Irish Charms

Your clients don’t have to be lucky to experience all that Ireland has to offer

By: Maryann Hammers

On my first visit to Ireland, I fell hard for soda bread and scones, black tea and blackfaced sheep, crumbling castles and continuous craic. (The oft-used word means “good fun” and is pronounced “crack” thus inspiring giggles and a bit of cultural confusion.)

On each subsequent trip, I discovered something new to adore: traditional pubs where villagers bring fiddles, squeeze boxes, bodhrans and spoons for rousing sing-alongs; cherry trees in full pink bloom; colorful doors on elegant Georgian townhomes; cuddly soft handmade sweaters.

From Dublin, Europe’s third-most visited capital after Paris and London, to the pastoral countryside and wild coasts, Ireland offers whatever travelers seek other than sunny weather, perhaps. Whether it’s luxury hotels and old-fashioned guesthouses, fine dining or pub-style comfort food, historical monuments or wide-open scenery, visitors will find it all on the Emerald Isle.

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Temple street
Those who have visited Dublin more than a decade ago are in for a surprise. “Dublin has enjoyed significant changes over the past 10 years,” said Peter MacCann, general manager of the Merrion Hotel. “Ireland’s booming economy the Celtic Tiger brought prosperity with a huge increase in development and many new hotels and restaurants.”

Despite its recent, rapid growth, Dublin which has a population of more than 1.6 million in the greater area is highly walkable. On one’s own or a guided tour, it’s easy to hit the cultural and historical highlights: Trinity College, where the Book of Kells is displayed; Christ Church, a medieval cathedral; and the National Museum.

Dublin’s best shopping is around Grafton Street, from the Molly Malone statue to St. Stephen’s Green, a 22-acre park. Avoca is the landmark store for Irish woolens, but bargain-hunting locals find the deals at Penneys. (I nabbed a sturdy rainjacket for less than $14.) Dublin has more than 1,000 pubs, and you’ll find many of them in the cobblestone streets of the Temple Bar neighborhood, known for outdoor markets, cultural events and nightlife.

The Guinness Storehouse at St. James Gate Brewery was the original 1759 fermentation plant. Today it is a popular attraction, where visitors learn all things Guinness how it’s made, how it’s been advertised through the decades (one room continuously airs grainy black-and-white commercials), how to pour a pint. Master brewer Fergal Murray showed me how to properly drink Guinness: Look into the eyes of your drinking mate not into your beer. Hold the glass at a 45-degree angle. Let the liquid flow through the bubbles don’t drink the bitter foam. Drink proudly. The tour runs about $19, and it includes a pint at the seventh-floor Gravity Bar with skyline views.

Just south of Dublin, County Wicklow lives up to its title as the “Garden of Ireland,” with farms and gorse-covered hillsides. An Irishwoman told me that “kissing is out of fashion when gorse is out of bloom,” because the yellow flowers bloom year-round. The 47-acre gardens at Powerscourt Estate are a must-see, with fishponds and fountains; Japanese garden; terraced Italian gardens; and Ireland’s highest waterfall plus shops, golf courses and an indoor/outdoor cafe.

The ancient burial grounds of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth are in the Boyne Valley, 30 minutes from the Dublin Airport in County Meath. The massive tombs predate Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. Come early in the day, as the number of visitors is extremely limited when my group arrived at 4 p.m., no amount of cajoling and sweet-talking got us in.

Where to stay
The Merrion: A restored Georgian townhouse, this Dublin hotel has a two-Michelin-starred restaurant, Victorian gardens and drawing room for tea or Irish coffee.
The Shelbourne: This legendary Dublin hotel across from St. Stephen’s Green has been totally
Ritz-Carlton Powerscourt: This luxury golf/spa resort opens Nov.
Marriott Druids Glen, County Wicklow: A modern golfer’s retreat.
Johnstown House, County Meath: This 1700’s Georgian estate maintains its Old World feel.

Christ Church: ($7 entry)
County Meath:
Guinness Storehouse Tour:
National Museum: (Free)
Powerscourt Estate:
Trinity College: ($10 entry)

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Kylemore Abbey
The Southwest is a walker’s and photographer’s paradise. Fairy-tale-like Adare in County Limerick is known as “Ireland’s prettiest village,” with thatched-roof homes, craft shops and woolen stores. In County Cork, the fishing port of Bantry is the gateway to Sheep’s Head Peninsula, where rugged sea-view trails wind past ancient stone walls. Bere Island, a quiet place with grazing sheep, a lonely lighthouse, panoramic views and cozy Kitty’s Cafe, is accessible by ferry from Castletownbere. Only 30 people live in Eyeries, where brightly painted houses overlook the sea.

“This is the place that God created for himself but at the last minute decided to give it to us,” bragged resident Connie Murphy, as we strolled along the shore.

