by Carla Waldemar
This wasn’t the Finian’s Rainbow tour. Save that for folks who get all teary at the mere thought of thatched cottages and shamrocks. That’s so yesterday.
Welcome to you-owe-it-to-yourself Ireland, where you can sleep in stately castles and gracious manors while dining on victuals fit for your Inner Highness—but at potato-famine prices (The recession has induced these lofty venues to lower their rate 25 percent from last year.)
Start your swing through the isle at Ashford Castle, majestically anchoring the grand, 350-acre estate of the Guinness family. It’s set amid a forest ringing Loch Corrib with 365 tiny islets rising from the romantic mist. Swing a golf club. Mount a pony. Aim a bow and arrow, or indulge in a bit of falconry (really!). Relax in a cozy room tucked away in a turret. And then there’s dinner. Stuffy? That’s not in the Irish psyche.
The menu salutes the latest “it” dishes, a fusion of local scallops with crispy pork belly, followed by a pairing of turbot and prawns. To combat recession-spooked travelers, the castle is offering a third night free, along with daily breakfast so sumptuous you won’t crave a thing until dinner (well, maybe a Guinness). www.ashford.ie.
Ashford’s sister hotel in nearby Galway City, the g Hotel, is so hip it needs no capital letter. It’s everything that stately Ashford is not: over the top in cheeky design, including a public room of blinding pink. Its restaurant channels Alice in Wonderland with purple velvet banquettes and chairs in jewel colors. (Relax: The spa is all dark and dreamy.) www.ghotel.ie
It’s a short walk along the waterfront to Galway proper to shop for Irish sweaters; tap your toes to street musicians; pop into pubs creaky with history and fragrant with fish and chips, or historic St. Nicholas Church, where Columbus stopped to get directions from St. Brendan, who’d beat him across the sea (at least, according to the Irish, who wouldn’t lie to ye, would they?).
It’s a short hop to Limerick to clamber through King John’s medieval castle, with a newly discovered Viking settlement beneath it; take an Angela’s Ashes walking tour; explore the open-air food market; or bargain-hunt along High Street.
No. 1 Pery Square, the newest, and finest, hotel in town, started life in 1838 as an elite Georgian home. Today its comfy guest rooms (you’ll love the monsoon shower, and the maid who delivers tea and coffee), are named for Irish writers. (My overnight mentor was Jonathan Swift.) Pop around the corner for dinner in Market Square Brasserie, another fine Georgian building. The menu salutes sea bass aside a spring onion beignet; duck confit in Port sauce; and rib-eye of Irish beef, followed by fine Irish cheeses or an even finer sticky toffee pudding.
Walk it off in fashionable People’s Park aside the Pery, whose traditional Irish breakfast features eggs, bacon, sausage, black pudding, white pudding, grilled tomato and the list goes on. Or slim down on scrambled eggs with smoked salmon or Irish oatmeal. www.oneperysquare.com
Next stop, Kilronan—a castle of the 1800s aside a lake within a piney forest, recently refurbished into cozy guest rooms with killer views, crystal chandeliers and four-poster beds suitable for Queen Victoria. Treat yourself to a lap in the heated pool, then a comforting massage while you think about dinner. The kitchen salutes grand Irish victuals like duck with rhubarb chutney or Fermangh beefsteak, climaxed by chocolate terrine served with Guinness ice cream. Intro offers begin at 79 euro per person ($119). www.kilroneycastle.ie
From riches to rags at nearby Strokestown Park to tour the grand manor house of 1740 and its magical maze of gardens. The estate’s story grows darker as the decades progressed to the great potato famine, when the reigning aristocrat left his sharecroppers to starve. The stables now hold a Famine Museum that tells the tragic story of eviction, poorhouses and convict ships.
Bellinter House, a Georgian mansion of 1750 aside the River Boyne, recently opened to guests after refurbishing the manor, servants’ wing and stable as bright and spacious rooms. While the original elegant chandeliers, wood-paneled walls and marble fireplaces have been retained, today they’re matched with oh-so-21st-century fittings, such as mauve velvet fainting couches and a quirky fabric deer’s head above the fireplace. After a game in the billiards room and drink in the elegant library, head off to the pool, hot tub and spa; borrow a bike and some boots to explore the surrounding trails; or simply snuggle in until it’s time for dinner.
Then treat yourself to modern Irish starters like ham hock terrine with red-onion chutney; smoked haddock under melted Cheddar; or Irish beef carpaccio before debating between beef and Guinness stew; pork steak with black pudding; or rack of local lamb. Rooms (with hearty breakfast included, as always) start at 65 euros ($98).
The River Boyne leads visitors to the Battle of the Boyne Interpretive Center for a virtual re-enactment of the fight of 1690 that makes Irish hearts still thump today. Stop also at nearby Newgrange to explore a far-earlier moment in Ireland’s history—a Neolithic tomb that’s older than the pyramids, and even more inscrutable: How the heck did they transport its building stones, bigger than refrigerators, and engineer a window-slit to light it precisely on the solstice?
To get a taste for yourself, visit www.discoverireland.com.