at the Water's Edge

Living life and learning all I can along the way!

European Escapades: Exploring London, Wales and Ireland

On top of the world -- or at least the tallest mountain in Wales
Tom and I decided to do a big trip this year -- the biggest we've ever taken: a two week trip through the UK and the Republic of Ireland.  I'm not exactly sure what spurred on this trip, but we've talked about going to Europe for some time.  I've always wanted to explore the lands of my heritage. I've already been to Honduras (and have been able to visit family there on more than one occasion), but the rest of my heritage is from England, Ireland and Wales.  I did a bit of genealogy research  before the trip and traced my family back to a town in Wales called Merthyr Tydfil -- so that was definitely added to the itinerary, along with London, another (beach) town in wales called Tenby, and a week in Ireland including Rosslare Harbour, Kenmare, Dingle, Doolin and Dublin.  It took a ton of planning (some of which was probably not necessary), and we were constantly on the move, which didn't end up being too stressful and allowed us to see quite a bit of these countries in two weeks' time. We rented a car in Ireland, but we wanted to take public transportation (mainly the Tube [subway] and trains) in the UK.  We also wanted to stay at primarily Bed and Breakfasts -- which we did in every town save London.  As such, we decided that we should really try to pack everything we needed in backpacks so that we could more easily make the trek from train station to lodging, etc. It was difficult (for me), but we did it!  I first pulled aside everything I wanted to bring, then separated out everything I thought I could bring -- packed it all in the bag, and then got rid of a few things to ensure that my bag would suffice as a carry-on.  Tom had no issue packing everything in his medium-sized backpack.

Here's everything I wanted to bring - I left just a few things out so I could be
sure my bag would fit in the overhead bin as a carry-on.

All my liquids in a quart-sized bag!

Here's what my pack looked like...

...and here's Tom's. Room to spare.

Here's an overview of our itinerary and highlights from the trip.  There was SO much, and it all kind of seems like a dream now, so it's difficult pare down, but I will try!


We took the red-eye flight from Chicago to London, and had to hit the ground running because we had only two days in the city.  We dropped our bags off at our hotel -- the Belgrave, an awesome, swanky, small boutique hotel.  I loved it.  

We caught the tube to the Tower of London and started our sightseeing there.  To be honest, the Tower of London was a bit hyped up for us, so I was expecting a bit more. Walking around the outer walls of such an old building was very cool, as was the huge display of ceramic poppies recently installed to represent the British lives lost in WWI. Somehow the crown jewels didn't seem as impressive as I expected.  Perhaps it was the long line to see them; or perhaps it was the conveyor belt that moved you along automatically before you had time to really gawk. 

Tower of London and field of poppies

One of the cool passageways / staircases within the tower walls
From there, we took the Tube up toward St. Paul's cathedral. We first stopped for lunch at the oldest pub in London -- Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. It was an awesome atmosphere -- especially in the basement -- with low, arched doorways and metal gates and low lighting. I had my first British fish n' chips there, which was excellent, and they had an impressive list of Samuel Smith's beer available.  I had a delicious bottle of Organic Raspberry Beer! Yum!

From there, we went on to St. Paul's cathedral, which I think was my favorite sight we visited in London. Not only is the cathedral itself amazing and beautiful, but the stairs to the top are amazing.  There are ~512 stairs from the base of the cathedral to the top -- with three landing areas.  The first stop puts you inside the interior dome, right in line with all of the beautiful artwork that lines the perimeter of the dome.  There's a bench along the edge where you can sit, and rumor has it you can whisper from one end of the dome and be heard at the other end.  From there, it's another ~100 stairs up to the second dome, which sets you outside overlooking the city.  There are great views from there, and it's still a fairly wide dome that you can walk around.  Follow the stairs up once more, through some very windy spiral staircases to the top dome and step outside for an amazing 360 view of the city and a tight little ledge that you can walk around (don't worry, there are railings!).
It was worth the climb!

View from the Stone Gallery

View from the top!
 We took a walk across Millennium Bridge and took a peek in the Tate Modern (art's not really our thing, so we didn't stay long).  We caught the Tube back to our hotel, rested up for a bit, then swung over to a local pub just around the corner.

