Not Your Grandma’s Hostel

In my teens, a family member mentioned to me a great, cheap way to travel was to stay at hostels. This sounded like an incredibly daring concept; something I was certain never to pursue.

This was pre-internet. Hostel information was typically found through Frommer’s publications. Although entries for hostels in these widely known travel guidebooks were well-written, they lacked the depth that today’s hostel websites now provide. Because of the detailed websites, I felt more daring to take the plunge into hostelling adventures. http://www.frommers.com/

Activity boards are common in hostels

Activity boards are common in hostels

Hostels are ideal for several reasons. Most are a fraction of what it would cost to rent a hotel room. Hostels oftentimes position you right in the heart of the travel destination, (not by the airport), so you are more inclined to soak up the culture and get the inside scoop on the best educational opportunities, eateries, night-life, and what to avoid. For example: I have signed up for ghost tours in three different tourists destinations and have yet to experience anything even remotely ghost-ish. Hostellers will be straight with you about this from the get go. Not to bag on ghosts specifically. I also never spotted any wee men on the Leprechaun Tour when in Ireland.

I will admit there are some downsides to hostels. You might die.

I joke. When friends and co-workers discovered I had been staying in hostels they expressed concern. Apparently, there is a movie out there where everyone at the hostel gets killed. Someone gets their nose chopped off? I don’t know. I have never seen such a movie, (although we did watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre on movie night at one of the hostels), but I’m sure it’s unrelated. I have never felt truly unsafe at one. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hostel_(2005_film)

Community Fridge

Community Fridge

In all seriousness, the downside to hostels has mostly to do with sharing. Do you like to share, or do you avoid it like the plague? Hostels I’ve stayed in provide you a bunk, (in either a co-ed or gender specific dorm), and a locker for your personal property. Everything else is shared: bathroom, kitchen privileges, common areas. Hostellers are generally the sharing type and may often share their food with you, and reciprocity is always appreciated.

There is always a weirdo in the bunch and, at times, someone may eat your food which you properly labeled and placed in the community fridge. Perhaps they have left something unexplainable in the bathroom garbage can? These things happen.

Ear plugs are a must if you are assigned a large dorm, (typically 8-12 bunks). People can be noisy sleepers in ways I never imagined!

bunks and lockers

bunks and lockers

HI Hostels are a great way to start out. They are very safe, and adhere to higher standards.  They generally do not allow alcohol, sometimes have curfews, lock-out times. They are generally never a party environment.  I’m not a fan of lock-out times, but the hostel listings will be upfront about this.  Depending on when lock-outs occur, it might never apply to you.

https://www.hihostels.com/

Hostels are “Yelped” just like other businesses/destinations. Plenty of photos are provided.

I have met so many great people traveling this way. I think it is ideal for the solo traveler because you can meet so many like-minded people, and have instant companions for exploring a new place. I have found that most foreign travelers staying in US hostels have great English skills and are willing to communicate with other hostellers. Every so often I meet a hosteller whose English is spotty and I suspect him to be a fugitive.

My first was India House Hostel in New Orleans, LA. It was very hippie-inspired. It was a great experience! http://www.indiahousehostel.com/

Panoramic of Ballroom Area - Green Tortoise

Panoramic of Ballroom Area – Green Tortoise

My favorite hostel, to date, is Green Tortoise in San Francisco. It is more of a party environment, (if that suits you), but if doesn’t, that is why ear-plugs were invented. They have community meals three nights a week, and the cook will let you help with the preparation of these meals, which I have found is a great way to meet people right away, (chopping veggies and drinking beers). http://www.greentortoise.com/san-francisco-hostel/

The dude who makes dinner

The dude who makes dinner – Yes, Frank Zappa look-alike

Along with community meals, many of the hostels I have visited have movie nights, game nights, live music…ice cream socials.

