A "once in a lifetime" first class tour of Ireland, by surprise.
I was looking forward to staying in some very pleasant little B&B's on our first trip to Ireland. Little did I know that my husband, 15 year old daughter and I would end up taking a very different kind of trip - one more typical for a movie star than regular folks like us. When my father-in-law stepped forward and offered to take us on the trip -- at his expense - the style of our tour changed drastically. His wife had recently passed away, and he wanted to give a gift we could enjoy together. I was instructed to speak with his travel agent, who started out by recommending Glin Castle, Dublin's Westbury Hotel, and several more of Ireland's most over-the-top luxury accommodations.
On this charmed trip, only one thing went wrong. Just before departure, my father-in-law was forced to cancel due to a schedule conflict. He insisted that we go ahead nonetheless.
A change in our driving arrangements right at the outset seemed to add the final, perfect element of style. At a stopover in London, a taxi driver warned us that we wouldn't be able to fit our luggage in a typical rental car - laden as we were with clothing for formal dinners. So the three of us strolled out of Shannon Airport one July morning and climbed into a sleek Mercedes limo, to be greeted by Tommy, who "came with the car."
We were clearly unlike Tommy's normal clientele - I'm not sure he ever figured out what we were doing with him. He specialized in driving celebrities and diplomats around Ireland - at high speed. As we careened around one corner near Shannon I joked: "You could be a race car driver." He turned around and said "how did you know?" explaining that he did, in fact, race Formula Two cars. I pondered whether to be comforted or terrified by this news.
Glin Castle Our first taste of upper crust living was at Glin Castle in Glin, County Limerick. Glin is a late 18th century structure, more a grand manor house than a fortified castle. An imposing portrait of the current (29th) Earl of Glin in the lobby watches over antique mahogany furniture, accented with crystal and china so plentiful (and authentic) I feared one of us might accidentally knock over something valuable.
Glin is surprisingly intimate - it has just 15 bedrooms, many of which are not tremendous (some brochures compare it to a "toy fortress"). The scale, however, only adds to the sense of being in a comfortable, albeit very large, home rather than a hotel. Taste and high style permeate everywhere, with each room having it's own unique decoration. Our two bedrooms (my father-in-law saw that 15 year old Kate had her own room at every stop) offered views of the Shannon River on one side, and sweeping pastures on the other - the Glin estate is 500 acres large. The decorative formality here was offset by the genuinely warm, service-oriented attitude of the staff.
Longueville House A stop at the Rock of Cashel was a pleasure. We happened to arrive while a choir was rehearsing for an evening concert, and were treated to the entire program (Cashel seemed uncrowded for such a well known site). Our next accommodation was Longueville House, near Mallow in County Cork. Longueville is a very Georgian Mansion, as formal a Glin and set in an estate just as large. The atmosphere was also comfortably home-like, enhanced by flowers cascading out of window boxes all around and a dramatic view of the Blackwater Valley from the front door.
"Spectacular" would be the best word to describe the cuisine here, with herbs, vegetables and fruits supplied by the estate's own walled garden. It was at Longueville that we encountered the first of many "vertical desserts" - sweet things that hovered high above our plates on swans and other decorative goodies.
Wanting to get out a bit, we asked the lady of the house about local pubs to visit. She immediately asked if we would like her husband to take us to one. Refusing that, she made us feel comfortable about leaving our daughter in her care while we went out.
It doesn't take long to get used to being pampered! After just two nights in lux surroundings, walking into a pub in Mallow felt like a jarring return to the real world. The evening picked up when I asked the bartender if it was alright to dance -- she called her own mother over, who proceeded to lead me into the very revved-up crowd on the dance floor. Speaking later on with the young bartender - she was just 15 - I realized local life in Ireland isn't entirely changed. An intelligent girl, she told me her main aspiration was to simply move up to a position as hostess in the bar.
We're not the types to go hunting, but I was impressed when told that Longueville releases over five thousand pheasants onto it's grounds each year for the pleasure of Irish hunters (the season runs from November to January). Participants are advised that a party of 8 is required, and that "it is essential to have your own personal insurance for the day."
Park Hotel Kenmare We carried on, enjoying the view from our Mercedes, to the well-known Park Hotel in Kenmare. The 1897 building, extensively refurbished in the 1980's, sits in a spacious estate. A unique pleasure of the Park is that, while it offers a very pastoral setting with terraced gardens, pastures and a horse farm in back, you're able to walk out the front door practically into the center of town. There's an impressive collection of antique furniture, though the sensibility is a bit less frilly than Glin or Longueville. The rooms are also a good deal larger. Our two nights here were comfortable, with a very attentive staff. But I think we'd fallen in love with the more "other worldly" atmosphere of the manor houses.
Tommy, the driver, was turning out to be a great source of ideas for places to stop and have lunch on the road. He seemed to find it very odd, however, that we would actually sit down to eat with him. I guess celebrities dine exclusively with their followers.
Marlfield House We spent one night in Kinsale, at a perfectly good little hotel called Acton's. But the poor place had no chance of making an impression, after the venues we'd been in lately. One more amazing manor-style home awaited us: Marlfield House in Gorey (county Wexford), about an hour and a half from Dublin. The style here is more Regency, with numerous antiques, but a feeling of open, less fussy elegance. Fireplaces abound. Asian ginger jars decorated the shelves by the very high ceilings in our rooms. I had the manager show me around a bit, which confirmed that there are some truly immense suites in the house. Marfield has an impressive 35 acre estate, which includes a lake and wildfowl reserve.
We particularly enjoyed dining in Marlfield's conservatory-style restaurant, overlooking a garden that's an absolute knockout. More vertical desserts.
Westbury Hotel Our elite adventure wound down with a 3-night stay at Dublin's Westbury Hotel. The Westbury is a true luxury resort Dublin Ireland, with good central location just off Grafton Street. Any Texan would be impressed with the scale of things here. Our luxury suites offered open spaces and amenities that seemed designed for world leaders and rock stars.
On arrival, we discovered that Kate was placed on a different floor. When we expressed concern, the manager informed us that Kate had a junior suite and we had the "Presidential Suite." We could be on the same floor - if we wished to downgrade the rooms. Given one look at our accommodations, however, I quickly decided I could "live" with Kate on a separate floor. Kate, for her part, seemed quite willing to stick with her suite, with its formal dining room and other perks.
The Presidential Suite lived up to its name, offering a bar with crystal servings on one side and a working fireplace on the other. Additional luxuries included a grand mahogany table gracing the dining room, and a television built into the marble wall over the tub. Big was the operative word here - it felt like a hike from the bathroom on one end to the powder room on the opposite.
We bid goodbye to Tommy at the airport, carrying memories of a particular side of Ireland I doubt we'll see again unless we win the lottery. Thanks to my father-in-law for a great trip. This one's going to be tough to top.