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Ireland, from glen to glen and down the mountainside

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By K.C. Summers
Sunday, November 29, 2009

At the risk of sounding like a shill for the Irish tourism board, Ireland is one of the easiest and most appealing countries in the world to visit.

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Serendipity rules, and the best experiences -- wandering the countryside, having a pint with new friends, dipping into shops and galleries -- simply can't be scheduled. So my first piece of advice for Riley O'Casey, a solo traveler who wants to join a tour for at least part of her trip, is to keep the packaged stuff to a minimum. Go ahead and start out with a group just to get your bearings, but find a tour operator who'll work with you to customize your trip. Then tack on days or even weeks of independent travel to make the trip your own.

The advantage of booking this sort of combo trip is that you'll be on your own for much of the time, but someone else will do the pricing and booking for you, and you can save money by bundling airfare, car rental and accommodations. I consulted Isle Inn Tours of Alexandria (703-683-4800 or 800-237-9376, http://www.isleinntours.com), which specializes in all things Eire.

President Heidi Burkhardt said the company could delay your return date and book a rental car and lodgings for the remainder of your trip, if you like. Or you can wing it. A few things to keep in mind:

-- Summer is prime time in Ireland, so reserve ahead when you can.

-- Though distances in Ireland are short, the roads are narrow, winding and sometimes filled with errant sheep. Allow twice as much time as you think it'll take to drive anywhere, and avoid driving at night.

-- Be prepared to ask for directions in some Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) regions, where there's little to no English signage.

Week 1: Dublin to Northern Ireland. Isle Inn's eight-day "Celtic Footsteps" escorted tour sounds like a good start: two days prowling around Dublin followed by a drive north to Belfast and then west to the wilds of Donegal. Highlight: the Giant's Causeway, a dramatic geological formation consisting of 40,000 huge black basalt columns rising from the sea. The tour then heads south to the fun, arty city of Galway (music, galleries, pubs) and ends up at Shannon Airport, where you can say goodbye to the group, grab a rental car and continue on your own.

"By the time she leaves that driver-guide, she'll know lots and lots about Ireland," said Isle Inn's Virginia McKinnon. "She won't be afraid to travel alone."

Week 2: Shannon to Killarney. Before you leave the Shannon area, drive 20 minutes from the airport to Limerick, a formerly seedy city now celebrated as the childhood home of "Angela's Ashes" author Frank McCourt. Take a walking tour of McCourt's early haunts and marvel at the changes (two hours, $15; Tourism Ireland, http://www.discoverireland.com). Then head northwest to the market town of Ennis, which I happen to love for the simple reason that most tourists don't go there. It's a lovely drive along the coast via Lahinch and the Cliffs of Moher to the village of Doolin, known for its fab music scene. Stay at least a couple of nights. Then drive three hours south to Killarney and settle in for three nights, which gives you ample time to explore the wildly beautiful Dingle peninsula, one of those "see it before you die" destinations (rent "Ryan's Daughter" to get a sense of the scenery). The famous (and motorcoach-clogged) Ring of Kerry is also nearby.

Week 3: Killarney to Dublin. Castle time!

The wonderfully atmospheric Ballyseede Castle in Tralee, just northwest of Killarney, dates to the late 16th century, has 23 guest bedrooms and is known for its fine dining. Watch out for the odd set of armor, enjoy the on-site pub and be sure to say hi to Arthur the Irish wolfhound. Then it's on to the yachting village of Kinsale, two hours southeast of Tralee, for boutiques, galleries and fine dining. Next up: the medieval city of Kilkenny, about 100 miles northeast, followed by -- whew -- Dublin, where you can turn your car in and spend your last day hitting the theaters, museums and shops of the capital.

The cost for this three-week tour: $5,396, which includes round-trip air from Reagan National to Dublin (via Boston; airfare is subject to change), the eight-day escorted tour, a rental car for 12 days (complete with automatic transmission and collision damage waiver), two nights in the castle, nine nights in B&Bs and two nights' hotel in Dublin. Dinners are not included on the self-drive portion, but the escorted tour includes dinner for six of the seven nights. You also get a full Irish breakfast every day, and if you can wolf down your daily ration of black pudding with a smile, more power to you.

Who: Riley O'Casey, 39, of Haymarket.

Where: Ireland

Why: With a name like Riley O'Casey, do you really have to ask?

When: Three weeks in July 2010 Budget: $6,000 to $8,000

I have dreamed about going to Ireland since I was 4 years old. I want to see as much as possible, from touristy sites to unknown and unusual places. I would like to join a tour group for some of the time and also have time on my own, driving around.



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