Hawks, castles and Michelin-starred restaurants: A luxurious way to tour Ireland

Cliffs of Moher: The wind at Ireland's second-most visited attraction can "take out an eye", say the locals.
Sharon Stephenson
Cliffs of Moher: The wind at Ireland's second-most visited attraction can "take out an eye", say the locals.

Here's what you think when an enormous Harris's Hawk is hurtling towards your head at 200km an hour:

a) I'm going to die 

b) I hope it's quick and painless 

c) I should have been nicer to my mother.

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Live out your Downton Abbey fantasies at the sprawling 350 acre Ashford Castle in County Mayo.
Luxury Gold
Live out your Downton Abbey fantasies at the sprawling 350 acre Ashford Castle in County Mayo.

As my heart makes a dash for my mouth, I turn away.  But instead of the anticipated carnage, there's a slight bump and Joyce, the six-year-old hawk, lands on my outstretched arm, her killer talons curling around my thick black glove.   

She gives me a withering stare (or is that just how all falcons look?), as if to say "I know how to use the brakes, silly", before gobbling the decapitated mouse in my hand.  

It's day 11 of our 12-day Luxury Gold Ultimate Ireland road-trip and we're scratching every bird of prey itch we've ever had (and those we didn't know we had) at Ashford Castle, a streak of green that wiggles between two lakes – Lough Mask and Ireland's biggest lake Lough Corrib. It's our home for two glorious nights and while it's fun eyeballing falcons and walking the two resident Irish wolfhounds (so big I could ride them like a horse), I'm keen to get back to the castle so I can live out my Downton Abbey fantasies.

Think fairytale spires, turrets and moats, in the kind of grounds you come to Ireland for – ancient stone walls, hedgerows and gardens sculpted to within an inch of their lives. Inside, it's the travel equivalent of winning Lotto: 83 glorious rooms chocka with antiques and art, designed for someone far more important than me (and richer: staying here ain't cheap but it sends your smug-o-meter into the stratosphere). There are fancy restaurants, a 32-seat cinema, gym, pool and a daily high tea that features every calorific treat bakers have ever dreamed up.    

She might hurtle through the air at 200km an hour, but Joyce, the Harris's Hawk, lands gently.
Sharon Stephenson
She might hurtle through the air at 200km an hour, but Joyce, the Harris's Hawk, lands gently.

Ireland's top luxury resort is also no slacker when it comes to an interesting backstory: built in 1228, Ashford Castle has been home to aristocrats for centuries, including the Guinness beer clan, who whacked on a number of extensions and turned it into a hunting lodge. It became a five-star hotel in 1939 and, since then, has hosted everyone from Oscar Wilde and Princess Grace of Monaco to Brad Pitt and Pierce Brosnan (who got married here). 

It's a long way from gritty Belfast, where we start our road-trip in the kind of misty rain that makes an appearance at least once a day. But as our Tour Concierge Siobhan points out, without it, Ireland "wouldn't have 50 shades of green or so many reasons to spend time in a pub".

In Belfast, you can divide almost everything into "before" and "after" the Troubles: from the '60s-'90s, there were bombs, bloodshed and steel gates that effectively locked off the city centre at night. But  thanks to The Good Friday Agreement which ended the sectarian violence, plus a little TV show called Game of Thrones that was filmed here, Northern Ireland's capital is booming.   

The last time I was in town, they were still building Titanic Belfast, the waterfront museum that tells the story of the so called "unsinkable" ship ("She was fine when she left us," laughs Siobhan). So I'm like an over-sugared toddler at the multi-level interactive museum that occupies the exact spot where the Titanic was built. Tip: If you're not a fan of that Celine Dion song, you may wish to look away a few times.     

Tucked into one corner of Ashford Castle is one of Ireland's oldest and most respected schools of falconry.
Luxury Gold
Tucked into one corner of Ashford Castle is one of Ireland's oldest and most respected schools of falconry.

It's an hour's drive to the wind-scoured Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland's only UNESCO World Heritage Site, where an ancient volcanic eruption formed thousands of interlocking columns that look like stepping stones for giants. Naturally, there's a story about an Irish giant named Finn McCool, but it's so cold I can't take any notes. What I can tell you is that the visitor's centre serves a cracking hot chocolate that will restore feeling to your fingers.     

Thankfully, the mercury has come out of hiding by the time we get to Derry, or Londonderry, depending on which side of the political divide you're on. Our local guide Ronan ("The only half- Japanese, half-Irish man in Derry") takes us on a fascinating tour of the city's historic walled city, the last one left fully intact in Ireland. 

