Dominican Republic 2013: Santo Domingo, Bayahibe, and Cap Cana

The Dominican Republic, 2013: Santo Domingo, Bayahibe, Isla Saona, and Cap Cana

When most people tell me that they’ve been to the Dominican Republic, or that they know someone who has, I always ask where they went. Usually, it’s a resort in Punta Cana.

The Dominican Republic, which shares an island with Haiti in the Caribbean, is fairly new to the tourism industry. It has some really spectacular beaches and has recently been building up its eastern coastline with all-inclusive resorts to try and cash in on the tourist dollar that Mexico has been raking in. There is even an airport in Punta Cana, making it very easy for tourists to fly in and out of the area.

The tourists who visit Punta Cana end up in a tourist bubble of resorts and beaches, without actually seeing much Dominican culture or life at all, or eating the delicious Dominican food. There aren’t very many towns near the resorts, and because of the Punta Cana tourist bubble, it’s possible to have technically been to the Dominican Republic without actually seeing much at all.

I also think that this gives Dominicans a specific impression of Western tourists. If you’re caucasian, it is assumed that you are a tourist, you are staying at a resort, you don’t care much about the culture, you have a lot of money, and are therefore a target to make money off of. All tourists are money targets everywhere in the world, but we felt a little more “shaken down” for money here than we did in Mexico. Even the airport kiosk didn’t have prices on the snacks, you have to bargain. Can you blame them?

All that being said, however, the Dominican Republic has a lot to offer outside of Punta Cana. If you travel there, consider getting out and seeing a bit more and not spending all your time at a resort. Knowing a little Spanish is very helpful.

We booked our flights, an airport shuttle in Santo Domingo, and two of our hotels on Expedia with a multi-stop trip booking. We decided to fly into Santo Domingo, and out of Punta Cana which ended up being very convenient and not any more expensive.

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For whatever reason, we got our seat assignments in first class for both flights on the way down. We didn’t pay for it or ask for it, but we certainly enjoyed it. We flew on a night flight from Seattle to Miami, and then from Miami to Santo Domingo.

Below: enjoying our complimentary champagne on our flight to Miami

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We tried to sleep on the floor in the Miami airport, but the AC was cranked up so high that we were freezing the whole time. It wasn’t a fun layover.

**Tip: Bring long pants, socks, and a sweatshirt for the Miami Airport if you have a layover.

Day 1:

We arrived in Santo Domingo around 11:00 AM, withdrew some pesos out of the airport ATM, and met our shuttle driver in ground transportation. He was very friendly and we made conversation as best we could with his limited English and our limited Spanish. He dropped us off at the Hotel Frances, a beautiful hacienda-style hotel in the Colonial quarter of Santo Domingo. The hotel building itself dates back to the 16th century Spanish colonial days. Our room was on the ground floor with a door opening to the courtyard restaurant.

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Hotel Frances, Santo Domingo
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Hotel Frances, Santo Domingo
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Hotel Frances, Santo Domingo

We were exhausted and promptly drew the shutters and crashed for a couple hours. Around 3:00, we forced ourselves to get up, shower, and go out. We walked around the colonial quarter, still exhausted, and decided some caffeine was in order. We found a little cafe on the main shopping street of Calle del Conde with outdoor tables, and sat and had some cappuccinos. It was good people watching, and about all we could muster for the moment. After a good sit and some great cappuccinos, we went back to the hotel to get ready for dinner.

**Tip regarding clothing: Dominicans don’t often wear shorts, so tourists wearing shorts will stick out like a sore thumb. Also, shorts are often not allowed in upscale restaurants or night clubs. Jeans are way too hot, don’t bring those. Paddy has some linen pants that he wore out at night that he loves. (Shorts are totally acceptable at the beach, just make sure you have some pants for dinner restaurants).

Our guidebook strongly recommended Meson de Bari, which we later found out was also featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. The atmosphere was colorful and lively, and the service was great. Unfortunately, we ordered the wrong things and they were a bit bland. Stick to the house specials of stewed goat or crab, or lambi (conch) empanadas. Outside of the house specials, the food seems to be a little on the drab side. We recently watched the No Reservations episode, and whatever Tony was eating looked a lot more interesting that what we ordered, which was shrimp and beef with creole sauce.

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Mason de Bari, Santo Domingo
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Mason de Bari, Santo Domingo
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Mason de Bari, Santo Domingo

After dinner we had a few drinks at the bar in our hotel, which was a tiny little bar off the corner of the courtyard. If we’d had more time in Santo Domingo, I would have liked to have dinner at the hotel courtyard restaurant. It was dimly lit and romantic. The entire atmosphere of the Hotel Frances was upscale and historically charming. I would definitely recommend it.

 

Day 2:

After a good night’s rest, we were ready to go out and actually see some stuff. We headed down to Calle del Conde and found a little cafe on the edge of the Parque Colon, a square named after Christopher Columbus. The park features a nauseating late 19th century statue of Columbus, with a naked Taino slave girl worshipping at his feet. Santo Domingo was the first successfull Spanish settlement that Columbus established in 1496, and the oldest continually-inhabited European settlement in the Americas. The settlement was then governed by  Nicolás de Ovando from Spain during 1502-1509, during which the native Taino population was brutally decimated down to roughly 12% of what it was when Columbus arrived.

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Parque Colon
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Parque Colon

We ate breakfast outdoors in the shade and watched several groups of cruise ship tourists walk by with cameras, shorts, and socks with sandals. Breakfast was standard American fare and a very tasty Spanish omelet (“tortilla”). The Dominican coffee was dark and delicious.

After breakfast, we explored the colonial quarter. It was interesting to see old Spanish-style buildings from the 1500’s here in North America.

Up the hill from our hotel were the ruins of El Monasterio de San Francisco. It was constructed in 1508, suffering setbacks of hurricanes and later earthquakes in the 1600’s and 1700’s. It later became a mental hospital in the 1880s (I can only imagine what that entailed….my guidebook said that some of the shackles that patients were chained up with are still attached to the walls). Another hurricane severly damaged the building in the 1930’s, and it has been in ruins since.

Down the street from the ruins of the Monasterio de San Francisco are the ruins of the Hospital San Nicholás de Bari, constructed in 1503. It survived many hurricanes and earthquakes, but finally succumbed to a hurricane in 1911.

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Hospital San Nicholás de Bari, Santo Domingo

Next, we visited the Fortaleza Ozama, a Spanish castle built in the 1500’s overlooking the Ozama River. It is the oldest European military building in the Americas, and weathered the natural disasters better than the hospital and monastery. The building served as a prison in later years until the 1960’s.

We bypassed a random guy asking us for money for a tour (the site is free) and did our own tour.

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Fortaleza Ozama, Santo Domingo
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Fortaleza Ozama
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Fortaleza Ozama, Santo Domingo

We were getting hungry, so we made one last quick stop at the old church in Parque Colon.

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Parque Colon

For lunch, we went to the El Conde Hotel restaurant on the corner of the Parque Colon. It was busy, with shaded outdoor seating and indoor seating. We had some American-style sandwiches, lemonade, and Presidente beer.

After lunch, we did a little shopping on Calle del Conde and ran into a small parade. It almost seemed impromptu, as it was really small and no one was lined up along the streets watching it. It was a nice surprise. We asked a local what it was for and were told “spring.”

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When I was an exchange student in Denmark in high school, one of my closest friends was a fellow exchange student from the Dominican Republic, Ramses. Ramses had moved to Colombia a few years prior to our visit, but hooked us up with his younger sister Stephania and his mother Violeta. I got in contact with them before our trip and they were more than happy to show us around for the evening.

Stephania and Violeta picked us up at our hotel and we went to the restaurant that Ramses said we absolutely HAD to eat at, Adrian Tropical. It is a Dominican restaurant featuring the popular Dominican dish, the mofongo. The mofongo is a dish made up of fried plantains, pork cracklings, broth, garlic, and other lovely items mashed up together with a mortar and pestle. If you go to the Dominican Republic, your trip won’t be complete unless you’ve had one. They are delicious and they seem to be the favorite food of every Dominican I’ve ever met.

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Mofongo
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Adrian Tropical Santo Domingo

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I had the shrimp mofongo, the “camarofongo.” It was also delicious.

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Camarofongo

After dinner, it was a special night in the colonial zone and all the museums were free and open until late. We had a difficult time finding parking on the tiny streets, and when we finally found a space the museums were closing. Stephania and Violeta sweet-talked the man at Alcázar de Colón into letting us in really quick before they closed. Alcázar de Colón is the former home of Diego Columbus, Christopher Columbus’ son.

After the museum, we walked across the square to El Patio del Canario, a bar owned by a local salsa music star. It is a tiny bar, and super charming. We got to see some locals dancing merengue which was quite impressive. Violeta tried to teach me some salsa dancing, not sure how well I did. The Presidente beers were frosty cold. They drink their beer colder in the Dominican Republic than anywhere we’ve ever been to. They come with a layer of white frost on them, and are said to be wearing a  “vestida de novia” or wedding dress. It was a hot night and that beer couldn’t have tasted better.

