Thursday, October 30, 2014

#TBT: Winning Big in Dublin, Ireland

“Blackjack!” called the dealer as she pushed a few more chips into the ever-growing pile in front of me.

The scruffy, middle-aged Irishmen sitting at the blackjack table next to me shifted in their seats, shooting annoyed glances my way. I could practically hear their thoughts, partially because they were my own. “Who was this girl, this American girl, no less? This is unbelievable!”

No less than an hour ago I had walked into the Sporting Emporium Casino with just €10 (all that I had left), and now…well now I had way more than €10 worth of chips in front of me. I didn’t even want to count it—I just wanted to stare at it.

The night had started off casually enough. It was my friend Josh’s* birthday, and our last night in Ireland before our school trip took us to Wales for the final leg of our journey. The next morning we would be on a ferry to Wales and exchanging our euros for pounds. Since this was 2012, when Greece’s financial crisis was plaguing the EU economy, the euro to pound ratio wasn't the best, and we knew we’d be losing money on our transaction.

That’s when someone had the idea to go to a casino for Josh’s birthday. We were going to lose money anyway in the morning…why not lose it ALL tonight? In a few minutes, Josh, Marty, Jason, Mae (our awesome trip coordinator), and I were standing at the bus stop, waiting for the 49 to take us into the city.

The first casino we found a few blocks (or maybe a lot of blocks) from our stop was manned by giant, intimidating, bald Russian man, who was very suspicious of our presence.
“What you want here?” he demanded of us, a group of slightly skittish looking American law students, “You know how to play?”

Josh managed to talk us through the door to look around and check out what the casino was like and decide if we wanted to stay. As we walked through the small casino with its slightly shabby interior, I got an eerie feeling. The casino was mostly devoid of anyone who didn’t look like a minion in a Godfather movie and there was a rather large forbidding door that I assumed led to some backroom/high-stakes game.

The Russian stared at us imperiously as we made our way around. Josh, I, and the others exchanged looks that seemed to say “Some sh*t is about to go down here tonight…Is this where we want to die?”

Josh very kindly thanked the Russian man, and simply stated we had decided to go somewhere else, preferably before we wound up at the bottom of a river with concrete tied to our feet. Now, I could be totally wrong and that first casino was a completely safe and reputable place. However, when traveling anywhere, it’s always best to trust your gut, and our collective gut (guts?) told us to get the hell out of there.

So, after we were safely out on the street and away from the giant Russian, Marty, or MapQuest Marty, as we called him, set about finding a new casino. Within a few minutes, he’d found a very upscale one in a nondescript building a few streets off of Grafton Street called the Sporting Emporium.

Marty, Josh and Jason went to go finagle our entry, because it looked like a pretty “members only” place. Don’t ask me how, but somehow we all ended up with (what I believe to be) lifetime memberships to the casino and free drinks for the night—it never hurts to travel with highly persuasive people!

Inside, the casino was cozy and fun. Unlike the casinos in the States with vaulted ceilings and bright fluorescent lights and machines shouting “Wheel! Of! FORTUNE!” this casino felt like some secret, up-scale, “invites only” club. With a bar and flat-screens along one wall and tables ringing the others, I was pleasantly surprised. With the most recent casino fresh in my mind, I’d been apprehensive to visit another one, but this one gave off a safe and welcoming vibe.

Now, I’m more of a slots girl, and I wasn't very knowledgeable of the finer points of table games at the time (my first time at roulette was more of a guessing game).  So, upon not finding any slots, I went to go find Josh at the blackjack table.

As I approached him, I could tell he was doing well, he already had a little pile of chips in front of him. “You wanna play?” he asked me as I approached, motioning to the empty seat beside him.

 I shrugged, “I don’t know how,” I admitted.

“It’s easy,” said Josh. He then proceeded to explain to me how to play, and gave me a few tips. Before I knew it, I was sitting at the table and had plunked down my last €10. After a few rounds, Josh cashed out and went to get a drink and watch the NBA playoffs that were taking place at that time.

“Come find me when you've lost all your money,” he told me as he got up to leave.
Using Josh’s words of wisdom (which I won’t repeat here, I want to keep some things secret!), I was collecting a nice little pile of chips. I kept my bet at €10 at a time, not wanting to push my luck too far.

Pretty soon the table started to fill up with older, 40-something Irishmen, in dark business suits and sweaters, accessorizing with their glasses of Jameson. This was in stark contrast to me, in a bright green top, skinny jeans and my newly purchased six-inch blue suede platform heels, drinking one gin and tonic after the other (did I mention we got free drinks for the whole night?).

