Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

An enjoyable ride around the Emerald Isle

Alberta bikers survive circle tour dubbed '50 Pints in 50 Pubs'

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CLIFFS OF MOHER, Ireland -- The winding roads along the west coast of Ireland were too much for the Minnesota biker we met at the Cliffs of Moher.

"These roads are terrible," he lamented before taking off on his modified Honda Goldwing trike. "It takes forever to get anywhere."

We couldn't disagree more. Getting anywhere takes a little longer when you are riding Irish miles as opposed to Canadian kilometres, but cruising the Emerald Isle on motorcycles was definitely twice the fun.

Narrow roads, infrequent highway signs, hairpin curves, nightmarish traffic circles -- we loved every minute of it, every breathtaking view, every dangerous bend.

Our motley foursome had journeyed across the Atlantic to ride those roads. Sometimes it was almost like roaring through a 2,000-km game of Snakes and Ladders. We had to use all our gears and every inch of our tires.

While the American trike rider had spent $2,000 to ship his machine over from the U.S. and another $2,000 for insurance, we rented motorcycles for little more than 100 euros (about $125 Cdn) a day from one of the few available places, Motorcycle Rentals of Ireland in Naas, about 40 km west of Dublin.

Since we were all riding bikes that weren't familiar, motorcycle shop owner Paul Rawlins suggested we get acquainted with them on a test ride through the scenic Wicklow Gap. I had chosen a nimble BMW 800R, which was a very different animal than my Harley at home, so it took a while to get used to the location of the foot pegs, shifter and horn.

Often during our two-week adventure, my three riding buddies would glare at me when I would inadvertently honk at them, usually when I was trying to find the signal lights as we roared through a never-ending series of traffic circles. Rawlins led us around the first traffic circle to get us on the right road headed for the Gap, but for the hundreds of others we encountered, we were on our own.

Most of us were familiar with traffic circles in Canada, but navigating them on strange bikes, on the wrong side of the road, and in the opposite direction (clockwise rather than counter-clockwise), took some getting used to. Yet we survived without serious incident, circumnavigating Ireland over 13 days with no major mishaps.

Irish folks truly are friendly. We never heard a car horn honk or saw a rude gesture -- and boy, sometimes we deserved both -- on our entire trek. It may have helped that we had our bikes decked out with Canadian flags. We even heard a group of kids chanting, "Canada, Canada" as we cruised through one town.


Dublin was our start and end point for our '50 Pints in 50 Pubs' trek. We toasted one another's good health with the Irish slogan slainte (pronounced SLAWN-che) in the Temple bar district on the eve of our trek and again at the famous Guinness Brewery upon our return.

From Dublin we rode north to Newgrange to visit 5,000-year-old tombs that are designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We went on to spend a few days in Belfast visiting the notorious neighbourhoods that were marked by violence during the "troubles."

In the evenings, we crooned along to traditional Celtic musicians in the local watering holes, including Belfast's most famous pub, the Crown Bar Liquor Saloon. We even stopped in for a pint at Rockies, a Canadian sports bar in the hockey arena where former Calgary Flames forward Theoren Fleury once played for the Belfast Giants.

Our trip was the brainwave of an Irish-born Edmontonian who had driven around his homeland by car with his wife and another couple a few years earlier. Although our guide regaled us with folklore and escorted us to traditional places off the beaten track, he didn't seem to remember specifically how to get anywhere.

One night our search for yet another of his favourite local pubs took us instead to a heavy metal bar with a band so bad the bartender congratulated us for missing their closing set.

We turned getting lost into an art form. We obviously should have rented a motorcycle GPS when we picked up the bikes. On our way into Belfast, all four of us managed to get separated, having to each find our own way to the Holiday Inn in the fading light.

Another day, after we again separated, we all rode nearly 100 km in the wrong direction before we noticed. Fortunately, we had picked up a pair of cheap pay-as-you-go cellphones in Belfast for just such emergencies, and we were able to text back and forth to set up a rendezvous farther up the road to get back on track.

The countryside was magnificent, but County Antrim in Northern Ireland was spectacularly so. Hellboy II: The Golden Army is the latest of a long string of movies filmed there. The landscape was filled with scintillating ocean vistas, lush forests, kilometre upon kilometre of hedges and stone fences and an abundance of sheep.

