Coasting in the counties

Something about the Derry Independent Hostel here made me suspect from the start that I might not fit in.

Maybe it was Doris, the plump, 20ish manager clad in a camisole on a day that couldn't have been more than 70 degrees. Maybe it was the strum of a guitar from the room next to ours.

When I walked into the courtyard for the all-you-can-eat barbecue, my suspicions were confirmed. I fit in like a soccer mom at a frat party.

I crept between the picnic tables to my husband. Bob, my spouse, was completely at ease with the Dutch and Swiss men who looked barely old enough to drink. Kevin, my 10-year-old son, was equally oblivious to the generation gap. He was in the alley behind the hostel playing soccer with a Dane in his 20s.

I tried to break the ice, and in no time I was swapping travel stories with the frat boys as easily as I do with members of my own baby boomer generation.

My husband, son and I have stayed in hostels in California, France and Spain, and we have grown to love them. At first, we were drawn by their low cost; Irish hostels typically charge a quarter to half as much as hotels. Yet it's not the savings but the camaraderie of kindred spirits from around the world that has us hooked.With their communal kitchens and cozy lounges, hostels foster conversation with other travelers in a way that impersonal hotels can't.

We were driving around Ireland last summer mostly looking for waves — for surfing. Bob sees no point in traveling more than a couple of hours from our Florida home if the trip doesn't include a surfboard. (OK, so it's not Hawaii, but some of Ireland's best surf spots were featured in the 2003 documentary "Step Into Liquid.")

Our 25-day Irish hostel-hopping journey began, oddly enough, in a luxurious "holiday apartment" that would have cost us more than $750 a week if we had paid for it. But I had arranged an exchange through HomeLink International, a worldwide club that enables members to trade homes. Tom and Mary Carr offered us their time share in Westport, 165 miles west of Dublin, in return for a stay in our Florida home.

I eagerly anticipated a roomy apartment, where Bob and I would have our own bedroom and bath, in a picturesque town. But Westport was a letdown, offering little more than a collection of pubs, restaurants and tourist shops. Although we had planned to stay two weeks, we rented a car and hit the road several days sooner.

We headed to County Donegal to Gallagher's Farm Hostel, a converted old stone barn in the small farming town of Bruckless. Gallagher's had no family rooms, only a couple of connecting dorms with several bunks each, and I wondered whether snorers would keep us awake. But our only dorm mates turned out to be quiet siblings from France.

We spent one night there before crossing the border into Northern Ireland and to Londonderry, scene of much of Ireland's separatist violence.

The one place I had to visit was the Bloody Sunday Memorial. Until I started reading my guidebook, all I knew about the 1972 killing of 14 unarmed demonstrators came from U2's song "Sunday Bloody Sunday."

I didn't realize until I saw the memorial that half the victims were younger than 20. What really made the violent confrontation come alive was the nearby work of the Bogside Artists, a trio from the Roman Catholic neighborhood where the shootings took place. They captured scenes from Bloody Sunday and other Republican demonstrations in three-story murals.

We left Londonderry the next morning, driving east for Northern Ireland's rugged Antrim Coast. A young Aussie at the Derry hostel told us that Downhill Hostel near Coleraine was his favorite. It became ours too.

Its location alone was enough to hook Bob. The three-story Victorian house is at the base of a cliff, only a couple of hundred yards from the beach. When we arrived, the waves were small, but Bob couldn't resist them. Neither could Kevin, who is just learning to surf. He rented a wet suit at the hostel and joined his father in the icy waters for an hour or two.

I relished Downhill's homey touches, which are usually reserved for pricier B&Bs — the patchwork quilts, mahogany wardrobe, paintings on the walls. Its ambience set Downhill Hostel apart from other hostels we've stayed in, but it was the warmth of owners William and McCall Gilfillan that made it special. One of my fondest memories from our trip is of the night we spent in the lounge sipping wine and sharing stories with the Gilfillans and several guests.

Gone surfing

Leaving Downhill, we went southwest back into the Republic and the big-surf Atlantic Ocean beaches of County Clare.

