Sunday 11 December 2016

Travel 2017: 21 secrets, trends and insider tips for the year ahead

Travel tips & trends

Published 26/11/2016 | 01:00

Ballyfin, Co. Laois
Ballyfin, Co. Laois
Ice Cave, Svinafellsjokull Glacier, Iceland
Ballyfin, Gold Drawing Room. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Alhambra, Granada, Spain. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Las Alpujarras, Spain
A Surf Air Cessna. Photo: Surf Air
City of Arts and Sciences, Valencia
WOW Air - flying direct from Ireland to Iceland
Celebrity Silhouette. Photo: Celebrity Cruises

2017 is on its final approach. Pól Ó Conghaile, has four tips for getting ahead of the curve in a bumper year.

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1. The Trend: Ultra-luxury

Relax. You no longer need to fret about ordering that €15 Old Fashioned as you languish in a rose-petal-strewn tub.

After years of cutting cloths to measure, ultra-luxury travel is back, and it’s ok to be flash… albeit with one, welcome difference. The emphasis is on beautiful taste rather than bling.

This isn’t an easy click. Think of Dubai’s self-styled six-star hotels, ostentatious yachts clamouring for space on the Côte d’Azur, or lipstick-red Ferraris purring through Puerto Banus. Now contrast that with the on-point elegance of Ballyfin, recently voted best hotel in the world by readers of Condé Nast Traveler.

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Ballyfin: The world's No.1 hotel, says Conde Nast Traveler

The Regency mansion’s restoration took longer than the original build, and it comes with butlers… as does Dublin’s Westin Hotel (for Christmas, at least).

The five-star has partnered with Arnotts to introduce a Christmas Gift Butler to source “the finest gifts for loved ones” from the department store before delivering them (hand-wrapped, darling) to your room. As you do.

Think too, of Belmond’s Grand Hibernian – the super-luxury sleeper train that launched in Ireland towards summer’s end. Its immaculately crafted interiors and itineraries shoot unapologetically for US and continental markets, but not a thread of the train is tacky. From walnut wood fittings to James Park interiors reflecting Dublin’s Georgian heritage – InterRailing, it ain’t.

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Surf Air: The 'Netflix' of air travel

Meanwhile, Surf Air – dubbed the ‘Netflix of air travel’ – has launched its all-you-can-fly service in Europe. Passengers pay €3,200 a month for the privilege, and destinations including Dublin, Paris and Barcelona are due to land in 2017.

Emirates has opened a new business class lounge in Dubai, Etihad will be flying twice daily from Dublin to Abu Dhabi from next summer, and not to be outdone, Qatar Airways is set to launch its own ‘Super Business Class’ in March.

It’s not the only super-sizing going on next year.

Uniworld River Cruises’ 2017 brochure popped onto my desk recently, complete with news of the SS Joie de Vivre, a new ‘Super Ship’ sailing its Paris and Normandy routes. Luxury ocean cruise line Celebrity is also honing in on the Irish market. Its hotly anticipated ‘Edge’ class launches in 2018, but you can already hop on board ships with their own lawn clubs, art collections and Michael Kors boutiques (ker-ching!).

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Celebrity Silhouette: Coming to a port near you...

“We are seeing more and more holidaymakers turning to travel agents to book cruises, adventure breaks and bucket list trips, as well as the tried-and-trusted destinations such as Spain and Portugal,” says Irish Travel Agents Association president, Cormac Meehan. The spend is up… just remember to stay classy, San Diego.

Details: B&B starts from €560 per room midweek at Ballyfin Demesne (ballyfin.com). Christmas packages at the Westin Hotel (thewestindublin.com) start from €480pp. Belmond Grand Hibernian tours start from €3,160pp for two nights, all-inclusive (Belmond.com). Four-night, Western Caribbean cruises with Celebrity (celebritycruises.ie) start from around €519pp, ex. flights.

2. The Secret: Spain’s Second Cities

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Inside the Alhambra, Granada

Over the past 12 to 18 months, events in Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey have sent hordes of sun holidaymakers back to the brochures in search of reliable  alternatives… and Spain is No.1 on the list.

This year, Irish tourists will make well over 1.5 million trips, and popular destinations are packing out in peak season. Barcelona’s mayor has looked to put a cap on hotels, prices are rising in the Canaries and Majorca now has a ‘sustainable tourist tax’.

How to avoid Costa del Crowded?

The trick is to break through into second cities… and towns and villages. I flew into Malaga earlier this year, and drove away from the Costa del Sol, spending a night in Granada before continuing on to Las Alpujarras, the white villages dotted like snowflakes around the southern Sierra Nevada mountain range.

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Las Alpujarras, Spain.

Though just 40 minutes (as the crow flies) from the coast, it’s like another world. The pueblos blancos cling to gorges in scenes that look more like North Africa than the Med.

Spain is a big country, in other words, and it’s stacked with alternatives.

Forget mainstream destinations like Madrid. Instead, look to the Basque Country, where you’ll find brilliant city breaks in Bilbao and the foodie city of San Sebastian (you can take a surf lesson there, too). Done tapas? Try pintxos – those brilliant little bite-sized snacks washed down with wine, beer or cider – on a tasting tour with Flavours of San Sebastian (sansebastianturismo.com). Or just wing it.

Instead of Barcelona, fly into Girona, where a foodie scene is flourishing in the wake of El Celler de can Roca and a new five-star, Hotel Cameril, has just opened in the grounds of the PGA Catalunya Resort.

