Ireland West Tours

I recently hired Jim Parslow from Ireland West Tours for an extended private tour. I’ve taken many tours on the bigger coach buses around Ireland, but was looking for a more intimate experience.

I have found with the coach tours, you don’t get to go off the beaten path, you are always with lots of people, and your time is limited at scheduled stops.

Many times, I just wanted to wander longer and explore the area. I also found myself wishing there weren’t so many people around. I wanted to be able to stop to take photos without feeling rushed, or trying to get a shot without a bunch of other tourists in it.

Ireland West Tours

Connemara road


Ireland West Tours came highly recommended, so I gave Jim a call. We talked about where I’d been in Ireland, prior tours, what my expectations were, and what I wanted out of my private tour.

The most important thing for me was to be able to get out of the car, stop anywhere along the way, without any time constraints. I wanted to feel as if I was driving myself, but without the stress of it.

Just the thought of driving on the “wrong” side, while navigating Irish roads, sends shivers of fear through me…  So, for the time being, I’ve decided not to.

Booking the tour with Ireland West Tours was the perfect solution. I was able to customize the entire trip, plus Jim is also a photographer, so he had some fantastic suggestions that we incorporated into the itinerary. In the end, I decided on exploring more of the Connemara Region, and also invited another photographer to join the tour.

Jim picked us up in Galway, and off we went to our first stop… Aughnanure Castle, a tower house in Oughterard, County Galway.

Ireland West Tours of Aughnanure Castle in County Galway, Ireland

Aughnanure Castle grounds


The castle was built by the O’Flahertys in the 16th century, one of Connacht’s most notable lord families. Although, I had seen other castles in Ireland, this was the first one that I was able to go inside. Jim had arranged a private tour, and we learned the history of Aughnanure as we explored.

Aughnanure Castle in County Galway, Ireland

The path to the castle


Aughnanure Castle Tour by Ireland West Tours

Entry into courtyard of Aughnanure Castle


As you walk up the path to the castle, the ruins of the banquet hall are off to the right. Peering out the windows, you can feel the history oozing from this place. I can only imagine the parties that were held there!

Aughnanure Castle in County Galway, Ireland West Tours

Banquet Hall Windows


Entering the castle, I was surprised by it’s size. I was expecting it to be much larger inside. I hadn’t realized how thick the walls were, and how much space they took up.

Aughnanure Castle in County Galway, Ireland

Inside the castle

Aughnanure Castle in County Galway, Ireland West Tours

Aughnanure Castle Tower House

Aughnanure Castle in County Galway, Ireland West Tours

In the courtyard


After our tour of Aughnanure Castle, we headed over to Maam Cross where we stopped for tea and scones at the Peacockes Hotel restaurant.

The hotel has a viewing tower where you can see 360 degree amazing views of the area.

Ireland West Tours, Connemara

Tower View!


Next to the Peacockes Hotel is a replica cottage from the classic movie “The Quiet Man”. The movie was shot in the West of Ireland, and starred John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, and Barry Fitzgerald. Many of the outdoor scenes were shot in the Maam Valley on the shores of Lough Corrib.

Replica Cottage from Quiet Man movie

“Quiet Man” Replica Cottage


You can tour the inside of the cottage too!

Inside the Replica Cottage of Quiet Man

Step inside the cottage.

Connemara, Ireland

Just across the road from Peacockes Hotel.


Time to move on and see more of Connemara! We had to stop at Derryclare Lough, so I could grab a photo of Pine Island.  It’s absolutely gorgeous with the Connemara Mountains as it’s backdrop.

Pine Island, Derryclare Louch, Ireland

Pine Island


We continued on around the countryside of Connemara, with Jim sharing his extensive knowledge of the area. Driving through the boglands, we learned how the turf from the bog is cut, dried, and used for fuel to heat homes.

The preservation of the bogland is being debated, as it’s in danger of being completely destroyed.

Connemara Bogland Turf

Turf footed for drying.