We called it a night around 1:00 AM and thanked Violeta and Stephania for a great evening.

 

Day 3:

The next morning we had a very nice (albeit expensive for Dominican standards at $15/person) breakfast in the Hotel Frances courtyard. It was worth it–there were a lot of options, eggs cooked to order, and a beautiful courtyard to sit in.

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Hotel Frances breakfast Santo Domingo Domincan Republic 086

We had reserved a shuttle to the town of Bayahibe with Domincan Shuttles for about $120.00. I’m sure that there are less expensive ways to get to Bayahibe with the public bus, but we were willing to pay the extra money to go on our own schedule with direct service to our hotel.

The shuttle driver was very friendly, and the ride was about 2 hours. He made sure that we were let into the gate at our hotel by the owner before he left, which was much appreciated. We had booked three nights at the Hotel Villa Baya, a small and inexpensive mom-and-pop hotel in the town. The room wasn’t anything fancy, but very affordable at $40.00/night and had everything we needed. It had a double bed and a twin, a small table and chairs, ample closest space, a tiny TV, an outdoor patio, and a kitchen with a gas stove, sink, dishes, and a mini fridge. No A/C, but there was a fan. We were on the ground floor, and I think requesting an upper floor unit might be a little better with a more private deck.

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Hotel Villa Baya Bayabibe Domincan Republic 089

The hotel also has a locked gate to the property that you need your key to get in and out of, providing extra security. There wasn’t a safe, so we hid our valuables that we didn’t take with us in socks deep in our backpacks in the closet, and made sure to leave a tip for the maid each day. We had no problem.

We walked around the tiny town, getting extra cash at the ATM at the grocery store, and water, beer, and wine to stock our mini fridge. We found the grocery store souvenir prices to be best here out of anywhere we went. They all had price tags on them too–a rarity in DR.

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Road back to the hotel from town

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That evening we ate at a little beach restaurant near the harbor, Chiky Blue. It was a super cute little beach spot with a grass roof, Christmas lights hung around for ambiance, and very friendly staff. I ordered a fried fish with rosemary potatoes, and it was the best whole fried fish I’ve ever eaten in my life.

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Whole fried fish at Chiky Blue Bayahibe
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Chiky Blue Bayahibe

At night there was a congregation of locals around a bar/convenience store near the grocery store in town, partying, socializing, and listening to Dominican bachata music.

We picked up some milk and cereal for the morning, as we were getting up really early the next morning to leave on a tour. Having a kitchenette in our room was definitely a convenience.

 

Day 4:

We had booked two tours with Seavis Tours, an eco-tour company based out of Bayahibe. Originally, I had wanted to do the Jungle Tour in the Parque Nacional de Este, but it wasn’t offered on Mondays. They said the tour they had available on Mondays was the Monster Truck Safari, operated by a third party tour provider. We looked it over, the words “monster truck” and “safari” setting off major red flags of a horrendous tourist experience. It promised an educational tour of rural country life, a farm, and a rural school. It sounded interesting enough, so deliberated and decided to go for it.

We were picked up in front of the police station near our hotel by a shuttle driver, and then made a few stops at some resorts to pick up several other tourists, all European. When we reached the nearby town of Higuey, we were loaded into a hideous “monster truck” that made us cringe.

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We climbed aboard and monstered our way out into the countryside. If there was one thing I enjoyed about this tour, it was the driving part through the country. We passed houses and farms, getting a chance to view the vast diversity of country living.

Our first stop was at the home and farm of a middle class Dominican family. We were given a tour of the farm and it’s fruits and vegetables. The family who owned the farm was going about their day in the house, doing laundry, cleaning, watching TV, etc. We were told to go in and see the house, but Paddy and I didn’t feel very comfortable going in and gawking at a family in their home. I know the family was getting compensation for the tour, but it just felt weird and intrusive.

Next, we were led down the road to the family’s small store, and told that we were going to be visiting a Haitian village where the kids were very poor later in the trip. We were told that we should buy school supplies or candy to give them. Here’s where things got gross: They had TWO spiral notebooks and TWO pencils for all of us to buy for the kids, and a giant amount of candy. All sold by the family who owned the house at expensive American prices, not Dominican prices. We bought a small bag of candy and a notebook and pencil. None of the other tourists bought the remaining school supplies, all candy.

Now, had we known this was part of the tour, we would have stocked up on school supplies, food, toothbrushes, and other necessities from the grocery store in Bayahibe to give out to the kids. (At the end of the trip, we all realized that this was all part of a big show put on for the tourists so that the family with the farm could make money. None of it was about helping poor Haitian kids. )

Next, we visited a rural country school. It was spring break, so the kids were gone but we were shown the classroom and told a bit about Dominican schools.

Rural school Dominican Republic

rural school Domincan Republic

rural school Domincan Republic

Before we left, our guides brought out some ugly safari hats with “Monster Truck Safari” on them, and told us that if we bought one (at $20 each) the proceeds would go to helping the school. No one bought one, until the guide put some pressure on us and one of the Europeans finally forked over $20.  My suspicion is that very little goes to helping the school, and that most of it goes to the Monster Truck Safari people. Had there been a teacher there talking about the school with a donation jar, we would have donated. Instead we felt a little put off.

Next we stopped at another “farm” where a family was selling jellies and fruit leather. More pressure to purchase, and not much in the way of a tour.

We then continued through the road, and past a sugarcane plantation with a giant mansion up on the top of a big hill overlooking the sugarcane fields. We turned a corner and approached the “Haitian village.” Kids were waiting for us, and we gave them our candy. They were jumping and grabbing for it, and we were told not to toss the candy to them because they fight. It was like feeding animals. I handed the notebook and pencil to one of the few adult women with the kids, who grabbed for it and gave it to a specific little girl. I’m sure she knew which kid needed it the most, and that was the only part that made us happy.

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As we drove away, monstering over a river and up a hill, the whole picture became clear. This wasn’t a “Haitian village,” it was a migrant farm-worker community who work the sugarcane fields for the rich guy on the hill with the mansion, who obviously pays them next to nothing. Their houses were shanties built with whatever scraps of building materials that they could find, and the “village” was just a section of the plantation owner’s land that he lets them live on.

The Monster Truck Safari people do this tour once a week, help the family with the farm make some money off the tourists by selling them candy at high prices, and then show the tourists the “poor Haitian kids” as a tourist attraction, like animals in a zoo. Those kids don’t need candy once a week. They need necessities, things that won’t rot their teeth.

We were pretty disgusted and bummed out by the whole ordeal. The guide tried to get “party time” going on again as we headed back to Higuey, trying to interest us in rum and cokes and beer. We weren’t interested.

Our last stop was in Higuey, where we walked through a market and then were brought to a store where we could buy souvenirs (big surprise) at “the best prices in the Dominican Republic.” They weren’t the best prices. For the resort tourists, they might have been as the resort gift shops charge exhorbitant prices. We got most of our souvenirs at the Bayahibe grocery store instead for very reasonable prices.

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Market in Higuey
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Higuey

When we got back to Bayahibe, they dropped us off first, in front of the dirt road to our little hotel. Kids and chickens were running around the road, and the resort tourists were somewhat horrified by our digs. We bid them goodbye and good riddance.

For dinner that evening we went to Bamboo Beach, another grass-roofed little spot with a view of the water. It was owned by French expats, and most of the customers appeared to be French tourists. The food was good and the atmosphere was nice.

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Bamboo Beach, Bayahibe
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Bamboo Beach, Bayahibe
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Bamboo Beach, Bayahibe
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Bamboo Beach, Bayahibe

 

Day 5:

The next day was a lazy beach day. Bayahibe has a very nice public beach, with beach chairs for rent for $5.00 for the day.

**Tips:

1. You get a better deal paying in pesos for beach chairs instead of dollars

2. Stock up on water, beer, snacks, and toilet paper at the grocery store before you head to the beach. The public restroom is a bring your own TP type of situation, and the beers at the beach are ridiculously overpriced.

3. Take the back beach trail, not the one along the water to avoid the aggressive souvenir stands.

We had breakfast first at Cafe La Marina, an open air restaurant right in front of the main harbor. I think the owners were Italian. There were a lot of Italian style baked goods, and I got a very good foccacia bread with tomatoes. Coffee was tasty.

We took the back trail to avoid the touts at the souvenir stalls, and passed a small beach cemetery.

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Bayahibe Beach cemetery Domincan Republic 143

The beach itself was really nice, with soft sand, minimal coral, and bathtub warm water. My sunscreen expired a little before we left and I got a tiny bit burnt. Remember to re-apply!

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Bayahibe public beach
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Bayahibe public beach
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Bayahibe public beach

**Bathroom tip: Don’t use the “bathrooms” near the beach parking lot. They are the grossest outhouses I’ve ever seen. Head back to the public restroom near the town–make sure to bring your own toilet paper.

When we’d had enough sun, we walked back to the main marina area and had lunch at the Saona Cafe, a little bar and grill owned by French Canadian expats right in front of the harbor. We had some very tasty fish burgers and ice cold Presidentes.

