Posted by: chiarraigrrl | May 31, 2011

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly – A Week’s Holiday in Galway

The Good…

Beach and Famine Memorial Salthill Galway

We took a train down to Galway on Saturday the 14th of May and checked in to the Galway Bay Hotel in Salthill for 5 nights. We were fairly pleased on checking in- we had gotten the room with a view of the bay that we requested, and there was a lovely conservatory where my mother planned having a quiet afternoon in the sunshine doing some needlework. I took off on a walk with the camera along the Promenade, and ended up strolling along the coast in to the Claddagh. While I was crouched taking photos of the swans in the Claddagh, a local man came over and said if you wanted a close-up of the swans, the barriers across the ramp down to the water were to keep the swans from wandering up, not to stop people wandering down to the water, which I thought was nice of him. We had booked dinner at 7pm, so I turned back and headed for the hotel. Dinner that evening was fine – we had chosen the Galway Bay Hotel and gotten the dinner package partly because they have lobster on the menu, and my mother was really looking forward to it. They didn’t seem too familiar with how one might eat lobster- there was no lobster fork or nutcracker provided, and when my mother asked for melted butter with it she got an odd look (lobster is generally fairly simple- boil it, stick it on a plate with a small container of melted butter on the side and provide a finger bowl/hand wipes) but they did as she requested, so she was happy with that. We had a window seat (a bit crowded because they seemed to crowbar more tables into the window space than it could comfortably accommodate- the dining room was quite big and not full) with a view out to the ocean, and splurged on lovely desserts, so went away reasonably happy.

One of the best things we did on our trip was to take two of the tours offered by the Galway Tour Company, which were fantastic. Up early Monday morning to get in to the coach station (not to be confused with Ceannt Station, where Bus Eireann arrive and depart), where things fell apart a little bit- we were very early for the tour (which was scheduled to depart at 10am) at 9.20am, so when people started gathering at the gate we stood up to join the front of the queue. The bus pulled up and they signaled people to get on the bus- and it was only after we were settled in our seats and the driver started giving out brochures that we discovered this was not, in fact, the Connemara and Cong tour we were looking forward to that day. Off the bus with us until they said we could get on the other bus at the next gate (which was actually a nicer, newer bus). At this point my mother was understandably a bit annoyed, given that we were now departing about 25 minutes late and there had been the kerfluffle with the buses. That said, the tour itself was excellent. The route took us up around the east side of Lough Corrib to Headford, where we turned off the main road to take in Ross Errily Friary, which was an incredible sight rising up out of the surrounding farmland. Having had a short tour of the site and taken photos to our heart’s content, we headed off again. The road in and out of Ross Errily Friary was a bit of a tight squeeze in the bigger bus, and there was much joviality especially with the American passengers joking about the tight fit (much “We have faith in you!” “Can we give it a go?” etc). Safely back on the road, we headed for Cong, which my family and I had visited years ago, and we were curious to see how the town had changed since our last visit. I’m delighted to report that a wonderful little coffeeshop (and an art space!) has opened in the village, and we had scones and muffins and excellent coffee at a window table looking out to the river.
Molly Blooms Coffee Shop Cong Co. Mayo 16 May
After a nice little break, it was back on the bus and up around Lough Nafooey (love the name) and through “Joyce Country” via Leenane, past peat bogs and west to Kylemore Abbey. I’m not a huge fan of the abbey- seems like an overpriced tourist trap to pay for the nuns that used to run an expensive school on the site- and we didn’t bother paying in to the grounds, choosing to have a leisurely lunch and take a few photos by the lake. We weren’t half irritated, either, by the fact that one of the nuns was discussing with a man who was presumably an administrator about putting the prices up for the summer- I think €5 for a pre-made packaged (and not particularly good) sandwich is already a ripoff, thanks anyway. The trip back took in the Inagh Valley, which was gorgeous, through Recess and Maam Cross before a very quick stop to peer over at the bridge where much of “The Quiet Man” was filmed. On through Oughterard, which looked lovely, before heading back to Galway. The tour took in a good few highlights that weren’t on the other tours, and our driver, Gary, was friendly and full of information.

