Getting there

Getting there

Monday, February 28, 2011

Beauty and Greed at the Cliffs of Moher

Before I begin this entry I must admit that I considered not writing this story at all. Our experience at the Cliffs of Moher was so atypical of every other experience we had in Ireland that I felt that I should just forget this story. It almost pains me to tell it because of how I feel about Ireland and the Irish, and telling a negative story almost seems like a betrayal. The story is true, though, and deserves to be told just as much as all my positive stories about Ireland. Again I will say, though, that this experience was an utter anomaly, which is perhaps why I find it even more troubling.

Our visit to the Cliffs of Moher started out well enough. We flew into Shannon airport from London on Aer Lingus. Our Irish chauffeur met us at the airport, we collected our bags, and climbed into the van that would be our transportation for the next few days. Our driver explained that the first stop on our tour was the Cliffs of Moher. We were all game as we were well rested and ready to begin our Irish adventure. So, off we drove to the Cliffs.

The Cliffs of Moher are considered one of Ireland's top tourist attractions, and likely the finest of their natural wonders. They are awe-inspiring to behold, spectacular cliffs that extend for miles. The sheer cliff face meets the swirling ocean below, and the thought of seeing them as our first Irish stop delighted us.

When we arrived at the Cliffs my husband and I realized that in our hurry at the airport we had neglected to visit an ATM to get some cash. We had spent our last bit of British currency at Heathrow, and we needed to get some Euros. We explained this to our driver, who kindly pulled out his wallet and handed us a 50-Euro note. He explained he would drop us at the entrance to the Cliffs and collect us again in an hour or so.

We got out of the van and as it drove away realized that we had just entrusted all our possessions to someone we had just met, and now had only what we could carry. My husband and I laughed and decided that if we were going to trust our driver the time to do so began now. We were in high spirits and ready to begin what was promising to be a magical time in Ireland.

We began our trek to the Cliffs. We passed what appeared to be a visitor centre, but anxious to see the Cliffs we walked by and began the climb. Despite the blustery cold day there were a couple of musicians busking along the way, adding to the wonderful feel of the place. We climbed the rough-hewn stone stairs, and marvelled at the birds who were attempting to glide on the wind but being buffeted about by the strong air currents. When we had our first real glimpse of the Cliffs they did not disappoint. They are spectacularly beautiful, stunning in every regard. At the top of one cliff is a small lookout tower built in 1835. It promised an especially lovely view so we entered the tower where the attendant informed us there was a 2-Euro fee for each person to ascend to the top. That seemed quite reasonable - after all  the tower requires maintenance, so we happily paid our fees with the 50-Euro note our driver had so kindly lent us, and we climbed the stairs to the open viewing area at the tower top. It was an amazing view, and we snapped many photos.

We descended the tower and meandered a bit more on the cliff paths, taking photos as we went and drinking in our first taste of Ireland. Finally, defeated by the brisk wind and the cold we began our descent towards the visitor centre and to meet our driver. As we got closer to the centre I realized there was a small cafeteria inside, and I was absolutely desperate for a coffee. So, we decided to go in as our driver was not expected just yet and we had a few moments to spare.

We had just entered the building, my husband leading, my daughter in the middle, and I trailing behind when a man stopped me and asked if he could have a word with me. I replied "Of course". With no introduction of himself, and in a brusque manner, he asked me for the name and company of the driver who had dropped us at the Cliffs. Now, I am by both nature and nationality usually a cooperative person, but his approach rankled me. He stood there, pen and paper in hand, waiting for my answer, and I decided it was time to use the "dumb tourist" response. I looked at him and explained that the driver had picked us up at Shannon airport less than 3 hours before and that I had no idea of his name or his company. I suppose I refused to comply for a few reasons. First, this man had not identified himself, and as such I felt no compunction to divulge anything to him. Secondly, I had no intention of "ratting out" the driver with whom I was going to be spending the next several days, especially since I had no idea who was asking for this information or why. Finally, this man was standing between me and my coffee, which is a dangerous place to be.