Our second day in London we did a TON of walking.  We walked from our hotel to Westminster Abbey and we toured that.  It was also very beautiful and an impressive building -- there are tons of people buried there and lots of tombs, shrines and monuments.  To me, it was a little excessive.  I preferred St. Paul's. We walked past Big Ben and went on to visit the Churchill War Rooms.  The war rooms themselves were really neat to see, and they also had a big museum / interactive biography of Winston Churchill -- a few more details than I really needed, but fascinating for anyone who's interested.  From there we walked on toward the British Museum, grabbing a bite to eat along the way. At the British Museum, I really just wanted to see the Egyptian exhibits and the Rosetta Stone, so that is where we spent most of our time. We also made sure to stop by the Easter Island statue for Tom's sake.

Westminster Abbey
Big Ben

Easter Island Statue....and...Tom.

From here, we took a stroll through St. James's Park, which was quite lovely...until I got pooped on by a bird.  
Nice pose for the camera so we can show everyone how much fun we're having

How we're really feeling at this point in the trip...

It was kind of a crappy the literal sense only, of course!

Anyways, we walked through there and over to Buckingham Palace before circling back to our hotel and trying out the *other* pub around the corner.

Buckingham Palace

Victoria Memorial


The next morning we had to make our way to the train station right after breakfast so we could be on our way to our next destination: Wales!  Besides family heritage, I don't know why I've always wanted to go to Wales, but I have.  I think part of it was the sheep.  I had also read several books from England and Wales and the descriptions of the British country side of rolling moors covered in purple heather and dotted with sheep just captivated me for some reason, and that's what I really wanted to see. We found it.  

View from the highway going through the Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales

Our first stop in Wales was Merthyr Tydfil, where part of my family line was from.  I had traced a marriage record  back to this town between my great-great-great-grandparents. When we arrived at the train station, we walked through town and into the residential area to our lodging for the next two days.  

Residential street in Merthyr
I think this was actually my favorite place we stayed.  It was a self catering studio (the Studios at Glenthorne) with a bedroom/dining/living area, small kitchen (with washer/dryer!) and bathroom.  Instead of the traditional B&B, they provided all of the groceries we needed to cook ourselves a full Welsh breakfast one day and a hearty continental breakfast the next.  Not to mention, we were greeted with a platter of delicious Welsh cakes (I've subsequently found a recipe and tried making them at home!). 

Studios at Glenthorne

Our studio for two days - little kitchen and bathroom through the door

Tea and Welsh Cakes!
 We decided to take that afternoon to explore Cyfarthfa Castle -- the previous home of the man who owned the Iron Works in town -- which has since been turned into a museum and park (it also used to be a school, and I met a woman in town who went to high school there!).  The grounds were simply gorgeous, and we really enjoyed just walking around some of the nature trails there.  The museum cost only one pound per person, and was quite extensive!  We learned a lot about the history of the town and the (miserable) lives of the miners and iron workers who lived there. After reading some of that we figured it was no wonder my family left! 

Cyfarthfa Castle
We stopped at the little cafe there for an ice cream and coffee and then meandered back into town.  The town is a little run down, to say the least. It looks like some effort has been made, but there are many store fronts that are boarded up, there are hardly any restaurants in town, and very few people around. We ended up going to a chain pub, which may be the equivalent of the Applebee's of Wales.  It was good, but not really anything special.

Full Welsh breakfast
The next day, we cooked ourselves up a full Welsh breakfast -- including the most amazing bacon. We scuttled down to the library after breakfast to do a little bit of family research. Through the records there we were able to trace back my family to Penydarren Yard, I found the names of my great-great-great-great grandparents who were from the town and took snapshots of a few census records.  As it turns out, the host at our studio rental was from the area of Penydarren...and had the same last name in her family -- perhaps we are distant cousins! We had to run from the library to catch the bus from Merthyr into the Brecon Beacons National Park. Unfortunately, our lack of experience with public transportation landed us a couple of miles past the stop where we were supposed to get off. After hiking a couple of miles along the highway we were able to begin our real hike up the highest mountain in southern Britain -- up to the twin peaks of Pen y Fan and Corn Du. It was an amazing hike.  The views the whole way were breathtaking.  My eyes could take in sheep and heathery moors to my heart's content!  THIS is what I came to see in Wales.  The views from the peaks were even more amazing. 
My favorite (and the most photogenic) sheep!
View from Pen y Fan 
View from just below the final ascent to Corn Du 

It was a pretty steep trek up, and we made lots of brief pauses along the way.  Once at the top we stopped for lunch and then continued in a loop back down the mountain.  We came across some incredibly photogenic sheep, and at the bottom of the mountain sat this serene waterfall in the most idyllic setting I've ever seen or even imagined.  You simply can't capture it in pictures, but I felt I could have stayed there forever.

