Tag Archives: Ireland

Belmond Grand Hibernian Transports Guests Through Ireland, Land of Legends

13 Sep
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IRT Guests enjoy a jaunting cart ride, one of many excursions offered on Belmond Grand Hibernian journeys. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy.

Ever heard of Finn McCool?

How about the Salmon of Knowledge?

Neither had I — until I went to Ireland to ride the Belmond Grand Hibernian, Ireland’s only luxury train.

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Belmond Grand Hibernian’s lead bartender greets guests with champagne. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

The train’s gleaming blue and silver carriages, delightful staff and cozy interiors offer the perfect “magic carpet” ride through a fantastical land.

The excursions off the train are no less touched by fantasy.

When we arrived in Cork, for example, our guide greeted us with a cheerful “hallo,” and then launched into an evocative tale about the aforesaid Messrs. McCool and Salmon (of Knowledge).

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“Kindred Spirits,” the memorial to the Choctaw in County Cork. Photo by Gavin Sheridan. (no changes were made to image, link to license is https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Choctaw_Memorial.jpg)

She only paused in her myth-making to point out an interesting — albeit slightly incongruous — statue on the side of the road, comprising 20-foot steel feathers that form a bowl shape.

“The Choctaw Nation heard about our forebears’ plight during the Great Hunger of 1847,” she told us. “And they scraped together what little money they had, and sent it to us to feed our starving children.”

Unlike Finn McCool and his fish, the story of the Choctaw’s sacrifice is no fairytale. But I don’t think Ireland would be Ireland without a healthy mix of truth and make-believe.

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Belmond Grand Hibernian, now just finishing its third full season, has matured into an even more delightful experience than when it began operations three years ago.

One welcome tweak the tour operators have made is allowing guests to choose among different activities wherever possible. For instance, guests on the 7-day Grand Tour of Ireland can:

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Cobh, Ireland.

Visit the seaport of Cobh with a local historian, where millions of lives were permanently altered by the Atlantic crossing. Almost half of the 6 million Irish who emigrated to North America between 1848 and 1950 departed from this port.

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Ross Castle.

Explore Killarney National Park by jaunting cart and boat, where prophecy dictated that nearby Ross Castle was impregnable to outside forces unless a warship attacked from the lake — thought to be an impossible feat. Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads attacked just so in 1653 and took the castle, one of the last to fall in the Irish Confederate Wars.

(Another tidbit: Ross Castle’s first owner, O’Donoghue, is said to live at the bottom of the lake in a great palace, from where he keeps close tabs on the comings and goings of passerby.)

Witness a sheepdog demonstration in Galway and marvel at the shared language between man and beast, or explore the surreal Cliffs of Moher that soar 700 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.

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Westport House.

Visit Westport House, built on the foundations of the Pirate Queen of Connacht’s castle. The Queen’s dungeons can still be seen today.

Tour the Medieval Mile Museum in Kilkenny, heart of Ireland’s ancient East. The museum is housed in a 13th-century church and contains artifacts dating back 800 years.

*****

In sum, whether you’ve visited the Emerald Isle before or not, Belmond Grand Hibernian will open your eyes to Ireland in a whole new way. In addition to its thoughtfully-planned itineraries, it also earns high points for its dedicated staff, fabulous food, and luxuriously comfortable spaces.

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The author poses with Belmond Grand Hibernian. IRT Photo by Nate Kremer.

And what of Mr. McCool and his erudite fish?

Legend has it that, as a young boy, McCool was asked to cook the Salmon of Knowledge for his druid mentor, who had finally caught it after years of failed attempts.

McCool burned his thumb while cooking the fish, put his thumb in his mouth to cool the hurt, and inadvertently consumed a drop of the salmon’s oils, instantly becoming the wisest man in the world.

*****

Belmond Grand Hibernian runs April-October and offers the 3-day Taste of Ireland, the 5-day Legends and Loughs, and the 7-day Grand Tour of Ireland.

2020 departures are available and are selling briskly.

To book your own adventure on the Belmond Grand Hibernian, call us at (800) 478-4881 (+1 502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

 

Rachel M. Hardy is Vice President, Sales & Marketing, and Virtuoso luxury travel advisor for The Society of International Railway Travelers®. She specializes in luxury rail and adventure in Europe, South America, Africa (rail & safaris) and Canada.  She was the first advisor from the Americas invited to see the new Grand Suites on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Our agency is a proud member of Virtuoso and the exclusive Belmond Bellini Club. Rachel’s trip on Belmond Grand Hibernian was part of the Bravissimo celebratory journey hosted by Belmond, held every year in honor of the world’s top Belmond agencies.