At this point my husband realized I was no longer with them and began to make his way back to me. The man, who still did not identify himself, informed me that it was "not allowed" to drop people at the entrance, and that we were required to pay entrance fees. Apparently what was required was that every vehicle park in the car park and pay your admittance fees there (you paid for each person in the car even if not everyone in the vehicle intended to see the Cliffs). He said we would have to visit the front desk of the centre to pay these fees, and I said of course we would but we just wanted to grab a coffee. I turned to rejoin my husband and daughter to head to the cafe when the man said "Right, you'll come with me then" in a rather menacing voice. I looked at my husband and quietly told him we needed to accompany this man, who I now could see wore a jacket that said "Ranger" on it, and pay our fees.

We headed to the front desk, feeling both a bit harassed and a bit confused. At the desk the receptionist was a little kinder. We explained we had no interest in seeing the exhibits at the visitor centre, but had just come to see the Cliffs, have a coffee, and perhaps spend money in the gift shop. All to no avail, though - the Cliffs of Moher are not free, and one pays to see this natural wonder. We paid our 6-Euros each, the ranger shoved a pamphlet in my hand to give to our driver, and we walked away. I still got my coffee as I needed it now more than ever, but there would be no perusal of the gift shop or any other part of the centre. We couldn't leave quickly enough. We found our van and driver, climbed in, gave the pamphlet to our driver, and explained a bit of what had happened. It turns out that the admission fee at the Cliffs is a contentious issue, and we had been caught up in it. We drove on to Limerick and to continue our trip, away from the beautiful Cliffs and what became some very mixed feelings on them.

There are so many reasons this episode troubled me. I was shocked that there would be a charge to see a natural beauty like the Cliffs. It's like charging a fee to gaze on the Rocky Mountains or the Niagara Falls. It makes sense to charge for entry into the visitor centre exhibits, but to charge to see the natural wonder of the Cliffs seemed wrong. Suddenly the charge to access the lookout tower didn't seem reasonable but rather greedy, as that charge is not included in the Cliffs admission and must be paid separately. To top it all off I discovered that while you pay to see many visitor attractions in Ireland (like Blarney Castle) most museums and permanent art gallery exhbitions are absolutely free to visit. Even places like Glendalough only charge to see the exhibits - the grounds are free to everyone. Places like museums, art galleries, and old sites like Glendalough take massive amounts of money to maintain, and those are free - but a natural wonder like the Cliffs that require little maintenance become cash cows? It just seems that because the Cliffs attract so many visitors they have decided that this is where they will make their money, and make money they do. 6-Euros (plus 2 if you visit the tower) doesn't seem like much, but when you consider that the Cliffs attract over a million visitors a year it becomes clear very quickly that money is being made here. I don't resent making money from tourism, but I do feel that making that money on the back of a natural wonder that anywhere else would be free to see is questionable at best. Money can and should be made from the exhibits, gift shop, and cafe - use the Cliffs to lure them in, and then let them hand over money to access all the other delights.

I suppose I was also troubled by the rudeness and hostility of the ranger. Even when I explained that I had been in his country for less than 3 hours there was no compassion or extension of courtesy. There were no kind words of welcome or regret for any misunderstanding. He treated us as if we were interlopers and untrustworthy, not simply confused tourists. It was the only time in Ireland that I felt I was treated rudely, and it's unfortunate it happened so soon after we arrived. It could have easily formed a first impression of Ireland that I could not have shed, but my husband and I decided we would do our best to consider the incident over and see what the rest of the visit to this country brought us. As my regular readers know I quickly fell in love with Ireland and the Irish, and this initial episode was quickly forgotten - but not really forgiven.

So, some advice. If you go to Ireland do go to the Cliffs of Moher, as they should be seen and enjoyed. Pay your fees, and when you do perhaps make a small joke about how we don't normally charge to see natural wonders in Canada, but deliver it with a smile. And stay away from the rangers. In my opinion they won't enhance the experience.

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