Our first two nights in County Clare, we stayed at Lahinch Hostel, which was surprisingly drab for a lively surf town. But while eating yet another bowl of Alpen cereal in the hostel kitchen, I met an Irishman who suggested we visit the cliffs of Kilkee.

We had avoided the touristy cliffs of Moher when we saw the parking lot full of cars and buses. But Kilkee's cliffs are probably as spectacular, with their stacks and arches rising out of the sea — and we didn't pass more than another car or two.

Our second day in Lahinch, we took a half-hour drive to Doolin, where I fell in love with the quaint seaside town renowned for its traditional Irish music. So we left Lahinch for Doolin, where I was as charmed by Aille River Hostel. Several guests mingled outside early in the afternoon, a time guests at most hostels are out sightseeing. Inside, shelves of books and games, a cast-iron stove and hand-hewn rocking chairs were inviting.

Before leaving Doolin, Bob and I were determined to take in one session of live Celtic music, so we talked Kevin into accompanying us to O'Connor's, one of three Doolin pubs known for its traditional sessions. I had thought traditional musicians played there all evening, but when I walked in at 8 p.m., I heard a man singing "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown." By the time the Celtic band took the stage 1 1/2 hours later, we were back at the hostel, chatting with a family from Michigan.

On our last day in Doolin, Bob headed out to surf — the waves were 10 feet high, by far the biggest of the trip — so he squeezed into his wet suit to catch a few before we headed inland to the Jamaica Inn in Sixmilebridge.

To many travelers, Sixmilebridge is no more than a place to spend the night near Shannon Airport. To us, it's the place we saw one of the best traditional quartets in Ireland. Never mind that it was the only one we saw. The guitarist, accordionist, fiddler and banjo player were lively enough to please even Kevin.

Our family spent 25 days in Ireland without visiting the Waterford Crystal factory, giving the Blarney Stone a peck or taking the Guinness brewery tour. But our son brought home seven books a hostel owner had given him. And I scrambled outside Downhill Hostel one morning trying to grab a neighboring farmer's sheep that had escaped.

Try doing that at a Holiday Inn.



Dorms and more


From LAX, nonstop service to Dublin is offered on Aer Lingus, and connecting service (change of planes) is offered on Air Canada, British, Delta, US Airways, Lufthansa, Continental, British Virgin and United.

To Shannon, connecting service from LAX is offered on Delta, Continental, US Airways, Air Canada, Aer Lingus, American, British and United.

Restricted round-trip fares to both airports begin at $788.


Most hostels we stayed in were privately owned members of the Independent Holiday Hostels of Ireland, .

Derry Independent Hostel, 44 Great James St., Londonderry, Northern Ireland; 011-44-28-7137-7989, . Dorm $19 per person; private room $51 double.

Gallagher's Farm Hostel, Darney, Bruckless, County Donegal, Ireland; 011-353-74-973-7057. Dorm from $15.50 per person.

Downhill Hostel, 12 Mussenden Road, Downhill, Coleraine, Northern Ireland; 011-44-28-7084-9077, . Dorm $15 per person; private room $45.50 double.

Lahinch Hostel, Church Street, Lahinch, County Clare, Ireland; 011-353-65-7081-0400, . Dorm $18.50 per person; private room $43 double.

Aille River Hostel, Doolin, County Clare, Ireland; 011-353-65-707-4260,{tilde}ailleriver . Dorm $15.50 per person; private room $38 double.

Jamaica Inn, Sixmilebridge, County Clare, Ireland; 011-353-61-369-220, . Dorm $20 per person; private room $62 double.


The Towers, on the Quay, Westport; 011-353-98-26534. This quaint stone Tudor-style restaurant and pub specializes in seafood. Entrees $11-$22.

McGann's Pub, Roadford, Doolin; 011-353-65-707-4133,{tilde}mcgannsdoolin . Big rustic eatery serving Guinness stew and other Irish favorites. Entrees $4-$20.

La Sabbia Restaurant, Bay View Ave- nue, Bundoran; 011-353-71-984-2253, . We drove twice for La Sabbia's wonderful Italian and seafood dinners. Entrees $10.50-$27.


Tourism Ireland, (800) 223-6470, .

HomeLink International, (800) 638-3841, .

— Cynthia Washam