Five things to do in (and around) Dublin, even in the rainy winter

Ah, Dublin. Home to Guinness, a Leprechaun museum, an absurdly tall spire and the famous / infamous Temple Bar quarter. It’s also home to around 300 days of cloudy or rainy weather, which begs the question: why are you fixing to fork out hundreds, possibly thousands more just to visit in the summer? There’s no question that the weather in Europe is far more palatable in the spring and summer months, but it’s also shockingly expensive. A flight to anywhere within the EU jumps up by orders of magnitude as soon as you select June, July or August as your departure date and in the case of Ireland, there’s really no need to hand over extra to an airline when you could be spending those dollars Euros on attractions, pub food and better hotels. I’ve always been a fan of visiting places in the off-season, and Dublin’s no different. Read on to learn of five slightly off-the-wall things to do in (and around) the Irish capital.

%Gallery-117267%Visiting U2’s former recording digs: Windmill Lane Studios

A good part of the entire world knows that U2 hails from Ireland, but if you’re a hardcore fan, you owe it to yourself to see where things began. The (now-defunct) Windmill Lane Studios is where the group recorded Joshua Tree, War and Boy, and while the studio itself has now relocated to a different section of Dublin, the prior building still stands as part of the Rock ‘N Stroll history trail. It’s covered in graffiti, and you’ll know you’re near the entrance when you start seeing loads of U2 shout-outs from tourists around the globe. Feel free to pack a Sharpie and leave your token of appreciation (and hometown) behind. Directions to the studio are here — this is one time where you’ll need to read up rather than trusting Google Maps.

A dainty stroll through Powerscourt Gardens and The River Walk

What’s a trip to Dublin without a trip out of Dublin? The Powerscourt Estate sits just 45 minutes south, within County Wicklow, and it’s a slice of age-old paradise. The House & Gardens are well worth exploring — it’s some of the most beautiful grounds these eyes have ever seen — and since it’ll tough to return after just a day, I’d recommend an overnight stay at The Ritz-Carlton, Powerscourt. You’ll get free cycles to rent, a free pass to the absolutely stunning River Walk and pampering that you’ve always dreamed of. The only problem? It’ll make your city center digs seem downright plain. Read more on our visit here.

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Pub hop on O’Connell Street and the Temple Bar area

If you’re coming to Dublin for the first time, there are two names you really need to know within the city center: O’Connell and Temple. The former is dotted with a massive spire and includes a number of famed pubs and shops, while the Temple Bar area is just across the bridge (look for the giant Heiniken sign, and turn right). There, you’ll find budget accommodations (hostels galore), and more pubs than any lightweight could ever visit in a night. The Auld Dubliner is a personal favorite for grub and drinks, and the live musicians that show up there are tremendously talented. Oh, and make sure you order Guinness. Anything else just wouldn’t be Irish enough.

Venture west to the Cliffs of Moher, The Burren and Bunratty Castle

The east coast is gorgeous, but the west? Doubly so. Paddywagon Tours offers a 12 hour day trip to the west of Ireland, hitting County Galway (and the Bay), Corcomroe Abbey (a gorgeous church left in ruins), Poulnabrone Dolmen Portal Tomb (a standing monument from 4,000+ years ago), The Burren (a totally unique and mind-blowing rocky landscape), Doolin (Ireland’s unofficially official Irish music capital), the breathtaking Cliffs of Moher and finally, Bunratty Castle. At around $70 per person (admission to the Cliffs inclued), you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better value when it comes to gawking at the highlights on the opposite side of the Republic. Try to peek the forecast ahead of time and lock down a day with a lesser chance of rain, but even if it pours, take a raincoat and soak it all in — Ireland wouldn’t be as green as it is without nature’s tears, you know!

