13 Wednesday May, 2015
1. Stay at Ballyfin, Ireland’s most luxurious hotel
It’s very rare that we come across a property that we give full marks to – Ballyfin, where we stayed on our second night in Ireland, was one of them. A Regency manor house built in the 1820s which underwent a major restoration and renovation in 2003, Ballyfin is now Ireland’s most luxurious hotel. Unlike a lot of period hotels, everything in Ballyfin (paintings, fabrics, furniture, antiques) is authentic and the very best of the best. The result is a jaw-dropping, absolutely stunning one-in-a-million property that we simply did not want to leave. We stayed just less than 24 hours but we managed to pack a lot in; we toured the beautiful walled garden with its extensive flower beds and vegetable patch, climbed the estate’s tower, went rowing in the lake, took tea in the conservatory, trialled the 8 course tasting menu, drank champagne in the Gold Room and went cycling around the grounds. A stay at Ballyfin is definitely a splurge but it is well worth the money as all food and drink, and unlimited use of bikes, rowing boats and golf buggies is included.
2. Visit the Slieve League Cliffs (lesser known than the Cliffs of Moher)
It’s tempting, when touring a country, to have a checklist of things you want to see and do. One of the benefits of booking with Ampersand is that we have already tried and tested both the classic ‘must-dos’ and experiences that are more off the beaten track. Any standard itinerary covering Ireland will include a trip to the Cliffs of Moher – however, if you’re willing to delve further into the lesser visited parts of Ireland, I would always recommend visiting Slieve League in County Donegal. Slieve League are the highest sea cliffs in Europe and offer some of the most dramatic landscapes we saw in just over 10 days touring the country. There are plenty of coastal walks that can be done in a day, climbing over heathery hills which offer spectacular views over the coastline and the Atlantic sea. Our preferred base in Donegal is Harvey’s Point, a charming family-run hotel with an excellent restaurant.
3. Explore the Burren and stay at Gregan’s Castle to get off the beaten track
Having traversed The Burren in County Clare, I would recommend this on any Ireland itinerary. Less visited than Kerry and its surroundings, The Burren is an unspoilt and beautiful region known for its barren hills, still lakes and wildlife which gives way to golden sandy beaches and a picturesque coastline. There is a quiet drama to the area that is wonderful after some of Ireland’s more popular hotspots. One of our favourite hotels, family-run Gregan’s Castle, is a great base for exploring the area. It is not actually a castle, but a handsome ivy-clad house with beautiful rooms and cosy public areas, and it has an award-winning restaurant, spacious grounds and wonderful views. If you’re travelling in a large group, nearby Ballyportry Castle is a mediaeval castle that can be hired exclusively. All bedrooms and living areas are located in an atmospheric tower that is both fun and quirky, and terribly romantic. With Prince Charles and Camilla due to visit the area on their upcoming visit, The Burren may soon no longer be such a hidden gem so go now before it’s too late!
4. Eat fresh seafood while exploring the Dingle Peninsula
One of the highlights of any research trip is always the food – it's one of the best ways to really start understanding a culture and its people. On our most recent trip to Scotland, for example, one of our favourite moments was tucking into fresh oysters al fresco while overlooking the sea from a rocky crop on the Isle of Skye, the sun shining and the oyster farmer shucking in front of us – a real ‘luxury’ moment that was all about the experience. Luckily Ireland didn’t disappoint on the foodie front and the seafood was sublime! A memorable moment was sitting in the warm sun overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in the small town of Dingle, on the Dingle Peninsula, while devouring enormous fresh crab claws, monkfish goujons and succulent oysters, all washed down with a glass of crisp white wine. We managed to get our claws into some crab in nearly every place we visited and the award for the most delicious of the trip has to go to Dingle. A really charming restaurant, further along the peninsula, with amazing views over the Atlantic, is The Stonehouse on Slea Head Drive, which also happens to be just across the road from Dunbeg Fort, one of Ireland’s famous prehistoric sites.
5. Go off track from the Ring of Kerry and explore the Beara Peninsula
You can’t begin to compete with local knowledge, so when on our research trips we always make sure to ask local people for their recommendations of where to go, what to do and what to see. After a delightful night at Sheen Falls Lodge in the small and bustling town of Kenmare, we were advised by the team there, as well as exploring the world famous Ring of Kerry, to make our way to the much less visited Beara Peninsula. We were not disappointed. Driving along the coastal roads, with the windows down, the sun shining over the sea and the stunning mountains, passing fleecy lambs in wild fields had us gasping at the beauty of it all. The best thing about it, by far, was that we had the whole place to ourselves. Our favourite part of the day – and the most exhilarating – had to be crossing the Healy Pass where we must have stopped over 15 times (about every 10 metres) to capture the incredible landscape. Every car we saw (about 5!) was doing the same thing, so we clearly were not alone in our admiration of the area. At Ampersand we know that people always want to visit the most famous part of any country, and we would never discourage it, but at the same time we always want to share our first-hand knowledge regarding the best places to go slightly off the well-trodden track in order to have a really worthwhile, and hopefully authentic, experience.
