Daytona 500

The three siblings at Castillo de San Marcos, Saint Augustine.

The three siblings at Castillo de San Marcos, Saint Augustine.

We recently spent a week in northern Florida with Megan’s brothers. Megan’s oldest brother is a huge Nascar fan, specifically of the driver Danica Patrick. The impetus of this trip was to attend the Daytona 500 and have some time together as siblings.

All the cars, teams, sponsors, and crews lined up before the race begins.

All the cars, teams, sponsors, and crews lined up before the race begins.

The Daytona 500 is quite a production. There is no official count of attendees but estimates say 250,000! We parked in a huge field miles away and rode the school bus shuttle service to the track. We had seats between turn four and the front straight, which gave us a view of cars jockeying for position coming out of the corner, cars braking hard to enter the pits, and the hordes filling the stands on all sides. The Daytona 500 has been going on since 1959 in it’s current form. Before then, the “track” consisted of the highway, local avenues, and the beach. This year, 43 drivers competed in 200 laps, or 500 miles, averaging about 160mph. The Daytona 500 is unique because it is the first race of the season and the largest event for the season, unlike most sports where the largest event happens at the end of the season. Twenty million people watch this race on television!

Before the race began at the Daytona 500. Adam is wearing one of his Nascar fan shirts.

Before the race began at the Daytona 500. Adam is wearing one of his Nascar fan shirts.

I have to say it was more amusing than I expected. The cars whiz by at amazing speeds, often around 200mph! The noise and rush of wind with the pack’s passing is powerful. The crowd was generally enthusiastic, jovial, and fairly mild-mannered. The cars maneuvering into the pits while scrubbing 150mph of speed in the length of three football fields was exciting. Every type of junk food imaginable was available for purchase. Gaudy fan memorabilia was being bought as if it was in style (and according to the crowd, it was).

Waiting in one of the many snaking lines to board a bus back to our parked car after the Daytona 500.

Waiting in one of the many snaking lines to board a bus back to our parked car after the Daytona 500.

After the race, we waited in line for two hours to board the school buses that shuttled the masses back to our parked cars. Then we waited in the line of cars exiting the parking lot for quite a while. I lost track of time. Let’s just say, the race ended about 4:30pm and we didn’t eat dinner until after 8:30pm and that was still in the town of Daytona Beach! We appreciated that the crowd stayed relaxed and in good spirits during the long waits. We also appreciated having packed snack food.

Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.

Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.

In addition to the race, we got a chance to explore some other attractions. Saint Augustine is celebrating it’s 450th anniversary this year, making it the oldest continuously-inhabited European-established settlement in the USA. We walked through the small defensive fort the Spanish built when they first came. While hiking at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, we saw dozens of bird species, reams of Spanish Moss, swampy trails left from belly-dragging alligators, and droppings from wild bison. We walked the beach and stuck our feet in the ocean, despite it feeling quite cold out.  On a tour of an Anheuser-Busch Brewery, we became mesmerized by the miles of whirring conveyer belts holding boxes, bottles, and cans. A lively docent tour in the quirky Amelia Island History Museum taught us a new angle on the area’s history. Best of all, we had lots of time together for telling stories and laughter.

Old oak tree in downtown Jacksonville.

Old oak tree in downtown Jacksonville.

You can see more pictures from this trip if you keep scrolling or go to the gallery here.

Jesse and Megan

Jesse and Megan

Boneyard Beach is full of dead trees and root wads.

Boneyard Beach is full of dead trees and root wads.

Boneyard Beach, Big Talbot Island State Park

Boneyard Beach, Big Talbot Island State Park

Jesse and Adam outside Anheuser-Busch Brewery.

Jesse and Adam outside Anheuser-Busch Brewery.

Anheuser-Busch Brewery

Anheuser-Busch Brewery

A flock of birds taking off at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.

A flock of birds taking off at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.

Daytona 500. The cars are sedate and well-spaced because they are following the pace car.

Daytona 500. The cars are sedate and well-spaced because they are following the pace car.

Thunderbirds roar over the racetrack, Daytona 500.

Thunderbirds roar over the racetrack, Daytona 500.

Us under the corroding pier at Saint Augustine Beach.

Us under the corroding pier at Saint Augustine Beach.

