My husband and I have taken many bike tours with big, pricey companies. Our Cycle Holidays Ireland trip last week beat them all!Lord forgive me for years of wrongly equating Ireland with sappy sentiment and dreary weather and food. We discovered wondrous places and lovely people on a trip that will nourish all your senses and genuinely touch your soul.The miles slipped by on perfectly fitted, smooth-as-silk bikes through a land of astounding natural beauty and rugged majesty bathed in painterly light that’s almost surreal. It’s well marked routes on tiny roads with so few vehicles, often just an occasional sheep’s bleat punctuated the quiet. Colors galore — pastel cottages ringed in flowers, wild berries in the hedgerows, ancient rock walls and castles in every possible hue of grey. Some brief showers, but blue skies prevailed. The air is clean and soft and carries the briny tang of the sea, the sweetness of blossoms and fermenting hay, and the earthy aroma of peat smoke.With logistics and guide duties superbly handled by John Heagney, whose range of life pursuits includes proprietorship of Cycle Holidays Ireland, we savored the physicality of the ride and the “zen” of the entire experience without a care. His abundant love for, pride in, and bone-deep knowledge of the terrain, history and day-to-day life of this part of Western Ireland, his family home for generations, infuses every aspect of this outstanding trip.Our congenial group was small so John ran it alone, but had ten leaders been on hand they could not have bested the attention, support and bonhomie he offered. You can ride full ahead or hang back on the route, single or grouped, but you’re never off his radar. A tricky junction? He’s waiting there to direct you through. He’s steadfast, patient, and protective — you feel as if you’re in the care of one of the finest herding dogs of the region! John’s energy never flags, but if yours does, he unerringly knows whether to psych you up to ride on, or offer a warm invitation to take the van. He’s a witty and sincere conversationalist, and some gems from his treasure trove of stories about what all he’s encountered in 17 years of running this tour are side-splittingly hilarious. His beautifully sung, “The Parting Glass” brought the longest and loudest applause of the night from the crowd at our pub visit, and rightfully so. He’s a man you’d be grateful to have as a neighbor, honored to have as a friend, and most fortunate to have as your guide.Good lodgings throughout, great showers with ample hot water, and laundry service at the 2-night hotels let you pack light. Dinners are at a top-rated restaurant in each town and the food is beyond belief. The freshest local meats, fish, shellfish and vegetables are artfully prepared and presented, with a variety of beers, wines, and ciders to try. Lunch stops, including low-lit, cozy pubs, offer rich seafood chowders with just-baked brown bread. The tea and scones at Ballynahinch Castle were royally excellent!I wasn’t surprised to learn that people take this tour again and again. Some day we may join their ranks. Don’t be afraid to bypass the big guys. You won’t find a better bike tour, or be in better hands while on it, than with Cycle Holidays Ireland.