Probably like many little girls, I have had a fascination with castles and country estates that has stayed with me for a lifetime. My first stay in such royal surroundings was the wonderful Castle Sababurg about a 45-minute drive from Kassel, Germany, in Brothers Grimm territory. It is widely believed the brothers were inspired by Sababurg, using it as the model for the castle in Sleeping Beauty, and I believe it. Sadly, it has recently closed.
When our daughter was young, we stayed in a delightful luxury family hotel, Woolley Grange near Bath in England. One huge benefit was the on-site nanny to watch over children so parents could enjoy a quiet gourmet dinner. And one of my all-time favorite memories was a stay in the English Lake District at Farlam Hall Country House Hotel, a beautiful Relais & Chateaux manor home with resident cats Gin & Tonic and amazing dinner service.
On a more recent trip to Ireland, we loved our visits to Ashford Castle (pictured at top), Dromoland, and Ard na Sidhe. Read on.
Ashford Castle | Cong, Mayo
I can’t even think of enough adjectives to describe Ashford Castle. Dating from 1228, this property did indeed start out as a castle. In the mid-1800s it was owned by Sir Benjamin Guinness. In 2013, the property was rescued from receivership by the Red Carnation luxury hotel group. They bought it for less than half of its previous sale price and then proceeded to invest somewhere between $50-70 million in renovating the hotel and estate. Read the rest of this entry
We’ve enjoyed our visit to Dublin. Quite a contrast to the rest of our trip to Ireland. It’s urban of course, also very vibrant, lively, modern and young.
Let me start by sharing the weekend we were in town featured the convergence of the two biggest sporting events in Ireland, a semi-final for Irish Football on Saturday and a Hurling (sorta like a rugby, lacrosse mash-up) match on Sunday. Both games in Dublin and the entire country psyched-up. It’s been fun to follow and try to understand.
There are literally pubs everywhere. What surprised me was the famous Temple Bar section (medieval part of town encompassing quite a few blocks) resembled the vibe of Bourbon Street. Music of every possible origin could be heard from street performers as well as all the pubs. Within minutes I heard standards by Sinatra, Beatles, “Stand by Me” and even my old childhood favorite, “Volare” among others. I guess I expected it to be more Irish and not so westernized. It did smell better than the French quarter, but then we were there on the early side.
The pubs I wanted to visit were not in the Temple Bar area, and we did track down several. We stopped in the famous O’Donoghues and listened to some great local Celtic music, and the Stag’s Head on tiny Dame Lane; but my favorite was Brazen Head, Ireland’s oldest Pub, in operation since 1198. It was charming and had a series of rooms, nooks and crannies with tables as well as a patio area and live Celtic music. Even though I’ve said the city is young, you see all ages in the pubs and the musicians playing the typical Celtic music are all across the age spectrum. For a typical Irish dinner we tried the Hairy Lemon pub and were not disappointed.
You certainly don’t need to sign up for one of the many pub crawls in this town. I think anyone young would love it here and we saw lots of Europeans (including Spaniards), in their 20s and 30s, as well as a few bachelorette groups.
The top of my list was to see the Book of Kells and Old Library at Trinity College and both proved amazing. The library was built in 1712 and houses 200,000 of their oldest books. It seemed so appropriate for this city, which so many legendary writers called home. Sitting there and looking at all those manuscripts made me wonder if future generations will even know what a book looks and feels like.
Made by monks in AD 806, the beautifully ornamental Book of Kells contains the four gospels. The detail, craftsmanship and talent that are evident is awe-inspiring. It’s no wonder it’s Ireland’s national treasure.
The city is very walkable, but because we wanted to see a couple of far-flung spots we used a hop-on bus service as our taxi, catching a ride from Trinity College out to Kilmainham Gaol (Jail) for a tour and insightful lesson in Irish political history.
We were staying in a hotel on St. Stephen’s Green, a wonderful 22-acre inner-city park. When you enter the gates you are transported into a tranquil, peaceful world with no signs of city life. All-in-all Dublin is a very nice city, just enough culture, interesting history and a lot of fun.
And so, to the Irish people, we say “go raibh maith agat” (thank you), and we head home.
Sadly, this was our last day to explore Irish country roads.
We headed west from Cong to the coastal town of Clifden, tucked in between the Twelve Bens mountain range and the bay. Before we enjoyed a late lunch in quaint Clifden, we stopped by the Connemara National Park to learn a bit more about bogs and did a drive-by of stately Kylemore Abbey, a Gothic Revival estate built in 1826.
The drive from Ashford Castle, along Lough Corrib, Ireland’s largest lake with its 365 islands, was very nice. This region had fewer shades of green, taller grasses and looked decidedly less rugged and more coastal. Tides ebb and flow to such a degree that low tide leaves boat leaning on their sides and allows car traffic to a nearby island.