Later that evening after a rest in our room, we went looking around for a place for dinner. There were a few interesting little spots on the harbor, but we ended up getting pizza back at Chiky Blue again. It had such great atmosphere and view, and the food and prices were great.

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Bayahibe Harbor
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Chiky Blu Bayahibe
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Chiky Blu Bayahibe

 

Day 6:

We had one more tour scheduled with Seavis Tours to the popular Isla Saona in the Parque Nacional de Este. While our last experience had put a really bad taste in our mouths, we suspected (and were correct) that the Monster Truck Safari tour was contracted out by a seperate company. We hoped that this tour from the self-described “eco tour” company would be better. Fortunately, it was and it was one of the main highlights of our trip.

We checked out of Hotel Villa-Baya, leaving the key in the room as the front desk people were often absent. We walked down to the Seavis Tours office on the public beach, and were met by the Dutch couple that helped us make our reservations. They were very accommodating, and stored our luggage for us in the office for the day. We also pre-arranged a shuttle with them that evening to our next destination in Cap Cana.

Our tour guide was another Dutch expat, very sun-tanned and blonde with a well-traveled look about him. We got in the boat with our fellow tourists, slapped on our national park bracelets, and set out towards the caves and Rocks of Penon. The rocks were a former home of the native Taino people who inhabited the island before the Spanish conquistadores brutally desimated their populations.

After a quick stop and explanation, we moved on to the Piscina Natural, or the “natural pool”. It is a shallow sand bar pool a ways out from the coast where you can find red sea stars. There were a couple other tours there as well. Our guide was very careful about making sure that no one took them out of the water, and explained their life cycle.  (If they are taken out of the water for more than about a minute, they die. I read in my guidebook that many guides aren’t so careful about this, unfortunately.)

Complimentary rum and cokes were also offered, even though it was 10:00 AM. Why not.

After we spent some time learning about the sea stars, we went by some mangroves, and a driftwood log with pelicans scanning the shallow water for lunch. Our guide explained the environmental impact of the resort building in Punta Cana, which included mangrove and seagrass removal on the coastline. This lead to the loss of habitat for marine life in the area, as well as increased sediment runoff into the ocean and increased water pollution. The good news is that there are environmental groups working on a mangrove reforestation project in the area.

After we bid the sea stars and pelicans goodbye we headed to the main attraction, Isla Saona. Isla Saona is in the Parque Nacional de Este, and has one small village on it called Mano Juan. No one is allowed to live or move to the island, only the approximate 400 locals who have been there raising families for years. The only electricity in the village is through solar panels, and the community thrives on subsistence farming and tourism.

We walked through the village, looking at the happy, laid back lifestyle. It made me want to run away and live there. We visited a  sea turtle sanctuary and learned about sea turtle conservation. Their numbers are decreasing as predators prey on their eggs. Unfortunately sea turtle eggs are thought of as an aphrodisiac in the Dominican Republic and Latin America, and are sold for thousands of dollars. This group on Mano Juan is trying to educate and protect the turtles. It was refreshing to see.

We visited the local hospital, which had no one in it at the time. They receive a new doctor doing a year of community service after finishing school each year to work at the hospital. Some of the other tourists were horrified at the primitive facility. It didn’t look bad to me, just simple. One lady said, “being here really makes you appreciate what we have at home.” Being there for me made me want to leave home. What do people really need? Family, friends, health, and happiness. It seemed to me that the villagers in Mano Juan had all of those things.

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Isla Saona Hospital
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Isla Saona Hospital
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Isla Saona Hospital

After the village tour, we went back to the main beach for a buffet lunch. The food was excellent. While we ate, some local kids came and played music for us and sang for donations for their school. The tour guides explained that kids begging tourists for money end up making more money than their parents, and wasn’t teaching kids a good work ethic. They are teaching the kids music in schools and that they need to do something to earn money, not beg for it. The kids looked super happy playing their instruments and singing. We made sure to make a donation for their school.

After lunch, we headed out to the other end of the island, with a beautiful uninhabited beach for some swimming and snorkeling. It was truly one of the most picturesque beaches we’ve ever seen.

There were a few patches of coral, and some fish but the snorkeling wasn’t great. It was enough of a good time just to sit or walk along the beach and swim. It was so beautiful.

Unfortunately this was also the trip that my water bag for my camera decided to no longer be waterproof. It was my old camera, and fortunately I had my regular camera still. The camera bag had been on many snorkel trips, but this was it’s last one. (I now have a waterproof camera instead of a bag).

Our guides brought out a little dessert of pineapple cake, and shortly after we headed back to Bayahibe. We arrived back, collected our luggage and were sent with a shuttle driver to our resort in Cap Cana, a smaller area south of Punta Cana.

The resort we stayed at was Sanctuary Cap Cana, an upscale all-inclusive resort. While I was researching the Dominican Republic, I was looking on Google Maps in the sattelite mode at the Punta Cana coastline. It was full of what appeared to be beautiful beaches, and tons of resorts. Then I noticed a beach farther south that looked really nice, with barely anything around it. I looked closer, and found it to be Juanillo Beach, with Sanctuary Cap Cana right next door. We’d never done the all-inclusive thing, so figured we might as well try it out and relax the last few days before heading home.

Below: Sanctuary Cap Cana lobby

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Sanctuary Cap Cana lobby

We had booked their most inexpensive room, a “junior suite ocean view.” Check in was easy, and the room was beautiful. We were offered an upgrade to a suite with a private plunge pool for an additional $250 a night, but declined. Way too much money.

We were starving, so we took showers and cleaned up for dinner. Something to note here is that they do have a dress code in the nicer restaurants. Men are not supposed to wear shorts, tank tops, or open toed shoes to dinner. Women need to dress nicely as well, no flip flops or shorts.

Not all the restaurants are open on the same nights, they rotate on a schedule. That night we had a choice of the Italian restaurant, Capriccio or the Steakhouse or the buffet. We went with the Italian restaurant. Service was excellent, and the food was as well.

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Capriccio, Sanctuary Cap Cana
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Capriccio, Sanctuary Cap Cana

The resort has you sign for everything you order, as some people are not on the all-inclusive plan. This also gives the option of leaving a tip without carrying cash around, which was really convenient. We could leave everything in the safe and didn’t have to carry our wallets around at all.

Some people complained on Tripadvisor about having to sign for everything or having to tip at an all-inclusive. I’m sorry, but if tipping is customary in the country you are visiting, you should be tipping the staff for good service. These people work hard and make small wages. If you can afford to stay at this kind of resort, you can afford to tip. Don’t be an asshole.

After dinner, we went to the main bar off the lobby, the Love Bar. We were told there was a Latin American dance show in half an hour, so we hung out and had some drinks and waited for the show. The show was campy, but good entertainment.

After the show we had another drink or two (all-inclusive, right?) and then went to bed. It was a pretty long (but awesome) day.

 

Day 7:

The next morning we went to the breakfast buffet at Casa Bella, the buffet restaurant. It was great and had a very large selection of pastries, meats, cheeses, fruits, and eggs or omlettes cooked to order.

After breakfast, We were ready to explore and spend a lazy day at either the beach or pool.  We checked out all the pools, then walked to the north wing of the resort campus and out a trail to Juanillo Beach. It was gorgeous. The downside was that there was very little shade, and it was sweltering hot. There was a little cafe with some sun loungers and umbrellas, but it wasn’t part of the resort and you had to spend a hefty minimum to sit in them. The beach has a gated access, and clearly this was a beach for the super rich. We were too hot, so we went back to the pool. I hoped to make it back to the beach the next day.

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Playa Juanillo
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Playa Juanillo

The main pool with the swim-up bar was packed and there were no loungers with umbrellas available. We found two loungers with an umbrella at a smaller, quieter pool. We had a nice day swimming, reading, ordering drinks and food, and relaxing.

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Sanctuary Cap Cana main pool with swim up bar
Domincan Republic 231
Sanctuary Cap Cana smaller pool with water fall

Unfortunately, tragedy struck again and I dropped my camera on the tile patio near the pool, and all photos after that were slightly blurry. So this was the vacation that ruined both my cameras. Fortunately, it happened towards the end of the trip, and how many pictures does one need of a resort, anyway? I do wish I had a few more to share, though.

That night there was a seafood buffet at the Blue Marlin restaurant, an over-water grass roofed restaurant near the pool. It was good, there were a lot of options. The atmosphere and location were the best of all the restaurants.

Sanctuary Cap Cana

Domincan Republic 239

After dinner we went back over to the Love Bar, where we sat and talked to the bartender for a little while. He told us that his family lives a six hour drive away near Santo Domingo, and he gets to visit them once a month. The rest of the time he stays in the employee quarters. I wonder what the employee quarters are like. I hope that he gets to see his family more in the off-season….but then he might have a more difficult time making ends meet then.

After a few drinks, a rainstorm started and it was coming down in buckets. I went back to the room to chill while Paddy stayed and had a few more drinks.