It was then that my luck really started to pick up.




Every time the dealer dealt my cards, my pile of chips grew. Before I knew what had happened, I was staring at stacks and stacks of chips.

“I won’t count it, I won’t count it” I said over and over again. I was afraid that if I did, and I knew how much I was risking, I’d get freaked out and lose my focus.

After about an hour, I saw Josh making his way back to the table—he must have gotten tired waiting for me to lose all my money. As he approached the table and saw my ever-expanding pile of chips, a look of total amazement, disbelief, and incredulity spread across his face.

“What did you do?!” he asked me as if I’d come to him with a mask, a gun, and two burlap bags marked with dollar signs.

I shrugged, “I just did what you told me to do!”

“Blackjack!” Another chip was added to my pile.

Before long, the others in the group made their way over to my side. They too, were in disbelief.

My streak actually ran for a good long time. But, finally, my luck started to recede. The very first time in forever that I lost a round, Jason put his hands on my chips, “Okay, you’re done,” he said. “You’re not losing all this!” And then he and Josh practically dragged me away from the table.

Gathering up my chips (I gave the house a chip worth a euro for gratitude) and proceeded to cash out. At the end of the night I walked out of the Sporting Emporium with €70—seven times the amount I laid down on the table.

“That’s a statistical anomaly!” exclaimed Jason. “Who does that?”

I did, apparently. I never exchanged that money to pounds, or to the dollar once I got back, for that matter. It was my own promise to myself. There was no need to exchange it, because I’d be back one day. I knew it. I didn't know when, or how, or what the road would be like that would lead me back to the Emerald Isle, but I had that simple promise. Even if I only had that promise and that €70, I knew I’d be back someday.

Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed!!! Cheers!

Up Next: Review "America's Best Travel Writing: 2013"
TBA: Monday!

*names have been changed

Monday, October 27, 2014

My Top 5 Favorite Pubs in Dingle, Ireland

If you go to Ireland without going to Dingle, you’re missing not only a great little city, but you’ll be missing out on a great experience. Part of what makes Ireland (and Dingle) great is the pub culture. Unlike many bars in the States, pubs aren’t just for rowdy college kids, they’re for everyone from 18 to 108.

The greatest thing about going to a pub in Ireland? You can walk in alone and walk out with a bunch of new friends. You can celebrate with a stag or hen party (that’s a bachelor or bachelorette party), join a group from Dublin or Galway on holiday, or meet some tourists discovering the city just like you are.

Further, pubs are great places to hear the best of traditional Irish music. Nearly all, if not all, the pubs in Dingle offer up great live performances. If you’re lucky, you may also see some great Irish dancing, as well.  You can’t not have a good time in these pubs. So go out, go over, say hi, and make some new friends!

Here are my top 5 favorite pubs to visit when in Dingle Ireland:

#5 John Benny’s Pub

This was the first pub I went to upon stepping foot on Irish soil. Named after the owner, John Benny Moriarty, this pub was the perfect place to get my first “Irish Pub” experience. Sit at the bar and get yourself your first (and second and third) pint of Guinness, or bring a group and sit in one of the spacious booths in the back.
You may even see John Benny himself, as he works there most nights. We actually met him the first time we went in, and he taught us to say some helpful words in Irish like “Hello” and, most importantly, “Cheers!”

# 4 The Dingle Pub

With a B&B overhead and available wi-fi, this is a great place to be! I remember this pub as being cozy, pretty and fun. With a widescreen television and plenty going on any night of the week, you’re guaranteed a good time.

# 3 Foxy John’s
This pub, for me, was probably one of the most memorable. It operates as a hardware store by day and a pub by night. Get yourself a pint and browse for a new hammer or box of nails. If you've got any home improvement projects going on, this is the place to go to get your supplies and your second wind.
It was here that my friends and I met a stag party from Dublin and ended up going to several other pubs with them. Remember what I said about making new friends in pubs?

# 2 O'Flaherty's
When you step into this pub, you’ll feel like you've stepped back in time several hundred years. A rustic pub near the water, O’Flaherty’s is the best place to start a pub crawl. Sit at the old-fashioned booths or around the tables on barrels and play cards with your friends--or just talk and people-watch.

#1 An Droichead Beag

If you want a happening pub, An Droichead Beag, or simply “Yellow Bar” as we called it, is the place to go. Easily visible by its yellow exterior (hence the “Yellow Bar” reference), An Droichead Beag is like a beacon welcoming everyone in Dingle.
Featured on an episode of Rick Steves' Europe, this pub offers up traditional Irish music every single night and is usually always packed with locals and tourists alike. I promise you’ll have a great experience when you stop by for a pint.