On the Tuesday we had booked the Cliffs of Moher & The Burren tour, again with Galway Tour Company (who rock). We had discovered at the end of the Connemara tour that they collected people from their hotels, and when I asked if they’d collect from the Galway Bay Hotel (even though it’s in Salthill) they said that was fine and someone would be by to get us in the morning, which I think is a great service. We were dutifully out at the gate at 9.30 and promptly collected by the coach going into town. There was a bit of confusion at the coach station as to which buses were going to the Cliffs of Moher (they ended up sending 3 buses to the Cliffs of Moher that day, and one to Connemara) but they handled it very well and our driver Ray had most of us laughing by the time we were settled and on our way to the Burren. After passing through Oranmore (I can never even read the name of the village without having “The Galway Shawl” stuck in my head) with a story (of course), the first real highlight was a quick stop at Dunguaire Castle- but as the tide was out Ray said we’d do a proper stop on the way back for more impressive photographs (an excellent decision, as it turned out). We stopped for a few minutes in Ballyvaughan, which looked like a lovely village, and had a look around the Ballyalban earthen ring fort before I was able to add another dolmen to “my collection” at Poulnabrone Dolmen, which is pretty spectacular (though none will dislodge the Brownshill Dolmen in Co. Carlow as my favourite). The rain had started at this point so we were glad to get back on the warm dry bus and head onwards for a look at the Caherconnell stone fort and Leamanagh Castle complete with the story of Maire Rua O’Brien. Next stop was at Kilfenora for a good look at the high crosses, including the famous High Cross of Doorty, which was impressive. Ray gave us a choice as to where we’d like to have our lunch, which was a nice touch- we could go straight to the Cliffs of Moher and have (overpriced) lunch at the visitor centre, or we could swing by Doolin for lunch with large portions and reasonable prices in a local pub. Naturally we all picked lunch in Gus O’Connor’s pub in Doolin, which was excellent- Ray had rung ahead to make arrangements, and they were ready with menus for everyone when we arrived. The food was delicious, service was prompt and friendly and prices were reasonable. Two thumbs up. On to the Cliffs of Moher, but the mist was coming in off the ocean so we had a couple of minutes of view of the cliffs before they were shrouded in mist. It did make O’Brien’s tower look particularly spooky, though, and Galway Tour Company provided vouchers to get in to the visitor centre. We had been to the Cliffs of Moher before, and I actually think Sliabh Liag in Co. Donegal is a better one to visit if you’re interested in sea cliffs- Sliabh Liag is the second highest sea cliff in Europe, whereas the Cliffs of Moher is a set of sea cliffs that cost at least €6 to see (plus more for the visitor “experience”, I think). To make it up to people who had never been to the Cliffs before, though, the tour was slightly extended to include a stop at the “baby cliffs” down the road, which were at least as beautiful as the Cliffs on a good day, so it was well worth it. The rest of the tour took us around through Fanore and by Gleninagh Castle before our promised photo stop at Dunguaire Castle, which was even more impressive when the tide had come in:
Dunguaire castle 6
The return journey was accompanied by a few songs from Ray and a roundup of the day before he dropped several of us back to our various hotels. Would highly recommend the day tours with the Galway Tour Company- really enjoyed both days.

