As long as the pubs are open.
That was my first thought when I heard Ireland was canceling its St. Patrick’s Day parades this year. My wife, Kellie, and I were sitting in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Monday night, March 9, preparing to spend the next 11 days in Wales and Ireland to celebrate our 20th anniversary, when we heard the disappointing news.
That’s OK, I thought. As long as the pubs are open.
We had been planning this trip for nearly two years. Five days in a castle in Wales, near where I was stationed in the Navy almost 40 years ago. Then six days in Ireland -- four in a town called Wexford, where we would celebrate St. Patty’s Day, and two more in Dublin -- before flying back home.
We knew it would be the trip of a lifetime. And it was. But for a lot of reasons we never anticipated.
Doing our homework
In the weeks leading up to our trip it was hard to ignore all the news about the coronavirus, or COVID-19 as it had been labeled. So we checked with our doctor and travel agent. Is it still safe to go? Are we going to have to cancel?
At the time the only travel alerts were to China, South Korea, Italy and Iran. And while the virus was beginning to spread in the U.S., our doctor said as long as we practiced basic protective measures such as hand washing, like everyone else in the world, he didn’t see any reason why we shouldn’t go.
So we packed up plenty of hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes and headed for the airport. One long, delayed plane ride to London, two trains, one minibus, one taxi, and 21 hours later we arrived in the tiny village of Roch in the county of Pembrokeshire in southwest Wales to begin our four-night stay at Roch Castle.
A royal welcome
Built in 1195 by a Norman knight, Roch Castle stands on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Pembrokeshire landscape and St. Brides Bay. Home to both conquerors and courtesans, it was a royalist stronghold in the British Civil War before being abandoned following an attack by Cromwell’s troops in 1646. It was rebuilt in 1900, and in 2013 restored as a five-star luxury hotel.
All I can say is -- wow! We were literally treated like royalty. There’s only six rooms in the castle and there were only two other couples staying there our first night. We spent our first full day exploring the 10-acre grounds before being shuttled to the sister hotel Twr y Felin in the nearby town of St. Davids, and its award-winning restaurant Blas, which means “taste” in Welsh.
It was here where we experienced the first effects, albeit minor, of COVID-19 on our trip. The owner of Twr y Felin and Blas is a Pembrokeshire native who splits time between his birthplace and Hong Kong. Since he had recently been in Hong Kong, he took it upon himself to instruct his staff to take extra caution, including setting tables only after we had been seated.
Turns out while we were being wined and dined at our anniversary dinner, there was also plenty of news being made back home. And Kellie and I both awoke the next morning, March 12, to a string of texts from friends all asking the same thing.
“Heard travel restrictions for Europe. Does that affect you?"
“Will you guys be able to come home?”
“What are you guys going to do?”
While we were sleeping in a castle in a time zone five hours away, President Donald Trump had issued a Level 3 travel alert for Europe. After a little investigating however, we found it didn’t include the United Kingdom or Ireland, so we went right back to enjoying our trip.
There’s something majestically simple about Pembrokeshire. The countryside is right out of a Tolkien novel, and the people are as friendly and genuine as you’ll ever find. So we spent the next three days enjoying both.
We returned to St. Davids, located on the most westerly point of Wales, and visited St. David’s Cathedral and St. Non’s Chapel and Well. The cathedral dates to the 12th century and is the final resting place of the patron saint of Wales, while St. Non’s Chapel and Well sits about a mile away, high on a cliff overlooking St. Non’s Bay.
According to Christian tradition, St. Non gave birth to St. David during a thunderstorm around the year 500, and the water that fills the well that sprung up at the site is believed to have healing powers.
After hiking a portion of the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path, a 186-mile, mostly cliff-top trail that spans the entire west coast of the county, it was time to hit a pub or two.
Our first stop was The Bishop back in St. Davids, where we rested over a pint of local Newgale ale. Then it was off to The Royal George, a friendly, rambling pub full of locals in the small fishing village of Solva, where I had been known to put down a pint or two as a young sailor.
From the minute we walked in I felt like I had never left. A wiry little guy named Brian welcomed us and I told him I used to be in the U.S. Navy and was a bit of a regular at the Royal George back in the early 1980s.
“Did you know a bloke named Marshall something or other?” he asked, to which I replied no.
“How about a chap named Clampett? We used to call him Jed.”
“Steve Clampett!” I responded. “I was the best man in his wedding after I got out of the Navy!”
Turns out Brian and I had a lot of the same memories of Steve Clampett, and as we chatted more familiar names and stories worked their way into the conversation. We finally concluded we had probably enjoyed a pint or two together at the Royal George all those years ago, and proceeded to pick up right where we left off.
Kellie and I ended our evening with some shepherd's pie and fish and chips at the Cambrian Inn in Solva before returning to Roch Castle, where we found we had the entire castle to ourselves for our final night in Wales.
