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A First Visit to Ireland: Eight Days on the Emerald Isle

A First Visit to Ireland: Eight Days on the Emerald Isle

by David and Eileen Peretz

As our readers know from perusing this newsletter, we are no strangers to travel in Europe. Yet, a visit to Ireland did not make it on our itinerary until a few weeks ago. This article is intended to share our discovery, delight and enchantment with you. Ireland has been described as “Forty shades of green.” It is more, much, much more. If witty, warm and welcoming people are your cup of tea, this is the place to go. If curiosity about how a small land of no more than four million inhabitants produced some of the greatest novelists, playwrights and poets of the twentieth century is your glass of stout, this is the place to go. If gorgeous landscapes, from cultivated to rugged, from wild coastlines to breathtaking lakes and mountains are your heart’s desire, this is the place to go. If golf is your game, you don’t need our recommendation. You already know that Ireland is a kingdom of golf courses, one more picturesque and challenging than the other. In our journey, which did not include golf, we met golfers making the pilgrimage in town, countryside and city. For those of you for whom a trip is incomplete without top museums—you’ll discover more than enough outstanding works of art to satisfy those cravings (how about Vermeer and Caravaggio, for starters?). And as for dining, let the myth of mediocre cuisine in Ireland be discarded, once and for all. The past decade has seen a remarkable development in everything from pub dining to first-class restaurants. The food industry is vibrant, apparently accompanying the birth and development of “The Celtic Tiger” as Ireland enjoyed substantial economic growth with the establishment of important high-tech and pharmaceutical sectors. We dined and wined very well, throughout the country. Shoppers will discover fine products in linen, wool and crystal at favorable prices.

We flew to Paris as our first leg on Continental Airlines out of Newark Airport. Continental has become one of our favorites. On-time, fine service and comfort. Our round-trip return would be on Continental from Dublin. Getting to Ireland from Paris proved no problem. We had read about Ryanair for some time. For those of you familiar with Jet Blue in the States, Ryan is a counterpart. New planes, no-frills, on-time and very inexpensive. The “airport” gave us a start, as w turned off the road and found a hangar with a check-in desk, magazine and newspaper shop, cafeteria and rest-rooms. Ryanair apparently leases retired military airfields, as no-frills as their flight. A comfortable hour and a half flight in a nearly full plane and we arrived in Ireland. Most of our fellow passengers were considerably younger, European or Irish and many of them were back-packers.

The sun was shining on our arrival at Shannon, a hopeful harbinger for our eight day stay. Incredibly, that turned out to be the case. Ireland is not known for its good weather. Our late June, early July visit was marked by sun and/or clouds and moderate temperatures. It rained only twice, once when we had settled in our hotel for the evening and a second, as we were visiting The Writer’s Museum in Dublin, apparently a ten minute drenching shower. We learned that it had rained when we stepped out of the museum and saw the wet sidewalks and puddles. The luck of the Irish? We hadn’t even picked a shamrock. So much for the two umbrellas we carried.

Our cab ride from Shannon brought us to Adare Manor in Adare, Limerick County. Our driver was, as we were to discover in all of our dealings, knowledgeable and articulate. We would learn from a performance at the Writer’s Museum in Dublin that the Irish are possessed of “the gift of the gab.” True—and a delight. We drove through the outskirts of Limerick and the gentleman spoke of Frank McCourt, the highly-regarded author of “Angela’s Ashes.” Frank, he reminded us, was a child of that city, where the memoir is set. We compared notes, as we had been neighbors of Frank’s brother, Malachy McCourt, many years ago in New York. Malachy is a delightful raconteur and now, a memoirist in his own right (“A Monk Swimming”).

Forty-five minutes later we drove through the gates of Adare Manor, beautifully situated on 365 acres of parkland.

Adare Manor (www.adaremanor.com) (Tel: 353-61-396566; Fax: 353-61-396124)

This five star manor house was the 18th and 19th century seat of the Earls of Dunraven. It is luxurious and tastefully appointed. Service is outstanding. The grounds surrounding the manor are beautifully gardened and maintained. Of course, there is a golf course (described by one golfing gentleman as “American in style”). If one prefers, it is possible to rent contemporary rooms or apartments adjoining the golf course. Clay target shooting, fishing and bicycling can be arranged. There is an indoor swimming pool, fitness center and beauty facility available on the property. The dining room is elegant and food and service were first-rate. We requested salmon rare and it arrived well-done. The kitchen got it right the second time. The young Frenchwoman serving as sommelier is skilled, charming and well-informed. She will help with your wine selection.

