Photos by Guillaume de Vaudrey
Whether you're a newbie to Ireland or going back for a second visit, the country is on most folks' top 10 list because it seems to call to some sort of the unconscious part of the soul. Indeed, it is the land of enchantment, perhaps a bit like Dorothy's Oz and when you discover this magic kingdom for yourself, it is layer upon layer of discovery, like un-peeling a gift on Christmas morning that you will find quite multifaceted as you continue to discover more.
My latest venture to Ireland was earlier this year, in January, so the air was still crisp and the sunlight still elusive in the sky giving the land a sort of mystical feel. Indeed, my eyes seemed to be covered with the shadow of the culture and tradition that lies just underneath the surface of the Emerald Isle.
Off the plane on the first morning I headed straight (for my second time) to a falconry experience at Ashford Castle's School of Falconry. First things first however, since driving in Ireland can be a bit stressful, you want to make sure you are driving a sturdy car, my vote is for the Nissan
Qashqai. The 2015 Nissan Qashqai is a compact crossover so it's perfect for European roads and here in the states I would compare it to the Nissan Murano.
This style of Nissan has been in the European Nissan lineup since 2006, some folks familiar with the European brands might remember the Qashqai under the moniker of the Nissan Dualis, but reviews are in and the Qashqai stands up as much better in every way as compared to the Dualis from years past.
The 2015 Nissan Qashqai has also seen a reincarnation since last year too and it has been built on a new platform with the car buyer in mind. That is the car buyer who wants a cool design, but not in a big monster vehicle, preferring instead the quiet comfort of the sport utility feel with a gentler touch. Overall, the competition in the market for the 2015 Nissan Qashqai is the Toyota RAV 4, Hyundai Tucson and the Honda CR-V.
What I found most impressive about this European cousin to the Murano was the sleek designing that definitely stands out with a rear rise to the shape, but with an SUV feel. There is also a good ground clearance and good wheel arches with 19-inch wheels for just the right ride.
Under the hood there are a number of choices you can opt for including the 113bhp, 1.2-litre four-cylinder turbo fuel, 108bhp 1.5-litre turbo diesel, this being the most sought after for the European market, a 128bhp 1.6-litre turbo diesel or a 161bhp turbo fuel option.
When driving the Qashqai, you are definitely looking at a more comfortable ride than in years past, and with the new design, it's more comfort for not only the driver and front seat passenger, but also the folks in the back seat as well and that includes maximum headroom. There is also plenty of storage space in the cabin, the only distraction, the fake leather steering wheel, but it's not a deal breaker by any means.
As I drove to the castle, it was located in County Mayo and while closed for renovation, the School of Falconry on the grounds of the castle was still open for business.
Meeting these remarkable birds of prey and then flying them on the castle grounds is nothing short of extraordinary, and later, as I was able to hold and fly the school's owl (a Dingle European Eagle Owl) as he was sitting on my arm, I felt it was a thing of legend. The school of Falconry really only allows for a person to fly Hawks, but it's just as spectacular. These are Harris Hawks, and this school is actually the oldest established falconry school in Ireland. Falconry actually dates back 4,000 years.
Later, I stayed in Galway for the night, and the next morning found myself heading further into the Galway area through Connemara for some sightseeing along the way. Just driving the back roads and getting a feel for the country is priority number one when you first arrive in Ireland since you will want to stop and meet the people and hear the stories they have to tell. Just don't ask for directions, the Irish are known for giving twisted directions and the big tree at the end of the road might really be a rock. You probably won't mind a few diversions however, since wherever you end up it won't be very bad.
As you continue your journey in Ireland, make the next day another driving experience on to Sligo, where there are stone circles that will remind you of a culture that is long gone, but still just feels a breath away. The stone circle at Carrowmore in Sligo is a must, and then precede to W.B. Yeats's grave in nearby Drumcliffe with a number of interesting Irish high crosses to see reminiscent of the area.
After spending some time in the Republic of Ireland, take the time to head north to the very different, Northern Ireland for a look at the diverse landscape that offers castles and coastal roads that are unparalleled and enjoy the diversions leading to jewels just behind the next curve. Heading to Belfast for the first night ask around and be sure and tour the city before heading out to the countryside for a few nights.
The drive north from Belfast leads along a scenic drive called the Causeway Coastal Route, which has been rated as one of the top five roads to drive in the world with 120 miles from Belfast Lough to Lough Foyle. On this road highlights will include the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, a bridge that fishermen erected to reach a rock island crossing a large gorge. Then up the road to the very well-visited Giant's Causeway that was formed over 60 million years with the help of molten lava. The dramatic formations have names like the Wishing Chair, the Camel and the Harp. Made from hexagonal basalt columns, my current visit was a change from several years back since there is now a new state-of-the-art visitor's center offering a variety of displays and self-guided explanations of the 40,000- year-old columns. There is also a great legend to go with Giant's Causeway too telling the story of the giant Finn McCool who created the Causeway as a challenge to his Scottish rival, the legend lives on and these days the location has even been marked as a World Heritage Site.
Also on the Causeway Coastal Route stop in at Dunluce Castle, this is one of my favorite castles in Ireland overall, it is sweeping and magnificent and you see it before you ever arrive. It conjures up tales of days gone by and will remind you of how the area along this coast was a wild and free place to live or be attacked by neighboring clans.
After a few days exploring the Causeway Coastal Route, take another 24 hours before heading home and spend it in Belfast again, this time for some Titanic history. You can spend the afternoon in the Titanic Quarter visiting the SS Nomadic the tender ship for first and second class passengers to the Titanic and the last remaining ship of the White Star Line. There is also the Titanic Belfast that opened in 2012, which is the year that marked the centenary of the sinking of this most famous ship.
Ireland as a whole enchants, and whether it's the food you are wanting to experience, a bit of the whiskey, the history or the culture dating back well before the Christian era, this is a destination that will leave you with just a glimpse of what is to come since you can be sure you will return again and again.