Ireland in grand style

Travel with Sandy Guy aboard Ireland's first luxury sleeper train


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The Cliffs of Moher on County Clare's rugged coastline. Photo: Tourism Ireland

The Cliffs of Moher on County Clare's rugged coastline. Photo: Tourism Ireland

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It's luxury all the way on Ireland's Belmond Grand Hibernian.

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MERRION Square is situated in one of Dublin's most prestigious neighbourhoods. Famous former residents of this central-city enclave, which features a parade of Georgian mansions, include poet W B Yeats and Oscar Wilde, whose statue you can see at the end of the square.

In nearby Upper Merrion Street, across the road from Ireland's imposing government buildings, is another row of magnificent 18th century townhouses, four of which make up the Merrion Hotel, arguably Dublin's finest five-star establishment and our home for the night.

We're staying here because we've travelled to the Republic of Ireland to experience one of its newest and most exclusive attractions, and this fine hotel is an ideal place to start the journey in style.

Our junior suite is everything you'd expect from a first-class establishment - a deeply comfortable king size bed, brocade sofas, opulent drapes, Italian marble bathroom: it couldn't be more elegant or luxurious.

The following morning, after a hearty Irish breakfast, we set out to Dublin Heuston Station to board the Belmond Grand Hibernian, Ireland's first luxury sleeper train.

Grand Hibernian journeys include two-, four- and six-night itineraries. Our six-night Grand Tour of Ireland travels from Dublin south to Cork, west to Galway, north to Belfast, and south again to Waterford.

The pony trap takes you to Ross Castle, Killarney. Photo: Tourism Ireland

The pony trap takes you to Ross Castle, Killarney. Photo: Tourism Ireland

The 10 carriages, named for Irish counties such as Down, Kerry and Waterford, accommodate up to 40 passengers in 20 cabins, each with a compact ensuite.

Unlike other Belmond trains, such as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and the Royal Scotsman, the Grand Hibernian isn't a heritage train: it dates from the 1980s. Nevertheless, it has been outfitted to the highest standards.

We step into Waterford carriage and our comfortable cabin, complete with plump doonas, fresh flowers and a large picture window to watch the timeless landscapes roll by.

Train manager Michael McCarthy, who hails from Roscommon, shows us the two dining cars, set with starched tablecloths and gleaming silver, and the elegant observation car, which has a cheery bar stocked with premium Irish whiskies, artisan gins and fine wines.

Traditional afternoon tea is served as the train trundles southwards across velvety-green fields to Cork City, where a luxury coach awaits to transfer us to Jameson Whisky for a private tour of this venerable distillery, established in 1810.

"A Grand Hibernian journey is a bit like a country hotel that follows you around," McCarthy said.

The coach follows the train as it travels across Ireland, meaning pampered guests merely stroll from railway platforms to a nearby coach for excursions throughout the journey.

Back on board we're treated to the first of many outstanding meals from the onboard kitchen of chef Alan Woods, formerly of Dublin's Michelin-starred Thornton's Restaurant, who serves exceptional contemporary Irish cuisine featuring local seasonal produce.

Locally harvested bounty is delivered to Woods' kitchen at stations along the way, from plump Donegal turf-smoked salmon and Beara Peninsula scallops to West Cork free-range duck, crafted into Michelin-quality dishes in a narrow galley kitchen in what is an amazing display of culinary logistics.

On the menu tonight is Dublin Bay prawn cocktail followed by duck roasted with orange and rosemary, and pineapple tarte tatin. Accompanying French and German wines are, as you'd expect, superb.

The following morning coach driver Anthony collects us for a tour of Blarney Castle which, like all tours on this glamorous journey, is private. Some fellow passengers clamber to the top of the 15th century castle to kiss the stone, guaranteeing, it's said, the gift of eloquence.

Back on board for lunch (a rich chowder of cod, cockles and mussels), we relax as the train snakes its way towards the County Kerry town of Killarney, which features a Norman castle, thousand-year-old cathedral, and some ancient pubs - one, Kyteler's Inn, dates back to 1263.

Waiting at Kilkenny Station is Anthony and his coach, ready to transport us to nearby Lough Leane, where we take a pony and trap ride to Ross Castle.

The 15th century castle is situated within the 106 sq km Killarney National Park, known as the "jewel of Ireland's south-west." I couldn't agree more as we take a scenic lake cruise.

Each time Anthony drops us back to the train we're met by cheerful Irish staff bearing the likes of Champagne and just-shucked Galway oysters. We are beginning to feel like royalty itself.

The next port of call is the Cliffs of Moher, which tower to a dizzying 214 metres along 8km of County Clare's rugged coastline. It's a bright and breezy day, and the views from here to the Aran Islands are breathtaking.

