I know nothing about this tour.

In fact, I have no idea where we’re going. Sad, I know.

Especially because Kara has told me at least twice. But with work and other distractions, I’ve had little time to do anything but get myself to Dublin. Let alone do my normal prep of learning about our destinations.

For the first time in a year, I’m not in charge of the plans, and, honestly, I’ve enjoyed someone else shouldering the logistical workload.

It’s like I’m actually on vacation for once.

Kara found the tour on the Newgrange website, from a list of suggested vendors, and booked it after researching all the options. Being two people who value independence, who crave the freedom to control our time and itineraries, tours normally aren’t our style. However, access to Newgrange requires a valid tour guide.

So here we are.

And I’m just going with the flow.

All I know is that Newgrange and the Hill of Tara are the main attractions. So, just 30 mintutes before heading out, I find time to see what the day’s actually going to look like.

 

Getting Acquainted with the Tour

IMG_1695 2(DISCLAIMER: It’s never my intention to hurt any one, so I’ll keep the name of the operation to myself. My goal here is simply to share the experience of three adventure travelers, so others might learn from it and improve their services. 🙂 )

My initial impression when I get to the site is….”Seriously? We’re going with this choice?” The 1996 revival is straight awful. Everything from the colors to the spacing to the navigation. From the first moment, I’m overwhelmed by just how bad it is. I literally don’t want to spend more time here than I have to. I’m doubting if I even want to join the ladies at all.

Seems melodramatic, right? But websites matter. A whole lot. And not just to a former marketing director. To my friends too.

“Are you sure this is a reputable business?” I ask her. “Doesn’t look like the site of a successful tour operator.”

“I know. Their website is awful,” she says, packing her bag and telling me all about the “horror” of her first experience, which basically mirrors both Dani’s and my own.

“Let’s hope the tour is better than that.”

“It’s supposed to be highly recommended.”

“If they were so successful, you’d think they’d hire a website designer. This needs serious attention. Who picks colors like these?”

If Kara hadn’t booked this, I’d gone with someone else off the bat. None of us are feeling confident in what we’re going to experience.

The website does have one upside: the valuable information about the destinations, including Tara’s cultural and mythological significance. But like most resources I see, it provides just enough material to get by.

After 10 minutes, I still have a lot of unanswered questions. Nothing esoteric, or even location related, just the basic things you’d need to know before attending.

Standard things like: 

  • What to bring
  • The amount of walking travelers should expect
  • The length of time spent at each site
  • The lunch options and rest stops.

And what our transportation looks like. Which would be particularly helpful now while we’re waiting, as numerous tour buses stop in front of the Doubletree Hotel. Each time we find ourselves having to question the drivers. Something that seems especially and increasingly vexing for the introverted ladies.

 

Crowds and Expectations

“You know what else is frustrating?” Dani says, looking down at me, seeing I’m still working my way through the website. “There’s no information on how the tour actually works. No schedule breakdown. Some people want to know exactly what to expect.”

“Like what?” I ask.

“What we’ll do at each place. What to expect for how we’ll spend our time there.”

A massive tour bus circles around the fountain in front of the hotel. A look of fear rolls across Kara’s face. “I’d really like to know just how many people are on this tour.”

“Yeah, it’d be nice to know if it’s going to be crowded,” Dani says.

“Not down with a lot of people?” I ask.

IMG_1669 2Kara and Dani shake their heads in unison. “Crowds detract from the experience,” Kara says, shifting the weight from one foot to the other and tapping her coffee cup. “Sometimes tours aren’t bad if there are just a few people. But when there’s a lot, it’s less intimate.

“It’s harder to hear the tour guide, harder to enjoy the space,” Dani says.

“You feel like you’re being rushed, herded, rather than really experiencing the site.”

After five or six tours pass in the span of ten minutes, a woman engages us, asking if we’re part of So-and-So tour. We nod, and she guides us to a bus surely waiting the Rolling Stones. As we walk the bus length, a two-story fortress of white fiberglass, Kara and Dani shoot looks of concern at me.

“Let’s just see,” I smile.

As we made numerous stops throughout the city, and one person after another took seats and chipped away at the tour’s intimacy, the ladies’ concerns materialized.

Words were said.

 

Random Irish Mumbling

The bus heads north out of the city.

“You know what I would have liked to see? An email confirmation that included the details about today,” Kara says. “Anything not included on the website. An easy way to get around that.”

Over the loud speaker, a muffled voice hijacks our conversation. I strain to make out individual words and gather just enough to determine the guide is pointing out significant parts of the city, but not enough to piece together anything of value.

“Oh good,” Dani says. “We have that too look forward to all day.”

“Maybe he won’t talk all day,” I say. But mumbled Irish vies for attention long after we’ve left the city’s construction and traffic noises and moved into the surrounding countryside.

“I’d love to know what he’s saying,” I say.

Kara says had she known he’d been talking the whole time, but we couldn’t hear him, she’d have been willing to pay more for a one-on-one tour. Then we’d actually be able to talk to each other and enjoy the landscape.

“At least there’s WIFI,” I say.

