I arrived in Shannon, Ireland, on a red-eye flight, terrified and excited at the prospect of spending the next 10 days visiting my late father's family -- who I hardly knew -- with my two, now cranky and sleep-deprived teenage daughters.
Getting off the airplane was like climbing out of a time machine that had been sent back 40 years -- technology and decor has been slow to arrive in Shannon.
No fancy arrival and departure monitors, designer carpet or fashionable seating here. Instead, we were greeted by burnt orange seats, dark wall paneling, dusky vinyl tile, stark lighting and maybe two ancient monitors.
First order of business -- exchange money.
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I stuffed the $300 in U.S. currency I had brought into the airport exchange center's window bin. I got only 160 Euro back. Ouch! The dollar was worse than I'd thought.
Pulling luggage, my daughters and I stepped out into the brisk 40-degree April morning and climbed into in my uncle Pat Murphy's taxi for a two-hour ride to the town of Bandon, near the southern coast of Ireland. Pat and my aunt Mary, my father's sister, live and operate a taxi company, Murphy's Cabs, in Bandon, County Cork. Their son Eric, my cousin, is one of the taxi drivers.
All around I saw nothing but small cars, like Honda Civics and mini Coopers -- no SUVs or pick-up trucks.
My uncle explained that there aren't many SUV or pick-up drivers in Ireland. And he said most of the cars are standard shift and run on diesel fuel.
We were caught in Shannon's morning rush, and traffic was at a crawl. The rising sun beamed across the steamy, rolling countryside, covered with pasture squares, black and white speckled cows, stone farm houses and castle ruins.
"A castle!" I shouted and pointed.
There was no response from the back seat, where my daughters were snoozing.
As we neared Bandon, the roads become lineless, narrow and winding, bordered by hedges and in places by stone walls. We passed through many towns resembling Main Street in Rock Hill, except in Ireland, the buildings were concrete painted in bright colors.
The morning sun was bright, but I'd expected rain. Pat said it had been raining non-stop for two weeks. "You never know what kind of weather you're going to get in Ireland," he said.
More than two hours later, we arrived at my cousin Olive Murphy's townhouse, where we stayed. Townhouses seemed to be more common than single-family homes in the urban areas.
Olive, 37, is a paramedic based in Cork City. She had just gotten home from working night shift and whipped us up a breakfast of Irish sausages -- which taste much different from any sausage I'd ever eaten -- and porridge, which is similar to oatmeal. We gobbled up every drop and went to bed.
Over the next 10 days, sun and mid 50-degree days followed us. My relatives insisted we had brought the good weather.
Olive's townhouse was close to downtown Bandon and fairly new. It had all the modern conveniences -- except automatic heating and a continuous hot water heating system.
A thermostat on the kitchen wall allowed manual control of the house and water heat. Pressing a button warmed radiators in all rooms for just 30 minutes before the heat shut off. It wasn't turned on at night and outside temperatures dipped in the low 30s.
It was necessary to press the hot water heater button on the kitchen thermostat about an hour before showering or surprise -- only cold water.
In the shower, water temperature and pressure was controlled by a loud box device attached to the shower head. Water did not get very hot or stay warm for long.
But Ireland's scenery more than made up for the lack of heat and hot water. Even from grocery store parking lots, stone abbeys and castles were visible on the hills.
Just out of town, rolling farmland was abundant as were black and white speckled cows, horses and the aroma of manure. Olive said farmers spread manure in early April.
Farm houses were often set close to the road, surrounded by cropped hedging or short crumbling stone walls and usuallyguarded by a friendly, fluffy black, white and brown dog.
With the exception of Cork City, Cork County is barely commercialized and Cork City isn't nearly as commercial as Rock Hill, yet it is considered a large city. Pubs and castle ruins outnumber fast food restaurants and malls. I did not see a single fast food restaurant, and Bandon had one small mall.
The country side brought serenity. Even for the locals, cell phone service is patchy outside town. Country roads are usually only wide enough for one car to pass, are very winding and usually deserted except for the occasional farm tractor.
The majority of produce in stores was organic and the largest carrots I'd ever seen grow in Ireland -- three inches thick all the way to the tip.
