Best in Travel 2018: Pól Ó Conghaile's 10 highlights from a year on the road
From the highs of the Blasket Islands to the lows of Storm Emma, here's our Travel Editor's take on 2018
What were the hottest travel tickets this year? Travel Editor Pól Ó Conghaile shares his highlights from a year on the road.
1. Best Irish adventure
Blasket Islands, Co Kerry
I thought about screentime a lot this year. One place I didn't think about it at all was the Great Blasket Island. The trip was on my bucket list for yonks, and one bright August day, my eight-year-old son and I made it happen. Grabbing a picnic in Dingle, we took the ferry to a stolen afternoon among ruined husks on the hillside, hundreds of seals on the beach and fellow travellers like the Austrian man who made the journey because the Blaskets were his daughter's screensaver. We agreed it's much better in real life.
2. The new arrival
14 Henrietta Street, Dublin
Despite booming visitor numbers, new attractions have been slow to open in Ireland - though Dublin got two this year: interactive theatre at Vaults Live, and a subtler, moving tenement museum at 14 Henrietta Street. Set on a gorgeous (but grimly decaying) Georgian street, guided tours here take visitors through the building's social history, from city mansion to a tenement home to 100 souls. Small details like the Raddle Red paint or bric-a-brac cramming a replica 20th century flat (you'll catch a whiff of carbolic soap on the way out the door) hit both head and heart.
3. Best destination
Dublin Airport surpassed 30 million passengers for the first time in 2018, with new flights ranging from Hong Kong to Beijing and Seattle. Driving through the covered bridges of Quebec was a personal highlight, Galway won best home holiday destination in our Reader Travel Awards and made National Geographic Travel's 'Best of' list for 2019, but Japan left the deepest impression. Tokyo was like an X-box version of a city break. Bullet trains whisked me north to Tohoku, an off-radar region devastated by the 2011 tsunami but now welcoming visitors back to its mountains and hot springs. Thousands of Irish will journey to the Land of the Rising Sun for Rugby World Cup 2019, but my tip is to dodge the crowds, travel off-peak, and immerse yourself in this noodle-bowl of hyper-futurism and timeworn tradition. The more I travel in Japan, the less I know about it.
4. Hotel hero
Adare Manor, Co Limerick
It's neither subtle nor affordable, but 2018 was the year Adare Manor proved to the world that its multi-million euro upgrade had paid off. The rooms booked out, the awards rolled in, and the PR pixie dust settled to reveal a genuinely big deal. A stay convinced me of the service, food and attention to detail (from the Hogwarts-worthy Gallery to bathroom mirrors that don't steam up). Yes, the spa felt a little small, its 'Beyond Everything' tagline a little big, but the hotel has achieved what it set out to, and more - creating a new billboard image for luxury Irish hospitality.
5. Best city stroll
Art Deco District, Miami
I love shoe leather city breaks. Walking taps the true feel of a neighbourhood, and highlights of my urban hikes ranged from Cork's evolving city centre to the maze-like medina in Marrakech. Most memorable was a sunset walk along Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue by Miami's South Beach. Yes, there were booming bars and cartoonish beach bodies. But the Art Deco District also crams 800 'significant' buildings into a single square mile. History holds hands with the here-and-now, and the cocktails aren't bad, either.
6. Best cheap eats
Firehouse Bakery, Co Wicklow
Food and travel go hand in hand, and I ate like a king on the cheap this year - from a €6 bowl of ramen in Tokyo to an €8.50 Diavola at Sano (one of the best pizzas in Dublin). When they were good, the casual eats in Ireland were world-class - from punchy plant-based nosh at Sligo's Sweet Beat Café to sweet and savoury pancakes at The Strawberry Field, near Moll's Gap (above). The one I return to, however (not least because I live nearby) is the Firehouse in Delgany. The place is like a communal fireplace, with a Wonka-esque spread of morning pastries, wood-fired pizza oven and sour-dough breads at the heart of it all. My bill rarely seems to rise above a tenner. A tip: get there before 10am.
7. The sleeper hits
Athlone, Co Westmeath
The midlands got a much-needed boost this summer with the arrival of Ireland's Hidden Heartlands - the final fit in Fáilte Ireland's 'family' of tourism brands. The news brought me back to Athlone, where I ate deliciously at The Fatted Calf and Thyme, wandered around the Left Bank and wondered why the town isn't more of a fixture on the tourist map. Add Viking boat tours, the Old Rail Trail and the end of infuriating town centre roadworks... and hopefully it soon will be. A hat-tip to the improving Spike Island, too.
8. Best fine dining
Park Hotel Kenmare, Co Kerry
Ireland's casual food scene is booming, but there's always room for fancy tables and tasting menus in travel. Cork nabbed three new Michelin Stars (at Ichigo Ichie, Restaurant Chestnut and Mews), and I loved the simple but sophisticated marriage of Irish ingredients and Japanese cuisine, in particular, at Dylan McGrath's Taste in Dublin. The curation of local ingredients at West in Barna's Twelve Hotel is top-notch, as is James Coffey's tasting menu at the Park Hotel in Kenmare (above). Deeply Irish dishes ranged from organic Kerry lamb to pillowy Castletownbere prawns; they looked beautiful... and tasted even better.
9. The standout Space
Coral Room, Bloomsbury Hotel
You know when a space just clicks? When it hits like a kiss, a zippy marriage of fanciness and feng shui? I found that at the Coral Room in London's refurbished Bloomsbury Hotel. The Doyle Collection's sexy bar and lounge combines a 1920s salon feel with Murano chandeliers, tall ferns and cocktails to brilliant effect. Honorary mentions to the floor-to-ceiling windows at The Dunloe's revamped restaurant in Killarney, too. Best restaurant view in Ireland?
10. Best surprises
FE McWilliam Gallery, Banbridge
I stayed at Killarney Park Hotel for the first time this year, and loved its central location and warm, polished Kerry welcome. Dublin Airport's Platinum Services (a VIP terminal you can use from €225pp) struck me as a great gift for a honeymoon or special occasion, and a trip through Armagh took me for the first time to the FE McWilliam Gallery, a bright, punchy space pairing contemporary art with a sculpture garden and café. Quail's at the Gallery sees Mexican chef Fernando Correa cook up everything from Limousin beef to deliciously lemony eggs benedict... definitely worth a detour on Dublin-to-Belfast trips.
* Travel Raspberries
2018 saw the beginning of the end of free cabin baggage. Or in Ryanair's case, the end of the beginning. After a late 'grace period', its new policy is finally up and running, with free 10kg cabin bags now available only to Priority Boarding customers. Will it stop confusion and delays at the gates, or make Priority queues so long as to be meaningless? All remains to be seen.
Elsewhere, 'overtourism' was one of the Oxford English Dictionary's words of the year - with Venice trialling tourist checkpoints and the closures of Borocay in The Philippines and Maya Bay in Thailand. Weather events wreaked holiday havoc - we saw too little snow in Lapland, too much in Ireland, and the fallout from Storm Emma left airlines and passengers reeling.
Finally, a reluctant travel razzie goes to London City Airport. I love this gateway... when it works. It's small, with a spectacular approach, smart facilities and sits right on the DLR, but all three of my trips this year were delayed - one by several hours thanks to technical and communications cock-ups from CityJet. Oh, and I spotted a tub of grapes for £4.70/€5.30. A tub of grapes!
Travel Trends: What are travel's top tickets for 2019? Read our Travel Hotlist in Weekend magazine on January 5.