 

The Race

IMG_1770 2For the next five hours, we’re shuttled from one ancient experience to the next like we’re Usain Bolt breaking world records.

Time for independent exploration and picture taking?

“You have five minutes,” becomes our snarky guide’s mantra. Directed at us, of course.

With limited informational resources at the sites, and no internet service, I’m forced to rely on the tour guide. But the combination of crowds and wind make it more impossible to decipher his words than the bus ride over. I feel bad for the older people on the tour who might have difficulty hearing, easily identified by the strained necks. There’s no way they got much from him at all.

I will say that with the bits I pieced together, the Hill of Tara sans tour guide and information would have just been a large space with rolling hills. Nothing special. We wouldn’t have known we were standing at Ireland’s spiritual epicenter. We wouldn’t know how many people stood there, how many significant occasions that shaped Irish culture took place there.   

(Again, I recognize that my unpreparedness impeded my experience, significantly. However, I did believe that since it was a tour, I would get plenty of information while there. I put too much responsibility on the tour. Something I won’t do again.

Most importantly, this only serves as a great reminder that it’s important for me to do my normal research before heading out to somewhere. The story matters. )

 

Can I Get A Booklet?

 

IMG_1737 2

When the bus routes back to Dublin, I ask the ladies their opinions.

“While the info I could hear was helpful, that wasn’t all that often,” Kara thumbs a book of Irish legends she barely managed to purchase at the gift shop. “Sometimes I don’t want to have to listen to a person talk. I just want to explore the site. I’d rather read about it while exploring it. I’d rather live in the experience, and I’d rather not live in someone else’s agenda. And while I realize that’s part of the tour experience, since we didn’t have the option of doing this without a tour, at Newgrange specifically, I wish we had more time to explore more independently.” She adds that she also felt like the tour guide was just trying to fill time. That he didn’t know what to say and often repeated himself.

“This is when a booklet would be really nice,” Dani added.

We all agree. A small brochure would have been awesome. Something to take with us and walk us through each section.

For example, if I were creating one on the Hill of Tara, off the top of my head, it might look like this:

  • It opens to an aerial diagram of the site and the key points in the surrounding landscape
  • Offers information on each of the key sites.
    • For each one, I’d like to:
      • Know their cultural  and mythological relevance
      • I’d like to read at least one story about each place that gives the context depth beyond the grass
      • Diagrams of what anthropologists think these buildings used to look like
      • Information that the tour guide shares….at the very least reference points so that I can go back and do some of the research because you miss so much…and people talk so fast that it’s hard to retain all of the information and really get a lot out of it
      • A glossary of Gaelic words and their meanings to give richness to the experience
      • A page that shares reference links
      • FAQs—Questions tourists often ask that aren’t included in the stories
      • Maps
        • Of the surrounding area
        • Of the driving route that mention significant features as you go along, so that if you can’t hear the guide talking, you can at least see it on the map. He could even reference the page number.

 

This not only only serves as a helpful addition to the tour, the booklet:

  • Acts as a memento of the experience
  • Helps us share the story with family and friends at home, thereby expanding the tour’s content and word-of-mouth marketing
  • Demonstrates the tour’s commitment to excellence to participants and later those who will hear about it.

 

Additional Improvement Areas

IMG_1864 2Always curious about how other people feel about their traveling, I asked what else the ladies thought of the tour. Here are some of the comments:

  • Send participants an email detailing the day’s events and other necessary information:
    • What the transportation looks like
    • A comprehensive schedule
    • Suggested attire, such as walking shoes, extra jacket, umbrella, etc.
    • A heads up that Hill of Tara includes a 40-minute walk, so people with health issues can take this into account
    • A heads up about the lunch options so that people with dietary concerns could plan for that.
  • Mention there is an optional forty-minute hike, bookstore, etc., at Hill of Tara
  • Let travelers know the other significant sites are in the area, but at which the tour wouldn’t be stopping
  • Hire a friendlier, more personable tour guide
  • Run smaller tours. No more than 10 people.
  • Provide headsets so that everyone, especially those with hearing problems, can get more out of the tour
  • Give more time at the major stops like Newgrange and Hill of Tara. Skip the minor stops, if need be. We all wished we had more time at the Hill to experience the landscape, the adorable bookstore, and coffee shop.

 

It Wasn’t All Bad:

Here are a few of the more positive comments I received:

  • The guide was really knowledgable
  • The experience of Newgrange was amazing, learning about its discovery and excavation
  • IMG_1884 2The bus was modern, clean, and had WIFI
  • Not having to wait in line at Newgrange was “Class,” as they say here in Ireland.

Despite the challenges and complaints everyone had, all in all, the day scored high.

A visit to these sites should not be missed.

Standing inside the 5,000-year-old darkness of Newgrange, I found an ancient peace, markedly distinct and, still, ever present in me. And I’ll never forget the strength I felt kneeling, like past Irish kings, at the sacred place of Lia Fail.

Before I leave Ireland, I’ll make a point to return, this time better prepared.

With a few, minor changes…and, well, a complete website makeover, it wouldn’t be too hard for the tour operator to make this an even more rewarding experience.