Walking on the beach

Walking on the beach

Shorebirds and gulls resting on Amelia Island.

Shorebirds and gulls resting on Amelia Island.

Armadillo, scurrying away from us at Amelia Island.

Armadillo, scurrying away from us at Amelia Island.

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Behind The Scenes with Plan B

It has been a year since we left home. Multiple people have asked how we’ve done it, if we like it, and what we’ve learned. You’ll find some of our travel, budget, and packing tips below. Please feel free to leave additional questions or suggestions as a comment.

General

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A simple calendar with a list of what we want to do and what happened each day.

  • Don’t be too attached to your plans. With open eyes, ears, and noses sometimes the world will present you with an opportunity that may become the highlight of your trip—as long as you are willing to let go of the plans you walked out the door with.
  • Always stop in the Tourist Information office. In addition to picking up the usual maps and pamphlets, showing genuine curiosity for the area often leads to stellar recommendations from the staff. Some of our best day trips, meals, and walks are from asking a staff person what they would do with a free day/weekend/afternoon.
  • Stay organized with planning. When we arrive in a new place, we post a one-page, blank, hand-drawn monthly calendar on the wall. At the header, we list the things we would like to do. As we make commitments, those go on their respective day. As each day passes, we write in what actually happened. This calendar becomes the outline for journaling and the blog.
  • Every time we book something, we keep a couple copies of the details (time, place, confirmation code, etc). We each have a copy in our email, a file is saved to our laptop, and the details are written on our paper calendar.
  • Edit photographs at least every two weeks to keep only the good ones.
  • Know common local scams. Guide books and travel websites can be a source of what to expect. For example, we read about two common set-ups for pickpockets in Paris. Within five minutes of exiting the train station, we were approached with one of them (a petition for English-speakers to help handicapped children). The next day as we walked the banks of the Seine, the other one happened three times in ten minutes (a gold ring that we “dropped”). By being aware of these before we arrived, we didn’t become victims.
  • Read more than travel guides. Reading fiction, short stories, and essays by local authors increases our understanding of the culture.
  • Find out what is going on: concerts, street fairs, festivals, races, etc. Pick up a weekly paper. Ask around. Read the posters plastered to walls. Pause at a community board in the grocery or library to see what’s on.
  • Use the Chrome browser to translate local webpages into English. The translation is often clunky, but lets you read and explore information that otherwise would be inaccessible.
  • Rick Steves is a great resource for Europe. He has a website and app with free videos, interviews, old radio shows, and walking tours. We have particularly enjoyed the walking tours for everything from museums, to parks, to historic neighborhoods.

Budget

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Our shopping bags. The red one is stuffed into its pouch.

  • Slow down. This has been our SOP. You don’t pack every day so there is time to seek out the music you hear wafting from blocks away, time to have a snack at the local bakery you didn’t know existed, time to sit in the sun and watch the people go by. Spending weeks in a place allows you to become a temporary local, return to the same cafe multiple times, develop a relationship with the cheese vendor, and attend events you see posters hanging around town for. Booking accommodation for a month is often the same price as 3 weeks or less. Buying a pound of butter is the same price as a stick. You spend significantly less money at a slow pace.
  • When booking onward travel, find out the location-specific equivalent of Expedia. In Sweden, we ran the same possible flights through our go-to booking conglomerates and our Swedish friend’s go-to page. The same exact flights on his page were about one third of the prices we could find.
  • If you are going to eat out, do it midday. Lunch is cheaper than dinner and has a more casual dress code. Daily specials are often tasty and a real bargain. Plus, it requires us to sit down and relax in the middle of the day, regardless of where we are.
  • Our home public library has a large selection of e-books and videos. With the Kindle and laptop, we are able to download these anywhere we can connect to wi-fi. Most of the guide books we’ve used have come from the library and 80% of our pleasure reading has also been free through the library.

Packing

A tidy suitcase with packing cubes.

A tidy suitcase with packing cubes.