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Leave the country… by car

If you’re brave enough to take the wheel while situated on the passenger’s side of the car (not to mention remembering to keep your motorcar on the left of the road), you can head straight to Northern Ireland via road. And you’ll be there in under two hours. Belfast and the surrounding areas offer some pretty extreme outdoor activities, and while it may be a bit chilly and rainy in the off-season, you’ll be fighting fewer crowds all the while. If you aren’t so adventurous, the lovely lads at Paddywagon offer another day trip to Belfast, and we can personally attest to their adeptness at handling reverse traffic.

[Images provided by Dana Jo Photography]

All of these activities were enjoyed during the height of the off-season in Ireland, and I’d obviously recommend ’em to anyone. Pack a few warm layers and a solid raincoat, and head out with a mind to enjoy yourself no matter what. If you have any other off-season Dublin must-dos, toss ’em into the comments section below!

Ireland’s Powerscourt Estate: beauty, luxury, and a Ritz-Carlton just an hour from Dublin

Myself, like many Americans, fantasize about visiting Ireland. We’ve all seen the calendars scattered throughout malls and bookstores — cover to cover spreads of lush, green flora, craggy hills and the occasional Leprechaun. We all think we know what Irish music is thanks to the soundtrack of Boondock Saints. And the seasoned travelers in attendance know that DUB is one of the, if not the, cheapest airport in Europe for Americans to fly into. It’s not like you needed any convincing to head to The Emerald Isle, but if you’re looking for a little direction on where to go once you soar through customs, here’s a word you should absolutely consider: Powerscourt.

The Powerscourt Estate lies but 45 minutes south of Dublin’s Airport — barely further than the east side of downtown when considering traffic. But it’s akin to another world entirely in terms of attitude, altitude and sheer beauty. It’s rare that a fantasized-over location actually lives up to the hype that surrounds it, but believe me when I say that Powerscourt is straight off of a postcard, from the gardens to the River Walk to the monolithic Ritz-Carlton, Powerscourt hotel that’s nestled in so succinctly. Read on to hear more about my visit to the south of Dublin, particularly if you’re interested in making your own Irish calendar for 2012.

%Gallery-117264%The Estate is located near the cozy town of Enniskerry, in County Wicklow. It doesn’t take long to feel as if you’ve escaped the hustle of Dublin and moved on to greener pastures — both figuratively and literally. The long, windy drive up to the Estate is soothing in its own right, and moments before reaching the famed House, you’ll spot something equally massive on the left. It’s The Ritz-Carlton, Powerscourt, a 200 room giant of a hotel that’s situated between Sugar Loaf mountain and miles upon miles of pristine countryside. This palace first opened its doors to guests in the fall of 2007, and it has been fitting in ever since. What struck me was just how well integrated the property is — it may be huge, but it’s the polar opposite of an eyesore. In fact, it’d be hard to imagine the Powerscourt Estate without a hotel like this. After visiting, I could see why people would want to settle down right in the valley to enjoy a few days here, and it’d be a shame to have to scuttle back and forth to Dublin when all you were really after was a getaway.



A look around (and inside) The Ritz-Carlton, Powerscourt


To paint the picture a bit better, the hotel is just a three minute walk from the Powerscourt House — a castle that was constructed in the 13th century, reshaped in the 1700s, torched, and revived in 1996. Today, it’s a beautiful work of art, and it’s home to an exhibit of its own as well as a few niche shops and eateries. For some, it’d be good enough to just spend a few hours unwinding within the house, but the real magic lies just outside of the backdoor. There, you’ll find the Gardens. One step outside and you’ll appreciate the handful of Euros it took to gain admittance — “manicured” doesn’t even begin to explain just how flawless the place is. I’ve been to to the gardens surrounding North Carolina’s Biltmore Estate, and while I adore my homeland, the gardens here in Ireland are simply a notch above.

