Journey to the Emerald Isle: Altoona couple shares memories of a trip to Ireland

Courtesy photo: The Cliffs of Moher provide a pristine view of the emerald isle.

Ask Dan and Loreen Wogan of Altoona about their 2017 trip to Ireland and it’s clear they kissed the Blarney Stone as they talk excitedly about their 13-day coastal excursion around the Emerald Island.

“We enjoyed ourselves the whole time,” Dan Wogan, 58, said. The couple treated themselves to the trip in celebration of their 35 years of marriage, although technically they’d been married 36 years by the time they joined the group bus tour in Shannon, Ireland.

Loreen Wogan, 60, treasures the beautiful Irish Aran sweater she purchased when visiting the Blarney Woolen Mill. The mill, the world-famous Waterford Crystal factory, the Cliffs of Moher and times chatting and eating with locals in authentic pubs, were among many enjoyable moments the couple shared.

“On our first tour day,” Dan said, “Our guide told us two things: that Irish people with red hair are really descendants of the Vikings and a ‘real’ Irishman would never say ‘top of the morning’ … that it is not an authentic expression.”

Even during a “soft rain” and fog, the Cliffs of Moher, located along the Atlantic Ocean in County Clare, were memorable, Loreen Wogan said. The jagged cliffs range from 390 feet at Hag’s Head to a maximum 702 feet north of O’Brien’s Tower. “I’d love to go back on a better weather day,” she said.

Courtesy photo: Blarney Castle is a popular tourist destination in Ireland.

The Wogans traveled around Ireland and Northern Ireland during the last week of September and the first week of October on a bus tour with about 40 people from various countries and several fellow Americans. Excursions included famous castles, authentic thatched-roof dwellings, and a sheep farm.

“Breathtaking,” is how Rachel K. Gingrich describes Ireland. Gingrich, owner/travel consultant with Heritage Travel, said Ireland’s upward trend as a popular destination started a decade ago and increased after Penn State played a college football game there.

“Going back 10 years ago we started selling escorted groups, that led to friends and families wanting to go over and adventure on their own as with the buzzing but friendly cities and some of the best country sides in the world, it became such a well-balanced, appealing getaway. Year after year, we would get more groups booking, locally in 2014 when Penn State Football played in Ireland, we took 89 passengers including a tour package for eight days.”

For travel company Collette of Pittsburgh, Ireland ranks in the top three most popular destinations every year, according to Matt D’Eramo, Collette’s business development manager for western and central Pennsylvania.

Ireland’s popularity is due to many factors, D’Eramo said, but for travelers going abroad for the first time the lack of a language barrier is a plus as is a relatively short 7 1/2 hour flight from the East Coast of the United States.

Courtesy photo: Dan and Loreen Wogan in Ireland.

“Also, 45 million Americans are of Irish descent,” he said, and many native Irish live in America and carry dual citizenship. So the lure of discovering one’s roots and returning to visit family prompts many trips.

Ireland’s tourism industry scored a record year in 2018 with more than 10.6 million overseas visitors an increase of nearly 7 percent when compared with 2017, according to Tourism Ireland, the organization responsible for promoting the island of Ireland overseas as a leading holiday destination.

D’Ermo and Paul Vincent, of Dream Vacations, have helped many Blair Countians create tour packages.

“We like to set up groups of 16 or more to get the best pricing on air,” Vincent said, adding a group to Ireland can easily be arranged. “If we get enough (people), we can bus to the airport and pick up at Ireland. In Ireland, you get a local tour guide. Local tour guides infuse you into the local culture by showing how the locals eat, where they shop and what entertainment they enjoy. So you not only see the country, you live in the local culture.”

For D’Ermo, the “very friendly, welcoming people is the main reason people visit. They (the Irish) open up their arms to you and are very captivating.”

Also, it’s relatively affordable especially if a vacationer has flexibility on travel dates and takes advantage of inexpensive airfares, Gingrich said. “I do hear my clients once booked, admit they are going in search of the meaning of their family name and other ancestors.”

Another reason for boosted popularity is Ireland’s film industry.

“We get some of our clients that are HUGE Star Wars and Game of Thrones fans wanting to see the Donegal area, from what some scenes were filmed in and around there, it is about three hours from Dublin to Donegal. Ring of Kerry, Cliffs of Moher, Grafton Street, Killarney National Park, and of course, not to forget to ‘Kiss the Blarney Stone,’ and many more are quite popular,” Gingrich said.

Additionally, many travelers “love the famous sing-a-long bars, and local bands, while dining on some favorite dishes such as “coddle; soda bread,” she said. “And the trip is not complete without a bowl of Irish stew. Tons of beer selections are there for the tasting while touring the Guinness Brewery.”

Whether to tour solo or become part of a tour group is personal preference, Gingrich said.

“Some of our first time travelers feel comfortable doing an escorted tour program which covers many cities, tours and museums depending on your time frame,” she said. “Versus others who prefer to fly over, get a car and go to see and discover on their own. It’s very easy to get around on your own in and throughout Ireland.”

May through fall are the most popular months to travel to Ireland, said Marita Williams, manager of Travel Promotions and Product Development for AAA East Central. May is most popular because the abundant flowers bloom.

Gingrich advises booking a tour package at least nine months in advance and for a fly/stay/drive package, she suggests booking four to six months in advance.

“I have found my travelers to enjoy April, May and June along with late September, and October. Temperatures are calm, beautiful and enjoyable,” Gingrich said.

However, D’Eramo recommends planning another time to visit to avoid the crowds.

Trip duration also varies, Williams said, noting that an in-depth tour takes more than two weeks.

“The majority of our travelers only can book a week, (but) I feel if you can get the time, 10 days will give you a great feeling and allows you to see the beauty of such a magnificent country,” Gingrich said.

Staff writer Patt Keith is at 949-7030.