Belmond Grand Hibernian Shines Brighter Than Ever

10 May
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Striking a pose outside the Belmond Grand Hibernian. IRT Photo by N. Kremer.

We step out of the car at Dublin Heuston Station and come face to face with a young man clad in a black leather kilt, a snare drum secured about his waist.

“Follow me!” he shouts, and we amiably fall in line, Pied Piper-style, marching behind our raucous host to the beat of his drum.

The train staff stands at attention, waiting to welcome us aboard with glasses of champagne. A festive red carpet beckons. Two more drummers join the first, adding to the volume, and our general excitement.

So begins our journey on the Belmond Grand Hibernian — a thrilling start to our elegant romp through the Emerald Isle.

 

It’s been almost three years since IRT chartered the inaugural departure of the Belmond Grand Hibernian, Ireland’s first and only luxury train.

So, when we were offered a spot on an exclusive Belmond study tour featuring the Belmond Grand Hibernian itself, we jumped at the chance to see how the train has since evolved.

I just returned from Ireland last week. My overall take?

Belmond Grand Hibernian is better than ever. The kinks our IRT group experienced on the train’s debut journey in August, 2016 (read IRT CEO & Founder Owen Hardy’s full report here and here) have long since been resolved.

The staff is now a well-oiled — and exceedingly hospitable — machine. Daineal (pronounced Doh-nal), the bar manager, is the consummate host, always ready with an expertly-poured drink and a witty aside.

“Welcome to Europe!” he cracked one evening, as he welcomed a Belfast-based musician on to the train who had traveled south to play for us.

The border between Northern Ireland (part of the United Kingdom) and the Republic of Ireland is no laughing matter to Irish folk of an older generation. But thankfully, it’s fair fodder to the younger set.

The musician from the North thought Daineal was hilarious, and clapped him warmly on the back before he departed.

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Daineal, bar manager on the Belmond Grand Hibernian, pours us farewell Bellinis. IRT Photo by R. Hardy.

The meals, cooked to order by a talented three-person culinary team lead by head chef Alan Woods, are a wonderful mix of old and new.

Expertly-prepared classics emphasize local ingredients, like the roasted Connemara mountain lamb cutlet with slow-roasted tomato & rosemary chutney. Other dishes inventively combine unusual flavors to great effect, like the avocado and seaweed salad with watermelon.

Portions are perfect: not too big, not too small. And pastries and fresh-baked breads — fennel and sesame loaf, caramelized onion roll, and sourdough baguette, to name a few standouts — are always in abundance.

Specially-paired wines served in Waterford Crystal glasses accompany lunch and dinner. Fresh-squeezed juices are offered at breakfast. And the two dining rooms themselves inspire conviviality and conversation with four- and six-person seating arrangements.

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Head chef Alan Woods (center), sous chef Domagoj Matanović (left), & assistant. IRT Photo by R. Hardy.

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Roasted Connemara mountain lamb cutlet with slow-roasted tomato & rosemary chutney. IRT Photo by N. Kremer.

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Avocado salad with seaweed & watermelon salsa. IRT Photo by R. Hardy.

The train itself is as lovely inside as it is out. Its nine gleaming blue carriages sparkle in the sun.

And its interiors — neutral plaids and calming lavenders and grays — complement the vibrant green grass and rust-yellow fields of blooming wildflowers of the Irish countryside.

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Lounge car on the Belmond Grand Hibernian. (cozy wool blankets can be found throughout the train.)

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One of two dining cars on the Belmond Grand Hibernian. IRT Photos by R. Hardy.

And lest you think otherwise, substance has not been overlooked for style. Every detail has been designed for optimum comfort and usability.

Our cabin featured a double bed (some have twin beds) with reading lights; individually-controlled heating for chilly mornings; ceiling fan for warm afternoons; full-size wardrobe with plentiful hangers; writing desk and chair; in-cabin safe; tiled bathroom with powerful rain shower, toilet and sink; and hair dryer.

There is a certain egalitarianism on board (albeit egalitarianism for the luxury traveler set!) in that all cabins are the same dimensions — approximately 85 feet square. There is also one smartly-designed accessible cabin located nearest the public cars. (Ask us for more details.)

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Double-bedded cabin on the Belmond Grand Hibernian. IRT Photo by N. Kremer.

