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Travel
April 27, 2009

Irish Cream

Text by Shirin Mehta

Ireland’s fight for freedom and its tense history have preserved it as one of the last bastions for the tourist. Today, Ireland and Northern Ireland have much to offer the traveller looking for new boundaries to cross. Natural wonders and fantasy scenery apart, the island offers a happy and stylish contingent of fine food, exceptional hotels, choice shopping, scenic spas and more. Verve raises a pint of Guinness to splendid Irish hospitality

Dublin’s dream doors
We have time only for a quick drive through in Dublin, Ireland’s capital city that houses one third of its population. Already, I am wishing for more of this Gaelic city on the River Liffey, with its blend of Medieval quarters, Georgian homes and modern outlook. And yes, of course, Dublin’s colourful doors that stand out in sharp yellows, reds and greens – some merely colourful, others garish but all very stylish and every fashionista’s dream.

I discover through the sparkling windows of a tourist bus, a city of  trendy coffee shops, designer boutiques, quaint arcades, department stores and even Michelin star restaurants. This is not the Ireland of potato fields and food handcarts but rather a faddish city that has become one of the most coveted city breaks in Europe. A weekend in Dublin is today akin to what was once a night in Paris, for travelistas looking for new boundaries to explore.

At the trendy Clarence Hotel situated on the left bank of the River Liffey in the Temple Bar district and owned by Bono of U2 fame, I discover Irish hospitality at its best and cuisine that is quintessentially nouveau and local at the happening Tea Room, a restaurant quoted on Good Food Ireland. Very stylish! In the evening I am joined by a charming young surgeon, who lives here and walks me through the throbbing Temple Bar area. The streets vibrate with Irish and other music, fiddlers fiddle, whistlers whistle and dancers kick step on the cobbled streets and pavements. Crowds throng as the evening progresses and we wind our way through buskers and musicians through the area’s myriad watering holes. At the Club M, traditional Irish music starts up as a lady from the drinkers suddenly dances up a storm in the centre of the room. The Irish sure know how to kick up their heels of an evening.

Slowly emerging out of Dublin’s vibrating pub evening, we walk along the Liffey picking up some chips and cheese from a wayside stall. As Dubliners do. And across the river, through the Guinness haze, my young companion points out a needle-like sculpture that thrusts into the night sky. “We call that the ‘Stiffy on the Liffy’, he guffaws with good-natured Irish humour.

Swanky Hotels
The afternoon is spent in Wicklow, where the Ritz-Carlton Hotel beckons in its verdant setting of lawns, golf course and magnificent trees. The view is spectacular, with the contours of Sugarloaf Mountain on the horizon. A tour of the Powerscourt Gardens proves to be a stress-buster, even as golfers tee off around us. Parool Shah, interim director of PR, walks us through the sparkling kitchens where one of the most expensive tables in Ireland has been carved out of an alcove overlooking the bustle of the kitchen area. For a mere 1,500 Euro a table, renowned chef Gordan Ramsey, will cook up a storm. Any takers? The pool at this magnificent hotel is, of course, studded with Swarovski and the high tea proves a delectable spread, to the sounds of a live harp playing.

In direct contrast, is the G Hotel in Gallway, a town that boasts a river, seacoast and a lake. And, a shopping street with handmade sweaters, Irish pixies and quaint pottery. As we traverse the river, we see salmon fishermen standing patiently in the water, right there, in the centre of town. The G is the hotspot. A boutique hotel with a black lobby contrasted with white orchid arrangements, bright pink salons with swirling carpets, large bubble chandeliers and papier mâché dogs since, I am told, dogs form an essential part of every Irish household. (The dogs are walked by the concierge every evening, to different parts of the hotel.) On the menu at the G, I spot a must-do – martinis and manicures – and yearn a moment to spare.