Next, Jim took us through the Inagh Valley. We drove down a very narrow road, not accessible to the big tour buses. This is the Ireland that most tourists don’t get to see. It was exactly what I was looking for, and made me very happy that I had decided to book with Ireland West Tours.

We got out of the car and were able to just wander. There was not another car or person anywhere in sight… How absolutely fantastic!

Road in Inagh Valley, Ireland

We’ve got the place all to ourselves!


We were not totally alone… There were plenty of sheep everywhere! The mountainside is speckled with them!

sheep in the Ireland countryside

Sheep in the Inagh Valley


I was on a mission, determined to get a selfie with the sheep… They however wanted nothing to do with it!

Taking photos of sheep in Ireland

No selfie! This is as close as I could get!


After awhile we finally came across some hikers. What a great place to do just that!

Hiking in Inagh Valley, Connemara, Ireland

Hiking in Inagh Valley


After hiking around and taking photos, we had worked up an appetite, Jim suggested we stop in Letterfrack for lunch at the Cloverfox Restaurant. One of the specials was a lamb burger… I have to admit, I felt a bit guilty ordering it after taking photos with the sheep! I got over it quickly once I took my first bite. It was delicious… Sorry sheep!

The food and the service was phenomenal. Jim definitely knows his stuff!

Cloverfox Restaurant, Letterfrack Ireland, Connemara



After filling our bellies, we got back on the road… There were a few more special places that Jim wanted to share with us. We stopped at Renvyle Beach first.

Renvyle Beach is one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve been too, and I’ve been to some pretty amazing beaches in California and Mexico. It’s truly magical!

Connemara, Ireland Renvyle Beach

Surfing at Renvyle Beach

Connemara, Renvyle Beach, Ireland

Renvyle Beach

kids at Renvyle Beach in Ireland

Getting ready to jump!

Young surfers at Renvyle Beach, Ireland

Young surfers

Ireland, Renvyle Beach kayakers

Renvyle Beach kayakers


Just when we thought there couldn’t possibly be more to see, Jim brought us to another amazing place… Killary Fjord. The fjord is situated on part of the Atlantic Ocean, and is the only natural fjord in all of Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales!

Killary Fjord in Connemara

Killary Fjord

Killary Fjord, Ireland

Killary Fjord


Continuing on to the other side of the fjord, we stopped at a cemetery right on the waterfront… Guess if that’s going to be your final resting place, it’s a pretty sweet spot!

cemetery in Connemara

Waterfront cemetery… location, location, location!


It was getting late, and we were about to head back to Galway. I just happened to mention to Jim that I had never seen Ashford Castle… So, off we dashed to the last place on our tour.

I’m so glad I said something! The castle is majestic! It’s located in Cong, County Mayo and dates back to 1228, and was once home to the Guinness family.

Cong, County Mayo, Ireland Ashford Castle

Ashford Castle


We had just enough time to walk the grounds, and see some of the inside.

Inside Ashford Castle, Cong Ireland

Inside Ashford Castle


Ashford Castle was a great way to end the tour. The whole tour was pretty spectacular!

Having Jim as a tour guide was more like hanging out with a good friend. He knew all the best spots to go, was extremely knowledgable with the area, was very witty, and had a ton of good stories to share along the way!

If you ever are thinking about taking a private tour of Ireland, contact Jim at Ireland West Tours. It’s well worth it!

Ireland West Tours

Natalia, Me & Jim!

What The WWOOF?

What The WWOOF Did I Get Myself Into?

Last summer, I traveled around Ireland for 5 weeks hopping from one place to the next. I wanted to do things a bit different this time, and was looking for a new kind of adventure.

Beautiful Ireland

Irish Adventure

I’d heard about an organization called WWOOF that connects volunteers with organic farmers and growers. It’s purpose is to promote cultural and educational experiences, while helping to build a sustainable global community.

It’s based on trust…

The WWOOF hosts provide food, accommodation, and the opportunity to learn about organic lifestyles and sustainable living.