A large picture window that opens about five inches at the top allows plenty of natural light — and a small blast of fresh air, if you so choose — to flood the cabin. At night, a privacy screen and curtains keep out the light. Fresh wildflowers in a spectrum of pinks — Sweet William, St. John’s Wort, heather — adorned our desk.

And the double bed, which appeared diminutive at first glance, was shockingly comfortable for both myself and my 6’3″ partner.

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Fresh flowers in our cabin. IRT Photo by R. Hardy.

Our three-day trip was painfully brief—I highly suggest you go all-in for the seven-day Grand Tour of Ireland instead.

But my memories of the Belmond Grand Hibernian will stay with me for years to come. Among them:

  • fleeting images of old castle ruins surrounded by placidly grazing cows and sheep;
  • returning to our comfortable bed after a day of activity, rain gently thrumming on the roof;
  • live Irish harp music performed in the lounge after dinner one night;
  • the gracious staff welcoming us to yet another five-star meal in the dining car;
  • and the food itself…Oh, the food!

 

To book your own grand adventure on the Belmond Grand Hibernian, call us at (800) 478-4881 (+1 502-897-1725 if outside the US/Canada), or e-mail us at tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

And check this space soon for additional reporting from our trip.

I’ll detail our stays at Belmond Cadogan Hotel in London, the Merrion Hotel in Dublin, and Adare Manor (voted Virtuoso’s 2018 Hotel of the Year!)  in Limerick, Ireland.

Rachel M. Hardy is Vice President, Sales & Marketing, and Virtuoso luxury travel advisor for The Society of International Railway Travelers®. She specializes in luxury rail and adventure in Europe, South America, Africa (rail & safaris) and Canada.  She was the first advisor from the Americas invited to see the new Grand Suites on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Our agency is a proud member of Virtuoso and the exclusive Belmond Bellini Club. Rachel’s trip on Belmond Grand Hibernian was part of the Bravissimo celebratory journey hosted by Belmond, held every year in honor of the world’s top Belmond agencies.

IRT’s Eleanor Hardy ‘Stars’ in New York Times Travel Section

30 Nov
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Left to right: Society of IRT President Eleanor Flagler Hardy with IRT travelers Esther S. Müller-Meyre, of Scherzingen, Switzerland, and Ron Fischer, of Arlington, VA. They stand before Ireland’s Belmond Grand Hibernian, whose “maiden voyage” the IRT Society chartered. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

“Traveling by train is a fabulous way to see any country unfold,” Society of International Railway Travelers President Eleanor Hardy tells The New York Times’ travel writer Shivani Vora.

Look for the story’s print version to appear this Sunday, Dec. 4, in the Times Travel section.

The Times shared four of Mrs. Hardy tips: Pick the right train, make sure it matches your budget, pack light and plan wisely.

Her fifth tip — book with an experienced travel advisor — didn’t make the cut. But it’s important nonetheless:

“If you value your time and you want the best value, and the right cabin on the right train — not to mention your piece of mind — book your rail journey with an experienced rail specialist.

“We’ve worked with some of our suppliers for over three decades. They know us. They trust us. That’s especially important when the unexpected happens,” Mrs. Hardy said.

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Society President Eleanor Hardy appeared on cover of the Society’s 2011 tour catalogue. Mrs. Hardy is dining aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.                 IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Mrs. Hardy cites VIA Rail Canada’s Canadian and the Rocky Mountaineer as ideal for families with young children. She recommends Golden Eagle’s 21-day Beijing-Moscow Silk Road and Rovos Rail’s 15-day Cape Town-Dar es Salaam tours for a longer, more relaxed rail trip.

For those not worried about pinching pennies, she recommends Europe’s Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the Belmond Royal Scotsman and the Eastern & Oriental Express in Southeast Asia.

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Taking the perfect photo on the Belmond Royal Scotsman’s outdoor rear platform. IRT photo by Eleanor Hardy

Mrs. Hardy’s rail travel luggage recommendations? “Take no more than one small roller bag and one small backpack per person,” she says.

Finally, avoid the three mistakes “rookie” rail travelers make:

  • Confirm the station from which your train departs (many cities have several);
  • Buy your rail ticket before you leave home (they sell out fast); and
  • Allow plenty of time before and after your rail trip, so you’ll have ample time to make your connections.

“Flights can be delayed…trains can be late,” she tells the Times. “And you don’t want to be ruining your relaxing time on the train worrying about making your flight.”

• • •

For more information or to book a trip, call (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725; email tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Society of IRT Clients: ‘We Love the Belmond Grand Hibernian!’

