Emerald Isle: Your new 'favorite country'  
A Newbies’ Look at Ireland
By Kathy Chin Leong

From knowledge I’d gleaned from movies and books, I always thought of Ireland as a quiet backdrop of green esthetic beauty but nothing more. Little did I know that this ancient land originally invaded by Vikings is a hotbed for excitement and fun, as well an ideal place to bring children on their first international adventure. Not only does everyone speak English, hotels and inns have all the modern conveniences you would need to keep a family comfortable and happy.

Today, the Emerald Isle is successfully blending old culture with the new world as it celebrates its heritage with hip hotels, festivals, cuisine, and outdoor thrills.

To get to know Ireland, as I was told, you have to master it in chunks. You can’t devour it all at once, for that would be unfair to yourself and the country. In June, our motley crew of ten journalists savored the western coast hitting Galway, Inishbofin Island, Limerick, and quaint towns along our checkered way. We were American strangers who, linked by a passion for travel and for writing, became friends after spending nearly a week together rambling in a comfortable air-conditioned motorcoach.

The lone photographer of the group, Tim Thompson, happened to be working on his fifth Ireland calendar for 2008. He has been on assignment to Ireland eight times, visiting new regions at each turn.As he told me, “I love it here. I live in Washington state, but I consider Ireland my second home.”

LODGING


And speaking of homes, lodging in Ireland caters to every taste there is. It is amazing how varied and upscale each place can be.In Galway, for instance, the new g hotel (yes, that’s a lower case g and h) was so trendy that I kept waiting for Elton John to emerge from the elevator. Opened since last November, the hotel interior is the brainchild of hat designer extraordinaire, Philip Treacy, and features electrifying colors in lime green, indigo blue, hot magenta in its bar, restaurant, and salon gathering areas.

Upon entering the lobby through glass revolving doors, we met multi-lingual registration and hotel staff clad in the signature g uniform- hip-length black jackets with mandarin collars and dark pants to match.In the hotel’s ESPA spa, a flock of 250 white paper cranes suspended from the ceiling, froze in mid-flight over a dim relaxation pool.Juxtaposed with gold antique mirrors from the 1800s and modern art pieces, the hotel pays homage to glamour with a capital G, yet with a twist. Think Andy Warhol meets Marlene Dietrich.

In the same region where you can experience a five-star hotel dressed by a hat designer, you can indulge your medieval fantasies at the historic thirteenth century Ashford Castle where actor Pierce Brosnan partied at his wedding reception. Although we didn’t have any star sightings, our group was fortunate enough to spend a night at the Ashford in nearby County Mayo, which is a testament to another G - grandeur. Overlooking calm Lough Corrib, the country’s second largest lake, the stone castle is so imposing, so wide I couldn’t capture the entire structure in one camera frame unless I hired a helicopter.

On a morning of exploring the garden premises, it was easy for me to picture what life must have been like in its heydey in the 1800s. Carriage rides, children running through secret passageways, boat rides in the canal. For the historian and romantic, castles are wonderful destinations to spend the night in at least once in your lifetime.

In Northern Ireland, there’s the West Wing of Crom Castle. In Waterford, the Waterford Castle Hotel. At the Ashford, I was housed in Room 416, a magnificent suite on the fourth floor with a postcard view of a the property’s stone bridge and lake. I would have happily put on a pointy princess hat and taffeta gown with bell sleeves the size of a Christmas tree skirt to take a photo waving to my subjects below.

Small intimate lodging is also on tap in Ireland with no sacrifices in service or luxury. At the Echo Lodge in Ballingarry, the 18-room former convent has a distinct mediterranean feel with warm gold stucco walls, flowering plants throughout, and a restored courtyard fountain. For us, the Echo was a refreshing respite after a day’s touring.

The lodge is also the home of the popular Mustard Seed Restaurant , originally in the town of Adare, ten minutes away.Mustard Seed became so popular that the restaurant owners decided to open a lodge with a restaurant in nearby Ballingarry in the county of Limerick. And it makes sense then that the low-key premises invites guests to stroll through its an herb garden, flower garden, and fruit tree grove- all organic bounty used for the restaurant. Even the fertilizer is made of oyster shells.