  • Packing cubes are simple cloth zippered bags. They come in different sizes. We each have about five in our luggage and use them to stay tidy. For example, warm clothes to wear in cold weather are all in the same cube. Toiletries are in another. They make packing and unpacking quick, neat, and orderly.
  • Small tote bags. We have two bags that fold into themselves, each to be smaller than a tennis ball and very light. We often use these multiple times a day. They save us money in places that charge for grocery bags. They are endlessly useful: at the beach to carry wet bathing suits, when we come across a great deal on ripe pineapples, or to hold our lunch before we eat it on the train.
  • If the water out of the faucet is questionable, a water purifier not only will save you lots of money on bottled water but also will save you from wasting all those plastic bottles. We have one that takes out even the smallest nasties and can conveniently be set up with a gravity feed, so it doesn’t require manual pumping.
  • A headlamp guides you to the bathroom, lets you explore a cave, allows you to read at night, and becomes indispensable when the power cuts out and you’ve just sat down to dinner or stepped into the shower.
  • Sheets are heavy but can guarantee a better night’s sleep. They protect sensitive skin from scratchy synthetics. In Europe, we found many places only provided a comforter and it was too hot to sleep under but too cold to sleep without—a sheet was the perfect balance.
  • Laundry facilities are not everywhere, but you can always do your own if you have a drain plug (many sinks lack a stopper). We have one of those flat rubbery ones that will cover any hole.Fifteen feet or more of line can make a clothesline on which to dry your newly-washed clothes.
  • Our Camelbak daypack comes out with us almost every day. We stay hydrated and are able to carry whatever else we might need for the day: snacks, extra clothes, camera, etc.
  • A sarong can become a picnic blanket, beach towel, shower towel, shade cloth, changing screen, or even a dress.
  • Early in the trip, we made a packing list. Since we usually stay in a place for a month we seriously move in. The list doesn’t include things like clothes but does include all the things we are likely to not see when leaving a place, like electrical adapters, dirty laundry, the dish scraper, shampoo, snacks for the road, the alarm clock. In fact, the only time we left something behind was when we both had colds and didn’t run through the list.
  • Even the worst cheap knife becomes usable with a diamond sharpener. Since we’re making most of our meals, being able to cut things is necessary. Give Jim five minutes with the Diamond M and he can get an edge on the worst blades.
  • A lightweight, bluetooth, compact speaker makes anywhere feel like home. We can listen to the morning news on NPR or our favorite tunes.
  • While in the tropics, pack a mosquito net that has been pretreated with mosquito-repellent. Having about 100 feet of line will guarantee that you can find ways to string it up and sleep soundly. A king size model can be adapted to fit a double, queen, or two twins.
  • Before leaving we got a a global telephone. In each place we stay, we pick up a local SIM card and are able to make local calls. This isn’t essential but has been very handy. It has been used mainly to call/text with our host. With a small data plan, we’ve been able to check bus schedules on the fly and have a back-up when the wi-fi is spotty or not functioning.
  • Simple flat slippers have become our best friends. We always leave shoes at the door to keep our place cleaner. Slippers mitigate a cold or grimy floor and make you feel cozy and at home.

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There are a few things that we wished we brought along but did not need enough to pick up en route:

  • a compact world atlas for planning the next legs of our journey and brushing up on geography
  • compact high-quality zoom binoculars
  • more toothbrush heads for our electric toothbrush as we were unable to find them in many countries

If you have any additional questions for us or suggestions from your own experience, please leave them below as comments.

Queen Victoria

Upon leaving Dublin, we spent a weekend in London. Due to bad colds, sightseeing was severely limited. However, we did rally one day to spend a few hours in the British Museum. This museum houses many prize gems taken from the ancient sites we’d seen in the previous few months. It is an exceptional museum and we easily could have spent several days there.

Perikles, 429BC, Greek Citizen-Soldier. At ease with his helmet back. British Museum.

Perikles, 429BC, Greek Citizen-Soldier. At ease with his helmet back. British Museum.

Cypriat sculpture, British Museum

Cypriat sculpture, British Museum

Entrance to Egyptian exhibit, British Museum.

Entrance to Egyptian exhibit, British Museum.

Then began our slow journey back to the Americas. Having decided to take a non-traditional route, we found cheap tickets on a cruise ship crossing the Atlantic. We expected this would be an easier way to physically adjust to the changes in time zones and mentally adjust to returning home.

Our boat docked in Nassau.

Our boat docked in Nassau.

