Ireland by castle!

Blarney Castle & gardens
Blarney Castle & gardens

Castle – the very word conjures up images of knights and ladies, opulence and intrigue.  And a trip to Ireland would not be complete without a few castles.  So, when we planned our recent chauffeured tour of the Emerald Isle, we made sure that there were castles along the way, both to visit and to stay.  So, come along with us for a trip into history and share our castle experience.

Let’s start by making sure we know what the term castle means (trust us; this is important if you’re to understand the experience!).

Most people think that castles are home to royalty and their servants (that would be a palace by actual definition), but the real definition of a castle has more to do with fortifications and protection – and it was not always for royalty, although given the resources needed to actually build one, clearly they were not erected by the common man – or woman.  So when you consider visiting – or staying in – a castle, you’re really going to be experiencing an historical creation that might have been built by royalty, but more likely was built by other powerful leaders or even families who needed to protect villages or families, or both.

Waiting to kiss the Blarney Stone!
Waiting to kiss the Blarney Stone!

As we left Dublin we headed south toward Blarney, home to the famous Blarney Castle with its legendary stone that must be kissed (we’ll get to that!).  Built some six centuries ago by a powerful Irish chieftain, Blarney Castle itself might take you by surprise.  It is a tower castle, and as such when you go inside you are on the bottom floor of a relatively small tower that once had a number of stories each of whose floor was at one time made of wood so now no longer exists – you can see right up through to the sky.  But you need to make your way up to the top via a narrow, well-worn stone stairway, and as you do, think about what it must have been like to fight your way up or down those narrow stairs!  When we reached the top we were rewarded by a breathtaking view of Blarney Castle’s gardens which were fabulous in their early-spring glory.  And at the top, the Blarney Stone awaits.

blarney stoneIn case you’ve forgotten, the whole point of kissing the stone is so that you can acquire the ‘gift of the gab.’  Well, anyone who has ever met Patty in particular will know that this is wholly redundant! But she reluctantly took her place on her back on the stone floor of the open-air battlement, and duly hung her head out backwards into the opening in the stone work as you must, since the Blarney stone must be kissed from underneath while one’s head hangs out hundreds of feet above ground.  In position, she decided that she didn’t really need to kiss the place that hundreds of other lips had just passed over.  But it was worth it all the same.  One legend has it that a certain goddess told the builder of Blarney Castle, who was at the time embroiled in a lawsuit, to kiss the first stone he saw on his way out the door for the gift of eloquence which evidently was bestowed up on him by the ritual.

Beautiful Ashford Castle from the lakefront view.
Beautiful Ashford Castle from the lakefront view.

After that first castle experience we visited a number of other tower castles, eventually making our way to County Mayo and the wonderful Ashford Castle, a very different sort of experience.  Here we stayed for two nights on this magnificent estate whose origins date to 1228.  Through the ensuing centuries, pieces were added until the estate – castle and grounds on the shores of the lake Corrib – were acquired in 1852 by Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness of the Guinness beer fame.    It was eventually sold; in 1939 it was first transformed into what was then referred to as a “first-class hotel.”  It passed through the hands of several owners until this day when it stands as a grand hotel that has been voted the number 1 hotel in Ireland by Condé Nast Traveller many times, and Trip Advisor’s number 1 European castle hotel; it has also garnered a mass of other accolades.

cheersSo we spent two days strolling the grounds and exploring the grand building, feeling a bit like royalty ourselves.  As we walked through the striking rooms, we found ourselves swept back in time.  The floors creak a bit but the décor is authentic – and priceless.  Our discerning scrutiny, as always, looks to the service as the piece that is most important in the end, and Ashford Castle did not disappoint (with one small exception of a surly bartender who was reformed by the following evening!).

We spent our last night in Ireland sitting in the magnificent lounge listening to a wonderful trio of singer, pianist and guitarist whose smooth melodies lulled us into complete relaxation.  Their rendition of The Fields of Athenry will always stay with us – haunting us, no doubt, until we return to the Emerald Isle.

A bespoke tour of Ireland: Custom-made for a discerning traveler (or two!)

