When Americans daydream about visiting Ireland, they usually envision a pub in Dublin on St. Patty's Day.
All of that is fine, except they're missing the real Ireland, the one I discovered on a solo journey to the villages along the Shannon River in the winter of 2007.
Just take your rental car or ask a driver to cruise over, a short sprint, maybe 10 or 15 minutes from Shannon Airport, right off the R471. Shortly after Balleycasey Roundabout (where do they find such adorable names?) merge onto the N18 toward Luimneach/Bun Raite/Bunratty.
You will then continue straight for a while before turning left at Bunratty West Holiday Village.
This 15th century castle will jump out at you before you have time to get lost, so don't worry. The stonework is awe inspiring, even if the next-door pub is a little too touristy for some people's taste.
While at the castle, revel in the known and unknown history surrounding this marvelous structure, with an alleged link to both early Norman rule and King Henry III. (Read more about its history here.)
To enjoy the full experience at the castle, you must stay for a banquet, or depending on the timing enjoy special holiday features - from Valentine's to Halloween to the brilliant Christmas at the Castle.
After ascending the Castle steps and crossing a drawbridge, you will join the Earl of Thomond for a splendid traditional Irish feast, accompanied by a kilted piper as costumed maidens grace the setting. The hosts ask you to savor a goblet of "Mead" while mingling with the ladies of the castle as you cross into the Great Hall to soak in the tapestries and divine medieval appointments.
On your next night, just enjoy the activities at the "Corn Barn" near the castle, including a traditional "Irish Night" full of laughter, jokes and song; or take your honey over to the oyster restaurant next door.
I highly recommend renting a car and then cruising further in to the verdant and tranquil County Clare. You will find other castles or bits of them as you stroll along the Shannon River. You will find mushy peas and tall Guinness. I recommend a good pair of walking shoes and a sense of humor.
Stay in a bed and breakfast while in the area, my best recommendation, or visit one of the tonier offerings the green island touts.
Just don't be surprised if, a few years from now, you're longing to return. I know I am.
For more information, visit www.shannonheritage.com
And for detailed locals' tips including rules-of-the road and where to stay while in Ireland, please click here.