My daughters complained that the same sodas they drink in the U.S. tasted different in Ireland, but they couldn't decide if they were better or worse. After inspecting the label on her Coke, my 15 year-old exclaimed, "I know why -- there's no high-fructose corn syrup in it!"
Pubs are on every corner in Ireland and in-between. They are hangouts for locals, visitors and for everyone else, from the young to the very old. In the Bandon pubs I visited, pub goers played mainly '80s American music on the juke box.
The exception was the Kilmichael Pub where I accompanied Mary and Pat, an accordion player, to listen to an Irish music session. Seated on benches and chairs around two square tables, a group of about eight musicians played traditional Irish music. They sang, played, ate and drank until the pub closed at midnight.
There I met an old man with a cane seated in front of a tall glass of Guinness. My aunt said he was a widower in his 90s who walked to the pub every night.
I also met a German man, Christian Helling, 37, who plays the bodhran, a hand-held Irish drum played with one stick. Inspired by Irish music, Helling left Germany and has made Ireland his home.
Helling has learned English only since coming to Ireland. He said he will stay because of the people, their traditions and a slower pace of life.
"Since the first contact with Irish people, I have noticed that they are a very friendly bunch and open to new people and new things," he said. "I like to live in Ireland and it would be perfect if there would be a roof over it."
I found the Irish people to be very welcoming, friendly and witty. As soon as we entered someone's house, out came hot tea, coffee and cake. My most memorable experiences were visiting with my family and their friends around a glowing fireplace, sipping hot coffee and listening to talk about Irish politics.
Places to visit in County Cork, Ireland
A harbor town featuring a restored castle, the O'Driscoll castle, which overlooks the town, beaches, pubs, shops and restaurants. My family has a beach house here. In April the town was quiet, but it becomes busy in the summer. A famous landmark is the Baltimore Beacon, a large stone structure built in 1798 at the entrance to the harbor as part of a warning system for sailors. Ferry rides are available to Sherkin Island, a three-mile long by 1.5 mile wide island, with a population of 100. Middle and high school children from the island travel by ferry to the mainland to attend school. The island boasts, sandy beaches, abbey ruins and pubs.
A harbor town with sandy beaches. In the summer it is the home of many outdoor music festivals. During the Irish Famine of the mid 1800s, Skibbereen was one of the worst affected areas. Over 10,000 victims of the famine are buried here at the Abbeystrewry.
A quaint harbor town famous for its restaurants, art galleries and activities such as yachting, sea angling and golf. A large yachting marina is next to the town center.
n Blarney Castle Estate
The Blarney Castle contains the famous Blarney Stone that is kissed by many visitors each year. Tradition says those who kiss the stone will receive the gift of eloquence.
n Cork City Gaol
A restored prison used in the 19th and early 20th centuries featuring an audio cassette guided tour. Writings and drawings of prisoners are on the walls of many cells.
n Shandon Steeple
Built in 1726, the steeple overlooks the River Lee. Within the tower are the famous bells of Shandon, weighing six tons each, which can be rung for a fee. On the tower is a four-faced clock known as the four-faced liar, because each clock frequently displays a different time.
Ireland Vacation Tips
n The best time to visit Ireland is between May and September. From May to July the days are long and bright until 10 p.m. or later and during August and September the sky is bright until about 9 p.m. The sunniest months are May and June, averaging five to seven hours of sunshine each day.
n The weather changes regularly and unpredictably, so bring layers of clothes that can be put on or taken off. The average temperature in May is 50 degrees; June, 55 degrees; July and August, 59 degrees; and September, 55 degrees.
n Standard voltage in Ireland is 220VAC compared to 110VAC in the U.S. In order to use small appliances such as hairdryers, battery chargers, etc., a dual wattage foreign travel AC converter is needed which can be purchased at Radio Shack or Best Buy.
n It is not recommended to carry large amounts of cash while traveling. Debit or credit cards should work in Irish ATMs, but check with your bank before leaving home. The Irish currency is the Euro. Cash can be exchanged at airports and banks, but usually for a fee. Check for currency exchange rates before leaving.
n Smoking is banned in all bars, restaurants and public buildings such as airports, hotel lobbies, etc.
n Cell phones may or may not work in Ireland. Tri-band phones will work in Ireland. Check with your service provider before the trip.