Thursday, April 23, 2015

Seaweed Baths and Garmin's Favorite Backroads

The next morning, it was time for something a little more unusual: Seaweed baths!
Seaweed baths!!

Our friend, Jody, is currently working on a cook book incorporating Irish food and traditions. As part of her research, she had discovered that recently Irish spas has begun to re-embrace the tradition of using seaweed for it's health and healing properties. Purportedly, the oils in the seaweed are both good for the skin and -when paired with the warm waters of a bath tub- are good at helping leech the toxins from your system. (Something that, frankly, I felt like I would be testing after drinking my share of the four bottles of wine we'd polished off the night before.)

Now, frankly, I had never thought I would be traveling to Ireland to soak in seaweed, but I'm always game for an unusual experience, and something that would -if nothing else- make an interesting anecdote so... it was off to Voya Seaweed Baths in beachside, surfer village of Strandhill, a little over an hour north.

The actual experience is pretty close to what you would imagine. We ended up renting the "Family Room," which was two steam/shower booths, and then two claw-foot tubs each filled with warm water and their fair share of seaweed. Since the water itself was fresh, the salt-water-ocean smell was fairly minimal, but -climbing into the tub- you quickly discovered that the seaweed made the water very oily (or, in less charitable terms "slimy"). With the kids there, I'm not sure I could call the experience relaxing, but it was definitely entertaining.

After rinsing the seaweed oils off ourselves, and grabbing a tasty lunch at Shells Bakery and Café; we decided to do a little beach combing. Not unlike Alki in Seattle, Strandhill is a tiny community with a surprisingly beachy feel. Beyond Voya and one or two restaurants, most of the businesses near the waterfront are actually surf shops and schools; which felt a little incongruous given the cold winds blowing in the day we arrived.

Still, for a couple of hours, we all enjoyed collecting rocks and exploring the high sand dunes that formed a sort of natural barrier from the ocean.