Bespoke…the very word conjures up images of the rich and famous standing in front of a mirror as they are measured for their custom-made suits and dresses.  It seems like anything that is custom-made for you must, by its very nature, be expensive and out of reach.

bespokeBut what if you were able to work with a travel professional who was an expert in her field to create for you that customized trip that would fulfill your dreams of seeing some places that have long been on your bucket list?  And what if you were picked up at the airport by an immaculately-clad driver who led you to a shiny black Mercedes to take you on an orientation tour of the city before ensuring that you were well taken care of at your hotel?   And what if this whole experience didn’t cost you nearly as much as you’re beginning to think as you read this?

Well, welcome to the world of bespoke travel – and we’re just back from another customized tour, this time created for us by world-renowned Kensington Tours.

It all began at the Dublin Airport last month when we were that couple being escorted to the Mercedes by the impeccable driver who then proceeded to not only drive us to our downtown hotel, but act as our guide.  An expert in Irish history, he was an amazing font of information that we capitalized on the next day as we explored Dublin on our own (after following his spot-on recommendation to dine at Trocadero that evening).

Our Irish drive parked outside Ashford Castle.
Our Irish drive parked outside Ashford Castle.

Although it had been the plan to have the same driver from the very beginning to the bitter end, our scheduled driver was ill and was replaced while we were still in Dublin by Kevin – and he was as wonderful as the first driver.  We were soon to find out that his extensive knowledge of Ireland and all things Irish, coupled with the fact that he seemed to know everyone in the country (and we do mean everyone), were designed to make this trip a flawless experience of a lifetime that will go down in our travel books as the only way to go!

While still in Dublin, Kevin took us on a half-day trip to Newgrange to visit the stone-age passage tomb that pre-dates the Egyptian pyramids.  Never hovering over us, he provided us with important clues to maximizing the experience and then left us to take advantage of the venue on our own with the expert guidance of the tour leader.  (One important tip he gave us was to buy an Irish Heritage card that would give us access to many heritage sites throughout the country for one small price.  No more buying tickets!).  This passage into ancient history is not to be missed while in Ireland!

Picking us up at 10 am the next morning, Kevin slightly modified our planned itinerary to improve our experience.  We are always open to suggestions from those who know better and we were not disappointed.  As a trio we reviewed each day’s itinerary in advance to ensure that what we experienced was not only the best of Ireland, but the things that were of most interest to us as individuals.  This attention to personalization is one of the things that we seek as discerning travelers who are focused on service and value.  And we received both.

The back garden at Hayfield Manor in Cork.
The back garden at Hayfield Manor in Cork.

Although we had chosen to book our own hotel in Dublin, we allowed Kensington’s Ireland specialist to select our deluxe accommodations for the rest of the trip.  We were not disappointed on this front either.  We spent the first night in Cork at Hayfield Manor, a wonderful property at the end of a tree-lined cul-de-sac bordering on the University of Cork.  The service at this highly-recommended hotel is outstanding, as is the dining.

We then spent two nights at Killarney Park Hotel in County Kerry, a surprisingly special place.  Purpose built as a hotel only 20 years ago, this property imbues you with the feeling that you’d been transported into a centuries-old country manor.  Its location downtown Killarney allowed us to spend a wonderful evening exploring the tiny streets, eating at a restaurant recommended to us by Kevin, and then spending an hour at a pub with a beer in hand humming along with the Irish singers.  It was reminiscent of our university days when Irish music was all the rage on Canadian university campuses.  But that was a long time ago!

The lounge at Killarney Park Hotel, County Kerry.
The lounge at Killarney Park Hotel, County Kerry.

Our last two nights on the road were spent at Ashford Castle.  What a wonderful experience.  To describe our experience at this castle would take an entire blog post – and we’ll do that next week, so come back if you want to know more about it.

Every moment of the trip was an experience to be remembered for a lifetime.  From our visit to Trinity College and the Book of Kells in Dublin, to Blarney Castle, the Irish pub night, the breathtaking Dingle peninsula, the monastery ruins, and everything in between, we couldn’t have asked for a better way to travel.

We have already begun to plan our next bespoke trip with Kensington.  Now all we have to do is decide if it will be South America, a safari in Africa or the Great Wall of China!  Stay tuned.

Now if you a few minutes, come along with us on our tour of Ireland.