Then I remember. It’s us.
The chauffeur is Martin Wilde. He’s been driving me and my family around the southeast for the past three days, and is now waiting at our Mercedes minivan with chilled drinks.
“It’s not how I usually travel, you know,” I demur. Kathy Purcell, who runs this brilliant adventure park in Co Kilkenny, laughs, as if to say, “Yeah, right!”
Friends didn’t let us off the hook, either.
“You mean you’re going on a holiday, with a chauffeur, and they’ll book restaurants and everything for you? Ye jammy…”
So yes, please. Tell our chauffeur to come get us.
‘In-house concierge service’
It all feels a bit surreal. Usually, our home holidays involve an estate car crammed with cases, coats and wetsuits, with arguments over playlists and crumbs and spills galore. This time, we haven’t had to lift a bag or drive a mile. We’ve just sat back in creamy leather seats and enjoyed the ride.
Ditto when we were running late, when it rained, or when we wanted to make any changes en route. Martin simply called HQ and its in-house concierge service.
“Whatever you want,” was the refrain.
‘Life of luxury’
Our life of luxury began three days earlier, when Martin arrived outside our house in Co Wicklow — the first person I’d seen in a suit since Paddy’s Day. Ireland Chauffeur Travel, which offers private tours in high-end Mercedes minivans and minibuses, had contacted me with a proposition.
When we were running late, when it rained, or when we wanted to make any changes en route…Martin simply called HQ and its in-house concierge service.
Usually, its drivers would be busy guiding North American guests in peak season. Covid-19 wiped out its overseas business, however, so the family-owned company was looking to attract more Irish customers.
Would we like to give it a try?
‘Secure bubble of luxury’
The idea of touring Ireland in a secure bubble of luxury clearly had an appeal. Other companies — Travel Department’s new Homegrown tours, for example — are similarly trying to pivot. But I like driving, wasn’t sure about a “driver guide” on my home turf, and wanted reassurances. Would the operation be clinical? What if anyone felt sick?
All vehicles undergo “full ozone sanitation and virus bacteria neutralising” between tours, I was told. They are programmed not to recirculate air.
Drivers check their temperatures for a week before and after trips, wear face coverings, and agree to social distance when off-duty. Fáilte Ireland’s new Safety Charter is in place.
Oh, go on then — twist my arm.
‘A welcome hamper’
“Sorry about this,” Martin said, producing a temperature gun after greeting us. We (and he) would be checked each morning. That was weird, but there were familiar signs of a home holiday, too: including specks of rain on the window.
“I’m sure it’ll clear up,” he smiled.
After a smooth opening drive, we eased into Wexford for a local lunch and private tour of 9,000 years of Irish history at the National Heritage Park.
Our first ride was a Mercedes Sprinter, a luxury minibus with blacked-out windows, oodles of space, USB chargers by our seats and a welcome hamper stocked with home-grown treats like O’Donnell’s crisps, Apple Farm juice and an Irelandopedia book, which our 10-year-old disappeared behind immediately.
Martin gave us all a squirt of sanitiser, pulled on his face covering, asked us to put the seatbelts on, and off we went.
‘Being on holiday all the time’
How does he like the job? “You’re touring Ireland,” he said cheerfully. “It’s like being on holiday all the time.”
After a smooth opening drive, we eased into Wexford for a local lunch and private tour of 9,000 years of Irish history (with bonus baby moorhens) at the National Heritage Park. I noticed Martin logging contacts at each stop, should they be required for future contact tracing.
Two of those were Phil and Elaine Brennan of Waterford Camino, who met us the following day for a coastal walk in Dunmore East. Covid-19 upended their year, but they’re back planning walking packages, Phil told me: “We’re on a mission”.
Afterwards, we were whisked over to Azzurro for a slap-up feast of pizza, oysters, megrim fish and tiramisu, before a boat trip around the bay with local fisherman Brendan Glody — stopping to check his lobster pots as we went. It felt good to be exploring again.
Itineraries can be themed (around golf or food, for example), or customised as you wish — with changes updated as you go on the Trip Plans app. The focus is on experiential touring, rather than straight-up sightseeing.
‘A luxury item’
Ours included a mix of food, history and activities, and I liked that the suggestions for stops and eateries were all small, sustainable Irish businesses — from a seaweed foraging walk with ‘Sea Gardener’ Marie Power, to a tractor tour at Kilkenny’s Highbank Orchards.
Itineraries can be themed or tailored as you wish. The focus is on experiential touring, rather than straight-up sightseeing.
Clearly, chauffeur travel is a luxury item. As well as staycationers with cash to splash, however, I could see a market here for older couples, family groups, or honeymoon and special-occasion splurges. Restaurants are all booked in advance, too — a bonus in this day and age.
As well as Azzurro, we also enjoyed mouthwatering meals in White Horses in Ardmore and the Tannery in Dungarvan. It felt so nourishing to be surrounded by buzz again, to eat great monkfish, steak and chocolate cakes cooked by other people. I missed it. Staff at these wore face coverings, which made us feel reassured, too.
As well as staycationers with cash to splash, I see a market for older couples, family groups, or honeymoon and special-occasion splurges
Stays can be in different hotels or private rentals, but we chose a single base — the Cliff House Hotel. Here, Covid-19 signs and sanitiser were at every turn, room cleaning by request, and 30-minute pool slots were booked ahead, but that inspired confidence, too.
Its cool air of coastal luxury remains intact, and it felt good to dress up a little, to sit on that lovely terrace, to demolish a plate of Ardmore lobster with chips, hollandaise and a glass of wine.
Along the way, with rapport growing and soothed by the safety measures, we swapped the Sprinter for a smaller Mercedes V-Class. Though there wasn’t as much space between driver and passengers (screens have since been added in smaller vehicles, the company says), we preferred its luxe seats, smaller profile and smoother ride.
Departing Ardmore for home, Martin did one last temperature check. Mine was 36.0°. What if I’d been over 38° (indicating fever, one symptom of Covid-19)? A “spike” would mean I couldn’t tour that day, resting up in the hotel’s isolation area or being brought home, the company says. Sustained symptoms would mean isolation while the company contacted a GP and health authorities, arranged for testing, and facilitated “a safe return home”.
Thankfully, that wasn’t necessary. After stopping for blaas at Barron’s bakery in Cappoquin, a tour of Highbank Orchards and archery at Castlecomer, Martin gives a spiel on the history of Ireland.
It’s colourful, but we prefer the history of Martin — who goes on to tell us of former lives as a fisherman, bus conductor and delivery driver. “I know the country like the back of my hand,” he says.
There’s even a stop for milk on the way home.
This article was originally published in The Irish Independent on July 18, 2020, and can be read here: www.independent.ie/life/travel/ireland/my-staycation-with-a-chauffeur-could-covid-19-see-driver-guided-tours-take-off-in-ireland-39373254.html