In exhange, the volunteers provide help on the farms. Each opportunity is different, but it usually consists of 4-5 hours of work per day, Monday – Friday.

wwoof in ireland


It sounded like an interesting way to see rural Ireland, plus I wanted to learn more about sustainable living. Other travel bloggers had done it, and had good experiences. I figured I’d give it a shot.

I joined WWOOF, and went in search of a host. I picked out 5 that sounded interesting, and sent off my letters.

I heard back from one… Positions tend to fill up fast.

I was accepted for 3 weeks by a family just outside of Gort in County Galway. In addition to accepting volunteers through WWOOF, they run several workshops for families coming from Spain.

Some of what they offer the families includes: English language instruction, eco building, organic agriculture, Irish storytelling, and much more.

I was impressed by their website, and what they offered. It also made me feel more comfortable that they ran a tourism business as well. I had made a 3 week agreement with them, so this is where I’d be staying for my last few weeks in Ireland.

The good, the bad, the ugly…

Upon arrival into Gort, I was picked up by one of the owners, and taken to the property. The area was very rural, peaceful, and pretty.

WWOOF in Irelane

So peaceful

I was given a quick tour of the property, and then taken to where I’d be staying. We passed several small cabins, finally reaching a meadow with two large tipis. Imagine my shock when I was told that’s where I’d be sleeping. A tipi in Ireland? You’ve got to be kidding?

Tipi WWOOFing in Ireland

Seriously? In here?

Entering the tipi, I received another surprise. The overwhelming smell of must & mildew, 3 individual tents set up inside, and wet laundry hanging everywhere. I could almost see the mold spores floating in the air.

I was mortified. I had made a 3 week commitment, and all I wanted to do at that moment was flee. I couldn’t imagine living in such squalor for the next 3 weeks. I felt as if I had entered third world living conditions. I seriously wanted to cry at this point.

Tents inside tipi for WWOOF

Am I in a Refugee Camp?

I decided to sleep on it overnight, and try to sort it all out in the morning. My first night I slept fully clothed, raincoat and all, with 7 blankets on top of me… I still froze.

In the morning, I awoke to a very wet top blanket… Things were going from bad to worst quickly.

After breakfast, the other volunteers & I were told to clean the cabins, bathrooms, etc as they were preparing for the next group that would be arriving. This is not what I had signed up for, but at this point I was grateful to be inside.

Entering the cabin, I was once again hit with the musty smell & wondered if mold was lurking in here as well. As I stripped the linens off the beds, and pulled off the duvet covers I discovered mold spots on the duvets. I felt sick inside. I struggled with putting a clean duvet cover over a duvet covered in mold, knowing a family, or child would be snuggling up against it later that night.

Then came the rest of the cleaning… A single sponge was used. The same sponge to clean toilets was also used for the dishes… A clear recipe for E Coli.

I quickly realized I was not going to learn a thing about organic farming, or sustainable living. We were being used as the cleaning crew as well as English tutors… It’s one thing if that’s what you’re expecting, quite another when you’ve discover you’re being used.

After 4 days of this, I was now afraid for my health. I was feeling the effects of mold in my throat & having problems breathing at night. I still was sleeping fully clothed with a hat now, had not showered, and was wet the entire time. I never had the chance to dry out.

I had also pulled a tick from my hair, and discovered we had slugs sleeping with us in the tipi.

A couple other WWOOF volunteers & I finally decided to approach the owners to let them know we had to leave. We could not stay here any longer. We had suffered long enough.

WWOOF volunteers in Ireland

New friends…Making the best of a bad situation

They were not happy, but agreed to give us a ride into town the next day. They told us to not tell their guests why we were leaving. They planned on telling them that we decided to travel & see a bit more of Ireland. We agreed because we wanted out.

Once, back in Galway, we discovered all the clothes in our backpacks were wet & beginning to mildew. I also had a very wet camera, which at the moment appears to working, however my laptop took a major hit.

