TOWN & COUNTRY
A City-to-Countryside Tour of the Emerald Isle
Written by Bridget Williams
Leprechaun lore aside, I've always found Ireland to be enchanting, particularly the myriad green hillsides of the rural countryside that stand in contrast to skies that are shrouded in clouds roughly half of the time, and which make the occasional pop of sunshine seem all the more magical.
My Irish eyes were smiling during my most recent visit, which began with a whirlwind two nights in Dublin at The Merrion Hotel (merrionhotel.com), followed by another three at Sheen Falls Lodge (sheenfallslodge.ie), situated along the famed Wild Atlantic Way. But honestly, how could I not love a place where, after introducing myself, the locals are quick to remind me that my name is indicative of a strong woman and the name of one of three of the country's national saints?
Located in an upscale neighborhood steps from the National Gallery, The National Museum of Ireland, and the "golden mile" around St. Stephen's Green, the five-star The Merrion represents a triumph of thoughtful historic preservation. The hotel comprises four Georgian townhouses, the oldest dating to the era when American Colonists were busy tossing tea into the Boston Harbor. The two-year restoration commenced in the mid-1990s, resulting in interiors that mirror the handsome exterior: elegantly understated and dignified.
The present owners claim one of the largest collections of 18th and 19th-century art in Ireland and generously share it with hotel guests in public and private spaces. Art enthusiasts will want to avail themselves of a self-guided audio tour and partake of a whimsical afternoon Art Tea, in which the accomplished pastry chefs create edible works of art inspired by works in the hotel's collection.
The wings of the hotel envelope a beautifully landscaped garden with water features and a glass-enclosed walkway leading from the historic structures to the modern wing, which includes a large spa complex with an indoor pool. Accordion doors along one wall of the aptly named Garden Terrace restaurant bring the outdoors in; the elevated environs draw in stylish local "ladies who lunch" like bees to the hives on The Merrion's rooftop.
The labyrinth-like cellar bar is housed in the property's original wine cellar, offering plenty of cozy nooks for a candlelight dinner. Waterfall-inspired stained-glass windows, an homage to the cascades dotting the famed Ring of Kerry, are inset among the thick stone walls. In a city with no shortage of pubs, this watering hole is popular with locals who come to imbibe its two bespoke ales, lemon gin, and listen to traditional Irish music on Thursday evenings.
When the calendar flips to March, everyone purports to be Irish, a claim that's partially attributable to the fact that some 10 million Irish have left their homeland since the 1800s. It's mind-boggling that today, 70 million people claim Irish heritage, more than ten times the country's total population, which makes ancestry tourism a big deal. Dublin's subterranean Epic Museum (epicchq.com), the world's first fully digital museum, traces 1,500 years of Irish immigration, including the accomplishments of some of its most famous (and infamous) sons and daughters, who I was surprised to learn include Che Guevara, Muhammad Ali, Gene Kelly, Walt Disney, Tom Cruise, Robert DeNiro, and Barack and Michelle Obama, among many others.
Dublin is a great town for wandering. If you're a James Joyce fan, you must stop into Sweney's Pharmacy (sweny.ie), whose lemon soap is famously featured in Ulysses (and still available for purchase today). With disheveled gray hair that calls to mind Einstein's coif and a silk tie peeking out from his down jacket that lends the air of eccentric aristocrat, owner and polyglot J.J. Murphy preserves the tiny shop as it appeared in Joyce's time. Smelling of stale tobacco and dusty old books, Murphy is quick to pick up his guitar to serenade visitors and invited us to return for a scheduled reading of Joyce's works.
If music history gets your heart racing, you'll want to arrange a tour of Windmill Lane Studios (windmilllanerecording.com). Rather nondescript from the outside, Brian Masterson and James Morris opened it in 1978, and it remains one of Ireland's largest recording studios. U2 was famously the first Irish band to record there, becoming part of a motley mix of bands and artists that includes Simple Minds, Kate Bush, AC/DC, Hozier, The Spice Girls, Kylie Minogue, Niall Horan, Lewis Capaldi, Van Morrison, and Ed Sheeran. Their studio tour allows you to mix a session with their virtual band and receive the MP3 file as a one-of-a-kind souvenir or, in my case, a painful reminder that even though I love to sing, I can't carry a tune.
No visit to the capital of the Republic of Ireland would be complete without a pub tour. During ours, led by Perfect Pint Tour (theperfectpinttour.com), we visited both well-known and local's only watering holes and learned all about the letters and numbers found on a Guinness pint glass; that a good Irishman (or woman) finishes a pint in seven sips or less; and, that foamy rings from top-to-bottom evidence a perfect pour. We even went behind the bar to learn from time-tested pint perfectionists who seem to eschew any interest in crafty cocktails.
The concierge at The Merrion can arrange a guided hike along the Cliff Path Loop that follows the contours of the wildflowercovered cliffs of the Howth Peninsula, just east of central Dublin. Ideal for a day trip; even though it's just a short drive from the bustling city, it feels worlds away.
After a few days exploring Dublin, we hit the M7 to Sheen Falls Lodge in County Kerry. En route, we enjoyed a thoroughly entertaining rest stop at the Barack Obama Plaza, located next to the village of Moneygall. Essentially a fast-food-laden truck stop, a small second-floor museum highlighting US Presidents with Irish heritage is surprisingly well executed.