We decided to hire a car and driver for our daily touring so that we could concentrate on the sites, rather than the roads (especially with the extra attention required when driving on the left side of the road). We found Procar & ProBus Luxury Touring on the Internet, corresponded with Bruno, the owner and made all arrangements by e-mail and fax (www.procar-ireland.com) Tel: 353-64-42500; Fax: 353-64-41903. On our first full day in Ireland, John Bevan was waiting for us at 9:30AM as scheduled (we hired for a 9:30-5:30 day). We would spend four days with John, touring, with stops for pub lunches (he knew the best places) and we found him thoroughly informed, thoughtful, intelligent and companionable. We would highly recommend this manner of touring in the Irish countryside, if your budget permits. And ask for John, if he’s available.

Day one found us driving north through Limerick on the way to the Cliffs of Moher. John, after learning that we loved art, recommended a stop at The Hunt Museum in Limerick. He explained that it contained the collection of John Hunt, an archaeologist, gathered during his lifetime and bequeathed to his city. Located in the Old Custom House, this collection of antiquities is very special and worth a detour: you’ll see pieces from the Bronze Age, including a wonderfully worked shield and jewelry in gold, but what stays with us are the Christian artifacts, including the Antrim Cross, 9th century metalwork and a masterpiece. We’d highly recommend the stop to you.

The Cliffs of Moher did not disappoint. The sheer rock face layered with sandstone and black shale rise from the Atlantic Ocean to a height of more than six hundred feet. There are walking paths affording beautiful views. Beware that the cliffs may be shrouded in mist—our day was clear—or windswept by gales in off the Atlantic—ours was such a day—brrrr. So be prepared for damp or dry and cold, no matter the season. And, if you’re traveling with kids, be extremely careful on the trails!

From the Cliffs, we continued north to see some of The Burren, located in the northwest of County Clare. This geological oddity extends over more than a hundred square miles. It’s limestone structure makes it most unusual, what with its geology, history and special features, which include breathtaking displays of wildflowers in season as well as signs of six millenia of human life scattered in stony monuments.

Our long day’s journey into the landscape concluded, we returned to Adare with a stop at 15th century Bunratty Castle. The Great Hall, Main Guard Room and North Solar (a 17th century chandelier in the Great Earl’s private apartment) make it worth the visit. It is also possible to attend a Medieval Banquet at Bunratty. If you have time, a visit to the Folk Park gives a sense of farm life around the turn of the previous century. Great if you are traveling with kids. If you are staying for a longer period in Adare, other destinations could include Galway City to the north or Cashel in County Tipperary, to the east, where you can see the Rock of Cashel, described as an Irish Acropolis on the plains of Tipperary.

On our second night in Adare, we dined at The Wild Geese, a charming inn, just a little ways down from the gate to Adare Manor, on the main street of this beautiful town. It proved a felicitous choice. The food was absolutely outstanding: simple, yet creative and the equivalent of a two star Michelin meal in France. You may not find it in the guide books (though it has been named among the top 100 in Ireland) but we assure you, this young chef is making his mark! The service was warm, friendly and not fussy.

Also highly recommended as a stopping place in Adare is Dunraven Arms Hotel (www.dunravenhotel.com) (Tel:011-353-61-396633; Fax: 011-353-61-396541). As it is located directly on Main Street, ask for a room facing the rear of the hotel (gardens) rather than the trafficked main street.