Take in some traditional Irish music!

So there you have it, those are my 5 favorite pubs. There’s way more pubs than these in Dingle, and I encourage you to go to every single one. Get out there and make friends, talk to the locals, and raise pint!

Sláinte!!! (Cheers!)

Thanks for reading! I’ll do my best to get a #TBT to you this Thursday! So sorry that I missed last week!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Five Things to do in Monterey, California

There’s a ton of things to do in Monterey, California, many of them for FREE. I spent several days there in the summer of 2013 and definitely felt like I got to see the best of what the city has to offer. There’s definitely a mix of cultures here, from the heavy Spanish influences in architecture to the canning and fishing industry. Don’t be surprised if you see quite a few men and women in fatigues and uniforms, as well. Monterey is home to a large military base, as well as the Defense Languages Institute, or DLI, which teaches our servicemen and women the languages needed to be effective in today’s foreign wars.

Speaking of languages, if you go during peak tourist season, be prepared for a potpourri of languages. It’s not just American tourists who visit this beautiful place during the summer, but many other cultures of tourists as well. Brush up on your Arabic and Japanese and French, just to name a few.

There’s way more than five things to do when you visit this historic place but here are my top five favorite things to do in Monterey:

#1 The Monterey Bay Aquarium

This stop should be mandatory for anyone visiting Monterey. I have never been anywhere whose worth exceeded the price of admission. While the admission is costly (there are deals for students, children, and seniors), you definitely get your money’s worth. This place is a Goliath of an aquarium with no end to the variety of fish and other marine life. Whether you like turtles, otters, penguins or waterfront birds, this place has them all.

Be sure to check out "The Jellies Experience" a magnificent display housing many different varieties of the amazing and mystifying jelly fish. Brilliant in their tanks, these jellyfish appear to light their own display. Take in the sight as you learn about the various species of jellyfish (there's not just one!) and their respective habitats.

The Jellies Experience

My personal favorite was the Open Sea exhibit. A floor-to-ceiling tilted glass window gives you an up close and personal look at sea turtles, various fish, and sharks. Darkly lit, you feel as if you're really just another creature in the depths of the ocean. Stand quietly and wait for the shark to pass you by, or wait for the sea turtles to come up and say hello to a passing sea turtle. I could have stayed at this particular exhibit all day, however, there are many more great exhibits to see before you leave.

Don't forget to visit the octopus on your way through the aquarium. Or octopuses (that's a correct plural form, by the way) I should say. Stand mere inches from these giant beings and learn about their habits and environments. When I was there just one of the creatures was awake and moving around. The other octopus was sound asleep, hanging darkly in the corner. Just don't turn your camera flash on if you take pictures. You are kindly advised to not "flash" the octopus. 

#2 Read Cannery Row on Cannery Row           

Named for the once-flourishing sardine canning factories that used to line the street, Cannery Row is now home to many shops and restaurants and highly touristy. Pick up a copy of John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel Cannery Row (I picked mine up at the Monterey Bay Aquarium gift shop), find yourself a spot along the beach on historic Cannery Row and read the book that was inspired by your very surroundings. You can grab a sandwich at one of the many restaurants and delis along the Row and head out to the beach to read. If you take your sandwich along, be prepared to share your meal with the seagulls, as they will no doubt guilt you into giving them some scraps, and they will bring friends...a lot of them. 

Once you finish your sandwich, head over to the Ghirardelli Store for dessert and order yourself up a special hot-fudge sundae. Made with Ghirardelli chocolate, this is the ultimate hot-fudge sundae. If a hot fudge sundae isn't what you're looking for, you can always get a splendid ice cream cone from one of the many many flavors the shop has to offer (I chose mint chocolate chip the second time I went) or purchase several individual squares of this exquisite chocolate.

 Sit on the patio outside for the best view of the beach and the ocean. However, even though you're on the patio, those same daring seagulls that you fed on the beach  like to sit on the railing, again hoping to guilt feasting tourists into donating part of the dessert. 

