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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Backpacking in the UK & Ireland: A Couple's Experience

Alisha McDarris
Dublin Castle - Dublin, Ireland

First of all, for our first big overseas excursion on our own, we did pretty well. By which I mean we came back alive and with some fairly interesting stories. That said, it was quite a wild ride! Sure, we’ve been out of the country together since we’ve been married, but not like this. We went to Mexico for our honeymoon, but we stayed at a resort and spent most of our time relaxing by the pool. We went on a mission trip to Nicaragua, but all that, including fun day-off activities, was planned for us. And yes, we’ve gone on road trips and visited various U.S. cities, but it doesn’t compare to taking off over the Atlantic and spending two weeks fending for yourself in completely unknown territory all while trying to stick to a budget that matches what’s currently in your vacation account.

We spent countless hours pouring over guide books and airfare websites and travel tips and tricks pages as we charted our course, made our schedule, and mapped our route. It was exhilarating and when we got there we were (mostly) prepared.

When we arrived in Dublin, Ireland, it was in the AM and we followed the advice of seasoned travelers to go on with your day as if you haven’t just been flying for 12 hours. We caught a bus with our couchsurfing host who met us at the airport (two hours late), changed, and hit the town, ready to see the sights. Unfortunately, our bodies weren’t on the same page as our wills and after the first sight we had to take a brief respite in the park. Actually, Josh almost didn’t make it to the park. He started nodding off during a tour of Dublin Castle and had to catch himself from tipping sideways once or twice. But it was OK. We weren’t the only ones napping on the lawn…

It didn’t take long for the excessive amount of walking to get to me. It was probably somewhere around the end of the second day that I came to the conclusion that my sneakers weren’t quite as comfortable as I initially thought and briefly considered buying new ones. Needless to say, that never happened. I just vowed to burn them when I got back home (which also never happened).

We went to museums, we appreciated art, we spent a lot of time in various parks looking up where we were supposed to go next. We saw an Oscar Wilde play in the upper room of a popular cafe and listened to the choral evensong at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It was wonderful.

Saint Patricks Cathedral - Dublin, Ireland

We only got turned around a few times.

We hopped on a bus to Cork and were less than delighted to watch our host meet us by the fountain, in the rain, on a tandem bike. “That’s not our host is it?” Josh asked. I took one look at his bushy red beard and replied, “Yes. Yes it is.” We were wet, we were cold and we were cycling back to his place, Josh on the rear saddle, me on the handlebars in the middle hanging onto our host for dear life. But despite the ridiculous picture we made and our travel tiredness (perhaps because of it), I couldn’t stop laughing. Fortunately, he turned out to be a really great, really intelligent guy who took us dancing and out for local beer and traditional Irish music. He also provided Josh with some seriously fresh blood pudding which he described as “Tripe-y,” which I believe means “Wow, now I know what coagulated intestines taste like.”

Fresh Black Pudding - Cork, Ireland

The fact that our host had bikes was useful, though we appreciated them less when they wouldn’t change gears as we climbed the ridiculous hills of Cork that it turned out we wouldn’t have had to climb would we have been headed in the right direction. We recovered, but the leisurely ride became even less fun when we tried to get a bit ambitious with the distance and got caught in the rain. That was about when I started drafting a lawsuit against the manufacturer of my windbreaker for claiming that it was waterproof when, clearly, it was not.

Cycling in Cork, Ireland

We also stayed in a hostel for the first time, which turned out to be a heck of a lot nicer than I thought it would be. And unlike in our host home, the heat was on. As for the sights, we never made it to Blarney Castle, but a day trip to the Cliffs of Moher more than made up for it. Blue skies, waves crashing at the base of monumental cliffs, tall grasses waving softly in the breeze…it was wonderful.

The Cliffs of Moher - Liscannor, Co. Claire, Ireland

In Cork we got turned around enough times to question our navigational skills.

From there we hopped on a plane to London — Stanstead, that is — and took a coach into the city. Four days of sightseeing and traipsing from one end of the city to the other can really wear you out. But we were happy to talk shop (photography, of course) with our highly interested host. Unfortunately we could only stay there for two of our four nights and ended up walking forever to a hostel the third night and the crappiest hotel I have ever seen on the last. Seriously. Crappiest ever. It didn’t have it’s own bathroom. We couldn’t figure out how to turn the heat on. I’m pretty sure the water that came out of the tap was brown. It poured the whole 30 minute walk there, I was soaked to the bone, the four other hostels and hotels we had tried first were booked, and yes, I may have cried. Don’t pretend like you wouldn’t have done the same.

But we saw popular sights like the changing of the guard and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and saw the most wonderful production of Les Miserable at the Queen’s Theatre. I may also have cried there…

Shakespeare's Rebuilt Globe Theatre - London, England
Les Misérables at Queen's Theatre - London, England

I’m pretty sure in London we misread a map more than I ever thought was possible for two intelligent individuals…

From there it was a coach to Bath, England where our super friendly host met us at the station and whisked us away to explore all the historical sites and sounds of the city. Yeah, we went to Stonehenge, but everybody was right: it is just a big pile of rocks. But as the home of Jane Austen and the Roman Baths, there was plenty more to do. We even went into Whales for an afternoon with our host to check out some more castles and scratch one more country off our list. We didn’t get to stay as long as we would have liked, but our host graciously offered to drive us to the airport at an ungodly hour of the morning so we could catch a plane to Edinburgh.

Stonehenge - Wiltshire, England
The Royal Crescent - Bath, England
Roman Baths - Bath, England

We didn’t get lost in Bath once!

