Canadian Corrina Austin took a Driftwood 7 Day Treasure Ireland Tour recently with us. She kindly agreed to write a guest blog about her experience.
I came to Ireland almost on a whim. My friend Nancy (we are both retired teachers from SW Ontario, Canada) had done all the research and organizing with another friend of hers before choosing to go with Driftwood and their seven-day “Treasure Ireland Tour” (one of the eight different tour options available). Unfortunately, Nancy’s travelling companion backed out a few weeks before the tour due to unforeseen circumstances, and Nancy asked if I would come in her friend’s place.
Ireland was not even on my radar at that time–I was thinking that Italy and France would be on the list for my next European destinations (I’ve previously visited Switzerland, England and Holland). Let me say from the outset, that I have absolutely no regrets that chance and luck brought me to Ireland. It was without a doubt the trip of a lifetime!
One of the greatest benefits of the Driftwood tour was the size of the bus. It was more like a glorified van, and had space for a maximum of only sixteen people. This allowed for two things:
1. We were able to take some of the back roads and access sites that an enormous tour bus wouldn’t have been able to get to.
2. Because of the lower body count, we were able to easily interact with our tour mates and make friends on the journey.
Maybe other tour groups haven’t been as fortunate as ours–but I can honestly say that our little gang hit it off splendidly, right from the beginning. Nancy and I were the only Canadians on the tour. The remaining thirteen were American, a mixture of three married couples, a mom with her twin daughters celebrating their 30th birthday, and a group of sorority sisters from the Southern U.S., one of whom had her darling mom along with her. “Americans Plus Two Canadians” had a lot of fun sharing this adventure together. Before we parted ways, we created a Facebook group and even still, new pictures of the tour are popping up on Facebook. Sharing photographs has been a special part of our connection. We all visited the same places and supposedly had the same experiences, but the photographs reveal different angles and perspectives, and oftentimes, little details that I never noticed at all. With the group’s permission, I am including some of the Facebook group photographs in this blog.
One thing the smaller tour bus did not allow for was an on-bus toilet, but there were several stops for bathroom breaks along the way, and on one occasion, one was found post-haste at my request.
A note here about our tour drivers. We had Mia to start, and then she had to leave the tour because she’d met her maximum quota of days according to Irish driving laws. We were then joined by Denise to continue on and finish the tour. In my mind, it is ideal to have the continuity of one guide–but there was nothing that could have been done as this was a “law thing.” Both guides were engaging in their commentary and obviously passionate about Ireland and its history, and each were fearless, competent drivers. I never had a moment’s worry on the road with either of these two ladies.
As a writer of fiction, it naturally follows that I am an enthused fan of anything “ruins.” Roofless abbeys, towering castles, ancient stone circles, and cemeteries with blackened stone markers—all the history and tragedy fills my imagination with scenarios and characters. The Treasure Ireland tour gave me several opportunities to not only see these ruins, but to explore them. I enjoyed Dublin and the quaint little towns (such as lovely Dingle) and shopping in Galway, but the ruins were above and beyond my favourite experiences in Ireland. I would have been content to explore abbeys and castles and stone circles day in and out. However, a tour has to cater to the interests of several people, and Driftwood did a spectacular job of ensuring that a good balance of sights and activities was available to the group. As there are so many things to do and see while in Ireland, the tour had to pick and choose from many options, and the sights and opportunities they organized into the tour gave us a real taste of Ireland and its history as well as ensuring that we had a whole lot of fun!
For the more urban-minded traveller, there are plenty of stops along the way in towns—Dingle is a charming little harbour town with quaint shops to explore and several pubs for some evening thirst-quenching. We had two days there mid-tour, and it was pleasant to have a bit of a rest from the bus and the constant packing and unpacking, which is one of the down-sides of touring. We also had an afternoon in bustling Galway with its street performers, parades, oyster bars and crowded pubs. Ballyvaughan was another lovely little village—quiet and rustic, with ponies hanging their heads over fences and a few nice restaurants to choose from when looking for a hot supper.
Speaking of supper, many people have asked me about my opinion of the food in Ireland. Every meal we had there was top-rate—a lot of fresh seafood, but many other options were available. Soups and chowders were excellent, and the Irish Brown Soda Bread was so delicious; I came home and started straight-away experimenting with recipes. Breakfasts were all included with the tour. Typically, a cold buffet of fruit, yogurt, cereals, breads, cheeses and juices was offered. Once you’d helped yourself to that, a server would come and ask what you’d like for “hot breakfast” and you could choose from porridge made with cream and fruit, the full Irish breakfast, or “mini” version (fried egg, Irish bacon, sausage, grilled tomato, black pudding (no thanks) and potatoes, or pancakes, omelettes, etc. I think it’s possible that Hobbits might have roots in Ireland. Second Breakfast arrives even before First Breakfast is over! Beyond breakfast, we had to budget for lunch and dinner, but it was obvious that great care was taken by Driftwood in choosing pubs and restaurants for us, and when we were on our own for a meal, our tour guide was at the ready with helpful suggestions.
Hotels were chosen for our optimum comfort. Not all were “fancy,” but the accommodations were clean and comfortable. To our surprise, several provided face-cloths, which is generally something you don’t find in European hotels. The Seven-Day Driftwood tour gave us the opportunity to stay in two very special hotel locations. As previously mentioned, our first night was spent in the lovely Gougane Barra Hotel.
Our last evening’s stay was the crown jewel of the tour’s accommodations: Abbeyglen Castle Hotel. Yes, we stayed in an ACTUAL castle that last night, including a champagne welcome reception, a discounted covered dish dinner, and some open mike singing afterwards in the piano bar, where I braced myself for my castle debut with a Jameson whiskey and ginger. This castle was a more recent build than the other castles we saw in Ireland (circa 1850’s), but it maintained a definite historical atmosphere, with the addition of modern comforts and beautiful grounds for strolling.
Ireland is so breathtakingly rugged and beautiful that driving to an “attraction” is not always necessary. Sometimes, attractions just happen while you are sitting on the bus…
…or the boat.
Since my return to Canada, I have been busy on the TripAdvisor website, reviewing many of the sites we visited while on the tour. I’ve noticed that other reviewers who explored Ireland without the benefit of a guided tour recorded difficulties in finding some of the more out-of-the-way attractions. Being on a tour took those challenges right out of the equation. We spent no time getting lost, backtracking, fumbling with Google Maps, or asking for directions. Our expert drivers knew exactly where they were going and the entrance fees were built into the price of the tour (for the most part), allowing us to simply step off the bus and go in.
It wasn’t until I came home and started blogging that I realized how much we actually fit into our days on the tour. For example, on the first day, we drove out from Dublin to explore the magnificent Rock of Cashel–a windswept abbey ruin perched on a rugged hill, drove on to County Cork to see Blarney Castle (I had no intention of climbing all the way to the top, getting onto my back, and wriggling deep down into a hole to kiss the Blarney Stone, but I ended up doing just that!) and the surrounding gardens, and then drove out to lovely and remote Gougane Barra for our first night’s stay, enjoying spectacular views over the hills and lake, a first-evening-on-tour toast in the hotel bar, and a dinner of delectable local cuisine. Every day was packed with adventures like these, yet almost miraculously, there was time enough to look around, take pictures, and to just enjoy the experience.
I would take another tour with Driftwood in a heartbeat, but first, I will need to replenish my poor savings account. My sights are turned towards the “Ancient Ireland” tour next time around!
If you would like to read about my Ireland experience in further detail, please check out the Ireland entries on my blog!
If perchance you would like to read even more words by me, I hope you will check out my book Corners scheduled for release in March, 2018.