6. Take a cookery class and stay the night at Ballymaloe
Sometimes on our travels we stumble across a little hidden gem that we know our clients will love. Ballymaloe is such a place. A short drive from the town of Midelton, famous for Jameson whiskey, Ballymaloe is a renowned cookery school run by the Alan family. Spread over two sites, in addition to the cookery school there is also a charming hotel and restaurant situated in a gorgeous Georgian Manor house and estate. Set out over several floors with views out on to the surrounding countryside and scenic river, rooms are lovely and cosy and all completely unique. In addition to spending an afternoon (or a full day) taking part in one of the cookery school’s traditional Irish cookery demonstrations, there is plenty to do in the area. The little fishing village of Ballycotton is nearby, and there are long white sandy beaches walking distance away. We also absolutely loved the gift shop on site; this is the place to come to stock up on gifts and souvenirs. A night at Ballymaloe perfectly breaks the drive from Dublin to the Ring of Kerry and allows you to get off the main roads and explore quaint rural Ireland.
7. Buy high quality Irish crafts & souvenirs at Voya, Donegal Studios, Dubarry & Magee
It’s always nice to bring home souvenirs from your trip, and a research trip is no different! We dropped in on shops across the length of Ireland and have come home with suitcases that struggled to close. Ireland has an amazing array of high quality goods and crafts that have a strong Irish feel without being gimmicky. We loved thick colourful blankets from Studio Donegal (so much so that we had to buy an extra suitcase), traditional tweed from Magees (also of Donegal), organic seaweed beauty products, Voya, which are made just outside Sligo, Dubarry boots (perfect for country walks) and fisherman’s jumpers made of local wool in Connemara. Ireland also has a strong food scene; the local cheeses, fudges, chutneys, jams and whiskies we encountered along the way were all very tempting!
8. Drive the length of the Wild Atlantic Way
The Wild Atlantic Way is currently the world’s longest coastal touring route. Stretching 1500 miles along the Ireland’s coastline, the route takes you through some of the country’s most beautiful places. The route starts (or ends) just outside Kinsale and makes its way up to Malin Head, along Peninsulas, sea bays and cliff passes. We followed the route fairly closely as we made our way around the country and were lucky enough to pass through some of its highlights including Bantry (past the beautiful Bantry House), Kenmare, Dingle, Galway Bay, Westport, Mullaghmore Head (home to Classiebawn Castle), Donegal Bay and Slieve League. Exploring the route with either a private driver / guide or doing it by yourself with a hire car makes for a fantastic way to see Ireland and some of its most beautiful landscapes. There are plenty of islands that can be explored by boat as part of a day trip just a short way off the West Coast including the Blasket Islands, the Aran Islands and Claire Island.
9. Stay in a Castle property at Dromoland
Ireland has no shortage of traditional castle properties but only a small number really capture the essence of the past while still offering an experience that measures up to all the modern luxuries guests now expect. Dromoland Castle, the former seat of the O’Brien family, manages to do both very well – as you drive into the grounds you cannot help but be amazed at the grand Baronial castle romantically located on the banks of a lake. Roaring fires, endless corridors, staircases, grand halls and glittering chandeliers mean that it’s impossible to forget you are staying in castle. From Dromoland we would always recommend venturing up to Connemara National Park, one of Ireland’s most beautiful regions. Alternatively there is plenty to do onsite: golf, swimming, tours of the walled garden, seaweed baths in the spa, boat rides on the lake, walks around the grounds and much much more. We loved trialling (a few) whisky sours in the atmospheric bar before being blown away by the food in the Earl of Thomond restaurant (try the black pudding – it’s fantastic!).
It can be tempting, especially with a limited amount of time to travel, to tick a place off the list and not go back. However, at Ampersand we always recommend ending a holiday with a night enjoying the bright lights and buzz of a city. We started the trip with one night at The Merrion, an elegant and discreet Georgian hotel which was the perfect base for our sightseeing tour of Dublin on arrival. After ten days of touring the beautiful countryside we were ready to end the trip with a bang at The Fitzwilliam Hotel. Luckily for us, The Fitzwilliam spoilt us rotten and upgraded us to their gigantic Penthouse Suite where we were welcomed with champagne by our fabulous butler. We ended our trip on a real high dining at the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Thorton’s, which was the culinary highlight of the tour, especially as each course of the five course tasting menu was served and explained by the chef, Kevin Thorton himself. Every morsel we ate was inventive, dramatic and all sourced from Ireland – a real tour de force.
If you would like more information or want to start planning your own tailor-made holiday to Ireland, please do get in touch:
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James & Ellie