With the Wind Always at Our Backs ... (Canadians Driving in Ireland, Part I)

This is the last leg of a series of posts taking you on a June 2014 tour of Southwest England, Wales and Ireland.  If you've enjoyed the ride so far, tagging along in the backseat for a small summer vacation with this Canadian expat family from Doha, you should know that the best of the trip is all right here in the next few posts ...

May the road rise to meet you. May the wind always be at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face. May the rains fall soft upon your fields. And until we meet again may the Lord hold you in the palm of His hand.   - Irish Blessing

May the road rise to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face.
May the rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again may the Lord hold you in the palm of His hand.

- Irish Blessing

First of all, to everyone and their brother who told us to dress in layers because of the unpredictable weather in the UK and Ireland, let it be known that not once did we get rained on while on our magical tour.  Not once.  Not one single time.  Not even on the ferry ride over from Holy Head to Dublin.  Sunny skies and +/- 20C the whole trip.  So PFFFFFFTTTTTTTTH! to the meteorological Bah Humbugs!

Early glimpses of the Emerald Isle from the ferry ...

Early glimpses of the Emerald Isle from the ferry ...

Moving right along from traveller smugness now ...

Since Smilin' Vic had so royally missed the opportunity to secure 'fit-for-human' accommodation in Wales the previous night, I feverishly Googled the 'best places to stay in Dublin' and set to work finding us the quaint little inn experience we'd been craving.  

Unfortunately everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, was booked.  I tried desperately to find something, anything, that was

  • quaint,
  • half decent,
  • clean, and
  • within walking distance of Temple Bar Square.

Nothing.

Though there is an actual Four Seasons (as opposed to THIS) in Dublin, we really didn't feel like spending such an exorbitant amount of money on a posh hotel room with a bed that begs you to languish in its feathered fluffiness all day.  

Those are the rooms you book on a weekend oasis escape in Doha when you've had just about enough of the sand.  We, on the other hand, were looking for a true taste of Ireland.  

Desperate, I entered the dates one last time and ...

SUCCESS!  

Somehow I managed to book us a night at the Ariel House, aka the best kept secret in Dublin.  We were IN!

So it was that after a 2-hour car ride followed by a 2-hour ferry ride, relying on an amazing GPS that brought us exactly where we were meant to be, and all my fears of driving on the wrong side of the road abated by the free wine provided on the ferry's Club Class, we arrived at our Victorian home for the night, filled with excitement at our brief sojourn in Dublin.

Unfortunately our night at Ariel House was not to be.  This was obvious as we walked up smiling to the Reception and provided our name and booking number.  While one eye was already devouring the snacks and tea laid out in the parlour room to my left, the other one was taking in the look of confusion and eventually dismay on the receptionist's face.  

''I'm so sorry'', he said.  ''It appears you've booked for NEXT Thursday; what a dreadful mistake.''

I could have cried.

Smilin' Vic, though disappointed, was obviously struggling not to be smug about the fact that he was now not the only one who'd screwed up accommodation on this trip.

Apparently every single inn and hotel in Dublin was booked for an International Flower Show.  Who knew florists jet-set across the world to look at buds?  Anyhow, our 'un'-host was on the phone in a flash, desperate to find us somewhere in the city to stay for the night.  What a star he was.  And that was to be but our first taste of what truly sets this Emerald Isle apart:  easily the friendliest and most helpful people on Earth.

Apparently flower shows attract a pretty significant crowd ...

Apparently flower shows attract a pretty significant crowd ...

He provided us with our only option:  The Westin.  Bye bye hopes of the Irish Experience, hello reality of paying for just about everything including the elevator ride up to your room.  Ah, well, at least there would be a fancy rain showerhead and King-sized bed.

We made our way there, checked in, and quickly dropped off our battered duffle bags, narrowly escaping the allure of the 2-foot deep down feather comforter and 22 pillows tempting us into their embrace, and headed out to discover Dublin with what little daylight was left.

