By Joan Scobey
Wildly different vacations are no stranger to family holiday planning, and my friends Ann and Jerry are typical: She favors shopping, fine dining and local history; he loves sports, long walks and a cozy corner for a good read. She likes the tempo of a city, he the quiet of the country. Last year they combined a fine city-country duet in England; this year Ireland caught their eye because 2013 celebrates The Gathering, a yearlong festival of all things Irish — music, dance, food and fun. Neither of them is Irish, they just love the irrepressible Celtic spirit.
With the luck of the Irish, however, they found two world-class hotels that have teamed up for a town-and-country holiday: The Merrion, a restored 18th-century gem in the heart of Georgian Dublin, and Ashford Castle, an aristocratic 350-acre country estate in western Ireland.
For a sense of Irish history, I suggested they start in Dublin, where The Merrion is a window into its Georgian world. Four splendidly restored 18th-century townhouses form the Main House, with the most elegant of the 142 rooms and suites, as well as the high-ceilinged, art- and antique-filled drawing rooms. The rest of the bedrooms occupy a handsome contemporary Garden Wing overlooking landscaped plantings and patios.
The hotel is only steps from Merrion Square, a grand park surrounded by typical Georgian mansions with traditional fanlights over brightly colored doors. Blue plaques identify many of the literati who lived there: Oscar Wilde at No. 1, William Butler Yeats at No. 82 and George Russell at No. 84.
To get a feel for the city, I thought they should book one of Pat Liddy's daily afternoon Walking Tours of Dublin. This delightful historian takes visitors on an informative ramble through the city's historical highlights — from its medieval beginnings, Georgian flowering, serious whiskey heritage (Guinness and Old Jameson) and more, to its current hip playgrounds — accompanied by amusing tales of Dublin's colorful writers and politicians. They might want to return to several stops, especially Trinity College's Old Library to see Ireland's glorious national treasure, the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the four New Testament Gospels created by monks around 800.
Dublin has several notable museums, but one unusual way to savor Irish art is at The Merrion's signature Art Tea. The hotel owns a noteworthy collection of contemporary Irish art, one of the largest and most important in the country, which hangs throughout the public rooms and its two restaurants. Every afternoon between 3 and 6 p.m. an Art Tea is served in the Drawing Rooms. They start with sandwiches, scones and cakes on a three-tiered server and end with a trio of pastries, each inspired by one of the hotel's works of art, presented with miniature illustrations of those inspirations on tiny easels. The pastry chefs have created nine desserts drawn from the colors and forms of the original art, of which they serve three each day.
No one is likely to be hungry after this tea, so the next stop might be O'Donoghue's, a traditional Irish pub around the corner at 15 Merrion Row. In the 1960s and '70s it was often frequented by the famous Irish folk band The Dubliners; these days any time after 7 p.m. a lively group of local musicians, pints of Guinness at hand, enthusiastically play their fiddles and whistles.
Before leaving Dublin I told them it would be a good idea to splurge at Patrick Guilbaud, Ireland's only two-star Michelin restaurant, conveniently located in The Merrion. The vaunted chef's style is modern French and the ingredients proudly Irish, as in Connemara lobster and Wicklow lamb.
It's barely a three-hour drive to Ashford Castle, to the low green landscape of the West Country north of Galway, where the hotel sits at the head of Lough Corrib, Ireland's second largest lake.
The small village of Cong would look familiar as they drove through it and up the mile-long driveway to Ashford's impressive turrets, towers and battlements because it starred as the fictional village of Innisfree in the popular movie "The Quiet Man," much of which was filmed on the Ashford estate. Its stars, John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, launched a continuing parade of notable guests, from royals and presidents to showbiz celebrities.
Everything about Ashford is simultaneously intimate and manorial. The public rooms are baronial yet welcoming, with carved oak paneling, coffered ceilings, Waterford crystal chandeliers and museum-quality antiques. Of the hotel's 83 bedrooms, those in the original castle have four-poster beds, water views, and bathrooms often with claw-footed tubs and fireplaces. Those in the new wing are contemporary, with marble bathrooms. All offer a decanter of Irish liqueur on the night table.
Built as a stronghold in the 13th century, Ashford grew into a high-end resort under successive owners, including the Guinness brewing clan. Now its 350 wooded acres support an equestrian center, the country's first school of falconry, hiking and jogging trails, clay shooting and archery, and a nine-hole golf course.
So how did this Irish vacation double-feature work out? In Dublin, Jerry jogged every morning in Merrion Square while Ann browsed the Temple Bar galleries and Grafton Street area shops. At Ashford, she was buffed and contoured with regenerating Yon-Ka spa treatments while he practiced fly-fishing and the ancient art of falconry; together they cruised the Lough and dined each evening in the George V Room on the locally sourced international cuisine of acclaimed chef Stefan Matz. Clearly, the city pubs and country pleasures charmed both of them. As the Irish would toast: "Slainte!"
WHEN YOU GO
At The Merrion in Upper Merrion Street, Dublin , double rooms start at $290, including taxes: www.merrionhotel.com.
At Ashford Castle, Cong, County Mayo, rooms are from $156 per person, double occupancy, including breakfast and taxes: www.ashford.ie.
Town and Country packages start at $3,826 per room, double occupancy, for six nights (three each at The Merrion and Ashford Castle) and include breakfast, airport and hotel transfers, massages, falconry or golf, and more.
Walking Tours of Dublin: www.walkingtours.ie
Joan Scobey is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.