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Opposite the gardens is one of the more peaceful golf courses the island nation has to offer, and just a few more minutes walk lands you at The River Walk. Right about here is where you realize that leaving this slice of heaven would probably be to one’s detriment, and it provides a good opportunity to mention that a free pass down is just one of the complimentary extras that The Ritz-Carlton, Powerscourt provides. Guests at the hotel are treated more like guests of the estate; when you check in, you aren’t really checking into a hotel — you’re checking into a region. You’ll also have access to complimentary cycles, which I can confess are ideal for zipping around the gorgeous River Walk. Certain scenes of Braveheart were shot down by the streams, and it’s pretty exciting to bike around and try to spot certain shots from memories of the film.



A walk through Powerscourt Gardens in County Wicklow, Ireland


If you’re sold so far on the idea of shaping your vacation around doing nothing more than hitting the links, browsing beautiful gardens and cycling through forests that have been around for longer than you could even fathom, there’s hardly a reason to overlook another staple of the Estate: the hotel. It’s not everyday that you find a place that truly emphasizes the area like this; I’m a documented fan of choosing lodging options that integrate well with the purpose of the trip, and this particular Ritz-Carlton does this impeccably.

I’m not one to gloat about hotels unnecessarily. In the vast majority of cases, even the most esteemed 5-star property feels somewhat like a money grab to the average Joe, but this case is different. Rooms can be booked here for under 200 Euros if you play your cards right, and that includes a multitude of freebies not typically associated with high-end properties: complimentary bicycles, River Walk admission, parking and Wi-Fi. Yeah, Wi-Fi! It’s actually one of the only high-end hotels that I’ve stayed at with this luxury, and it’s greatly appreciated. Frankly, it’s beyond time that every hotel began offering gratis access to the internet. But that’s another story for another day.

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You’ll notice that you’re treated like a king (or queen) at the Powerscourt House and Gardens, and that bleeds over at the hotel. Service and hospitality is clearly top priority here, second only beautifully appointed rooms and an impressive array of (delicious) food options. Although the hotel was completed in 2007, it feels as if it were originally constructed centuries ago — well, aside from the hotel-wide Wi-Fi and indoor plumbing. By and large, Ritz-Carlton properties are both a) located near city centers and b) viewed as out-of-reach for many from a financial perspective. To its credit, this one fits neither of those categories. It’s a luxurious escape to a luxurious place, and the two fit together like peas in a pod. It’s safe to say I’ve never had a hotel experience quite like the one offered at The Ritz-Carlton, Powerscourt, and a lot of that has to do with the warmth of the staff and the screensaver-worthy surroundings. I’ve always heard that it’s all about location when talking real estate, and now I get it.

Obviously, the nearby Gardens are most lively in the summer months, but there’s really no bad time to visit Ireland. Sure, it may rain a bit on you, but you’ll have even greener pastures to show for it. Better still, you can duck back into Dublin if the escapism just becomes too much for your pampered heart to bear, but I get the feeling that said scenario isn’t likely to play itself out.

[Images provided by Dana Jo Photography]

In need of a few day trip ideas when heading to Powerscourt? Gadling’s got you covered.

The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto opens its doors, streams it all live on Facebook

It’s been a long, long road for The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto. If you’ll recall, we actually were led to believe that it would open its doors in the fall of last year, but after a few setbacks and delays, the day has finally come for the elusive property to welcome its first guests. No longer will Ritz-Carlton execs have to answer questions related to the infiltration into Canada, as this new Toronto property most certainly puts the company on the map here in the Great White North. This particular hotel is situated in the heart of the downtown area, providing views of the city or Lake Ontario, as well as extravagances that Ritz-Carlton is known for. All told, the 53-story monolith will feature 267 guestrooms, featuring 56 Corner Suits, a pair of Deluxe Suites and “The Ritz-Carlton Suite” at over 2,400 square feet.

