Photographs by Andrea Kennedy.
If you’re the type to make a bucket list, standing slack-jawed in the shadow of a medieval castle should be near the top. We checked our list in Ireland and even feigned royalty by calling a castle home for the night — one once belonging to the Guinness family, no less. A trip to the Emerald Isle, which celebrates its patron St. Patrick this month, took us from castles to camping — by that I mean glamping — and from east to west in this bustling, bucolic land.
We planned a week in autumn for our Irish excursion and dropped our bags at the posh, recently renovated Trinity City Hotel before strolling to hip Temple Bar. We navigated through a young and young-at-heart party crowd as live traditional Irish music and choruses of “Whiskey in the Jar” spilled onto the cobblestones. Street bands rattled Temple Bar Square while steps away couples cuddled on the Ha’penny Bridge gazing at city lights mirrored in the River Liffey. We had arrived.
By day, we hopped a double-decker bus for a bird’s eye view and brogue-narrated tour of the city. (I’m more of a walker myself — and Dublin is highly walkable. But considering our time frame, this hop-on/hop-off option did the trick.) Make a pit stop at Dublin Castle, a former fortress, royal residence and seat of British government. With its surviving medieval architecture and serene memorial garden, it’s one striking example of the union of old and new traditions. A short walk away is hallowed St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the 12th-century Gothic masterpiece where, according to tradition, the saint baptized converts at a nearby well. Equally humbling is the Long Room at historic Trinity College Library, a two-story, book-lined arcade that would look right at home at Hogwarts. (Or is it the other way around?) Founded in 1592, the college’s library famously houses the Book of Kells, the illuminated Gospels in which the Irish take great pride.
Ready to unwind Irish-style, north we drove by patchwork pastures and what’s-left-of-abbeys to the sweet countryside of Slane. Forty minutes from Dublin we landed at Rock Farm Slane, an organic farm, ecotourism destination and glamping site on the south banks of the River Boyne. Once our bags were gingerly wheel-barrowed through the farm pasture, we settled into our private yurt complete with candlelight adornments, alluring toiletries, fluffy white towels, wood-burning furnace and personal lanterns (for night trips to the loo). More like a B&B than a campsite, Rock Farm one-ups with Le Shack — a well-designed and well-stocked communal area in full IKEA-meets-camping chic glory. And thanks to traveling in the off-season, we had the entirety of the grounds to ourselves, with the exception of some ambivalent bovine.
At dawn, our yurt’s front porch staged a dreamy view of Slane Castle. Reachable via original fortress walls and lush domain woods, the castle is the picture of strength and serenity. (Well, not always the latter. Annually, its grounds are rocked by the high-octane Slane Concert, played by the likes of U2, Madonna, The Stones and The Boss. Foo Fighters are slated for May 30.) Slane Castle is owned by the same family estate as Rock Farm, a relationship that makes it easy to book tours, whiskey-tastings and other excursions and events. Fun fact: The castle’s 18th century stables will soon be the site of an eco-friendly whiskey distillery.
If I were to live anywhere in Ireland, it would be Galway. Maybe it’s the soul or maybe it’s the sea (or maybe it’s the food, see sidebar), but due west of Dublin is Ireland’s laid-back left-coast town of breezy boardwalks and oodles of small-town charm. We hung our hats at The Stop B&B, a renovated home and our home away from home. Owners Russ and Emer are vets of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, and their aesthetic prowess manifests itself in contemporary art pieces and exhibition posters bedecking the walls, clean, comfy décor and interesting accessories throughout. Not only is theirs the finest B&B breakfast spread we’ve seen, but fresh cookies, European design mags, local touring advice and genuine friendliness were in endless supply.
