IRT Society guests gather for dinner in the “Wexford” dining car, whose tables are arranged for six, allowing for wonderful socializing. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy
With bagpipes peeling and young Irish dancers snapping out lively rhythms, members of The Society of International Railway Travelers® christened Ireland’s first luxury train, the Belmond Grand Hibernian. Our tour ran Aug. 30 – Sept. 5.
We were thrilled to be the first official group on board and to experience the beautiful train —shining navy and chrome outside and muted greys, greens, buff and rose inside.
Such was the beauty, elegance and spirit of the fledgling train and its staff — not to mention Ireland itself —that we were proud to announce on board its new status as one of our “World’s Top 25 Trains®”
While not perfect, the Belmond Grand Hibernian seems to be clearly aiming for the stars.
We have no doubt it soon will shine as brightly as the other luxury trains in Belmond’s firmament (the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, Belmond Royal Scotsman, Eastern & Oriental Express and Peru’s Belmond Hiram Bingham, to name a few).
The IRT Society chartered the entire Belmond Grand Hibernian — a first in our company’s 33-year history. Our itinerary was the seven-day “Grand Tour of Ireland.”
The result was a rolling, rollicking party among friends old and new. From breakfast in the two beautiful diners through days of touring Ireland’s iconic sites to live music or storytelling nightly in the bar car, the merriment seldom flagged.
Belmond Grand Hibernian staff Mark O’Doherty and Stevie Devine ham it up for a photographer on the Belmond Grand Hibernian. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy
We enjoyed sumptuous meals: delicious appetizers, inventive main courses—the freshest seafood, for example—with tasty, freshly baked breads and wonderful desserts — all locally sourced and prepared on board.
Chef Alan Woods outdid himself. Previously head chef at the Michelin-starred Thorton’s in Dublin, he showcased the very best and freshest Irish ingredients.
Tea time aboard the Belmond Grand Hibernian. All food is locally sourced and prepared fresh on board. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy
Dishes included roast Killarney venison loin, fresh seafood from the Beara Peninsula, Donegal turf-smoked salmon and traditional seafood chowder. All were spectacular. And with drinks included in the fare, we put a serious dent in the bar car’s stock as well.
We visited such landmarks as Blarney and Ashford Castles and Connemara National Park. We tried our hands at falconry, tasted triple-pot distilled whiskys at the Jameson works, enjoyed afternoon tea with Lord and Lady Waterford — and toured the famous crystal workshop that bears their name.
We visited the amazing Titanic Experience in Belfast. Almost all these visits were exquisitely arranged — and often private or after-hours.
IRT travelers (at left) Maria Vera Rossell and Jose Becerra Martin, and (at right) Orlando Herrera, enjoy a “jaunting cart” ride through Connemara National Park to the Lakes of Killarney. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy
Most special of all, though, was our time aboard the Belmond Grand Hibernian itself.
The train truly is an “Irish country house on wheels.” The stylish Belmond Grand Hibernian, with its navy blue and chrome livery, and its friendly, eager-to-please, youthful staff shared the spotlight for “best in show” on this trip.
“You can teach people to do tasks,” said J.P. Kavanaugh, Belmond Grand Hibernian General Manager. “But you can’t teach attitude.” And an upbeat, can-do, super-friendly attitude was what they delivered.
Belmond Grand Hibernian Second Chef Ursula Fischer poses behind bread and pastries just out of the on-board ovens. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy
To be sure, the maiden run of anything as unusual as a privately owned, five-star hotel on wheels is going to have glitches. That’s especially true on government-owned tracks and under the supervision of a publicly operated railway.
For the Belmond Grand Hibernian, they ranged from the most serious — a carriage door, which temporarily malfunctioned — to occasional tardiness filling breakfast orders and coffee cups or a trashcan not being emptied.
IRT traveler John Cordukes prepares to “launch” his “falcon” (actually, a Harris hawk) during a “Hawk Walk” sponsored by the Irish School of Falconry at the Ashford Castle. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy
But overall, the trip ran quite smoothly, both on train and off. (The carriage door malfunction meant that the train could not travel, as planned, to Belfast. We did that by motorcoach.)