On the Wednesday I took off to Inis Mór for the afternoon – I had done some comparisons of different offers and a tour to Inis Mór (including ferry and coach both sides) was available for €45; if you booked the ferry (€25), connecting shuttle bus (€7) and a minibus tour of the island all separately, it would save you €3 (every little counts; that nearly covered lunch! Checking the Aran Island Ferries website, apparently you can save a further 10% if you book the ferry online, and the OAP free travel pass is accepted) so that’s what I decided to do. The shuttle bus departed from near the Victoria Hotel (there was no sign, but I was lurking in the right general area and the driver came over to ask if I was looking for the Aran Islands shuttle) to go out to Rossaveal, where the ferry departs. The coach was pleasant enough- a few locals catching up on the news, and a few other tourists- and the ferry itself was lovely and modern. A group of schoolchildren were sitting on the lower (interior) deck and whenever we hit a wave they’d yelp, which created a fair bit of amusement. At the dock when we were getting on the ferry there were a few businesses from Inis Mór that were passing out flyers for their services, and I had a good look at the one from Man of Aran tours offering a minibus tour of the island. I had originally been planning to hire a bicycle, but it was a cold windy day despite the sunshine and I haven’t been on a bike in years, so after perusing the flyer (and working out the distances involved) I decided the most sensible option would be to join the minibus tour. It turned out to be an excellent choice – the driver was chatty and regaled us with local information, and we took in most of the island in the space of an afternoon and were back at Kilronan for the ferry in plenty of time for the 5pm departure. Had a lovely lunch at Dun Aonghusa (at the crafty area at the base of the path up), got loads of photographs of Dun Aonghusa, the Seven Churches and the leprechaun houses that are in front of many of the houses on the island; and thoroughly enjoyed my first visit to the Aran Islands.

When I got back to Salthill my mother wasn’t able to join me for dinner, so I ventured in to the village itself to check out a little Italian restaurant, L’Osteria da Roberta, that I had found on a wander a few days previous. It was absolutely wonderful- beautifully decorated, delicious food, excellent service and reasonable prices that would fit any budget. It wasn’t the sort of place where you’d have to worry about what you were wearing, either; and I was particularly impressed with the waitress, who started chatting with a family in French when she overheard that they were from France (she also had fluent English and was from Italy. Impressive). I brought d’mammy along on Thursday evening and it was an equally excellent experience- would highly recommend it.

On the Friday afternoon I decided to take a boat tour of the River Corrib and part of Lough Corrib on board the Corrib Princess. The boat was a bit on the “antique” side but nicely maintained, and I sat upstairs for the journey out so as to get a few photographs. While it was a bright sunny day, it was cold out on the water with the wind whipping around the boat, so I was glad when we turned around to head back and I headed downstairs to warm up with a coffee. It was a great tour though- took in a number of impressive sights along the river, and the guide gave an excellent commentary. Well worth it.

…The Bad and the Ugly…

Sadly, there were a number of incidents during our week’s holiday in Galway that meant that we won’t be back – I’m glad we went, and enjoyed the tours above, but otherwise… There were a number of things that went wrong that could so easily have been prevented/done better and made our stay so much better. On the Saturday afternoon and the Sunday, my mother was hoping to have a quiet few hours doing her needlework in the conservatory, looking out at Galway bay. It sounds ideal- theoretically. Unfortunately, there were a few first communion celebrations that weekend- which in Ireland these days apparently means effectively a wedding reception for these 7-year-old kids (one girl had 3 different communion dresses which she changed into at various points in the day. I’ve never seen anything like it). They were staying for the weekend, and the crowds of small children did not seem to be under any sort of control whatsoever. They were running back and forth around the hotel lobby and conservatory all afternoon, screaming and causing a ruckus. Fine if you’re at a playground- not so fine at a four-star hotel where there are other guests trying to have a restful holiday. Not one parent looked up from their drinks and one-upmanship discussion of foreign holidays to tell them to keep it down, either, and nor did the management of the Galway Bay Hotel. Not conducive to a restful afternoon, that’s for sure.