19 Nov
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Belmond Grand Hibernian Train Manager Wolfgang Eipeldauer and crew member Mark O’Doherty pose outside Ireland’s first luxury train.  Mark prepares to serve drinks to passengers returning from a “shore excursion.” IRT Photo by Eleanor Flagler Hardy

Soon after we returned from the “maiden voyage” of Ireland’s Belmond Grand Hibernian, the reviews began arriving.

“The Belmond Grand Hibernian Railway Tour was an outstanding experience,” wrote one IRT guest on Rachel Hardy’s Virtuoso “review page.” “It was luxury rail travel with a broad sampling of the history and heart of Ireland.”  (Click here for more reviews.)

“Just wonderful!” wrote another of the IRT trip — our first-ever charter of an entire train.

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Marus Vera prepares to “launch” her raptor during a falconry outing at Ireland’s gorgeous Ashford Castle, one of the favorite stops on the Belmond Grand Hibernian tour. IRT Photo by Eleanor Flagler Hardy

“This was my seventh trip with the Society of International Railway Travelers,” wrote yet another, extolling IRT’s insistence on excellence.

Summing up, a veteran traveler wrote: “I would heartily recommend the trip to anyone interested in Ireland or train travel or both.”

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Our guide at Ashford Castle was a retired schoolteacher, and wonderful storyteller. In the background, IRT Society tour guest Julia Cordukes looks on. IRT Photo by Eleanor Flagler Hardy

These reactions — coupled with our own experience — prompt us to offer the same journey, at the same time of year, in 2017: Aug. 29-Sept. 4, 2017.

We’re happy to book you on any Belmond Grand Hibernian trip next year — there are 22 departures of the 7-day tour from April through October, 2017.

But we think you’ll especially like our group tour. Why? Let one of the Belmond Grand Hibernian crew members explain:

Finally, this, from a long-time Society of IRT traveler:

“When they called it the ‘Grand’ Hibernian, they really knew what they were doing. It was a grand trip.”

To see a photo album of the trip, please click here.  And if you want to talk with one of us who has been on board, please call us: 800-478-4881 or 502-897-1725.

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Society of IRT President Eleanor Flagler Hardy poses with Belmond Grand Hibernian staff at Dublin’s Heuston Station just before the luxury train’s first-ever trip. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

Snazzy Copy, Graphics, Pixels Prompt Four Magellan Awards!

4 Nov
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Seven Stars Over Japan ad campaign materials. IRT Photo

We’re celebrating!

Travel Weekly magazine just published  winners of its 2016 “Magellan Awards” — the travel industry’s “Oscar.”

And The Society of International Railway Travelers® won four: three Golds and one Silver.

Gold Award —Seven Stars Over Japan” marketing campaign:

Mission: Introduce the world’s newest and most exclusive train – Kyushu’s Seven Stars – to the Western luxury travel market.

Time frame: 11 months.

Room for error: None. (We’d chartered the entire train!)

Campaign: Email blitz, oversized postcards, blog posts, brochure, web presence, news release announcing our latest “World’s Top 25 Train®.”

Crowning glory: Two specially commissioned Seven Stars posters/postcards, courtesy of our Magellan Award-winning designer, Stephen Sebree, of Moonlight Graphic Works.

Result: The tour sold out in two months!

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Seven Stars in Kyushu poster. Japan’s first luxury train, the Seven Stars was recently named one of The Society of International Railway Travelers’ “World Top 25 Trains®.”  Poster design by Stephen Sebree, Moonlight Graphic Works

2 Gold Awards — IRT Website (www.irtsociety.com):

As a highly focused, independent travel agency, The Society of IRT’s stock in trade is putting our clients at ease – in every situation.

That includes their experience on our recently redesigned website, which we’ve made even more simple yet elegant.

“Bravo” to our web designer, Nick Prebezac, of Nimbus Interactive, Inc.!

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“Seven Stars Over Japan” postcard. Design by Stephen Sebree, Moonlight Graphic Works

Silver Award — “Seven Stars Color Blaze” oversized postcard (above):

Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost island, is awash in radiant, natural color – a perfect complement to the equally spellbinding decor of the Seven Stars luxury train.

The oversized postcard format is ideal for showcasing these twin beauties.

• • •

So how does winning these awards affect you?

Simple. We want to thrill you.

It might be just an overnight Paris-Venice anniversary celebration. It might be a 25-day St. Petersburg-Moscow-Vladivostok “Grand Tour of Russia.