In Wexford , the popular Dunbrody House with 22 bedrooms is a 1830s Gerogian manor set in a 300-acre park setting.This country house hotel with a spa also is home to the award-winning harvest Room Restaurant.
And way in the north in Donegal, stands the Rathmullan House, a country house and restaurant featuring 32 rooms. Unique for its seaside setting walking distance to the beach, this Gerogain manor featurs a heated indoor swimming pool, steamroom, and two tennis courset. At the Cellar bar, there’s trandiotnal music nights and alfreshco lunches in the summertime.

NATIONAL TREASURES


When my plane was approaching the tarmack, the aerial views of the chunky shoreline reminded me of a green layered cake, cut in a random zig-zag by a giant knife from heaven’s cupboard.

Scenic wonders such as the Cliffs of Moher on the west coast feature breathtaking views of the Atlantic ocean meeting up with stair stepped cliffs.By the end of 2006, the Cliffs attraction will have a $13 million state-of-the-art visitor’s center to be incorporated into the landscape and include a larger gift shop, museum, and information center and café.

I was amazed at the sunny weather we experienced, for everyone told me to bring an umbrella and a rain slicker. But instead I wore a baseball cap and sleeveless blouses to shade my eyes and stay cool from this oddball blitz of warmth. Residents came out in droves to bask on the many white sand beaches found throughout the coast. And when we went sightseeing at the Cliffs of Moher, the waves sparkled in the sunlight as tourists panted their way up the hill in the mid-afternoon heat.

Nature opened its arms to us even more as we motored through the Burren, one of Ireland’s six national parks. I asked our driver Frank Daneher if he got tired of driving through similar terrain with repeated busloads of tourists.“Are you kidding? It’s my favorite thing to do! I love the scenery.” I suppose he’s right. How can you get tired of sweeping quilted greenery stitched together by ancient stone fences? Or abandoned abbeys and fortresses that remind you of scenes from Lord of the Rings ?

Other majestic treasures include the Ring of Kerry, a spectacular coastal loop trail in County Kerrywinding through villages and beaches. Also popular is Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, an area where some 40,000 black hexagonal basalt columns seem to erupt out of the sea, designated a World Heritage Site. And I promise myself that I will take my husband Frank next time I come to drive leisurely along the Causeway Coast , an amazing route with a mixture of terrain and ecosystems that covers the top half of Ireland starting from Belfast in the east to Londonderry in the west.

And to get a sense of early and unspoiled Ireland, a visit to one or more islands is in order. Our visit to Inishbofin, pronounced In-ish-boff-in, turned out to be the highlight for these well-heeled travel journalists. Imagine a place where there is no police and no doctor, and where the parish priest commutes via ferry to lead worship services on Sundays.

The hilly island is barely four miles across. What is there to do? Because of its lack of commercialism, visitors are left to their own imaginations. Inishbofin doesn’t exist to entertain. It exists to care and feed its own 200 inhabitants.
To know and understand Inishbofin is to fall in love with a town with no airs.

Small dented cars are mired in mud, and the paint jobs are pock-marked by the salt air. Hugh is the island’s one and only tour guide, but don’t ask him for a business card. “I’m not that modern yet,” jokes the tall, lanky resident. 

Having been to islands in Hawaii, Fiji, and New Zealand, I understand how each island has its own personality and subculture. Ireland has at least 400 offshore islands ranging in all shapes and sizes.

The popular Aran Islands off the coast of Galway has its own charms with ferries bringing visitors there three times a day from the city.

ARCHITECTURAL LANDMARKS


How anyone could come to Ireland and not want to return is beyond me. There is much history to be soaked up here, especially when visiting architectural marvels such as Kylemore Abbey, an international girls boarding school in the Connemara mountains. Built as a castle in 1868, it is considered one of the most renown examples of neo-Gothic architecture. On site is a small neo-Gothic cathedral complete with buttresses, stain glass windows, and a marble columns.

