Hearing the tunes of a bagpiper is not uncommon during an Insight Vacations tour of Ireland. // © 2016 Insight Vacations
Feature image (above): Insight Vacations takes clients through Ireland onboard a luxurious coach. // © 2016 Insight Vacations
Sometimes it's easier for international travelers to customize their own itineraries and coordinate their own hotels, meals and transportation. Unless they plan to only stay in Dublin, however, Ireland isn't exactly a place where tourists can just wing it. When traveling the whole country, it's a challenge to find one's bearings in the vast, verdant landscape. And for those who haven't spent much time in the so-called land of saints and scholars, Ireland's long and complex history truly needs to be conveyed by knowledgeable professionals.
Plus, with so many hidden treasures tucked away in charming, remote places, it's clear that an escorted tour company is the way to go. With this in mind, I opted against hastily learning how to drive a right-hand car in left-hand traffic and instead toured Ireland with Insight Vacations, which did all the driving (and a lot more) for me.
Insight Vacations belongs to The Travel Corporation, a family-run business that has been in hospitality for more than 100 years. It has dozens of brands, including Red Carnation Hotels and Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection. Today, Insight has more than 100 itineraries across the world, priding itself on providing outstanding hotels, dining experiences and service. While the majority of Insight's clientele are baby boomers, it's steadily attracting younger travelers, from Gen Xers to millennials and younger future travelers, as well.
Insight Vacations’ special eight-day Treasures of Ireland itinerary gave me a solid introduction to the country. While I was on a customized trip, the following activities are available in the Focus on Ireland, Irish Elegance and Country Roads of Ireland packages.
Upon our arrival in Dublin on the first day of our tour, we explored the city and wandered across Trinity College, where we saw the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript Gospel book. On day two, we moved south toward Kilkenny and headed to the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary, where it's believed St. Patrick baptized the King of Munster in the fifth century. On the third day, we visited Killarney and moved west to drive around the picturesque Ring of Kerry before heading up to the Dingle Peninsula and northeast to Limerick on day four.
We then ventured toward the towering Cliffs of Moher back west, settling in at the luxurious Ashford Castle for two nights, where we were greeted by the hauntingly beautiful sounds of a lone bagpiper. Here, we took a scenic cruise of Loch Corrib, walked with hawks at Ireland's School of Falconry and enjoyed locally sourced cuisine at the five-star hotel. On the seventh day, we returned to Dublin for a tour of the Guinness Storehouse, finally heading back home on day eight.
A hallmark of an Insight Vacations package is the luxury touring vehicle: a swanky coach with panoramic windows and Wi-Fi access. (Don't call it a bus — they don't like that word.) It has what Insight Vacations calls "limousine legroom," which exists because there's a maximum of 40 guests on any given trip.
The tour was well-paced, with flexible itineraries and "relaxed starts," meaning the earliest morning departure was 9 a.m. There was a welcome dinner at the start of the trip, with a celebration/farewell dinner at the end. From big-name brands to family hotels and signature properties such as Ashford Castle, all accommodations had optimal locations. Accommodations, sightseeing, experiences, excursions and almost all meals were included.
Though there are very few instances when lunches aren’t covered, guests should pay extra attention to the itinerary and always have some euros on hand just in case. This is a good idea in general, as visitors will no doubt see great street performers and some cool little curiosity shops that only accept cash.
While the Wi-Fi access and extra legroom on the coach are certainly bonuses, the amenities can actually work to a passenger’s disadvantage. There's always the temptation to check one's email or sleep off the jet lag than look outside at the beautiful scenery — but this is simply a matter of discipline on the part of the traveler. Either way, it's nice to have the option.
In the end, Insight Vacations provided an excellent introduction to the Emerald Isle, thanks in no small part to our tour director, Michael, one of Insight's revered "personal traveling concierges." He drew from his own experiences and gave a well-rounded series of insights into the cultural, intellectual and political history of Ireland. Best of all, neither he nor any Insight tour director will ever try to sell a client on any added options, leaving more to give back to the real treasures of Ireland: the people.