Ireland may not make the top ten honeymoon list here in Australia very often, but Tanya Joslin discovers it should.
Emerald green fields, fascinating history, quaint cottages, storybook villages and grand castles. Sounds like the perfect recipe for romance doesn’t it?
Furthermore, in 2009 romance novel publisher Mills & Boon ran a poll to discover the world’s most romantic nationalities, and the Irish came in the top three. However, it could be suggested that the Irish have been romantics at heart for hundreds of years, judging by some of the ancient legends and even modern-day stories penned by famous Irish wordsmiths. Couples will easily discover romance in Ireland.
The best way to explore Ireland is by car, and Australians will find it particularly easy with driving on the same side of the road. This is exactly how we chose to sample a small part of the Emerald Isle on a recent five day visit.
Our instructions were simple – after leaving the airport take the M50 ring road, and keep our eyes open for the signs to Limerick and the M7. The destination was one of Ireland’s most luxurious hotels, Ballyfin, situated in the beautiful Slieve Bloom Mountains, just 90 minutes from Dublin’s international airport.
Ballyfin was originally created in 1826 by Sir Charles Coote, Premier Baronet of Ireland. One of the finest houses in all of Ireland, it was most certainly a statement of just how wealthy and prestigious the family was. Times changed in Ireland – the Cootes had to leave, and so Ballyfin was abandoned briefly before being run as a school and eventually falling into a state of disrepair.
Rejuvenating Ballyfin has been a labour of love for the current owners – a retired American businessman and his Irish wife. Millions of dollars and ten years later, this Irish masterpiece has been returned to its former glory. Today, it is a living museum – one of Ireland’s most luxurious escapes, and an opportunity for visitors to step back in time.
Exploring the main house takes hours – from the authentic mosaic floor at the entrance (brought back from a tour through Europe), which still greets guests today, to the original paintings and artworks. There is the gold room, which takes its name from the silk-covered walls and gilded plaster ceiling, and a plush library where a bookcase doubles as a hidden passageway that leads to a glass conservatory.
Wandering through the grounds – 600 lush, green, parkland-like acres – we came across walled gardens, grottoes, a medieval tower and kitchen gardens. There are walking trails and trail rides and little reason to go beyond the estate’s boundaries (though we are told there is a typically Irish village not far away – a recent visiting couple had the horse and carriage take them to the pub!).
Dinner at Ballyfin is an affair to remember and not simply because of the incredible cuisine. Guests are encouraged to dig through the estate’s room that is dedicated to period costumes to find an outfit for dinner. It is amusing how insanely normal it feels when everybody in the dining room is dressed as though it is 1860, positively the Downton Abbey experience!
For energetic types, there are hiking tracks through the Slieve Bloom Mountains. However, we felt that there is something to be said for remaining at the house and enjoying a good book by the fireplace and experience the all-inclusive meals and drinks and the opportunity to get a real sense for what life must have been like in the 1800s for the wealthy. Apart from the hot running water and heating in our rooms, we could have believed the clock had turned back 200 years.
While not cheap, Ballyfin is a once in a lifetime experience and a must for any couple visiting Ireland (I first read about it in Holidays for Couples’ Romance List in 2012 and put it on my bucket list then!). After a fabulously nourishing breakfast it was time for us to move onto our next stop, the medieval town of Kilkenny. The drive was around an hour, but by now we had realised that there is no such thing as bad Irish scenery so as hard as it was to leave the plush surrounds of our home for the past couple of days, we were looking forward to hitting the road again.
Kilkenny is a small, immensely walkable city full of historic buildings. Luckily for visitors, a passionate historian and Kilkenny local, Pat Tynan decided to start walking tours of Kilkenny some 30 odd years ago. We met Pat at the local tourist office and enjoyed an hour or so wandering through the Medieval Mile, enjoying his witty spin on Kilkenny’s historical, and often colourful, past.
From ‘The Hole in the Wall’, which was one of Ireland’s most renowned supperhouses in the late 1700s, to the legend of Kilkenny’s own witch, Alice Kyteler – the first woman accused and prosecuted for witchcraft in the 1300s – Pat’s tour is not only entertaining, but informative.
We said goodbye to Pat at the famous Kilkenny Castle, possibly Ireland’s most recognisable. Here, we enjoyed a self guided tour before heading over to The Kilkenny Design Centre, housed in what used to be the castle’s stables, to enjoy a meal at the restaurant and dig through the centre’s famous shop where visitors can find the best of everything Irish.
The infamous inn established by Alice Kyteler in the 13th century is a Kilkenny landmark and is as integral to the community today as it no doubt was back then. One of the most entertaining and unique nights we enjoyed in Ireland was at Kyteler’s Inn, where the humorous Damien Walsh hosts Irish Beats. Before we knew it, Damien had not only managed to get us playing the traditional bodhran (in time with the rest of the group!), but he managed to make us feel somehow more connected to the heart and soul of Ireland.
From Kilkenny, Dublin is only an hour and a half drive. For couples, Dublin offers a lot – theatre, art, live-music and traditional Irish pubs, historical treasures and, thanks in part to the Celtic Tiger (Ireland’s boom), a new era of culinary delights.
We were also surprised to learn of a truly romantic and unique visit couples can make in Dublin: to the resting place of the patron saint of love, St Valentine. Said to rest in Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church, Saint Valentine attracts couples all year round, although on Valentine’s Day people come from far and wide to pay their respects and witness
a special Mass dedicated to young people and those in love. Any day of the year, however, is a great day to visit the church, which is beautiful inside, with marriage proposals and vow renewals often undertaken there. The church is just a few minutes walk from St Stephens Green, one of Ireland’s most famous parks where you will find monuments,
ornamental lakes and, in spring and summer gorgeous blooming flowers. Not far from the Green is Oscar Wilde’s childhood home (1 Merrion Square).
Dublin’s Temple Bar was one of our favourite spots in the city, packed with authentic pubs, live music, unique shops, restaurants and the famous Olympia Theatre which is a Dublin institution, attracting international comedy acts and world-class music gigs. Definitely check out the what’s on page before heading there.
Dublin is a city made for walking, and the perfect way to finish your day of sightseeing is a sunset stroll along the River Liffey. The river is a defining feature of the city, flowing right through the heart of it. There are several bridges, some more famous than others, but as the sun goes down, and the evening draws nigh, grabbing a kiss on the lamp-adorned Ha’Penny Bridge is a beautiful way to finish your romantic Dublin getaway.