At Home In Hollywood is at Home in Ireland Via the Irish Retreat
Those of you who follow me here will note a number of features lately on fascinating lifestyle and design in Ireland. While I’ve traditionally focused on life At Home In Hollywood, I need to get out of this place every now and then, as we all do. Especially when the temperatures are in the three digits, we’re being encouraged to let our lawns “go golden,” and the words “rain,” “shower” and “precipitation” have practically disappeared from our collective vocabulary.
What better time to accept international designer Grania Murray’s invitation to attend her exclusive Irish Retreat, promising to take a small group of us into the homes, studios and palatial estates of some of Ireland’s most prominent historical landowners, and visit the Emerald Isle’s best modern craftsman, artists and designers right where they live. All the while we would experience the best of Ireland’s luxurious accommodations and cuisine. How could I resist?
Anyone can go to Ireland and see churches and castles and kiss the Blarney Stone. But you have to join forces with a true Irish insider like Grania to actually go behind closed doors to see how Ireland’s aesthetically gifted live. We had the privilege of touring, and sometimes actually staying in, Ireland’s grand estates such as Powerscourt, which not only has a four-star hotel, a spa, two golf courses and a Gordon Ramsey launched restaurant on the premises, but an extensive garden not unlike those at the Huntington Library, an arts and crafts shopping area, and Ireland’s tallest waterfall.
Other hotels on our agenda included The Marker, which was the perfect modern contrast to Powerscourt. Reminded me a little of The W Hotels here in the states, but the staff is much friendlier at The Marker, with none of that Sprockets, too-cool-for-school vibe.
We also spent a remarkable afternoon at Dublin’s famed Merrion Hotel, located in three adjacent Georgian townhouses. We were given a tour of their private art collection, which is one of the biggest outside of the National Museum, and then retired to the drawing room for their special Art Tea, which had all the usual high tea delicacies, and included clever and tasty sweets inspired by the hotel’s art collection.
We felt consummately posh when we were invited to a champagne reception at Luggala, where celebs, from Michael Jackson to Bono, have stayed. Also known as the Guinness Estate because it’s been in the brewing family for years, it features thousands of acres of green rolling hills and mountains, with frolicking deer and an amber Guinness-colored lake tinted by the water that flows into it from surrounding peat bogs. We were among the lucky few who have the opportunity to enter the lodge, or castle, as some call it, where we were treated to fascinating stories of guests and residents from Garech Browne, the owner and a Guinness descendant. Luggala is one of Ireland’s most popular Hollywood production spots, as Braveheart, Excalibur, P.S. I Love You, and the History Channel’s Vikings have all been shot there.
You don’t necessarily think of haute cuisine when planning an Irish vacation, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised should you decide to travel to Ireland with Grania. The Irish Retreat takes you to world class restaurants like Silka at the Powerscourt, which has one of the best and largest chef’s tables, located right in the kitchen, that I’ve ever seen.
You’ll also dine at the quaint Wicklow Heather Restaurant out in the village of Laragh, a national treasure, as you’re able to eat in the Writer’s Room, which has first editions of Ireland’s greatest writers casually displayed in curio cabinets lining the walls. We’re talking Jonathan Swift, William Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker and, of course, James Joyce.
Exquisite meals at The Marker Hotel, and at Dublin’s intimate Forty One, where we enjoyed a seven course tasting menu in a private dining room with a fireplace, were also on the agenda. In case you were wondering, Irish food and drink goes on beyond corn beef (which is not eaten in Ireland) and Guinness. We were served fine wines from all over Europe, exceptional lamb and beef from livestock grazed on the beautiful green hillsides, and even locally sourced lobster and scallops. But my favorite food of all, as plebeian as this may sound, was that dark, grainy Irish soda bread, slathered in Kerry Gold butter. Yes, I gained a pound or two, but you tend to do that on vacation.
We were also introduced to great artisans, craftsmen and designers in their own homes — people like painter Rocco Tullio, who lives and works in a quaint studio with a lake and a stone circle just outside his front door; Gunvor Anhøj and her husband Michael Calnan, who worked with Seattle-based glass artist Dale Chihuly, in their rustic forge in the courtyard at Ireland’s historic Russborough House, which we also toured;
and Mette O’Connor, whom we watched create a beautiful ring in her jewelry studio in the seacoast town of Greystones. And it would be impossible to forget the colorful Avoca Handweavers at the Meeting of the Waters, where gorgeous wool for throws, jackets, scarves and more is handwoven on looms.
And then there were the fashion designers, so well established and insanely talented that they’ve been featured on Irish postage stamps. Lainey Keogh, the Queen of Cashmere, served us lunch and entertained us with stories of swathing the rich and famous, in a studio and show room located in her beautiful Irish country house in County Wicklow. We were also served champagne and given a VIP tour of the Louise Kennedy showroom, were royalty, movie stars, corporate icons and prominent politicians have all come to be fitted for bespoke fashion.
Now I can’t lie — getting to Dublin from LAX did cause me a wee bit of consternation. It seems the only direct, non-stop flight is proved by…not Air Lingus, not United, not American but…wait for it…Ethiopian Airlines! I tried to find out why and how they, of all airlines, snagged that route, and the language barrier that hindered me getting the information I requested disconcerted me even more. I just about turned back when I arrived at LAX’s new Tom Bradley International Terminal and discovered that Ethiopian Airlines was running a special allowing passengers to check three pieces of luggage for free. The line was impossibly long, and you could hardly see the people in it for all the mountains of oversized suitcases that would somehow be crammed in. Much to my surprise however, the flights, both coming and going, were just fine — if the food wasn’t great, the crew was excellent, the plane was new and gleaming, the entertainment options were many and the fare was reasonable.
The only complaint I had about The Irish Retreat, in fact, was that it ended all too soon, and before I knew it, I had to say goodbye to all the fine friends I’d made on the trip. But on second thought, if The Irish Retreat had lasted any longer, I just might not have ever come home. And what would my husband Jim and Frankie Feldman do without me?