Next morning, our luggage loaded, we expressed our appreciation to the staff at Adare Manor and soon were off to Kenmare in the southwest, via The Dingle Peninsula. The drive was long, the scenery worth it. It offers some of Ireland’s most beautiful scenic views, interspersed with sites of cultural and historical importance. Our entry to the peninsula was reached after nearly an hour and a half drive from Adare. Tralee (famous for its “Rose”) is considered the gateway to the Peninsula. If you are a lover of traditional ethnic song and dance, during the summer months, Siamsa Tire National Folk Theatre of Ireland is in residence in Tralee and you might want to stop for a night or two. We passed through the town of Dingle and began the tour. In addition to dramatic sea and shore views throughout, we saw and/or visited antiquities such as Iron Age stone forts, early Christian oratories and beehive huts. By five thirty, we had circled the Peninsula and arrived at Kenmare, our next destination. Kenmare, famous for its traditional lace, is an excellent base for exploring the Beara Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry. We stayed at Sheen Falls Lodge(www.sheenfallslodge.com), choosing it over the Park Hotel (each is superb). The Spa at Sheen Falls was up and running, while at the renowned Park Hotel, the Spa will open in October 2003. At that point, it will truly be a toss-up between two gems. Sheen Falls Lodge is set amidst 300 acres of cascading waterfalls and lovely woodlands. Our room looked out on a waterfall. There are 52 rooms and 9 suites, ranging in price from 250-620 euros. General Manager Adriaan Bartels (aka “the big cheese”, a nom de guerre given to him by his staff) runs a wonderful luxury “ship.” The spa’s facilities, gym and services, is world-class. After a day’s touring and use of the gym, I treated myself to what turned out to be the best massage I’ve ever had, accompanied by the music of “Secret Garden.” Ask for Elisabeth. When I got to Dublin I made a beeline for a record shop and found “Secret Garden” a two-disc set, a combination of haunting classical and Irish music. The Lodge offers two settings for dining. The beautiful main dining room serves gourmet cuisine and the bistro is quite casual. Having spent a week in Paris, we opted for the casual and had a lovely meal. We heard from others that the gourmet restaurant at the Lodge was outstanding. We’ll try it next time. On our second night, we dined in town at The Lime Tree Restaurant, located in what was originally a 19th century schoolhouse. The meal was excellent. One error was quickly corrected- the salmon was overcooked when requested rare. The second arrived, rare as originally requested. When we mentioned this to John Bevan, he informed us that the Irish eat their salmon well cooked, explaining the errors at both Adare Manor and Lime Tree. From that point on, we limited our salmon to wonderful Irish smoked salmon at breakfast (more of which we purchased at Dublin Airport).

Our second day in Kenmare was spent exploring a bit of the Ring of Kerry and the Lakes of Killarney. Absolutely gorgeous viewing. Hikers will adore the opportunity to explore this setting. As we crossed Moll’s Gap, with wonderful mountain views, we passed Avoca Handweavers and asked John to pull over. At this shop, we bought beautiful wool throws as gifts for members of our family back home. The throws were exquisite, the prices quite reasonable and they shipped to our home address. The gifts were so well received that we called Avoca from New York and ordered several additional throws.

Driving over the pass and down into the valley, we passed through forests and were enchanted by views of the Killarney lakes and mountains. We arrived at Muckross House, an elegant 19th century manor house overlooking the lakes. Built in 1843, it was inhabited for several generations by the same family, artistic in nature, reflected in the interiors as well as the exhibition of professional quality paintings by a daughter of the original owner. There is also a folk museum and one can tour the vicinity on foot or by horse-drawn jitney.

The Ring of Kerry is a spectacular route running through mountains and cliff-top roads. You pass through fishing villages and picturesque towns. The entire round trip runs 6 ½ hours. Hikers spend several days in the Ring, hoofing it.

The next day, we left Sheen Falls at our usual 9:30AM departure, headed for Dublin with stops planned in Cork-- for a visit to the Cork Museum (on the way and worth the stop)-- and to the seaport town of Waterford for a visit and tour of the famous crystal company, with an opportunity to observe men at work, glass-blowing, polishing and cutting crystal. Shopping opportunities as well.

We arrived in Dublin close to 6PM and bid fond farewell to John Bevan. We chose to stay in the center of the city at The Shelbourne Hotel on St. Stephen’s Green (www.shelbourne.ie), (Tel: 353-1-6766471; Fax: 353-1-6616006) a landmark in Dublin, built in 1867 and retaining its character to this day throughout, yet possessing all the modern conveniences one could seek. Lovely bars and public rooms, dating back to the 19th century are warm settings for a drink or high tea; a world-class gym and spa facility is attached to the hotel; the staff is warm and friendly, ready and willing to help with advice on touring and dining. Though a part of the Meridien group of hotels, it remains thoroughly distinct. We recommend it highly. Another option, in the same neighborhood, is The Merrion, recommended to us by experienced travelers. This elegant hotel, several blocks from the Shelbourne, was put together from four Georgian townhouses. It is antiques-filled, quiet, very private and expensive (www.merrionhotel.ie) (Tel:353-1-603-0600; Fax: 353-1-6030700).