Toronto sure feels like the perfect next location for this brand to tackle, with many calling it the most ‘international’ city on the planet. Those who pop by will be treated to floor-to-ceiling windows with heated perimeters, rich African Anigre wood and Portuguese Estremoz marble, not to mention heated marble flooring, dual vanities (with embedded 22-inch HDTVs), private rain showers and soaker tubs when it comes to the bathroom. There’s a 13,000 square foot spa, a natural light-filled Urban Sanctuary and its own signature eatery: TOCA by Tom Brodi. Those interested in being one of the first to book a room can visit the property’s website, and if you’ve ever wondered what all was involved in the ribbon cutting ceremony that happens as a Ritz-Carlton hotel is opened, today’s your lucky day. The whole thing will be livestreamed on the company’s Facebook page starting at 11:30am EST, so be sure to set your alarms and add yourself a bookmark. Too bad Facebook’s ‘Teleportation’ feature is still on the drawing board.

P.S. – If you missed our Toronto-based episode of Travel Talk, catch up here!

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Winter in Whitefish, Montana: where extreme snow sports and radical serenity meet

Northwestern Montana just doesn’t get the credit it deserves. When most tourists ponder Big Sky Country, they think of big lakes, outback hunting and skiing at Big Sky Resort. Truth is, all of those things are most definitely found in the Treasure State, but there’s a slice of this place that manages to package a raft of winter sporting activities with a slice of natural beauty that’ll burn a collection of lasting memories into your brain.

The place is Whitefish, Montana, and the vibe is simply unforgettable. Sitting just an hour south of British Columbia and light years away from that nuisance known as “hustle and / or bustle,” this cozy town of 5,000 or so acts as a perfect base for your idyllic winter getaway. Most folks head to a ski town to hit a few good runs, a few decent bars and a few overpriced merchandise stores. But if you’re flying into FCA this winter, I’d recommend bringing an entirely different set of expectations. Read on to find out why.

%Gallery-114796%No question about it: the star of Whitefish is Big Mountain, home to Whitefish Mountain Resort (and this rediculous mansion situated near lift 3). Unlike the vast majority of ski towns in the U.S., this town was actually a thriving place prior to 1947, the year it was turned into a ski destination. That simple fact has led to locals being almost universally emphatic about its existence — during a quick jaunt to Moose’s Saloon in downtown Kalispell, I was greeted by three residents who could tell by my garb that I’d been on the hill earlier. “How were the conditions up there today? Good I hope!” That’s the kind of attitude that permeates through the greater Whitefish region, and it makes the entire place remarkably hospitable to outsiders like myself.

I spent a couple of solid days at Whitefish Mountain Resort, and it’s definitely the gem of the northwest. Lift lines were practically nonexistent, conditions were stellar, powder was abundant, and even the amenities onsite were downright impressive. The 3.3-mile Hellride is just the tip of the iceberg; unlike many mountains, riders can soar down both sides of Big Mountain, giving you a nearly endless array of trails to choose from. Even advanced skiiers and snowboarders could spend a solid week here and barely have time to test out all of the routes.

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Whitefish has also done a commendable job in making sure there’s plenty to do all day; you’ll find top-notch eateries at both the Village and the Base Lodge (Ed & Mully’s had some of the best resort grub these chompers have ever sunk into), as well as numerous shops (with fair pricing!), a gaggle of lodging options and a view to die for. Oh, and did we mention that a single day lift ticket ($64) is 21 percent cheaper here than at Big Sky ($81)? It is.

If you’ve managed to place an undue burden on your knees and twist your back in ways they should never be twisted, there’s a perfect midweek escape just a half-hour away. And it’s one that’ll require a shockingly small amount of physical exertion to enjoy. The destination is Glacier National Park, and a ride through in the winter is certainly an ideal way to find R&R during a otherwise revved-up week of vacation. Glacier just recently celebrated its 100th birthday, and she’s as gorgeous as ever at 101. Only ~12.5 miles of roadways are cleared during the winter season, but it’s enough.

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Crowds are unheard of when visiting this beaut in the off-season — in fact, I only spotted three other humans during an entire afternoon there last week. I’ve always been a huge proponent of visiting National Parks in the off-season, and the images below capture my explanation of ‘why’ perfectly. Guests can cruise the entire length of Lake McDonald (the largest in the park), and there are numerous opportunities to pull off and take a stroll down to the shoreline. If you catch it on a particularly foggy day, you’ll be hard pressed to believe you’re not somewhere in Iceland.