Another spot is the famous St. Patrick’s Cathedral , the largest church in Ireland built in the 13 th century and where St. Patrick had spent time here converting pagans to Christianity.Handel’s Messiah was first performed at the Dublin landmark in 1742.

Trinity College
, in Dublin City, makes its claim to fame by being the oldest university in Ireland. Mired in tradition since its founding in 1592, this architectural marvel is visited by half a million tourists annually.

If you don’t mind doing the “tourist thing,” you can literally bend over backwards and kiss the blarney stone at Blarney Castle,  near Cork, to acquire the gift of eloquence and get your photo taken at the same time. And to add another “had-to-do-it” item on your list, you can eat with your fingers at Bunratty Castle during one of its nightly medieval banquets.

To get a taste of history, visit a local farm or two. Many farmers in Ireland have now turned to agri-tourism to bolster their income, and the results are a win-win for all concerned. At the Rathburn Farm in Southwest County Galway, owners Fintan and Geraldine Connelly greeted our coach, waving as we came up the driveway. Not only were we impressed by their hospitality, their old-fashioned thatched roof farmhouse and flowers planted in old boots utterly charmed us all. During the tour, Fintan skillfully took razor to one of his prized sheep and peeled off his woolly coast in less than five minutes. I volunteered to feed one of the baby lambs a milk bottle which she devoured in seconds.

The tour of this traditonal Irish working sheep farm was highlighted by tea with homebaked scones, savory brown bread scones, and an apple crisp. Little did we know that last year the couple entertained over 20,000 tourists at their old-fashioned farm. They’ve got hospitality down to a science, I tell you.

Another farm on the road to expansion with a restaurant and lodge for visitors is the Dan O’ Haras Homestead in Cleggan. Dan O’Hara, a white-haired farmer is a raconteur who loves his stories as well as his poteen, prounced po-cheen. Poteen, an 82 percent proof ale made from the juices of fermented potatoes and barley, is still outlawed in Ireland, but overlooked by authorities as fewer and fewer Irish make this version of“moonshine.”

At the O’Hara outpost, he hauled us up a hillside in style via tractor to see his 20 acres in perspective and to toast and sip poteen.“Drink it fast,” said an enthusiastic O’Hara, as he poured the scandalous liquid into shot glasses. And this I did, but it still burned my throat with a fury, sending a bolt of lightening to my system. If O’Hara took it to the states it would make for a great remedy for blocked sinuses.

FOOD


Prior to arriving, my only concept of Irish food was corned beef and cabbage and pan fried fish on Fridays thanks to childhood memories of my Irish Catholic next door neighbors. I must admit, being from the San Francisco Bay Area where you must look hard to find a bad meal, I had to brace myself for bland to average fare. Boy, was I wrong.

At the Mustard Seed Restaurant in Limerick, I had one of the most spectacular herb broiled salmon dishes I have ever savored. Fresh, not overcooked, and light, this shiny chunk of fish that will linger in my tastebuds for a long, long time. Over and over, we made it to restaurants renown for seafood and succulent meats. Kirwan’s Lane Restaurant in Galway, Queen’s Hotel in Ennis, the dining room at Day’s Inn at Inishbofin.

Not only did they deliver on the goods for the main entrees, each night we were wowed by the decorative and delectable desserts. Molten lava cake with melted chocolate oozing from the center alongside homemade pistacio ice cream; crème brulee joined by a wine glass topped with fresh raspberries. I feel like I’m gaining five pounds just by thinking about it.

Today, Ireland is undergoing a culinary renaissance. Belfast, in particular, is now a foodie’s gourmet capital with everything from authenic sushi to traditional pub fare. Chefs are transforming Irish dishes into lighter entrees with an emphasis on organic and freshest of the fresh local ingridients. Kevin Thornton, in particular, is considered one of the country’s most prized chefs. His restaurant, Thorntons, is based in Dublin, and he has a new book on the market showcasing his own photography and dishes called Food for life.

