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April and John's wedding at Muckross Park Hotel, Killarney, Co. Kerry

A Winter Honeymoon

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April and John's wedding at Muckross Park Hotel, Killarney, Co. Kerry

The decision to honeymoon in Ireland in December was a risky one. Ireland is known for its erratic and cantankerous weather so the decision to spend a week driving from the bottom of the country to the top and back again was one we hoped wouldn’t require divorce papers before our marriage even got a chance to take off. 

Our honeymoon kicked off in the Belfry suite of the Muckross Park Hotel, Killarney. The hotel,  one of the oldest in County Kerry, is located on 25,000 acres of magnificent mountains, lakes and streams, and is the ideal romantic setting. It was part of the original Muckross House Estate owned by the Herbert family, who were in such good social standing that they enjoyed a visit from Queen Victoria in 1861. The hotel complex is home to the  G.B. Shaw Restaurant, named in tribute to the playwright who spent the summer of 1923 here, writing Pygmalion (the play that became My Fair Lady).  It is also features Kerry’s famous Molly Darcy’s Traditional Irish Pub & Restaurant, where lunch, followed by a late night of beverages with friends, provided the perfect start to our honeymoon.

Our next stop was The Hotel Europe and Resort, which offers breathtaking views of  the Lakes of Killarney. A multi-million-dollar renovation has brought Hotel Europe to a level that few hotels in Ireland can compete with. We were shown to our suite by a fine gentleman named Patraig and took a few minutes to revel in the fine linens and magnificent view of the lakes  before exploring the hotel. The lobby has massive floor to ceiling windows and a fireplace in the center where we sat and enjoyed a drink. 

The following morning, my 31st birthday, John breakfasted in bed, while I got pampered in the spa.

Una, the masseuse, welcomed me with warm towels and then soothingly transported me into another world.

An hour or so later, I had to be pried from the relaxation lounge with its views of the lakes as John had our bags packed  ready for our journey up the country.

Let the road trip begin.

 After a quick trip to Killarney town for a spot of unnecessary shopping, we settled into our midsize Ford Focus car (rented from Dooley Car Rental at Shannon Airport) for a two-hour trip to County Clare. 

I had heard about Americans spending endless weeks exploring Ireland’s castles so a stay at Dromoland Castle was a must on my birthday night.

A lovely drive up through Kerry and Limerick brought us to one of the most famous baronial castles in Ireland – the seat of the O’Briens, direct descendants of Brian Boru, and resident here until 1962, when financial difficulties forced the 16th Baron to sell to Bernard McDonagh of West Virginia who converted the castle and grounds into a luxury hotel and resort.

Some of the world’s most famous people have stayed here, including President George W. Bush who spent a night here in 2004 while he attended the EU- US summit held on the grounds.

We received a warm Irish failte from a receptionist named Catherine who urged us to “Take a stroll in the gardens tomorrow; ye will love them and dinner in the dining room is a must.” We took her advice in due time, but first the bedroom.

We were soon standing on plush carpet in one of the castle’s finest suites where, after taking off my five-inch heels (a gal has to look her best in these castles),  I was tempted to dive straight into a box of chocolates, courtesy of the management. John reminded me that we had dinner reservations at the quaint Earl of Thomond restaurant. We opted for the romance of having our steak in front of a roaring fire in the gallery section of the castle instead. Seated underneath portraits of former Ladies and Lords of Dromoland, we felt privileged to be spending a night under the same roof that these historical figures had once called home.

We took an after-dinner stroll around the castle before returning to our suite where we made full use of the oversized sofa to watch a late movie.

An early wake-up call and a light breakfast and we were on our way again. The weather cleared up nicely the farther northwest we went, and we soon arrived at our next port of call – the uber-trendy G Hotel in Galway City.

Designed by Philip Treacy, Galway native and world famous hatter (think Camilla’s wedding hat), the G exudes glamour. The lobby evokes old-fashioned Hollywood allure while the reception area is brought to life by an enormous fish tank full of Connemara-bred seahorses. (I was quick to remind John that it’s the male seahorse who gives birth!

The ground floor of the G is home to three lounges, each with its own individual style. I was much taken with the bold theme of the Grand Salon, the gentlemanly Blue Salon, and my favorite, the Pink Salon with its fabulous art and an oversized 1950s-inspired rug.

I longed to linger in the lounges where people laughed, drank and some sang (a group of girls on a bachelorette party),  but my husband was eager to get to the bedroom where a gas fire glowing beneath a large plasma television set the scene nicely. The views of both Galway Bay and the city skyline, and the luxurious bathroom, with its double walk-in shower, freestanding egg-shaped bath, double hand basins and another flatscreen TV, added to the romance.

We spent the  better part of the next day enjoying the shops, a nice long walk along the promenade in Salthill and a feed of Galway’s finest cod and chips served in newspaper, and all too soon, we were back in our car and headed deeper into the northwest. Our next destination – Ashford Castle.