Hosteling is a great way to meet “real travelers”. I have traveled and stayed in often very nice hotels, but have gotten so much more out of the experience staying in a hostel environment. A hotel offers a very sterile perspective no matter where you travel. What you give up in privacy you make up for in a rich, behind-the-scenes, experience.

https://www.hihostels.com/

http://www.frommers.com/

http://www.indiahousehostel.com/

http://www.greentortoise.com/san-francisco-hostel/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hostel_(2005_film)

 

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Ireland Adventures 2013

Sparkly Euro

In preparation for my trip, I did a lot of Googling. I learned what form of currency was used in the part of Ireland we would be visiting. Southern Ireland uses the Euro, while Northern Ireland accepts British Pounds. I’m glad I researched, because when I went to my bank to order Euro, the bank employees did not have a clue about it. Scary, huh?

It was exciting to receive my order a few days later. The Euro were crisp and sparkly, and far more colorful than American money. I hadn’t decided if I was going to rely on cash or credit when I got there, but I wanted options, realizing sometimes it’s better to avoid the paper trail, use fake names, and run serpentine to elude capture. Besides, having a wallet full of curious foreign currency was part of the adventure!

James and I met up at Chicago O’Hare airport, and from there, flew into Dublin. It was approximately 19 hours from when my flight left Sacramento until we arrived in Ireland. So when we got there, we were exhausted. We picked up our rental car at the airport; a manual transmission. An automatic was available in their version of the mini-van, but we’re too cool for that. James hoped I would handle most of the driving on this trip, but I admitted I hadn’t driven stick since cars were equipped with cassette players. We were issued a Nissan Qashqai, a small SUV. On the road, I noticed the vehicles appeared similar to that in the states, but the model names were completely different. Note: The Fiat Panda.    

Rental car on left – Fiat Panda on right
In Ireland, you drive on the left, with the steering wheel on the right. Even as a front seat passenger, this is incredibly confusing. The mirrors are not where you expect them to be. When you look for visual confirmation from drivers of other vehicles, they aren’t even there. You have to remember to look in the right hand seat for the driver, getting over the initial shock that, “Nobody is driving that car”!
Later in the trip, we witnessed a small car slowly pulling out of a parking stall, violently scraping the left front bumper against a stone abutment. We stared at the man sitting in the left front seat, gazing vacantly out the window. I thought, “He sure seems to be taking this well, but Honey, you are not getting your deposit back”. We then realized, oh yeah, the driver is in the right-hand seat. She was more appropriately flustered by her freshly exfoliated vehicle exterior.

The first pub we visited, directly across from the car park, was relatively empty, (11:00 am), but luckily, the barkeep was very friendly and made change for me, for parking. This was my first experience using Euro. He broke my 10 EUR note into 1 and 2 EUR coins, which I had never seen before. He was very polite in explaining their values to me. Later in my trip, I discovered this country doesn’t hate coin the way we, in the states, detest ours. In the US if you want to piss someone off, settle your bill entirely in coin.
Later that day, we were checked in at The Trinity Capital Hotel. First on the agenda, a nap! A short while later, I was jolted awake by the hotel fire alarm. Far too tired to recognize the noise as warning of potential danger and impending fiery death, I sat up in bed until the noise ceased, and then I passed out again. I may have still been wearing shoes. 
Trinity Capital Hotel.  They sure love purple here!
When I was sufficiently rested it was already dark outside. (It’s get dark here at about 9:30). Still in American mode, I hopped up deciding I would search for the nearest Starbucks. Armed with my trusty Starbucks iPhone app, I headed out on foot.
I pride myself on being a master pedestrian, having walked everywhere. And I mean everywhere. What I hadn’t taken into account was that, driving on the other side of the road impacted pedestrians as well. I now had to look right before crossing the street rather than left. This took a lot more concentration and preparation than anticipated. Luckily, Dublin street corners are marked with little friendly reminders, “LOOK RIGHT”, or “LOOK LEFT”, on the corresponding curbs: information I greatly appreciated.
I never made it to Starbucks that night, but found the nearest quickie-mart, got a coffee and pastry and headed back to the hotel.  I don’t think they are called quickie marts there. Oh, and their pastries are not protected by sneeze guards. I was baffled by the flagrant dearth of bacterial protection and noticed this phenomenon everywhere we went. I ate the pastry and did not die, so perhaps sneezing is a non-issue on this part of the globe.
Back in the room, James and I devised our game plan for the next day. We dined on coffee and beef jerky I bought from the airport bookstore.
Internet access was very sketchy here; nobody seemed disturbed by it except us. The teapot, on the other hand, operated with supreme precision, (all rooms we stayed in during our trip were equipped with these). They boiled water in the blink of an eye! I guess it’s all about priorities.