 

Day 8:

The next day the rain was still pouring down, much to our disappointment. We hoped it might clear up after breakfast, but it didn’t. We decided to make the best of it and book some pedicures at the spa. Neither of us had ever had pedicures before. Paddy said his friend told him that pedicures are awesome, and he was totally into the idea. We made back to back appointments at the spa. The lobby had a price list for the spa, and we had been given 10% off coupons at check in. When we got to the spa, we were shown a different price list that was 10% higher, and told that the coupons were only good for that price list. CHEESY.

Anyways, our first pedicures were awesome and the spa was very nice. The spa was located in the Castle building of the resort, which has all the swim up suites and suites with private pools. It was pretty empty. My pedicure was first, and when I was done I went to the bar in the Castle building which had a pool. The bar and pool lounge up there were totally empty, and the pool was really nice. I wished we would have known about this place yesterday. The only downside is the food they have–I had a pre-packaged chicken caesar salad that wasn’t very good. None of the bar snacks are made to order, there isn’t a kitchen. But whatever, it was all-inclusive. And so was the champagne, which I kept flowing. The sun came out a little bit and I had a tiny bit of sun time on the deck.

**Tip: For a quiet, kid-free pool experience, check out the Castle pool and bar.

Paddy came back and we read books and drank beers and champagne until we had a good afternoon buzz going. The clouds rolled back in, so we went back to the room and watched DVDs that we brought with us in our little living room.

That evening we went to the Steakhouse, which seemed to be the most prestigious restaurant and the busiest. It is Argentinian style, and meats and fish all come with chimichurri sauce and grilled vegetables. We had 10% off coupons on a bottle of wine off of the wine list as well (only house wine is all-inclusive) so we ordered a bottle with dinner. We gave the server the coupons, but the discount didn’t wind up in the bill. We didn’t bother complaining, it just wasn’t worth it. It basically seems like those coupons they give you at check in are pretty worthless. Overall, the Steakhouse meal was probably the worst one we had. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t that great. The chimichurri was really oily and my tuna steak was overcooked.

 

Day 9:

Our last full day. We hoped and hoped that the sun would be back out in the morning but unfortunately it was still cloudy. We went to breakfast, and eventually the sun came back out a little bit. We rushed down to the main pool and staked out our beach chairs with an umbrella. We had some bloody marys at the swim up bar, and read books. The beach area had some cabanas with a futon bed under a grass-roof that were really cool. They were always in use. There was one that had a towel and some magazines on it with a rock holding them down, but after two hours, I had seen no one come back to it. We went over and moved the stuff and snagged the cabana. No one came back to try and claim it, and it was super nice to have a bed on the beach with food and cocktail service.

**Tip: To get a beach cabana bed, get up early in the morning and stake your claim. Will getting up early matter? You just have to go back to a bed on the beach. Shade provided. Totally awesome.

The clouds came in and out, but it was warm.

That night they had a Dominican night at Casa Bella buffet restaurant. We went and checked it out and it was the best meal we had at the resort–hands down. There weren’t that many people there, either. I think most of them were at the Steakhouse. If you’re there during Dominican night, DON’T MISS IT. Seriously, the local food is outstanding.

It was a good vacation, and if we ever go back to the Dominican Republic we’ll probably skip the Punta Cana resorts altogether. I’ve read a lot of great things about the Samana Peninsula in the North, and if we go back we’ll go there. On this trip, Santo Domingo and Isla Saona were the highlights, and I’d recommend the Seavis Tours Isla Saona tour for sure. Skip the Monster Truck Safari.

 

Winter Wine Tasting in Leavenworth, WA 2013

Our weekend getaway of winter wine tasting in Leavenworth, WA in February 2013

 

This trip to Leavenworth, WA, a Bavarian-style village in the Cascade Mountains, changed it’s purpose twice. Originally, we had planned to go to Leavenworth over New Years and play in the snow at Leavenworth’s own winter recreation park and tubing hill, but Paddy couldn’t get New Year’s Eve off work. We rescheduled for President’s Day Weekend, but when we got there, Leavenworth had only slushy remnants of snow and the only snow options were up at Stevens Pass. So, we ended up spending the weekend wine tasting in Leavenworth.

Day 1:

We stayed at the Best Western Icicle Inn on the west side of town, about a 10-15 minute walk from all the main town activity. It was a large hotel, and full of families ready to go skiing on the mountain all weekend. The room was comfortable and clean, and the hotel has an outdoor hot tub and pool and a complimentary breakfast. The pool was covered with a tent for the winter to keep the heat in, but you still have to make a mad dash outside to get in it. I poked my head in the door to find a chlorinated steam room that didn’t seem super inviting. Summer is probably a better bet with the pool.

Winter wine tasting in Leavenworth
Stevens Pass
Winter wine tasting in Leavenworth
Stevens Pass
Winter wine tasting in Leavenworth
Stevens Pass
Winter wine tasting in Leavenworth
Stevens Pass

We arrived Saturday afternoon, after a nice drive through the pass with no snow on the roads. We checked in to the hotel and then walked into town, doing the usual touristy poking about in the little shops and reading restaurant menus and trying to decide where to eat that evening. We had a late lunch at Cafe Verona, which was just getting ready to close as they only serve breakfast and lunch until 3:00. They accommodated us cheerfully, and we found their burger prices to be very reasonable.

For once in my life, I completely failed at taking photos on this trip (too much wine, maybe?), so you’ll have to use your imagination or visit the winery and restaurant websites for more details.

Winter wine tasting in Leavenworth
Leavenworth mountain view

We went back and relaxed in the room for a bit, reading brochures from the hotel on activities and trying to decide what to do the next day. Neither of us downhill ski, but we considered going up to the Stevens Pass Nordic Center to try cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. There were also a lot of winery maps and information, and quite a few tasting rooms in Leavenworth itself.

That evening we ended up having dinner and a few beers at Ducks and Drakes bar and restaurant, where we successfully evaded all the large families staying at the Best Western. The food was decent, and it seemed to be a local watering hole. Quite a few locals were in playing video trivia or having a Saturday night beer at the bar.

 

Day 2:

The next morning, we woke up and headed down to the complimentary breakfast, which consisted of your usual continental fare, along with biscuits and sausage gravy, bacon, scrambled eggs, and a make-your-own-waffle bar. It was full of families shoveling food in their kids’ faces so that they could hurry and get up to the mountain for skiing. We realized that we would have crowds to contend with if we wanted to play in the snow, so we opted out.

Instead, we spent the entire day wine tasting. We completely avoided the crowds, and the sun came out to shine on our lazy, leisurely, boozy day. It was great.

We decided that the best plan of action was to start off driving to wineries, then come back to Leavenworth and park the car before we got too buzzed, and then continue our tasting on foot at the tasting rooms in town.

Our first stop was the Silvara Winery, which was a beautiful winery on a hill with a very nice tasting room. The tasting room is open from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM daily and the tasting fee is $5.00 per person, waived if you purchase a bottle of wine. They had cheeses and sausage for sale a la carte if you wanted to make your own picnic. The sun filtering through the windows and the view made us yearn for summer wine drinking on the patio.

Next, we attempted to visit the Icicle Ridge Winery, but they were having a wine club party for members only and we weren’t allowed. We drove a bit further down the road to the Cascadia Winery tasting room where we were able to try several wines with no tasting fee, including their unique and award-winning apple wine made from Washington Gala and Golden Delicious apples. It was good, and we bought a bottle of the apple wine to take home to add to our “wine cellar,” (aka a shelf in the tupperware cabinet of our kitchen).

We continued on to Cashmere, WA and found a little shopping center with a few tasting rooms and a shop called Wine Design owned by a man who makes furniture out of wine barrels. We sat and talked to a lady in a tasting room who told us that she and her husband got into wine making as a hobby. She had a very nice pinot noir that we purchased, and unfortunately I can’t remember the name of her winery and we’ve long since drank that bottle of wine.

We turned back towards Leavenworth and made one last stop at Wedge Mountain Winery. The tasting room is in the winery itself, amongst apple and pear orchards. It is owned by Mary Ann and Charlie McKee, who got into wine making as a way to supplement their struggling sales of apples and pears. Their wine is fantastic and has won several awards. We bought a bottle of the very unique “Roses and Rubies” raspberry dessert wine, which is delicious with chocolate. We served it with homemade chocolate pot de creme for a New Years Eve dinner party we had that year, and it was the perfect compliment.

Winter wine tasting in Leavenworth
Winter wine tasting in Leavenworth–Wedge Mountain Winery
Winter wine tasting in Leavenworth--Wedge Mountain Winery
Winter wine tasting in Leavenworth–Wedge Mountain Winery
Winter wine tasting in Leavenworth--Wedge Mountain Winery
Winter wine tasting in Leavenworth–Wedge Mountain Winery
Winter wine tasting in Leavenworth--Wedge Mountain Winery
Winter wine tasting in Leavenworth–Wedge Mountain Winery

We figured we should probably park the car at ths point, so we headed back to continue wine tasting in Leavenworth. We were also getting hungry, and all this great wine was really making us crave some good food.

