The “Luxe” of the Irish

I’m walking beneath a forest canopy so veiled with vines the sun’s rays barely illuminate the path below my feet. I hold my arm out at shoulder height and hear the hawk before I see it. A whoosh of air, and then she lands light as a breath on my outstretched arm.

Ireland

Learn about falconry at Ashford Castle
Credit: Insight Vacations

Falconry–an ancient art of hunting that dates to 2,000 BC is more than a relationship between a person and a pet. It’s actually a partnership between a bird of prey and its human assistant. At Ireland’s oldest Falconry School, the star of today’s hunting partnership is Millie, an 8-year-old Harris Hawk. In the prime of her hunting life, she weighs less than one kilogram but can take down a 7-kg jackrabbit. As for me, my skills have yet to be determined.

My falconry experience is part of an escorted journey with Insight Vacations. The luxury tour operator has been leading premium escorted tours for over 35 years and recently ramped up the luxury quotient of their itineraries in Ireland.

“Our premium tours focus on exploratory local experiences rather than the typical tourist track,” says John Boulding, the CEO of Insight Vacations who is accompanying our group. “We offer memorable experiences designed to connect travellers to the land and people.”

“You can’t get anymore connected than with a falcon attached to your arm,” I think as I stare at Millie’s eyes just inches from my own.

“Lift your arm and send her off,” counsels falconer Tommy Duncan.

I raise my right arm–clad in what looks like a giant oven mitt to protect me from the hawk’s razor-sharp talons–and she lifts off, swooping through the trees, her wide wings angling to avoid low-hanging branches. “It’s a very difficult maneuver for a hawk accustomed to open skies,” says Duncan. “At 70 kmh there’s no margin for error.”

Regional Culture

Our Irish tour has been a whirlwind of extraordinary experiences. Each day as we set out, our tour director–a Liam Neeson look-alike dressed in Irish tweed–plots our journey, driving deep into Ireland’s culture in a 40-seat motor coach decked out with WIFI and as luxe as a limousine.

Our adventure begins in Dublin at a family-owned pub where we enjoy Irish hospitality and a hearty welcome dinner featuring herring marinated in dill, smoked river trout, grass-fed lamb, artisanal cheeses and more.

Ireland

Stunning scenery of the
Wild Atlantic Way

The next morning we’re immersed in Dublin’s architecture and history while touring homes of the Georgian Mile, sites of the Easter Rising (celebrating a centenary in 2016) and Trinity College. We walk the same cobbled courtyards as writers Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker, and then enjoy fast-track entry into the famed library, home to the 9th century Book of Kells.

Next is Kilkenny, a medieval town in southeast Ireland. On a verdant field with light mist falling, we try the ancient Celtic game of Hurling, guided by the coaches of the famous Kilkenny Cats team. Considered to be the world’s fastest field sport, it’s equal parts passion and skill.

After a Relaxed Start (an Insight Vacations innovation which means no early morning departure) we journey around the Ring of Kerry, soaking in vistas of emerald fields dotted with black-faced sheep, Iron Age forts and abandoned monasteries. In Killarney, some of us join in the music, drink and laughter of a ‘craic’ in a local pub.

Another memorable experience is a morning ride in a jaunting car, a traditional horse- drawn carriage, through the mossy countryside of lakes, yew and oak woodlands. This is a land rich in folklore. We learn of Tir na N’og, the land of eternal youth, that lies beneath the mirrored surface of Lough Leane. “If you see Irish chieftains rising from the waters on their ghostly war horses,” says our carriage driver. “it means good fortune will befall you.”

Legendary Landscapes

Ireland

Spend a morning experiencing the Cliffs of Moher
Credit: Michele Peterson

Our route then takes us around the Dingle Peninsula. With the coach’s panoramic windows and height, we’re experiencing its jaw-dropping landscapes and ocean views in a way not possible in a car. We pause to hike waterfalls, explore beehive-shaped Celtic huts and shop at roadside stands where locals sell wildflower honey, woolen shawls and St. Brigid’s Crosses woven from grass.

North along the Wild Atlantic Way, lie the jagged Cliffs of Moher. Formed over 300 million years ago, the cliffs feature bands of red Namurian sandstone, siltstone and shale. A trail walk offers spectacular views of the Clare Coast, a powerful mix of mist, wind and dark skies.

At The Burren, a stretch of limestone crisscrossed by streams, rivers and waterfalls that disappear into caves beneath the rock, we watch for bullauns, stones with circular depressions made to hold cure or curse pebbles during ancient rituals. “Warriors believed placing a stone from home on foreign soil would help their souls return to their birthplace,” explains our tour director, as we walk carefully across the stones to place our own gathered pebbles.

Classic Luxury

Ireland

A pair of Irish Wolfhounds at Ashford Castle

An afternoon of independent exploring in Galway means it’s nightfall when we arrive at Ashford Castle. A light rain known as the “softness” fills the air and a lone bagpiper meets us at the drawbridge. As we cross the moat, accompanied by the mournful sound of Irish warpipes, I feel as though I’m a member of a feudal clan returning from battle.

Insight Vacation’s philosophy is focused on “select hotels in the right location” and Ashford Castle impresses. First built as an Anglo-Norman stronghold in 1228, it was reinvented as a French Chateau in the 1700s, and then expanded by the Guinness family in the 1800s. Its most recent restoration was completed in 2015 by the prestigious Red Carnation Hotels and vaulted the castle to award-winning luxury status with the addition of opulent antiques, restored woodwork, lavish guest rooms and contemporary amenities.

Ireland

Painting of Guinness Family
Credit: Michele Peterson

Diversions include pampering in the solarium spa, archery lessons, skeet shooting, horseback riding and a sunset cocktail cruise on Loch Corrib where we learn of intact Viking ships buried below the lake’s surface.

Dinner is equally epic at the George V dining room. Set at the edge of a National forest filled with wild game, Ashford Castle has long celebrated the land’s seasonal bounty. Executive Chef Philippe Farineau is the visionary behind the cuisine and his philosophy gives voice to the integrity of local ingredients such as wood pigeon, wild edible flowers, venison, farmhouse cheeses and brook trout.

For me, it’s trailing a hunting hawk through the estate’s silent woods that most connects me to the land. As Millie swoops through the trees, I see the bloody sinews of a mouse disappear down her gullet. The bird seems a symbol of Ireland herself –equal parts fierce and graceful.

Travel Planner

Details: Insight Vacations offers all-inclusive escorted luxury tours throughout Ireland and Europe, North America, India and Asia as well as North Africa and Eastern Mediterranean. All tours include the concierge-style services of the tour director, premium luxury hotels and signature experiences hosted by local experts, fast-track access to attractions and fine dining. Transfers, pre-paid gratuities and deals on air flights are other advantages. Contact 1-866-747-8120 or visit www.insightvacations.com

Official Ireland Tourism: www.ireland.com

Ireland

Stunning landscapes of Ireland
Credit: Insight Vacations