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Bleached bones in Valencia

Valencia is another surprise package – a warm, friendly and beautiful city whose relatively small size makes it much more ‘doable’ in a weekend than Barcelona or Madrid. It’s got layers of history (including what’s claimed to be the Holy Grail), but it’s also got the City of Arts & Sciences (above) – Santiago Calatrava’s jaw-dropping, toothpaste-white spread of museums, cultural venues, aquariums and more in the Turia Gardens. The buildings look like bleached bones.

“The first five hours in a city are the hours that stay with you for the rest of your life,” the owner of a local restaurant, El Canyar, told me as he served up an authentic paella in a pan. My advice? Spend them in a ‘second’ city.

Details: Ryanair (ryanair.com) and Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) operate numerous flights to Malaga, with Ryanair flying to Girona, seasonally to Valencia and Aer Lingus serving Bilbao, about a 75-minute drive from San Sebastian. Rates at Hotel Cameril (hotelcameril.com) start from €175 per room.

3. The Cheap Trick: Transatlantic Flights

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Fancy a flight from Dublin to Florida from €149? How about LA from Cork for €179? They sound like made-up fares, but low-cost transatlantic flights are going to start looking like the new normal in 2017.

Icelandic carrier WOW air now offers eight North American destinations from Dublin via its Reykjavik hub, and it’s set to start flights from Cork Airport next May.

Is there a catch? Of course.

Firstly, WOW’s flights involve a layover of around two hours (and sometimes more) in Reykjavik. Secondly, they are on single aisle, narrowbody aircraft and they come with the extra costs of a no-frills airline… including 20kg checked bag fees of €54.99 each-way on US connecting routes. You’ll pay for food, too.

So however you travel, make sure you do the math – is it better to pay a wee bit more to fly direct with a free 23kg bag, or to stop over in Iceland?

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The Blue Lagoon: Iceland

Speaking of stopovers in Iceland – that’s an option, thanks to a WOW wheeze that allows customers to break long-haul journeys for a couple of days in Iceland without upping their fare. That puts like the Northern Lights, Blue Lagoon (above) and Golden Circle within reach on both quick city breaks and transatlantic hops… a situation that would have been unimaginable five years ago.

Sure, it’s expensive (expect to fork out around €8 for a beer, or €100 a night for a 3-star hotel). But the landscape is extraordinary, Reykjavik is a cool town (think of it as an Arctic Galway) and you can very quickly get off the beaten track.

Just bear in mind that Iceland offers radically different experiences in winter and summer… when festivals and hiking come into their own.

Are legacy carriers worried? Most definitely. In the US, stiff competition from low-cost carriers has led heavyweights like Delta, United and American Airlines to look at new ‘Basic Economy’ classes. Business and premium economy aren’t going away anytime soon, but there’s a big shake-up on the way.

Norwegian, which hopes to fly direct from Cork to Boston and New York, has promised even lower rates once a new fleet of Boeing 737 MAX aircraft arrives next year.

“That’s when you will see the $69 fares,” Chief Commercial Officer Thomas Ramdahl has said. America could soon be your oyster.

Details: WOW air (wowair.ie) flies from Dublin to Reykjavik from €69 each way, with flights from Cork on sale from €59.99 each way. Fares to the US East Coast start from €149.99 each way, and from €179.99 to LA. See also norwegian.com.

4. The Insider Tip: Opulent Ireland

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The Pullman restaurant at Glenlo Abbey

A bride-to-be recently asked me for some honeymoon travel advice. After talking through a range of options with her fiancé – the Maldives, South Africa and luxury cruises included – she said the notion of taking a luxury break in Ireland had come up. “My friends think I’m crazy. What do you think?”

I absolutely did not think she was crazy. As the economy recovers, as travel rebounds, the art of getting from A to B is trickier than ever. So why not skip the flight, throw what you want in the boot and take a break in Ireland?

After years of treading water, many of our best places to stay are once again investing in upgrades and improvements. The Conrad Dublin recently sank €13m into a reboot of its Earlsfort Terrace hotel, complete with a cocktail lounge inspired by Gulliver’s Travels.

Recently, Glenlo Abbey unveiled a €2 million refurb of its main house and bedrooms, and a restoration of its gorgeous Pullman Restaurant (above), set in two carriages from the original Orient Express.

Others are full of surprising touches. Did you know Dublin’s Brooks Hotel has a private cinema, for example? It’s showing Elf, among other movies, in December. Or that the Blue Book’s Bushmills Inn still retains its cosy gas-lit bar?

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Ard na Sidhe, Co. Kerry

One of my favourite boltholes sits snug above Caragh Lake in Co. Kerry. The heritage bedrooms at Ard na Sidhe are to die for, and though just a short detour from the Ring of Kerry, it feels like you’re in a fairytale. It re-opens for the season on April 21, with B&B and dinner from €145pp… Christmas stocking, anyone?

Details: The Conrad Dublin (conraddublin.com) has B&B from €269 per room. The Glenlo Abbey Hotel (glenloabbeyhotel.ie) has Pullman dining packages from €269. Visit ardnasidhe.com for offers available at Ard na Sidhe.

Read more:

Ard na Sidhe: An architectural gem off the ring of Kerry  

Irish hotel named best in the world by Conde Nast Traveler

'Netflix of air travel' brings all-you-can-fly service to Europe  

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