Almost all the rooms we stayed in on our trip were equipped with a small device, located just inside the door, where you insert your room card. The device was designed so the magnetic strip from the room card would keep the lights working; an electricity conservation scheme, I suppose. Seconds after you removed your card, the lights and electrical outlets would cease to function. James quickly discovered that just about any magnetic card would work, so we used his Burger Lounge

card to keep the room well-lit, even when were away.

The following day, we toured the nearby Trinity College, with a very cool old library where you weren’t allowed to touch anything. It was like Hogwarts academy with a “secret” wine cellar. I bet I could have located their wine stash if granted a small window of opportunity. 

We were interested in touring Dublin Castle, but when we got there, were told the castle was closed for six months for

a meeting. And you thought you were getting meeting-ed to death!?! I felt we could have easily snuck in through an open side door. There were a lot of Garda, (Irish Police), standing around who seemed bored senseless, most likely from the enthusiasm robbing task of guarding an infinitely long meeting. We decided against sneaking in as we would have plenty of other opportunities to be scolded on our trip.
The Oliver St. John Gogarty Pub
I regret not photographing dinner that night. Granted, it was more interesting than coffee and jerky, but James ordered nachos from the hotel restaurant. I will give them points for using actual nacho chips, but the cheese was a neon greenish-yellow color, and the guacamole had a mayonnaise base with a lovely shade of mint. There was no avocado on board; the strangest Mexican food I’ve ever seen. So Mexico and Ireland don’t talk much?
Panoramic from inside The Oliver St John Gogarty Pub

We returned to Trinity College later that night. It was foggy and the moon was close to being full. It made for very spooky pictures.

Very spooky…I did not photoshop these
The following day, we visited the National Museum of Ireland, and one of the most interesting exhibits there was of 2000 year old bog men. The bodies were so well preserved, even their hairdos were intact.
Bogman – 2000 years old
Subsequently, we visited the Leprechaun Museum. It was pretty disappointing, consisting of a tour guide walking us through a series of dark rooms,

 

Q’s new friend
telling a dramatic story. I had really been hoping for face-time with a genuine Leprechaun, but this was not to be. James did find a new lil’ friend there, and Q and the new guy hit it off almost immediately.

From there, we went to the Guinness Storehouse and Brewery, a premier tourist attraction there. They teach how Guinness is made and how to pour, “the perfect pint”. Neither James nor I had the attention span for all that extra information so we proceeded to the top floor and The Gravity Bar. Boasting of 360

At the Gravity Bar

degree panoramic views of Dublin, it would have been a nice place to take some pictures. The bar was absolutely packed with people; small children even. James was thoroughly impressed they allowed children in bars. He repeatedly asked bartenders about it, but they never seemed to understand the question.

View from the Gravity Bar
I struggled to get panoramic photos from the bar, but unless I was willing to sit on a stranger’s lap, it just wasn’t gonna happen.
James stepped out to smoke, and I went to the gift shop. When I met him outside, he had befriended two teenage travelers who, I guess, were just backpacking around the world. James pretended to punch one of the boys in the stomach, thus curing the teen’s month-long hiccups. I should have video’d it. Good deed for the day and drama at its finest.