By the time we got around to Temple Bar Square, many places had stopped serving meals for the day, but we got lucky and found a little spot seated outdoors on the corner just opposite the Temple Bar.  And that is where we sat and enjoyed THE. BEST. MUSSELS.  I'VE.  EVER. HAD!

We guzzled down sipped a bottle or two glass of wine with our meal, and just sat there for quite a while watching revellers go by. These consisted mostly of Americans and Spaniards, with surprisingly few Irish accents. But the air of festivity was catching, the night was warm and clear, the taste of scrumptious profiteroles lingered on our palates, and we had a humungous, comfy, sleep-inducing bed to crawl into once it was all over.

Bellies full, night upon us, we finally made our way slowly down the bustling streets.  Buskers and musicians entertained at every corner, and we joined in the crowds to cheer them on.  Kiddo got an eyeful of bare bellies and short shorts, an uncommon site in the Middle East, and was obviously overwhelmed by the site of young girls teetering down the street in stilettos and barely-there mini-skirts (common dress for Qatar, but always under cover of an abaya).  We let her revel in the sights and sounds so foreign to her as an expat child in the Middle East.

As we stopped at the last corner to listen and sing along with the happy crowd to a particularly engaging rendition of Whiskey In the Jar, a lone rake-thin forty-ish woman whose jeans had fallen just below her g-string to just above her knees began jumping up and down enthusiastically in front of our songster.  

Sigh.  Based on the bulging of Kiddo's eyes at the sad sight of 'just a dozen too many' we knew we'd spend the next four days trying unsuccessfully to explain the sight of skinny, saggy butt cheeks, and decided since it was closing in on 11 p.m. it was time for bed anyhow.  We decided to call it a night. 

Our short time in Dublin had come to an end, but we had miles of green left to visit.  As our heads hit the 300 Euro a night plush pillows, Irish hospitality still warming our hearts, good wine and grub filling our tummies and Irish tunes still playing on the reel in our heads, we couldn't have been happier!

(To be continued ...)

The Real Salem’s Lot … (Canadians Driving in Wales, Part II)

Again, this post has nothing more to do with Doha than a recounting of silly tales by Doha expats off on a short summer driving adventure.  

Duly impressed by my selection of lodging in Cardiff, Smilin’ Vic decided to wow us by booking a posh room for the next leg of our trip in a lovely seaside university town on the Western Coast of Wales.  It was to be our last night in Wales before moving on to Ireland, and he hoped to make it a memorable one.

It was to be memorable, for sure, … but perhaps not in the ways he’d hoped.

Our destination was Aberystwyth, and we took our leisurely time getting there, stopping in a quaint little village called LLandarrog, at a lovely pub with a thatched roof and the most impressive interior I’ve yet to see.  Unfortunately, for reasons we can’t quite explain, we left without taking a single picture of the interior of the White Hart Thatched Inn and Restaurant.

The White Hart Thatched Inn & Restaurant.  Lovely food.  Lovely cider.  Lovely hosts.  Just lovely.

The White Hart Thatched Inn & Restaurant.  Lovely food.  Lovely cider.  Lovely hosts.  Just lovely.

Added bonus, the Inn was also a brewery, so we got to sample the cider (me) and the ale (Smilin' Vic)

Added bonus, the Inn was also a brewery, so we got to sample the cider (me) and the ale (Smilin' Vic)

We did enjoy a little afternoon stroll down a country lane however, and some lovely cider and lunch before continuing on our way to Aberystwyth.  We arrived in the town around 7:30 p.m., having stopped in a few more small picturesque fishing villages along the way, and allowed our GPS to guide us toward our much-anticipated seaside destination.

Afternoon stroll down a country lane ... little things you don't get to do when you live in the ME ... (you can't believe how meaningful walking on a dirt road surrounded by green and grass becomes when it's just NOT a possibility).

Afternoon stroll down a country lane ... little things you don't get to do when you live in the ME ... (you can't believe how meaningful walking on a dirt road surrounded by green and grass becomes when it's just NOT a possibility).

On the way to Aberystwyth ... The roads don't get any wider, we're on the wrong side, and it's a steep drop on MY side!