Killarney has more hotel beds than anywhere in Ireland, except Dublin. Still, it maintains a small-village feel with cracking pubs like O’Connor’s, where you can mingle with the locals and hear a traditional music session. At Killarney National Park, walking trails circle Muckross Lake, cross mossy forests, climb to cascading waterfalls and lead to Dimi’s, an old boathouse operating as a tranquil cafe.

Where to stay
Foley Townhouse, Killarney: An 18th-century coaching inn that’s now a four-star family-run guesthouse.

Capella Castlemartyr, Cork: Opening in August as a Leading Hotel of the World, this restored manor house is adjacent to the ruins of a 1,000-year-old castle.

Adare Manor, Limerick: An elegant golf resort.

Killarney National Park:

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Cliffs of Moher
Before my first visit to Ireland, I had visions of sheep grazing on green hillsides, ivy-covered stone walls and thatched-roof cottages. Ireland’s West matches that picture to perfection.

But there’s more to do than enjoy the views. Galway, Ireland’s fastest-growing city, packs in fun and vibrancy in a youthful atmosphere.

Galway is also a good base for touring Connemara, the pastoral, Irish-speaking countryside between Lough Corrib and the Atlantic’s sandy beaches.

Kylemore Abbey is a must-see. The 19th-century castle has walled gardens, a Gothic cathedral and a teahouse with traditional Irish food.

In the Shannon/County Clare region, the Cliffs of Moher rise dramatically 700 feet above the ocean.

Bunratty Castle, a medieval fortress with dungeons, towers and spiral stairwells, merits a visit as well. Its Folk Park is touristy, but the reconstructed cottages and artifacts give a good feel for 19th-century Ireland.

Since Bunratty is just six miles from Shannon Airport, the castle’s medieval feast and dinner show is a great way to spend a final evening in Ireland. The show is a bit kitschy, but it’s still great fun. And when the lovely red-haired lass sang “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” she brought tears to our eyes. Or maybe we were just sad to leave.

Where to stay
The G, Galway: Uber-hip five-star boutique hotel.
Ashford Castle, County Mayo: This lakeside estate was built in 1228 as a monastery. It has fairy-tale towers, suits of armor, terraced gardens, spiral stairways and a popular bar called The Dungeon.

Bunratty Castle: ($19 entry)
Cliffs of Moher: ($5 entry)
Kylemore Abbey: ($15 entry)

Gary Murphy President, Brendan Worldwide Vacations, On Experiencing Ireland

Q: What is it about Ireland that makes it special for tourists?
A: Even though it’s a small country geographically, it offers a diverse terrain ... What it allows a tourist to do is one day stay in a modern five-star hotel and the next a B&B on a dairy farm, a castle constructed in the 1100s or a Victorian home.

Q: What is the philosophy behind Brendan’s approach to tours in Ireland?
A: All our tours are designed to bring clients close to the culture so that they can have a visual and experiential vacation.
We take clients on a whiskey tasting where they get a certificate as an official whiskey taster from the factory. At the Waterford Crystal factory, we take guests to see the cutting room and cut crystal on the Behind the Ropes tour.
We were the first company to do tours to B&Bs in Ireland and the first to go to Northern Ireland.

Q: Is Ireland a popular destination for travelers from the West?
A: Yes. In fact, California is the number-one producer of visitors to Ireland.

Q: Why Ireland as opposed to the rest of Europe?
A: You feel welcome wherever you go. The Irish love Americans, and at Brendan, of all the areas we sell, we get the most repeat visitors to Ireland.

Farther Afield
By David Wishart

There are many reasons to visit the old country of Scotland, finding your ancestors being a good start. Then there are the rugged castles, beautiful lochs and the stirring sight of a piper on the battlements of Edinburgh Castle.

If that’s not enough, what about golf and whisky? Even if your clients don’t play the great game, it’s worth going to the elegant Turnberry just to see the sunset view over the golf courses, the sea and Isle of Arran. Turnberry, being an easy drive from Glasgow airport, is a good place to start. Golfers and spa-lovers might want to proceed to luxurious Cameron House, on the famed Loch Lomond, where a fine new course, the Carrick, awaits, then drop in at equally plush Gleneagles, site of the Ryder Cup in 2014. Afterward, visitors can head into the Highlands, where there’s golf and more, not to mention most of Scotland’s 40 distilleries all of them happy to see visitors.

The Highlands of Scotland are also oozing with wonderful country house hotels specializing in a warm welcome, chefs who source local ingredients, such as salmon and beef, and cozy bars. Take the Minmore House Hotel, near the whisky capital of Dufftown. The elegant rooms look out on relaxing pastoral scenes, the main rooms have log fires, furniture you want to take home with you and staff whose enthusiasm is amazing. They even found a kilt for a Japanese tourist who liked it so much he slept in it.

Minmore House, runner-up for Scottish Hotel of the Year, serves memorable dinners in a red-walled and candlelit dining room, while the wood-paneled bar has more than 100 whiskies. For good measure, the night air wafts down from the Glenlivet distillery 200 yards away. This is truly a place where you can sleep tight. Dufftown has a heady charm, while it’s not far to the Queen’s castle at Balmoral and Braemar with its Highland Games.