Back at the hotel, we watched a lot of free BBC television. Initially, I did not like it. When they showed American movies, they were the worst movies ever. Mike Meyers’s “Love Guru” was playing. Normally a fan of Meyers, I was embarrassed to be American.

James was amazed by the commercials. You know that commercial that shows sad, one-eyed dogs with bandaged heads, and abused, crying kittens desperately in need of orthodontia, while Sarah McLachlan sings, “Arms of the Angels”, in the background? Well, Ireland has an alternate version of that. It involves suffering, over-worked donkeys carrying heavy bricks on their backs. Queue appropriately sad music. We surmised the commercial communicated that if we send some money, they just might take some of the bricks off, giving the donkeys a better life. Granted, they could just take the bricks off right now, but they’ll hold off till we line their pockets with a few Euro first.

From Dublin, we headed to Kilkenny, and the Zuni Hotel. Apparently, Kilkenny is the current Hurling champion of the universe, and is brimming with pride. While in Lanigans Bar, James was kind of kidnapped by one of the proud teammates who recounted to him its history and importance. He showed James a large poster of their Hurling idol, and had us pose with the Hurling trophy cup.
I really liked Kilkenny and thought it was a nice mix of shops, pubs and history. What it did not have was a Laundromat. I did not pack ten days’ worth of clothes, nor did James. I Googled it, scoured the Yellow Pages, asked bartenders and the concierge, but no Laundromat.

I found it interesting to look through an Irish grocery store advertisement, as there seemed to be a lot of subtle differences. I came across an advertisement for laundry soaps, and as I was sitting in a pub, discretely slid the page
across the bar to the bartender and tapped on the photo of laundry soap and whispered, “Where can I use this?” My ploy failed. Nobody was going to tell us where we could do our laundry in this town. Sworn to secrecy, I guess.

There were places called Launderettes, where they would do your laundry for you. Being mostly capable people, we just wanted to do our own laundry. When we got the Launderette, the lady there said we could do our own laundry, but it would cost us exactly the same. We caved; letting her do it…it was pricey. We decided from here on out, if we needed more clean clothes, we would just buy them.

While waiting for our clothes to be finished, we went to a nearby pub and had, what they called, a traditional Irish Breakfast. Up until this point, I had noticed brown

gravy seemed a staple of the Irish diet, along with various types of salty and spicy meats. Gravy often came in packets, much like ketchup or mustard. I gave this particular meal an honest try, but neither of us was quite acclimated to this type of robust diet. I learned  Black and White Pudding was not actual pudding, or JELL-O, as we have come to trust it, but actually a sausage-like product made with sheep’s blood.

The lady at the Launderette was very prompt and we had our clothes back in a few hours, as promised. As I was separating my clothes from James’s, I realized he had about 7 of the same outfits; a relief, as I suspected perhaps he had been wearing the same garments every day. I was reminded of an Ice Cube video, in which Mr. Cube goes to his closet to choose his outfit for the day; all outfits were the same. I pointed this out to James who stated there were many other well-known characters who exhibit this same behavior; Pee Wee Herman, Mickey Mouse, to name a couple. I realized James may be a card-carrying member of a secret society, so I decided not to pry. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/LimitedWardrobe

We visited Kilkenny Castle; only a small portion of the interior was accessible to tourists. Another meeting, perhaps? Picture-taking was not permitted inside, so I only took a few. Halfway through the tour, we were scolded by an

employee as, apparently; we walked through the wrong door. It was pretty ridiculous as he seemed to want us to care that he was mad. I just wanted him to point us in the right direction. Frankly, if we were going to intentionally divert from the prescribed tour, we wouldn’t have gotten caught.
Following the castle tour, we visited one of the pubs in the center of town, The Left Bank; the former Bank of Ireland converted into a pub, (as many of the pubs are here). The Left Bank was the largest pub in town, boasting of beautifully appointed bars/ballrooms on various floors. I snooped upstairs a little under the guise that I was looking for the loo.

