|O’Sullivan, O’Donovan, O’Stone, Oh my!|
|Written by Deborah Stone|
I may not have kissed the Blarney Stone, nor spied a leprechaun, but I did find my pot of gold and I didn’t even need to look for it at the end of a rainbow.
It was there, ever present, on the kind faces of the people I met, in the haunting, natural beauty of the scenery and in the vibrant Gaelic culture that withstands the test of time in mystical, magical Ireland.
On my recent travels to this land of peat and heather, I quickly became enamored with everything Irish and urged my fellow travelers to call me by my newly adopted name, O’ Stone! Perhaps with a few more freckles, a quick henna rinse and a crash course in the lilting Irish brogue, I might have passed as an Irish lass, but unfortunately, my strong Germanic genes and Yank accent made any such transformation impossible.
Instead, I had to be content to simply inhale, imbibe and take in Ireland with all five of my senses. This is a country to savor slowly. It’s a place that moves at its own pace, like the soft rolling landscape that dominates much of the southwestern parts.
Taking the time to stroll down quaint streets of small market towns and rural villages, sip a pint of Guinness in one of the many quintessential pubs or walk the bucolic countryside is the way to appreciate this treasured island.
Ireland has it all, from castles and medieval ruins to state-of-the-art spas and five star dining establishments.
New mixes with old seamlessly and the visitor can see it all because everywhere is within easy reach of everywhere else.
The country is roughly the size of the state of New Jersey and most of the roads wind their way around the countryside, allowing tourists to get a real feel for the lay of the land. Driving from destination to destination is the best means of transportation (note: driving is done on the left hand side of the road), as Ireland is best experienced when one has the ability to stop at each magnificent, windswept vista or get that perfect photo of baby lambs frolicking after their mother in a meadow of green.
And speaking of green, there is every shade of this color imaginable. I don’t even think Crayola invented enough names to describe the various verdant hues that make up this country’s scenic palette.
My trip focused mainly on the western side of the island and involved travel through the counties of Kerry, Limerick, Clare and Galway. One of the highlights included a stay in Kenmare, one of the several towns located on the popular road that circles the Ring of Kerry. This is one of Ireland’s most picturesque villages with shops painted in all colors of the rainbow, adorned with hand carved signs.
There are many stores selling typical Irish crafts and woolens; of particular note is the Kenmare Lace and Design Centre where visitors can view how the cherished local skill of lacemaking is done, as well as purchase some pieces of beautiful workmanship.
When you’ve shopped ’til you’ve dropped, make sure to stop in at Crowley’s Pub for a pint of Guinness and chat with proprietor Joan Crowley, who at 82 years old is still behind the counter pouring the ale. And if you’re lucky, you’ll time your visit to catch a local band playing some real authentic Irish toe-tapping music.
For top rated digs, the Park Hotel is the place to stay. With a history that dates back to 1907, the Park is a charming, elegant Irish country manor estate set on 12 idyllic acres overlooking Kenmare Bay. Its gilded antique furnishings, brocade cushions and original art give it an old world look that takes visitors back in time.
Combine this with a deluxe sybaritic spa, Sámas, and you have the true haven for those seeking the ultimate leisure getaway with traditional Irish hospitality. Sámas (a Gaelic word meaning indulgence of the senses), is a unique place that blends healing and therapeutic traditions from the East and West with the inspiring scenery of Kerry to revive the body, mind and soul.
Guests embark on a three hour therapeutic journey that includes time in the spa’s thermal, treatment and relaxation suites.
The thermal suite was my favorite with a vitality pool, half open to breathtaking views of the forests and mountains that surrounded the wooded property, and equipped with numerous jets to untangle knotty stress.
I decided that I would be content to remain there forever, if not for the body massage that awaited me shortly and the gourmet dinner to follow.
Any fears of bland Irish food loaded with starches were dispelled after my first foray into dining, a la Irish style. I found at each restaurant I ate, that the food was tasty, creatively prepared and of the highest quality, from the great variety of fresh fish, lamb and veal to the earthy, dense homemade breads that accompanies each meal.
And yes, there are potatoes, but they are wonderfully roasted or mashed with herbs, or simply served as chips, seasoned to perfection. Side dishes of veggies, such as turnips and thyme or parsnip chips, are served family style.
