Andy Booth was named ‘Group Travel Organiser of the Year’ in 2011 for his sterling work organising trips for the Sainsbury’s Rye Park Distribution Centre. After willingly taking on the voluntary role of Social Secretary eight years ago, after previous experience in group travel organising, Andy expanded the scope of the group trips; familiar with day trips to the theatre and seaside, the group found themselves globetrotting to the USA (including a Las Vegas trip with 80 people!), Canada, Paris, Norway and throughout the UK. There are currently around 400 members of the group. As Andy says, ‘I’m now 52 years old, and have done more travelling in the past five years than I have done in the past 45! It’s amazing, but I’ve got the bug for travelling.’ Here, Andy tells us about a trip last month to Ireland.
“Watching James Nesbitt’s TV series about Ireland recently certainly began to stir the imagination about what we were going to see on our forthcoming group visit to the Emerald Isle’s south-west. My own first ideas had been of endless pints of Guinness served by chatty barmen ‘kissed by the Blarney Stone’ in pubs overlooking endless miles of unspoilt seashores and green fields. As always when I visit a new country, I thought it would be sensible to look up information in my local library about the ‘culture’ and ‘local customs’. In one book I found, there’s a famous saying that ‘God created alcohol so the Irish wouldn’t take over the world’. I chuckled to myself and decided that I wouldn’t ask any Irishmen I met for their opinion on that!
So, armed with a copy of 'Dowtcha Boy!' (a dictionary of Cork slang) I felt at ease and confident that I would be able to represent the English as one of the Queen’s ambassadors.*
Getting there was simple; our flight from Heathrow took just over an hour, with Aer Lingus delivering us safely to tiny Cork Airport, where our adventure would begin. Our driver Donny, of Kerry Coaches, made us welcome with his attempt at ‘English’ by shouting ‘alwight’ over the microphone with his broad Irish slant, to shrieks of laughter from the group members. His attempt at British humour had succeeded. We quickly found out he was an experienced driver/guide with lots of information and stories about the places we were to visit. This proved invaluable on the first day, with him recommending we go straight away to Cobh to see ‘The Queenstown Story’, as it would give us more time in Cork on our final day.
‘The Queenstown Story’ is an exhibition located at the Cobh Heritage Centre, telling the fascinating story of how some six million adults and children emigrated from Ireland – over 2.5 million departed from Cobh, making it the single most important port of emigration. Poverty and crop failure prompted many to seek better lives in Canada and America. It was a piece of Irish history I was totally unaware of, which made sad reading, as most paid unscrupulous captains to take them to the promised lands in steerage class. Apparently over 1.5 million left Ireland within a six year period, more than in the past 50 years! There is also an extensive exhibition about the Titanic with artefacts, photos and movie footage of the ill-fated ship.
We were to be based in Killarney at the Gleneagle Hotel for six days on a tour organised by Norman Allen Group Travel. In 2011, Killarney was named Ireland's tidiest town and the cleanest town in the country by Irish Business Against Litter, and indeed the locals are very proud of this and keep the whole place immaculate. It is quiet and calm during the day, while we were pottering around the many interesting shops. But when the sun goes down the town really begins to wake up; the numerous bars open and the locals come out to mingle with the tourists, and you see Killarney in its true colours. This vibrant, happy town buzzes with music in all directions. The atmosphere fills your veins and your feet begin to move, simply because you want to! Sheehan’s Bar in the main street rocked into the early hours with a mixture of traditional and modern Irish music and I just loved it. Or was it the Guinness effect?
Our stay at the Gleneagle Hotel, an upmarket three star hotel, was very enjoyable. With a mixture of rooms to cater for all types of groups, the hotel overlooks the National Park just across the road. The helpful, courteous and knowledgeable hotel staff were attentive to our every request. The facilities include a swimming pool complex with jacuzzi, a well-appointed gym and squash courts, all complimentary for hotel guests. Next door is the Irish National Events Centre, which hosts regular music ‘big names’ performing weekly. Again, residents of the hotel get preferential rates on tickets.
On one night of our stay I had arranged for all of us to see a group called ‘Celtic Steps’ at the INEC, which you can walk to through a connection from the Gleneagle Hotel. The group describes itself as performing a show of traditional Irish music, song and dance, featuring some of Ireland's greatest exponents of the traditional arts in a stunning setting. I have to agree, it was fantastic. Some of the dancers had just returned from the World Irish Dance Championships in America and they clearly well deserved the accolades awarded to them.