Off to Ireland and uncertainty
I’m only half-kidding when I say that if my wife wasn’t with me, I could have easily chucked it all and stayed in Wales. I could picture myself as the retired American writer in the Welsh tweed jacket sitting by the fireplace at the Royal George swapping stories with locals over pints of lager. But we had other plans, which included spending St. Patricks’ Day in Ireland, and I wasn’t going to pass that up.
The ferry from Fishguard in northern Pembrokeshire to Rosslare Harbour on Ireland’s southeast coast was a 3 ½ hour trip across St. George’s Channel on the south end of the Irish Sea. The weather didn’t afford much of a view that Saturday, March 14, except for the whitecaps on the sea that explained the pitch and roll of the 489-foot long, 10-deck ship.
It was in the taxi from Rosslare Harbour to Wexford that things started getting dicey. We heard on the radio that Trump had extended the European travel alert to include the United Kingdom and Ireland. Now what were we going to do?
We checked the U.S. Embassy’s website in Dublin and determined we could still finish our trip and fly home that coming Friday, March 20. But things had already started to change in Wexford. Many of the restaurants had voluntarily closed their doors and all the tours had been canceled. But the apartment we were staying in was above a grocery store. And the pubs were still open. So we decided to stick it out.
We ventured out to explore Wexford on Sunday, March 15, and had a wonderful time walking the narrow, winding streets and checking out the little shops and cafes. But the only restaurant we could find was an American-themed bistro called Rob’s Ranch House, where the waitresses wore cowboy hats and old western movies ran on the TVs. So we ended up going all the way to Ireland for a bacon cheeseburger and a Budweiser.
We did find a classic pub called Maggie May’s later that evening, where two local couples welcomed us in typical Irish fashion at their corner table. Then came the news that all the pubs in Ireland were being forced to close indefinitely at 11 p.m.
“All right then,” one of the wives announced. “I guess we’re celebrating St. Patty’s Day tonight!”
By Monday, March 16, we figured we needed to get home. Wexford was shutting down. All the pubs and restaurants had closed, and all the tours had been canceled. And we still had to get to Dublin and had no idea how much longer the trains would run.
We took one last walk around Wexford's nearly deserted streets Monday afternoon, cooked ourselves a meal in our rented apartment that night, and woke to the sounds of every church bell in town ringing in unison on St. Patty’s Day morning.
St. Patty’s Day afternoon we boarded a sparsely populated train for the 2 ½-hour ride to Dublin and were treated to sweeping views of the Irish landscape on one side and unique perspectives of the craggy Irish Sea coastline on the other. It was the last 150 minutes in Ireland that we weren’t thinking about the coronavirus.
It was St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin and there was hardly a soul on the streets. As we departed Connolly Rail Station, our taxi driver, a leprechaun-like Irishman named John O’Meara, pointed out the shuttered city pubs as he drove us to the airport hotel.
“That’s Molloy’s,” he said, as we passed a triangular two-story corner building. “Normally there’d be a big crowd outside singing right now.”
All my life I wanted to be in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day. Now I was there and all the pubs were closed.
Home to a new reality
We had cut our trip short by two days and were heading home on Wednesday, March 18. Up until then neither my wife or I had felt vulnerable to being exposed to the COVID-19 virus. Now we were being crammed onto an airplane with about 280 other people who had been God-knows-where and were who-knows-how healthy. Seemed contradictory to the whole social distancing thing.
As we boarded the plane attendants gave each of us a form that asked three questions:
- Have you had a fever?
- Have you had a cough?
- Have you experienced shortness of breath?
The form also asked for our contact information and where we had been traveling.
Seven-and-a-half hours later we landed at JFK, where we were taken off the plane 10 at a time and greeted directly outside the door by a pair of CDC workers in masks and gowns. One waved a digital thermometer across our foreheads and asked us the same three questions. The other recorded our temperature, collected our forms and handed us a flyer with instructions to self-quarantine for 14 days, as well as take our temperatures twice a day and watch for symptoms.
After a four-hour layover at JFK in New York City, which has become the new epicenter of COVID-19 in the United States, we boarded another packed plane bound for the Twin Cities. As of this writing we’re four days into our 14-day isolation and neither Kellie nor I has displayed any symptoms of COVID-19.
None of this takes away from the fact that we had an awesome trip. It truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, despite the disruptions from the COVID-19 crisis. And now, after nine glorious days together in Wales and Ireland, Kellie and I get to spend another 14 days all alone together at home. But I guess our situation really isn’t that different from what a lot of people are going through right now.
Nobody knows how long this new reality will last, or what the new normal will be once it's passed. Will it be when we can go out to eat again? Or to the movies? Or a concert? Or the gym?
I think for me, it will be when the pubs are open.