#3 Stroll Through the Cactus Garden at the Customs House

 According to the California Department of Parks and Recreation, “the Custom House presided over Mexico's primary port of entry on the Alta California coast.  It was here that Commodore John Drake Sloat raised the American flag in July 1846, claiming over 600,000 square miles of territory for the United States.  This territory later was included in all or portions of the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, California and New Mexico.”* It’s also California’s oldest government building and listed as its #1 historical landmark.*

When I visited in 2013 the Customs House was closed, but visitors can still walk through its magnificent cactus garden, and this spot is definitely worth the visit. There’s a wide variety of cacti represented here, usually in GIANT form. As a Mid-Western country girl who doesn't have much experience with cacti, I find all forms of desert plant life incredibly intriguing. I loved the giant hen and chicks-type plant shown in the picture below. If I ever live somewhere fairly dry (i.e. not the Mid-West) I’m getting those for my garden.

#4 Take a Walk Down Fisherman’s Wharf

My personal favorite thing to do while in Monterey was simply to walk up and down Fisherman’s Wharf (I even went back the second day of my trip). Here you can visit the shops selling everything from home goods to pearl necklaces, or dine at one of the many fine restaurants along the wharf.

 The majority of these restaurants have people outside giving out free samples of their clam chowder to lure customers inside. If you’re on a budget like I was, you can almost make a meal out of the many 2 oz. samples by taking one at each stop. Each restaurant has crafted their own special chowder recipe and you’ll be hard pressed to find the best one.

Follow the sound of the sea lion’s cries to see them sunning themselves on some of the docks. During peak tourist season you’ll have to wait your turn to get the best view. If you’re lucky, you can get up close and personal with one or two if they venture up far enough on one of the other docks.

Lean over the railings to see if you can see the sea lions, seals or fish idling in the shallow water. You can even find a (semi) quiet place to sit and read, eat, or just reflect. You may even see a houseboat anchored nearby. I spent a bit of time daydreaming about life on board.
There’s no end of beautiful sights and sounds to behold on the Wharf, many of my best pictures come from that walk.

The houseboat I fell in love with

 #5 Get pizza from Pelican Pizza

I never went to the actual Pelican Pizza establishment, but I had it delivered to my hotel plenty of times, and let me tell you, it’s a must-eat. Pelican Pizza is not your average chain pizza place fare. Boasting a wide variety of toppings and sides and excellent service, I wouldn't suggest getting your pizza anywhere else. You can call or order online. As always, tip well!

I really enjoyed my time in Monterey, and it holds some really precious memories for me. Allow me to say a few words, though, based on what I learned.  I would suggest not going in the summer months (during peak tourism season). California is expensive to begin with, and during those months hotels are costly. Plan on going in the early spring and autumn months, when tourism is at a low and hotels have lowered their rates. If you need advice on where to stay (or where NOT to stay) and what to see and do, hit me up! I’m full of more suggestions and can recommend travel books etc.

Thanks for reading! Cheers!

Up Next: #TBT

ETA: Thursday!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

#TBT: Caernafon Castle, Caernarfon, Gwynedd in north-west Wales

The view in the courtyard
“What do you want with some old castle?” my friends asked me when they heard my plans to visit Caernafon Castle.

“Because,” I would reply, “It’s cool! And it’s where Prince Charles’ investiture as Prince of Wales took Place in 1969!” I lost them after “It’s cool.”

I’m a huge fan of the British Royal Family and anything even slightly related to Their Royal Highnesses gets me really excited. Not only was Prince Charles’ investiture held there in 1969, Prince Charles and Princess Diana (one of my personal heroes) visited there in 1981. So when I found out that our host university, Bangor University (located in beautiful Bangor, Wales), was mere kilometers from Caernafon Castle, I knew I had to go.

Early on in the trip (even while we were still in Ireland before we traveled to Wales), I tried to recruit my friends and classmates to join me. To which they replied as above, or just laughed at me.
Me in my RepliKate

It was only as we were on our way to Wales that our trip-coordinator informed us that we’d be going as a class to Caernafon Castle. Everyone groaned—everyone but me that is. I was way too excited. I even meticulously planned my outfit: a glorious RepliKate: my tangerine jeans with a navy blazer and scarf. I wanted to stand out in pictures against the stone walls of the Castle.

I was bouncing in my bus seat, so excited to be on my way to Caernafon Castle, while everyone else dozed and complained. “It’s just a castle!” someone said to me. But I knew better.

We arrived at the Castle around midday, and were given an amazing tour of the walled village around the Castle. We were walked along the sea and even up onto the actual city walls all while being given an intimate 1,000 year history of the Edward I’s finest castle and the city that its walls fortified.

"My" Cafe!

While we were walking through the city, Liz*, my new friend, nudged me and pointed to storefront sign. I couldn’t believe it. The sign said “Caffi Calley’s Café” as in Calley—my name! I’d never seen it spelled exactly as I did and to find it in Wales of all places! I had my friend Quil snap a picture of me with the sign and the Welsh flag in the background.