The most serene setting I think I've ever been in.

We caught the bus back to town and (after a brief incident with a drunk man insisting on buying us drinks at the corner hole-in-the-wall bar) decided that we should pick up food at the grocery store in town to eat for dinner -- since there were no good restaurants in town and this was the one chance we had to use our kitchen on the trip. We picked up a rotisserie chicken, some foccacia bread and a few drinks and set in for the night!


The next morning was an early one, as we had an early train to catch and a long train ride from Merthyr to the beach town of Tenby. Everybody in Merthyr said we were going to love Tenby.  We soon found out why. All of the things that Merthyr was lacking, Tenby had. Cute shops, restaurants, pubs, bars, even an arcade! Not to mention the beaches, castles, coastal islands and offroad segways (more on that later). 

Downtown Tenby - a happening place!
We dropped our bags off right when we got into town and then hurried toward the harbour -- it was going to be a busy day! We caught the next boat leaving the harbour for Caldey Island. I had spotted this island while doing my research and had actually hoped to stay overnight there, but it didn't work out.  The island pretty much just consists of a monastery, along with the ruins of the old priory -- which was actually in much better shape than I expected.  After being greeted by a couple of giant jelly fish, we made our way over to the old priory. I really enjoyed walking through the old buildings and trying to imagine what they were once like. What I didn't realize is that they had actually maintained the church there -- which they now claim may be the oldest operating catholic church in Britain.  It also has a stained glass window that's original from the ~13th century! 

church at the old priory

The monks make chocolate and perfume as an income source.  We bought some chocolate and fudge and then headed up to the old lighthouse for a picnic lunch.  We walked around a good portion of the island; they have lots of farmland there and some beautiful cliffs and shoreline that I wasn't expecting. 

Caldey Island
Alas, we had to hurry off the island so we could attempt to arrive in time for our next adventure: off-road segways! I had seen this excursion on Trip Advisor and it got top reviews. As soon as I mentioned it to Tom he said we had to do it. So, we took the boat back to Tenby, hailed a taxi and off to the segway place we went. We just barely made it in time -- there weren't really any people there and it was close to the end of their day. As such, we ended up being the only ones on our tour and got a semi-private lesson on off-road segways.  We got a short lesson on how to use the segways and then were able to tear up and down the hills across an organic dairy farm.  The hills overlooked the whole town and whole experience was truly unique!  Our segway guide was kind enough to drive us back into town. 
Lesson time...

Touring the countryside

When in Wales...
After a brief rest, we went into town -- grabbed dinner at a local pub, discovered nobody knows how to make mixed drinks over there (besides a gin & tonic) and played games in a local arcade. We mostly went there in honor of my brother, but we had lots of fun playing a simple skee ball type game that won us enough tickets to buy a collapsable water bowl for Happy and a cheap deck of cards!  

Tenby was a great town just to wander about. There's a bit of a night life there, which was a nice change from Merthyr. We popped into another restaurant I had heard good reviews about for dessert and coffee. Yum!

The interesting thing about Tenby was the drastic changes in water levels with the tide. When the tide was low, the boats in the harbour were literally sitting on dry land, anchors right next to them. 

The harbour at Tenby at low tide
It also so happens that there is a tiny island that is accessible by land from the beach during low tide.  We were able to explore this after a little beach walk the following morning.  It's called St. Catherine's after an old church that used to be there.  It now has a run down building that was used for military purposes, then used as a hunting lodge and a zoo...and now they are trying to raise funds to re-open it as a tourist attraction. The bridge is currently unusable, but we were able to climb up to the top of the island and view the outside of the building. There were some great views from up there, too.  

Walking along the beach at Tenby...nobody around.

The town of Tenby as seen from the beach

You can see St. Catherine's in the background

Welsh flag!

