All aboard! My dream journey on Ireland's only luxury sleeper train
Gemma Fullam boards Ireland's longest train for a two-night, €3,100 tour of the country...
Trains are thrilling.
Decades of movie magic are testament to the locomotive's power to evoke adventure, intrigue, romance, and nostalgia for an Agatha Christie era of pink gin and mysterious moustachioed men.
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The choo-choo is also, of course, a means of getting from A to B, and lately I had the singular pleasure of travelling in the grandest of style aboard the Belmond Grand Hibernian, Ireland's longest train, and its only luxury sleeper.
My opulent Taste of Ireland odyssey, which would see me traverse the east coast's length, began in Dublin's five-star Westbury Hotel, where, in the deco-style Sidecar Bar, croissants and coffee accompany the check-in. A pristine white box contained my ticket, too-lovely-to-use luggage tags, and a travel journal brimful of information about the loco and my impending two-day jaunt.
With the exceedingly pleasant formalities complete, my travel companions and I are whisked, by luxury coach, through Viking Dublin, as our host, Vincent Butler, as erudite a man as you'd meet, gives us a potted history of the area, pointing out the divisive Wood Quay site as we pass - where, indeed, he worked as an archaeologist in the 1980s.
Our party disembarks at Heuston Station to be greeted by a lone bagpiper, and, feeling like bone-fide celebs, we follow the drone of rousing rebel songs through the building named for Sean Heuston, an executed leader of the Rising. Commuters whisper and point as our crocodile approaches Platform 2, where the red carpet is laid out to welcome us aboard the gleaming midnight-blue locomotive that awaits.
Michael McCarthy, the train manager, ushers me left, into Kildare, the Observation Car, a symphony of warm wood, Irish tweed and panoramic windows, where I'm offered a chilled glass (the first of many) of Laurent-Perrier. My daily rail commute, I needn't tell you, was seeming decidedly shabby in comparison.
Belmond's luxe loco comprises 10 carriages, all of which are named for an Irish county. On making my way to my en suite cabin, in Fermanagh State Car, I discover a soothing oasis of taupe tones: twin beds, dressed in Egyptian cotton, topped with baby-soft McNutt tartan throws; a desk, a wardrobe, a loo and shower with fancy Bamford toiletries - but it's the little touches that make this ergonomically perfect space so special: a cut-glass vase of wildflowers; framed prints of Inis Mor's Serpent's Lair; a book of Wilde witticisms and another of Vincent's stunning snaps (in aid of Simon), and, not least, a hand-written welcome note.
Next: lunch. Served by the peerless staff in the Wexford car, at immaculate tables set with silver, crystal and splendid china, it's a fine-dining delight. All meals have veggie options, and the executive chef, Mark Bodie, ex the Dylan Hotel and L'Ecrivain, expertly adjusts the faultless fare to specific dietary requirements.
Out the window, emerald fields of cud-chewing Friesians whisk by, the lush landscape without on a par with the luxe loveliness within. The end-to-end placement of the tables fosters conviviality between guests, and loquacious Bill from Virginia keeps our table of hacks entertained on topics as diverse as boondoggling (work disguised as fun, he explains) and the definitive Dublin pub.
As we chat, Vincent alerts us that we are traversing the Boyne, a mere three miles from the famous battle.
All too soon, we trundle into Belfast's Central Station, from where a bus ferries us to sleepy Hillsborough - once home to 35,000 linen producers - for an after-hours tour of its castle, one of Her Majesty's many residences, and host to the negotiations that led to the historic Good Friday Agreement. A golden pineapple atop a plinth speaks of an affluent past: the garden walls held enough heat to nurture the exotic fruit at a time when a single specimen cost £5k.
Here, we are treated more like royalty than celebs as, tour over, we mingle in the homely drawing room quaffing pink Champagne, and admiring Prince Charles's watercolour of the Mountains of Mourne (he's good) as a harpist plucks a lilting Carrickfergus. The life, I tell you.
Back at base, a snooze is followed by dinner - think Dexter beef, quail eggs, black truffle tortellini - and general bonhomie at the tables (bolstered, yes, by the fine wines) after which we repair to the Observation Car for an interlude from Gerry O'Connor and son Feilimi, who enchant the captive audience with their musicianship.
We stable in Dundalk for the night, and I'm beyond eager to snuggle into the crisp sheets of my lush lodgings, as I know, come early morning, we'll be off again and the Belmond will rock me like a lover into the Lord's Day.
Daybreak's leisurely tootle down the east coast - punctuated by pastries, and then brunch avec Bellinis - terminates at Ireland's oldest city, Waterford, founded by the Vikings in 914. We're off, bussing it to the Marble City, home of the Butlers, once owners of two counties of Ireland's 32. Vincent, providing the commentary, reminds us that Kilkenny, a Norman stronghold, is famously where the invaders became 'more Irish than the Irish themselves', forcing the English to enact the Statutes of Kilkenny.
It's my hometown, and as the group go touring the splendid castle and medieval streets, the all-female band of journos wish only to be pointed in the direction of the city's best boutiques. Several purchases and Irish coffees later (courtesy of the quirky 16th Century Hole in the Wall hostelry, a must-visit) we regroup in Butler House, Kilkenny Castle's dower house, for a magnificent afternoon tea - and with the ingredients sourced within 60km of the property, a low-carbon footprint one at that.
I'm getting quite used to savouring how the other half live, so it's no surprise (OK, it is!) when, back at Waterford Station, we're greeted on the platform by Michael, Donal, Lola, Slaven, et al, who proffer nips of cinnamon-infused Jameson in crystal shot glasses. It's bottoms up, and back to my cabin, Fermanagh, to spruce up for Champers and canapes in the Observation Car.
My cabin's shower is far better than my at-home dribbler, while such is the magnifying mirror's efficacy, that its brand is noted for googling and purchase. It is, indeed, the little things that raise the bar.
Dusk is falling as we chug into Bagenalstown for stabling, the sun's last golden rays illuminating the silver table settings as we sit to feast on Annagassan lobster, beef Wellington, finishing with a melting chocolate sphere that reveals a centre of raspberry sorbet and silky caramel. The on-board eating opportunities are legion, but the perfect portions make it eminently possible to enjoy everything without feeling overfull.
Our final night is enhanced by the riotous triumvirate of bodhrán, fiddle and guitar that is Tri le Cheile, who have us all singing along to everything from Molly Malone to Raglan Road. It's a total blast, and tiddly from Champagne and chansons, I collapse, happy out, into my high-thread-count haven for a final time.
Monday morning sees us all linger long over breakfast aboard the midnight-blue beauty as it returns to Heuston, and, sadly, the dream journey's end. Like I said, trains are thrilling. But the Belmond Grand Hibernian is bound for glory.
How to do it
Prices for a two-night ‘Taste of Ireland’ journey on board the Belmond Grand Hibernian start from €3,100pp, based on two people sharing a double or twin cabin, and including all table d’hote meals, beverages and excursions. To book, or for more information, visit belmond.com or call + 44 845 077-2222.
For bookings for the two-night or four-night journeys in July, August and September 2019, a complementary night at The Westbury Hotel in Dublin will be offered to guests the night before the train journey begins.
NB: This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.