The Gatehouse

Soon we were entering the Castle, passing under the vaulted ceilings of its magnificent gatehouse in awe. You could almost hear all the history those walls had seen whispering at you from the stone. All I could think about was all the people that had passed through these walls, King George V and Queen Mary with their son, the future Edward VIII, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip with Prince Charles, Princess Diana. I was seeing what they had seen, passing under the same stone arches that had welcomed them so many years ago—just thinking about it now gives me that same excited feeling I had at the time. 

After you initially enter the Castle, after passing the gift shop (which is amazing, by the way), you’re in a giant courtyard. The courtyard itself is actually two levels, with the higher level being home to a large round dais. This is where Prince Charles’ investiture took place, as well as a ceremony for Charles and Diana during their 1981 visit. 

From the courtyard, you have your choice of endless tunnels, towers and passageways to make your way through. There’s endless gems to be happened upon at Caernafon Castle, and even I didn’t make it to them all. I chose a few narrow staircases to venture up (note: the stairs themselves are extremely narrow—my foot was longer that the actual foothold of the step!) and got to behold the most amazing vistas through the narrow castle windows. I could just imagine being a medieval queen, looking out at the sea (or her courtyard) through her window.

While creeping through the narrow passageways I heard something I didn't expect to hear—music, the Welsh national anthem and the audio from Prince Charles’ investiture. I followed the sound through a stone doorway into one of my favorite (and most unexpected) parts of the Castle: a room dedicated to the investitures of both the future Edward VIII in 1911 and Prince Charles in 1969. In this low-ceilinged, darkly lit room is housed various pieces of memorabilia and exhibits from both historic occasions, as well as banners and displays discussing each one in turn. British royalty buff that I am, I was too excited to get to actually see pieces that had been used in the actual ceremonies. As I stood there, listening to the music and just imagining what that day must have been like for those two young men. It was one of those travel moments I love to have, the ones where you can, just for a minute, feel a part of something that happened so many years ago. The investitures may have happened one hundred and forty years ago, respectively, but just for a minute I could feel the electricity and excitement of that moment. 

After I tore myself away from that display, I found myself at my absolute favorite part of the Castle—the balcony overlooking the city. On this balcony Edward VIII and Prince Charles and their respective parents had stood after their investiture ceremonies. Prince Charles and Princess Diana had stood here in 1981. How many other kings and queens have stood there throughout the ages? I love getting to stand somewhere and see what these people would have seen all those years ago. Now, when I see the pictures of Prince Charles and Princess Diana out on that balcony I can say “I've been there! I know what it looks like from that balcony!” And not many people can say that.
ME on the historic balcony

That is the beauty of traveling, really--getting to have experiences not very many people get to have. And every travel experience is unique. Take this visit, for example. When my friends and I got back to our dorms and started posting our pictures on Facebook, many of them had pictures from rooms inside the Castle that I didn't even know existed! Each one of us had a completely different experience while we were at the same place. For a few minutes or hours or days, we have an experience that is like no one else has ever had, and no one will have again. For that one moment in time we share something special with our destination—a magic that can never be recreated.

Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed!

Up Next: Five Things to do in Monterey, California
ETA: Monday!

*Names have been changed

Monday, October 13, 2014

My Top Five Travel Must-Haves

When I’m shopping I can’t help going into the travel aisle, wherever I am. There’s so many cool new gadgets out, like USB chargers, inflatable pillows, and vacuum-pack bags. It got me thinking about some of the things I have to have when I travel. I have quite a few things that I always pack in anticipation for a trip, but here is my list of the five things I’ve found to pretty invaluable, both in the air and on the ground.

Ready for takeoff! 

# 1 Extra Underwear

I can’t tell you how many times I've been on a trip and ended up staying longer than anticipated. Maybe you’re one of those people that doesn't mind wearing underwear two days in row—but I’m not.

That’s why whenever I travel, I count out how many pairs I’m going to need, and throw in three or four extra, just to be safe. I don’t want to have to be washing mine out in the hotel sink with some soap and water (I’ve done that before and it’s not fun!). It never hurts to travel with a few extra pairs, it’s not like they take up a lot of room in your suitcase, either!

# 2 My Neck Pillow

I didn't want to be that stereotypical “neck-pillow lady” from that Saturday Night Live skit, so I avoided them for a long time. However, after a rather rough and tumble flight to San Francisco from St. Louis (where I threw up not once, but twice! The second time must have sounded awful because I think I scared the flight attendant) I was looking for something to make my return flight a little more comfortable. That’s when I stumbled upon the neck pillow. For some reason, the thought of cuddling up into that thing on the return flight, all drowsy from the Dramamine (a real miracle drug, I’m telling you), was just heaven. So I bought it, and the nice lady working the counter at the store at SFO even took the tags off of it for me.