We sailed with the Cunard Line, who is celebrating 175 years of cruising. Our ship was the Queen Victoria and she’s a big one at 964.5 feet long, 106 feet wide, 15 levels, and 90,000 gross tonnes. She is a Panamax, which means the largest a vessel can be and still fit through the Panama canal. A loop around the deck is a third of a mile. On board there is capacity for 1,988 passengers and 980 crew. There are six galleys to feed everyone. Every day the ship’s crew provided about 40-50 events for passengers ranging from games to fencing lessons to lectures to pastry demos to concerts. We had a large stateroom with a private balcony. This room turned out to be bigger than some of our recently rented studio apartments!

Amid light snow flurries, this marching band played as we pulled away from the dock in Southampton.

Amid light snow flurries, this marching band played as we pulled away from the dock in Southampton.

We cast off from Southampton, England in the evening amid light snow flurries and a marching band performing on the dock. It felt quite royal. Most of the other passengers were from the British Isles and retired. There were very few children on board. We were pleasantly surprised by how sweet, quiet, and easy-going the other passengers were. Our first few days were a bit rough due to a storm. Our ship has stabilizer fins which cut out about 90% of the side-to-side rolling, but she still moved around in the larger swells and strong winds.

The Azores are renown for their pineapples, we found this great display in the daily farmer's market.

The Azores are renown for their pineapples, we found this great display in the daily farmer’s market.

After two days at sea, we came to Ponta Delgada in the Azores. The Azores are part of Portugal. Despite being so far North, they have a very temperate climate and therefore can grow many sub-tropical plants. Pineapples are a significant export crop. We walked around town, explored a few parks, and watched at least a dozen people swimming in a sheltered bay (January in the northern Atlantic!). Wandering through the farmers’ market made us long for our own kitchen, although the food on board was excellent.

Off the stern.

Off the stern.

As we continued south and east, the weather significantly warmed. Soon the upper decks were covered with sunbathers. It took five days to reach the Caribbean, where we stopped in Antigua, the British Virgin Islands (at the very harbor where Plan B tour began last March), and Nassau. After days of not seeing other boats at sea, it was a shock to find ourselves parked with 2-4 other cruise ships at the same small island. We learned that Queen Victoria intentionally has less passengers per square foot. Despite being larger in size than most of our neighbor ships, she had about half the number of people on board! We felt lucky to have happened upon a low-key, high-class, non-party-atmosphere ship. As these other boats cranked loud dance music from their top deck, we wished them farewell.

One of the many striking sunsets at sea.

One of the many striking sunsets at sea.

Our Caribbean ports of call seemed unremarkable to us, after so many glories in Europe. The color of the water and the sky were amazing. The settlements were not exactly attractive or appealing. Many of the islands are flat. We walked around each town, sat on the beach, read our books. Experience said the best parts were to be found underwater and we didn’t pay for any excursions, so we bypassed them this time.

We disembarked Queen Victoria in Fort Lauderdale. From there the ship continues through the Caribbean and then the Panama Canal headed to San Francisco. In Florida we will visit with Jim’s mother, plan what comes next for us, and ease back into being in the US again.

Additional pictures from the British Museum and our crossing can be found below or in the gallery.

Sphinx bust, British Museum

Sphinx bust, British Museum

Hellenic busts, British Museum

Hellenic busts, British Museum

Our average speed was between 15-22 knots.

Our average speed was between 15-22 knots.

Jim enjoys his coffee and Megan her tea while supervising the deck chairs.

Jim enjoys his coffee and Megan her tea while supervising the deck chairs.

Jim dwarfed by an old rubber tree, Ponta Delgada, The Azores.

Jim dwarfed by an old rubber tree, Ponta Delgada, The Azores.

Some Banksy-inspired graffiti in the Azores, above characteristic black and white mosaic sidewalks.

Some Banksy-inspired graffiti in the Azores, above characteristic black and white mosaic sidewalks.

We found calm seas in the Horse Latitudes.

We found calm seas in the Horse Latitudes.

Dublin

Some of the beautiful buildings around Dublin.

Some of the beautiful buildings around Dublin.