We exist to give you the luxury trip of a lifetime — from the first email or postcard you receive to the final welcome-home phone call.

• • •

For info on our luxury rail charters in Peru, Ireland and Japan next year — or any great luxury train trip — contact us. Email tourdesk@irtsociety.com, or call (800) 478-4881; (502) 897-1725.

Titanic Visit Gets Personal on Ireland IRT Luxury Train Tour

21 Oct
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Belfast, Northern Ireland’s “Titanic Experience” museum, one of the stops on the Belmond Grand Hibernian seven-day tour.

It’s not often you walk into a huge museum in a foreign country and find your great uncle’s story staring back at you.

It happened to me last month.

I was visiting the “Titanic Experience” in Belfast, Northern Ireland with a group of fellow Society of IRT travelers. Belfast, where the doomed “unsinkable” ship was built, was one of the stops on our Belmond Grand Hibernian journey.

My great uncle was Carlos F. Hurd, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the journalist who scored “the scoop of the century,” the museum said: he broke the story of the Titanic.

Here’s how it happened:

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Carlos and Katherine Hurd vacationing in Naples following the “scoop of the century.” Photo courtesy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Uncle Carlos and his wife Katherine were on the steamship Carpathia heading from New York to Europe for a vacation. Before they boarded, they made a friendly call to Charles Chapin, editor of the New York World, sister newspaper of the Post Dispatch, both Pulitzer newspapers.

The Carpathia set sail the same day the Titanic left Ireland. When the tragedy occurred, the Carpathia was first to the rescue.

And Uncle Carlos jumped into action.

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IRT travelers John and Julia Cordukes pose in front of the Titanic Experience in Belfast, N. Ireland. IRT Photo by Owen Hardy

He interviewed as many of the survivors as he could. Katherine helped too, interviewing female survivors.

But — wary of bad publicity — the Carpathia’s captain tried everything he could to prevent the story from being told.

He confiscated writing paper. He had their room searched. He ordered that no radio messages be delivered to or from my great uncle or his wife.

Katherine scrounged the ship for paper – even toilet paper. And she had to sit on their notes and hand-written stories in their second-class cabin, because the captain wanted to confiscate them.

But he did not count on having such a tenacious reporter on board.

Even though Uncle Carlos never received the radio messages from his boss or Editor Chapin, he knew what the Pulitzer men would say: “Interview all the survivors you can! Throw your story overboard to our tug in New York harbor.”

And that’s just what happened.

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Society of IRT Founder & CEO Owen Hardy with Titanic Experience staff.

Uncle Carlos’ story ran 5,000 words. Family lore has it that he bundled it up, wrapped it in some kind of waterproof material, stuffed it into a cigar box crammed with champagne corks and secured it with string.

As the Carpathia entered New York harbor, tugboats brimming with newsmen — many shouting through megaphones —swarmed the liner. Among the throng, Uncle Carlos spied Chapin, the New York Pulitzer editor.

With sailors struggling to restrain him, Uncle Carlos pitched his story overboard. But the package fell short, landing in a Carpathia lifeboat. And the crew had been advised not to help reporters in any way.

But one sailor sided with Uncle Carlos and disobeyed orders! As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported: “ A Carpathia sailor freed it, and to the cheers of Titanic survivors, tossed it onto Chapin’s tug.”

By the time Uncle Carlos and his wife touched dry land, an abbreviated story in the New York World and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was already on the streets. And the next day, his complete, 5,000-page report took up three whole pages of the Post-Dispatch.

Uncle Carlos didn’t pull any punches. He bravely reported that the Titanic sped through the night at nearly full speed, that she was woefully short of lifeboats and that many passengers could not believe that disaster had struck.

titanicexperiece-2“The glassy sea, the starlit sky, gave them the feeling that there was only some slight mishap,” he wrote, “that those who got in the boats would have a chilly half-hour below, and might be laughed at.”

Uncle Carlos died before I was born – but he lived on in the many stories in my St. Louis, Missouri family. My mother adored him and quoted him constantly. He had a dry wit, sharp intellect and mild manner.

His story is a thriller – and we felt the “Titanic Experience” told it well.

To see a St. Louis Post-Dispatch video on Uncle Carlos and the Titanic, click on the link below:

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For more information on the Belmond Grand Hibernian, please click here or call (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725; email tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Belmond Grand Hibernian: IRT’s Newest World’s Top 25

16 Sep
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.)

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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.

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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.).

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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.

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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.

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