We got a great table in the corner of the room, having a perfect view of the street. We watched the Hogwarts kids walking in packs home from school. We exercised a little artistic freedom.

Is this written in Gaelic?
We visited Dunne’s, a grocery store just down the street from our hotel. It was very interesting to see the differences in pricing, packaging, product description. In the magazine section, I noted several magazines I had never heard of. Titles like this would never survive in The States.

James researched the location of Santa Claus’s grave, and believed we could find it on our way to Cork. We headed west, stopping in Thomastown, to ask for directions at a little pub.  There we met the owner, Declan, and his friend, Bill, the town undertaker. Declan said it was weird a brother and sister were traveling together. I pointed out we are deemed weird in our country too.

On our way to see Santa, we stopped at an abandoned castle in the middle of a pasture. James said it was on his bucket list to consume an adult beverage in a castle. Up until now, all of our castle experiences had been rigidly monitored. James brought cans of Guinness in his backpack. The pictures of this castle do not do it justice. It was three stories tall; the

second story which was broken out, but if you scaled a wall, you could manage your way to the top.

Over the years, so much dirt accumulated on the top floor; a lush garden with trees had grown there.   When we were up there, it was hard to believe we were not on the ground floor.

Santa’s grave was in Jerpoint, located on a patch of farmland. The family living there gave tours of their land, and

Sitting on Santa’s Lap

would not allow you to go off by yourself. The tour guide was an older gentleman, who offered to use my camera to take our pictures. He pried into our personal lives, and James cheerfully responded with what is depicted in the following video of the man’s sheep.

We headed off to Cork.  Somewhere along the way, we lost our GPS signal, the compass no longer worked, and we could not find a soul for miles. We stopped in a small town called Windgap. Everything was locked up tight, no cars on the street, no birds chirping. I felt as if I dunked my head into an alternate dimension of The Twilight Zone.

We were forced to use this folded up paper thingy from the glove box, known as a map?  The map got us to the next town, Kilmagenny, where we found one pub open for business. We asked directions to the highway, which we knew was less than 2 kilometers away, but in which direction, we did not know. Apparently, the people in this particular pub had never left their town, unaware of any highway. They enlightened us to the Hurling game which was on television, which would explain the ghost-town like conditions we had experienced.

We enjoyed some adult beverages there and started out

I am sad.I lost James’ phone charger and am forced to read a paper map

again. When we left the pub, life had returned to the town, cars were driving by on the street, and voices could be heard. I guess the game was over. Don’t mess with Hurling.

I guess another thing that can shut a town down is a thing called Sunday. We arrived in Cork late Saturday night and when we awoke Sunday morning, we were starved, for American food, in particular. We thought it was quite comical, the various restaurants we had seen along the way which played up the American Style. We noticed various signs and handbills for places like, “Uncle Sam’s” and

“Captain America’s” something-or-other. We eagerly sought these places out that particular morning. They were all closed. Everything was closed. Pubs were closed. Yes, PUBS were closed. Now, it wasn’t like the Twilight Zone scenario from the day before. People were walking and driving around everywhere. Ireland, steeped in the Catholic faith, observes Sunday as a day of rest meaning everything’s closed…except McDonald’s. Whew, thanks McDonald’s!
This was the second time we visited a McDonald’s on our trip, so I remembered not to order a hamburger. They boast in their menu of 100% Irish beef, which tastes nothing like American beef. Maybe it’s better for you, I don’t know. But I didn’t like it. I just ordered a regular McChicken sandwich, but James ordered the “Chicken Legend”. This sounds intoxicatingly regal!  It’s actually just a Chicken Club.

That day, we headed to Kilarney and The Europe Hotel.