Winter finally caught up with us as we have begun making our way back west. We spent the last two weeks in Dublin and loved it, despite the cold and wet. Ireland has a rich culture and a strong history. It is the first place we have been in a long time that wasn’t conquered by the Romans. (They knew about Ireland but didn’t stick around, named it Hibernia, the Land of Winter and left.) With short cool days and a limited budget, we decided to not attempt a whirlwind tour of the whole island but concentrated on Dublin with a few day trips out. The Irish are incredibly friendly and we appreciated their hospitality and openness.

The Snug Bar in the Temple Bar district. Note the Guinness poster.

The Snug Bar in the Temple Bar district. Note the Guinness poster.

Dublin is home to about a quarter of Ireland’s population and the largest city by far with 1.1 million residents in the urban area. It is made for pedestrians with most tourist attractions close together. We rented an apartment in Temple Bar (the place to see and be seen) with a balcony and were endlessly amused by the people watching. For example, on our first night, we stumbled upon a New Year’s Eve parade with a performing marching band that happened to be from the US! Ireland is seeing more tourists every year and we found it very easy to navigate. Free wifi is provided at almost all restaurants, on every bus and train, in many parks, and most public buildings. Tourist information offices are everywhere with good maps, brochures, and recommendations. We did some of the classic things like take a walking tour of central Dublin, watch a football match in a pub while the rain came down sideways outside, drink many cups of tea, and listen to two old guys picking and singing in a pub as the snow and rain showered.

Botanic Garden.

Botanic Garden.

Dublin has many fantastic free national museums. We looked at viking artifacts, early stone tools, and bog mummies in the Archaeology Museum. We learned that Dublin city was founded by Vikings who ended up staying and merging with the local population. They brought with them merchant skills and laid out the town in an organized grid. At the National Gallery, we joined the throngs visiting their favorite paintings as if they were old friends. We marveled at the local, exotic, and carnivorous plants on display at the Botanic Garden. In the phenomenal Chester Beatty Library, we saw books made of unusual materials like jade, papyrus, and lacquered monk’s robes.

A Glasnevin watchtower. A plaque at the base states: "In the in 1840's, nightwatchmen on this tower successfully guarded the Cemetery against 'Resurrectionists' who supplied the medical profession with corpses for anatomy students."

A Glasnevin watchtower. A plaque at the base states: “In the in 1840’s, nightwatchmen on this tower successfully guarded the Cemetery against ‘Resurrectionists’ who supplied the medical profession with corpses for anatomy students.”

Glasnevin Cemetery keeps the remains of many of Ireland’s revolutionaries among the 1.5 million interred there. Like Père Lachaise in Paris, Glasnevin was not popular when it opened. It was too far away so only the poor were buried there. As Dublin grew and famous people chose to be interred in Glasnevin, it gained fame and now there are more people interred at Glasnevin than live in Dublin. The cemetery has high stone walls and guard towers on the corners. It turns out that these are not just for looks. Body snatchers were so prolific that the cemetery was staffed 24/7 by guards and at night they ran a pack of bloodhounds within the walls!

Newgrange.

Newgrange.

We took a day tour up to Hill of Tara and Newgrange. These are sights that predate Egypt’s pyramids by one thousand years. Detailed knowledge of the purpose has been lost with the passage of time, but the earthworks remain. The Hill of Tara has two concentric circles around a rock that is said to cry out when a true king comes to power. There are also multiple mounds and man-made valleys. While we were there the wind and rain pummeled the hill, thoroughly soaking through my pants and sending rivers into my boots. Newgrange is a very large passage tomb. A narrow opening lets direct sunlight come in for only 17 minutes on the winter solstice. The rocks and large slabs used to create this monument were brought in from miles away. Archaeologists are not sure what the outside looked out, so they did reverse engineering on the rubble piles. In other words, they built something out of the rocks, let it tumble down and kept doing this trial and error construction until the pile looked similar to how it was originally found.

Howth

Howth

On a sunny day, we went to the peninsula just outside Dublin called Howth. Miles of walking trails criss-cross this peninsula and cling to the cliff’s edge around it. The strong wind did not diminish the beauty. Yellow gorse blossoms, rust-colored dead bracken, sandy slivers of beaches, lichen-covered cliffs, and green trees bent by the ceaseless wind.