Then there was that dinner package. On the Sunday night, we went in to the restaurant for our 7pm dinner booking. Had lovely starters, and my mother ordered the lobster (since she’d been looking forward to it, she was planning to have it each night for our dinner- it’s been quite some time since we could get decent lobster), exactly the same as the previous night (which had been perfect, don’t forget). Our dinners arrived… and her lobster looked like some sort of seafood roadkill. They had cut the lobster in half, turned it upside down and smothered it in a salsa-tomato sauce –not how most lobster fans like to have their lobster, and certainly not how my mother ordered it. So she politely told the waitress that this was not how she had ordered her lobster to be prepared, and asked for a fresh one to be cooked the way she had ordered it- a perfectly reasonable request (and bear in mind we were prepared to wait the additional 45 minutes for a fresh one to be cooked properly). First the waitress disagreed that this wasn’t how she ordered it, and then when my mother continued to request a fresh lobster prepared the way she had ordered it, the restaurant manager came out to argue with her, attempting to convince her that effectively she didn’t want them to cook a fresh one. All she wanted was a simple, boiled lobster. When the restaurant manager came out and argued with her (which I’ve never seen happen before in my life- what happened to the customer is always right? This is not four-star service) I saw red and jumped in to the discussion (I could understand if they had gotten it wrong the first night. Fine. But to get it wrong the second night, and then to argue with her? Not fine.). We managed to convince them that she did, in fact, want a fresh lobster- and about 10-15 minutes later the waitress reappeared with a “fresh” lobster… which looked like exactly the same lobster that had been brought out the first time but with the salsa-tomato sauce scraped off it. It was cold, too – lobster is especially impossible to eat cold. After a few bites she gave up, and we went to the desk to complain and ask for the general manager’s name and details. First they offered to have us speak to the Deputy General Manager, who was in, but we had asked for the General Manager’s details – we got his name, and were promised that they’d drop his card up to our room. They didn’t drop it up that evening – but the next day when we came back from our tour they had left a tray with a couple of bottles of wine and a plate of desserts together with a plate of apples with the General Manager’s card in it. Nice touch – but all we wanted was a boiled lobster, not an argument and a fuss. Not only were we then the “problem guests” for the rest of the week (members of staff we had never dealt with had clearly had us pointed out to them and were going out of their way to say hi, etc) and felt like we were under a microscope for the rest of the week, but the tray wasn’t taken away until we requested coffee sachets the next evening and asked him to take away the tray while he was there. We don’t drink wine and weren’t really interested in the desserts, so it was a bit unappealing to be seeing that more than 24 hours later. The lobster Monday night was alright, but by Tuesday night we started to feel really under the microscope as many of the other diners didn’t appear to have ever seen anyone eat a lobster before, and the seafood chowder and lobster dinner that was pleasant enough the night before wasn’t quite as enjoyable. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a bad idea altogether, as my mom got food-induced sickness (and she never gets sick to her stomach) and wasn’t able to do much on the Wednesday. We were also disappointed to discover that the children in the restaurant were no better behaved than the kids from the first communions – running around their tables, banging tunelessly on the grand piano in the middle of the room. Not the most pleasant atmosphere for dining.

By the Wednesday morning, we also noticed that the water glasses seemed to have a whiff of Dove soap off them and weren’t properly washed – and some mornings weren’t moved at all when housekeeping came in to do up the room. My mother asked about for fresh glasses – and rather than simply send fresh, properly cleaned water glasses up to our room, the woman at reception explained that they hand washed the water glasses in the bathroom sink. That’s not hygienic – and it’s not like there’s not a dishwasher in the building. Once something goes wrong, you start to really notice other things, too – like the fact that the loo roll and tissues were the cheapest grade available (despite paying four-star prices for the accommodation), and the trays at the breakfast buffet weren’t even washed between uses, as there were clearly foodstuffs spilled on them (never mind that we expected breakfast to be normal service, not a buffet, it being a four-star hotel).

