© Mudcakes and Roses June / July 2009

Being of Irish descent has given Nelsonian Rachel Ryan a particular perspective on the two cultures – one that has turned into a thriving business and a way of life.

Born in County Limerick to an Irish father and Kiwi mother, Rachel came to New Zealand in her early 20s to visit relatives, felt an instant connection with the place, and decided to stay. She met partner Grant and they settled in Nelson, where Rachel has been involved in Montessori teaching and later taught early childhood education at NMIT.

In late 2006, when on a trip to Ireland to see family, she started taking a closer look at some of the historical sites near her home-town.

"I was standing on this amazing limestone pavement at Burren, on the Atlantic coast, with my nephew.It was such an amazing place, so richin archaeology, botany and landscape features, and I said ‘I'm going to bring a group of Kiwis back here in two years' time' - and I did."

Rachel returned home with the seeds of a new venture in her head, which became Walk the West of Ireland. She guided her first group in June 2008.

The formula for her highly personal tours has proved a winner. Rachel and brother Hugh, who lives in Ireland but has spent time in New Zealand, run the tour together. The 10-day excursion is based in three locations in West Ireland- the Beara Peninsula, the Glen of Aherlow and the Burren, with chef Elin providing the food. The group of up to10 guests meet for breakfast on the first day and then stay for three nights in each area at accommodation handpicked by Rachel for its local character.

"We don't stay in motels. It's a cottage,an old fishing lodge or something similar.You really get the feel of being in rural Ireland - that's what it's all about."

"Elin sorts out the food for the day,packs lunches and generally looks after everyone's luggage and bits and pieces.We all carry a daypack and we walk at an easy pace," says Rachel.

"We have a local guide in each place who is a specialist in the history,culture and natural features of the place we are visiting."

She says walkers need to be of moderate fitness - the terrain is easy-rolling hill country. Everyone is free to walk at their own pace and there are regular stops to hear what the guide has to say.

"We often stop and talk to others on the same route. It's amazing who we meet, and the guides know everyone so we get a wonderful insight into the local community and the sheer Irishness of it all," Rachel says.

The trip is not all walking - there are visits to farmers' markets and historic and archaeological sites, some dating back to 2000 BC, plus time in the evenings to explore the surrounding area or visit a pub.

Rachel says all her clients seem to come away with the feeling they have experienced something special.

"There seems to be a real connection between the Irish and the Kiwi psyche. I think around 80 percent of New Zealanders have some kind of connection to a Celtic ancestry and that comes out very strongly. I think that is what has made it such a roaring success right from the word go - it's areal cultural exchange."

Rachel says the biggest highlight for her is seeing people connect with one another in the group and with the people they meet on the tour. "They are making lifelong friendships on the trip and learning about the real Ireland as well - it's a wonderful blend."

She advises clients on the right gear to take and fitness level required. "On our last trip we had a 70-year-old woman and her 19-year-old granddaughter.That was really special - and the 70-year-old was the fittest of the lot. She was amazing."

Rachel has also started planning reciprocal walking holidays in Nelson near her Cable Bay home.

"I'm looking forward to showing Irish visitors the glories of the Abel Tasman and Golden Bay. I think they will love it."