Traditional Irish breakfasts are hearty, containing eggs, rashers of bacon, grilled tomatoes, scones and for the more daring, black and white pudding (blood and suet); the latter which I preferred to look at, but not taste! And don’t forget the proverbial cup of tea, which you should add milk to, if you want to do as the Irish do.
As our trip headed north of Kenmare, we passed through one charming town after another, set against a backdrop of heather clad mountains with peek-a-boo views of the dramatic Atlantic coastline. The light seemed to change quickly with weather patterns that came and went, giving the area a magical quality that heightened the wild beauty of the scenery.
A stop in Listowel, the “literary capital of Ireland,” was a real treat for our group of writers. This lively market town is home to the Kerry Literary and Cultural Centre, a writer’s museum of words and spirit where the imaginative worlds of some of Ireland’s most notable writers are evoked.
The Centre honors over 80 Kerry-based writers, some of whom have become national and international figures in the world of literature, including John B. Keane, Brendan Kennelly and Bryan MacMahon.
Lunch at Glin Castle, one of Ireland’s most historic properties, and an overnight at Gregans Castle Hotel only served to whet my appetite for wanting to see more castles, of which there are hundreds in the country. Glin has been in the FitzGerald family, hereditary Knights of Glin, for over 700 years.
With its decorative plasterwork, collection of Irish furniture and paintings and formal gardens, it’s a gem of a property sitting atop a fabled storytelling landscape. Gregans is located on the Burren, a barren limestone expanse stretching 100 square miles and known as Europe’s largest rock garden.
Located in a remote corner of County Clare, the Burren is a unique lunar-like landscape that has been designated a National Park by the government. It contains over a thousand species of plants and botanists from all over the world come to study the rare plants and flowers that grow here.
Confronted with such an austere, almost surreal terrain, I felt as if I were seeing the first land created on earth. In fact, the Burren is probably the youngest landscape in Europe, settled by man at least 6,000 years ago. This scenery is made even more dramatic when in startling contrast to the soft green and rolling contours usually associated with the west of Ireland.
Gregans Castle is an eighteenth century country house with views of the bare limestone mountains and Galway Bay. It’s a quiet treasure of Ireland with a historic and mystic charm.
Blazing turf fires, home cooked meals using locally grown and organic foods, four poster beds and antique furniture make it an elegant place for those seeking serenity amid a striking landscape. Near the Burren, and not to be missed by visitors who travel through this part of the country, are the Cliffs of Mohr. These majestic cliffs are among the most magnificent stretches of cliff scenery in Ireland.
They front the Atlantic, rising to a height of 700 feet above sea level and stretching for five miles.
It’s a breathtaking experience to climb to the top of O’Brien’s Tower (built at the top of the cliffs in 1835) and experience the spectacular view of the ocean, as well as Ireland’s three Aran Islands, to the west.
Our trip continued as far north as Connemara, a land that exists in the shadow of the sea, where we made a stop at Kylemore Abbey and Garden, home of the Benedictine Order of Nuns and now also, an exclusive private boarding school for girls.
The romantic setting of the castle-like building and its Victorian walled garden make it one of the country’s most visited attractions. When I first saw the place, from across the water, I thought it was a dead-ringer for Hogwarts School, of the Harry Potter fame.
Its massive stone structure with turrets and towers is impressive and daunting, and I could easily imagine the characters from J.K. Rowling’s books practicing their wizardry and magic from within its walls.
Another highlight in the Connemara area is Delphi Valley, a place teeming with natural wonders, lofty summits and an abundance of wildlife.
Set in the heart of this valley, on 300 acres of forested and mountainous land, is a unique destination resort and spa. If you want to escape from it all, this is the place. The Delphi Mountain Resort and Spa is in a remote corner of the Delphi Valley, far away from civilization.
Taking its cue from the surrounding landscape, the resort was designed in local stone and wood and exists in harmony with nature. The spa takes a holistic route towards health and life-style improvement, combining fitness and outdoor activities with relaxation and treatments.
I had a reflexology treatment and an Indian Head Massage; two out-of-this-world experiences that did wonders for the balance between my mind and body. But the true winner was an early morning wilderness walk amid the mist shrouded Mweelrea Mountains.
That was when I experienced what I call a “pure Ireland moment.”
Actually, I had many of these moments during my stay in this country and all of them are memorable, however, it’s the spirit of the people, their hospitality and genuinely warm Irish welcome that will remain in mind forever.