Back in Leavenworth, we visited Kestrel Vinters tasting room. Their Lady in Red wine makes a great gift with it’s 1940’s pin-up style bottle design. We moved on to Swakane Winery tasting room which also had a bistro. We were really in the mood for some tapas or brie. I ordered their snack plate which included cheeses, crackers, marinated olives, and almonds. It was a little disappointing. The cheese selection seemed like the party-platter variety that you would buy at Safeway. No brie or other gourmet cheeses, mostly grocery store cheddar and gouda, etc.

We made one final stop at D’Vinery Eagle Creek Winery tasting room on our way back to the hotel. The woman behind the counter was very friendly and talkative and made a nice end to our wine touring.

For dinner that evening we looked at more menus online and reviewed our options. We really wanted some fine dining after all that good wine, but the menus all looked a little boring for the price. All the wine also made us a bit lazy, so we ended up just having dinner downstairs at the J.J. Hills Grill in the hotel. They were slammed when we came down, but we were able to go back to our room and have them call us when our table was ready. The food wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t super impressive either.

 

Overall, there is a lot of great wine in the area, and we had a great time wine tasting in Leavenworth. There is also a lot of snow sport activities, river tubing, hiking, and recreation in the summer, and the popular Oktoberfest in the fall. However, there just isn’t a lot of really good upscale or creative food in Leavenworth. We haven’t tried all the restaurants, of course, but the menus at all the fine dining places we looked at all seem a little generic.

If you’re looking for food to go with beer though, you are in luck. There is a lot of German schnitzels, sausages, and other pub grup that goes great with beer.

 

Camping at Lake Wenatchee State Park, WA 2012

Camping weekend with friends at Lake Wenatchee State Park, Labor Day Weekend 2012

As a general rule in Washington State, you’re only guaranteed (98% guaranteed) no rain on your summer parade on the east side of the Cascade Mountains. We were looking for a nice summer lake experience with friends that was inexpensive and easy for a big group. We’d never been to Lake Wenatchee State Park, so we thought we’d give it a try for Labor Day Weekend.

You can reserve your camp spot at Lake Wenatchee State Park in advance at http://www.parks.wa.gov/535/Lake-Wenatchee. The other option is to try and get a first-come-first-serve camp spot at Nason Creek Campground. Nason Creek is a little farther from the lake and has a creek running through it. We thought the campsites there were a little nicer at Nason Creek, but given the popularity of Lake Wenatchee State Park–you might want to just reserve at the state park to make sure you get a good spot.

Our group had experienced campers and new campers, but we all had sites next to each other and divided up the meal responsibilities so that everyone was in charge of bringing one dinner or breakfasts or lunches. It worked out really well.

We arrived on a hot sunny Friday afternoon and set up camp. We took a walk around the campground and down to the lake. There are coin operated showers in the campground (bring quarters), and a very nice lake beach.

Lake Wenatchee State Park swim beach
Lake Wenatchee State Park swim beach

The park is also popular with day-trippers.**Note: to park in the parking lot you need to have a Discover Pass.

As we cooked dinner, a park ranger came around and said that there was some “concern” from other parties about our large group and that he didn’t want to have to come back around to remind us to be quiet after 10:00 PM. I’m not so sure if the “concern” was from the other campers, or him….we saw him saying the same thing to another group down the way.

So it was noted that we had to be as quiet as possible after 10:00 PM. This was understandable, but we were hoping that we wouldn’t have to be on patrol all night. As it was, we were fine and didn’t get reprimanded. Sometimes it is hard to watch your volume in a big group drinking beers though.

Camping at Lake Wenatchee State Park

Camping at Lake Wenatchee State Park

The next day, we were excited to take our new 10 ft diameter inflatable raft (Large Marge the Party Barge) out on her first float on the lake.

Camping at Lake Wenatchee State Park

Camping at Lake Wenatchee State Park

The biggest disappointment about Lake Wenatchee State Park was that it was really windy. It was hot up in the campground, but as soon as you got onto the lake beach it was really windy and kind of chilly in the water. We had thought it would be like Lake Chelan, but it wasn’t quite as warm with the wind.

The chilly wind didn’t stop me and several members of our group, though, including our niece and nephew who thought that Large Marge was the coolest thing ever.

Camping at Lake Wenatchee State Park

After the lake, we had lunch and then our friend Heather and I went to go check out Nason Creek and the other loop of the campground. The creek was chilly, but shallow and warmer with no wind. The other loop of the campground was more for RVs and had campsites with electrical and water hookups.

Nason Creek Lake Wenatchee State Park
Nason Creek

Later, we had another nice evening playing cards and drinking beers around the campfire.

Camping at Lake Wenatchee State Park

Camping at Lake Wenatchee State Park

Camping at Lake Wenatchee State Park

Camping at Lake Wenatchee State Park

On Sunday, Paddy, Heather, and Stephen went horseback riding (trail rides are offered by Icicle Outfitters, a company at the park that also offers winter sleigh rides and cross country skiing). Cass and Devin went for a bike ride with the bicycles they brought, Paddy’s sister took our niece and nephew putt putt golfing in nearby Leavenworth, and the rest of us took it easy.

Camping at Lake Wenatchee State Park

Later in the afternoon, a few of us went swimming down at the lake again. Despite the wind, the beach is really nice.

Lake Wenatchee State Park swim beach
Lake Wenatchee State Park swim beach

Lake Wenatchee State Park swim beach

Lake Wenatchee State Park swim beach

Overall, Lake Wenatchee State Park is pretty nice. It might be a bit warmer in July, and I’m not sure if the lake is windy all the time or not. However, I think for summer lake trips with friends–Lake Chelan will be our top destination, or another lake a little further east.

Mount Rainier National Park 2012: Paradise Side

 Mount Rainier National Park 2012: Paradise Side– Camping at Big Creek Campground, hiking the Alta Vista Summit trail and Grove of the Patriarchs trail

We have both grown up and lived most of our lives in Western Washington, but neither of us had ever been to Mount Rainier National Park. I know, WTF, right? I have visited all but one of the national parks in Utah, as well as National Parks in Hawaii, California, Arizona, and New Mexico, but haven’t been to the most popular national park in my own home state. It was downright shameful.

We both love to camp (as long as we can bring all our gear, park at the campsite, and have a cooler full of food and beer), and it had also been a couple years since we’d had a free summer weekend to go camping. One nice thing about Mount Rainier National Park is that you can make reservations in the two most popular campgrounds, Cougar Rock and Ohanapecosh. The season runs from late May through September.

The bad news: you have to make reservations months in advance to get a good site. There are always cancellations though, so it’s always worth a shot.

The good news: There are other national forest campgrounds around the park that take reservations as well, and often have spots open throughout the summer. You can find and reserve a site easily at www.recreation.gov.

If you don’t like reservations and want to show up and find a site, be warned that this can be a wild goose chase in July and August. We’ve been burned trying to do this before (had to turn around and drive home at 10:00 PM after an exhaustive and unfruitful search near the North Cascades), so we like to make a reservation in advance and pick out our site.

We found a site at Big Creek Campground in the Gifford-Pinchot National Forest, just outside of the southwest corner of Mount Rainier National Park and booked it.

We left work a little early in the afternoon, but still ran into the grueling Friday weekend traffic on I-5, then through Puyallup and South Hill. We made it before dinner, though and promptly unpacked the beer and the bug spray.

Click on any photo below to view larger

Big Creek Campground Mt Rainier 036
Forest behind our campsite at Big Creek
Big Creek Campground Mt Rainier 038
Big Creek Campground
Big Creek Campground Mt Rainier
Big Creek Campground

After setting up camp, Paddy started a fire and I went exploring the campground. It had pit toilets and a water spout, and firewood for sale at the campground hosts’ site. Be sure to bring all your supplies with you or pick them up along the way–the nearest store is a bit of a drive.

I found a trail at the end of the campground loop and followed it for a ways. It was a nice walk, but I didn’t want to try to find out where the end of it went that night so I turned around.

For dinner we had our traditional “first night at camp” meal: hot dogs, baked beans, and corn on the cob.

Mt Rainier camping food 041

Big Creek Campground Mt Rainier

**Tip: tiki torches with citronella oil help keep the mosquitos away, and provide nice light and ambiance for your camp site.

The next morning, we set our alarm for 8:00 AM, made some granola and coffee, slathered on the sunscreen, packed a lunch, and headed up to Paradise.

We paid our entrance fee of $15.00/vehicle at the edge of the park, then began the long and winding (yet beautiful) climb up the mountain.

Mt. Rainier National Park
Mt. Rainier National Park
Mt. Rainier National Park
Mt. Rainier National Park
Mt. Rainier National Park
Mt. Rainier National Park

Paradise is the most popular part of Mount Rainier National Park and the busiest visitor’s center, especially in July and August. I had read that if you want a good parking spot, get up early. The parking lot was already filling up when we got there around 9:00 AM. We parked in the lower parking lot and started up a trail towards the visitor’s center. The views on this trail were already spectacular. It was summer and the wildflowers were in full bloom.

