RISMEDIA, March 13, 2009-(MCT)-For you intrepid travelers who, looking ahead to St. Patrick’s Day, might have a trip to Ireland in your future, I have a trivia question for you. What do the Duke of Wellington and the Guinness family of brewers have in common – beyond the obvious, of course?
Answer: The onetime homes of the Duke and of Lord Ardilaun of the Guinness clan have been transformed into world-class hotels – one in Dublin and one in the pastoral countryside of County Mayo.
The “Town and Country Experience,” a customized six-night trip, allows visitors to experience the best of both historic properties.
The Merrion, Dublin
When Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington and Napoleon’s nemesis at Waterloo, was born at 24 Upper Merrion Street in 1769, the townhouse faced stately Leinster House, seat of the Irish government; coaches-and-fours paraded up and down the thoroughfare; and just around the corner were the leafy gardens of St. Stephen’s Green.
More than 200 years later, the view has not changed, but the coaches have been replaced by stretch limousines, and the Duke’s birthplace, along with three other Georgian townhouses, now comprise Dublin’s most elegant hotel, The Merrion.
On a chilly morning last November, the sun was a pale smear in a slate sky and the usual Irish mist was falling, but inside The Merrion, all was warm and toasty. A log fire burned in the drawing room as I sat down to tea, and I could smell freshly baked bread from the kitchen and the winter lilacs in every room. This was my third stay at this exquisite hotel, and as always, I was awed by the details: the intricate Rococo plaster work, Corinthian cornice in the stairwell, Belgian tapestries and French chandeliers, and a delicate color scheme that ranges from light blue to sage green to cream. It seemed as if the dashing Duke himself could descend the curving staircase at any moment.
But if he had, he surely would be surprised at the changes wrought by the dramatic restoration that began in the late 1990s. Although the restoration was faithful to the spirit and charm of Georgian Dublin, it incorporated features that would appeal to modern guests.
In what is perhaps The Merrion’s most noteworthy feature, the impressive art collection includes works from Dutch, Flemish and French landscape painters, but the vast majority are works by Irish artists.
In addition to being a historic sanctuary filled with artistic and culinary delights, The Merrion is a perfect base for touring Dublin’s city sights – the Temple Bar district, National Gallery of Ireland, and Trinity College, with its famous Book of Kells.
The mind’s ideal and idyl
After three days in Dublin, it’s on to Ashford Castle in County Mayo.
If ever there was a perfect castle of the imagination, it is this one, a grand collage of turrets and towers surrounded by expansive gardens that meander down to the waters of Lough Corrib, Ireland’s second-largest lake.
The isolated location, with only the mountains, forest and lake as backdrop, could have been a setting for a Merchant-Ivory period film. The loudest sounds you are likely to hear are the swaying of the trees in the breeze, the chatter of the birds and the soft plop of water in the garden fountain. Without the distractions of a noisier, more congested world, it is easier to focus on each detail.
The history that emanates from every stone is palpable. The castle dates to 1228, when an Anglo-Norman family wrested the land from the native O’Connors of Connaught, retaining ownership for 3 ½ centuries. The most famous clan to be associated with the castle was the Guinness family, which, according to my driver, “brought to the lips of every Irishman a bit of liquid gold.”
In 1985, a group of Irish-American investors bought Ashford Castle, and although the castle had functioned as a hotel since 1939, the new owners set about molding it into what it is today, one of the top resort properties in Europe and one of the most luxurious hotels in the world. Its setting alone would be enough to attract those in search of the perfect idyll, but it offers so much more.
There is the gourmet dining experience of the formal George V Dining Room. The very idea of entering such a temple of culinary excellence and its adjoining Prince of Wales Bar in anything but your best duds seems a sacrilege. You can be more informal when you join locals in an evening of revelry, and if you’re lucky, some real Irish folk music, in the justly famous Dungeon Bar.
To this add an array of activities that range from lake cruises on the resort’s boat, the Isle of Inisfree, to fishing for trout and salmon in Lough Corrib to golfing on any number of spectacular courses. You can hunt game of the clay variety (Ashford’s sporting clay range features targets that simulate game typical of the region). You can even enroll in the Ireland School of Falconry on the grounds of the castle (the school’s Hawk Walks offer an unparalleled experience in the art of flying hawks).
IF YOU GO:
Town and Country Experience: The Merrion Hotel in Dublin and Ashford Castle in County Mayo offer three opportunities to luxuriate in two of Ireland’s internationally renowned hotels with a six-night trip.
The Silver Experience includes three nights each at The Merrion and Ashford Castle.
The Gold Experience offers, in addition to room and meals, a half-day Georgian walking tour in Dublin and half-day fly fishing at Ashford Castle.
The Platinum Experience includes suite accommodations at both hotels, three spa treatments at each property, cocktails and dinner at both properties.
© 2009, Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.