During our trip I had organised for three inclusive excursions around the Ring of Kerry, the Dingle Peninsula and Blarney Castle, plus two ‘free to explore’ days. It worked well, with group members opting for pony trekking through the national park, car jaunts and visits to Muckross Abbey and House. There was something for everyone. Considering the age range of the group was 24-83, I felt pleased that no-one was left out. Besides, I had taken my whole family along as well, so I had to keep them happy!
The Ring of Kerry is a 110 mile stretch of road beginning in Killarney, heading around the Iveragh Peninsula and passing through Kenmare, Sneem, Waterville, Cahersiveen and Killorglin. All tour buses on the Ring of Kerry run in an anti-clockwise direction, so car drivers are advised to go clockwise to avoid being stuck behind a bus!
On the way we stopped at Bog Village, an 18th-century recreation of a famine village. Small cramped buildings had multiple occupancy with the most basic of living conditions. One house was merely an extension of the family’s stable for their animals! The site is a heritage award winner and the only one in Europe. When you go round the village, looking inside the houses, you wonder how anyone could have lived in such cramped conditions with a family, and also have animals living inside the house at one end. And no dishwasher!
Near the end of our first full day’s tour we stopped at the Torc Waterfall and revelled in the tall forest surrounding the footpath which leads to the base of a most picturesque waterfall cascading over the rocks at the base of Torc Mountain. The easy incline of the forest path allowed the whole party to see this wonderful natural creation.
We were within the boundaries of the National Park and for miles you get wonderful views overlooking the lakes. We had stopped at ‘Ladies’ View’, a popular viewpoint, and were able to take some great photos of the three lakes: Lough Leane, Muckross Lake and Upper Lake.
The day ended back at the hotel, where the group had allocated seating for dinner. The food was of the highest order with great variation each night. I treated myself to a fillet steak one night for a small supplement, which was well worth it. The hotel food was of the highest quality and quantity.
On one of the days which had been left for everyone to do their own thing, my wife and I jumped on the hotel’s shuttle bus, and for two euro we went into Killarney. My wife immediately spotted the world famous Murphy’s ice-cream shop, and we were able to sample ‘Dingle Sea Salt’, ‘Irish Brown Bread’ and my favourite ‘Guinness’ flavoured ice-cream among the 16 available. A film crew was just setting up to take more footage of this fascinating parlour. Established in 2000, there are three shops in the chain, in Dingle, Killarney and Dublin, and on this trip we would end up in two of them!
In the middle of the week, I’d arranged for us to tour the Dingle Peninsula. This simply stunning piece of coastline, with amazing views over the Atlantic Ocean, meanders around the coast from Castlemaine in the south through Dingle in the west to Tralee in the north. The town of Dingle is probably best known for its resident dolphin, Fungie, who has made Dingle harbour its home since 1984. A bronzed statue of him now stands at the end of the harbour. That, and another Murphy’s ice-cream parlour draws the tourists to this small town.
Most seaside towns wouldn’t be worth visiting without having a decent fish and chip shop, and Dingle is no exception. Harrington’s Family Restaurant does brisk business selling tasty fish and chips, with fish coming straight from the boats across the road in the harbour. Further down the coast, the beach at Inch is probably one of the finest I have ever been on in my life. Stretching for nearly three miles, the view is breath-taking and I couldn’t resist a short paddle in the inviting Atlantic. The water temperature was as expected very cold and I exited very rapidly, to walk barefoot across the golden sand. It reminded me of holidays with my parents on the beaches of Camber Sands on the Kent coast. Incidentally, the beach location for the film ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ was Inch beach. Completing the circular trip, we stopped at a number of promontories to take photos and stand in awe of this amazing coastline. I can’t wait to return and see more of this wonderful country.
At the end of the week, we visited Blarney Castle, where you could climb the 100 steps to kiss the Blarney Stone and gain the gift of eloquence. You have to lie on your back, and lean out towards the outside wall, holding railings embedded in the wall of the castle. It takes a few hours to fully explore the castle and its extensive gardens.
Would I recommend this area of Ireland? You bet. Go there tomorrow!
*Editor says: GTW is not responsible for the political implications or otherwise that readers may or may not read into this comment of Andy’s!