Not long ago I heard a “top travel agent” speak about travel to Ireland. I love Ireland so I was hoping to pick up a few tips myself. While she had many great tips on getting there- and back- I found myself disagreeing with what she suggested to do when you actually arrived.
When we travel I want an authentic experience. I want to meet the people, have a pint, learn the dance steps (and I have two left feet) and hear their stories. So when she suggested a tour as the best way to travel I disagreed. It's not that I have anything against tours; some are really great. Like the hop on/ hop off tours that you can find in many cities. Or the Ring of Kerry tour- because you really don't want to be driving that in a car surrounded by tour buses. But for exploring Ireland I recommend renting a car, especially if you are traveling with children. (See Getting Around Ireland and More Getting Around Ireland) It's not that difficult to drive on the “wrong” side of the road and when you have a car you are free to go at your own pace. Follow that intriguing, hand painted sign for hot tea and fresh scones; search for the castle you *think* you see in the distance; pull to the side of the road and talk to the man strolling with his dog. You can't do any of that on a tour. Besides, do you really want to meet other tourists?
Another suggestion I balked at, at least for Ireland, is to stay in a hotel. Ireland is known for its hospitality and the Bed and Breakfasts are legendary. Many B&Bs are independently owned and the families live in the house. It's a great opportunity to talk (who can get enough of the beautiful brogue?) and get suggestions on what to see, where to eat and what you should skip. Are there bad B&Bs? Sure. But the one hotel I stayed in near Shannon during my first trip to Ireland was awful.
While you don't want to miss the sights of your destination what you will really remember from your trip are the experiences, the chance encounters and the mishaps along the way. These are my tips for truly experiencing your vacation destination – no matter where it is.
10) Drive yourself. This is truly the best way to tour practically anyplace. You set the pace, stop and go as you please. Getting lost is half the fun. Truly. The only time we avoid driving is when we are in a large city with great public transportation.
9) Get off the highway! Charles Kuralt famously said, “Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything.” That is no less true no matter where you are.
8 ) Sit at the bar! It's a fact- locals belly up to the bar; tourists sit at tables. We've taken our girls into many a pub- both in Ireland and the US. While we don't sit at the bar with them we do sit as close to it as possible- and we order our drinks from the bartender. Some of our best conversations come from meeting people while waiting for our drinks. If you're really nice and buy them a drink they may bring the conversation over to you!
7) Ask questions! It doesn't matter if you are asking for directions or recommendations, people love to talk about where they live. This is the best way to find out where to get the best food, where to hear the best music or if there are any “hidden” gems most tourists miss.
6) Visit the sites. That's what you went to see, after all. But be sure to talk to the staff and guides- and not just about the site. Ask about their favorite feature, inquire about legends, engage them in conversation. You'll get more than the “regular” tour. They may even be able to point you to lesser known, and often more interesting, locations.
5) Attend a local sporting event. Especially if you don't know the rules. Nothing will gain you new buddies faster than cheering on the local team.
4) Kids everywhere like the same things. They also make friends easily. Let them take the lead. Visit a park or playground. You may get insider tips on a children's theater that hosts free plays or a kids faire coming up for the weekend.
3) Be flexible. You never know what will present itself to you. When Doug and I were in London (2003, before kids) we were on our way to Westminster Abbey. As we were walking past Parliament we noticed two Bobbies guarding a gate. We stopped and talked with them and were then invited in for a one-on-one tour of Parliament (which was not open for tours at that time) and tea. It was the most memorable part of our trip. We still share emails with Mike occasionally.
2) Relax. Dance in a pub, join a ceili, sing with the band. My daughter does this all the time and has the best time. Let go a little; you're on vacation.
1) Slow down! You'll never “see it all” so take the time to really savor what you do see and enjoy the moments. Don't come home from your vacation feeling like you need a vacation.