Settling in for the plane ride back to St. Louis with some Dramamine, my ipod, and my neck pillow made for a much more comfortable and less “pukey” flight home (I didn't throw up once!). I would definitely recommend buying one if you have a long flight or like to sleep during flights like I do. Just don’t wear it around after you get off the plane…then you MIGHT be that lady from the SNL skit.

# 3 Extra Washcloths

This is one that I learned in Ireland. I’m a washcloth person, I like to have them to wash my face in the morning or scrub off the grime of traveling from my arms on those days I couldn't shower. They weren't big on washcloths in Ireland, so I was really glad my mom had suggested that I pack a few, just in case. Turns out, in this instance, listening to your mother worked out!

In America I've found most (if not all) hotels provide you with washcloths and will be more than happy to bring you more, but I always pack them, just to be on the safe side. Also, I wear some pretty thick eyeliner and most of my personal washcloths are stained and I hate to do that to the nice plush ones the hotel provides, I’d rather re-stain mine for taking off my makeup and use the plush ones in the morning to wake me up.

# 4 Snacks

Sometimes on a trip, you never know when you’re going to get fed, or when you’ll be too tired to venture out of your hotel room and find a decent restaurant. So I always stuff a few granola bars or a few packets of Pop-Tarts into my suitcase. It doesn't hurt to stock up on the peanuts or Cheese Nips your airline provides either! I found a packet in an old purse from my flight to Houston just the other day!

# 5 Plastic Bags

I use plastic bags for all kinds of things on my travels. The most useful thing I've found to use plastic bags for is to hold dirty/wet laundry. Nobody wants dirty clothes and sweaty socks mixed in with their clean(er) clothes. If you place them in a plastic bag you can keep them separate from all your other clothes and keep everything else in your suitcase from getting wet. Many times hotels will provide you with a dry cleaning bag, since I’m not that fancy, I usually swipe that to put my dirty jeans in, along with some larger articles of clothing.

Also, you know from #2 that I’m not the best flier at times. While I love flying, my body doesn't always feel the same way. The most brilliant stroke of genius I ever had on a flight was to ask the flight attendant for some ice, put it in my plastic sandwich bag and put that on the back of my neck. Talk about an instant cool-down, having the cold from the ice on my skin made me feel so much better and way less queasy. Just remember that ice melts and if your plastic bag isn't sealed you could have a mess on your hands…or down your back…

So there you have it, my top five must-have travel companions. What are some of yours? What’s the one thing you can’t bear to travel without?
Thanks for reading!

As always you can comment here or on Bloglovin and Tweet me at @calleysofalley


Up Next: #TBT Caernafon Castle

TBA: Thursday, October 16

Thursday, October 9, 2014

#TBT: Making S'mores in Dingle, Ireland--A Cautionary Tale

Right from the beginning of my visit to Dingle, when I discovered a fireplace in my cottage, I had my heart set on making s’mores. We were staying in the Dingle Harbour Cottages, a semi-circle of absolutely delightful little cottages overlooking Dingle Harbour, and I couldn't think of anything better than claiming that cottage as my own by making s’mores.

The view from my window in Dingle

The quest for supplies started off fairly easily. My friends and I found a packet of kindling at a convenience-type local store, because everyone knows you can’t make s’mores without FIRE!

[*Sidenote, I feel I should disclose at this point in time that I’m a bit of a pyro, so some of my stories have a tendency to either begin or end with flames…anyway….]

After we secured the kindling, it was time to move on to find the Big Three: Graham crackers, Hershey’s chocolate bars, and marshmallows. How hard could that be?

Very hard, apparently. My friend Sasha* and I stopped at a larger, chain-type grocery store to start our quest (I think it was a TruValue, but I could be wrong). I thought at a larger store there would be a better chance of getting all of our supplies in one place, as opposed to going to some of the smaller local markets. Our first stop? The biscuit aisle to find our graham crackers.

Right from the start, standing in the biscuit aisle and staring at a few dozen or so different varieties of biscuits and crackers without seeing one resembling a graham cracker, I began to worry that this mission had gone awry already.

Sasha and I must have looked puzzled as we were standing there because a very friendly teenage stock-boy in a white shirt and red apron made his way over to us.

“Can I help you with something?” he asked us in a thick western Irish accent.