Later, relaxing in the observation car post-dinner (Donegal turf-smoked salmon and crab; Kilkenny veal loin; lemon tart) we're entertained by local musicians playing foot-tapping music, as we are on every evening of the journey.

After visiting the vibrant city of Galway and continuing north-east to overnight at Althone Railway Station, we enjoy another sumptuous breakfast as the train winds 110km through a patchwork of fields and rugged mountainous country further north to Westport in County Mayo.

Ashford Castle, a sprawling Victorian pile near the village of Cong, which was the setting for the 1952 movie The Quiet Man. Photo: Tourism Ireland

Ashford Castle, a sprawling Victorian pile near the village of Cong, which was the setting for the 1952 movie The Quiet Man. Photo: Tourism Ireland

Anthony is already there, welcoming us to his coach for a day at Ashford Castle, a sprawling Victorian pile on the shores of Loch Corrib near the village of Cong. For fans of the late John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, Cong was the setting for the 1952 movie The Quiet Man.

Once a holiday home to the Guinness family, today Ashford Castle is one of Ireland's classiest hotels and home to the country's oldest falconry school. Here, falconers lead us on a Hawk Walk, when Harris's hawks thrillingly dive-bomb onto our gloved hands for a morsel of food.

Back at the castle for lunch, we dine like heads of state in the plush blue-themed George V dining room on dishes including Burren organic smoked salmon, loin of Achill Island lamb, and sweet pastries.

After rejoining the train at Westport, we are again spoilt by chef Woods (East Coast lobster ravioli, beef Wellington, passionfruit bavarois) before overnighting in our comfy cabin. In the morning we sit back over a long, lazy breakfast as the train winds its way 220km back to Dublin.

Here passengers can tour the city, including Trinity College, home to the Book of Kells, and the National Gallery of Ireland, or spend a relaxing morning on board.

We're back on board for luncheon as we travel north on the 165km journey to Belfast.

The train passes the Irish Sea at Balbriggan Harbour and along the coast near Drogheda, and we pass plenty of viaducts including the magnificent 18-arch Craigmore Viaduct in County Armagh.

In Belfast we're met by a fleet of London-style black cabs that whisk us off on a city tour to the Republican Falls Road and Loyalist Shankill, which are separated by the Peace Wall. More than 20 years on from what was known as the "Troubles", walls gates and fences still separate some Catholic and Protestant communities in Belfast.

We join thousands of people in signing the peace wall, and continue our tour of the city and its incredible array of murals - more than 2000 have been documented since the 1970s.

Belfast is home to Titanic Belfast, situated at what was once the world's biggest shipyard, where the infamous liner was designed, built and launched in 1912. Exploring this fascinating museum, which consists of nine interactive spaces, it's easy to see why Titanic Belfast was named the World's Leading Tourist Attraction in 2016.

The following day, mesmerised by the gentle rocking of the train, we spend a leisurely morning as we travels south to the Viking port of Waterford, where Anthony's coach awaits.

Our destination is Curraghmore, Ireland's largest private demesne. This magnificent estate, covering around 1000 hectares, is home to Lord Henry Waterford, the ninth Marquis of Waterford, and Lady Amanda Waterford. The couple's ancestors, the de la Poer family, have lived here for more than 800 years.

Antiques Roadshow would go into a head spin at Curraghmore House, which is made up of a 12th century tower castle encased in a three-storey mansion built from the 1750s.

Huge rooms are adorned with memorabilia collected over the centuries - family portraits, some jaw-dropping Old Masters, historic furniture, rare books, hunting trophies such as stuffed lions, an embroidered silk screen from the boudoir of Marie Antionette ...

"Absolutely everything in the house is original, and everything has a story behind it," Amanda Waterford tells me as we take afternoon tea in the elaborately decorated neo-classical dining room.

Lord and Lady Waterford opened the estate to visitors four years ago - for the first time in 800 years. Today visitors can view the grand house brimming with treasures, and stroll around formal gardens, wander across Ireland's oldest bridge, built in 1205, and explore a shell grotto built in 1754.

After absorbing the sights of Ireland in comfort while indulged with splendid food and seamless service, it's a quiet group that arrives back at Dublin Heuston Station. Trouble is we don't want to disembark: we just want to discover more of fascinating Ireland while lapping up the luxury to which we've become accustomed.

Setting up for another incredible dinner. Photo: Belmond

Setting up for another incredible dinner. Photo: Belmond

IF YOU GO...

Belmond Grand Hibernian Ireland's season runs between April and October. Prices start from 3000 Euros per person (around $4754) for an all-inclusive two-night journey. Check prices as currency fluctuates - www.belmond.com

Rooms at the Merrion Hotel Dublin start from around $485 per double per night - www.lhw.com

Sandy Guy was a guest of Belmond

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