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.
Waking in the middle of the night, I pondered the name of the B&B. Strand View House certainly implied a view of the strand--in this case, Ireland's longest beach. So why, when the other three rooms were unoccupied, had we been placed in back? I asked Mary about our room at breakfast, which was the best of our trip: amazing pancakes--more like crepes, really--and Ireland's excellent smoked salmon, served with scrambled eggs. We'd checked in early, she replied, so she'd given us the only room ready at the time. (The best room, Mount Brandon, has a stunning view of the ocean.) Before leaving, we handed over the voucher dated for the previous night's stay--so much nicer than a credit card or cold, hard cash.
Adare Manor came next. The 18th-century stone castle, all towers and turrets, sits on 840 groomed acres, with a golf course and massive cedar, birch, and oak trees. Our palatial room--we received an upgrade for no discernible reason--was decorated in black, gold, and red, with a stone fireplace. And dinner in the Oakroom was outstanding: a table set with candelabra and white linens, a meal that included seared Atlantic scallops and herb-crusted rack of lamb, and a window overlooking the parterre. Though we were there on a package, we never felt like second-class citizens. The staff was unfailingly pleasant and courteous.
We planned to wing it the following night--wandering around Galway until we came upon a B&B we liked the look of, and ringing the doorbell to see if there was a room. Bad idea. Galway's B&Bs were full--the photo in the Irish Independent of Matt Dillon at the Galway Film Festival should have tipped us off. In the late afternoon we stopped at a Tourist Information Center (they're all over the country; a big "I" marks the spot) to spend a half hour with the determined Vincent, who pledged to find us a room nearby. (Staffers at any TIC will perform the service for $5 per booking.) Vincent consulted his computer system and made several calls--all the while displaying his masterful gift of gab. The B&B he found, Lake Side Country House outside the town of Oughterard, turned out to be one of our favorites. "She sounds lovely on the phone," he confided after speaking with Mary O'Halloran, our host-to-be.
Galway is a youthful, artsy city, full of people enjoying life. Dave and I strolled the maze of pedestrian-only streets, ducking into bookstores, listening to buskers playing flute and guitar, and inspecting sidewalk vendors' jewelry. After gorging on seafood at McDonagh's Seafood House--we should have split an entrée--we left to arrive just before sunset at Lake Side Country House, on the undeveloped shores of Lough Corrib, Ireland's second-largest lake. Joe O'Halloran has built a rock garden with the oddly shaped pieces of limestone he can't stop collecting (that one looks like a little fox! and there's a spaniel!), while a pasture beside the house provides a home for Connemara ponies and the chicken coop.
Lake Side was a peaceful haven, though Dave was disturbed by the whirring sound made by the tiny electric shower ("I always thought water and electricity don't mix"). The next morning, yet another huge breakfast--besides juice and a selection of cereals, there were always eggs, usually accompanied by sausage, ham, tomato, and toast. Many of the B&B hosts are accomplished bakers, and we quickly developed a taste for Irish brown bread, slightly sweet with a cakey texture. At Lake Side, too full to get back in the car right away, we took a short walk down a country lane lined with blackberry bushes to see Aughnanure Castle, a six-story stone tower where O'Flaherty chieftains barricaded themselves against the British in the 16th century. Our kids would have loved reading about the resident bats and seeing the "murder hole"--an opening above the front door that allowed defenders to drop stones onto anyone who had managed to breach the fortified walls.
From Oughterard, the landscape opens up to Connemara's high, lonely moors, with their peat bogs, fragrant wild roses, and countless lakes and streams. By now the generally rainy weather hadn't just broken--it had turned sunny and hot. Heat-wave hot. Few Irish B&Bs have air-conditioning, and we were soon lamenting the absence of even a fan in the bedroom.