I’ve suffered from the most painful stomach cramping I’ve ever had, as well as fatigue & vertigo for 12 days, all while recovering at a hostel in Galway.

I imagine, it’s just a matter of time before someone else gets really sick. I wouldn’t wish that kind of suffering upon anyone. It’s been absolutely hellish!

I’m concerned for the health of future volunteers. I’m worried about the Spanish families coming over on holiday, not knowing what lurks under the duvet, or that their dishes get washed with the same sponge as the toilet… It’s disgraceful to say the least.

So, I’ve thought long and hard about what I would have or could have done differently… I consulted with the 2 other WWOOF volunteers that left with me. In the end, we concluded we’d done everything we could have. We did our homework… We researched the host, and were communicating via email with any questions we had… We trusted the information that was given to us.

Unfortunately, we were dealing with people who consciously chose to lie, and exploit the WWOOF volunteers. They chose to put us in an unhealthy environment… They knew exactly what they were doing.

I’ve been asked if I would try WWOOFing again. At this point, I would have to say no. I’m sure there are many fantastic WWOOF hosts out there, and these were just the bad apples of the bunch… But, sometimes one is all it takes for you to you lose your faith, and spoil it for the rest.

Spring Mountain Ranch

Las Vegas - Spring Mountain Ranch State Park

Believe it or not, there is more to do in Las Vegas than what exists on the strip… That is of course, if you look beyond the casinos, and venture to the outskirts of town.

State Park in the desert

Spring Mountain Ranch State Park

Every summer, Spring Mountain Ranch State Park is host to the Super Summer Theatre. Performances are held outside Wednesday through Saturday, with several shows to choose from.

Heading to the meadow

Walking to the meadow

This is such a fun event for adults and children. Everyone brings blankets and chairs to spread out in the meadow. You’re allowed to bring in food and drinks. It’s perfect for an evening picnic as you watch the performance under the stars.

Theatre at Spring Mountain Ranch

Waiting for Beauty and the Beast!


If you get there early enough, you’ll have time to go explore. There are several hiking trails to check out. Spring Mountain Ranch State Park is in the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Wild burros are some of the wildlife in the area, so keep your eyes open for them.

wild burros in spring mountain ranch

Wild burros roam the area


The Ranch itself has an interesting history, with a string of famous owners. The original buildings are open for tours… Check for times.

cabin at spring mountain ranch

One of the original cabins


There’s even a small lake at the ranch. Lake Harriet is the home of the endangered Pahrump Poolfish, so there is no fishing, swimming, or boats allowed.

Lake at spring mountain ranch

Lake Harriet

ranch grounds

Up near the main house

desert beauty red rock canyon

The beauty of the desert

Lake Casitas Recreation Area

Day Trip to Lake Casitas Recreation Area

Travel doesn’t always have to take you far from where you live. Staycations can be a great way to explore the surrounding areas close to where you live.

Adventure might be waiting just around the corner, and perhaps it is possible to get away from it all, if only for the day!

Lake Casitas Recreation Area is great for a day trip, and offers a variety of things to do. You can go boating, fishing, or ride down the lazy river water adventure in an inner tube!

Plan on bringing something to BBQ. Picnic areas with tables and grills are available.

If you want to stay for more than a day, reserve a campsite.

lake casitas recreation center

Drive right up to the lake!

If you don’t own a boat, stop by Casitas Boat Rentals. They have small fishing boats, pontoons, canoes, and kayaks available to rent.

Kayak and boat rentals at lake casitas recreation area

Lake Casitas Boat Rentals

Lake Casitas recreation area kayaking

Kayaking at Lake Casitas

Casitas lake kayaking

Kayaking around the lake!

If boating isn’t you thing, try fishing! Record size bass have been caught out of Lake Casitas. Remember to get a fishing license… The park rangers do check!

lake casitas fishing

Fishing time!

Lake Casitas Recreation Area

So relaxing!