In Edinburgh I was reminded of how much I hated my shoes and finally broke down and bought a coat and hat. I drastically underestimated how cold it would be and that stupid little windbreaker I brought (you know, the one that wasn’t waterproof) didn’t do a lick of good at keeping out the chill. Thank goodness for Primark! Man I wish we had those stores here! Josh did OK with the chill, though he did borrow my back-up scarf (I bought a second in Ireland) to wrap around his head when we ascended Arthur’s Seat.

Arthur's Seat - Edinburgh, Scotland

Again there were museums and art and history and daily stops in local cafes to determine our next destination, warm up, and guzzle the mochas I was quickly becoming addicted to. But Climbing Arthur’s Seat, the highest point in Edinburgh, and squeezing in a tour through the Edinburgh Dungeon were the highlights. Yeah, the latter is most definitely for the tourists, and we weren’t sure how it would go, but we went anyway and actually had a blast. Our host was great, too, and provided as much lively conversation in the mornings and evenings as we could ever want.

Scottish National Gallery - Edinburgh, Scotland
Entrance to 'The Edinburgh Dungeon' - Edingburgh, Scotland

Before heading to the airport to head back to Dublin where we’d catch our flight home the next morning, we also took a train out to North Berwick (pronounced, as I so animatedly like to recall, North Bare-rick) to pay a visit to the Scottish Seabird Center. It was hard work making the most of it after we missed our train, had to wait an hour for the next one as we worried we would miss the boat tour we were hoping to go on, and then arrived only to find out they had scrubbed that tour anyway and weren’t having another until we had to leave. I may have been a bit grumpy. Plus, I wanted to see puffins. Little did I know that September is not when puffins are vacationing on the coast of Scotland. Apparently that’s in June…

In the distance: Bass Rock - Scottish Seabird Center - North Berwick, Scotland

On the upside, I don’t think we ever got lost in Edinburgh. OK, maybe once or twice but that was only because we couldn’t find our host’s flat.

So, our two week excursion nearly at an end, we flew to Dublin where we decided to spend the night in the airport to save the money and the hassle of trying to get back into the city for a night, only to rush back to the airport in the morning. We will never make that mistake again. And unless you can sleep through riotous amounts of noise and find a cold tile floor exceedingly comfortable, I would not recommend it to anyone I cared about either. Just don’t do it. Just don’t. Josh looked like a zombie for the next two days. Seriously. I should have taken a picture. Major zombie face.

Sleeping in the Dublin Airport

Back at home two flights and one excessively long layover later, we reminisced, edited 100,000 photos over the next month and a half, and couldn’t wait to share our experiences with everyone we knew, even if they didn’t ask to see our 100,000 edited photos.

So despite the ups and downs, twists and turns, exotic food and strange sleeping arrangements, it was an amazing journey and we can’t wait to do it again. Maybe mainland Europe next time?

ITINERARY

We’ve been asked many times how long we stayed in a city, how we got from place to place, that sort of thing. So here’s a practical breakdown of how our trip went.

Trip length: 14 days

Cities visited: 5

Money spent: $3,204 (over half of which was spent on plane tickets to get there)

We flew into Dublin in the morning and hit the ground running. We spent three full days exploring completely on foot and were completely satisfied with how much we got to see and do while we were there.

From Dublin we took a coach to Cork. It was only a couple hours and a short walk from the coach station to the center of town. Most of Cork could have been appreciated on foot, but because things are a little more spread out, we were glad to have access to bicycles. It extended our reach outside of just the little downtown area. We stayed there for two days.

From Cork we took a bus to the airport and flew to Stanstead Airport outside of London. From there is was maybe an hours’ coach ride into the city, but it was still quite a bit cheaper than flying into a more central airport. We got to the city in the late morning and spent 4 days in London, once again mostly on foot save for a handful of rides on the tube to get to and from our host’s home outside the city.

From London we took another coach into Bath, England — it took about two hours — and arrived nearish lunch time. The city was no trouble on foot, but to see Stonehenge we had to use a set of wheels. Fortunately our host was kind enough to drive us out there. We stayed for a day and a half which we didn’t feel was long enough, unfortunately.

Edinburgh was our last stop and we arrived in the morning by plane from Bath. We took one bus to try and make a train for a day trip, but otherwise we trudged up and down the hilly city on foot to and from our host’s home each day. We took the train to North Berwick one afternoon and a bus to the Edinburgh Airport for our flight out. We stayed for three days and could have stayed for one more at least.

From the Edinburgh Airport we flew to the Dublin Airport (it was much cheaper to do it this way) and slept in the airport until our morning flight back to the states. It wasn’t the most pleasant way to spend the night, but by this point we didn’t want to deal with the hassle of getting a late bus to the nearest hostel and back in the morning.

Eventually we made it back to West Palm Beach (via Charleston and a three hour layover we could have done without) and I’m not going to lie, I was glad to be back in warmer climates. : )

The entire trip, travel, meals and lodging included, was around $3,204.

The tickets alone were $1,843 and the rest, about $1,360, was spent on, well, everything else (food, admission, transportation, cold medicine…). Only around $150-$200 went to lodging as we couchsurfed most of the time and loved it. And in case you’re wondering, that all totals up to a bit under $100 a day plus plane tickets to get there. Could we have done it for less? Sure, but we had saved up for a year and didn’t want to deprive ourselves of every fun thing that cost a little extra. ; )

So now you know. A two-week trip through the UK and Ireland might just be closer than you think!

Trinity College - Dublin, Ireland

Alisha McDarris / Author & Editor

Alisha has been a writer and photographer forever. OK, maybe not forever, but at least for more of her 20-something years than she hasn’t been those things... [Read More]

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