Mere steps from The Stop sits the Latin Quarter, the winding streets just east and west of the 16th century Spanish Arch once port to merchant ships and elegant hookers (traditional fishing boats). We must have spent hours in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop, an independent mecca for book lovers with new and (even cooler) rare finds like a first edition Jack London with musty-smelling mustard-colored pages. Show your inner child some love at Wooden Heart toy store on Quay Street and take a serene stroll at sunset on the Salthill boardwalk.
Facing the gates of Ashford Castle you feel as though you should approach in a horse-drawn (or perhaps enchanted) carriage rather than a Volvo station wagon. Through winding wooded roads, a clearing opens to the majestic château set against the glistening Lough Corrib. The 13th-century fortress turned five-star castle — also home to the Guinness family in the 1800s — spans 350 acres of opulent gardens surrounding a lofty stone façade and crenellated towers. We practically floated through a fantasyland of top hats and suits of armor, dark wood and red velvet interiors, sculptural flourishes and lavish bouquets. From our room, plush in cream and gold, we viewed an expanse that contained a golf green and, naturally, a helipad. We ambled along the windswept waterfront and frolicked carefree around a broad ring fountain. (Speaking of rings, it’s also been rated the second most romantic place in the world to propose.)
In a Brigadoon dawn, we ventured deep into the castle woods to fly a red-tailed hawk. Ireland’s School of Falconry on the castle grounds introduced us to our feathered friend Fhómhair (Fover). There’s a certain luxury in traipsing among legions of towering timbers with a skilled bird on your arm. Yet for all the reverence that comes with the ancient sport of falconry, it’s nearly impossible to contain the thrill when a majestic red-tail swoops from an out-of-sight branch, skims the ground and lands expertly on your glove. With hearts light as a feather, there’s no way this would be our last Irish stay.
Eating and imbibing, Irish-Style
Who says Ireland’s not known for food? One trip proved dining goes way beyond blood pudding:
In Temple Bar, visit the touristy and jaunty Oliver St. John Gogarty Bar, where my husband downed an overflowing bowl of mussels and I refueled with an Irish bacon shank slathered in creamed potatoes and gravy — the kind of meat that falls off its bone and promptly sticks to yours. Outside Temple Bar, try the calm and cool Fade St. Social by Irish “MasterChef” judge Dylan McGrath. Our small plates were fancy but filling, like pork belly slab, tempura shrimp skewer and sugar-dusted donut holes with mango dip. Naturally, no trip to Dublin is complete without a genuine Guinness at the colossal Guinness Storehouse. Ascend to the Gravity Bar at the tippy-top to enjoy your pint with a 360-degree view of sun-drenched Dublin.
The caliber of dining in Galway cannot be emphasized enough. Ard Bia at Nimmo’s serves boutique local fare tossed with exotic Mideast flavor. It’s cottage feel, fanciful branding and creative owner Aoibheann (“Ay-veen,” see her side gig, The Tweed Project) makes it a top pick. Kai Café + Restaurant is also a fave — the stone, wood and whimsy-filled lovechild of an Irish and Kiwi couple that recently was named top restaurant in Ireland. We stuffed ourselves with a rich Reuben and hand-sized choux pastry filled with pistachio cream. Hit candlelit Cava Bodega (open late) to share a carafe and authentic tapas along with specials like spiced local lamb and gently fried monkfish. EAT Gastropub at Massimo offers attractive plates of pub fare. We devoured the local pork and chorizo burger and greens with goat cheese. At the suggestion of a beer geek behind the counter at Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop, we dipped into the Salt House pub for a pint of Goodbye Blue Monday, a powerful IPA (India Pale Ale) from Galway Bay Brewery. If the Salt House is for lovers of beer, Sheridans Cheesemongers is for lovers of cheese, cured meats and other artisanal fare.
Don’t forget your jackets for dinner under Waterford Crystal chandeliers at the George V Dining Room, or go castle casual at the decadent breakfast spread. We settled into fine dining in Cullen’s at the Dungeon, where among cast-iron fixtures and crested flags we reveled in our meal of salmon and scallops like it was our last.