On the way to Aberystwyth ... The roads don't get any wider, we're on the wrong side, and it's a steep drop on MY side!

Fishguard.... low tide.

Fishguard.... low tide.

Kiddo and I really had no idea where we were headed, as Smilin’ Vic wasn’t spilling all the beans, but we later came to learn that he actually believed there was a proper Four Seasons Hotel in this town.  He was partly right; there WAS a Four Seasons.  Just not the legitimately branded sort.  What more would you expect for 90 £ per night one street back from the waterfront?

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I had an inkling all was not as it should be when I spotted THIS directly across the street from our lodging for the night.  (Stephen King fans ... I think this is where it all began ....)

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A subsequent Google search showed that, had we done our homework, we would have been forewarned of the hotel’s (town's) dubious ratings and questionable accommodation.

Smilin’ Vic headed in to the hotel to check in, leaving us parked on the eerily empty street to wait.  He proceeded to smack his head HARD on THIS …  

Another sign?

Another sign?

He got back into the car, bruised and battered, and drove us (bleeding cranial wound and all) ‘round to the back, where we parked our car for ‘free for the night’ into a local car park.  We would only be charged if we left the car there past 8:00 a.m. apparently.  Possibly another indication as to the state of our setting.  As we manoeuvred our way up to the first floor and through FOUR sets of fire doors, visions of the room awaiting us played havoc in my head.  When we finally arrived at our room, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was clean, even though the luggage carrier immediately collapsed under the weight of our smallest duffel bag.

Note collapsed luggage carrier folded uselessly behind pleather upholstered chair...

Note collapsed luggage carrier folded uselessly behind pleather upholstered chair...

Settled in, we decided to make our way down to dinner.  Though still bright as daylight outside, it was closing in on 8:00 p.m.  Our hostess informed us that the hotel restaurant was closed, but that we could find a kebab shop or Chinese takeaway open down by the pier.  I remained hopeful that we’d find a quaint seaside oyster shack …

We walked the block to the pier, winding our way for about 5 minutes through what can only be described as the walking dead.  Sad, twisted, angry faces, shouting out ‘f you’ and ‘burn in hell’ to stalkers visible to none but them.  Drunken bodies lying twisted and seemingly lifeless on benches and boardwalk, beggars staggering about bumming cigarettes, and middle aged couples such as ourselves weaving raggedly down the boardwalk in a drunken stupor.  Smilin’ Vic tried desperately to tuck away the Canon EOS camera that so blatantly marked him as a tourist as we retraced our steps as quickly as possible, ignoring the dishevelled youth who ran drunkenly after us shouting ‘wait for meeeee’.  

We tried unsuccessfully to find anything other than a filthy KFC (occupied by a sole patron sitting amidst chicken skin and paper packaging strewn across the floor) that might provide some sustenance, eventually settling on crusty rolls, ham and tomatoes from a local grocery store.  

Armed with our grocery spoils, we headed back to the relative retreat that could barely be referred to as a courtyard at the back of our hotel.  There we sat on the patio backing onto a rather suspicious alleyway, enjoying our picnic as best we could while a flock of hungry seagulls, the vultures of the sea, hovered anxiously overhead.

Only one lone gull standing guard over the 'courtyard' ... but the poo on the roof gives credence to the fact that the flock was not far behind ....

Only one lone gull standing guard over the 'courtyard' ... but the poo on the roof gives credence to the fact that the flock was not far behind ....

To their credit, the hotel owners really did try to make our stay as pleasant as possible, but everything about our experience in this town would have fit perfectly into a Stephen King novel.  Zombies on the boardwalk, boarded up shop fronts, circling seagulls, 3 gaunt AA members who emerged from the church basement just before sunset, gum-chewing boxers at the local grocery shop with butterfly ears, death-pale vacant-eyed 16-year-old goth chick with the pasty belly walking down the street in ripped fishnet stalkings and a crop top.

