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Discovering Ireland with Vagabond Adventure Tours of Ireland

The view from Gougane Barra, Cork
The view from Gougane Barra, Cork

by Everett Potter

Just when I thought that I’d seen it all after visiting Ireland for the past 35 years – the greatest vistas, the venerable pub that I swore pulled the best pint ever, the most comfortable country house hotel anywhere – I had a pleasant awakening last October. I owe it to a five day adventure-laden meander through Counties Cork and Kerry with Vagabond Adventure Tours of Ireland.

Now this is unlike any “tour” that your great aunt Mary or your parents may have done once upon a time in the auld sod. You know, the classic mad dash in a bus or rental car from Donegal to Waterford with barely time for tea in Dublin, all in less than a week.

Seeing the Wild Atlantic Way with Vagabond Adventure Tours of Ireland.
Seeing the Wild Atlantic Way with Vagabond Adventure Tours of Ireland.

Vagabond uses custom-designed Land Rovers that take no more than 13 passengers and one loquacious guide who acts as driver and raconteur. The idea behind Vagabond is to bring travelers well off the beaten path in this remarkable country. You won’t see everything in Ireland, not by a long shot. But what you do see will remain with you long after you’ve left.

Such as sea kayaking around a boulder-rimmed bay near Sneem, paddling out to watch foaming Atlantic rollers –coming from Boston, presumably — and spied upon by a curious bunch of gray seals as we paddled. Hill walking through a rugged Kerry landscape that seemed populated solely by sheep. Or mountain biking in a forest in Limerick. I would have found none of these on my own, regardless of how good my GPS might have been. It’s all down to local knowledge, like so much of what goes on in the West of Ireland.

Pub lunch along the way with Vagabond.
Pub lunch along the way with Rob Rankin of Vagabond, right.

“We set out to create a unique way for people to experience the full range of what Ireland is all about,” says Vagabond’s founder, Rob Rankin. ”Most adventure travel is ‘soft adventure,’ such as walking, cycling and kayaking, and that’s the type of adventure that Ireland is so well suited for. We pair that with the country’s rich culture and history.”

Much of where they took us is part of the Wild Atlantic Way, a recently designated 1,600 mile route along Ireland’s West Coast that is said to be the longest defined coastal touring route in the world. Dramatic cliffs, ancient ruins, impossibly pretty villages and empty beaches comprise this route that twists and turns from the Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal to Kinsale in County Cork. More than just a driving route, it’s an endless invitation for adventures. On a Vagabond trip, that can mean surfing, horseback riding on one of those empty beaches or mountain biking in an old growth forest. Every day is a different adventure and a different activity. It might be the single best use of the term “multisport” that I’ve ever experienced.

All the while, our driver, Larry Coady, kept up an incredible stream of history, folklore, jokes and observations, a finely tuned mix of entertainment and pedagogy. He also had the remarkable and truly Irish talent of doing it solely from memory. In the age of Twitter, when we’re forced to reduce our “bon mots” to 144 characters, this was impressive indeed. Larry also had the gift of knowing when no words were needed, such as when we came upon a view of a brilliantly sunlit wave-lashed Kerry coastline or spied half a dozen rainbows in a single afternoon on the Beara Peninsula. And if things needed to be livened up, then tunes by Imelda May or The Pogues were readily at hand.

Pub lunches ruled, and the best was at MacCarthy’s Bar in Castletownbeare, one of the Holy Grail’s for pub-lovers. It was the inspiration for Pete McCarthy’s book “McCarthy’s Bar: A Journey of Discovery in Ireland,” a personal favorite that is funny, touching and dives to the heart of all matters Irish.

Sitting room at Gougane Barra, Cork
Sitting room at Gougane Barra, Cork

While we stayed at several small Irish-owned hotels, the centerpiece of the journey for me was our time at Gougane Barra. Five generations of the same family have run this classic Irish country house hotel set on a remote, mountain-ringed loch in the middle of nowhere in County Cork.

The owner, Neil greets you in Irish – this is part of a Gaeltacht, a designated Irish speaking region  – as you enter one of the coziest lobbies in the country. There’s a small lounge with a warming fire, and an equally small bar where Neil will pull you a pint of Murphy’s stout. Your only mandate after a day spent walking or cycling is to make it to dinner.

The Lucey family, the fifth generation to run Gougane Barra, Cork.
The Lucey family, the fifth generation to run Gougane Barra, Cork.

The proprietress, Katy, was a chirpy blur between her Aga stove in the kitchen and the dining room that night, using the legendary appliance to produce such delights as a roast supreme of free-range chicken on traditional potato stuffing with crispy thick slab local Irish bacon and rosemary gravy, followed by a most amazing traditional baked apple crumble warmed with homemade custard.

The guest rooms are simple and comfortable, but what they may lack in luxury is compensated for by million dollar views of the loch and the surrounding mountains. You can keep your Egyptian cotton sheets, I’ll take this view and my room any day.

The next morning, we ventured on a wettish walk into adjacent Gourgane Barra National Park, Ireland’s first National Park, which opened in 1964. It was followed by Katy’s cooking demonstration – “We try to do Irish food with a twist,” she told me –  as she made brown bread and Irish stew, two classics but with subtle “twists.” The bottle of poteen – traditional Irish moonshine – that was mysteriously produced and passed around seemed to be an unexpected twist and raised the enjoyment level considerably.

The shepherd and his flock on Kissane Farm in Kerry.
The shepherd and his flock on Kissane Farm in Kerry.

I haven’t spoken about walking to half forgotten stone circles and castle ruins, the frenetic sheepdogs at work on a Kerry farm, the late evening traditional music sessions in Kenmare, and the general sense of “craic” that informs a Vagabond tour. But I will say that it added up to extraordinary discoveries in a country that I thought I knew so very well.

Visit Vagabond Adventure Tours of Ireland. From $1,340 for seven day trips along the Wild Atlantic Way.

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