If faced with good visibility, and one more extreme itch to scratch, I’d recommend making a beeline to Olney, MT. 20 or so minutes up Highway 93 North puts you at Winter Wonderland Sports, otherwise known as The Time of Your Life. These folks have a vast network of snowmobile trails right in their backyard, and at just $135 for the day, there’s hardly a better way to get your adrenaline boosted to near-unhealthy levels. The trails here are well maintained and chock full of astounding views — it’s an argonaut’s paradise, doused in untouched powder and surrounded by peaks and lakes that have been immune to commercialization. Wondering what kind of universe exists atop a mountain in the backcoutry of northwestern Montana? Have a gander below.

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For snow-loving adventurists, you’ve got too many options to count. But if you’re looking for a delicate mix of serenity and insanity, Whitefish is one of the few places that really nails it. Toss in a community’s worth of friendly locals, too many stellar eateries to count (Piggyback Barbeque gets a special nod, though) and world-class skiing, and you’ve finally got a reason to embrace Old Man Winter. If you find yourself here in Whitefish or the surrounding area, check out a few recommended day trips that I’ve compiled below…

[Images provided by Dana Jo Photography]

Five reasons Americans should choose Panama over the Caribbean, with day trips to boot



Panama. It’s a small nation of about 3.3 million inhabitants, with a land size roughly equal to South Carolina. It’s the southernmost country in Central America, and if not for its mind-bogglingly thick Darien National Park, the so-called Panamerican Highway could run from Alaska to the bottom of South America. But you knew all of that, didn’t you? What you may not be aware of, however, is just how stunning and tourist-friendly this incredible nation is. I recently embarked on a trip to Panama City and beyond, scurrying along the beach towns in Chame and the mountains of El Valle. If you’ve been considering a tropical getaway, particularly now that Old Man Winter is hovering over the United States, I’ve got five good reasons you should head south rather than east. Click on after the break for more, but only if you’ll kosher with mentally burning those final vacation weeks you’ve got socked away.

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1) Panama uses US dollars as its currency

You heard right: US dollars! The how, who, what and why goes back quite some time and would probably only interest historians, but present day argonauts will certainly appreciate skipping the Robbery Machine (i.e. the foreign exchange booth) as they sail through customs. Panamanians may call it the Balboa, but make no mistake — the paper currency used throughout Panama is the US dollar, and coins are either US minted coins or Panamanian counterparts of identical size and weight. You may notice coins with slightly different markings, but if it looks like a quarter, you can bet it’ll spend like a quarter. (Fun fact: Panama’s quarters are accepted in American parking meters and drink machines.)


Bustling Panama City

But in all seriousness, it’s a huge relief to simply fly (or drive!) to Panama with the same currency that you use at home. No funky conversions to remember. No leftover foreign currency to exchange on the return trip. Just cold, hard, US cash. Better still, prices for nearly everything in Panama are far below US levels, so you’ll be fetching far more for your Benjamins here than back in the States.

2) Easy to reach (by plane or car)

Ever tried flying into a Caribbean airport? Okay, so it’s not that difficult, but your flight paths are generally limited. Really limited. Most of the outlying islands connect to the States via one major route, likely to Miami, Florida. One problem in South Florida, and you’re looking at a vacation-destroying delay. Tocumen International Airport (PTY) is a real-deal airport, with direct flights to a smorgasbord of locations around the world. It’s the only major airport in Central America with two runways, and it also happens to be one of the cheapest to fly into thanks to a healthy amount of airline competition. In the States alone, you’ll find direct flights to Houston, Miami, Orlando, Dallas, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Newark and New York City.


Downtown Casco Viejo

Moreover, Panama’s closer than you might think to the States. It’s just 2.5 hours away by plane from Miami, and since it’s in the Eastern Time Zone, a good chunk of you folks won’t even have to adjust to an oddly setting sun. Let’s put it this way — you can get from Virginia to Panama in less time than it’d take you to fly from Virginia to California.