Dublin, happily, is a walking city. These days it is brimming with vitality: bustling streets, coffee shops (great cappuccinos everywhere), pubs, good shopping. Its history (rebellion against British rule, only ending in 1922 with a treaty and the establishment of the Irish Free State) is writ large on the streets. Read up on the history and it will make the visit that much more meaningful. For example, within the Shelbourne Hotel is the room in which the treaty was signed. If you’re interested, ask to see it. Southeast Dublin (where we stayed) is the core of the modern city.

Ireland gave birth to James Joyce, for some of us, the greatest novelist of the twentieth century; Samuel Becket, Sean O’Casey, J.M Synge, George Bernard Shaw,—astonishing playwrights W.B. Yeats, the great poet. Earlier, Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. More recently, Brendan Behan, William Trevor, Brian Moore, Brian Friel and Edna O’Brien. And more. I asked an Irish friend, what they put in the water. He replied, with a twinkle in his eye. “It’s not the water, David.” On our way to Trinity College, we stopped for a cappuccino at Bewley’s Oriental Café at 78 Grafton Street (popular shopping district). James Joyce had taken his coffee in this early twentieth century coffee house (see the stunning stained glass in the rear room), sitting in an upstairs room, now named after him. We told a hostess (her name tag read Tattens) that we wanted to have our coffee in the James Joyce Room and she replied in a lilting voice, “It’s open only in the afternoon, but if you get your coffee, I’ll take you upstairs and open the room for you. You can sit at a table and enjoy the sunshine through the windows.” Not only did we enjoy the coffee and the sunshine, but Tattens stayed with us for ten minutes, regaling us with stories about Joyce and his wife Nora and Irish politics of the period. The gift of the gab, indeed, and what a pleasure to partake of it. Thank you, Tattens!

After coffee, we strolled down Grafton Street toward Trinity College to have a look at The Book of Kells. Trinity is to Ireland what Oxford and Cambridge are to England. It was founded in 1592 by Elizabeth I and as a “Protestant” college, it was not until the 1970’s that Catholics in large number began to attend (the Catholic Church easing its opposition). The campus is beautifully laid out. Get there early, as every tourist heads for The Book of Kells and the lines can be long. The Book of Kells, believed to be the work of monks dating to the 9th century is a rich illuminated manuscript, containing the four gospels in Latin and fascinating drawings—portraits, animals, designs, human figures. Follow this visit with a stop at the college’s Old Library (1732). The Long Room is splendid, 210 feet in length, housing the oldest harp in Ireland, 200,000 antiquarian texts and marble busts of scholars.

Next, we crossed a bridge over the Liffey River which divides Dublin, walked up O’Connell Street, past the General Post Office (under siege during the 1916 Rising) and the controversial Monument of Light, a stainless steel spire that replaced the statue of a British official, blown up by the IRA. We visited the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art on Parnell Square North. This is a fantastic small museum! Sir Hugh Lane donated his collection of Impressionist paintings in 1905 (Monet, Courbet, Degas and others) as well as work by Rodin. To top it all off, for admirers of the painting of Francis Bacon (born in Ireland), his mate bequeathed Bacon’s studio as it existed at the time of his death in the early 1990’s and it has been reconstructed in the Gallery, down to the last detail. It is an incredible experience. There are also several incomplete paintings, which give you a chance to study the artists approach to the canvas. Interactive computer exhibits as well as a filmed interview with Bacon, allow further insight into his work and his life. Not to be missed.

Just down the street from the Hugh Lane Gallery, in an 18th century townhouse, is the Dublin Writer’s Museum. Manuscripts, letters, paintings and mementos are to be found. For us, the best part of the visit was a 50 minute, one man show by an actor, centering on the writers and writing of Irish playwrights, poets and novelists. Ask your concierge to check with the museum for time and date of such performances (ours was at 1:10PM).

The James Joyce Cultural Center is a few blocks away at 35 North Great George’s Street. Here, you’ll find a beautiful Georgian townhouse devoted to the work of this literary genius whose major works were all set in Dublin, despite the fact that he wrote them in Trieste and Switzerland, like so many Irish writers, having chosen self-exile. In fact, his Ulysses, covers a 24 hour period in the life of several Dubliner’s and the city itself is re-created as it existed on June 16, 1904 (now Bloomsday, for Joyce-o-philes).

A must for visitors to Dublin is a visit to one of its famous theatres (The Abbey, The Gate). We chose The Abbey Theatre in Lower Abbey Street, arranging tickets from New York, when we learned that the performance was Sean O’Casey’s “The Plough and the Stars.” The theatre was founded in 1898 by Yeats and Lady Gregory. This play was first shown in 1926, and deals with the 1916 Rising on the most intimate, human level. The staging we saw was incredible and the performances, each and every one, as good as it gets in the theatre. We sat there, transfixed, and walked out stunned by the immense power of the production.

