Impressive, daunting, and vast, Europe’s capital cities can be overwhelming, especially to first-time visitors. Faced with a limited amount of time to explore, you feel stressed from the get-go just trying to fit in all the important attractions. And even if you stay for days, you’ll never have time to see all that’s there. Plus hurrying along city streets—surrounded by hundreds of other tourists who follow each other like sheep from one must-see site to another—can be utterly exhausting.
When you concentrate on seeing the city’s sights, you end up missing those more peaceful venues just beyond the city limits. Personally I need a break from crowds when I travel. Heading off the beaten track not only helps me calm down and savor the moment, it has also brought me face to face with some amazing sites that tourists who stay inside city limits never see.
Last summer during an eight-day visit to the Emerald Isle, husband Peter, son Jasper, and I barely spent a day in Ireland’s capital city and instead explored Dublin’s neighboring counties, where the pace of life slows down, the crowds thin out, and you can get a real feel for what Ireland is all about.
North of Dublin rolling hills welcomed us to County Meath, known as Ireland’s heritage capital. You can spend days, even weeks, wandering around the ancient sites in this verdant region—there’s that much to see.
Climb the Hill of Tara, an evocative setting amid green rolling hills, where the High Kings of Ireland were crowned. At the summit you can see the Central Plain of Ireland and the shadowy mountains that lie beyond. Around you ridges and swirls define ancient earthworks engraved in the ground centuries ago. Pause and perhaps you can hear the singing stone of destiny announcing the presence of once and future kings.
Or explore Trim Castle, the largest Anglo-Norman castle in Ireland, where “Braveheart” was filmed, and learn about medieval life and times. The ruins of Dunmoe Castle offer another glimpse into a time when this was a hostile land, a place where battles waged and won determined the course of Irish history.
But County Meath is probably best known for Bru na Boinne, the palace of the Boyne, one of the world’s most important archaeological landscapes. Here you’ll find the prehistoric passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth. Built in the Neolithic age (c. 3200 BC), these burial mounds contain passages leading to chambers, where archeologists believe cremated remains of the dead were entombed.
Of the three, only at Newgrange can visitors walk inside the mound, but you have to arrive early to get a ticket. Tours to Newgrange were full by the time my family and I arrived, so we chose to visit Knowth, where a large burial mound towers over smaller satellite tombs. The guided tour offers insight into the people who built the mounds, why they built them, and how the tombs were used.
Huge rocks create a foundation for the mounds, and many bear examples of Neolithic art, carved into the stones: swirls and symbols whose meanings remain unknown. At Newgrange, every year during the winter solstice, a shaft of sunlight pierces the inner chamber, an event that draws huge crowds. Like other World Heritage Sites, such as the ancient pyramids and Stonehenge—both of which this site predates, Bru na Boinne makes you wonder how our early ancestors built these structures, even incorporating astronomical events into their rituals.
Our accommodations in County Meath were decidedly not ancient. We stayed in a gorgeous new Marriott in Ashbourne with lots of amenities. With Ireland’s penchant for rain, Peter and Jasper found the indoor pool inviting. I took respite at Daydream Spa, where Fiona gave me an amazing Indian Head Massage that invigorated my face and scalp. We loved the Marriott’s location, close enough to Dublin for a day trip but far enough to enjoy the peaceful countryside.
We dined one night at the hotel’s signature restaurant, Grill 21, where I enjoyed sea bass on a bed of leek and herb risotto; Peter opted for a steak served with a peppered Jameson whiskey sauce; Jasper loaded on the carbs with a pasta dish. Grill 21’s open kitchen ensured an atmospheric evening, one we found a relaxing antidote to a busy day of sightseeing.
County Meath is also home to golf, fishing, and numerous hiking and biking trails. Horse racing is also a tradition in Meath, home to the Irish Grand National. If you like to ride, check into opportunities at one of the local equestrian centers.
JOY AND WONDER
The Irish are known for their love affair with horses, so we decided to visit the Irish National Stud, a working stud farm located in County Kildare about a half hour west of Dublin on a beautiful estate known as Tully. This government-owned enterprise offers tours, during which you’ll learn about the high stakes of horse breeding. For example, the stud fee for Invincible Spirit, a prized stallion whose “crop” of foals and fillies is breaking racetrack records, is 50,000 euro.
Besides the breeding facilities, the attraction offers a horse museum and two gorgeous gardens. We loved walking through the Japanese Gardens at Tully, created in the early 1900s by a wealthy Scotsman. Meticulously planned, the gardens symbolize the life of man, and as you walk along the path, you experience the “journey of the soul from oblivion to enlightenment,” according to the website.
Peter, Jasper, and I entered the garden though the Gate of Oblivion and found ourselves in the Cave of Birth. Other stops on the path included the Hill of Learning, the Island of Joy and Wonder, the Marriage Bridge, the Well of Wisdom, and finally the Gateway to Eternity. The bucolic setting felt very spiritual to me, and I could have lingered longer in this serene place. It’s no wonder the Japanese Gardens at Tully have been described as among the finest Japanese gardens in Europe.
Just to the south is County Wicklow, a region known as the Garden of Ireland. Here nature lovers will find much to appreciate, including miles of hiking trails that wend their way through the Wicklow Mountains. Nestled in a valley in the heart of the mountain range is Glendalough, a must-see heritage site. In the 6th century, St. Kevin founded a monastery with a group of other monks on the banks of a river. Kevin’s fame as a holy man spread, and the settlement attracted many followers.
