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Monday, April 25, 2016

Part 11:Pub-crawling around the World - The Valley House, Achill, Ireland.

Far from just a bar, The Valley House in Achill is steeped in history, a previous Daniel Craig movie set and a top rated Lonely Planet hostel. I've mentioned it in many blog entries but never under pubcrawling. Now I'm correcting this clear oversight. It's difficult to pinpoint one particular night in this incredible venue as I've spent so many there but here are memories and reasons you should visit.
Slievemore at sunset, can be seen from the end of the lane at the Valley House

The location - Firstly, it's on Achill island, which is beautiful anytime of year but particularly in the summer months. The bar itself is hidden by trees, surrounded by a pitch and putt course and a small lake. It's less than a fifteen minute walk to the nearest immaculate and often deserted beach. It's courtyard captures stunning sun in the late afternoon and it's wonderful to while away a few hours basking in the sun there. I remember a particular bank holiday Monday in June 2007, guitars were out as was the sun, tunes aplenty and good company - it made for a perfect evening. Of the friends I spent it with, three live in different countries now, one is married with a child and one I have long since lost contact with.

The music. I can't remember many nights without music in this place, for me it's the first place I think of when I hear "session". From regulars who show up with their guitar to visiting musicians with banjo's, flutes, violins or crystal-clear voices - I have never heard such a diverse amount of talent in any other venue, and here you don't even pay for it. Even the owner, Pat and his wife, Alice, are great musicians and the "sesh" is encouraged every night. There are people who have been joining in the sessions here for over 30 years (including my own Dad) when Pat's father, Roger (RIP) ran the place. If you want a bar with music in Ireland, you can't go wrong here. My own favourite memories centre around jamming with my Dad when we've been here together, particularly August bank holiday 2012 and 2013. Hearing an ensemble version of "The Weight" with impeccable harmonies still resounds from 2008 and a version of "There is a Light that will never go out," will always remind me of nights in the Valley House.
Regulars taking part in the "sesh" one summer night

An inexpensive bed can be stumbling distance from the bar. In the cooler months of the year (of which there are many in Ireland), it is nice to stay in the warm confines of the Valley House after a few pints of Guinness (or whatever you're having). It is advisable to book ahead for holiday weekends - i.e St Patricks Day, Easter, Hallowe'en etc. The Hallowe'en party is normally great craic. Music as always and an array of creative costumes, from Slash (Guns N'Roses) to a French courtesan (portrayed by a man), Robin Hood to Sponge-Bob. It's great to be able to crawl up the stairs and not out into the freezing night, particularly in October or March - or even sometimes May!

The Guinness must be mentioned. It was the bank holiday weekend in October 2006 and a group of us were staying in the Valley House, sharing the 12-bed dorm (great fun, as you can imagine). Åine , a friend, was buying a round for everyone and was insisting that her friend's boyfriend, John, didn't need another pint of Guinness. I had been on the vodka most of the day and actually had a pain from it. John and Åine went back and forth over this and eventually she included him in the round. At this point, John looked over at me and said "You have to drink this pint, I can't." That was my first Guinness. After a sip, it eased the pain I had in my tummy and I wondered why I hadn't been drinking it all weekend! Since I have travelled to many countries, drank Guinness in a number of Irish bars and around Ireland but I haven't found anywhere with a pint like the Valley. In the final stages of the drive from Dublin, I salivate at the thought of the pint that will soon follow.


Ambience: 10/10
Cost: $$ (I haven't been in awhile but by memory a pint of Guinness is around EUR4.40, you must try one!)
Food: Now renowned around the county for it's stonebaked pizza, sometimes other food is offered. Always good quality pub grub and great after a day at the beach or a few hours whiled away in the pub. Reasonably priced.
Location: You will need a car to get here. It's located in Dugort on Achill Island and public transport isn't very accessible. There are some taxis on the island.
Toilets: Well maintained and cool on nights where the bar gets very warm.
Overall: If you don't visit here you're missing a genuine hidden gem and my favourite bar in the whole world.


Their own website has more photos, details of upcoming events and information.
/http://www.valley-house.com/

Sunday, February 14, 2016

5 places worth a visit on your travels

To me, everywhere is worth visiting once. I have found enjoyment in every place I've been and just because there are places that I won't rush back to doesn't mean that I regret visiting there in the first place. Then there are these places, which are truly special. They might be a little trickier to get to, or you may not have them on your list for a variety of reasons (distance from other places, budget, transport options etc) but I highly recommend (read: suggest you visit or you are missing out!). I either have gone back already, will go back or a little part of my soul will pine for them.