Other spots North of the Liffey: Old Jameson’s Distillery, Custom House, St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral(1825), Moore Street Market.

Next day, we continued to discover the cultural treasures of Dublin with a morning visit to The National Gallery. And what a visit! A great Vermeer (there are only thirty odd in the world), Caravaggio’s extraordinary “The Taking of Christ”, only discovered in a Dublin Jesuit house in 1990, Mantegna, El Greco, Titian, Goya, Monet, to name a few, as well as Irish landscape art and paintings.

Just down the block from the museum is the Georgian house in which Oscar Wilde grew up, now a “museum”. It’s worth a look inside (1 Merrion Square). A stroll around Merrion Square is your best introduction to surviving Irish Georgian architecture.

The National Museum, off Kildare Street, is yet another treasure trove.It’s strength lies in its collection of Ireland’s Gold (Bronze Age gold, incredibly wrought), the Cross of Cong, dating from 1123, The 8th century Tara Brooch, as well as Viking objects and an impressive Egyptian collection.

In the same vicinity, we paid a visit to the National Library for a look at its fabulous domed reading room, in which Joyce set a literary debate in his novel, Ulysses.

While in Southeast Dublin, you can also visit St. Stephen’s Park and have a look at the Bank of Ireland (built I Georgian times as the Irish Parliament), Leinster House(home of the Irish Parliament since 1922).

Southwest Dublin offers Temple Bar, a lively Soho or Greenwich Village equivalent; Christ Church Cathedral (established in 1186AD on the site of a wooden Viking cathedral, completed in 1240AD, it underwent major renovation beginning in 1871); Dublin Castle, which can be toured in groups.

Our penchant for art took us to the Chester Beatty Library and Gallery of Oriental Art. Beatty was an American mining engineer who, after graduation from Columbia University, went West at the time of the Gold Rush and made his fortune. His business investments took him to England, where, offended in the 1950’s by high taxation, he decided to move to Ireland. His travels and interest in religions and books, led to the accumulation of a treasury of Korans, Greek papyri, biblical materials as well as works from China, Japan and Southeast Asia. He left his collection to Ireland and it is housed in a gallery adjoining Dublin Castle.

One late morning, we boarded the surface train for a half-hour excursion to Sandycove and a visit to the Martello Tower (James Joyce Tower), the setting for the opening of Ulysses. The ride afforded views of the sea, followed by a stroll along the boardwalk to the Tower. We followed up with a pleasant pub lunch before returning to Dublin.

There’s more to see in Dublin, but our three days were filled with discovery, from Tattens at the Bewley Oriental Café to the treasures of museums, theatre and the streets of the city.

Here are some tips on Where to Eat:

If you are up for a Michelin two-star restaurant in an exquisite setting, a Georgian townhouse adjacent to the Merrion Hotel, consider Patrick Guilbaud, 21 Upper Merrion Street. Superb modern cuisine. Very expensive. Reserve well in advance.

L’Ecrivain, 109a Lower Baggot Street, has won critical acclaim for its French/Irish cuisine. Emphasis on fish and game in-season.

We had excellent meals at the following restaurants:

Browne’s Brasserie, 22 St. Stephen’s Greene. Also in a restored Georgian townhouse (which offers attractive hotel rooms), there is a wide selection of dishes, ranging from Continental to Mediterranean, a nice wine list, and good service. The room is elegant, quiet and the cuisine is first-rate. Two stars on our rating scale.

Rubicon, 6 Merrion Row. We tried this restaurant without recommendation, based on the menu in the window and a look at the interior. We were not disappointed. The restaurant is casual and the food simple, well-prepared, fresh, yet imaginative. Reasonably priced with a good selection of wines, fairly priced. One star on our scale.

Bang Café, 11 Merrion Row. Busy, bustling, attractive bistro, with a youthful clientele, excellent, international cuisine and friendly service. We started with spring rolls, quail salad, then went on to a beef filet and roasst scallops as main dishes. A bottle of Salice Salentino (excellent), cappuccino and a chocolate bombe—total before tip 88 Euros. Ask your concierge to make an advance reservation as tables can be hard to come by. Two stars plus.

From our inquiries, there are many first-rate dining experiences to be had in Dublin.

Have a wonderful visit to Ireland. We did!

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