The view from the top of St. Catherine's
From there, we meandered through town before heading back to the train station to make for Pembroke Dock where we would catch our ferry to Ireland.  We stopped at the Station Inn (literally attached to the train station) in Pembroke Dock where we discovered an alcoholic version of ginger beer called Crabbies -- it was delicious! 

It took some wandering to find the proper entrance for the ferry. I figured out pretty quickly why there's only one car rental place at the ferry port in Ireland: there were a total of about 20 foot passengers; everyone else brought their own vehicle across. Everything was very informal, to the point where we didn't even know what to do or where to go once we got on the ferry -- which was really more like a mini cruise ship.  We mostly lounged around the comfy seating in the on-board restaurants for the 4-hour ferry ride.


We arrived in Ireland in the evening and were able to pick up our rental car that night -- it was a Seat Mii. Yes, you read that correctly. The make was a brand called Seat and the model of the car was a Mii. Not the Nintendo Mii, though it kind of looked like something you might race in Mario Kart.  It was a small, compact car, but with plenty of room for us and our backpacks (and the numerous souvenirs and gifts we acquired). Tom actually adjusted really well to driving on the left side of the road and shifting with his left hand. We drove up to our B&B for the night (weird to be driving rather than walking or taking public transit!) and then walked down the road to a hotel restaurant for dinner. It was quite delicious. Tom also got the most delicious salad we'd ever eaten -- mostly because we were feeling malnourished from the lack of vegetables available in the UK. It was pretty much just peas...and if you count potatoes, potatoes...that came with every meal.

The next morning we we off on the road to start exploring Ireland! I had heard some things about Mahon Falls, but it didn't really come up much in my research.  It was along our route on the way towards Cork, so we decided to stop, and boy am I glad that we did! This was one of my favorite spots of our entire trip with some of the most amazing views.  Not only is the waterfall beautiful, but the views of the mountains and valley below are just stunning.  I guess I went in without any real expectations, so I was just blown away.  We were able to boulder and scramble up a good portion of the waterfall, which was quite fun, too.  

It looked like a nice photo until I realized he was sitting on a Coke bottle. And yes, his butt is painted blue.
It was a little scary driving back down the narrow, winding mountain road, but Tom did great with it.  We drove on to Midleton where we did the Jameson Old Distillery Tour. We had a really fun, spunky tour guide who gave life to the whole thing. It was really neat to see the old distillery and pot still and learn about the whole distillation process.  You could also see (from the outside) the new distillery which had been built right next door.

 We ended with a sampling, during which I discovered the one semi-unique mixed drink I could order in Ireland: Jameson, ginger (ale) and lime! Yum! The restaurant at the distillery was closed by the time our tour was done, so we grabbed a pizza in town then went back on our merry way. 

We drove to Kenmare and checked into our B&B for the evening before exploring town.  Kenmare is home to the largest ancient stone circle in Ireland, which was cool to see. We also took a walk down to the harbour for sunset and found a pub with some good traditional music for dinner. Out of our whole trip, we probably heard the best traditional instrumental music here.

Cromwell's bridge - named after the mustache [handlebar], not the man himself.
Stone Circle in Kenmare
Sunset at the harbour in Kenmare

They had these cute, almost hobbit-esque houses


The next day made me a little nervous - we were planning to drive The Ring of Kerry, which is often described as a scary, very narrow, curvy mountain road on which large tour buses will frequently come toward you. This led Tom and I to think about the Road to Hana on our trip to Hawaii -- and think about driving that on the "wrong" side of the road. However, the road was not nearly as bad as people make it out to be.  Not wanting to spend forever driving, since we had done so much the previous day, we made minimum stops along our route. We stopped at a couple of lookout points and at a really cool little beach area.  

We also stopped at a cafe where they claimed to have a little walking trail up to see "The Best Views in County Kerry".  We had a snack and drink and decided to see for ourselves. Wow. It really was stunning and possibly the best views we had that day. 

We drove onto Valentia Island, but to get off the island we had to take a small ferry. On the other side of the island we stopped to view a couple of ancient ring forts -- one that was more of a homestead and one that looked to be more of an actual fort. Both were really fascinating to see and walk around. 