We hunkered down for the night in our room in what we’d come to refer to as ‘Fort’ Seasons, anxious for morning to come to get as much distance between us and this haunted town as possible.  Sunrise couldn’t come soon enough.  

June 19 in Aberystwyth ... with the looming summer solstice, light still shines lights the room at 9:30 p.m.

June 19 in Aberystwyth ... with the looming summer solstice, light still shines lights the room at 9:30 p.m.

The one good thing that has come from our stay in Aberystwyth is that we’ve narrowed down Kiddo’s university choices by one.  She will NOT be going to Aberystwyth U!

P.S.  My views on the town of Aberystwyth are mine (and my little family's) alone; feel free to visit and make your mind up for yourself.  On the upside, the subsequent ride to Holy Head was glorious.  The countryside in Wales is truly something to behold.

¨Pitstop ... Kiddo on her way up the hill to mingle with the sheep...

¨Pitstop ... Kiddo on her way up the hill to mingle with the sheep...

Narrow roads in Wales ...

Narrow roads in Wales ...

You can't see me, but I'm reaching for the flask of wine I've hidden in my bag ... Close encounters of the Welsh kind ...

You can't see me, but I'm reaching for the flask of wine I've hidden in my bag ... Close encounters of the Welsh kind ...

Thanking the gods for no oncoming traffic ...

Thanking the gods for no oncoming traffic ...

There is a line down the middle - deceitful - because there is in fact no room for two cars. ...

There is a line down the middle - deceitful - because there is in fact no room for two cars. ...

I'm two fists into the bottle by now ....  enjoying the glorious scenery ....

I'm two fists into the bottle by now ....  enjoying the glorious scenery ....

So how we gonna get by this dude Smilin' Vic?  I don't really care.  I'm three sheets to the wind!  Yeeeeeehaaaaaa!  Gooooo Wales and teeny tiny roads!

So how we gonna get by this dude Smilin' Vic?  I don't really care.  I'm three sheets to the wind!  Yeeeeeehaaaaaa!  Gooooo Wales and teeny tiny roads!

Gorgeous scenery.  Learned by reading the maps that 'Lynn' actually means 'Lake'.  Very relevant in our family.

Gorgeous scenery.  Learned by reading the maps that 'Lynn' actually means 'Lake'.  Very relevant in our family.

Serenity.  Enough to sober me up :-)

Serenity.  Enough to sober me up :-)

These dudes are like:  'Hey Canadian Woman.  RELAX!  Enjoy the ride and just chill.  De-stress for the sake of us all ....'

These dudes are like:  'Hey Canadian Woman.  RELAX!  Enjoy the ride and just chill.  De-stress for the sake of us all ....'

Warming Up to Worms … (Canadians Driving in England, Part III)

As in the previous two posts, this is not a post about living, driving, breathing, working in Doha. It's about how Doha residents might choose to live, drive, and breathe when they leave the harsh summer desert climate for a short vacation.  

Invigorated by the day’s 5 mile hike (not km; we were in England remember) and plenty of fresh air and Vitamin D, we decided to head South West to explore England’s sandy beaches and resorts town.  Our first stop in Torquay redefined our naive take on ‘resort’.  

Expecting to arrive in a peaceful seaside village to find a B&B on the coast, waves gently lapping on the shore just beyond our doorstep, and captains’ cottages with widows’ peaks at every turn, we could only stare wide-eyed as we drove into a carny’s paradise, reminiscent of circa 1970’s Coney Island and The Warriors, only in broad daylight and with gangstas ranging in age from 16 to 84.  

Dilapidated hotel fronts, a 1980’s carnival set up next to the pier, reddened, blistered and peeling bosoms and torsos, staggering tourists, and a general air of old, funky, seaside debaucherie.  No disrespect to the town; we might have enjoyed it in our twenties, but as middle-aged parents it just wasn't our 'thang'.  

We decided to carry on further down the coast.

The next coastal town gave no hint of anything better, so we decided to make our way to Dartmouth on our quest for local charm.