Independence Day

Celebrating Independence Day

Last year I was in Ireland for the 4th of July. I didn’t really think I’d miss celebrating Independence Day, but I did.

I missed getting together with family and friends for barbeques, going to the parades, and seeing the local fireworks display… The things I’ve done traditionally my entire life.

I decided to delay my travel this year and stay in Santa Barbara for the 4th of July… I wanted fireworks!

It’s always fun to start the day by checking out the parade. It’s practically right outside my door.

line up for parade

Getting ready for parade


Independence Day Parade


After the parade, the Santa Barbara Wharf is a great place to hang out. Live music and performances are featured throughout the day on West Beach.

Celebrating Independence Day

Heading down to West Beach!

Santa Barbara West Beach 4th of Julu

Independence Day on West Beach

Santa Barbara puts on a great fireworks display right on the waterfront.

Independence Day fireworks

It begins!

After the fireworks, the crowd heads down State Street. As we walk through the tunnel under the freeway, several people break out an American flag. The crowd begins chanting USA, USA… The voices echo off the concrete walls, and I am happy I decided to stay in Santa Barbara for this 4th of July.

American Flag on 4th of July

Home for Independence Day!

Summer Solstice Celebration

Santa Barbara Summer Solstice Celebration

I try to make sure I’m in Santa Barbara for the Summer Solstice Celebration every year.

It runs for 3 days in Alameda Park, and is one of my favorite festivals. It’s also the largest art event in Santa Barbara County, and pulls in a crowd of over 100,000 people.

The festival includes live music, drum circles, a DJ area for dancing, food booths, craft vendors and a beer garden.

If you’re lucky, maybe you can even dance with a Unicorn!

On Day 2 of the Summer Solstice Celebration, the Parade is a must see. Every year has a theme… This year it was Legends.

The parade has a lot of fun, whimsical floats and puppets, music, dancing, drumming and fantastic costumes!

Summer Solstice Celebration Parade

Summer Solstice Parade


Summer Solstice Celebration Parade

Posing on a float!


Solstice Parade

All dressed up!

I Madonnari Festival

Whenever I’m in Santa Barbara during the I Madonnari Festival , I make sure to stop by for a visit. It’s held every year at the  Santa Barbara Mission and worth checking out. The artists produce large scale pieces, using only chalk.

The festival benefits the Children’s Creative Project, a nonprofit arts education program.

Here are a few of my favorites from the latest I Madonnari Festival.

Kayaking At Cachuma Lake

Kayaking Cachuma Lake

A friend invited to me go kayaking up at Cachuma Lake yesterday.  I hesitated at first. It’s been quite awhile since I’ve been out on the lake. In fact, I’ve actually avoided going. The drought in California has impacted the lake on such a level, that it’s depressing.

Getting out in nature should never have that effect.

I decided to go anyway. I met my friend at his campground, and we headed to the lake. It was worse that I could have ever imagined. The lake was a mere fragment of it’s former self.

Drought effect on Cachuma Lake

Where did all the water go?

Wow! I felt as if I had been punched in the belly. I stood staring in disbelief. I wondered how much longer before it totally disappeared.

A pipe running through the center of Cachuma Lake was pointed out to us. It’s impossible to miss! The pipe feeds water down into Santa Barbara. This July, there are plans to drop the lake ten more feet to keep that supply running.

What happens when Cachuma Lake ceases to exist? Where will you get your water from Santa Barbara?

To see the lake disappearing, you face the reality of how important it is not to lift the water restrictions too soon. And, it makes you wonder why nothing was done sooner.

Once in the water, you can’t help but notice the beauty surrounding the lake. As we paddled around the lake, we talked about what a great loss this would be for all of us if a solution isn’t found.

Cachuma Lake Kayaking

Kayaking around Cachuma Lake

Shore of Cachuma Lake

Taking a break on the shore

Rain, of course would be the most obvious solution. That, however cannot be relied on.

So, until Mother Nature starts producing it again, what are our options?

What are we doing?

