We reserved a car online, Margaret and I did, for our honeymoon in Ireland. We knew the roads would be narrow, so we wanted a small car. So we paid in advance for a “Toyota Corolla or similar,” which the Web site called a midsized car. We both had a chuckle over that.
But when we reached the rental agency in Galway, they had no record of our prepayment or our car preference. Unable to reach the travel company through which we booked the car, we were over a barrel. We paid again and took whatever they had available. Would we at least get we’d get something not available in the States? Something quirky and fun, perhaps? Nope. All they had left was a dumpy, dorky Nissan Note. Welcome to Ireland!
Known as the Nissan Versa Note in the States, these compete with cars like the Honda Fit (Jazz) and Ford Fiesta in size and price. And they compete badly, at least in the US. Widely panned by the press and roundly ignored by the buying public, few (Versa) Notes ply American roads compared to Fiestas and especially Fits.
Tired and frustrated, we loaded our luggage into the wayback with little room to spare. And we traveled light, each bringing one carry-on suitcase and a backpack. What a tiny hatch! Grateful none of our luggage needed to ride in the back seat, off we went toward our first night’s lodging.
It has been a long travel day. Actually, it had been a long couple of days. Our first day in Ireland began at 10 am on Friday before Labor Day, as we drove to Chicago for our flight, and didn’t end until Saturday evening on Irish soil.
I caught a couple hours of solid sleep on the plane. Margaret dozed in and out. And then we landed in Dublin at about 8 am Irish time, which is 3 am Indiana time. From there we caught a train to Galway. We hoped to sleep some more on the train, but the upright seats made it impossible. We reached Galway midafternoon, picked up the keys to the Note, and stopped for a meal. By the time we loaded our luggage into the Note, it was late afternoon. We were booked in a B&B in Oughterard, about 30 minutes west of town.
I was already beyond exhausted when we reached Galway, but driving the thirty minutes or so to Oughterard pushed me past my limits. In retrospect, it was a frightfully bad idea on that little sleep to do some mighty stressful driving. It was my first time driving on the left side of the road from the right side of the car. And we were following skinty directions on narrow, twisty roads in heavy rain. My internal battery was already dangerously low, and this involved driving drained it past empty. I was starting to lose it toward the end, especially as none of Oughterard’s streets were signed and we couldn’t find the turnoff to the B&B. We drove back and forth through Oughterard, trying every street until we got the right one. When we finally reached our room, I fell onto the bed in the fetal position and passed out.
It was the lowlight of the trip. But fortunately, after a few hours I woke up reasonably refreshed. Margaret had just come back from a walk into town, and said that she heard traditional Irish music coming from one of the pubs, and oh could we please go? So off we went, and we had a wonderful time chatting with the locals, listening to the players, and drinking Guinness. The day was saved!
The next day we made our way slowly north, to near the northern tip of the Republic of Ireland, in County Donegal. Even after a long night’s rest, the driving was tiring. So many things that are automatic for me in Indiana couldn’t be in Ireland because they were backwards to me. But at least the Note wasn’t an uncomfortable place to be as I figured it all out. While I wouldn’t call the seat supportive, it wasn’t fatiguing, and it was easy for me to find a good driving position. And the controls were reasonably logical, fell right to hand, and felt solid enough under use.
We were shocked by the Note’s limo-like rear seat legroom. In the photo, the front seats are adjusted for us, and we’re both tall – I’m 6 feet tall and Margaret is 5’10”. I wish my daily driver, a 2006 Ford Focus, had stretch-out room like this! But as a rental car for two people, we both wished to trade it for more space in the hatch. (It wasn’t until I researched this post that I learned that the Note’s rear seat slides forward for more hatch room.)
A couple weirdnesses: the Note had power front windows, but manual rear windows; and there were no lock buttons on the door interiors. Also, this car lacked air conditioning. I guess that’s fairly normal in temperate Ireland. But I was glad I’m old enough to remember when American cars generally lacked air, because I knew to crack my window a little to aid in defogging the windshield when it rained. File that under “things kids today wouldn’t know to do.”
The Note was adequately powered everywhere we drove it, from city street to motorway – which is startling when you consider that this car boasts a 1.2 L 3-cylinder gasoline engine. Yet at no time, even ascending a mountain, did the engine lug or did we lose speed. There was even enough oomph at speed to pass. And the engine worked quietly and smoothly, transmitting surprisingly little noise and vibration into the cabin. It alo delivered fabulous gas mileage. I didn’t calculate actual mileage on the trip, but Nissan claims that with this engine the Note can get up to 60 miles per gallon! Given how far we drove between fuel stops over the 11 days we drove this car, I believe it.
