Vagabond Explores Ireland Off The Beaten Path
PHOTO: Vagabond goes off the beaten track all over Ireland. (Courtesy of Vagabond Adventure Tours of Ireland)
As young tourists in Southern Africa, Rob and Amy Rankin were impressed with the way those destinations presented themselves from the land up and wondered if the safari experience might not offer a more intimate way to present their own country, Ireland. They founded Vagabond Adventure Tours of Ireland in 2002, offering small group tours with a soft adventure backbone.
In 2011 they added Driftwood Irish Journeys of Discovery as a division that offers a more leisurely experience. Today Driftwood and Vagabond divide the company’s travelers more or less evenly between them. “When we launched Vagabond it just took off,” said Rob Rankin, “because we were offering something very different in the market.”
It’s a pretty developed market. Few destinations can match the Irish travel industry’s strong cadre of American tour operators; a group that works hand in glove with one of Europe’s most effective tourism boards. While the bulk of U.S. leisure travelers visit Ireland on coach tours, the nuances of the country are more available to individual travelers and small groups.
“Ireland has some really great mainstream tour operators,” said Rankin. “They know their clients. They know the destination. They offer a great experience, but we are not that kind of operator. We are looking for the kind of people who enjoy self-drive vacations. We specialize in creative, experiential, off-track travel.”
Vagabond’s groups never exceed 13 people and they will depart with as many as two travelers. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve built up such a strong relationship with agents,” said Rankin, “because we are reliable.” A large portion of the company’s business comes through agents and Vagabond is doing more to reach out to agents through trade shows and social media.
The company attracts a wide range of couples, singles and families drawn to such activities as hiking, horseback riding and sea kayaking as well as guided experiences highlighting history and local culture. “Almost every one of our tours attracts families. We get a lot of multi-generational family groups.”
Many don’t think of Ireland as an adventure travel destination, but in 2014 the Adventure Travel and Tourism Association (ATTA) had one of its most successful annual summits in Killarney, attracting some 900 members from 80 countries. “Most adventure travel is ‘soft adventure,’ such as walking, cycling and kayaking; the types of adventure that Ireland is so well suited for. At Vagabond, we’ve paired that with the country’s rich culture and history.”
According to Rankin, adventure travel is often underestimated. “Ireland is a great adventure destination. How many people know that it has some of Europe’s best surfing? Golf travel in Ireland earns about €217 million annually, while walking alone earns about €650 million.”
The company uses custom-designed Land Rovers on adventures that can include hill walking, horseback riding along an Atlantic beach or mountain biking in a forest. Driftwood takes small groups of up to 16 guests in specially-outfitted Volkswagen sightseeing vans on trips that are geared for less physically adventurous travelers.
This year Vagabond and Driftwood are pushing spring travel because it’s a particularly beautiful time of year in Ireland and it’s less crowded and offers lower transatlantic airfares than the summer peak season. The company is offering a 10 percent discount for travelers who book a tour for travel during March and April.
Vagabond’s eight-day Wild Irish Rover tour of the southwest and west of Ireland was chosen as one of the “50 Tours of a Lifetime” in 2013 by National Geographic Traveler and includes a castle stay, with optional activities such as sea kayaking, horseback riding and a day trip to the Aran Islands. Priced from $1,800 per person double (before the discount) it includes accommodations and breakfasts.
Driftwood’s seven-day Discovery Treasure Ireland visits the Blarney Stone, the Ring of Kerry, the Cliffs of Moher, Galway and other popular destinations in western Ireland. Priced from $1,700 per person double (before the discount) it includes accommodations and breakfasts.
A typical Vagabond tour explores a region in depth with a knowledgeable guide; it stays in small Irish hotels and allows for plenty of mingling in such social settings as pubs. Some activities are optional, and come with additional charges. Vagabond offers a range of five- to 12-days tours. Driftwood guests also go off the beaten path and stay in small Irish-owned hotels. Driftwood offers five-, seven- and 11-day tours.
Ireland is such an easy country to underestimate precisely because we think we know it so well. The Irish have had such a huge role in building this country and there has been so much in the way of Irish-American cultural affirmation that we often get stuck in a comfortable but shallow perception of a land with incredible depth culturally and naturally.
Vagabond and Driftwood continue to evolve their product to be more experiential, now offering such experiences as sheep shearing, soccer training, political tours of Belfast and more. Keep an eye on this company.
More by James Ruggia
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