miraculously appeared, with blue skies brightening the azure waters and radiant green mountain range — just in time to stretch our legs with a hike along one of Glendalough’s lakeside trails.

The day tour was just the beginning of the many scenic journeys that I would experience during my two weeks of travel via bus and train through the southeast and southwest of Ireland, a pint-size country (no bigger than Maine) with a giant-size heart. Humor and hospitality prevailed at most every encounter and turn.

Travel options

Traveling by bus and rail made for a less costly and stressful sojourn than traveling by car. I didn’t have to worry about driving on the left side of trafficked and winding roads or be concerned about finding appropriate parking. (It’s not uncommon to see cars booted that have missing or expired parking stubs.) Best of all, I had many opportunities to chat with locals and other travelers along the way while boning up on my Irish brogue.

Ireland has an extensive network of buses to all major cities and most of the smaller towns and villages. The trains, however, are more available on the east coast, with Dublin serving as the major hub, the city where I began my journey through the magical Emerald Isle.


I figured I would need at least three or four nights in Dublin to enjoy its rich sounds, tastes and sights and to take several side trips. A university town, Dublin resembles the Boston area, with a preponderance of Georgian architecture and brownstones and myriad monuments, churches and cobblestone side streets bustling with literary and scholarly life stemming from the historic 16th-century Trinity College. (Its eighth-century Book of Kells depicting early Celtic Christianity is a key attraction.)

What differentiates Dublin, though, from other cities are its colorful door fronts and the continuous traditional Irish sounds of accordion and fiddle playing which abound throughout the artsy Temple Bar and Trinity College area, overflowing with trendy restaurants and Guinness galore.

I found myself meandering along the nearby shopping arena of Grafton Street before taking a stroll through the flowerbeds and foliage adorning the manicured parks of Stephen’s Green and Merrion Square.

The interior of the National Gallery, besides its collection of 14th- to 20th-century paintings, made it well worth a stop. The Writers Museum gave me an informative overview of some of Ireland’s literary greats: Joyce, Swift, Wilde and Shaw, to name a few. After a day of touring, the grounds of the Museum of Modern Art, housed in a converted 17th-century retirement villa for soldiers, became a wonderful spot to reflect and relax.

Dublin is attempting to stir up some tasteful cuisine. My best experiences for fresh, wholesome dishes at a reasonable price (under $10 for salads and vegetarian entrées) were at Keogh’s Café (1-2 Trinity St.; phone 6725672) and at Café Fresh (phone 353 16719669), a year-old vegetarian-style café housed in the Powers Court Townhouse Centre, an unusual piece of architecture.

Taking the train

The train provided the most convenient and direct route to my next city stop southward, Waterford, the country’s major seaport and one of the oldest Viking towns. Think crystal and what comes to mind is Waterford, which produces some 300 to 400 pieces a day created by master engravers with 30 years of patience and experience.

The 2-hour train ride breezed by once I met Margaret, a delightful middle-aged Irish woman living in Waterford who clued me in on some of the forthcoming sights to see in her city and affirmed my choice of transportation.

“I prefer traveling by train rather than auto,” she stated. “I have more room to stretch and don’t have to deal with the darn city traffic.”

As I gazed out the window at the clusters of sheep cuddled together like cottonballs and at contented cows sprawled out in a bed of green lushness, I curled up and took a nap, comforted by the smooth motion of the train.


Before I knew it, we were in Waterford. The station was just a 10-minute walk from my hotel on Canada Street in a quiet corner overlooking a narrow section of the quay.

This picturesque city can be covered on foot with a walk along the seafront promenade and down Broad and George streets. Here I discovered Haricots Wholefood Restaurant (11 O’Connell St.), a culinary gem owned by two affable sisters who were raised on a farm. I can still taste the wholesome, moist carrot cake and sticky sponge cake of fresh apples and plums, as well as the herb nut loaf that could turn anyone vegetarian. Lunch cost about $12 per person.

I ate my first Irish stew that evening at T&H Doolans (George’s St.), noted for its traditional Irish tunes and cave-like atmosphere. My day ended on a high note with the delightful Waterford Show featuring jig, music and song.

On to Cork

The following morning I took an hour-long train trip to the medieval city of Kilkenny, known for its black marble and the ancient castle owned by the Butler family from the 14th to 20th centuries, across from which is a design center featuring handmade crafts and some savory sandwiches and salads.

The next morning I left from the depot used by Bus Éireann, Ireland’s national bus service, for the country’s second-largest city, Cork, and a side trip to Blarney Castle. A Celtic tradition dating back centuries, people from all over the world bend over backward to kiss the Blarney Stone for the gift of gab.

Cork is a charmer and a haven for foodies, with the energy of a large, bustling city and the look of a small town. An artists’ enclave, Cork has been chosen as the European Capital of Culture for 2005.