Life in El Valle

Oh, and did we mention that you can drive? For the absolutely carefree adventure travelers out there (with the right insurance policy), you can drive right through Texas, into Mexico and down the Panamerican Highway to Panama. We wouldn’t recommend this without being fluent in Spanish, but hey — talk about the ultimate road trip!

3) Diversity of land

Sure, Aruba has desert landscapes, and Turks and Caicos has the Conch Sound. Grand Cayman has shockingly blue waters fit for diving. But good luck finding a single place in the Caribbean, using a single currency, accessible via a single roadway system that offers picturesque beaches, white water rafing outfits and canopy tours. Panama is startlingly diverse; on one end, you’ve got the practically impassable Darien National Park. On the other, there’s Bocas Del Toro, a pristine hot spot for surfers. In between, you’ve got Boquete laden with flora, the lush mountains of El Valle, unspoiled beaches in Coronado and modern day nightlife awaiting you in Panama City. If you can’t find a landscape that suits you in Panama, you’re probably not looking hard enough.


Drive up to El Valle

Also, Panama road rules mimic those of America; folks drive on the right, and the Panamerican Highway runs nearly the length of the country. You’ll have far fewer signs and far more ambiguous speed limits, but it’s not too difficult to grok for the amateur traveler. After all, that’s what GPS rentals are for. I’m not saying driving in Panama is simple, but it’s totally doable. And yes, every single kilometer is an adventure of epic proportions.

4) No risk of hurricane

Here’s one you probably haven’t considered. In recorded history (reaching back to 1851 by some reports), not a single hurricane has made landfall on Panama. It remains the only Central American nation to avoid being struck by one, making it far safer to travel to than many of the islands hovering out in the Atlantic. No risk of hurricanes, yet still providing 365 days of pure, tropical bliss in terms of weather.


Gorgona Beach

5) It’s still natural… or should I say, unspoiled

Look, the Caribbean is a truly magnificent place. Given the sheer quantity of countries and cultures, it’s impossible — nay, unfair — to lump it all together as one. There are most certainly locales in the Atlantic chain of islands that are relatively unspoiled. Prune Island comes to mind, but that’s just one of many. But by and large, the unspoiled islands in the Caribbean don’t meet an earlier criteria here: ease of access. Some of these require multiple plane hops, ferry rides and golf cart shuttles. That may intrigue some, but the fewer connections in our schedule, the less potential follies we see.

Panama, on the whole, is still largely untouched by tourism. Just over one million non-natives visited last year, which definitely isn’t many in the grand scheme of things. Just an hour outside of Panama City lies a string of beach towns — Punta Chame, Gorgona, Coronado, El Palmar and San Carlos (just to name a few). You’ll find just enough lodging here to stay comfortably (rental condos are just now starting to pop up), but you’ll still get luscious views of the oceans (yeah, oceans — you can swim in the Pacific and Atlantic in under two hours if you’re a good enough driver) and jaw-dropping looks at nearby mountain ranges. You’ll be hard-pressed to find more than a few dozen Earthlings on Panama’s central beaches, particularly during the week. Postcard-quality shots abound, and it’s comically easy to lose the world and find your soul in secluded places like Punta Chame.


El Valle mountains

There’s just enough tourist infrastructure here to keep vacationers occupied — white water rafing, zipline excursions and fishing expeditions abound — but you’ll bypass the glut of chain restaurants, overpopulated coastlines and horrific traffic (outside of Panama City, of course) that typify so many other tropical destinations.

Needless to say, your trip will be made a great deal easier if you speak at least some Spanish. I barely speak a word of it, and managed to get by just fine. People are genuinely warm here, and the diversity and beauty of the land is certainly awe-inspiring. If you’re looking to take your next vacation in Panama, feel free to take a peek at a few recommended day trips I’ve compiled here:

[Images provided by Dana Jo Photography]