Ashford, nestled in the heart of County Mayo, is surrounded by gardens and forests and accessed by an authentic drawbridge that pulls you back into the 1200s when the castle was built. It was here, and in the nearby village of Cong, that the John Ford classic The Quiet Man (1951) starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, was filmed. The setting and grounds are absolutely breathtaking. After lingering in our room, which overlooked the gardens and lakes and exuded romance, we took a drive down to Cong. It was worth the trip on a cold December’s evening. Quaint shops and restaurants hug the main street and locals are ever so friendly. We had dinner in a local restaurant, a lovely conversation with a couple from Virginia, and to round out the evening, back in the hotel, we sat with a house bottle of wine and laughed and wept through a screening of The Quiet Man.

Up bright and early the next morning we were all set for our first lesson in Falconry. James, a fine English gentleman, took me under his wing (pardon the pun) and introduced me to Guirre, an eight-month-old Harris hawk. 

Guirre and I saw eye-to-eye immediately. He perched on my left arm, and within minutes he and I were setting off through the magnificent woodlands to a clearing where I released him to fly free. He soared gracefully, wings and feathers spread out, circled around and returned to perch once again on my arm. Beautiful.

Too soon, it was time to say goodbye to Ashford and Guirre and settle into the three-hour journey to Donegal.

The sun shone brightly on sparkling seas as we drove through small coastal towns, catching sight of parents and children strolling on beaches and elderly Irish folks taking dogs for walks and sipping tea at the side of the road as they embraced the winter sunshine, albeit wrapped up in woolly scarfs and hats.

By the time we arrived at our destination, dusk was falling and the shifting colors made the drive up to Lough Solis Eske Castle, just outside Donegal town, a rare treat.

An oversized four-poster bed, an elegant fireplace (original to the castle) and complimentary desserts provided a wonderful welcome after our long drive. After an exploring walk through the hotel, which oozes classic chic and sophistication throughout, we decided to visit Donegal town – a nifty place adorned with Christmas lights, restaurants, shops and bars. We ate at a place recommended to us by the hotel staff, then drove to Killybegs to visit friends. Elaine Boyle and her husband Dermot showed us around the small village, one of the few coastal towns in Ireland that has an abundance of fresh fish available on a daily basis.  Trawlers lined the marina and fishermen, settling down after a hard day’s work, ate heartily. It was a pleasure to be part of this hardworking community on our last evening in the West country.

After a hearty breakfast the following morning, we were back on the road headed towards the nation’s capital.

A late afternoon check-in at the Merrion Hotel in Dublin was welcome after the long journey from Donegal. Staff at the reception desk exuded professionalism and hospitality, and from the moment we arrived, the hotel felt like home.

There was an infectious buzz about the place. Women, men and children sat around tables full of pastries and tea in the dining rooms. I asked the hotel concierge if this was the norm for a Saturday afternoon. She happily informed me that it was the norm almost every day. 

We settled into our oversized suite and decided on room service. I ordered what the hotel calls Art Tea, the most lavish afternoon tea on the menu. Not twenty minutes later we were sipping tea from our china cups and delving into slices of mini pastry creations inspired by works of Jack Yeats, Louis Le Brocquy,  William Scott and other artists whose works are hanging at the National Gallery of Ireland, right next door. The hotel encompasses four Georgian townhouses and a contemporary Garden Wing, and is perfectly situated in the heart of the city. We booked in for two nights so as to experience the full array of Dublin’s sights, shops, restaurants and bars.

We included a trip to the Christmas markets on the Dublin docks, dinner with our groomsman Eoin Markham, and a few social drinks in Dublin’s bustling Temple Bar district, but the best part was returning to our suite, which overlooked the hotel’s period gardens. The interior design and use of Irish fabrics and antiques reflected the architecture of the 18th-century townhouse. It was the perfect sanctuary.

After a late check-out from the Merrion, John and I hit the road south for the final night of our perfect honeymoon.

Set amidst one of the most scenic and historic estates in all of Ireland, the seven-story Powerscourt Hotel is a little over two years old, yet feels like it was always tucked away on this 1,000-acre sprawling estate in County Wicklow. Aside from endless green hills and dazzling lakes and breathtaking views, Powerscourt is also home to the two championship-caliber golf course and a luxury spa.

Our room, one of the most luxurious of our honeymoon, upped the game of romance with extras such as a recessed television in the bathroom mirror, electronic fingertip panels for controlling the lighting and curtains, and a rainforest shower.

A romantic dinner in the highly acclaimed Gordon Ramsay restaurant, with its floor to ceiling glass walls and view of the Sugar Loaf Mountains, proved the perfect close to our winter honeymoon in Ireland.

We vowed to return to the hotel for our first anniversary and made inquiries about reservations.

Like everything great, an ending is a must but it’s with joy and pleasure that John and I look back on our Irish honeymoon. We will cherish forever the memories we created that week in Ireland.

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