Ireland has been calling my name for more than 15 years. I'm fascinated by the Celtic culture: the music, the dancing, the delicate art of Celtic knot work, the language of a people dating back thousands of years. The land itself is captivating in its juxtaposition of quiet green hills that meet the wild sea at a jagged coastline. As luck would have it, a visit to the Emerald Isle presented an opportunity to test drive the new 2010 Range Rover Sport HSE turbodiesel, an engine we don't expect to see in the U.S. any time soon.
Since in Ireland one drives on the left side of the road, the V-6 diesel Rover is a right-hand drive. Navigating unfamiliar routes is nerve-wracking enough without the added challenge of adjusting to the vehicle layout. Pedal placement is the same, but the shift knob on my left has thrown me off a bit. I'm thankful the Rover Sport HSE is equipped with a six-speed automatic transmission, with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters, reducing awkward left-handed shifts. Also to my left is the center stack, which takes on a refreshingly simple appearance this year, with a claimed 50 percent fewer buttons and knobs than in the previous generation. The center console includes an iPod-dedicated input cord and contains a small cooler for drinks and snacks. Combined with the newly sculpted leather seats, the Range Rover Sport HSE is promising to be a great road-trip vehicle.
The streets of Dublin, like those of many other European cities, weren't built with the modern SUV in mind. Amid a sea of Opels, Vauxhalls, Citroens, and Fiats, the Range Rover is a giant, towering over the microcars that dominate the old narrow roads. The Rover fills the lane and often spills over the lines of curbside parking spaces. Most parking structures are only just tall enough for the Rover to squeeze into. Plenty of passersby and fellow drivers on the road give the Range Rover Sport a long second look, which could easily be as much for the newly designed exterior as for its slightly out-of-place dimensions.
One of the key spots to visit in Dublin (which has ample-size parking) is the Guinness factory and storehouse. Dublin is the hometown of Guinness, first made by Arthur Guinness in the late 18th century at St. James Gate Brewery, for which he signed a 900-year lease. The factory tour gives wonderful insight into the production of Guinness, and house bartenders offer hands-on demonstrations of the correct technique of pouring a pint. The best part, however, is the recently added Gravity Bar at the top floor of the factory, where visitors pick up a complimentary pint of Guinness Draught and enjoy 360-degree views of Dublin.
Luckily, the Range Rover Sport comes equipped with a navigation system, as I would otherwise be lost driving through the city. Placement of street signs and the network of roadways can be confusing for foreigners, but the Rover is unfazed. With an ever-so-polite British voice (sad to say, an Irish brogue is not offered), the GPS guides me to my next destination: Trinity College, which holds the Book of Kells. My walk from the parking garage to the college takes me through the shopping quarter of St. Stephen's Green along Grafton Street. The streets are bustling with tourists and students and are peppered with street performers as well, playing flute, harp, or guitar. The art and history surrounding that small area of the city are overwhelming.
After three days in Dublin, enjoying local food, history, architecture, and landscape, it's time to hit the road. Departing the city, the 242-horsepower, 443-pound-foot twin-turbodiesel canters along smoothly and powerfully. For most driving, the torquey V-6 uses the larger turbo independently to reduce fuel consumption. When passing maneuvers are called for, however, the secondary turbo kicks in at 2500 rpm to deliver the full brunt of the Rover's power. This diesel is quite the refined workhorse, muscling through the miles with seemingly little effort.
Only an hour or so southwest of Dublin, among the rolling green Irish countryside, sit the ruins of Kells Priory. This monastic site of worship, built in the late 12th century, is a serene collection of stone ruins nestled on three acres of lush fields dotted with grazing sheep. The gothic arches of the now-roofless church captivate me for hours, as I can't soak up enough of the lichen-stained rock walls and grave markers.
I relish the history and simplicity of these ancient ruins, but also delight in returning to the modern comforts of the Range Rover as the afternoon becomes chilly, and I switch on the seat warmers. The sky has grown dark by the time I reach Cork, but the Rover's new LED-ringed bi-Xenon headlamps have illuminated the road like a searchlight.
The most appealing part of Cork, aside from the English Market and the town's seaside location, is in the nearby town of Blarney whose castle is the home of the famed Blarney Stone. After climbing 100 stone steps up the narrow spiral staircase that leads to small rooms and corridors as it travels upward, a visitor is rewarded with the experience of lying down on the stone floor at the top of the castle and hanging his torso backward over the edge to kiss the Blarney Stone, which claims to offer the gift of eloquence. As I hang upside down off the edge to kiss the smooth, rain-moistened stone, I try not to pay attention to the four-story drop to the ground below. Thank goodness for the tour guide holding onto my legs!
The gardens surrounding Blarney Castle are as interesting as the architecture and history of the castle itself. The grounds seem to go on forever, as the castle sits perched on 60 acres of lush greenery, forests filled with witches' lore and Druid circles and gardens that played host to fairy rings. I could easily spend the entire day here.
The rest of my stay in Ireland is in Dingle, a small seaside town on the Dingle Peninsula farther southwest along the coast. A favorite destination for local travelers, Dingle is known not only for its smorgasbord of local arts and crafts, but for its captivating scenery as well. The small harbor filled with fishing boats sets a charming backdrop to the village's quaint shop-lined avenues. The Dingle Peninsula rivals California's Central Coast, its circumnavigating road reminiscent of Highway 1. The Peninsula offers amazing historical spots, including Druid-built stone beehive huts from as early as 400 A.D. and Ogham stones carved with ancient texts.
Dingle boasts some 40 pubs, almost all of which have live music every night. An Droichead Beag (Celtic for "The Little Bridge," referring to the small bridge next to the pub) hosts a particularly talented pair of musicians, a male guitarist and female flutist/violinist. A pint or two of Guinness, a warm fire, and some interesting folks from around the globe make for a lovely evening listening to traditional Celtic music. Dingle really captures the quintessential Ireland I'd been dreaming of all these years. I don't want to leave.
Walking back to my bed-and-breakfast that evening, I catch sight of the Range Rover Sport parked at the curb. Its sleek lines, 20-inch alloy wheels, and newly discovered comforts are tempting me to forget my plane tomorrow and continue on up Ireland's West Coast. There's so much more country to see and certainly more Rover abilities to test. I'll just have to come back next year for another adventure.