As some of you astute readers may have gathered, I was out of the country last week. I was going to announce my trip, but I just ran out of serviceable brain hours.
Four months after the wedding and one grad-school semester later, my beautiful wife and I went on our honeymoon. We decided to forgo the stark ordinariness of a tropical vacation or a cruise, and decided to pay homage to both of our bloodline heritages by visiting Ireland. The plan for our trip was basically to get to the island, rent a car, and see what happened next. Everything went as to that plan as can be expected of a plan that lacks so much of the essential planning of a plan.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be chronicling (in chronological order, of course) our adventure. There will be much hyperbole, exaggeration, and Guinness.
For the official record: I love Lonely Planet. Their guides are well written, their website is great for wasting random chunks of time, and they take articles from freelance writers (for all you travel writers out there). But as much page-by-page kickassery as they do have, they lack certain local knowledge; things that are often taken for granted or just left out in place of directions to and descriptions of the most touristy of landmarks. We used a Lonely Planet guide as a primer to the places we stopped. It was good, but not great.
It lacked the real stuff I needed to know. The stuff that is right in front of you, but somehow overlooked. Etiquette, etc.
To aid my fellow travelers, I offer the follow general information to make your transition into an Irish vacation a little less harrowing.
The obvious thing to note is: in Ireland, like the UK, you drive on the left side of the road. While this may seem obvious, it is far from intuitive, and in practice is a ridiculous challenge of mental dexterity. This doesn’t just mean you cruise in the left lane and hope for the best, there are dozens of nuances and idiosyncrasies that go along with switching sides. I consider myself a pretty sharp dude, and I drive in some of the worst traffic in the country every day, and I still nearly crashed into anything and everything as soon as I got behind the wheel in Dublin.
You can turn left on a red, and into the near lane. The first time you do this, you will probably scream like a little girl, in fear that you’re intentionally driving headlong into oncoming traffic. After about four hundred left turns, it gets slightly better.
Near everything is switched: all of the freeway exits are on the left, you need a filter to turn right at a light, and even the windshield wipers go the opposite direction. The slow lane is the left lane and is also has the right-of-way. Mix this with jet-lag and road signs in Irish Gaelic and you’ve got a recipe for “Fear and Confusion Driving Muffins.”
If you lack foresight (like me), you’ll assume that driving stick in Ireland is just like driving stick in the US. Wrong. While the pedal configuration is the same, you have to shift with your left hand. If you’re left handed, this may be a godsend. But if you lack the gift of the southpaw, this is as easy as swinging a baseball bat on your opposite side, or signing your name with your off hand. You’ll be slamming your hand into the dashboard and parking brake more often than not, as your mentally challenged left hand tries to develop some modicum of skill.
Once you’re able to actually move the car without fear of instant death, there are myriad other oddities that you must overcome to drive in Ireland. For example:
They claim that a single lane is a two lane road.
Ireland does have a few large roads, but once you’re off the main “M” designated motorways, your only option it to brave the tiny isthmuses of pavement cut into the otherwise uninterrupted hedge-maze that is Ireland. To say these roads are small is like saying the Moon is a grapefruit. They were clearly made for horses (or horse type creatures) and were only recently adopted by cars.
There are no shoulders to speak of, only thickets that are as deep as they are tall. If you’re caught having to pass a tour bus (yes, these spaghetti noodle roads often have two-way traffic consisting of work trucks, double-decker passenger buses, and massive hay gathering vehicles) your only option is push your tiny car as far into the hedge as possible without actually driving inside of the hedge. On more than one occasion, my wife got too all-too-close a view of the Buxus Sempervirens in her passenger side window.
Native Irish drivers seem to have no problem hurtling like drunken rugby players through these tiny streets, and will pass you if you’re doing more than ~30 kmph under the limit. Almost all of the roads allow for passing when safe, so if you’re stuck behind a 1991 Volkswagen Polo that has seen more rust than repair, feel free to downshift and pass him, but preferably not on a blind turn.
The speed limits themselves are also surprisingly high; you’ll often find speed limits of 100km (~62mph) on roads no wider than a McDonald’s drive-through. There are very few police officers lurking around bends, but the government has installed hundreds of “safety cameras” that can and will take a picture of your three-cylinder Seat Ibiza doing 140km in a 120km limit. On the freeways, the limits climb quickly from 50 to 80 to 100 to 120kmph (74mph). Unlike in the US, where people will sit in the left hand lane doing 55mph with their turn signal on, drivers in Ireland are courteous and structured. If you’re going too slow in the right hand lane, they will flash their lights at you, and they will be pissed if you don’t get into the the slow lane to let them pass.
The traffic lights are almost never overhead, but instead on the sides of the road. If you’re still trying to figure out which lane traffic is going or coming from, it is easy to overlook them. I suggest having your wife scream, “RED LIGHT” when you have clearly not seen one. It saves embarrassment and insurance deductibles.
When you start your trip, you’ll want to stop and take pictures of every ruined castle, church, or tower you see. They are pretty freakin’ cool. But don’t waste your time. There are as many awesome, ancient ruins in Ireland as there are Starbucks in the US. You’ll have more than enough photo-ops with old-stone and ivy, so just keep the pedal down.
Take your time when you get your rental car to figure out how everything works, where reverse is in the gearbox, and when and how you turn when on the opposite side of the road. Do yourself a huge favor and don’t cheap out on the 5 Euro-a-day GPS unit; it will save your life when you get lost on the Dingle Peninsula after randomly following signs towards some local castle.
And lastly, but oh so not least importantly: buy the full coverage insurance. I made it out OK, but there were a few times when I thought we were going to be returning half of an Ibiza, as the other half was stuck to the front of a CIE Tour Bus.