Smilin’ Vic spotted a sign for the Normandy Arms along the way, smack dab in the middle of nothing, somewhere in county Devon.  We followed the markers down a maze-like bike track to the quaint village of Blackawton, awarded the cleanest village in England in 2008(?). 

Its moments like these where I regret not carrying a bottle of wine or something stronger in my bag.

Its moments like these where I regret not carrying a bottle of wine or something stronger in my bag.

Though the Normandy Arms had no more rooms available, we continued down the village’s main thoroughfare (i.e. single lane carriageway) to a public house called The George.  

It was tiny and quirky and everything country we'd been looking for.  We decided to stay the night.

I'm assuming this is meant for those who prefer to enjoy their tea in the privacy of the pub loo?  It goes without saying that steak and chips have no place down the toilet either ...

I'm assuming this is meant for those who prefer to enjoy their tea in the privacy of the pub loo?  It goes without saying that steak and chips have no place down the toilet either ...

While there, we discovered that the George was renown for hosting an Annual Worm Charming Contest.  

Though we initially scoffed at the concept, we googled the sport and found that it actually has a following in Canada as well, most particularly in the town of Shelburne, Ontario, where worm charmers gather from near and far to tantalise night crawlers to the earth's surface.

Though the food was somewhat akin to a kitchen experiment (Smilin’ Vic compared it to an army buddy deciding to ‘try something out’), the hospitality and the cleanliness of the very basic accommodations were worthy of mention.

We truly enjoyed our evening; had a glass of wine on the back terrace before heading up to bed, and even though Smilin’ Vic and Kiddo managed to tune in to the end of Forrest Gump, I was once again out like a light before my head even hit the pillow …

The next morning, we enjoyed the second of way too many English breakfasts, and sipped on steaming cups of coffee on the back terrace, enjoying the feel and the sound of a cool morning breeze rustling through the field behind the public house.

Mowing the lawn the good ol' fashioned way ...

Mowing the lawn the good ol' fashioned way ...

We took a few minutes to visit the town's church grounds and cemetery, and before we knew it, it was time to pay up and continue on our journey ... (to be continued).


When Canadians do Castles (Canadians Driving in England - Part II)

As noted in my last post, this is not a post about Doha.  It's about Doha expats escaping the summer heat for a little bit of silly summer fun.  It's about finding glory in little bits of normality as we return to the 'familiar'.  It's about appreciating what we miss, and eventually allowing living out of a suitcase to make us appreciate the return to Doha.  So forgive me if you were expecting to find any Doha info in this post ....

Though we’d hoped to see Stonehenge up close, the shuttles ferrying tourists to the towering monument had ceased operating for the day (6:30 p.m. is the last).  So we grabbed a quick sandwich, took a few pictures of poppies and fields with Stonehenge far off in the distance, and headed back on our way, reinvigorated, hydrated and ready to complete our first day’s adventure.

Well, at least we saved on £40 admission fees ...

Well, at least we saved on £40 admission fees ...

It's the journey, not the destination ....

It's the journey, not the destination ....

We arrived at the inn just minutes before 9:00 p.m., and were let in by the lovely owner Michelle.  We headed up to our third floor room which, although lovely, bore a distinct lingering stench of cat urine (urine if you’re posh, pee if you’re not, wee if you’re travelling through England).  Either way, it wasn’t pleasant.  Exhausted as we were though, we decided that then was not the moment to complain about such trivial matters.  A quick call by our friendly hostess to the local pub 500 m (that’s meters, not miles) down the road meant they would keep the kitchen open long enough for us to grab a quick bite to eat.  

Satiated and bellies full, we climbed into the most comfortable bed ever and collapsed into a deep dreamless sleep, blissfully oblivious to the cat pee pee smell.

We were served up a wonderful breakfast the next morning, and armed with 50 brochures and the advice of both our hostess and the previous evening’s pub patrons, we headed off to discover Fingle Bridge and Castle Drogo.   

Yes, you CAN expect to meet oncoming cars on this 'road'.  If I'm not mistaken, the speed limit was 40 miles per hour ... I was hyperventilating and desperately craving wine by the time we hit the second curve.

