On the Road Again – with 26 Strangers, in Ireland

The pros and cons of group touring in Ireland

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Group Tour in Ireland: The Cliffs of Moher are one of nature's top attractions in Ireland. Flickr/ Giuseppe Milo
The Cliffs of Moher are one of the top natural attractions in Ireland. Flickr/Giuseppe Milo

“It’s all about getting into the landscape,’’ driver/guide Deidre “Dee’’ Harman advises as she wheels a 14-passenger Mercedes Benz minivan through southwestern Ireland.

“When we are out of road markers, we are in the real Ireland.’’

Group Tour in Ireland

Fair enough, and one of the reasons I opted to take an escorted tour through the island nation I had already driven myself in three times.

I know those rural landscapes switch from low but tough-looking mountains to dreamy rolling hills and meadows that seem a mix of the melted greens in the crayon box.

But I also know the frustration of trying to enjoy such panoramas while driving on the “wrong’’ side of a rental car on the “wrong’’ side of the road. Never mind the challenging country lanes about 1½ cars wide and bordered by low stone walls.

Group Travel in Ireland: Driftwood passengers explore an ancient tower in Ireland. Photo by Robert N. Jenkins
Driftwood passengers explore an ancient tower in Ireland. Photo by Robert N. Jenkins

So now Dee is doing the driving – for me, seven other Americans and two couples from Tasmania – during an eight-day tour of the southwest and central west coasts.

With wit, she offers her passengers narratives on Irish history, food and culture (“Enya has a castle in Dublin, livin’ off her royalties from dentists’ offices and relaxation parlors’’).

The palaver masks the fact that Dee is a three-year veteran of Ireland’s volunteer military, but her five years as a driver for the Irish firm Vagabond Tours Ltd. is obvious as she wheels what she’s dubbed the “Vagatron’’ around Dublin’s streets and those narrow country lanes.

Group tour of Ireland - Looking down on "Ireland's bendiest road." Photo by Robert N. Jenkins
Looking down on “Ireland’s bendiest road.” Photo by Robert N. Jenkins

Travel in Ireland

Indeed, she steers us up “Ireland’s bendiest road’’ to Healey Pass, 1,100 feet above sea level. There she stops and gently orders us out to walk down the now straight pavement.

“I’ll meet you partway down,’’ she calls, and passes us.

This surprise walk is our third of four on our second day. Vagabond offers two types of travel, one offering physical activities off the minivan, the other type a more-sedate view of many of the same stops.

Dee is piloting us on the more strenuous of the two. We began this day climbing in a drizzle for about 30 minutes on slick, uneven, stone slabs by a rushing creek in Gougane Barra, a forest park on the Beara Peninsula.

We will end our exercise this day climbing uphill, from pavement to gravel to grass, to enter a roofless, single-room stone-wall building. This is a “famine cottage,’’ a reference to the dreadful potato famine of the mid-1800s. The family that had lived here could no longer produce a crop, so they were out of both food and rent money – and housing.

This sad example is part of the afternoon’s history lesson; the next part is found back down this hill and up another, about a half-mile away. Dee leads us to the Uragh Stone Circle – a half-dozen boulders that were placed in a rough circle millennia ago. The exact purpose is still unknown.

While Dee discusses whether we might feel something from the spirit world if we walk around the circle with our arms straight out — “the zombie walk’’, she says — a darling lamb, just days old, is bleating nearby for its mother. When no ewe answers, the lamb wanders over, practically nuzzling two of us before heading downhill toward the now-present mother.

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