Today the ruins provide only a glimpse of what the monastery would have been like in its heyday with workshops, guesthouses, an infirmary, farm buildings, and dwellings to house both monks and the large lay population. After Kevin’s death in 618, the site remained a holy place and even today continues to attract pilgrims. Now visitors discover a haunting site where the ruins of a cathedral, a round tower, smaller churches, and the priest’s home remind us of a different time.
Gravestones are everywhere, and as Peter, Jasper, and I walked around, it was hard not to think about the vast gulf of years separating us from the simpler times of St. Kevin more than 1500 years ago. I wished we had time to follow some of the hiking trails that branch off from Glendalough, including one called St. Kevin’s Way that follows the route of the saint.
Our stay in County Wicklow commenced at the Ritz-Carlton, Powerscourt in Eniskerry, a stunning property with a neo-classic Palladian exterior and a Georgian-inspired interior. In a wooded setting next to Powerscourt House and Gardens, the hotel overlooks Sugar Loaf Mountain, a view I never tired of seeing from the balcony of our suite.
Of course, inside the décor was equally inviting. Our plush accommodations featured a spacious living area with comfy chairs, a settee, oversized desk and dining table, as well as a master bedroom with a kingly featherbed and a magnificently appointed bathroom with a TV mounted in the mirror. It was difficult to leave this lovely suite to continue our explorations, but we wanted to see nearby Powerscourt Gardens.
Described as one of the most beautiful country estates in Ireland, Powerscourt Estate covers over 1000 acres, on which tended gardens, terraces, fish ponds, statuary, and tree plantations undulate in all directions. Peter, Jasper, and I decided to skip the house tour and spend our time wandering the grounds, where we discovered beautiful vistas with every step.
Back at the Ritz-Carlton, I left Peter and Jasper to their own devices and headed for ESPA, where I would experience one of most amazing treatments of my life. Called the Garden of Inspiration Body Ritual, the treatment lasts 2 ½ hours, beginning with a cleansing foot ritual and a consultation with Glenda, my therapist. Next came a sensory test, which involved choosing my favorite from a variety of scented oil combinations. I chose Fitness Body Oil, which contains clove, rosemary and cinnamon, a good fit for me, Glenda said.
The second part of the treatment was a full body salt and oil scrub to increase circulation and remove dead skin cells. After I showered, Glenda poured warm oil over my body and then gave a very relaxing massage before applying cool marine mud to the body to help re-mineralize and hydrate the skin. Finally she applied a cool moisturizing balm to keep my skin smooth and hydrated. The overall effect of this treatment was both energizing and relaxing.
Besides the gorgeous spa, the Ritz-Carlton also features a stunning black marble heated lap pool inlaid with Swarovski crystals. Surrounding the pool are comfy lounges, where you can lose yourself in the mystical magic of the place. Another mystical experience awaits in the hammam, a circular steam room with a large crystal in the center which emits a stream of steam. Decorated in exotic tiles, the steam room is a place to let life’s stresses ooze out while peace and tranquility enter in.
The adventure continued that night when we dined at Gordon Ramsay at Powerscourt. Anyone who watches the Food Network knows Gordon Ramsay is the tough-talking chef who terrorizes restaurant owners in the show “Hell’s Kitchen.” He wasn’t around the night we dined, but our server assured us he’s “not that bad” in real life. Well, you know what they say about geniuses, and judging from our meal, Gordon Ramsay is indeed that.
Peter and I had to convince Jasper, who’s a meat-and-potatoes fan, to partake in the evening’s Prestige Menu, a five-course journey into a selection of gourmet dishes that Jasper had never even dreamed of: foie gras mousse; roast scallop with caviar and lime foam; a crab cannelloni that Peter declared was the best dish he’d ever eaten; rack of lamb with braised belly and tomato couscous; and a trio of creamy sorbet for dessert. Service was extraordinary. In fact, when the waiter saw that Peter had nicked himself shaving, he presented a tray with antiseptic and two band-aids. By evening’s end, even Jasper admitted he was glad he’d ventured into unknown territory and sampled the culinary achievements of one of the world’s renowned chefs. It was truly a masterful meal.
Another recommended hotel in County Wicklow is the Marriott Druids Glenn in Newtownmountkennedy, where we stayed our last night. Located next to the Druids Glen Golf Resort, the hotel offers spacious accommodations, an indoor pool, health club, and spa. Golfers will enjoy its close proximity to championship courses, and kids will love the family-friendly amenities. But most of all, Druid Glen’s setting among lush rolling hills offers visitors the chance to enjoy a peaceful escape from the cares of daily life along with a perfect base from which to explore this beautiful region.
While Jasper chilled in the Marriott, Peter and I spent our final evening in Ireland at Taylor’s Three Rock, where we dined on a four-course meal while enjoying Irish music, dancers, and Noel V. Ginnity, a hilarious comedian whose antics and jokes kept the audience roaring with laughter. Located on the southern edge of Dublin, Taylor’s Three Rock does a great job of giving visitors a taste of authentic Irish cabaret in a cozy environment that resembles the inside of a thatched-roof cottage.
In fact, Peter decided the evening’s show was the highlight of his visit. As for me, choosing a favorite attraction in these three counties surrounding Dublin is too hard. I loved everything we did. Enjoying yourself in Ireland is easy, I think. There’s so much to see and do, and everywhere you go friendly folks welcome you with warm smiles. But make sure you venture off the beaten track—where the real Ireland lies waiting. n
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