On anything but dry, straight pavement, the Note felt uncertain on its feet. But my judgment might be off here. The Irish don’t sign their highways as thoroughly as I’m used to in the States, and many times upon suddenly encountering a sharp turn I found myself braking and steering aggressively. But the steering was direct and had some feel, and the brakes stopped authoritatively.
But I withhold no wrath for the Note’s shifter. First was easy to find, as was fifth. Everything in between was guesswork. Both Margaret and I kept shifting from first to fourth, or second to fifth, or fourth to first. And finding reverse required far too subtle of a hand. The surest way to find fourth gear, actually, was to try to put the car in reverse. I’ve owned simple cars with decent shifters; I can’t fathom why Nissan decided this vague, rubbery thing was acceptable. At least the clutch was light.
We rented a stickshift, by the way, because it was a lot cheaper than renting an automatic. Most people and Ireland drive stick, so most rental cars are manually shifted. Fortunately both Margaret and I enjoy shifting our own gears.
While I’m complaining, let me declare the headlights to be nearly useless, so short is their throw and so sharp is the dropoff. We really hated driving the thing after dark.
Because city streets and rural roads were usually not marked, paper maps and written directions were useless. So we got out our phones and tried the GPS. Before the trip, I signed up for a free addition to my Sprint mobile plan that gives me unlimited free 2G data outside the US. It worked surprisingly well. I got a signal pretty much everywhere in Ireland, even while standing high on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, and it was good enough for GPS to keep working. A couple times that signal was just general packet radio service (GPRS), but it let GPS keep tracking and telling us where to turn. None of this cost me a cent.
The mobile signal was frequently too weak to find a destination, however. I took to using hotel or cafe Wi-Fi to punch it in and start navigation, and then going out to the car and starting the trip.
On the other hand, Margaret’s phone on a budget carrier had spotty coverage. Google Maps wouldn’t work half the time.
GPS was spot on 95% of the time. Sometimes it told us we’d reached our destination a little too early or a little too late, but we could see the destination so it didn’t matter. Once, however, while trying to find one of Margaret’s distant cousins in a remote part of County Galway, GPS took us five miles beyond and deposited us on this desolate one-lane road. “You have arrived at your destination,” indeed.
We ended up being very happy that we didn’t get the Toyota Corolla we’d reserved. On all but the most major highways, roadways are narrow and offer no shoulder. Frequently, they are bordered by a stone wall or a sharp dropoff. That Corolla is three inches wider than the Note. Those three inches were significant – once, on a 1½-lane road bordered on one side by the Atlantic Ocean and on the other by a steep hill, we encountered an oncoming RV. We both moved over as far as we dared. The RV crept by, about one inch separating it from my side mirror. In the Corolla, that mirror would have been a goner.
Elsewhere on the trip, Margaret met a group of four American women who had rented a minivan. Both side mirrors dangled forlornly from the front doors. They broke one in a parking lot trying to maneuver out of a tight space, and the other against a roadside stone wall trying to get out of the way of a large oncoming vehicle.
Amusingly, more than once we had to brake for sheep in the roadway. Sheep were everywhere.
But overall we enjoyed driving Ireland’s back roads and minor highways, and even driving through the many small towns we encountered. With focus and patience, it was all doable.
But driving in Galway, one of Ireland’s larger cities, was hard – even several days after our fatigued drive out of town in the Note. We went back one afternoon to explore the shopping district. And it was the hardest driving of the trip, harder than the RV encounter.
In the city center, tightly packed cars moved fast on streets that ran at odd angles to each other. It was disorienting. I knew where we wanted to go, and like a true American I figured we could just drive right up to it. No dice. Not only could we not figure out how to navigate to it, even when we could see it in the distance there wasn’t any place to park within a mile of it. We ended up circling around for quite some time before finding a shopping mall’s garage. We gave up, parked inside, and walked from there.
And then getting out of town involved blind turns across oncoming traffic and a one-lane road that accepted two-way traffic where a big Audi sedan refused to back out of our way. Four-letter words may have passed by my lips in that standoff.
By the time we got out of town I needed a stiff drink and a long nap.
We were staying in a B&B in Barna, a few miles west of town. A bus ran from there into town every 30 minutes. We should have taken it instead.
The Note did the job of getting us everywhere we wanted to go, such as to Drumcliffe to see the grave of William Butler Yeats.
And to the shore at Rosses Point in County Sligo, where we walked the beach and watched the boats.
And to a laundromat. We packed one week’s clothes for a two-week trip, figuring we’d flounce into a laundromat somewhere halfway through. Turns out they’re not really a thing in Ireland. We found one, finally — on a university campus. It was for students. The kids all studiously pretended not to notice the middle-aged American couple who had invaded their space.
And even to this remote, rocky place near where Margaret’s cousin lives.
In the end, the Note was adequate to the task: adequately comfortable, adequately powered, adequately sized. It did the job.