I booked our three remaining B&Bs the easiest way possible, by simply asking our host at one place to call the next. Each did so willingly, and offered helpful advice as to choices. We spent a night at Winnowing Hill, a hillside B&B with a solarium overlooking lush rosebushes, a manicured lawn, and, beyond that, the steeples of Clifden, Connemara's main town. Then, since I still yearned for a B&B with a lot of history, we traveled deeper into Connemara to Kylemore House, a high-ceilinged Georgian villa more than 200 years old, beside Lough Kylemore. Kylemore Abbey, a big-ticket attraction for Connemara, was a five-minute drive away. Built as a private home in 1867, the Gothic Revival castle later became a Benedictine abbey, whose nuns now run a girls' boarding school there. While the $13 entrance fee seemed pricey, for that we were able to view several beautifully restored formal rooms and take a 10-minute shuttle ride to the six-acre Victorian walled garden. Mitchell Henry, son of a Manchester cotton tycoon, spent four years building the castle for his wife and nine children. Only three years after moving in, his wife died in Cairo--a tantalizing detail (nine kids and she was vacationing in Egypt?) that made her death seem that much more tragic. Henry built the exquisite chapel in her memory.
For our final night, to position us within easy reach of Shannon Airport, I reserved a room near Killaloe, a pretty village on the River Shannon. Carramore Lodge had a huge velvety lawn out front, flanked by colorful perennial beds and a goldfish pond. We'd come to expect the pink walls that we found in our room--every B&B we stayed in had pink walls, or pink sheets, or pink floral comforters, or a combination of all three.
To escape the stifling heat, we passed the evening on the breezy roof deck of Molly's, a lively bar and restaurant at one end of the bridge that links Killaloe with its sister town of Ballina. Couples and families crowded around the tables, while teenagers milled about down by the river, in the way that teenagers do everywhere. At sunset we each raised a Guinness to toast our trip--and the last of these footloose days. We were ready to be parents again.
Book the castle first. Brian Moore International Tours and Ireland.com both offer nights at Adare Manor, Waterford Castle, Dromoland Castle, and Ashford Castle. BMIT can also book Cabra and Lalyseede Castles. Celtic Tours has even more options. Your choice will dictate at least part of your itinerary. I picked Adare Manor, which is near Shannon Airport, and found out when I booked that only one night was available there--our second. Since we were flying into Shannon, we couldn't roam too far from Adare on our first day.
Fine-tune the package. Call tour operators directly and book only what you think is essential. As part of our Emerald Castle package, Ireland.com would reserve our first night at a hotel near Shannon Airport. Since we were arriving in the early morning--and had all day in front of us--we wanted to hit the road. I booked that night myself elsewhere and saved $5 because the hotel room would have cost more than our night at a B&B.
Avoid the high season. Our visit was in early July. Later in the month and throughout August, many B&Bs get even busier, and it's recommended that you prebook both your first and last night. That'll take away a lot of your flexibility. Rooms in and around Dublin must always be reserved well in advance, as the demand is high. You'll pay an extra $9 per night in Dublin from June through September (in cash, directly to your host).
Splurge appropriately. We chose B&Bs that had rooms with private baths. A less-expensive option gives you shared baths, sometimes in farmhouses. Our total with taxes and fees: $1,693 each, as peak-season flights were $1,000 per person. But once in Ireland, our only real expenses were meals and gas. Most tour operators offer low-season rates of $499 to $599 for the standard B&B package.
Go manual. The basic packages include stick-shift cars. Upgrading to an automatic costs up to $50 more, depending on the season. Extra charges will include $67 for the Collision Damage Waiver, which is mandatory in Ireland (add it on when you book because it'll cost twice as much if you wait to buy it in Ireland); a government car-rental tax of $29 payable at pickup; and a possible $7 per day for an extra driver, even a spouse. Cars usually come with a CD player, so pack some Irish music--The Chieftains, Van Morrison, U2.
Sneak a peek online. Log on to the Town and Country Homes website tandctrade.com to get a look at the B&Bs. Be sure to specify "vouchers accepted" so that you'll see only those that participate in the program.
Confirm ahead! When you reserve a room, call to make sure that the B&B does accept vouchers--even if the Town and Country Homes website says it does. Apparently some hosts have withdrawn from the program, as it can take a while for them to be reimbursed (one owner told us she wasn't paid until December for a summer booking).
Pack light. Though all the B&Bs we stayed in were comfortable, we were glad we didn't have much luggage, as space was tight. Many of our rooms had been retrofitted to hold a small bathroom with a shower (none had a tub). And in some cases, the sink was outside the bathroom, in the room itself. However, there's often a sitting room where you can spread out. While we'd expected to be able to trade B&B tips with Americans, we often found ourselves among Danish, Swiss, and English travelers.
Who sells B&B packages?