By Ireland specialist Jackie
Yes, a luxury visit to Ireland is all about staying in a castle or manor hotel — I won’t disagree. But, I think Ireland’s greatest treasure is its people, and the best way to indulge in a trip is to make as many personal connections as possible. You could get a behind-the-scenes peek at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral with a verger. At Kilkenny Castle, take a private tour with Frank, the only guide who’s allowed to give them. Or, let one of our expert private driver-guides give you an insider’s look at the country they love. Here, I suggest the country’s best private tours and the most luxurious hotels, which you can visit on this 8-day itinerary.
A private driver-guide: the ultimate luxury
We can’t imagine going back to Ireland with anyone but Jim.
This was the first thing I heard from two sisters who’d just come back from tracing their roots in Ireland on a trip I’d arranged for them. I’d paired them up with a driver-guide named Jim, and they’d spent their time being regaled with stories that brought their travels to life. Though they’d visited many sites important to their family’s history, it was Jim’s bonhomie that they remembered most.
That’s the sort of attention to detail that you can expect with a private driver-guide — a local who’s knowledgeable about not only the country, but also about your particular interests, whether that’s architecture, ancient relics, cooking or history. A guide can stay with you throughout the trip, from arrival to departure, and handles all the logistics, making the trip utterly effortless. And, they do all of the driving, no small feat on narrow, country lanes.
Our guides are more than just well-informed, though. They’re gregarious raconteurs, charming and chatty folk who can spin a story as well as suggest a great pub (which just happens to have great gluten-free options). A guide during your trip can become a friend who you stay in touch with long after you land home.
Vergers and views: behind-the-scenes in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral
The spiritual heart of Dublin, Saint Patrick’s is one of the most important religious sites in Ireland. Saint Patrick is thought to have inducted the Celtic clan chiefs into the Catholic Church here. As such, the cathedral is a popular spot and the crowds can get thick in the public areas.
That’s why I suggest a behind-the-scenes tour of Saint Patrick’s with one of the cathedral’s caretakers. Known in the church as vergers, they can lead you on a tour to the private spaces that few ever get to glimpse, much less climb into. They’ll also tell you about the cathedral’s long history, from its origins as a holy site in the 5th century to the ignominious era when Oliver Cromwell stabled his army’s horses there.
For me, the highlight of the tour came at the very end. I followed the verger up a tight spiral stair, its steps worn smooth by centuries of use. He unlocked a secret door above the nave, and suddenly I was close enough to the stained-glass windows to have touched them. We explored the bell tower before he opened another door and stepped out onto the roof. Following his lead, I was treated to a bird’s-eye view of the city, including the tidy green park that sits right next door.
A different perspective: private boat tour of the Cliffs of Moher
Weathered by waves and wind, the Cliffs of Moher plunge straight down from the headland in a nearly vertical line. The water-worn cliff face, which undulates along the shoreline for 8 km (5 miles), is one of Ireland’s most popular attractions. Visitors come from around the world to stand at its edge.
Sadly, the number of visitors has begun to detract from the experience. It can be hard to admire the scale of the cliffs when you’re trapped in a traffic jam or jostled by crowds. That’s why I suggest taking a private boat tour of the Cliffs of Moher.
You board the boat from a pier in the tiny fishing village of Doolin and cruise past the Aran Islands on your way to the cliffs themselves. Standing on the rocking deck of the boat and craning your neck as you stare up at the stone face of the cliffs is a very difference experience than tamely glancing over the edge. For me, it was much easier to get a sense of their enormity and the great power of the ocean that has eroded away the very bedrock itself.
This is also the only way to get close to the rock shelves and sea caves that shelter vast nesting colonies of puffins, guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes, as well as peregrine falcons.
Luxury hotels in Ireland
Located on the shores of Lough Corrib, an hour north of Galway, Ashford Castle dates back more than 800 years. Even the trip down the long lane between the gate and the front door can feel like a step back in time.
The rooms and suites here boast an old-fashioned elegance, with four-poster beds, satin and velvet upholstery and floral wallpaper.
Like many castle-hotels, Ashford offers you a wide range of activities on its sprawling, well-manicured grounds. Choose from golf, tennis, archery and falconry lessons, or horse riding.
Whether you’re an experienced angler or it’s your first time fishing, the castle’s ghillie, Frank, can take you out to catch brown trout, salmon or pike, either on the lake or the River Cong. He’s also happy to take you out on his handmade boat.
An hour west of Ashford, nearer the Atlantic, Ballynahinch Castle stands on the Wild Atlantic Way, conveniently placed for exploring Connemara National Park and the coast. But, the castle’s sprawling grounds offer so many diversions that you could also spend several days here, exploring, fishing or simply relaxing by the fire in front of one of the many enormous fireplaces.
The first thing you see on walking into Ballynahinch is a doorstop of a guestbook that dates back to the 1800s, when the castle was a coaching inn for local fishermen, who wrote down their initials and their catch. The book only records some of the castle’s long history, though. Ballynahinch was once the home of pirate queen Grace O’Malley, as well as the Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanager, also known as Ranji, Prince of Cricketers.
All of the rooms offer views over either the River Owenmore, the surrounding woodland or the Twelve Bens mountain range. You have several dining options, including the elegant Owenmore Restaurant and the clubby, casual Fisherman’s Pub and Ranji Room.
I highly recommend making time for afternoon tea, which features local produce and a house blend of black tea and foraged herbs from the mountain slopes, including juniper berries and oat straw.
Adare Manor is a ‘calendar house,’ with 365 windows, 52 chimneys and four towers, marking a year’s worth of days, weeks, and seasons. Renovations have been done with a light touch, and though the rooms have every modern convenience, the decor never sacrifices the castle’s sense of history or exuberant style. You’ll find Gothic arches and red velvet chairs in the lobby, preserved mahogany woodwork in the Gallery restaurant and a walled garden on the grounds.
The menu of activities here includes not just fishing, falconry and archery, but also guided historical and woodland walks by the resident expert, game and clay shooting, and a chance to work with highly trained gundogs. There’s also a state-of-the-art spa.
The manor sits at the edge of the village of Adare, often featuring in lists of Ireland’s prettiest villages. Its line of white thatched-roof cottages was for the workers who constructed the manor. Today, the buildings house a series of craft shops, lively pubs and farm-to-table restaurants.
The manor was built in Georgian times, which you can see reflected in the generous proportions of the rooms and the refined decor. Throughout the hotel, in the lobby and the rooms, the cream walls are embossed with delicate, cameo-like raised plasterwork, as well as period furniture and subtle floral motifs.
The hotel’s restaurant, the Lady Helen, boasts both a view over the River Nore and a Michelin star. Like many other Irish chefs, Ken Harker has built a menu that features farm-to-table cuisine using local produce, including harvests from the hotel’s kitchen garden, herb garden and farm.
Nearby, Kilkenny Castle is a classic example of the Anglo-Norman style, with a plain stone face and round, stalwart towers on the corners. If you’d like a personal tour, we can arrange for you to visit with Frank, the only guide who’s allowed to lead private tours at the castle. He worked as a public guide for more than 40 years and also leads tours of the town. Frank is something of a local celebrity, and as you walk down the street, you’ll be greeted by almost everyone you see.