In the west of Ireland, located in the heartland of County Mayo, is the spectacular Ashford Castle, founded nearly eight centuries ago and today a heritage hotel set in a backdrop of undulating forests, lakes and mountains. My room is immense and bathroom enormous boasting a tub with clawed legs right in the middle. I opt for the shower cubicle in the corner. Paula Carroll, energetic director of sales, a stylish lady in fur lined pantsuit and pearls, hosts us for a gourmet tasting dinner and regales us with stories. A celebrity wall reveals her dining with Omar Sharif “He was too full of himself!” and the sexy Brad Pitt. We demand to know if the castle is haunted. Paula speaks to all the hotel hands by name, as some of their families have been on the estate for generations. Later in the evening, she kicks off her heel shoes, lets down her pinned hair and performs an impromptu jig at the Dungeon Bar, as we sip at our Irish coffee – the original thing. The typical Irish exuberance is not lost on us.

Belfast’s pubs
It is perhaps no coincidence that the most expensive cocktail in the world is available in Belfast at the luxe Merchant’s Hotel. Having finished a tour of the city’s Political Murals, Cathedral, Titanic Quarter where the ill fated Titanic was built and the Castle Court Shopping Centre, we stroll across the street of the large historic Europa Hotel, the preferred choice of presidents and celebrities including President Clinton, to the Crown Liquor Saloon on Great Victoria Street. The Crown is a matchless time capsule, perfectly preserving the opulence of Victorian times with its finely detailed tile work, rich glass engravings, scalloped lights and shining brass-work. A fanciful atmosphere for a dizzying pint! You may mix with the locals at the bar where they discuss life, art and politics, or hole yourself into a ‘snug’, cubbyholes that were traditionally meant only for ladies.

This evening, and probably every evening, the Crown is packed to the gills. All of Belfast seems to be enjoying pub night at lively establishments with colourful names like The Deer’s Head, The Duke of York, The Morning Star. Kelly’s Cellars, on Bank Street, is one of the oldest surviving continuously run pubs in Belfast and, at 280-years-old, caters to the serious drinker.

A note: While pints are also known as ‘jars’ and ‘scoops’, always ask for a pint since these terms may only be used conversationally. Remember, your pint of Guinness takes longer than beer to settle, so forgive your waiter for taking a while to bring your order. Wait a bit, it tastes better that way.

Scenic Spas
What is so special about Ireland’s spas? If the Glagorm Resort in Antrim, Northern Ireland, is any indication it is the sheer breathless quality of the locations. Here, one can enjoy the thermal spa experience, infinity hydrotherapy pool, outdoor hot tub, climate cabins and ice fountains, while being surrounded by the sheer beauty of the great outdoors. Ireland’s magnificent scenery seems to seep into our consciousness as Beena Menon of Tourism Ireland and I settle ourselves on indoor heated loungers while breathing in the outdoors through large glass doors. This is it! The good life in wondrous settings.

Singular Sights
It is part of this travelista’s repertoire to connect with the outdoors and Ireland has some areas of outstanding natural beauty on offer. From Belfast, we depart by bus northward for the Antrim Coast, catching the Causeway Coastal Route, touted as ‘the essential Irish journey’.  From Belfast Lough to Lough Foyle lies a fairy-tale journey through villages and glens where the fabled Irish gnomes and fairies of folklore could very well be hidden among the ferns and trees. A few miles along Newtownabbey’s Loughshore is the sparkling seaside town of Carrickfergus where the most famous Norman Castle from the 12th century exists, as a shell. We drive on to the amazing Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge as it swings over an 80-foot chasm to a salmon fisherie. Yes, you can cross it but be sure to leave your stilettos behind. And then on to the main attraction, the UNESCO World Heritage site of the iconic Giant’s Causeway. Here, a honeycomb of approximately 40,000 hexagonal columns are packed together on the cliffs going down to the sea. And of course there must be a story attached – that of the giant, Finn McCool who created the causeway as a road to meet a Scottish enemy.

Yes, you may not escape Celtic lore and myth even as you seep in the nuances of a modern cosmopolitan Ireland.

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