We made it to the visitor’s center which was nice, but didn’t have a lot going on. Some informative maps and information, a small snack shop, and a gift shop.

I had chosen what I thought (and my guide book said) was a very easy hike. It was the Alta Vista Summit hike from my “Best Easy Day Hikes: Mount Rainier National Park” book. It said it was a 1.6 mile lollipop trail, with minimal elevation gain. Should be a piece of cake.

I didn’t account for two things:

1. Paradise is at a very high elevation

2. All the “minimal elevation gain” on the Alta Vista hike happens all at once, and is 750 feet.

Within seconds we were both winded, and my legs felt like they weighed 100 lbs each. The hill was extremely steep, and the thin air had us struggling for oxygen–especially me. We were determined to get to the top, which was the top of the “lollipop” hike. The rest of it continued around a small loop. We caught our breath and enjoyed the view.

The views were pretty awesome where we were, and we decided to just head back down and continue on to the next part of the park at a lower elevation. I’d really like to come back and try it again sometime though.

We left Paradise at 11:00 AM, and cars were already lining the side of the road down from the visitor’s center for several miles.

**Note: Get there EARLY. It’s no joke.

We continued on the 706 highway through the park and down Stevens Canyon Road until we reached the Grove of the Patriarchs trail. It is another lollipop trail through an old forest of 1,000 year old trees including a suspension bridge over the Ohanapecosh River. It has virtually no elevation gain, and is only about a mile and a half round trip.

We ate a quick lunch on the tailgate of our truck and then headed out on the trail.

Grove of the Patriarchs Trail Mt Rainier National Park
Grove of the Patriarchs Trail, Mt. Rainier National Park

Because the trail is so easy, it’s popular with families and can be really crowded. It was nice, but a little too easy and a little too crowded. It made a nice wind down though after the extreme elevation hiking of the morning. The suspension bridge is pretty cool though, and the ancient trees are pretty amazing.

On the way back to camp, we stopped off at a viewpoint over Reflection Lakes on Steven’s Canyon Road. There is a loop trail around the lakes here that I would really like to come back and hike sometime.

Reflection Lakes Mt Rainier National Park
Reflection Lakes
Reflection Lakes Mt Rainier National Park
Reflection Lake, Mt Rainier National Park

That evening we enjoyed another meal cooked over the campfire, wine in plastic wine glasses, and some music on our emergency radio. It was nice.

 

The next morning we stopped in for breakfast just outside of the park in Elbe at the Mount Rainier Railroad Diner. Breakfast was good, and you get to eat in an old train.

Mt Rainier Railroad Diner Elbe WA
Mt Rainier Railroad Diner, Elbe, WA
Mt Rainier Railroad Diner Elbe, WA
Mt Rainier Railroad Diner, Elbe, WA

 

We totally fell in love with Mount Rainier National Park on this trip. We will be back many times, I’m sure.

Ireland 2012: Dublin, Cork, Dingle, Galway, and the Aran Islands

 Our trip to Ireland, May 2012: Dublin, The Giant’s Causeway, Rock of Cashel, Cork, The Dingle Peninsula, Cliffs of Moher, Galway, and The Aran Islands

 

Paddy has very strong Irish and Scottish heritage (if you couldn’t tell by his name), and Ireland has always been his dream destination. In May 2012, we finally got to go.

Ireland is a fairly expensive destination, and we tried to do everything as budget-minded as possible. We still spent more money than we thought we would, but it was worth it.

Click on any image below to view larger

Dublin:

Day 1:

We flew on a night flight out of JFK airport in New York on Aer Lingus, Ireland‘s airline. After 6 hours, we arrived in Dublin mid-morning, collected our hiking backpacks, used an ATM to get some Euros, and then headed to ground transportation to get a bus to our hotel. The Dublin public bus is the best option if you are staying downtown, and provides an affordable and easy to use round-trip service to most of the major tourist areas. (Taxis are also available, but much more expensive. If you have 3-4 people, it might be cost effective). The man collecting bus fare was very helpful and showed us on the large billboard map which stop we wanted to get off at for our hotel (the stops are are numbered and announced by the driver). The fare was 6 euros one way or 10 round trip, so we each got a round trip ticket as we were departing back to th airport from the same hotel on our last day.

The bus dropped us off pretty close to our hotel, the Harding Hotel. The Harding Hotel is a budget hotel, and was around $100 a night for the days we were there. Weekends are more expensive. We checked in on a Monday, so the rates were lower. The room we got was very large, with two twin beds shoved together to make a king, as well as a third twin. The hotel is a good family option as many rooms have room for three people like ours did, and can be spaced into three twins if needed. It is right next to the Christchurch Cathedral, which is a popular tourist landmark so that makes it easy to find on a map.

Harding Hotel Dublin Ireland
Harding Hotel
Harding Hotel Dublin Ireland
Harding Hotel
Christchurch Cathedral Dublin Ireland
Christchurch Cathedral

Above and below: The Christchurch Cathedral next door to the hotel

christchurch cathedral Dublin Ireland
Christchurch Cathedral

We were exhausted, and fortunately our room was ready to check into. We threw our stuff in the corner and crashed for a few hours. The bed was firm, but okay.

Around 2:00, we got up and took a shower and headed down the street towards the Temple Bar neighborhood in search of food. We wandered into a cafe at the Irish Film Institute and ordered some sandwiches and cappuccinos. It was full of artsy film students and the food was healthy, organic and homemade. The barista behind the counter was excited to learn that we were from Seattle and seemed pleased to be serving us our very first meal in Dublin.

After we were fed, we walked around a bit and headed towards the popular Temple Bar area. The Harding Hotel was actually a perfect location, we were able to walk to all of the things that we wanted to see in Dublin, and it’s proximity to the bus stop to and from the airport was a big plus.

Paddy Power Dublin

Dublin's Wall of Fame
Dublin’s Wall of Fame

Dublin's Wall of Fame

Temple Bar had a lot of vintage stores, music stores, and funky little shops, bars, and cafes.

Temple Bar Dublin Ireland
Temple Bar
Temple Bar Dublin Ireland
Temple Bar
Temple Bar Dublin Ireland
Temple Bar
Temple Bar Dublin Ireland
Temple Bar
Temple Bar Dublin Ireland
Temple Bar

After a few hours, we were ready for some dinner and our first pints of Guinness in Ireland. We decided on The Old Storehouse which was a touristy spot featuring Irish food and live music. It was pretty packed, but we got a table near the door and ordered up some pints of Guinness, seafood chowder with Irish brown bread, and bangers and mash. It was all excellent.

Old Storehouse Dublin Ireland

Old Storehouse Dublin Ireland

Old Storehouse Dublin Ireland

Old Storehouse Dublin Ireland
The Old Storehouse, Dublin

After dinner and a few drinks, we were still pretty strung out from the lack of sleep on the night flight and the jet lag, so we went back to the hotel to rest up for the next day.

 

Day 2:

The next morning, we woke up at 5:00 AM (jet lag) and eventually got hungry. We ventured out back towards Temple Bar figuring that there would be a breakfast spot open at 7:00 AM on a Tuesday….right? Unfortunately, we found a ghost town. It was also colder than we had expected. Ireland has very similar weather to Seattle, and we planned for rainy days. May in Seattle is usually between the upper 50’s to the 70’s F, so we brought lots of layers and light rain jackets. It was actually in the 40’s F and we were freezing. We hadn’t brought hats, scarves, or gloves. Fortunately, woolen hats, scarves, and gloves are all plentiful (and beautifully made) in Ireland, so I was able to find a good hat and scarf in some tourist shops near our hotel a little later to keep warm with while walking around.

We headed back towards the hotel, where they were setting up for breakfast. We didn’t choose the breakfast inclusive option with our room and we were really glad we didn’t. There were a few breakfast options, ranging from continental to full Irish, and they were all fairly expensive for the quality. We had breakfast there and went back up to the room to figure out our plans for the day.

We lay on the bed willing ourselves to get back up. Our feet and legs were still so sore from walking miles and miles all over New York City over the two days prior (see our New York Post for details on that adventure). We had so many things we wanted to see in Dublin but we couldn’t move.

Eventually, we decided on the very nearby St. Patrick’s Cathedral which is the main national cathedral of Ireland. It was built in 1220, and today the funerals of presidents and very important Irish citizens are all held there. Some of the flags were hundreds of years old, disintegrating on their flag poles. It is so hard to wrap my head around buildings and objects that are that old.

Next, what do you do in Ireland when your feet and legs are throbbing and you just don’t know what else to do at the moment? That’s right, duck into the nearest pub and have some more Guinness. We ducked into the bar attached to the Harding Hotel, Darkey Kelly’s and had a few pints.

We relaxed for awhile and then decided to venture out for some dinner. I had my eye on The Porterhouse in Temple Bar but when we got there, it was packed and we couldn’t find anywhere to sit. We walked around Temple Bar looking at menus and trying to find a place that was good but also not too expensive. It was a bit of a challenge.