We moved to the Westwood House Hotel on the Thursday afternoon, which at first we thought was a blessing. We checked in, having booked a room with a double and a single bed (since they don’t have rooms with two double beds)… and when we got up to our room were somewhat surprised to discover a “superior” room with two single beds and what we discovered were the hardest pillows I have ever slept on in my life (they hurt the cartilage of my ears. I have never had that happen), with barely enough space between the end of the beds and the “dressing table” to walk by. I didn’t say anything, as my mother had booked the room, and after the week we’d had she decided at that point to let it go. The next day when we were going out to try to take the “hop-on hop-off tour” (which only runs once every hour and a half between 10.30am and 3pm, so if you want to hop off and hop on again you’d better get up early, and bring a book for the wait until the next bus comes.) and decided to put the sign on the door asking that our room be made up while we were out, so that it would be done when my mother went back early that afternoon. The hop-on hop-off tour was a bit disappointing, even taking into account the fact that you couldn’t really hop off and hope to hop back on again any time soon – the bus turned out to be filthy- there was stuff spilled on the backs of the seats that had clearly been there for quite some time. We enquired about how often they cleaned it and the driver tried to claim that they were very difficult to keep even the lower level clean due to the open top. Likely story. After the “hop-on hop-off” tour I went on the boat tour on the Corrib Princess and my mother headed back to the hotel for a relaxing afternoon. Unfortunately, that was not to be – when she returned our room hadn’t been cleaned, so she got her needlework and sat down in the conservatory area beside the lobby. When it still hadn’t been cleaned by 3.30pm, she enquired at reception as to when it might be done. The receptionist told her that the housekeeping staff were “probably on the floor” (they had been on the floor when we left that morning) and “would get to it when they got to it”. Unbelievable. Needless to say this irritated my mother enough to ask about our room, as the room we had wasn’t what we had booked. The receptionist then tried to claim that we had been “upgraded” (if that’s an upgrade…) and that it was a king-size bed. Two single beds do not a king-size bed make, even pushed together. My mother asked for the room we had booked, which turned out not to be available, so she then asked for a room that wasn’t the “upgrade”. The receptionist found one for us, and then turned around to my mother to tell her that she’d have to pack our stuff immediately so that housekeeping could get in to clean the room. (If she had sent housekeeping in in the first place…).

Because the buses tended to be relatively infrequent, we took a number of taxis while we were in Galway so as not to waste our entire holiday sitting at bus stops. Unfortunately, the majority of the taxis we took didn’t seem to have been cleaned in some time (a couple of them had ripped upholstery and at least one smelled like someone had been sick in it and it had never been cleaned, just dried), had the meters positioned in such a way that it was difficult for back-seat passengers to actually see it, and apart from the first taxi from the train station to our hotel we were generally charged an additional €3 charge that was never explained properly (on the receipts it’s merely listed as “extras”). One driver didn’t even acknowledge us- was on the phone the whole time, merely half-turning his head for us to tell him our destination and then sticking his hand out for payment – without even telling us how much was due – when we got there.

Eyre Square was a major disappointment, too. Most of the buildings looked desperately in need of at least a lick of paint, there was litter everywhere (we didn’t see a single street cleaner during the whole week in Galway) and it just looked awful. We stopped in to the Skeffington Arms Hotel around 4pm one afternoon for coffee and the bartender acted like we were lucky to get coffee and there wasn’t a hope of a scone or some sort of sweet at that hour of the day. And one afternoon when we were trying to get information about the hop-on hop-off buses the tourist information kiosk in Eyre Square wasn’t even open, which is really helpful for any tourists around.

All in all, I’m glad we went, but I won’t be bothering going back to Galway. It’s a terrible shame, but if tourism is one of the big hopes for recovery in this country they’ll have to do better than that. Prices are incredibly high (multiply everything by 1.5 to get the amount in US$, for American tourists- prepare to be shocked) and service overall was poor, apart from the Galway Tour Company and the Italian restaurant in Salthill. Disappointing, because it could easily be so much better…

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