Yes, you CAN expect to meet oncoming cars on this 'road'.  If I'm not mistaken, the speed limit was 40 miles per hour ... I was hyperventilating and desperately craving wine by the time we hit the second curve.

As we made our way down single lane country tracks in County Devon, we wondered if perhaps we should have stuck to major highway attractions.  But all our doubts were erased as we arrived at Fingle Bridge, a small stone structure supported for centuries by naught but a keystone over a gurgling river in the middle of a truly majestic forest.  Kiddo was immediately drawn to the river, and headed down to play with the other kids and dogs splashing around in the icy water.  We sat back long enough for refreshments at the pub on the water’s edge, then grabbed our backpacks and camera in preparation for the 45-minute hike along the river to the castle (as in the previous post, the ’45-minute’ guide was nothing more than the Brits once again having a laugh at global perception of time).  

A sight like this, the gurgling in the background, and the warm June sun make all the world's ills fade into the background ...

A sight like this, the gurgling in the background, and the warm June sun make all the world's ills fade into the background ...

Cold water on tired feet on a hot day ... who could resist?

Cold water on tired feet on a hot day ... who could resist?

We started off along the forest pathway, revelling in the warmth of the day, tempered by the cool breeze coming off the water and the shade of the trees.  Perfection.  

Sometimes you just have to stop and listen ....

Sometimes you just have to stop and listen ....

Until about 1 hour and 15 minutes into the walk, when we realised the steady uphill climb appeared to be leading nowhere.  Which is the point at which we noticed a family of five jostling and tumbling down a steep incline to our right.  Smilin’ Vic asked the dad where they were coming from and the dad answered ‘Castle Drogo'.  We asked if up the cliff face was the only way there.  He answered that we had the option of going up that incline for about 10 minutes or continuing along our original path for 30.  He clearly stated that coming down the incline was treacherous and that he would most definitely not recommend going UP it.  I heard him clearly.

Advice that Smilin’ Vic and Kiddo chose to blatantly ignore as they set their compasses upwards, tempted by the possibility of an earlier arrival at destination.  And so it is that we set up that 70 degree incline, me in my white pants and cursing all the way up, daring either of them to say One. Single. Word. about how hard this was.

Final destination ... but. HOW. MUCH.  FURTHER. ???????

Final destination ... but. HOW. MUCH.  FURTHER. ???????

The climb up took about 15 minutes and four litres (not gallons) of sweat.  But we finally made it, and were well rewarded with the visit.  We became official members of the National Trust, and were given a car decal to prove it.  I must say, if you’re ever in Devon, do take the time to visit this historic site.

One of the walls in the castle.  A memorial to a son lost on the battlefield.

One of the walls in the castle.  A memorial to a son lost on the battlefield.

The last castle to be built in England, it is a dichotomy of old and new, with indoor plumbing, central heating, electricity and telephones built into the cinderblock structure.  Although it is undergoing major renovations to the tune of 11,000,000 £, it is still truly impressive and a sight to behold.  If you’re visiting in 2018, you’ll see the structure fully restored to its original glory.  Unfortunately, on our visit most of the furniture had been stored to protect it from ongoing works, many of the windows boarded up to prevent dust from coming in, and the exterior sheeted to protect visitors from construction works and construction works from visitors. 

All we could see of Castle Drogo from the outside ....

All we could see of Castle Drogo from the outside ....

Having learned a lesson about British timekeeping, we spotted an Italian tourist and asked him for the quickest route back down the mountain, and were rewarded with a surprisingly accurate indication of a 25-minute route running almost straight down the mountain back to Fingle Bridge.

Where we knew a cold pint would await....

Where we knew a cold pint would await....

And the Brits actually drive over Fingle Bridge;  this dude's shoulders barely fit through!

And the Brits actually drive over Fingle Bridge;  this dude's shoulders barely fit through!

And from there, we decided to pursue our haunting of Devon with a jaunt to the East Coast, aka ‘the Riviera of England’ …. (to be continued)