AS THE bus pulled out for my three-day tour of southern Ireland, I wondered whether I had made a mistake.
I was flying solo at the tail end of a five-week trip to the UK and Europe, and was squeezing in a last-minute trip to Ireland on the back of memorable times in London, central Europe and Scotland with family and friends.
Part of me was missing the people and good times I had left behind, and part of me was looking forward to going home the following week.
As the Paddywagons tour set out, both parts were not enjoying being part of this herd of tourists in a too-small bus, unable to comprehend the thick Irish babble coming over the PA from the tour bus driver. How much things can change in 24 hours.
But with a little luck of the Irish and a pint of Guinness or two, I was soon having the time of my life.
While day one was enjoyable enough, taking in the scenery of Connemara and visiting Kylemore Abbey - dubbed Ireland's Taj Mahal - it wasn't until I was kicking back at a pub in the charismatic town of Galway that night that I fell in love with the Emerald Isle.
There is nothing that says "Irish" more than downing a creamy pint, chatting to new friends and enjoying the lilting tunes of a traditional Irish band.
Even if you don't drink, it's a must to take in the pub culture.
In this instance, sharing a pint helped break the ice with my fellow tourers and brighten my mood for the remaining two days, especially in a town like Galway which is known for its vibrant nightlife and live music scene.
Day two took us past the picturesque Dunguaire Castle along the lunar landscape of the Burren to the Cliffs of Moher.
This stunning length of coast-line consistently ranks as the number-one tourist spot in Ireland and it's easy to see why.
The cliffs rise as high as 214 metres at O'Brien's Tower (pictured left), which offers a great view for snap-happy visitors.
The walk along the cliffs is pleasant, although unlike many other gung-ho tourists, I wasn't game to continue along the unfenced path, which traversed merely centimetres from the cliff's edge.
Night two was supposed to see us staying in colourful Killarney, but a bungle by the tour company saw us double-booked and bundled off to sleepy Annascaul on the Dingle Peninsula, to the company's infamously bright green hostel with the racy name of "The Randy Leprechaun".
Our disappointment in missing out on Killarney's nightlife was not particularly consoled by our visit to the town the next morning, when the locals were all still sleeping at 9 o'clock and hardly anything was open.
We did have the option of a ride in the city's famous "jaunting cars" (horse-drawn carts) but with only an hour on our hands, most of us chose to browse the local shops - the ones which were open, that is.
Killarney is a beautiful city but I'm guessing it's best experienced when it comes to life later in the day.
After crossing the Cork and Kerry Mountains, we came to Blarney Castle, site of the famous Blarney Stone.
This visit was a fun experience, even if the kissing of the stone was a little bit cliche - and, according to tripadvisor.com, the most unhygienic tourist attraction in the world.
Legend has it that on kissing the stone, you acquire the gift of the gab.
The castle is a little dicey to navigate with its steep narrow staircases and uneven footing, but the view from the top is worth it, as is the quirky experience of kissing the famous stone.
Kissing the stone, however, is not that simple. It's set into a wall above a 90m drop, and to perform the all-important kiss, you have to lie on your back and lean over the edge of the parapet, helped/groped by a charming 60-odd-year-old Irishman. You may feel silly, but you are in good company with Winston Churchill, Mick Jagger and comedy icons Laurel and Hardy all performing the deed.
Our last stop was the little-known but impressive Rock of Castle Dunamase: a large outcrop of centuries-old ruins which stands out among the rural agricultural landscape.
This is the perfect spot to enjoy the peace, scenic views and clear air and reflect on the last three days of travelling before returning to the hustle and bustle of Dublin.
- Paddywagons is an award-winning tour company with a youthful, energetic image.
- A good range of tours is available for the budget traveller, with the option to upgrade to bed-and-breakfast or hotel-style accommodation if you don't fancy hostelling it.
- Tours range between one and 10 days and cover all corners of Ireland.
- Go to Paddywagon Tours for more info.
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