1. Achill Island, Co. Mayo, Ireland. I have raved in previous blog entries about Achill, my favourite place in the whole world. Why should you put Achill on your list? Its scenery will take your breath away, from the craggy  rock formations, many pristine beaches perfect for surfing, kite-surfing or just a swim, magnificent cliffs rising into modest mountains that are well worth a hike, delicious seafood and Irish music sessions in many pubs waiting to serve creamy pints of Guinness. I can't extol the virtues of this island enough. From the Atlantic Drive to Keem Bay, barbecues under the shadow of Slievemore at sunset, a good walk to knock out the cobwebs on Keel beach and settling in at the Valley House for a pint and great tunes - it's hard to beat and I'm sure you'll agree.
Slievemore at sunset

The writers Graham Greene and Heinrich Boll spent time living on the island and many an artist has taken up residence there.

How to get there: Train from Dublin to Castlebar, then 1 hour bumpy bus journey to Achill Sound, or hitch - plenty of friendly locals and travellers pick up on the road from Castlebar to Achill.





2. Trakai, Lithuania. Never heard of it? Probably not but it's fantastic. Only a stone's throw from the capital of Vilnius, which is also worth a visit, Trakai is definitely budget-friendly and worth a visit for it's Gothic castle (with unique architecture for Eastern Europe), the bridge, the maze (yes, a maze you can get lost or found in!), a range of outdoor activities - including sailing and rowing and the fact that it's a national park. It's been quite a few years since I visited (hint: I was a teenager at the time) but it still pops up in my dreams. Grab some local food for a picnic beside the lake. If you wish to do more than a day trip you can get apartments for less than EUR40 a night.
Image from TraveloLithuania.com


How to get there: From Vilnius, there are regular buses every 20 mins or so. There are also trains for the short journey.





3. Koh Chang, Trat Province, Thailand.
Koh Chang is definitely growing in popularity but it's still much cheaper than most of the Thai islands, such as Koh Samui or Phuket. Don't expect the karst formations that you'll find on the Andaman islands, but there are plenty of picture perfect beaches here with far less crowds than the famous spots on other islands. It's pretty hilly and is great to explore (be careful of the wildlife in the jungle) and you can also hop onto other, even less visited islands from there. If you really want the 'backpacker' feel you can stay at Lonely Beach, where the nightlife is anything but lonely. Massages start at around EUR5, accommodation can be as cheap as EUR8 per person sharing (even in a double room) and a wide range of cuisine can be found on the island. I recommend Kai Bae beach, for location and the beach.

Me, a swing, Kai Bae beach.
How to get there: We got burned on our trip because the internet doesn't always tell the truth! Well, information changes, I guess. If you are coming from Bangkok, it is recommended to get to the Ekkamai bus station EARLY (and/or book in advance) and get a bus that leaves before noon. It takes about 4 and a half hours to Trat. Some buses go directly to the pier where boats leave from, others just to Trat and you have to share songtheaws (they resemble pick-up trucks with benches in the back) to the port. The last boat to the island leaves at 7pm. The boat takes about 30 minutes to cross and then you will have to pay about 150bht to get to whichever resort you're staying in.

There are also buses from near Victory Monument in Bangkok to Trat and Koh Chang, they leave hourly but once again, be aware that due to demand there may only be 2 or 3 buses running rather than hourly.

http://iamkohchang.com is a good website if you're planning to travel there.

4. Tarife, Southern Spain. Forget Gibraltor (seriously, it's not a nice place) and go a bit further down the road to the charming town of Tarife, which is also the southernmost tip of Spain. Although it barely gets a mention in guidebooks and isn't the prettiest of port towns, it is a haven for kite surfers and also offers pristine white beaches both on the Mediterranean and Atlantic Oceans (the two meet here) and there are wonderful views across to Morocco. There's the Moorish Castillo de Guzman el bueno fort to visit and the Church of San Mateo plus plenty of lovely tapas places to eat for under EUR10. It is definitely worth a weekend trip if you're interested in geography or history.
Med on the left, Atlantic on the right

How to get there: The nearest airport is Gibraltor, but Malaga is only an 1 1/2 hours away so you can see more of the Costa del Sol before taking in Tarife or plan your trip from there.  The easiest thing is to hire a car (pretty inexpensive - from EUR45 per week) but you can get a bus from Malaga. There are also regular buses from Gibraltor and Algeciras.