From there, we made our way in to Dingle where we would spend the next two nights. We went out to Murphy's Pub for dinner and music that night.  We sat at the bar, which was fun since we got to know a few of the bar tenders. We learned how to make the perfect Irish or Bailey's Coffee (in theory, anyways) and enjoyed the pub music there...until they started playing non-Irish songs.

The next day we did a little bit of shopping and then went to the Dingle Brewing Company where they make Tom Crean's beer. They had a little self-guided tour that included a "free" pint. The beer is named after and Irish man with a crazy life story including multiple expeditions to Antarctica and several survival stories. 

That afternoon we went on a sea kayaking tour -- again, we were the only ones signed up so it ended up being a semi-private tour! The tour summary said we'd see some of the sea caves around Dingle Bay, but I didn't realize we'd actually get to go through the caves! It was amazing, and the views of the cliffs from the water was amazing -- I really appreciated being able to see the cliffs and shore from that vantage point. My arms were a little sore for a while afterwards (we had to fight against the tide on the first half of the trip!), but it was totally worth it! 

We did a shortened version of the Dingle Peninsula driving tour when we got back to town, and we stopped to see a couple of old stone "beehive" huts and the Gallarus Oratory -- an old stone church made without mortar that is still completely in tact and as water tight as the day it was built.  We did dinner in town and then retired early for the evening.

Beehive Hut 
Gallarus Oratory

Beautiful view along the Slea Head Drive on Dingle Peninsula


In the morning we packed up and headed toward our next destination: Doolin. It was another long day of driving, and we didn't have much in the way of sightseeing opportunities along the way. However, we were going to go over the River Shannon, which was of particular importance to me because at our wedding I walked down the aisle to an Irish song called Summer on the Shannon. Since then, I've always wanted to go and see the River Shannon.  So, I found a nice French restaurant situated right on the river, about halfway through our drive (in Limerick). We stopped there for a delicious and large lunch, snapped a couple of photos along the river and then proceeded onward to Doolin.

Summer on the Shannon!
I think Doolin was my favorite town we visited in our trip. It's a tough call. I also loved Dingle. Tenby was nice but seemed a little too much like a resort town. Doolin was tiny. It was touristy, but not packed. It still felt like a real Irish community with some home-spun warmth and hospitality. Our B&B the first night there was amazing. There was an awesome deck off the front of the house which overlooked town and the bay. We were offered some homemade lemonade out on the deck and that was an offer I could not refuse. 

We did a little bit of shopping in town and picked up some Irish hats! We wandered toward the harbour, pier and "beach" toward sunset and really enjoyed walking around the landscape along the shore. 

For dinner and music we headed over to the famed O'Connors Pub, situated conveniently just across the street from our B&B. The food was good and the music was great. They started out with some instrumental music which was okay, but very repetitive. Then, the singer came out. He was an old, one-legged, crazy haired gentleman with quite the voice! No need for a microphone, he just belted it right out. I really enjoyed listening to his songs. He did a few, took a break, and then did a few more. This was the Irish singing I came to hear.

Our breakfast at the B&B the next morning was the fanciest most gourmet breakfast that we had on our trip. Tom ordered vanilla orange French toast, and I had a fritatta with all locally sourced (if not homegrown) ingredients. Yum! The next part of our day was a real highlight of our trip. We did a walking tour with a local man named Pat Sweeney. I didn't realize before we booked the tour that he is actually the man responsible for the walking trail that was recently developed from the town of Doolin to the Cliffs of Moher (that's the Cliffs of Insanity for any Princess Bride fans). He was so passionate about his town, his land and his country that it was just contagious. To hear him talk about his visions for the trail and for the town was really cool, and to hear his stories of growing up on that land was really impactful. Plus, he helped us gain access to some of the best views of the Cliffs that you cannot get on any other tour.  It was a nice, slow-paced walk with lots of stops to learn about the area and the land we were traversing. 