And in the “off-train” category, we need to single out our indefatigable, silken-voiced guide, Marie Fitzpatrick. She was all the things you hope for in a person you’ve entrusted to spend a week telling you where to go and what to see.
As our first-ever train charter, the IRT Society had plenty riding on this trip. Our sold-out Belmond Grand Hibernian (capacity: 40 passengers in 20 luxury cabins) was the result.
Wearing her evening uniform, a Belmond Grand Hibernian staff member tidies up in dining car “Wexford.” The train’s cars are named after Ireland’s counties. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy
And how certain are we that the Belmond Grand Hibernian has a brilliant future?
Just this: I traveled on it Aug. 29 on a pre-tour “test drive,” after which I immediately requested a charter for 2017. I know it will be that popular — and that space will be hard to get.
Our Belmond Grand Hibernian departure for next year will be Aug. 29-Sept. 4, 2017. Click here for more information.
• • •
Once the Belmond Grand Hibernian returned to Dublin’s Heuston Station, we said our fond goodbyes. Then a group of nine IRT travelers continued the party with a visit to, among other places, a jaw-dropping country estate known as Ballyfin.
IRT President Eleanor Hardy plays “Downton Abbey” while breakfasting at the Irish country estate turned resort, Ballyfin. Behind her are other IRT guests. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy
If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey, and you want to get as close as possible to living the life of a titled gentleman or lady, Ballyfin is the place to indulge your fantasy.
Our post-tour itinerary included a visit to Birr Castle, built in the 1620s and ancestral home to the Seventh Earl of Rosse, Brendan Parsons.
Lord and Lady Rosse hosted our group for a private luncheon, a tour of the castle, and a stroll through the magnificent grounds (including a look at the gigantic telescope “Leviathan,” constructed by an ancestor in the 1840s and the world’s largest until 1914.)
IRT post-tour group members pose with Brendan Parsons, Seventh Earl of Rosse, in front of Birr Castle, constructed by an ancestor in the 1620s. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy
Again, for more info on our Belmond Grand Hibernian charter next year, as well as pre- and post-tour itineraries, please click here or call (800) 478-4881; (502) 897-1725. (We have already booked 10 rooms at Ballyfin. Please let us know if you would like to be among the lucky ones to stay here.)
• • •
After we bade farewell to our Ballyfin friends, Eleanor and I spent two nights trying out the Sheen Falls Lodge, a Virtuoso hotel and Relais & Chateau property in Kenmare, County Kerry.
The view from the balcony of our suite at Sheen Falls Lodge, Kenmare, County Kerry. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy
We highly recommend it for its obvious pleasures: the cozy fires in the many fireplaces, the roaring waterfall in full view from our fantastic suite, and the lovely candlelit dining.
But its staff also was vital for their expert advice: dining at Kenmare’s incredible new restaurant, the Mews, and hiking at Gleninchaquin, a working sheep farm with magnificent views, waterfalls and people (don’t leave before enjoying Pete’s homemade scones and conversation at the tea house.).
View of the ever-changing Irish countryside on an Irish Rail train bound for Dublin. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy
The Sheen Falls folks also helped us plan our Irish Rail transportation.
We rode Irish Rail for the post-Ballyfin leg of our trip. I’m happy to report the experience — while not the Belmond Grand Hibernian — was relaxing and pleasant. We enjoyed it thoroughly — punctual and clean, with pleasant food service from the trolley.
• • •
We’d be remiss if we did not report on our warm welcome to Ireland at the fabulous Virtuoso hotel, The Merrion, in Dublin. It was all we hoped it would be—and more.
Dublin’s Marrion Hotel. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy
Historic, gorgeous, fantastic dining and great service—spectacular afternoon tea. Our welcome cocktail party here in the historic Wellington Room was one of the best ever, our guests proclaimed.
Suffice it to say that we will recommend The Merrion to all of our Belmond Grand Hibernian guests.