By Ed Forry
A September trip to Ireland brought with it good weather, some surprising motoring, and some great new memories from my ancestral homeland.
The good news for this visitor is how the exchange rate is advantageous against the dollar; in late September, a euro cost $1.30, not a bad rate compared to a year ago. Also, Irish hotels and restaurants are offering attractive low rates and package deals, helping the American tourist to stretch the travel budget.
Our trip took us to Dublin, Sligo, and Galway, and the weather – mirabile dictu – was mild and largely dry, In eight days of cross-country travel, we encountered very little rain, and after the hot steamy Boston summer, the mild mid-60’s Irish climate felt just right.
In Dublin the Fitz William Hotel was a convenient central location. Despite crowds in town for the Galway/Kilkenny hurling match, and a weekend gathering of some 25 Ukranian revelers, who filled the breakfast room with a bit of a clamor, the location was just right for a mid-day stroll across the sunny St. Stephens Green, and a walk down Grafton Street to see the Molly Malone statue across from Trinity College.
A one-day hop-on/hop-off sight-seeing tour offered a taste of Dublin, the only disappointment being an overpriced stop at the Guinness brewery.
In driving cross-country in a rental car to Sligo, we found that the new M4 motorway made our 100-mile Saturday afternoon excursion an easy trip. A sparkling Tesco service station and café in Enfield was a good rest stop, and the ride to Sligo took less than three hours. We settled in the Cromleach Lodge just off the N4 in Castlebaldwin, a spectacular resort on a hill overlooking Lough Arrow not far from Sligo town. It is easy to recommend Cromleach, with some of the best vistas of the Sligo hills and a fabulous menu of native meals and baked goods.
After two days we were on the road, with lunch in Westport (Ireland’s “best place to live,” according to the town leaders) and a meandering ride through Leenane and Maam to Galway. There, we stayed at the House Hotel, a 40-room “boutique” hotel just off Quay Square and the Spanish Arch.
A good example of great restaurant bargains: The Vina Mara (Spanish for vineyard and the sea) on Middle Street offers all entrees on Monday and Tuesday nights for just 10 euro. The food was terrific and the price was more than reasonable. One of our party said the complimentary sautéed potato wedges were the best she had every tasted.
Vina Mara proprietor Eileen Feeney said that she and her husband Jarlath opened the business ten years ago, conceiving it as a Spanish wine bar. “We spent our holidays with children in Spain over the years,” she explained. “You know how you love Spanish wine – well I do, anyway – and the atmosphere of Spain, the sun, and the sea. So I had a plan to have a little wine bar. It turned into a restaurant because the premises we found were a little too big for a wine bar. We had a really good up-and-coming young chef who came on board with us.” And for many years the new eatery thrived.
But the bad economy caused Feeney and her husband to make some hard management decisions.
"When we started it was not a recession time and people had loads of money in Ireland, and it was very lucrative time in the country. We have had to make changes and we made changes at the right time. We changed before we needed to change, and this is, I think, our savings grace.”
She explains the bargain prices are sustained by a big increase in customers: “On a Monday or Tuesday night, we might have 25 diners,” she says. “Now on those nights we serve 100. With the reduced prices diners typically decide to add an appetizer or dessert, or a bottle of wine. “We keep costs strictly under control, and have not had to add any staff other than a server or two.”