Bureau of Reclamation

Flash Sale Starts Now!

We’re Having Our 1st Flash Sale!

We are celebrating over 13,000 followers on Instagram by having a Flash Sale!

As a thank you for your support………….

Everything in the Just The Squares Gallery is 50% off for 24 hours!


Flash Sale  for gallery


The details…

  • For 24 hours all images in the Just The Square Gallery are 50% off
  • Begins: Monday       April 4, 2016        8:00am (Pacific Standard Time)
  • Ends:    Tuesday       April 5, 2016        8:00am (Pacific Standard Time)



Paddywagon Day Tour

Kilkenny & Wicklow Paddywagon Day Tour

Since, I haven’t wrapped my head around driving on the left side of the road, my mode of transportation in Ireland has been by bus.

Maybe I’ll give driving a whirl in the summer…..  And, I’ll be sure to give all of Ireland ample warning that I’m on the road!

For now, I am quite okay with someone else doing the driving.

Paddywagon Day Tours Bus

My ride! What’s not to love?

A Paddywagon day tour is a great way to check out some of the more popular attractions in Ireland. They have a nice variety of tours to choose from.

I had been spending a lot of time on the Atlantic Coast of Ireland, and thought it was time to wander to another part of the country. I decided to check out Paddywagon’s Wicklow and Kilkenny Day Tour. The tour leaves out of Dublin, taking you through the Wicklow Mountains, with stops in Glendalough and Kilkenny.

Molly Malone Dublin

Tour picks up at Molly Malone statue in Dublin.

What a gorgeous drive! The countryside is incredibly beautiful.

The first stop is in Glendalough, home to an early Christian monastic settlement.

Gateway of Monastic City Ireland Paddywagon Day Tour

Walk through the Monastic City Gateway

As you walk through the Gateway, it’s like stepping back in time. It is the only surviving medieval gateway into a monastic city in Ireland. Can you feel the history?

Glendalough Gates Monastic City Paddywagon Day Tour

Love all the stonework!

Paddywagon Day Tour, St Kevin's Church Paddywagon Day Tour

St. Kevin’s Church

After exploring the monastic city, head onto the trails to check out the lakes….. There are two.
I spent so much time in the ruins, I only saw the lower one….. Guess that means I’ll have to go back!

Glendalough Pathway to lake Paddywagon Day Tour

Pathway to the lake

You could spend hours there….. So much to see and explore.

Glendalough, Ireland Round Tower

Round Tower in the distance.

Glendalough Ireland Lower Lake

Lower Lake

Time goes by much too quickly here….. It’s easy to get lost in the beauty surrounding you.

After we get back on the bus, we head towards the Wicklow Gap….. It’s pretty much a photo opp stop, and then we are off to Kilkenny.

The Wicklow Gap

Quick stop for photo opp at the Wicklow Gap.

The bus arrives at the doorsteps of Kilkenny Castle….. You have two hours to explore the town or take a tour of the castle.

Killkenny, Ireland Castle

The Castle….. Isn’t it magnificent?

Kilkenny fascinates me. I’m not quite sure why….. Perhaps because it’s a medieval town. I guess I’m amazed that ancient structures still exist….. As an American, it is something you just don’t experience on a daily basis.

Kilkenny Castle on the River Nore

The Kilkenny Castle on the River Nore

Kilkenny, Ireland view

View of Kilkenny, a medieval town.

River Nore, Kilkenny Ireland

The town sits alongside the River Nore.

After checking out the castle, and a walk around the town, I had just enough time to grab an Irish Coffee at a local pub.

Time flies by once again, and leaves me wishing I could stay longer….. But, there was a Paddywagon Bus waiting.

Next stop….. Dublin.

Dublin Bridge, Ireland

Dublin, Ireland

I had such a great day! The tour was such a fantastic way to be introduced to another part of Ireland.

Thank you Paddywagon for sponsoring the trip! The tour was fabulous, and I can’t wait to do another one! Next time I’m bringing friends!