Discover Ireland: Land of Saints and Scholars – but No Snakes!
I knew I would like a country without snakes – thank you, St. Patrick – but I didn’t expect to love Ireland. For whatever reason, she, like Cinderella, always seemed relegated to the back of the line, hiding behind her more showy stepsisters, England and Scotland. No more. After a 10-day visit, I’m now a believer in the lure of the Emerald Isle.
My husband and I began our journey in Dublin on my birthday, so, of course, there was the obligatory pint of Guinness at the Stag’s Head in the Temple Bar area followed by sightseeing, aka shopping. Dublin, especially the area around S. William/Grafton Streets, is cosmopolitan like London, but small enough not to overwhelm.
Our hotel,The Merrion, was within walking distance of Brown Thomas, the posh department store currently with a “Haute Dog” window display featuring snazzy people and look-alike pooches, all dressed to kill. My favorite shop, though, was Avoca. Since 1723, Avoca’s been manufacturing woolens – cozy throws and blankets – in County Wicklow, and more recently, the company has helped to revolutionize Ireland’s food industry. (It’s not just potatoes any more.) The cafe upstairs at Avoca is a perfect spot for lunch, and the whole place has an Anthropologie feel to it. Cool. And warm, if you know what I mean.
Because there’s more to life than shopping, we toured Trinity College and Kilmainham Jail for a sobering yet inspiring history lesson. Turns out Ireland’s patriots didn’t fare quite as well as ours. Lest you think a jail too dark for vacation fun, the popular Guinness Storehouse is close by to ease the pain with a pint.
Now, just a word about the Irish people, who are among the friendliest and at times – it must be said – quirkiest souls. Their expressions are endearing, their tales tall, and they will speak to anyone. Case in point: the three adorable “boys” (late twenties) who approached us (early fifties) one night at O’Donoghue’s pub. Our long conversation rambled from the lofty (religion) to the absurd (certain celebrities) and back again before, around midnight, one of them declared in a thick brogue: “You two come all the way to the land of saints and scholars only to find a dolt (his hungry friend) eating lettuce out of a box.” True, but we were nonetheless charmed. Emails and promises to write were exchanged, and we parted ways when a group of attractive girls approached.
And then it was onto Ballyfin, an Irish Country House Hotel so perfect that it must be experienced to be believed. Therefore, I will say only this: Get yourselves to Ballyfin. Now! (Think Downton Abbey, and you’re Lord or Lady Grantham.)
Ireland is a real beauty with two faces. There’s the rural one with miles of grassy, stone-walled fields dotted with grazing sheep and cows, and then there’s the rugged coastline that rivals Big Sur in scope and drama.
From our base at Sheen Falls Lodge outside Kenmare, the ideal Irish town, we explored The Ring of Kerry and Slea Head Drive on the Dingle Peninsula, two stunners. Farther afield there were visits to the dramatic Cliffs of Moher and a couple of legendary golf courses, Ballybunion and Lahinch, to please my husband.
Our final stop, Gregans Castle, was not a castle at all, but rather a charming hotel nestled in a tranquil pasture at the top of Corkscrew Hill, an aptly named road in the Burren. With a celebrated chef in the kitchen and a talented husband-wife team at the helm, Gregans is a labor of love, and it shows. Rather than fancy, it is refined; rather than convenient, it is sought out. There, with all the comforts of home – except for televisions, which we never missed – our cares (and the days) slipped blissfully away.
Like the legendary leprechauns that troll her land, Ireland’s got a bit of magic in her. And to prove it, I’d go back tomorrow – snakes or no snakes.
Caroline Travels the World…and So Can You.