Gougane Barra, Ireland –“It’s all about getting into the landscape,’’ driver/guide Deidre “Dee’’ Harman advises as she wheels a 14-pasenger Mercedes Benz minivan through southwestern Ireland.
“When we are out of road markers, we are in the real Ireland.’’
Fair enough, and one of the reasons I opted to take an escorted tour through the island nation I had already driven in three times. I know those rural landscapes switch from low but tough-looking mountains to dreamy rolling hills and meadows that poured from 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.
So now Dee is doing the driving for me, seven other Americans and two couples from Tasmania. We’re on 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 and relaxation parlors’’). The palaver masks the fact 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.
Indeed, she steers us up “Ireland’s bendiest (cq) 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, (cq) 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 (cq) 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 doing “the zombie walk’’, 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.
I have been a travel writer and editor for more than 26 years…thus my previous trips to Ireland. I might have been able to do enough research to learn of all the stops I’ll make in five days I’ll spend with Dee and three on the more-sedate tour. Instead, I’ve decided to experience the pros and cons of giving yourself up to an escorted tour.
Things I didn’t know to see or do:
What I gave up by not driving myself, alone:
Control over each day’s routine, such as where to go, where to eat, where to stop for no reason other than to admire the view and to let my thoughts wander, and where to spend the night.
What I gained by not driving myself, alone:
Would I book another escorted tour, in Ireland or elsewhere? It would depend on how much research I wanted to do on desired destinations and how well any tour would match my list.
Yes, with a tour you take the chance of being forced to spend time with disagreeable people. On the other hand, you might make new friends and/or learn about their customs and daily routines in far-away places. Tasmania, anyone?
For more information, on Vagabond Tours Ltd., go to http://vagabondtoursofireland.ie
Robert N. Jenkins, travel editor for 19 years of the Tampa Bay, FL, Times, has been a freelance writer for the past 8 years. His four e-book anthologies are available at the Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords sites. For more information, go to www.smashwords.com/author/robertjenkins.
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