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Usually I advocate exploring a country with an open itinerary. Haggis Adventures and Shamrocker Tours have shown me that this isn’t always best. When you get to a country like Ireland, which has so much to see, it would take you weeks a guide or lots of planning. You’d probably miss a lot, not to mention all the insider data, if you went by yourself.
Shamrocker’s Giant’s Rocker Tour
There are six tours available in Ireland with Shamrocker Tours ranging from 1-7 days. The one I took was the Giant’s Rocker, covering the north and west of the island. It was one of two tours which overlap to create the 7-day All Ireland Rocker.
As with the Haggis Adventures’ Tours, Shamrocker is quite popular with Australians. My tour had travelers from all over the world, and they were all wonderful. As this is an active tour, with some fantastic hikes, I’d recommend it for a younger crowd. Personally I walked (or ran) 110,000 steps in the five days, so get ready for some exercise when you go yourself.
One of my favorite part of the Shamrocker and Haggis tours is their sole use of locals as the guides. On my tour, I had Daithi, or Dave. What an amazing guide. He made the tour what it was with great knowledge of the country, personal anecdotes and the memorable SKIDOOSH!
There isn’t a bright green bus (green can be controversial in parts of Ireland), but the buses are tailored to the size of the group, and are very comfortable.
Knowledge of Ireland
Just to get a confusion out of the way, the island is called Ireland, and is divided into the Republic of Ireland (usually referred to as Ireland), and Northern Ireland (part of the United Kingdom). To keep it simple, I’ll be referring to the island when I say Ireland. A significant portion of the tour covers the tension between those regions with their political and religious factions. Don’t worry, it’s currently safe. (Ir)ish.
On the first day of the Giant’s Rocker, there is an optional Black Cab Tour of Belfast, the capital city of Northern Ireland. What an eye-opener! Years ago I had friends tell me about the conflict and strife in Ireland, but it never seemed that bad. Having visited Belfast, I now know it was worse. Their wall to divide the town is still in place, and the gates will close at a moment’s notice. The city has come a long way, and now you can see all the art and creativity infusing the neighborhoods.
Game of Thrones
Northern Ireland is full of filming locations for the Game of Thrones. Dozens of them. You can see the first list here. Visiting them all would require a separate tour, but some are on the Shamrocker tour. One is in Ballintoy Harbor, use for a port in the Iron Islands. The area is wonderful, and still looks like an ancient fishing harbor, except for the modern car park and restaurant on the quay. I spent quite a bit of time climbing around on the rocks, and getting doused in the waves. You know me!
A couple miles to the east is a salt mine where they filmed Renly Baratheon’s camp in Storm’s End. Just beside that is the Carrick-a-Rede, or Rope Bridge. The price to walk to and cross the bridge is £5.90, which isn’t covered in the tour. Or you can do what I did and walk to the bridge in the evening for free. You won’t be able to cross it, but you’ll still get the fantastic views.
There are many more locations in the area, such as Murlough Bay where Theon and Yara Greyjoy shared a horse, but the tour only only covers these two, which are a half-hour walk from the Sheep Island View Hostel in Ballintoy (the first night’s accommodations). The next morning, you’ll also get to walk down the Dark Hedges, otherwise known as the King’s Road.
Unfortunately, as with all filming locations for the Game of Thrones, they don’t look quite the same without the extensive CGI used. However, not everything in Ireland needs CGI to be enchanting. Of course, having a computer program to edit out the throngs of tourists does help.
The Giant’s Causeway
Nearly every great bucket list I’ve seen for traveling the world has included the Giant’s Causeway. The hexagonal rock formations only occur here and in parts of western Scotland, with mythology connecting the two locations. I don’t remember how long it’s been on my own bucket list, but I was happy to finally tick it off my list. It’s quite a popular site, so getting a photo without others in the frame is darn near impossible. But if you’re going for the memory more than the photo, not even the rain can detract from the beauty of this marvel. Actually, our overcast weather just added to the ambiance.