Old church in Dalkey. Wealthy folks were buried in the church after it fell to ruins because the neighboring graveyard was full.

Old church in Dalkey. Wealthy folks were buried in the church after it fell to ruins because the neighboring graveyard was full.

Another day we took the commuter train south along the coast to enjoy the view. We stopped in the small town of Dalkey. The castle there is the only museum we paid for in Ireland. Our admission fee included a guided tour by actors. As we were the only guests, it was interactive and very amusing. They were in medieval garb and stayed in character as they made fun of Jim for saying he “flew” to Ireland and made fun of Megan for daring to wear such odd garments. They showed us how to use a long-bow, what a typical feast would include, and what a visit to the “doctor” might entail. It was a riot!

Blooming heather garden at a public park in Dublin.

Blooming heather garden at a public park in Dublin.

You can see a few more Ireland pictures here or keep reading. As always, there are some stories or details only explained in the picture’s captions.

This stone tower once stood at a monastery that no longer exists. It was sacked by Vikings long ago.

This stone tower once stood at a monastery that no longer exists. It was sacked by Vikings long ago.

Part of the Dublin Castle.

Part of the Dublin Castle.

An unusual statue of Justice at the Dublin castle. A local pointed out to us that Justice faces the castle with her back to the people, her sword is unsheathed and raised, and she is not blind-folded.

An unusual statue of Justice at the Dublin castle. A local pointed out to us that Justice faces the castle with her back to the people, her sword is unsheathed and raised, and she is not blind-folded.

A kinetic sculpture rotating on the Trinity College Campus.

A kinetic sculpture rotating on the Trinity College Campus.

View from our balcony over Temple Bar. Sinead O'Connor worked as a waitress in the building on the right before her music career took off.

View from our balcony over Temple Bar. Sinead O’Connor worked as a waitress in the building on the right before her music career took off.

Daily morning delivery in the Temple Bar district. The Guinness truck is bigger.

Daily morning delivery in the Temple Bar district. The Guinness truck is bigger.

Is this sandwich small or are the fries large? Only my stomach knows for sure.

Is this sandwich small or are the fries large? Only my stomach knows for sure.

Michael Collins' grave in Glasnevin Cemetery.

Michael Collins’ grave in Glasnevin Cemetery.

In the last few decades, Loyalists planted a bomb in the base of this tower destroying its staircase. The tower is a memorial for Daniel O'Connell. Glasnevin Cemetery.

In the last few decades, Loyalists planted a bomb in the base of this tower destroying its staircase. The tower is a memorial for Daniel O’Connell. Glasnevin Cemetery.

Glasnevin Cemetery is well cared for today. The blue tags indicate they have been repaired and restored.

Glasnevin Cemetery is well cared for today. The blue tags indicate they have been repaired and restored.

Grave of Arthur Griffith, first president of the Irish Free State and founder of Sinn Féin.

Grave of Arthur Griffith, first president of the Irish Free State and founder of Sinn Féin.

Formal English garden outside the Museum of Modern Art.

Formal English garden outside the Museum of Modern Art.

St. Patrick with his clover. This Brit not only brought Christianity to Ireland but also the Latin script and thus Ireland's first written language.

St. Patrick with his clover. This Brit not only brought Christianity to Ireland but also the Latin script and thus Ireland’s first written language.

Hill of Tara in the sideways rain.

Hill of Tara in the sideways rain.

Newgrange

Newgrange

A carved stone at Newgrange. The meanings of these shapes are completely unknown.

A carved stone at Newgrange. The meanings of these shapes are completely unknown.

This tree and bench have been friends for a long time. They have become quite attached to each other.

This tree and bench have been friends for a long time. They have become quite attached to each other.

An artist sketching at The National Gallery.

An artist sketching at The National Gallery.

The Eye of Ireland island, as seen from Howth.

The Eye of Ireland island, as seen from Howth.

Lighthouse at the tip of the rugged Howth Peninsula.

Lighthouse at the tip of the rugged Howth Peninsula.

A public art project as seen out our window above Temple Bar Square.

A public art project as seen out our window above Temple Bar Square.

Beautiful ornate Dublin building.

Beautiful ornate Dublin building.

Dalkey Castle.

Dalkey Castle.