The Europe Hotel and Spa was absolutely beautiful, and probably the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed in. Our room overlooked Loch Lein, (Lower Lake), and I had a little fun with the view.

Although The Europe Hotel was beautiful and we were treated well, there was definitely a snooty air about the place. When I rolled my giant flea market suitcase into the lobby, I got, “The Look”. I wasn’t truly bothered by it. When we were visiting the various pubs in the area, talking to the locals, they would ask what hotel we were staying at. When we would tell them, The Europe, we would get a different kind of look and something like a, “Well, la dee da!”, as if they were scoffing at high society. I’ll have to borrow a term from James, as we were the peanut butter and jelly in a Hate Sandwich.

Even though Kilarney was not a large area, we got lost a lot here. I always seemed to be reading the map/GPS upside down. The only frame of reference I had was a billboard for

an upcoming Kenny Rogers concert. Every time I saw Kenny Rogers, I knew I had led us in the wrong direction. Kilarney seemed to be the bed and breakfast capital of Ireland and, at night, everything was pitch black…except for Kenny Rogers, mocking me.

Along the way, I learned the different terminology. An elevator is a lift. “Off License” means they sell alcohol to go. The restroom is referred to as the “TOILET”, which I found a little confusing. When a sign is posting something for rent, the sign says, “TO LET”. To me, those two signs looked awfully similar. I’d sure hate to make a mistake. To top that off, many of the signs were in Gaelic, a language, I had been told was rarely used. The iPhone apparently does not have a Gaelic keyboard option, so I was not able to Google the unknown.

The little lighted man in the crosswalk symbol seemed a little more slim and trim than the American version. I guess the gravy diet does wonders for the physique.

While in Kilarney, we visited the Kilarney National Park and Muckross House & Gardens, which had a castle, of course, but also a beautiful greenhouse. We were not allowed to snoop around inside the greenhouse, so I  pressed my face against the window.

From Kilarney, we headed to Limerick and the Boutique Hotel. This hotel had a strange relationship with doors. When walking through the hallway, I noticed it lined with doors, some of which were not real. Perhaps this was the décor.
The first time we walked out of the hotel, we left through a side door, labeled as an exit. As we pushed the door open, it felt that something was leaning against it on the other side. We pushed further to discover the obstruction was a table. We were now in the patio area of a restaurant. I’m glad nobody was eating at that table when shoved the door open.

Limerick had a nightlife that didn’t emerge until much later in the night. We had gotten to the town in the late afternoon and all of the stores, equipped with roll-up doors, were closing up. In our travels, I had heard many complaining of the poor economy. I’m not sliding my cash under a roll-up door.

This, by far, was the awesome-est picture taken on the whole trip, which James took, using his iPhone and a panoramic app. The Isaac Taylor’s Pub in Limerick.

The bartender here was very helpful, so I asked her about the laundry situation, as I was still curious. She said Laundromats were typically located near adult bookstores. I’m not sure what that implies, but I’ll note that for next time.

After one night in Limerick we headed back, across the country, to Dublin. We made great time; James had gotten really good at Irish driving, and could now maneuver a roundabout like nobody’s business.

When we brought the rental car back, the employees there seemed genuinely surprised we brought it back with both side view mirrors still attached. I will testify to the fact the roads are insanely narrow here, but their reaction made me wonder if they had ready supply of replacement mirrors on-hand, for just such a situation.

When I got home I was often asked what the highlight of my trip was. I cannot pinpoint a particular episode, although there were towns and hotels I liked more than others. Assimilating to a different place forced me to abandon my auto-pilot. This was challenging, but surprisingly refreshing! I was forced to constantly convert Dollars to Euro, miles to kilometers, gallons to liters, and let’s not forget, looking in the correct direction before crossing the street:)

Click the following link for the video photo album:
http://youtu.be/mlOk6q0WiME
If you are viewing this on your mobile device, you’re missing out on a lot. 😦