BACK in the 1970s Monsignor James Horan, the inimitable parish priest of Knock, Co. Mayo, was a man with a vision. While stationed at his then still remote rural parish he campaigned tirelessly to bring an airport to his tiny town.

The airport that he eventually built, though, was anything but small time in 1986 it was christened Horan International Airport, but in 2007 it's now officially referred to everywhere as Ireland West Airport, Knock. And at last, Horan's vision for the airport is complete.

There are several airports that offer gateways to the U.S. from Ireland, but none are situated in such a ravishingly beautiful spot as Ireland West Airport. On arrival you'll see acres of the fabled green fields, but you'll also see the sun glinting on the Atlantic Ocean and you'll see the dry stone walls that have marked the farmlands here for centuries, too. It's an unbeatable setting and it's about as perfect an introduction to the real Ireland as you will ever find.

Speaking at the ceremony to launch the inaugural flight to Ireland at Kennedy Airport in New York last Sunday, marketing and communications manager for Ireland West Airport Annette Kearney told the Irish Voice, "We've worked very hard for many years to see this day arrive. And I could not be happier about the way it's turned out. The new flight service between JFK and Ireland West Airport was only announced four months ago and by the first week of operation they were 90% full going out to the USA and 70% full coming in to Ireland, and 35,000 passengers have already booked their flights for the summer!"

U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Thomas Foley arrived for the launch ceremony at JFK expressed his delight at having been asked to participate. "The achievements we are celebrating today are threefold - first we have peace in the North, second we have the new Open Skies agreement which will make air travel to and from Ireland so much more affordable, and third with this new airport destination I'm certain tourism to the region will increase dramatically from now on. It's really a pleasure to be associated with it."

Foley was a passenger on board the inaugural flight to Ireland West and participated in the departure and welcome ceremonies at both airports.

The commencement of the long awaited trans-Atlantic service was finally achieved with the participation of the Scottish-based low cost carrier Flyglobespan. The airline will now operate three direct scheduled flights per week from Ireland West to JFK (and back again) as well as a twice-weekly flight service to Boston.

The inaugural Boston flight takes its maiden journey on May 30, exactly 21 years to the day the airport officially opened. Seat fares on both trans-Atlantic routes are priced from *209 for a one-way flight including taxes.

Speaking at Ireland West Airport, where dignitaries and musicians had gathered in the early morning and then vied to extend the warmest welcome, Chairman of Ireland West Airport Joe Kennedy told the Irish Voice, "The cultural ties between the north east coast of America and the west and north west of Ireland are very strong, and we expect that these trans-Atlantic services will connect neighbors, friends and relatives that have long been separated by a century of emigration."

Kennedy also paid tribute to the chairman of Flyglobespan, Tom Dalrymple, and the Flyglobespan staff in Edinburgh and Dublin, praising their commitment and efforts since the route was announced on January 29. "I'm particularly grateful for the promotional and marketing assistance provided by the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, and by Adrian Flannelly, the Irish liaison to the mayor, as well as the staff of Tourism Ireland, Failte Ireland West and Failte Irish Northwest."

In a short speech at the welcoming ceremony Liam Scollan, managing director of Ireland West Airport, Knock told the crowd, "The fact that passenger numbers have gone from zero to 35,000 in just four months is proof of the great potential this new service can bring a new impetus to tourism and trans-Atlantic travel to and from the West of Ireland."

Visitors and press members traveling on the inaugural flight were invited to experience the first class tourist facilities of the region in two specially arranged tours of the west and north west. Arriving in time for breakfast at the well laid out new airport, the visitors were treated to the kind of welcome that only an Irish ceili band can deliver, as hot tea and fresh scones were served and warm handshakes were extended.

Writers and photographers were greeted by the friendly staff at the airport and then driven through Yeats' country to what is certainly one of the most geographically spectacular four-star hotels in Europe, the Sandhouse Hotel in Rossnowlagh, Co. Donegal.

Situated in a wide bay that features a breathtaking shoreline and the high waves that attract surfers from America and Europe, the Sandhouse Hotel is an out and out stunner, and one of the best kept secrets of the region. Popular with visitors from America and Britain, the area has also seen a spike in visitors from Northern Ireland, where the changed realities have encouraged tourism in a way not seen in years.

Welcoming the invited guests to the hotel, manager Paul Diver said, "The truth is that tourism in Ireland's north west has suffered during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. For many years the perception was that the region was just too close to conflict for comfort, and thankfully now that concern is no longer an issue. Now tourists from the United States and Europe can finally see what they've been missing."

He isn't kidding. Ireland is famous for its hospitality, but there's genuinely special warmth in the greeting in the north west region, where the natural wonders of the landscape and the friendliness of the locals make for an especially memorable holiday.

Rooms at the Sandhouse look out over the wide bay and the bright Atlantic beyond it, where gently sailing clouds meet the horizon and water features more shades of blue than you ever thought possible. One stay in this hotel, which features four star cooking and a world-class spa, will make you a return visitor for life (it really is that special).

There's a vast array of activities awaiting you if you're so inclined and chief among them are visits to the legendary Hanna Hats of Donegal, maker of beautifully tailored hats, and a visit to Magee, known internationally for their hand crafted tweed collections.

Visitors can also experience Donegal castle or take a tour of Donegal bay (and view the seal colony along the way). Other stand out attractions include the magnificent Glenveigh Castle and national park (there are eagles, and you're certain to see them). For a change of pace you can visit the new Castle Dargan, another surprisingly reasonable four star hotel, golf and spa resort featuring wrap-around views of the mountains.

Flyglobespan chairman Tom Dalrymple knows that once these secrets are out, his scheduled trans-Atlantic flights will move to daily operation. "I'm sure that the low fares we offer will tempt a growing number of Americans to make Ireland West Knock their entry destination for a visit not just to Ireland but to a wider tour of Europe. It's a very exciting time for the airport and for the airline. The route has tremendous potential," he said.