5. Kaikoura, South island, New Zealand. Last, but by no means least. There are so many places to get to in New Zealand but I've noticed that this one is sometimes missed. I have no idea why. Kaikoura is known primarily for year round whale watching, and it's absolutely worth it. Although I missed the money shot (the tail raised out of the water) I did so because watching it took my breath away. There are also large seal colonies in the area, fantastic to watch, even from a bus and dusky dolphins out at sea. Even though I visited in peak season, the small town wasn't very busy, which is nice for a break when travelling. You can see a longer post I wrote on a local bar/eatery here.
Sunset on the beach


How to get there: There are regular buses from Picton, which take around 2 and a half hours, whilst buses from Christchurch take only slightly longer and fares are very reasonable (you can get buses from NZD$1 in Christchurch, whilst it's around NZD$15 from Picton).

Kaikoura is not a cheap destination, although if you're already in New Zealand you're probably aware. Still, if you're on a backpacking budget it's probably a good idea to set a little extra aside for the even the basics here.
The walkway at 7am, beautiful mountains in the distance.
Realistically, I could put so many places on this list but these were the ones that I see mentioned least online, that were special to me at the time and still remain in my mind. Where are your places? I'd love to hear so I can add them to my list.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Not Khao-San, other places to eat and drink in Bangkok

The first time I was in Bangkok I was incredibly overwhelmed by the size of the place - the city seems never-ending and if you get up to any heights it stretches out in every direction the eye can see; the river winding through various sky-scrapers and low-lying shacks by the river. The enormity of it is still striking to me now but I've gotten to know another side of the city by now and can thoroughly understand why it offers expats a nice life.
From the Mariott Rooftop, Bangkok goes on forever

An old friend from Dubai, Becky, now calls Bangkok home. We go through long periods of not meeting up and our last meeting outside Thailand was a funny road-trip to Ennis, accompanied by a little green teddy. Yes, Becky and I do have some weird ideas of fun but we also share a very similar sense of humour and a deep bond from sharing some tricky times in Dubai. Becky's place is a far cry from Khao San Road; it's set in a pretty district of Sukhumvit, surrounded by other residences with pools and gyms and up market restaurants nearby.

I'm not a huge fan of enormous cities, probably because the city I come from, Dublin, only has a population of about a million people, which barely competes with the major metropolises of our world.
I like my cities smaller and easy to navigate. Having said that, I'm a big fan of Bangkok's various options of transport - the BTS is cheap and reliable, motor cycle taxis are ubiquitous, taxis themselves are crazy reasonable considering it's a worldwide city with an intolerable traffic problem. You can even take canal boats (not a pastime for hungover backpackers - the stench would shake even the sturdiest constitution) where you might chance upon a dead croc floating in the infected waters, true story - a friend has seen one.

So, to share some of the places I've been and liked in Bangkok, even though I fear giving too much away, it's nice to share with other travellers and for the owners to have patronage of those seeking out a different path.

If you've visited Wat Pho, which certainly is worth it from a historical perspective (It was the first university in Thailand) and to admire the colourful stupas in the courtyard, then you'll appreciate a cool drink or some food nearby. There are a number of options by the river, you can normally get a seat at Eat Sight Story, ESS to watch riverboats go by and enjoy the view of Wat Arun. It is accessed by a soi between two temples. There is also the better known The Deck, which boasts the same views and excellent food, but you may struggle to be seated.
Wat Arun at sunset

Bangkok is developing quite the cafe culture and a great spot for brunch is Gram, on Soi 49 of Sukhumvit. There's not much seating and it's probably to be avoided in the sweatier months but I had a long, lazy lunch there in March and it was very pleasant. They offer all day breakfasts and super smoothies.

I was lucky enough to be invited to Bellino wine bar and boutique, a stunningly picturesque little part of Italy in Bangkok. Go for the chorizo, stay for the reasonably priced and good (finally, good wine in Thailand!) wine.We had a lovely night there for their birthday party.

If you are pining for a bit of trivia, then you can head to pub quiz on Thursday nights at The Pickled Liver, a proper British pub which doesn't feel like it's just off Sukhumvit in Bangkok, a very unassuming joint with good pub grub.

And finally, if you're looking for a quieter Rooftop than Lebua (the rooftop scene's from the Hangover have made it a hotspot), head over to Octave at the Mariott for 360 degree views of the city. It also has great 2 for 1 cocktails between 5pm - 7pm so you can enjoy your sundowners at a more reasonable cost than most of the city.

Sorry Becky, if I've given away some of your secret spots, but not all :)