Eventually we stumbled upon Salamanca Fusion on Dame Street, just a couple blocks from our hotel. It seemed to be an Irish/Spanish fusion restaurant and they were offering a weeknight special of an entree and either a glass of wine or a starter for a low price. We tried it out and it was great. We were seated next to an older Australian couple and we had some great conversations about our travels. I had a salmon dish with leeks, mashed potatoes, and a salad (neither of us remember what Paddy had, but it was good). The Irish couple said they had eaten there the night before and it was so good and such a great price that they just came back a second time.

After dinner we got some beers and wine at the convenience store across the way from our hotel and went to bed early as we had a long day ahead.

 

Northern Ireland and the Giant’s Causeway:

Day 3:

I had read about the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, a rare natural geological collection of hexagonal-shaped basalt columns. I was determined to go there, even though it was out of the way of everything else we planned to see. We booked a day tour from Dublin with Giant’s Causeway Tours, a very long day tour starting at 6:30 AM and returning to Dublin at 8:00 PM. It is a 3 hour drive to Northern Ireland from Dublin, and a 3 hour drive back, which is the reason for the extremely long day.

This was also the one day of our trip that if we had to do it over again, we wouldn’t.

The tour started with a pick up in Dublin at 6:30 AM in a giant tour bus with other tourists. I have blood sugar issues in the mornings and the jet lag had thrown my body clock all off. Unfortunately, this doesn’t bode well for my motion sickness issue either. I took a “less drowsey” Dramamine and we set out on our way.

About an hour into the trip, we stopped at a very nice rest stop that had a coffee shop, bathrooms, and food. Everyone got coffee and breakfast to go, and we continued on the three hour drive north.

Once we passed Belfast, we began on a nauseating windy coastal road. I ended up having to choose between seeing the beautiful scenery and being nauseous, or letting the drowsiness take over and sleep. I drifted back and forth between both, taking every opportunity to get out of the bus when we stopped for a photo op. The countryside and coast were beautiful, and I tried to make the best of it.

We saw a lot of cows in large, beautiful pastures lounging about on the grass. Not standing, but lounging. We also discovered on this trip that Irish butter is the best butter we’ve ever had in our lives. We think there is a correlation between lazy, happy cows and good butter. I never see cows laying down in the states. (Side note: If you  buy Kerrygold Irish butter in an American grocery store, it’s good, but it’s not the same. Sorry, you have to go to Ireland).

We finally arrived at our first real stop, the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge. It is a rickety rope bridge to a tiny island on the Northern Ireland coast with beautiful views of nearby beaches and coastline. It’s a little nerve-wracking for those with vertigo or fear of heights, but Paddy has vertigo and he made it across fine. They only let one person go across it at a time.

Next, we were back on the winding, nauseating road to the Causeway. We arrived and had lunch at a cute little cafe called The Nook near the Causeway parking lot. The menu was traditional Irish/British fare and wasn’t bad. Paddy enjoyed his beef and Guinness pie, and while my fish and chips were perfectly fine I was still struggling with my appetite. It came with a side of “mushy peas” which were, well, mushy. Not a lot of flavor. I forced some down while we listed to some traditional Irish music.

After lunch, we had one hour to make our way down the hill to the Causeway, enjoy it, and come back. It wasn’t nearly enough time. We had approximately 15 minutes total at the actual Causeway. While it wasn’t somewhere I would have liked to spend a ton of time at, I think that an hour and a half to two hours would have been ideal. It was pretty remarkable and unlike any natural geological formation we’ve ever seen.

The Causeway is at the bottom of a long hill, and there is a shuttle that goes back and fourth between the parking lot and the Causeway for a couple Euros. We realized we had to be back at the bus and weren’t sure we’d make it on the shuttle as there was a line. Walking would take longer. We made it on though and back to the bus in time.

We left the Causeway and made a quick stop at Dunluce Castle, which was built in the 1400’s and eventually abandoned in 1690. The remains are perched precariously on a cliff and legend has it that part of the castle slid off into the sea, taking the kitchen and the servants with it.

Dunluce Castle Ireland
Dunluce Castle
Dunluce Castle Ireland
Dunluce Castle

Finally, we made a last stop for an hour in Belfast. Since an hour isn’t really enough time to see anything in Belfast whatsoever, we just ducked into Brennan’s Bar for some Guinness and seafood chowder. We met up with a couple Americans from our tour group who were in Ireland for their third visit, they loved it so much. I did get one photo of the Church House in downtown Belfast, however:

Church House Belfast Northern Ireland
Church House, Belfast

We left Belfast and continued the long three hour drive back to Dublin. My motion sickness subsided and I had no problems once we were back on the straight freeway.

Back to Dublin:

We arrived back to Dublin rather exhausted, but figuring we should eat something and check out some nightlife. We were ready for a drink after the long tour day. We tried the Porterhouse again and managed to find one table just emptying up upstairs, but as soon as we sat down we were informed that they had stopped serving food for the night. We stayed for a drink and then moved on into Temple Bar in search of a bar with some sort of food going on. We eventually stumbled into a place and had a few drinks and a nicoise salad.

We ended our night with a few pints at The Brazen Head, the oldest pub in Ireland built in 1198. It was small and intimate, and we found two empty seats left at the bar to watch some traditional Irish music. A great end to a long day.

 

Day 4:

There is one little gem of a breakfast spot that you can’t miss if you’re in the Temple Bar neighborhood, and that is The Queen of Tarts. They have a the most amazing selection of homemade pastries you’ll ever see, and I was able to get some smoked salmon and scrambled eggs with some homemade Irish brown bread to go for less money than the crappy breakfast at the Harding Hotel. If we’d had more time, I would have been back every day.

After breakfast, we headed to the Guinness Storehouse as Paddy had to see where this much beloved beer comes from. It was in the opposite direction from our hotel as Temple Bar, but still within walking distance.

Guinness Storehouse Dublin Ireland
Guinness Storehouse

We did the whole touristy tour, which was interesting. You don’t actually get to see the beer brewing though, the actual brewery appears to be nearby but the tour is of the Storehouse. Included were recipe cards for foods made with Guinness, and free taste tests. The Guinness bread and Guinness chocolate truffles were delicious. One of the things that makes the tour worth it is the free pint of Guinness in the Gravity Bar at the top. The views over Dublin are fantastic. You only get one free pint with a ticket, but some lady gave us her tickets that she wasn’t going to use, so we got two. We must have looked like the drinking type. Bonus.

After the Storehouse, we walked around the local neighborhood near the Storehouse a bit and then headed over to Grafton Street, which is said to be a great shopping street. We found a street with most of your standard big name brand stores that you can find anywhere else in Europe and/or the USA. Most things were kind of pricey, and we weren’t really interested in buying stuff so we went back to Temple Bar.

Dublin door Ireland

Above: One of Dublin’s many colorful doors

Below: Views from a bridge over the River Liffey

River Liffey Dublin Ireland
River Liffey
River Liffey Dublin Ireland
River Liffey
River Liffey Dublin Ireland
River Liffey

For dinner, we had made a reservation at The Winding Stair, a funky little restaurant atop a small independent book store across the River Liffey from Temple Bar. The restaurant produces high end food made from locally sourced ingredients, in a cozy and unpretentious setting. It was the most expensive meal we had in Ireland, but well worth it.

The Winding Stair, Dublin Ireland
The Winding Stair, Dublin
The Winding Stair, Dublin Ireland
The Winding Stair, Dublin
The Winding Stair, Dublin Ireland
The Winding Stair, Dublin

 

Day 5:

We checked out of the Harding Hotel and had them call us a cab over to the Budget Rental Car office on Drumcondra Road where we had reserved the smallest car we could get for the next leg of our trip around southern Ireland and up to Galway. Unfortunately, the Toyota Yaris we thought we were getting turned out to be a large sedan, as the Yaris we reserved had been returned damaged. We didn’t want to drive a manual shift (I drive one all the time at home, but we didn’t want to deal with manual shift and trying to figure out driving on the left at the same time), so we had to wait 2 hours while they frantically called around and eventually borrowed a sedan from another rental company. They did give us a discount, and while very annoying we were happy to finally be on our way.

Driving on the left Ireland

**Note: renting a car in Ireland is very expensive. We rented one for three days and it was around $500.00 with insurance (get the insurance). This included a full tank of gas, which we would be reimbursed for if we returned it full. A tank of gas was $160.00. Fortunately we only had to fill it up once the whole time, with a little top off at the end. All that being said, however, renting a car is really the only great way to see Ireland, and we would highly recommend it. I don’t plan on whining about American gas prices ever again.

Paddy volunteered to drive. I don’t know how we made it on the freeway, but somehow he got us there and we were on our way.

**Note: There is a toll on the M50 in and out of Dublin but it doesn’t have a toll booth–they scan your license plate from a surveillance camera. You can pay the toll at most gas stations at an electronic “Payzone” machine. It is about 3 Euros and must be paid by 8:00 PM the day after you use the toll. If you don’t pay, your car rental company will be charged and they will charge you the fine and some hefty administrative costs. You can ask your car rental company about the toll, some will include it in your cost and pay it for you, or they can tell you more about how to pay.

