Ah, the island of Yeats, Joyce and Bono, the world's most unique language (Gaelic) and exquisite farm to fork cuisine. What? Yes, I said cuisine. While the rest of the world thinks that Ireland is all about bland meals, local farmers and Michelin chefs have teamed up to create award-winning cuisine that manages to make nettles as delicious as the ever-popular, mushy peas and fish and chips.
If you haven't been to Ireland lately, you have no idea what you are missing -- from the most delectable macaroons I've ever tasted (at the Ritz Carlton Powerscourt) to the best all-around hotel spoiling I've ever experienced (at Ballyfin Demesne). Ireland is suffering economically, so many hotels and restaurants are offering fantastic deals, where your dollar buys substantially more five-star services and amenities than you'll find elsewhere.
There are a few nettles in the dessert, however. (Nettles in your pea soup can be tasty; not so in your ice cream.) So, keep reading in order to avoid the imposters, and instead patronize the places where you will be pampered (instead of peppered).
Here are 5 Shamrock Secrets to make your visit to Ireland a pot of gold memory.
1. Make Dublin a Day Trip
There are a few fascinating, historic things to see and do in Dublin, like the Book of Kells, the Dublin Castle and the Garden of Remembrance. These are destinations that you don't want to miss, but otherwise, you can get better music, pubs and a taste of Irish life outside of the capital city. For most people, two full days in Dublin is enough to experience them all.
2. Avoid Castle "Style" Hotels
In Vegas, you expect to see a Camelot "style" casino, but if you hopped the pond to the Ireland to experience the land of Gaelic Kings, a castle "style" hotel is just going to get you jousting mad. The website for the Clontarf Castle uses beautiful photography and deceptive language to try and make the hotel sound important, historic and authentic, when it is more like Excalibur Hotel (in Vegas) than worthy of the Irish King Brian Boru, who died in the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.
3. Ballyfin Demesne
Ballyfin is one of the world's timeless treasures -- life on a country estate very much the way it was back in the 1800s, when the home was first built. The Ballyfin staff make you feel like visiting royalty from the moment the staff greets you on the house steps to the Michelin-starred chef who prepares your meals and the lavender sachet they place beneath your pillow for a good night's rest.
With 16 guest rooms, a ballroom, conservatory, music room, a library, an expansive living area, a gold sitting room (where some guests strike up a game of poker), its own manmade Pike filled pond, tennis court, pool, 600 acres of ancient woods, a medieval-style tower, church and even a hermit's cave where adventurous men have created dream-come-true marriage proposals for their fiancées, Ballyfin is simply perfection. Outdoor activities include archery, falconry, fishing, exploring, canoeing, nature walks, horseback riding and championship golf (designed by Arnold Palmer). In order to ensure that you have ample time to experience it all, I strongly recommend that you pre-arrange a few special activities.
Ballyfin is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience, whether you are telling ghost stories in the Hermit's Cave, taking vows in an unforgettable wedding, watching swans on the lake or just celebrating Father's Day (without the kids).
4. Powerscourt Gardens, Ritz-Carlton and Gordon Ramsay
The Ritz Carlton Powerscourt Hotel sits next to the historic Powerscourt Gardens, which is a popular day-trip tourist attraction for Dublin travelers. (Now you know it's better to make Dublin the day trip.) This beautiful country estate is one of the best in Ireland, with roots dating back to 1300.
The Ritz-Carlton Hotel is only six years old, but it was designed to fit seamlessly into the Georgian period of the Powerscourt Garden Estate. The lawn beneath your window is expansive enough for a game of soccer, or croquet, or even chess with life-size chess pieces. The championship Powerscourt golf courses next door offer the most breath-taking views and natural landscaping that the world has to offer.
Perfect for a family reunion, a wedding, a Father's Day getaway or a corporate convention, the Ritz-Carlton Powerscourt is a sensory-rich blend of outdoor sports, history and Gordon Ramsay farm to fork cuisine. You can even learn to pour your own perfect pint in McGill's Pub, where traditional Irish music can be heard on Friday nights and the Shepherd's Pie is the best on the island. That is part of the reason why this rather new hotel swept two awards at the Conde Nast Johansens 2011 Annual Awards for Excellence.
If there were an award for the Best 5-Star Deal on the Planet, the Ritz-Carlton Powerscourt Hotel might be the winner. They are offering three excellent, limited-time packages, including a third night free and complimentary Irish breakfast, when you book two nights. Guests can also enjoy a "table for two" three-course tasting menu at the Gordon Ramsay restaurant Tuesday through Thursday (or at lunch on the weekends) for just €66.
5. Cheap Flights Aren't Cheap
Beware of discount airlines in Ireland that offer rock-bottom prices. Ryanair charges €60 for not bringing a printout of your ticket, for having a bag that weighs more than 15 kg and for a second bag (that's €60 for each offense). I'm told that the other Irish airline has adopted the same policies. Obviously, you're better off with an airline that you know and trust.
So, there are pots of gold to be found in Ireland these days, and there are also still trolls hiding under bridges, pilfering your coins before you'll be allowed to cross. Forget all your preconceptions about bland food, and dive into these unforgettable, five-star experiences, which weren't even available just a few years ago in the land of 40 shades of green.
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