The choices of restaurants and shops there are overwhelming. Café Paradiso (Lancaster Quay; www.cafeparadiso.ie) proved to be perfect for a lunch break. Chef Denis Cotter emphasizes the use of organically grown produce and herbs to add flair to his vegetarian and fish entrées. The house-made lavender ice cream was an added treat. Lunch entrées range from €6 to €15.

Speaking of food, tourist-ridden Kinsale, a 45-minute bus ride from Cork, is touted as the gourmet capital of Ireland. I enjoyed the most flavorful fresh yellowfin tuna at Fishy Fishy Café (Guardwell; phone 21477 4453). It was worth the long wait (entreés $15-$20). I made good use of my time by visiting the oldest church in Ireland, located directly across from the restaurant.

A colorful fishing village and treasure trove of boutiques, B&Bs and eateries, Kinsale was a delightful half-day excursion. I maneuvered through the maze of narrow, cobblestone streets curving uphill — a day’s workout.

The light rain preempted my walk along the seaside to the 17th-century Charles Fort built by the British. Instead, I took the 4:30 return bus to Cork to rest my weary feet and prepare for my journey southwest to enchanting County Kerry.


I caught the morning train from Cork, with a change at Mallow, to the storybook town of Killarney, inspiration to many a poet and painter. I arrived at The Killarney Royal (College St., phone +353 64 31853 or visit www.killarneyroyal.ie), an elegant boutique hotel conveniently located near the railway and bus depot, right off the main thoroughfare of shops, pubs and restaurants. The hotel’s restaurant provided a quiet, well-prepared dinner with superb service. Room rates here range from €140 single to €380 suite (near $181-$492), including full Irish breakfast. Dinner is an additional €45 ($58).

What makes Killarney so special are its charm and location. Within walking distance of its center sits a spectacular national park and the famous Lakes of Killarney, with the majestic MacGillicuddy’s Reeks as a backdrop.

On my first day, despite the sporadic rain, I walked to Ross Castle, a good 2-hour hike, round trip. Farther on is the 1843 Muckross Estate, a spectacular Elizabethan-style home of 19th-century Parliament Member Henry Herbert, his watercolorist wife, Mary, and their family. The grounds ooze with azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons framing a mesmerizing lakeside view. I visited the estate the following afternoon, arriving by cab ($10) with a return trip by horse-driven jaunting car.

My three nights in Killarney were just barely enough to cram in the popular Ring of Kerry day excursion (€23) via Deros Tours (22 Main St.; phone +353 64 31251 or visit www. derostours.com) which included stops at the winner for tidiest town, Sneem, offering a view of a rainbow-covered Dingle Bay. The remarkable terrain of serpentine limestone walls bordering brilliant emerald bogs and sculptured rocks was just a prelude to the final photo stop at Ladies View.

I topped my day off with a delicate Dover sole dinner (about $25) at Peppers, a new trendy restaurant at the stately Great Southern Hotel (Town Centre).

A spectacular ending

Nearing the end of my Celtic sojourn, I arose the next morning for a 2-hour bus ride to Limerick, immortalized by Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes.” Not as colorful or touristy as some of Ireland’s major cities, Limerick has an earthy, no-nonsense feel. It was a wonderful stopover for the coach tour run by Barratt Tours (phone +353 61 384700 or visit www.4tours.biz) to the Burren, an endless expanse of limestone and Neolithic tombs, and the majestic Cliffs of Moher, literally the height of my trip. The grandeur of these 800-foot-high cliffs that dramatically rise above the foamy Atlantic waters was unprecedented among any ocean views that I had ever experienced. The day tour from Limerick cost €30.

What could better cap this memorable day — and my travels — than a spirited medieval feast (€49.95) at Bunratty Castle? Costumed entertainers performed a medley of song and repartee as guests ate in 16th-century style. . . without any utensils.

When the lively music subsided into a tender chorus of “Danny Boy,” we all held hands and swayed together, tears welling up in my eyes. At that moment, after having journeyed for miles, I realized I was closer to home than I thought.


Getting there

Aer Lingus (phone 800/474-7424 or visit www.aerlingus.ie) has direct flights to Dublin or Shannon airports from such major cities as Los Angeles, Boston, New York and Chicago.

Bus and rail connections

Bus Éireann (www.buseireann.ie) is the main coach service linking cities and towns in Ireland. Irish Rail (phone 01 7034070 or visit www.irishrail.ie) issues an Emerald Card valid for eight days of travel within 15 days (€218) by bus or rail in Ireland or 15 days of travel within a month (€375). The pass also covers city bus services in Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford.

Ireland tourism contacts

Tourism Ireland, 345 Park Ave., New York, NY 10154; phone 800/223-6470 or visit www.tourismireland.com.
Cork/Kerry Tourism; phone/fax +353 21 425 5199, or visit www.corkkerry.ie.