We had several American couples that we made friends with along the way and ended up going back to Doolin with them for a few rounds of drinks and food at O'Connor's. Turns out they had all been there for dinner the night before, so we all decided to meet up at McGann's for dinner later that night. We had a little snafu with our reservations for that night so we had to switch to a new B&B, which was also very beautiful and had the most spacious room of any place that we stayed -- most were pretty compact (though none felt overly cramped to me).  This place was a little ways outside of town, so we had a good 15 minute walk along a little country road back into town for that evening.  We met up with our new friends and had dinner and listened to a little more music, although I had preferred the music the night before.  On our way back "home" we walked all alone (or so we thought) in the dark along this little country lane -- when we noticed what appeared to be a lantern swinging up the lane ahead of us. At first I thought it was stationary, but then we realized it was moving...just slower than we were. At one point, I did make out a shadowy figure which I assume was holding the lantern. Then, as we were going over a hill, the lantern suddenly disappeared, not to be seen again. It was kind of creepy, and may have been a ghost. But, we made it safely back "home" for the night.


The next morning we drove onward to Dublin. We stopped along the way at a couple of spots in "The Burren" -- a very barren landscape with extremely rocky ground, but apparently a very unique ecosystem with a vast variety of plants that wouldn't otherwise be able to grow in Ireland. 

We also stopped at Kenvarra -- a small town along the way for lunch and happened upon a local farmer's market. That was fun just to wander through. When we got to Dublin, we had to go straight to the airport to return our rental car, then take a taxi over to our B&B. We were pretty pooped by the time we got there and didn't really feel like exploring too much of the city that night. Not to mention we had just spent the past 10 days in little tiny country towns and being back in a real city was kind of overwhelming, to be honest. We ended up just walking a mile or so down the road to a nice local pub. It wasn't touristy at all, which was nice. They had great food and we were able to watch some rugby on the TV there.

That Saturday was our only full day in Dublin, and frankly I didn't have a plan. All of my scheming and planning and plotting kind of unraveled by the time we got to Dublin. I think I ran out of planning steam and just didn't know what I really wanted to do here. After deciding it wasn't worth the headache to try to figure out the local bus system, we took a taxi into the City Centre and got dropped off at the Guinness Storehouse -- the one thing we knew we would do since I purchased tickets in advance. We actually were not that impressed with the "self-guided" tour here. It was packed full of people and a lot of the information seemed more like "fluff" and space fillers than anything really interesting. At the very top, you can get your "free" pint of Guinness (yes, it does taste better in Ireland) and get a great 360 view of the city.  The only problem was it was so packed full of people you couldn't really walk around or see out all that well. Guess that's what we get for going on a Saturday. Anyways we enjoyed the gift shop :)  

From here, was walked through the city passed Christ Church and Dublin Castle among other sights and went on to Trinity College. We thought about doing the whole tour thing there, but we were kind of tired of sight seeing by that point and just did our own stroll through the campus and found a bite to eat at a little (non-tourist) clubhouse overlooking the cricket field. 

Trinity College
After that, we decided we'd had enough of the city (overwhelming!) and decided to take the train to Howth -- a small coastal city just north of Dublin. It was a really cute town and harbor and we enjoyed walking along the pier (we even got Rick Rolled by a street musician!). We were hoping to do a boat tour around the bay, but I think we got there too late in the afternoon. We instead enjoyed some ice cream and a cup of coffee. 

We took the train back into town and got off at what we thought was the closest stop on that route to our B&B. We had tried to arrange for a taxi to pick us up from the train station, but it never came, so we decided to walk. It was probably close to a three mile walk, but we really enjoyed it. We walked through a bunch of residential neighborhoods and just got a little different view of the city. We decided to go to the only other decent restaurant within reasonable walking distance from our B&B and then headed back to get some sleep before beginning the sad journey home in the morning.

Sunday, we woke up early, had a quick cereal breakfast and got a taxi to the airport. The nice thing about the Dublin airport is that they let you go through U.S. Immigration there instead of at your destination.  It was a pretty nice airport and we were able to get through everything quickly and settle in for the long trip home. We arrived in Chicago in the early afternoon and drove back home from there. After being home for a week, our trip really seems more like a dream than reality. It was truly an amazing experience and I feel so blessed not only to have been able to go, but also to share those experiences with such a wonderful companion, friend and husband.

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Hi there! My name is Dana and I live in West Michigan with my husband, Tom and our dog Copernicus. I created this space as a place to share the things I learn along this journey I call life. I work in marketing and I'm a sort of Jane of All Trades, interested in all things nature, gardening, cooking, exploring and learning new things. This blog is a conglomeration of my interests, hobbies, life and life lessons. Thanks for stopping by!