When I first visited Ireland more than 30 years ago, I didn’t have the slightest idea that Irish blood flowed through my veins. Nor did I care since I was there to party and have fun with a small group of friends celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland. In America, then and now, St. Patrick’s Day was an excuse to drink beer, be it green or not, and generally act stupid. Wearing the only green shirt in my slim wardrobe at the time, I would jump into a limo with a handful of similarly dressed and motivated friends and bar hop around Ocean Beach until we could hop no more.
In Ireland, as I discovered on our visit, the holiday didn’t have the same flavor as St. Patrick’s Day in San Diego. We arrived in time for Dublin’s big parade, which seemed to be more a family affair as with folks not dressed in green politely applauding parade participants sponsored by the city’s merchants. We only spent a few days in Dublin and managed to visit a good number of pubs and even a lively Irish folk show one evening. Our sightseeing was limited to a peek inside the gates of Trinity College. As I said, we were there to party – it’s who we were at the time.
Fast forward to 2018, when I arrived in Ireland again, this time as a different person. Oh, I still love a good time, but this time my wife and I would be curious travelers who would explore Ireland seeking to discover the country ’s history, culture, natural beauty and, oh yes, its cuisine. I also hoped to learn more about my Irish roots – an urge that afflicts a lot of Americans as they get on in years.
Our journey began in Southampton, England, where Mary and I boarded the Celebrity Silhouette, a beautiful ship we had the pleasure of sailing on two other times. Traveling on a cruise liner offers more than a five-star hotel experience. It’s an immersion in a resort lifestyle or, as Mary says, a fantasy life with no beds to make, meals to cook or rooms to clean. Practically every whim and desire is taken care of – from your shore excursions to world-class nightly entertainment.
An example of the high caliber of performers on the Silhouette is singer Ray Brown Jr. and his jazz trio who played in various venues around the ship every day. When I first heard him on a Transatlantic cruise on this same ship, I marveled at his fantastic voice, telling friends “he sounds like a male Ella Fitzgerald.” Lo and behold, we find out that his mother is Ella and his father is the iconic Ray Brown, the legendary bassist who helped define modern Jazz. Now Ray Jr. is considered one of great jazz vocalist of our generation.
We began cruising to see a lot of the world in short order in comfort and style. Admittedly you can’t fully explore a city or country in a one or two-day port stop. But, we’ve found that you get a taste of a place relatively quickly and know if you want to return for a more extended stay. In the last few years, we’ve been combining a one or two-week land tour to along with a cruise. This trip is an excellent example of that style – the best of both travel worlds.
Our first port stop on this trip was St. Peter Port on the Island of Guernsey, known to most Americans for its cows, and the setting for the marvelous book, “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,” a fictional account of the area’s World War II traumas. The island has more than its share of natural beauty and fascinating history, but we’ll save that for another story.
Next up was our first Irish port with the odd name of Cobh (pronounced Cove), which serves as the port for nearby Cork. On a beautiful sunny day, we docked conveniently in the center of town, we made the short walk to the train station. We were fortunate to run into a young man in an official greeter green vest who helped us get tickets to Cork on the next train, which would fill up quickly with our fellow cruise passengers. We took our place on the station platform and watched the crowd grow for the train due in about 30 minutes.
After a short ride, we and dozens of other ship’s passengers and crew poured out of Cork’s Kent Station and into the streets. We didn’t have a tour planned; instead, the day was open to a bit of serendipity, something we try to include in our travels. So we followed the long snake-like a line of fellow visitors walking to the town center.
The so-called 15-minute walk seemed longer, and our impression of the town along the way was ho-hum as we passed through a mostly aging neighborhood with small retail with an occasional Mom and Pop eatery. But, as we’ve discovered many times in our travels, the first impressions can be very deceiving.
Things looked up as we strolled across the River Lee into the heart of Cork. Here we found a vibrant city center bustling with locals and visitors alike, shopping, dining, listening to the many street musicians or just taking a stroll on a beautiful Irish day. Like other Irish cities we would visit, Cork had a broad and long shopping street filled with both familiar international retailers and local specialty stores featuring Irish products. Within a short walk, we window-shopped quaint pubs, coffee shops, and bakeries, as well as art galleries and museums.
One attraction we didn’t want to miss was the English Market founded in 1788, one of the oldest markets of its kind in the world. The market is the social and culinary hub of the city, servicing many nearby notable restaurants in the city’s exciting dining and local craft beer scene. This was a foodie’s paradise, and we wanted to spend as much time as possible before catching the train back to the port.
We wandered the market’s crowded aisles in sensory overload. The sweet scent of fresh bread permeated the air as we passed dozens of family-run stalls with artistically stacked loaves. Blemish free ripe vegetables, artisan cheeses from local producers, locally smoked fish and meats and eye-popping displays of handcrafted chocolates tempted us, but it was the bread, the most basic and beautiful of foods, that caught my attention. The shopkeeper looked amused as I shot picture after picture of these bakers’ world-class product.
So instead of dining in one of the notable hotspots, we decided to feast at one of the stalls, The Sandwich Stall, that featured the fresh bread I had been admiring along with Toon’s Bridge creamy cheese made in-house in the shop’s dairy. Our sandwich was finished with slices of sweet vine ripe tomatoes, homemade pickles and crowned with a thin slice of locally cured ham. We sat on small bench seats adjacent to the stall and enjoyed the best Ireland can offer. It would have taken excellent restaurant fare to beat the satisfaction that simple sandwich gave us.
Afterward, we hopped back on the train for what would be a memorable experience of another kind in Cobh. In minutes the train pulled into the postcard-pretty village by the sea, Cobh, and the current home of our ship, which dwarfed everything around it.