It's at the Belleek Pottery factory here in Belleek, Northern Ireland, that my host, Brendan Vacations, goes just one more extra mile in what has already been nearly a week of going above and beyond.
David Henry, the Brendan driver-guide and County Limerick native assigned to escort me around the whole of Ireland — south to north, east to west — meets me and my mother after our personal late-afternoon factory tour and announces he's been authorized to stay an extra night in Dublin.
That's both so that we can take our time the following day in Belfast — home to Titanic Belfast, the innovative, high-tech tribute to the doomed ocean liner that's Ireland's latest blockbuster tourism draw — and so that he can personally see us off at Dublin Airport the following morning. His family's waiting back in Limerick, but Henry's more than willing to spend the extra time with us.
We're grateful, because we're not only dying to really explore Belfast in detail; we've also grown quite fond of Henry himself. He's seen to it, from Dublin to Killarney and Galway and on to Northern Ireland, that we are always comfortable, given priority access to sites and sights and experience the best of the best.
He's also asked for, and ascertained, our shifting wants, needs and moods and tinkered with our prearranged itinerary to match them. And along the way, during our drives on motorways, city streets and country lanes, he's regaled us with Irish wit, historical insights and personal perspectives.
"Taking You Personally" is the motto Chatsworth, Calif.-based Brendan Vacations does business by. They'll find no argument here. By the time we'd reached Belleek, we felt as if we'd known Henry forever. In fact, we insisted on his joining us for lunch every day; his considerate protests always fell on deaf ears.
They're there for travelers
Brendan Vacations offers more than 1,000 custom and escorted vacations to more than 60 countries, but it might be in Ireland that the operator truly shines. Thanks to its satellite office in Dublin, the firm can offer instant, on-site solutions to iron out any unforeseen wrinkles that might pop up in even the best-laid plans, like our need for a few extra hours in Belfast (and out of our guide's life).
"'Taking You Personally' is more than just our slogan. It's the way we want to be treated … so it's how we treat our clients," President Nico Zenner said. "Brendan was founded over 40 years ago on the Irish traditions of gracious hospitality, affability and indomitable spirit, and those traditions are carried through in everything we do today."
Brendan Vacations offers a full range of Ireland product to meet every budget but rolled out the red carpet for Travel Weekly. We enjoyed not only private, luxury town car transportation but five-star accommodations Ireland-wide.
Our posh digs included two nights at both the legendary Merrion Hotel in Dublin (with early, 6 a.m. check-in upon arrival from the U.S.) and the chic Agadhoe Heights Hotel & Spa in Killarney as well as one night each at palatial Adare Manor in County Limerick and sprawling, lakeside Lough Erne Hotel, Golf & Spa Resort in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland.
That we were well-ensconced is a given; more importantly, we were well taken care of. It was only my mother's second visit to Ireland, but my sixth. Brendan Vacations, and then Henry himself, did an expert job of balancing both our needs. First-time forays into North Ireland for mom and stops at new or heretofore un- or undervisited attractions, like spectacular Titanic Belfast and the Flying Boat Museum in County Limerick, for me.
Another example of Brendan's flexibility and foresight: Our final morning in Killarney, we, like many Ireland visitors, were scheduled to tour the Ring of Kerry. But it would have been the second time for my mother and the third time for me. Henry wisely suggested a drive around the less-visited, and even more starkly beautiful, Dingle Peninsula just to the north instead. We eagerly agreed, and never once looked back. Again, needs were anticipated and met — in fact, exceeded.
And in Belfast, Henry secured us his favorite black-cab taxi driver for an intriguing tour or the city's partisan wall murals. He also made sure we toured the Titanic Docks and Pump-House, an older and somewhat more authentic attraction now overshadowed by the splashier Titanic Belfast museum, and we ended up being very grateful for the suggestion. Who knew you could descend to the bottom of the now-leaky (but safe) dry dock where the Titanic was kitted out before its fatal maiden voyage a century ago?
Something for everyone
Brendan Vacations' current Ireland offerings include both independent and guided programs. Guided vacations are available from just over $750 a person, land-only, for a six-day Irish Jaunt itineray. An eight-day Chauffeur Driven Ireland program, similar to ours, is priced from $3,849, land only, and includes private airport transfers; top-notch accommodations, with hotel taxes, service charges and tips for baggage handling; daily breakfast; Mercedes-Benz transport with a driver-guide; sightseeing, including admission charges; and a portfolio of travel documents.
That price varies, of course, depending on clients' specific arrangements, according to Zenner. Brendan Vacations pays travel agent commissions on land arrrangements from a base of 10%; commissions vary, however, depending on agent affiliation.
Go to www.brendanvacations.com.