 Otto atop one of the sand dunes. He and I enjoyed clambering around on top of them, and then sliding down them.
A panorama of the beach: The ocean to the left and a giant sand dune center stage. You can see Standhill in the distance, beyond Sarah and Otto. Stella, for her part, was content combing the beach for the perfect rock.
Eventually, though, it was time to make our way back to the car, and on to our next destination. Before we'd left, Jody had also recommended a small wooded walk on one of the loughs not far from Strandhill. Unfortunately, while the drive was a quick one, it was just enough time for Otto to knock off, meaning we got to take turns caring him around the woods.
While my experience with them is limited, coming from the Pacific Northwest, I always find European woods sort of quaint. Charming even. Where the forest of my own home state are deep and sprawling beasts; most of the woods I've encountered in Europe feel like they are one step up from a park, with their defined edges, and networks of trails. They are beautiful and neat to walk through, but definitely different.
Stella strikes a pose in the woods, while the sun sinks in the background. (Also note Sarah carrying Otto.)
Looking at the ruins of a small church on the lake.
After exploring around for a bit, and taking in the views of the lake; it was time to head out. We had initially planned on going to a small lake side restaurant; but we were running behind schedule, so we headed straight back to Jody and Sandeep's place; the kid falling asleep as we went.
Each trip seems to have one day that is sort of a wash. A day where your well-intentioned plans are thwarted, and you do you best to turn the proverbial lemons in to the proverbial lemonade. That day was Monday.
Initially our plans were to head south for the day, to visit Ireland's famous cliff's of Mohor, and explore the surrounding area. Our Garmin had a different plan for us.
I guess this is as good a place as any to talk about the 5th passenger on our various, daily road trips: The Garmin. Wisely, Jody and Sandeep had suggested we spring for one with our car rental, and -by-and-large- it proved to be a wise decision, given the fact that Ireland rarely builds a straight road, and often forgets to name them. That said, our electronic navigator was a wee bit overly fond of back roads. Rarely would she (the voice was female, so we are going with "she" here) direct us to a major thoroughfare when there were a readily available side road closer. The unofficial slogan of our Garmin was "Want to Get Off the Beaten Path? Try Garmin!"
A typical Garmin-chosen road. Beautiful... but questionable.
Now, don't get me wrong. Honestly, when driving, I prefer small, side-roads to highways. That said, I do like to be relatively certain that the road I am on is, in fact, a road, and not just a very long drive way. I also like to have some vague degree of confidence that the road I am on will actually let out somewhere useful. I also don't need to double the drive time for the sake of seeing sheep pasture.
All that said... This time out we got lost because of user error. Sarah, in typing in the first destination on our trip, selected one of three options available. The incorrect option, in this case. This fact only became apparent about an hour and fifteen minutes into what was supposed to be a 45 minute drive. At that point, we realized we were hopelessly off course, and well into a windswept wilderness. The area was actually stunningly beautiful, in a rolling, barren sort of way; with sheep seemingly roaming wild, and hardly another soul to be seen.
Unfortunately, it was hard to appreciate the beauty through our general frustration. A frustration that was only multiplied by the fact that it was 1:30 and we hadn't eaten lunch (oh, and I had to pee super bad). So, instead of redirecting the Garmin and driving for another hour or more, we decided to cut our losses and head to Galway, which was considerable closer.
Galway. We actually didn't see that much of it. But did appreciate the pedestrian streets we spent some time on, if only because it limited the Otto's capacity to lunge in front of traffic.
After arriving in Galway, and managing to park our car with little difficulty, it was off to find food. Sarah had borrowed a guide book from Jody, and it had several suggestions. And, while the first one was closed, the second -a cozy and suitably authentic place called the Dail Bar- seemed a good fit. (Though this may be the first place that Stella asked: "Why do we keep having to eat at pubs?")
"Why do we keep having to eat at pubs?"
A short time later, with food in our bellies and our moods improving, it was time to check out the one thing nearly guaranteed to make Sarah happy: A cheese shop. Specifically: Sheridan's Cheesemongers. As Jody had explained to us a day or two before, Ireland's economic crisis had fostered a newfound sense of pride in food and goods made in Ireland. And, sure enough, in our visits to grocery stores and other shops, it was hard not to notice all the labels declaring "Made in Ireland," "All Irish Beef" or similar. It also makes sense that in a country known for it's sheep (and with it's fair share of cows too), there would be a tradition of well made cheeses... and the wares at Sheridan's did not disappoint.
Sarah in her territory: Sampling cheese.
After the cheesemongers, it was on to the bakery for some much anticipated sweets for the kids. After that, we explored the pedestrian streets around us briefly before realizing that we should be on the road again, in order to make it back to Jody and Sandeep's place, since we'd previously promised Jody we would do dinner with her.
On the way home, we had planned on stopping briefly at Ashford Castle, just to take a peak at it, and maybe let the kids run around a bit. In the end, the kids were both asleep, and the Garmin -forever in love with a good backroad- decided to lead us down a single lane road that ended up being a service road for the castle (rather than taking us to either of the large front entrances the castle actually had). This provided us a weird, covert thrill as we found ourselves in the parking lot reserved, presumably, for guests of the hotel... the Skoda sharing the parking lot with bright orange Lamborghinis and similar, unattainable vehicles.  
I don't think we were actually supposed to be in this lot, but made for a good, quick photo opp.
Back at the house, Jody took us to see the sheep. While Jody and Sandeep's cottage was part of a larger Bed & Breakfast, their other neighbor was an old fashioned sheep farmer. ("One of the lone men of Ireland," I believe Jody put it.) They were on good terms with him, and so Jody explained it was fine if we went out into his pastures to see his flock of sheep. Walking down the quiet, dirt road, and opening a metal gate, we made our way into the green pasture, surrounded by rustic rock walls. Being careful to avoid the mines left behind by the flock, we made our way up the hill toward where they all stood alternately grazing and eyeing us warily. Then, as we neared them, they made their break for it, bolting past us and charging down the hill, back the way we had come.
 Peering over one of the omnipresent rock walls of Ireland at some of the sheep.

Sheep making a break for it! Since it was early Spring, every flock we saw had tons of lambs, which made them extra charming.
It wasn't just the kids that found the scene amusing.
After collecting Jody back at her place, we headed out to find a place to eat, only to discover that most of the pubs and eateries around Ballinrobe seemed to close on Monday's. Still, eventually, we found a pub that Jody and Sandeep had visited before. ("Why do we keep having to eat at pubs?") And, together, we enjoyed a hearty meal and a couple of pints of Guinness.
"Why do we have to keep eating at pubs?"

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