“Yes,” I said, glad of the help, “we’re looking for graham crackers.”

“Graham crackers,” the boy said, turning the words over as if they were part of a new phrase in a foreign language, and more of a question than a statement.

“You know,” I said, trying to conjure up some universal phrase that would make him instantly know what I was referring to, “like, to make s’mores?” Surely, I thought, everyone must know what s’mores are, right? I looked at Sasha to help me give a better description, but she just shrugged. I mean, how do you describe a graham cracker? It’s a graham cracker…that’s the description!

The boy looked at the selection of biscuits and crackers as if in pain, trying to come up with something for these two American girls jabbering on about graham crackers and s’mores. Finally he bent down and picked up a box of what I can only describe as a cross between a Triscuit and a Wheat Thin, “We have these,” he said, holding them out to me.

I took the box from him, “I guess this’ll do,” I said to Sasha. She shrugged again and we thanked the stock-boy for his trouble, and went in search of the next two ingredients. Sure, we struck out on the graham crackers, but we’d surely get the Hershey’s and the marshmallows.

Well, they don’t have “Hershey’s” chocolate in Ireland (or at least in our particular TruValue). This puzzled me, and continues to puzzle me to this day—I’d always thought Hershey’s was a world-wide brand. Call it American entitlement, assuming some product would just be there when we wanted it. It was a good lesson to learn and one that made me slightly embarrassed. So instead of Hershey’s we ended up picking a thick, chocolate block-type bar like a Dove Bar. Our last stop was scouring the store for the marshmallows.

I guess the Irish aren't as crazy about Rice Krispy Treats as we Americans are, because there were no marshmallows in the baking aisle. Instead, we found a packet of pink and white ones in the candy section. Apparently they’re eaten more as a treat than as a baking ingredient. Where Americans have Peeps, the Irish have plain pink and white marshmallows. But I mean, they’d do, right?

And so Sasha and I headed back to our cottage, with our Triscuit/Wheat Thin graham cracker substitutes, our non-Hershey’s chocolate, and our pink candy marshmallows. While we’d had to substitute nearly everything on our list, I was still confident we’d make the best of our s’mores. The rain had stopped and it was turning out to be a beautiful Irish day. I couldn't wait to get through dinner and make the s’mores! I should have known it would not all go as planned…

Our dinner didn't exactly go as expected, starting off with the fact that when Sasha and I got home, our friend and classmate/housemate Christine, told us she’d invited a few extra guests. So now, instead of having five people at dinner, we were having ten or more.
Okay, okay, so maybe not everyone would get a s’more.

Secondly, Sasha and I had grabbed a package of rolls on our shopping trip earlier, but due to the increased number of guests, we needed more. One of the guys, Devon, had asked Christine what he could bring. Christine suggested he bring some rolls—he showed up to dinner with…hot dog buns. Hey, if you cut them in half, stick them in the oven for a few minutes and put some butter on them, they’re not half bad. Note: If you put Irish butter on anything, it will taste better. Guaranteed.

After dinner, we started to assemble around the fireplace. You would think after all the difficulties we’d encountered on this plan I would have been a little apprehensive, but I wasn't.

Devon* using the extra-long branch. Photo courtesy of Sasha*

Initially, starting the fire wasn't as easy as we’d hoped. The kindling was small and a little damp (as is everything in Ireland) and wouldn't light, only letting out a small wisp of flame dissipating into a thin smoke trail. After rummaging through our things we finally found some (dry) papers we weren't using for our school work and sacrificed those to start the fire. As soon as we had a decent flame, the boys went outside to look for sticks to use to roast the marshmallows. One of our guys, Elias, found a branch more akin to a small tree and held it up triumphantly. Devon ended up using one of its branches to roast his marshmallow—the branch was so long he could sit on the couch with it and reach OVER the coffee table into the fire.

Sasha* took this photo of me roasting the
marshmallows.  You can see our "s'more"
in the bottom left corner!

I personally preferred to be closer to the flames and used a fork to roast my marshmallows—which weren't exactly melting like their normal American-style cousins. These Irish marshmallows were tougher and thicker than your average JiffyPuffs and needed a little more coaxing before they succumbed to the heat and not so much melted as became a more gooey-like substance.

When the s’mores were finally assembled they looked…fairly undesirable. The pink marshmallows oozed over the thick block-chocolate (that wasn't melting due to its thickness) and onto the Triscuit/Wheat Thin crackers. Surely they tasted better than they looked, right?