We were also on a search for bogs. Bogs are not particularly visual; I guess that’s why they aren’t featured in too many photo-spreads. They are wet, swampy and generally soft, but since they maintain debris (and can serve as natural embalmers), they do offer a window into the past. Ireland is known for blanket bogs; peat bogs that are large and spread out.
Bogs notwithstanding, we saw some more beautiful scenery, lots more sheep, lakes, tiny villages and sweeping vistas.
We had an amazing experience today. We worked with a Harris Hawk named Aztec (with our instructor Alec) and spent an hour walking in the woods of the Ashford Castle estate.
It was actually like a page right out of a Robin Hood story, deep in Sherwood Forest. We got to see Aztec take off to hunt his own prey at one point. What a feeling to look eye-to-eye with a raptor and have him take-off and return to your gloved hand.
Alec was an excellent teacher, and you could tell he had a real love of the birds and what he was doing; we managed to learn quite a bit from him.
The program is run by Ireland’s School of Falconry, the oldest established such school in Ireland. Although based at Ashford Castle, you don’t have to be staying here to schedule a Hawk Walk. www.falconry.ie
In the meantime, I can’t even think of enough adjectives to describe Ashford Castle. Dating from 1228, this property did indeed start out as a castle. In the mid-1800s it was owned by Sir Benjamin Guinness. In 2013, the property was rescued from receivership by the Red Carnation luxury hotel group. They bought it for less than half of its previous sale price and then proceeded to invest somewhere between $50-70 million in renovating the hotel and estate.
What you have is an incredible property, perfect in every way. Accommodations include totally modern electronics (such as US electrical outlets, heated bathroom floors and one touch controls for everything in the room), along with elegant fabric-covered walls, canopy beds and a staff that makes you feel like you are their only guest.
So, from the shores of Lough Corrib, we wish you “dia dhuit” (good evening).
The Cliffs of Moher were impressive, but I’d have to go with The Burren as the most fascinating place we visited today.
Cromwell’s surveyors described The Burren as “yielding neither water enough to drown a man, nor tree to hang him in, nor soil enough to bury.”
It truly is an odd, unique landscape, and does seem to hold some sort of mystical power locked within.
Flat, smooth limestone rocks are pitted with holes. The holes are filled with water and the barren landscape is home to dozens of types of small, beautiful flowers and shrubs, many rare and unusual for this part of the world. So what at first glance is grey, barren rock, soon reveals itself with a multitude of yellows, purples, whites, and pinks.
In the midst of all this is Ireland’s best preserved Neolithic portal tomb (of more than 90), Poulnabrone, dating from about 4,000 years ago. A bit farther down the road is the best example of a ring fort, Caherconnell.
The Cliffs of Moher are dramatic, and are a very popular tourist destination. Those with more time may wish to hike the trail along the cliffs to escape the masses. There is a nice movie in the Visitor’s Centre showing all perspectives of the cliffs with great aerial and underwater photography. You can take a boat tour to see the cliffs from the water and in retrospect, I think that would’ve been a worthwhile idea.
We also spent time exploring the grounds of Dromoland, which is really a manor home as opposed to a castle. You feel very much like you are living in a Downton Abbey world. I half expected to see Mr. Barrow come around the corner, except this staff is much nicer. Servers in tailcoats at dinner, high tea, formally attired staff coming into the drawing-room to light a late afternoon fire, a chatty carriage-driver sporting a bowler and a vintage horse-drawn buggy, impressive gardens and, of course, impeccable service.
I have never been a beer drinker, but do like dark beer. In college, I was told that was very low-class . . . . but it’s working for me now, because I like Guinness.
We set off this morning on some more Irish country back roads, heading to Ballybunion to play golf on a traditional links course; in this case, the Old Course, dating from 1893.
It was a great experience and lots of fun to walk the 18 holes with a caddy. Let me tell you with some of the positions my balls landed, it was a pretty rugged walk. It was a bit chilly, but we were prepared; windy, but beautiful. Our caddy was the second person to tell us it has been a particularly bad summer here with just five decent days, this was number six.
The course was spectacularly beautiful and the views on the ocean holes amazing; we were along the water for quite a few. A bonus was the adjacent cemetery along the first hole with its array of Celtic crosses. Those who have played golf with Fred will not be surprised to hear that his first ball hit a tombstone and bounced back into the fairway for an eventual par.
Other bonuses were en route was stopping for cows to cross the road on the way to their milking. When we left Ballybunion for our drive to Newmarket on Fergus and Dromoland Castle, we found ourselves at a ferry landing, with a ferry actually arriving, so we unexpectedly took the ferry across the River Shannon and saved some time. We are really enjoying the country roads and are finding road conditions and signage much better than we expected.
More on life as royalty next post.
Tip: Great book for driving around Ireland is: Eyewitness Travel’s Back Roads Ireland. That book and a Michelin map are all you need. For any unanswered questions, everyone here is friendly and very happy to help.