Derry or Londonderry
The second night was spent at a hotel in Derry, or Londonderry, depending on which side of the river you’re on. Just like Belfast this is a divided town, with a river instead of a wall. Conflicts have abated, and there is a peace bridge spanning the river. Shortly after we arrived, we took a walking tour of the city with Martin McCrossan City Tours. The tour is £4 (payable when you first book your Shamrocker Tour) and lasts about two hours, covering the history of the city and a lot of the murals and memorials. If you didn’t know, this is the setting of U2’s famous song Sunday, Bloody Sunday, although the incident itself was quite infamous. You’ll have to take the tour to find out the rest.
Great Famine National Monument
Beneath the looming Croagh Patrick mountain is the Famine Monument. Conflicts aren’t the only difficulties that Ireland has had in recent history. From 1845 to 1852, due to a potato blight, Ireland lost a million people to starvation and another million who immigrated elsewhere. That was nearly 1/4 of its population!
Croagh Patrick itself is one of Ireland’s pilgrimage locations. Rising 764 meters, it’s a great hike; unfortunately longer than the tour was willing to stop for. Other than this stop and a few other short ones, plus lunch in Westport, the third day of the tour was mostly a transit day, getting from Derry to Galway.
When we got to Galway, it certainly exceeded my expectations. By some standards, it’s a small town. That’s not the impression I got when I was there. The central walking street was reminiscent of many quaint European towns I’ve seen in my travels, but in the evening the nightlife would reach a fever pitch. Perhaps that was due to my arrival in Freshman Week. It might not be as wild as Dublin, but personally I like the smaller town feel.
Most of Shamrocker’s tours pass through Galway, with two night spent at the Kinlay Hostel. It’s been voted the best hostel in Ireland more than once, which I can agree with.
Day 4 of my tour was spent on the island of Inishmore. We took a bus and ferry to get there, arriving just before noon. There were many ways to explore the island, and most of us chose to spend €10 on a bike rental for the day. My suggestion is get the mountain bike, unless you want to pay extra for the electric bikes. This island might be small, but it has all kinds of features to explore. There are standing stones, old churches, beaches you can swim in (if you’re like me and don’t mind cold water) and ancient fortresses. By ancient I mean over 3000 years old! Unfortunately you have to pay €4 to explore Dún Aonghasa, the main fort. Or you can see the other two for free.
Poll na bPéist was by far my favorite part of the island. That’s Gaelic (Irish) for “wormhole,” or more accurately, “Serpent’s Lair.” It’s a fantastic natural wonder, where a rectangular pool has formed in the cliffs, and water flows up (or over) into it. When I was there it was rather turbulent, although not as bad as it could have been. Had the water been calmer, I would have loved to jump in. After all, this is one of the locations for Red Bull’s Cliff Diving Championships.
The Cliffs of Moher
a.k.a. The Cliffs of Insanity
a.k.a. Horcrux Cave
These cliffs weren’t on my bucket list as long as they should have been. They’ve made appearances in such movies as Far and Away, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and the immortal Princess Bride. Unfortunately, none of the movies give the location true justice. This was the primary attraction of the day, which was good enough for me. I almost lost track of time walking the 5km path along the cliff edge toward Hag’s Head. Didn’t actually make it all the way, so I’ll have to return another day.
And that was the tour. There are dozens of more things I could mention, but you’ll just have to take the tour to find out the rest. I wish I could have done the 7-day tour to see Limerick and the Blarney Stone, but more because I just wanted another couple days with all my new friends. As great as Ireland is, it was the chance to explore with so many other wonderful people which made the trip special for me. I realize that’s a huge reason to book tours with Shamrocker Tours. I’ll definitely be back to Ireland in my usual solo-traveler fashion to see more Games of Thrones locations, do the Guinness tour in Dublin and catch everything else I missed. But it just won’t be the same without the gang.