"Complicated" is the word we hear often here: of the history of hate, violence and bloodshed that's still evident in the politically-charged murals covering entire walls. 

So I almost expect a side-eye when I ask Ronan about the Derry Girls mural. Instead, he leads me to a quiet lane behind Marks & Spencer where, smiling from the wall of a pub, are the stars of Derry Girls, Netflix's comedy about teenagers growing up in the city in the '90s. "It's nice to be known for comedy rather than war," laughs Ronan.

Channel 4
Netflix's comedy has shed new light on life in Northern Ireland in the 1990s.

There's a minor panic when we sweep into the Republic of Ireland and the Americans on the bus think they'll need their passports. Instead, the only indication we've changed jurisdictions is a warning that the speed limit is about to switch from kilometres to miles. "That could change after Brexit," warns Siobhan.   

We arrive to a Dublin in the grip of Gaelic football fever, with the All-Ireland final being played at nearby Croke Park. We can't move for fans, so when the wave of blue and green makes its way to the game, we nip into the Guinness Storehouse for a tour of brewery that's been churning out "Irish champagne" since 1759 (I'm not a beer drinker, but Guinness tastes so much better in Ireland because you're in Ireland, sort of how a Corona tastes better when you're drinking it on a beach in Mexico).    

If, like us, your time is limited, a must-see is the Little Museum of Dublin, a quirky, homey museum carved into the shell of a 16th Century house. Telling the history of Dublin through the lives of its residents, its treasures include an early edition of James Joyce's Ulysses, U2 memorabilia and signed pictures of Sinead O'Connor and Brendan O'Carroll (of Mrs Brown's Boys fame). Plus, the nicest museum staff I've ever met.

At Blarney Castle, I'm put off kissing the famous stone by the long queue and a desire not to go where so many have gone before. "Can you imagine how many people have deposited their saliva on that stone," jokes a fellow passenger. He's a retired physician, so I figure he knows what he's talking about.

There are many political murals in Derry/Londonderry, but the most recent mural, of the stars of Netflix's comedy Derry Girls, is one of the most popular.
Sharon Stephenson
There are many political murals in Derry/Londonderry, but the most recent mural, of the stars of Netflix's comedy Derry Girls, is one of the most popular.

We travel the Ring of Kerry, the ridiculously scenic route that throws a 179km lasso around ancient monuments, world heritage sites, castles, villages and Stone-age forts (plus Star Wars filming locations). Sadly, we're a few towns removed from where the world turnip race championships are taking place, but we strike gold at tiny Lisdoonvarna, where the annual matchmaking festival is in full swing. Forget Tinder, the town's population of 739 swells to more than 60,000 each September as folk from all over the world come looking for love (and to drink a lot of a Guinness). Legend has it that if you touch the matchmaking book with both hands, you'll be married within six months. 

But I'm already married and we want to beat the crowds to the Cliffs of Moher, Ireland's second most visited attraction after the Guinness Storehouse. Before they were the Cliffs of Insanity in The Princess Bride, before they were a backdrop to Game of Thrones and before millions of selfie-stick wielding tourists swarmed over them, the cliffs that rise 200m above the raw, churning Atlantic were home to people as far back as 2000 years ago. 

It's a place of barren beauty, where trees grow horizontally and locals warn the wind can "take out an eye". But there's something so edge-of-the-world about it, so wild and rugged, so quintessentially Irish, that I almost expect leprechauns eating soda bread and singing Van Morrison songs to appear.

Before I did this spin around Ireland, I knew it for its craic, its cosy pubs and potatoes, so many potatoes. Now I will remember it for castles and hawks, for Michelin-starred restaurants and for an exceptionally beautiful land that over delivers on every score.     

 

The writer was a guest of Luxury Gold's 12 day Ultimate Ireland journey. Now priced from $8438 per person, including a 10 per cent saving until December 18 2019, this journey includes Michelin starred restaurants, luxury coach transportation, the services of a travelling concierge and luxury boutique accommodation, such as the magnificent Ashford Castle on a 350-acre estate in the countryside. See your travel agent, call 0800 56 769 or visit luxurygold.com

A return trip for one passenger in economy class flying from Auckland to Belfast would generate 2.8 tonnes CO2. To offset your carbon emissions head to airnewzealand.co.nz/sustainability-customer-carbon-offset.  

 

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