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We were stopped at a craft shop not far from Galway, Ireland, when we crossed paths with another tour group. We watched as 40 or so travelers slowly boarded a huge motorcoach. Despite the fact that they had begun to board shortly after we arrived, we were on our bus — with plenty of space to spread out — and back on the road before they even had their engine started. As we sped off, I thought about all those people lumbering across Ireland, waiting for stragglers at every stop. In contrast, our group seemed quick and agile and, quite frankly, a lot more fun.
This chance encounter illustrates one of the main differences between a traditional escorted tour and Brendan Vacations’ new Small Group Discoveries, the tour itinerary I was previewing on that visit to Ireland. This new option, booking now and debuting in April 2011, is designed for clients who want the convenience and expertise of a Brendan escorted tour but in an upscale and personal format that emphasizes the authentic flavors and experiences of the region.
All of Brendan’s Small Group Discoveries — created by a company that has specialized in vacations to Ireland for more than 40 years — are capped at 24 guests and include sights, activities and accommodations often unavailable to larger groups. These tours allow for more flexibility and spontaneity and more interaction with Brendan’s all-Irish guides.
“At Brendan, we believe strongly in developing tourism to Ireland, and we are investing in Ireland. At the same time, we have always been very supportive of travel agents and will continue to partner with them,” said Nico Zenner, president of Brendan Vacations. “We see a strong trend toward smaller group travel that stresses authentic experiences, and I think the Small Group Discoveries product will give agents a great tool to meet this growing demand.”
Our weeklong preview of Small Group Discoveries started with a walking tour of Dublin. Unlike larger groups that conspicuously take up sidewalks and mass around the tour leader, our small group strolled easily through the heart of town, visiting Trinity College, the Bank of Ireland, Merrion Square Park and more. The day was capped off by Irish coffees in the underground Cellar Bar, originally the wine vault in the Duke of Wellington’s birthplace. As with most of the restaurants and local pubs we sampled throughout our trip, this bar was totally unique but also one that would not have been able to accommodate a larger group.
We spent the next few days exploring the countryside near Galway, using Ballynahinch Castle as our base. Set on 450 unspoiled acres, Ballynahinch has a fascinating history dating back more than 700 years. The current managers of the castle — which is renowned for its sustainable wild salmon fly-fishing in season — are down-to-earth and friendly, and the castle is so homey that guests are forgiven if they simply want to spend the day reading by one of the fireplaces. In fact, Zenner made a point to say that guests on the Small Group Discoveries itineraries can always opt out of scheduled activities if they prefer to relax instead. He also said that itineraries have no early morning wake-up calls, for those who like to sleep in while on vacation.
After Ballynahinch, we headed to the Cliffs of Moher, one of Ireland’s most famous tourist sights. On the way, we had lunch in a small village that showcases Irish artisans. We chatted with local craftspeople including those at Celtic Roots Studio, which creates sculptures out of bogwood, a rare and indigenous wood that can be more than 5,000 years old.
That night, we visited Dromoland Castle, in County Clare. Dromoland features world-class golf, a spa, falconry classes, fine dining and more, all in a setting that is picturesque and exclusive. It’s no wonder that five U.S. presidents have stayed there.
Our trip ended back in Dublin, where we stayed at the chic Fitzwilliam Hotel. The modern decor was a far cry from the castles of the previous nights, and it was a great way to be welcomed back to the cosmopolitan city. On the final night, we had dinner at a small upstairs bistro called The Pig’s Ear. At the crowded restaurant, with Dublin’s hip crowd all around us, we toasted our good fortune at getting the opportunity to sample Brendan’s new tour concept. We all agreed it wouldn’t be easy going back to being just one among many.