The other side of Scotland, the Western Isles, which are all of two hours’ drive away, offers cruises with the Majestic Line, two former fishing boats doing coastal cruising. The handsome, 12-passenger vessels visit islands such as Arran, Mull, Iona, Jura and Islay. The boats also serve fresh seafood and allow clients to get close to nature, wildlife and the locals. Trips are three or six days with itineraries from Oban or Holy Loch, the latter where U.S. Navy submarines used to be based.

Also in the west, and 87 miles from Glasgow, clients can catch their own lunch fresh from the waters of Loch Awe at Ardanaiseig, a stylish 16-bedroom country house hotel. The hotel has a Hook ‘n’ Cook offering, which gives guests the opportunity to do some fishing followed by lunch on the lawn featuring the morning’s catch.

The Majestic
Scotland National Tourist Board:

Wales is great for almost any outdoor pursuit walking, whitewater rafting, pony trekking, wind-surfing, hang-gliding, quad biking, mountain biking, climbing, canoeing and kayaking. Then there is the 750 miles of coastline with some of the loveliest beaches in Europe. Looking ahead to 2010, the Ryder Cup comes to Wales, and in the meantime, there are more than 200 golf courses to enjoy.

Ironmen will find plenty of challenges around Snowdonia in the north, where the first conquerors of Everest trained, while the Brecon Beacons and Black Mountains in the south are used by the elite military SAS. Historically, Wales has a turbulent past, as the more than 640 castles testify. Some are magnificent, such as the 13th-century Caerphilly Castle, one of the largest in Europe.

The country’s industrial heritage is almost as impressive. The town of Blaenavon is a World Heritage Site, its ironworks recounting the development of iron and steel. Big Pit provides insights into the mining experience. Visitors are outfitted with helmets and lamps and, with former miners as guides, plunge 300 feet underground in a cage for a tour of the workings. It’s such a good attraction it was chosen Museum of the Year. Cultural events abound, including the famous Hay Festival of Literature, the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod and the Brecon Jazz Festival. Rugby is huge here, as are male voice choirs, and visitors will see (and hear) evidence of both in friendly pubs.

Two stimulating attractions are Cardiff’s Techniquest, a hands-on, fun introduction to a host of scientific principles, and the Center for Alternative Technology, near Machynlleth, a small community that promotes a green lifestyle by living with a range of sustainable technologies such as solar heating, wind and water power. Cardiff, two hours from London by train, is a good place to start your visit. Its range of hotels includes a handsome Hilton used by the Society of American Travel Writers at its convention. Farther north, standing in 200 acres of its own parkland near Llandudno, is Bodysgallen Hall, a luxurious country house with spectacular views of Snowdonia and Conwy Castle.

Bodysgallen Hall:

Q & A
Grainne Gallen, founding director
Go Ireland Activity Holidays

Q: What is Go Ireland?

A: Go Ireland specializes in hiking/walking, biking and cultural vacations in Ireland. Since 1994, we’ve been leading active, off-the-beaten-path, small-group adventures, escorted by award-winning guides. One of our directors, Sean O’Sullivan, is Ireland’s leading expert on walking, having founded the Kerry Way -- Ireland’s premier walking route -- over 30 years ago. He trained our guides and wrote the notes and maps accompanying our tours.

Q: What’s the demographic of your clients?

A: The average age is 35-65 years, but we’ve had children as young as 12. Travelers in their 80s have completed our trips!

Q: What parts of Ireland are covered?

A: We are based in Kerry in the southwest, and our tours are focused in Kerry, Clare, Connemara, Aran Islands and Donegal. They offer the best of the Atlantic Ocean, national parks and inland routes. We offer clients a side of Ireland that few others see.

Q: What fitness/experience level is required?

A: We have tours to suit all. Walks are graded from easy to moderate with detailed descriptions, so itineraries can be chosen according to one’s fitness level.

Q: What else do travel agents need to know?

A: Our guided tours run from April to October, and we offer 10 percent commission.

Chapter One One of Dublin’s best, in the basement of the Dublin Writers Museum the former Jameson (Whiskey) family home. ( Roly’s Bistro Traditional yet modern cuisine in an informal setting. (

Brazen Head Dating to 1198, Ireland’s oldest pub is good for live music and atmosphere. (

Red, County Mayo a modern gem at the Gannon Hotel in Ballinrobe. (

Kings Head, Galway This 17th-century pub was named when the building was rewarded to Richard Gunning for executing King Charles 1. Within are medieval fireplaces, ancient stone walls, and massive hewn beams. (

O’Connors Seafood, Bantry The hottest spot in town. (

Mustard Seed, Adare A pretty restaurant/country inn in a Victorian home surrounded by flower and vegetable gardens (