 

Rock of Cashel:

We drove about two hours southwest from Dublin to the little town of Cashel to see The Rock of Cashel, which is the ruins of a 12th century church and chapel. It was one of the highlights of our trip and offers gorgeous views of county Tipperary from the hill it sits on. The ruins are beautiful to behold, and restoration is on-going in parts of the chapel.

Cork and the Blarney Castle:

After Cashel, we continued another hour southwest to Cork. We had directions to the Avondale B&B, which appeared to be on the main drag, also shown on the map as the N22 highway. Trying to follow Google Maps directions ended up being extremely confusing, as the N22 has several street names that change every few blocks. We eventually gave up and followed only the signs for the N22, and found it with no problem. Miraculously, there was street parking right in front. We parked the car in relief, planning not to get in it again until we left the next morning.

The Avondale B&B has very reasonable rates that include a fabulous breakfast, and extremely welcoming and friendly hosts, Dolores and John. Our room was very small but had everything we needed and the most comfortable bed we slept in on our entire trip.

Avondale B&B Cork
Avondale B&B, Cork
Avondale B&B, Cork Ireland
Avondale B&B, Cork

Cork is a college town, and we wished we had more than one night there. The B&B is in walking distance from everything downtown which was super convenient. Dolores recommended Clancy’s Bar and Restaurant for dinner and it was very nice.

After dinner we walked around a bit, looking for some live music. Unfortunately it started pouring rain, and even with our raincoats on we became quickly soaked and cold. Then we got lost. We finally found our way back to the main road and gave up on going out, as all we were interested in at that point was warm, dry clothes. Paddy was disappointed.

 

Day 6:

Our primary reason for a stop in Cork was its proximity to The Blarney Castle. We got up early and had a fabulous Irish breakfast, and then Dolores and John sat and talked with us about our plans, giving us directions on the fastest way to get to the castle, as well as suggestions on the rest of our itinerary. We were headed towards the town of Dingle, and Dolores assured Paddy he would find some live music in Dingle tonight, as it was Saturday.

Irish breakfast at Avondale B&B, Cork Ireland
Full Irish breakfast at the Avondale B&B, Cork

Every guidebook I read said the the Blarney Castle was a giant, overrated tourist attraction so we were expecting a big, crowded, cheesy tourist experience. I was almost convinced that we should skip it, but Paddy was hell bent on kissing that Blarney Stone.

Our experience couldn’t have been further from our expectation. It was a big tourist attraction, but we got there right when it opened at 9:00 AM, and there were very few people. (Going at 2:00 PM in July, however, would probably be an experience more like the one mentioned in the guidebooks.) We really enjoyed touring the ruins of the castle and the grounds were beautiful. Paddy got to kiss the Blarney Stone. I passed on the opportunity.

 

Gap of Dunloe:

We continued on our way to our next stop, Killarney and the Gap of Dunloe. We arrived in town, found parking, and had a quick lunch at a nearby restaurant. I was really looking forward to the Gap of Dunloe, a scenic country valley between two mountain ranges on the outskirts of Killarney National Park. Most people see The Gap by walking through it or hiring a horse and trap driver (jarvey) to take them through, then catch a boat back to Killarney on the lake. We didn’t have that kind of time, so we drove up and talked to a jarvey driver who offered to take us to the top of The Gap and back for 50 Euros. We had arrived at around 2:00 PM, so most people had already gone through The Gap and were done for the day. We went for it, and the tour was one of the highlights of our trip.

Our driver had a very thick accent, and said he lived in a small house nearby. His father had been a jarvey driver before him, and his grandfather before him. He said his son didn’t seem to interested in carrying it on, though. We really enjoyed talking to him and he gave us a great tour. At the end we tipped him 10 Euros, and he seemed shocked and very thankful. He told us he’d take his wife out for a pint that night on us. I don’t think tips are given as frequently in Ireland as in the states, and more at a 10% rate than the American standard of 15%-20%. Regardless, they are always very much appreciated.

The Dingle Peninsula:

We made it to our destination, Dingle, about an hour away, well before dark and found parking near our B&B with no problem.

We had a reservation at the Lantern Townhouse, a very nice B&B centrally located in town with an internet cafe across the street. The owner Katherine was very welcoming and definitely pays attention to detail. The room was very nicely decorated and quiet, with chocolates on the pillows and a carafe of water and glasses on the dresser.

Lantern Townhouse Dingle Ireland
Lantern Townhouse, Dingle
Lantern Townhouse Dingle Ireland
Lantern Townhouse, Dingle

Below: view from room

Lantern Townhouse Dingle Ireland
Lantern Townhouse, Dingle
Lantern Townhouse Dingle Ireland
Lantern Townhouse, Dingle

Below: street view

Dingle, Ireland
Dingle

We walked around a little bit, and realized that Dingle is a very popular tourist town. It kind of reminded us a bit of our hometown of Friday Harbor, WA. It is also a popular tourist destination for Irish folks, and as we later learned that evening, for Irish bachelor and “hen” parties. The touristy popularity of the town unfortunately means higher prices at bars and restaurants, so budget accordingly.

We found ourselves craving raw oysters like crazy. We looked at a few menus and decided on Ashe’s Restaurant as they had a deal on three oysters and a pint of Guinness. The interior was very cozy and the food was excellent. They even had Tabasco for the oysters. Hot sauce is something we had been seriously missing in Ireland.

Ashe's Restaurant Dingle Ireland
Ashe’s Restaurant, Dingle

After dinner, we started our hunt for music. We didn’t have to go very far before we found O’Flaherty’s. It was packed, but a table opened up soon after we arrived and we snagged it. There was music going on all evening long, and we had a great time.

 

Day 7:

The next morning, we had a fantastic breakfast at the B&B, including homemade Irish breads, smoked salmon, eggs cooked to order, cheeses, salad, and meats.

We then spent the day exploring the Dingle Peninsula. The Dingle Peninsula is an area where people still speak Gaelic, so many signs aren’t in English. It was truly one of the most beautiful parts of Ireland that we saw, and I would definitely recommend making it a priority on your itinerary.

The weather began to turn that day, and the sun came out. I was actually able to go out in just a light sweatshirt and no hat and scarf. The roads were extremely narrow, and often a nerve-wracking experience driving around a sharp turn on the edge of a cliff only to face a giant tour bus coming the other direction. We made it out alive, though. **Note: the smaller the car, the better.

One of our stops was at Clochuan, or the Fahan Beehive Huts. The date of origin of these ancient stone huts is undetermined, but believed to be built around the 12th century. We also stopped at the Dunbeg Fort, remains of another old ring fort built around the same period.

After a beautiful tour around the peninsula on Slea Head Drive, we made it back to Dingle and were extremely hungry. We wanted something relatively inexpensive, so we found a little seafood basket and burger place called Harrington’s Family Restaurant. It was pretty tasty, despite some bad yelp reviews. After lunch, we walked around town some more and did some shopping.

That evening, we were still craving oysters. We looked around at some other restaurants, but decided to just go back to Ashe’s. The main reason being that we knew they had Tabasco sauce.

We went out again that night, running into a lot more bachelor parties and hen parties at the bars.

 

Day 8:

After another fantastic breakfast at the Lantern Townhouse, we checked out and started towards our next stop, the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. This involved taking the Killimer/Tarbert ferry, a mild 20 minute crossing. Ferries leave once every hour in the winter, and every half hour in the summer.

Killimer Tarbert Ferry Ireland
Killimer/Tarbert Ferry
Killimer Tarbert Ferry Ireland
Killimer/Tarbert Ferry
Killimer Tarbert Ferry Ireland
Killimer/Tarbert Ferry

Cliffs of Moher:

After the ferry ride, it was about a one hour drive to the Cliffs. The Cliffs of Moher are another huge tourist attraction in Ireland, but parking wasn’t an issue (parking lot has a small fee, FYI) and the crowds weren’t too unpleasant. I’m sure in July and August they are much larger. In any event, it’s definitely worth a stop. Food (sandwiches and simple salads, etc) is available in a small cafeteria near the gift shop.

We left the cliffs and made one final stop at the Dunguaire Castle just outside of Galway. We opted not to pay the 6 Euro fee to enter the castle, we just walked around it and took some photos of the castle and surrounding straw roof houses across the street. It’s a beautiful castle and worth a stop. They also host a medieval banquet every evening that I read was very good and entertaining.

Dunguaire Castle:

 

Galway:

Finally, we reached Galway and found the Budget Rental car office to return the car. We were a bit relieved to not have to drive anymore and be responsible for a car at that point. The rental office was in easy walking distance from our hotel, The Victoria Hotel. The Victoria Hotel ended up being the ideal location for everything we needed–walking around downtown and the Medieval quarter, two blocks from the train station, and the bus for the Aran Islands departs directly in front of the hotel. It was a budget hotel, so it wasn’t fancy but the price was right. We had a huge room with a bathtub, (rare in Europe) a queen bed and a twin, hot water kettle and tea cups. There is a bar and restaurant downstairs that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Victoria Hotel Galway Ireland
Victoria Hotel, Galway