While visitors can indulge, they can also acquire new cooking skills in unique venues with courses you won’t find in the states. In Wexford , Masterchef Kevin Dundon teaches a range of one and two-day cooking courses on the grounds of the Dunbrody Country House, a gorgeous 1830s Georgian manor. In Cork, the Ballymaloe Cookery School can teach anyone to forage for wild mushrooms and bottle their own fruit wines. The Belle Isle School of Cookery found on the shores of Bell Isle, an island in Northern Ireland, offers cooking classes for newlyweds among other courses.

TRENDY SPAS

Even before spas hit their popularity, in ancient times the Irish took to natural hidden hot springs for therapeutic and medicinal healing. Today, with so many coming to Ireland for relaxation, entrepeneurs are opening tastefully-designed spas with local treatments that dredge organic seaweed fresh from the waters.

Our visit to the newly opened Delphi Mountain Resort and Spa was a treat for all of us as we indulged in various spa treatments. With views of the curvaceous Mweelrea Mountains in South West Mayo, the Delphi resort prides itself with a dining room showcasing fresh, local products, a full service spa, lodging for adults and families, as well as outdoor excursions.

Are you in the mood to go spa hunting? Other destination spas include the SAMAS at the Park Hotel in Kenmare, Co. Kerry. The SAMAS spa is exclusive to guests staying at the five-star hotel. The spa facility,just two years old, has already won rave reviews for its services, and ambiance where guests can access private gardens and pools, thermal suite, and an infinity pool.

And in Kildare, the Villa Spa, part of the Victorian Manor house, features 18 therapy rooms, and a relaxation suite with beds for the ultimate in indulgence.

SHOPPING

After food and spa treatments, absolutely no trip is complete without its shopping excursions. In my book, to come home with no packages after a trip is tantamount to sacrilege. While you can come here to shop for beautiful hand-knit wool sweaters and Waterford crystal, dig deeper and you’ll find scenic paintings, Celtic music recordings, and jewelry made with marble that’s been buried in the ground for thousands of years. Shoppe Street in Galway, with its curved and colorful storefronts, was a favorite place for window shopping, dining, taking in a Guinness, and people watching as well.

For my take home gifts, I considered the hobbies of each person in my family. Husband Frank got a personally signed CD from a singer we saw at a local show in Galway. Daughter Gwen, a budding writer, received a book of Irish fairy tales.I gave my son, Aaron, a leather wallet from Dublin because, like many teens, he likes money.
Time was too short, but if I had another shopping week, I would have visited the Connemara Marble Factory, the Waterford Crystal Factory, and Blarney Woollen Mills.

FESTIVALS

 
To get to know Ireland on a deeper level, go to a festival. Ireland, with its bitter history steeped in wars and famine, is ironically a country that loves to party. A list of its hundreds of year-round festivals reveals what this country values: literature, poetry, history, music, sports, food, and more.

Ireland is a territory that doesn’t put on airs. For instance, thousands pour into the town of Lisdoonvarna for the annual Matchmaking Festival, Europe’s largest singles event.What started as a weekend event has transformed into a month long affair every September, and couples have met and married from this unique festival.

And where else but in Ireland would there be a festival dedicated to the Connemara Pony? Or a Yeats Festival to honor and remember the beloved Irish poet William Butler Yeats? Or have three oyster festivals in three different towns just because they’re fun? Next time I come I will definitely plan a trip to incorporate a festival to get a feeling for local entertainment.

All too soon, my welcome to Ireland became a farewell. Our six-day jaunt was a mere Irish appetizer, and I wanted to stay for the main course. I was smitten by the hearty locals who imparted a sense of cultural pride and friendliness. Everywhere I went, the Irish would shake hands with such gusto I thought my bones would break. And regular pub goers didn’t hestitate to stand up and belt out a folksong while strangers would sing along. Even the children could come to the microphones with their parents to croon. From flying my own falcon to bog walking, I promise myself I will have to return to experience even more of the Emerald Isle that loves to party.
 
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NOTEWORTHY WEBSITES:

www.discoverireland.com
www.tourismireland.com
www.irelandnorthwest.ie
www.irelandwest.ie
www.shannonregiontourism.ie

Kathy Chin Leong went to Ireland in June, and, God willing, she will return with her family one day.

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