Sheen Falls Lodge, nestled amid the gently undulating landscape next to its namesake falls and overlooking Kenmare Bay, was built in 1765 as a private country house and debuted as a 72-room resort in 1991. Later additions to the original structure kept the same Irish plaster exterior and steeply pitched roof as the original home, which belies its grandiose scale, including a large Easanna Spa wing with a massive indoor pool. Spa treatments incorporate VOYA products, made with sustainably-harvested wild seaweed from Ireland's west coast.
All the guest rooms at this rural retreat, a Relais & Chateaux property, provide a view of the falls, Kenmare Bay, or both. Lodge guests are privy to 15 miles of private fishing on the river, and Sheen Falls has a strong commitment to conservation, ensuring that the native Wild Atlantic salmon who have inhabited these waters since the last Ice Age will continue to do so for generations to come.
Not wanting to squander a moment of the views afforded by the large terrace of my sprawling Signature Suite, I indulged in an elegantly presented alfresco breakfast each morning, allowing the soothing sounds of the falls to have my full attention. In addition to nine distinct room types, the property boasts a trio of storybook thatched roof cottages and a pair of bayfront villas for rent, each beautifully, uniquely, and luxuriously outfitted.
In addition to fishing, Sheen Falls offers scores of activities such as horseback riding, tennis, bike riding, sporting clays, guided walks and hiking, archery, kayaking and paddleboarding, golf, photography excursions, and falconry. Liam Regan, a licensed falconer and wildlife biologist from Killarney leads the falconry program. His calm demeanor makes even the most reluctant ornithologist comfortable as he demonstrates the skills of the forest's apex predators.
Dining options on the property include the newly opened Stables Brasserie & Bar, housed in the property's original horse stables. Casually elegant, it's quickly become a favorite of locals from the nearby town of Kenmare. The Falls offers a more elevated dinner experience. A recent addition is the Mediterranean-influenced Nua Vista Restaurant, located at the Lodge's sister property, Ring of Kerry Golf Club (ringofkerrygolf.com). For a more bespoke experience, private dining is available in several unique spaces, including the candlelit wine cellar, one of the largest private cellars in Ireland. Take advantage of a G&T in the cozy Sheen Bar, made with seacentric gin custom-blended by the nearby Isle of Barra Distillers specifically for Sheen Falls Lodge.
Sheen Falls has a symbiotic relationship with the quaint town of Kenmare. A local artist created the whimsical mural behind the reception desk; local products are among the gratis goodies in the minibar; the stoneware coffee set hails from Killarney; and a local wine shop selects the Lodge's wine of the month. Kenmare locals, a surprisingly cosmopolitan bunch for a city of just 2,300 residents, are proud that their village was awarded a gold medal in the 2022 TidyTown annual nationwide competition.
We enjoyed a half-day walking tour led by Kenmare Foodie Tours (kenmarefoodies.com), during which we sampled authentic French pastries at Maison Gourmet (maisongourmetkenmare.com), where the husband-and-wife owners hail from the Pyrenees; farmhouse cheese and charcuterie at Heidi Ryan's Wholesome Food, and award-winning, handmade chocolates from Lorge Chocolatier (lorge.ie), whose affable owner Benoit, a native of France, moved to Kenmare twenty-five years ago. Those with an adventurous spirit or just a fondness for craft beer will want to stop for a pint at the Tom Crean Brewery (tomcreanbrewerykenmare.ie). Another husband-and-wife enterprise, the duo are as passionate about their craft as they are about exploring the far corners of the globe. "We aim to produce a pint that doesn't cost the earth," explained Bill Sheppard, a former fireman from England who met his wife Aileen Crean O’Brien, a Kenmare native, while traveling in Goa, India. The couple worked with Dutch scientists to build a biodigester that converts the spent grain from distilling into high-protein silage to feed sheep. While sipping a St. Bridget Irish Lager, I learned that the patron saint was a brewer and several of the miracles attributed to her involved beer.
Garden enthusiasts should plan to visit Garinish Island (garinishisland.ie), accessible by ferry in the sheltered harbor of Glengarriff in Bantry Bay, where languid seals blend in with rocky outcroppings. John Annan Bryce purchased the 37-acre island, which boasts a unique micro-climate, from the War Office in 1910 and tasked Harold Peto to execute extensive gardens with structures that include a clock tower, Grecian temple, Italian casita, and a Martello tower that dates to the Napoleonic Wars. Today the parklands are maintained by the Office of Public Works. After the tour, drive along the breathtakingly beautiful Healy Pass in the Beara Peninsula, dotted with solitary sheep whose wool bears colorful dots indicating its ownership, before stopping for super-fresh seafood lunch with the locals at Helen's Bar in Kilmackillogue Harbor.
Marveling at the moodiness of the Emerald Isle's landscape always evokes introspection for me. In-between songs at Sweney's Pharmacy in Dublin, Mr. Murphy recited a quote attributed to G.K. Chesterton: "The great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad, for all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad." I'd argue that the scenery, well suited to wide panoramic shots that beg for a dramatic orchestral accompaniment, is more winsome than weary, particularly when combined with Ireland's enduring culture of hospitality consistent from city to countryside.