Riding trains, and sampling craft beers in Ireland.

IMG_2557   A very brief compendium of interesting trains, and refreshing stopovers (March 2015).

Trains around Ireland:

Touring Ireland by train presents a transportation dilemma–trains serve the main cities and towns, but much of what makes a trip there interesting (scenery, ancient ruins, craggy coastlines) is way off the train network. On the other hand, driving around Ireland is hardly a vacation–the roads are narrow and winding, and the speed limits are low.

After substantial service cutbacks in the 1960s and 1970s, and lesser ones in the 1990s, Irish Rail has been on a pretty stable keel for the last ten or so years. Dublin is the center point of the rail system–from there, there’s frequent service to Cork, Galway and several other smaller cities. The high-speed Enterprise train connects Dublin and Belfast, and from Belfast, Translink (Northern Irish Railways) operate frequent service to Londonderry, as well as suburban trains. Service on the lines is primarily operated with modern diesel multiple unit equipment, though you’ll see push-pull sets on the Enterprise train, and on many Dublin-Cork trains. For Irish Rail tickets,  the cheapest way to purchase them is to buy them on the web a few days ahead. Pay using a credit card, and pick up your ticket from vending machines located in most stations before you depart. Translink recently introduced the MLink iPhone app– which makes it possible to purchase point-to-point tickets good for the entire day in advance of your trip, at a substantial discount using PayPal.

For wayside scenery and architecture, the Enterprise Line tops the list, followed by the Belfast-Londonderry line. Both lines feature sweeping views of the coastline, craggy hills, old fishing villages–and some interesting pints along the way if you have the time to make a stopover.  Giant’s Causeway (a volcanically-formed seacoast vista featuring black hexagon-shaped basalt stones that resemble paving stones) is an easy side trip from the Colerain train station on the Londonderry line, which can be visited using connecting Translink buses. Pay attention to the bus schedules, as missed connections may leave you cooling your heels for couple of hours.

Belfast eats: The farm-to-table restaurant Made in Belfast offers amazing food in a funky, eclectic decor (they have two locations which are pretty similar). Like many restaurants in Ireland, they have few draft taps but mostly serve beers in bottles from the fridge. Mourne Seafood is often rated as Belfast’s top restaurant, and deservedly so. Strangely, until recently, seafood was just not trendy in Ireland—it was view as something eaten for lent, or food for the poor. With the ascendancy of the slow food movement (Cork chef Myrtle Allen is often celebrated as the godmother of the movement), culinary interest in the Irish fishing and shellfish industry is on the rise. Belfast oysters are big and ugly, but tender and slightly briny, and also a good deal when you can find them.

IMG_2529 A couple of Pubs in Belfast really stand out: The Woodworkers, a new craft beer oriented pub in the vicinity of the Botanic train station is attached to a beer bottle shop, and offers an amazing selection of bottle beers along with rotating draft taps. The Sunflower Pub, a small, cozy pub hiding behind the library with a surprising assortment of local beers in bottles along with a handpump and a few taps. Most evenings, there’s frequently musical performance (folk, or trad sessions depending on the night).

 

  IMG_2530Belfast Beers: Belfast has two co-op owned breweries of note: Farmageddon – who gets a special mention for their slightly sour and liquorice-noted India Export Porter. Also the soon-to-open Boundary Brewing, under the supervision of brewer and former West Coast US resident Matthew Dick, they’re IMG_2558planning both IPA and American Pale Ale style beers. Hilden Brewing in Lisburn makes some great beer, and has a restaurant and brewery tour that can easily be accessed by train. Everything they make is good.

Dublin Pubs: The Harbour Bar, Lonely Planet’s “Best Pub on the Planet” is a short train ride from downtown Dublin on the DART commuter rail system, very close to the Bray station. It’s pretty indescribable— rooms decorated with 1960s furniture, nautical chachkies, and pub furniture that goes way back. The locals are equally eclectic, and the team of trained housecats will entertain you. Beer selection is excellent. L. Mulligan, Grocer, on Stoneybatter St., is Northside Dublin’s premier craft beer pub, and features an excellent menu of farm-to-table fare. Honorable mentions to W.J. Kavanaugh’s, The Beerhouse, and The Back Page who are emerging as reliable places for craft beer in Northside Dublin.

IMG_2610Dublin Beers: There is so much craft beer in Dublin these days, there now exist a few pubs that do not serve Guinness. Irish-made beers from breweries such as N17, 8 Degrees, Wicklow Wolf, Brown Paper Bag Project, White Gypsy, and Franciscan Well continue to make marketing headway, and deservedly so. The craft beer scene is similar to where things were in the US in the 1990s (some beers truly great, and brewers having to work around supply problems with hops). Spending your night looking for a “perfect pint of Guinness”—that’s about as meaningful as spending a night in a supermarket produce section looking for a perfect mushroom. Be sure to ask about bottled beer—much of Ireland’s craft beer production gets bottled, which is easier for the retailers and the supply chains to handle. Also, there’s a lot beer made as a limited run—given the small breweries and the difficulties getting hops, brewers tend to rotate their production, just a farm-to-table restaurants adjust their menus to take advantage of what’s available at the market on a given day.

2 comments to Riding trains, and sampling craft beers in Ireland.

  • Ray Cooney

    What a great write up! I loved it!

    • Tom

      Thanks, Ray. The deal with Ulster Rail (Translink) and their MLink app makes getting around Northern Ireland both convenient and inexpensive. MLink fares are good all day, and permit stopovers at intermediate points, so a person heading to Londonderry could stop off at Colerain, have lunch at Bushmills (via a Translink bus–that would be an extra charge), and get back on and finish their trip.

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