We followed coastal roads across much of the county, including one that was little wider than a goat trail, to reach an abandoned weather station on a high point of land called Torr Head. From our vantage point we could see Rathlin Island off the coast between Ireland and Scotland.

Our guide remarked that the last time he had slogged up the steep hill, the rain was coming off the Atlantic sideways. But on this day, the skies were brilliant blue and the weather much too warm for riding leathers.

We had packed for rain, but we really lucked out with the weather. Locals told us it had rained for 20 consecutive days before our arrival the first week of September. But we only had one damp day and the temperature stayed largely in the comfortable range of 15 C to 20 C. We often had to strip off our leather jackets and chaps when we stopped for tours or hikes.

But Canadian Pat McGinley, a 46-year-old Air Canada Jazz pilot and pub owner we met on the trip, told us later that it rained every one of the 14 days he spent in the country during his first motorcycle trip. That didn't stop him from coming back again and again.

"Don't come to this country if you are not willing to do wet-weather riding. because you're going to get some rain," the Halifax resident advised. "But if you are dressed for it, it's not an issue."

McGinley hasn't travelled all the country's 90,000 km of narrow, twisty roads, but he is working on it. "The roads here are ideal," he raved. "If you are at all into motorcycle touring, I don't think you will get a better country for it."

We rode only about 200 km a day so we could see the sights, hike the trails and explore the castles. We had to do something to wear off those humongous Irish breakfasts of fried everything -- sausage, eggs, bacon, black pudding, tomatoes and beans.

We spent a fantastic late afternoon walking the trails of Glenarriff Forest to the scenic falls. When the long shadows of early evening chased us into the village of Carnlough, we dined at the Londonderry Arms Hotel, once owned by Winston Churchill.

The next day we got sunburned as we hiked a coastal trail to Carrick-a-Rede, scrambling across the swinging rope bridge over a crumbled coastal crater, where for centuries fishermen hung their nets at the mouths of the Bush and Bann rivers.

From there we rode in brilliant sunshine to the amazing Giant's Causeway with its 37,000 hexagonal columns of rock formed when a volcano erupted about 60 million years ago. According to legend, the Causeway got its name from a giant named Fin McCool who used it as a jumping-off point to stride across the Sea of Moyle to visit his girlfriend on Staffa Island.

Not far from the Causeway, we came upon the sprawling ruins of Dunluce Castle, built precariously on a cliff edge. Part of the castle actually fell into the sea in 1639, along with some of the castle's kitchen staff.

Our days were filled with adventure. We couldn't ride past Bushmills Distillery without stopping by for a tour and a wee taste of Ireland. We chatted with the famous Bogside artists in Derry, hobnobbed with history at the restored Bunratty Castle and kissed the Blarney Stone atop Blarney Castle.

In Limerick we wrote limericks and in a village just outside Waterford we had "a bit of craic" -- good-natured fun -- at a local pub, feasting on the free leftovers from a wedding party.

We did have our stumbles and falls. One bike went down in mid-U-turn and another on slick pavement, but the slow-speed tumbles were more embarrassing than anything else, although they did cost two riders their $500 damage deposits.

My worst mishap came after I dismounted at a pit stop on Boa Island on Lower Lough Erne and crashed headfirst down a ditch concealed by foliage into a thorny bramble. With blood oozing from scratches to my forehead and chin, I emerged sheepishly with a handful of blackberries -- and one stuck in my ear.

One day, we four middle-aged men rebelliously doffed our helmets and rode gloriously and illegally bare-headed in the sunlight, wind streaming through the remains of our hair -- for all of about 15 minutes. We were not that rebellious.

Later, we stopped in the shadow of Ben Bulben Mountain to pay our respects to the bard, W.B. Yeats, who won the Nobel Prize for poetry in 1923. We visited him at St. Columba's Parish Church at Drumcliffe in County Sligo, read poetry over his grave and toasted him with Irish whisky.

Yeats' self-written epitaph seemed to speak to us: "Cast a cold eye on life, on death. Horseman, pass by." We mounted our metal steeds and rode on to seek our own meaning of life and what lies beyond.

And to borrow a lyric from a popular Irish band, we still haven't found what we're looking for.


-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 23, 2011 D1

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