“These are the most disgusting things I've ever had,” remarked Jason with a mouthful of Irish S’more. The pinkness of the marshmallows was quite unappealing and the thickness of the un-melting chocolate made the s’mores kind of hard to chew. Plus, the crackers we were using gave a wheaty/healthy taste to the whole thing, and a s’more shouldn't taste healthy! Still, quite a few of us tried them, each giving the s’more a shrug of polite indifference.
After declaring the Irish s’mores a general failure, we took the rest of the kindling outside and for some reason, set it on fire. We threw some more sacrificial papers and an empty box on the flames and soon had a pretty good size fire going. We must have stood around that fire for a long time, laughing and wondering vaguely if we were going to get in trouble for, you know, starting a fire in a foreign country outside our lodgings. But more than that, standing around that fire, watching the flames play off everyone’s faces, being crazy and fun and young, was one of those things you just can’t plan, things like that just happen.

And so I guess that brings me to my whole point. All I’d planned to do that night was make s’mores, but what I ended up doing was creating a mini-adventure, learning about another culture, and making a lot of memories for quite a few people along the way. In the end, it didn't matter that the s’more were less than appetizing, what mattered was the memories. And man, they are good ones! So, be warned, not all American campfire snacks translate into other cultures!

The aftermath of the fire!

*I changed the names, just in case some people don’t want to be identified!

Thanks so much for reading, I hope you enjoyed it!!!

Up Next: Check back next Thursday for a new TBT!!!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

#TBT: Belfast, Northern Ireland

Welcome to my very first Throwback Thursday! My goal is to share some stories of my past travels and some pictures with you all. So, for my very first #TBT, I’d like to shine the spotlight on Belfast, Northern Ireland.

I went to Belfast in 2012. The Titanic museum had just opened a few months earlier and my sole purpose in making the journey from the Republic (where my school program was based) was to visit the museum. I never expected to fall in love with the city.

First off, we (my friends and I) stayed at the Park Inn by Radisson on Clarence Street, and it was amazing! I would definitely recommend staying there if you go. I split the price of a room with my two friends so it was relatively inexpensive between the three of us. The best part of the hotel stay was the complimentary breakfast we received (see picture below). I've never felt more like royalty in my life!

Breakfast courtesy of the Park Inn

Our first morning in Belfast, we set off for the Titanic Museum in the Titanic Quarter of Belfast. I've been a Titanic buff for years and I've visited the Titanic Museum in Branson, Missouri as well.

The museum itself seemed to rise from the very ground itself, resembling the hull of the ship it honors. It’s an awe inspiring place, with the Harland & Wolff shipyard looming in the distance. For me, being such a fan of the ship and its history, standing in the very place where the ship was born and built, was such an amazing experience.

Looking up at the museum

Inside, the museum is just as spectacular. Filled with artifacts, replicas and interactive displays, the visitor is treated to an in-depth history of not only the ship itself, but the very people that built her. The visitor is put in the shoes of the workers and builders through a short dark ride, where the rider is given a ride through the very bowels of the ship-in-progress. The visitor is given a greater appreciation for those who, at times, risked their lives to build the historic ship.
One of the displays inside the museum

Later that day we rented a cab for the day and were driven up to Giant’s Causeway—that story I think I’ll save for another #TBT. For right now I’ll just say that if you have the opportunity to visit Giant’s Causeway, please do it, you won’t regret it!

On our ride back from Giant’s Causeway, our cabbie (who was just about the nicest person on earth) took us on a tour of both the Catholic and Protestant sides of the city and gave us a mini-history lesson on “The Troubles.” We were able to see the various murals across the city dedicated to those victims who did not survive “The Troubles.”

To me, Belfast was a beautiful and peaceful city; knowing that this city was a virtual war-zone only twenty years before made me appreciate the city even more. More than giving me appreciation, the city gave me hope. Hope that no matter what a city (or a person) goes through, no matter how much pain one goes through, there is still a chance that something beautiful can come through. I think a visit to the city can give hope to us all.

While walking through the city, I happened upon a saying painted on the top floors of a building. It read: A nation that Keeps one eye on the past is wise. A nation that keeps two eyes on the past is blind.

That saying is true, Belfast can never escape its past, but one visit to this beautiful place will convince you that the city is not dwelling on its past. And that is what I fell in love with, the hope and the promise.

Standing in the courtyard of Belfast’s City Hall listening to the children playing, feeling the sunshine on my face, I was filled with the same hope. Belfast isn't broken, it’s merely just beginning. 

Belfast City Hall

Thanks for reading!!! Cheers!

Up Next: #TBT : Destination TBA!

ETA: Thursday!