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Heritage Travel: Searching for Your Ancestors on Vacation


A travel trend that’s gaining speed these days are family vacations that have nothing to do with theme parks. Rather, ancestral vacations or heritage trips, as they’re sometimes called, involve exploring the origins of your family tree, searching through local archives and sometimes even walking in the footsteps of your great-great-grandparents. Increasingly, tour operators and hotels are catering to heritage-hungry guests with on-site experts, by arranging itineraries to local villages and by providing hands-on help for tracing family trees. Get climbing the family tree with one of these options.

The Lodge at Doonbeg, Ireland

Find out if you can don a "Kiss Me, I’m Irish" t-shirt for St. Patrick’s Day—and mean it—with the ancestry research services offered by The Lodge at Doonbeg in County Clare, Ireland. Long known for its stellar golfing, this luxe seaside property is gaining a new following among guests who want to learn more about their Irish ancestors.

On-site genealogists Paddy Waldron and Dolores Murrihy are dedicated to the task, which involves archival research for guests and helping to arrange tours to the areas where ancestors once lived (and, in some cases, are still living). "There are a lot of genealogical researchers [in Ireland], but not many of them are tied into tourism," Waldron says.

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He also notes that guests will get the most out of the experience by doing as much research as possible prior to traveling to Ireland. The process starts with an online form on the property’s website. An initial €40 assessment of that form will determine "if there’s a strong possibility of tracing your family further," upon which Waldron and Murrihy can conduct more in-depth research.

Eastern European Family Heritage Tours, MIR Corporation

Even if you don’t have the specifics of your ancestors from Eastern Europe—names of family members, perhaps, or the exact spelling of a hard-to-pronounce village—a family heritage tour with Seattle-based MIR is sure to make memories that last a lifetime.

The award-winning tour operator, which specializes in creating customized itineraries, has a vast network of contacts and local guides in less tourist-visited countries in Eastern Europe, including Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine. Such an infrastructure, says Joanna Millick, MIR Eastern Europe travel specialist, helps guests feel a sense of place, and gain a better understanding of what life may have been like for their ancestors, as well as a personal connection to a destination.

"Our guides and drivers speak really good English, they’re local, they’re not afraid to go to the market and approach people and act as an interpreter," says Millick, herself a native of Krakow who speaks several Slavic languages. "Even if you don’t have any names or addresses, just hearing the accounts of locals about what life was like is like meeting a great-great uncle who is telling you all these great personal histories."

MIR also can conduct archival research for clients, although Millick says just knowing the religion of clients’ ancestors—Christian or Jewish, for example—can be a good starting point for developing an itinerary. Tours range in price, but start roughly at $400 per person, per day.

The Tartan Butler, The Balmoral Hotel, Edinburgh

Wondering if you just might be related to revered Scottish warrior William Wallace? Or just want to know if you can legitimately wear a kilt?

Andy Fraser, the recently named "Tartan Butler" at Rocco Forte’s The Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh, is just the man to help. Fraser, a genealogy whiz who traced his own clan to the early 13th century, hired at the iconic hotel to help guests discover their Scottish roots. Fraser’s services include personalized guidance in family research, arranging itineraries to villages where ancestors lived, and even helping guests get decked out with a kilt made with their clan’s tartan.

Before their arrival, guests can give the names of any known Scottish ancestors to Fraser, who will then start researching connections to one of thousands of clans and traditionally recognized tartans. (Guests can also try their own hand at research at the nearby Scotland’s People Centre, the country’s largest family history and records center.) For the ultimate souvenir, Fraser can help arrange a trip to Edinburgh’s most established kilt shop, Kinloch Anderson, to have a bespoke kilt made reflecting the traditional clan design. Fraser’s initial consultation is free, but prices for research and other services vary.

Photo Credit: courtesy Rocco Forte Hotels

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