Escape to the Emerald Isle
Updated: May 25, 2020
Now more than ever, the history and hospitality of Ireland beckon alluringly across the Atlantic Ocean. And nowhere personifies a warm Irish welcome more than The Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, with almost 200 years of history behind its gleaming facade.
In 1824, Irishman Martin Burke turned three townhouses near the St. Stephen’s Green into top-flight accommodations and named his new property after a former British prime minister. Occupied by the British during the 1916 Easter Rising, The Shelbourne Hotel played host to Michael Collins in 1922 while he was drafting the Irish constitution. History buffs should ask for the hotel’s genealogy butler, an expert on family history, to arrange a consultation on their own Irish pasts.
A haven of luxury amidst Dublin’s hustle and bustle, The Shelbourne’s beautifully appointed rooms complement the hotel’s numerous dining and drinking options. Sip a spot of afternoon tea in the refined Lord Mayor’s Lounge, then adjourn to the secluded 1824 Bar, whose plush fittings amidst wooden paneling–and superb whiskey collection–are reminiscent of a viscount’s study. Need a bite to eat or a lighter tipple? No. 27 Bar & Lounge offers up delightful cocktail creations and sophisticated twists on classic Irish pub fare. For dinner, look no further than The Shelbourne’s Saddle Room, which serves up delicious renditions of classics like Irish scallops or Beef Chateaubriand.
There’s no shortage of dining hotspots to enjoy in Dublin. Work up an appetite while perusing the stunning, early medieval manuscripts that make up the Book of Kells at University College Dublin. Keep the historic theme going by visiting the astounding bog bodies–corpses preserved for millennia by the various minerals present in Irish swamps–present at the National Museum of Ireland’s archaeology division.
Trinity College Dublin
Channel Comedy Central’s classic program Drunk History by heading to the Guinness Storehouse. At the home of the world’s favorite beer, down a pint (or two or three) while learning all about the delightful brew’s rich cultural heritage. Then, browse the vast collection of books on the first floor of bookstore/restaurant The Winding Stair, before going upstairs for a hearty meal. Or, head into the heart of the city to dine at Fade Street Social, featuring acclaimed chef Dylan McGrath’s cuisine. Fade Street Social offers petite, tapas-style portions of fresh, seasonal Irish produce.
Dublin’s immediate surrounds offer exquisite heritage sites. In the verdant countryside northwest of the capital, stop at the prehistoric wonder that is Newgrange, courtesy of a Mary Gibbons tour. A circular monument that might have been an ancient temple, a ritual site from which to view the sun at the summer solstice, or something in between, Newgrange is older than the Pyramids at Giza–and the misty air hovering over the massive stone edifice shimmers with mystery.
Newgrange photo by Brian Morrison
Your knowledgeable guides will lead you through the 5000-year-old structure. Next stop on the Mary Gibbons Tours is the Hill of Tara, the legendary seat of Ireland’s high kings in ancient times.
Hill of Tara BoyneFamilyTours.com
After touring Tara, have a rest at Bellinter House, whose romantic opulence rivals the fictional Downton Abbey’s. Built as an 18th-century country retreat along the River Boyne, Bellinter House has transformed itself into a boutique hotel with every amenity imaginable, complete with extensive grounds. Opt for a room in the Main House, which offers a full tub in which to soak weary limbs. And there’s no better way to refuel than with crispy Boyne Valley fish and chips, courtesy of the master chefs at Eden, Bellinter’s in-house restaurant.
Bellinter is located smack in the middle of historic County Meath. The best way to travel and learn is with the experts at Derek Smith’s Beautiful Meath Tours, who offer packaged or custom tours, complete with chauffeur-historians to take you from site to site. Eager to learn about your family history? Dig into your personal Irish heritage on Beautiful Meath’s genealogy tours. Pining for some of Ireland’s authentic uisce beatha (Gaelic for “water of life,” or whiskey)? Try a snifter–or several–on a bespoke tour of Irish whiskey distilleries.
Beautiful Meath’s guides, including expert Michael Fox of Boyne Valley Tours, will impress and inform with their vast knowledge of every nook and cranny of their county and its tasty and historic byproducts. Trim Castle is a hulking fortified site that movie buffs might recognize from the movie Braveheart (yes, William Wallace lived in Scotland, but there’s no place quite like Ireland to film a historical flick). And who says castles can’t be current? Bruce Springsteen and U2 have headlined rock concerts at nearby Slane Castle.
From Meath, hop a bus heading southeast, back to Dublin. Then, transfer to another JJ Kavanagh bus, venturing southwest–this time, to the city of Kilkenny. Combining rich historic fortifications with top-flight entertainment festivals and some of the best restaurants in Ireland, Kilkenny offers the best of all worlds. Situated just outside the town’s center of town is Newpark Hotel, a favorite venue for weddings. It’s a magnificent setting, forty acres of parkland and award-winning, landscaped gardens. Newpark offers a delightful afternoon tea to reinvigorate you after a long day–or you can unwind with an Aveda treatment at the Escape Spa.
Get to know Kilkenny City proper with the Pat Tynan Walking Tours, available from 11 am to 2 pm Monday through Saturday. Join fascinated fellow visitors at the tourist office before departing on foot to tour the town. Pat genially guides guests through the windy streets of Kilkenny, relating local lore and trivia tidbits along the way. Standing in the shadow of Kilkenny Castle, he explains how a series of invasions brought about the mighty edifice’s construction, and Pat makes sure to emphasize all of Kilkenny’s historic firsts and unique quirks.
Unwind after your tour with traditional Irish fare at the White Oak, housed in the centrally-located Kilford Arms Hotel, followed by a pint at the Hole in the Wall. An irresistibly charming watering hole favored by locals and tourists alike, the Hole in the Wall is one of the tiniest pubs you’ll ever visit. But its cozy ambiance and beverage selection complement the staffers’ raucous banter, turning a small spot into a massive attraction. Then dine out at Zuni, whose takes on local seafood delight the palate.
If you’re lucky enough to visit at the end of May or early June, don’t miss the Kilkenny Cat Laughs Festival. During this brief but brilliant event, world-renowned comics flock to perform their latest stand-up routines. Recent luminaries include 2018 Edinburgh Comedy Award winner Rose Matafeo, legendary Irish presenter Tommy Tiernan, and quick-witted fan favorite Nish Kumar, host of British satire show, The Mash Report.
Of course, a visit to Kilkenny wouldn’t be complete without taking in the area’s ancient sites. Kilkenny Taxi Tours offers a chauffeured trip around the southeast corner of Ireland, a green haven of history and culture. Ask for James, whose knowledge of the area is second to none. Start off at Jerpoint Abbey, a medieval abbey now in ruins. Its eerie, abandoned environs might well make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Other don’t-miss sites include Kells Priory and Duiske Abbey, and a delightful meal awaits you at Jen’s at Mullins Mill.
There’s so much to see in Ireland, from historic sites to breweries galore, that there surely isn’t enough room for just one trip. That means one thing–time to plan a return trip to the brilliant southeast of the Emerald Isle, Ireland’s Ancient East, at www.Ireland.com