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Before this past September, I thought that I had experienced the sort of excursion that would fall under the category of true "Old World travel." And then I boarded the Belmond Grand Hibernian—and realized what it really means to be transported to another time.
Spectacular doesn't seem ample enough a word to describe the manor in which everything is conducted aboard a Belmond train journey. At Dublin's Heuston Station we were greeted at the platform by a very jolly four-piece Irish drum line. Stood next to them was the train's friendly staff, who were dressed impeccably in crisp navy suits, and each shook our hands as we stepped onto the striking blue carriage. Soon we would sit for a multi-course lunch with wine pairings (of course) and begin our journey across the patchwork countryside toward Cork.
The Grand Hibernian has been in operation on the Emerald Isle since 2015, when Belmond purchased 10 carriages to refurbish, and hired a team to craft the stunning interiors over the course of a cool 35,000 hours. Thus, it will come as no surprise that she is one of Belmond's finest trains, and the only one of its kind in Ireland. This particular itinerary was quite special, too—the first of an annual series. I had the opportunity to ride on the Hibernian for the inaugural Taste of Ireland with Clodagh McKenna—who is one of the finest chefs on the continent.
Truly a food-lover's dream come true, the two-night journey takes passengers from Dublin to Galway, passing through Cork, all the while dining on the freshest local dishes crafted by McKenna herself and served up from the train's kitchen, which is helmed by executive chef Mark Bodie. Days include stopping for walks around Cork and Galway, tasting lots (and lots) of local cuisine, having a cheeky drink at a gin distillery, and feasting on fresh oysters by the sea.
While the meals are certainly the crown jewel of this journey, the train itself is a veritable steam engine paradise—something straight out of a Wes Anderson film. Think hand-selected Georgian decor, mahogany paneling, plush chairs with vintage-inspired side tables, and, of course, the sweetest sleeping accommodations one could imagine. The Observation Car features a small saloon-style bar (stocked with plenty of high-end spirits, of course), comfy couches and chairs, and wide windows that are ideal for watching the greenery speed past.
Guests have the option of sleeping in a one-or-two-person en suite cabin; both are delightful, with cozy, window-facing beds, lambswool blankets, slate-grey hues, wardrobes, and petite yet elegant bathrooms. There's nothing quite like snuggling up in a wool blanket after a long day of sloshing about in the rain—and this is perhaps the best place in the world to do it.
Highlights of the trip included a stop in North Cork at Ballyvolane House, a family-run estate and countryside accommodations, and home to Bertha's Revenge Gin Distillery. We had the pleasure of slipping into wellies and taking a slightly rainy but all-around delightful foraging tour of the grounds with Andrew Malcolm, the estate's on-site forager. Expect to be transported to a world that looks imagined by the likes of Jane Austen (a beautiful stone manor, a long gravel drive, bountiful walled gardens, and more).
My fellow passengers and I were lucky enough to arrive in Galway the day of the annual Galway Oyster Festival (the oldest one in the world), where we enjoyed a leisurely lunch at Ard Bia at Nimmos, a Galway institution. Over lunch, we sipped local wine and slurped salty, fresh oysters shucked by the heir of Kelly Oysters, a family-run, sea-to-table company.
The trip ended with a celebratory black tie dinner (when you book, be sure to bring an outfit fit for the stars), and we relaxed in the dining car until the train's General Manager called us out to the platform. Bundled in tartan blankets, we were greeted with a live local Irish band, traditional dancing, frothy glasses of Guinness, and a lively celebration of the Irish culture we'd just spent two days immersed in.
The next Belmond Grand Hibernian journey featuring Clodagh McKenna will take place from September 26 - 28, 2020. Click here to book now.