Every Day Is a Winding Road in Ireland
When it feels like every moment of your life is scheduled, maybe your vacation shouldn't be.
It's time to ditch the itinerary and embark on what we call a Choose Your Own Adventure package. You get airfare, a car rental, a week's worth of lodging vouchers, and the freedom to hopscotch around the countryside, booking your next room just a day in advance. The trend began in Ireland in 1999, before spreading to Great Britain, France, and beyond. Barbara Peck test-drives one of the original deals.
This past summer, having packed our two sons off to camp, my husband and I were ready for our first child-free vacation in years. Ireland, so compact yet so diverse, seemed perfect for a driving trip. Fortunately for me, David is handy at hauling luggage, driving a stick shift on the wrong side of the road, and lustily singing "Black Velvet Band." We agreed on flying into Shannon Airport rather than Dublin, so we could explore the wild western coast, especially the rugged hills of Connemara.
Several companies offer Ireland deals that include flights, a rental car, and vouchers good at roughly 1,400 B&Bs belonging to the Town and Country Homes Association. All the packages have the same weeklong format: six nights in B&Bs or five B&B nights and one night at a hotel or castle. (Ireland and B&Bs are made for each other. The Irish are gregarious hosts, and many have been renting out rooms for decades; while hotels are rare in rural areas, there's always a B&B no matter how far you stray from the beaten path.) But unlike a traditional tour, where there's little room for spontaneity, these packages let you change your itinerary as you go, choosing a different B&B every night, or settling in if you find one that suits your style.
After poking around online, I called several tour operators in hopes of speaking with a real person. Everyone was polite and patient, almost soothing. I especially appreciated the Irish lilt in the voice of Catherine, an agent at Brian Moore International Tours. But in the end I settled on Ireland.com, which offered the lowest rate and nonstop flights to Shannon on our preferred airline.
A large envelope arrived a few days later, with e-tickets, accommodations and car-rental vouchers, an itinerary, a road map, and the 336-page Bed & Breakfast Guide. We had a rough plan: To steer clear of tourist hordes, I vetoed the famous Ring of Kerry, despite Dave's protest that it'd be like going to Arizona without seeing the Grand Canyon. Instead, we'd loop around the Dingle Peninsula before our castle stay at Adare Manor, then we'd head for Connemara. Following Ireland.com's advice to book our first night in advance, I combed through the guide, scrutinizing photos of Dingle B&Bs. Few fit my image of a quaint thatched cottage. Instead, they were mostly plain suburban houses built in recent decades. It's clearly a popular look to surround a house with asphalt; many B&Bs appear to have enough space to park a semi. I studied the two-line descriptions for clues (looking for gardens in particular) and e-mailed four Dingle properties to check availability. Within hours, all four replied in the affirmative.
Ten days later we arrived at Shannon, where we picked up a Ford Fiesta from Dooley Car Rentals. Soon after leaving the highway we plunged into an impossibly green landscape where hedgerows were bursting with ferns and foxgloves. As we approached a confusing roundabout, Dave's eyes narrowed and the chorus of "Whiskey in the Jar" died on his lips. "Okay, which way is it?" he asked.
Stalling for time, I offered what was to become my standard advice: "Just keep going around till we figure it out."
Once we conquered the roundabout, our first B&B, Strand View House, was easy to locate. Mary Lynch showed us to an immaculate room in the back, with a view of flowering shrubs and a fieldstone wall on a hillside. The bed looked horizontal, which is all we cared about after our overnight flight. We took a brief nap, then got back in the car and drove across the Dingle Peninsula, stopping at Ireland's highest mountain pass, Conor Pass, to marvel at the motley patchwork of fields and lakes below. (Government officials recently announced that Dingle's name would change to An Daingean, a Gaelic word that means fortress and is apparently pronounced awn-dang-in. We called it Dingle, just like everyone else.) We covered a good part of the peninsula, along roads that in some places were so narrow I closed my eyes when a bus approached.
In the early evening we retraced our steps to have dinner in the peninsula's biggest town, also known as Dingle. A contemporary bistro called the Chart House convinced us that the old Irish meat-and-potatoes cliché is a thing of the past. We devoured a mushroom appetizer baked with hummus and gubeen (a local cheese), and we lingered at the end over a rhubarb crumble with ginger ice cream. On the 30-minute drive back to Strand View House, we realized it's important to keep in mind where you'd like to eat when booking a B&B. Nobody wants to--or should--drive on winding country roads after a leisurely meal and some wine or Guinness.