Magical Alchemy of Dublin Still Luring Travellers
What would James Joyce think of his native city? It's gone from rags to riches and morphed into a world-class destination. Staid establishments-banks, castles, churches, schools, even barracks and jails-have been transformed into innovative tourist attractions. What's more, the alchemy has spread from Dublin to its environs and beyond.
Since its masterful makeover of a former bank, The Westin has become one of Dublin's premier hotels. Facing Trinity College (built during the reign of Elizabeth I and home to the Book of Kells) and the Bank of Ireland (formerly home to the Irish Parliament) the location couldn't be more central or prestigious. Most art galleries, theatres, parks and attractions, and the artsy Temple Bar area are within a 15-minute stroll. Shoppers can take a shortcut through Trinity's historic quad to Nassau and Grafton, both prime commercial streets.
Within the bank's 19th century facade, the Westin's interiors, featuring rich mahogany furnishings, exude an ambiance of confident culture and good taste. Its rooms and suites (163) have been finished to preserve the period elegance of the exterior, although here and there we found signs of a need for more careful housekeeping and maintenance. Most rooms are sufficiently large, but there are some that would be uncomfortable for two.
All rooms are equipped with the Westin's signature 'Heavenly Bed,' and they are, indeed, utterly comfortable. Baths are supplied with good quality amenities. We were disappointed to find that there was an extra charge for the in-room high-speed wireless Internet service.
The Exchange Restaurant serves continental cuisine in an Art Deco ambiance, and the five-story-high Atrium, with marble floors and soaring palms, is a pleasant space for a light lunch, afternoon tea or a nightcap under the stars. You may also enjoy the Mint Bar, in the old bank vaults, where the coin-of-the-realm is Guinness rather than guineas. Wheelchair accessible. Doubles from about $500. College Green Westmoreland Street. Tel: 353-1-645-1000. Fax: 353-1-645-1234. www.westin.com.
The Schoolhouse Hotel is a conversion of a building designed by two of Dublin's most renowned architects, Sir Thomas Dean and Benjamin Woodward. Originally a parochial school, it was at the centre of the Battle of Mount Street during the 1916 Easter Rising for Irish independence from Britain, and it's located within a short walk of the city's main attractions. There are 31 rooms, somewhat small, but nicely furnished in a classic contemporary manner. The restaurant serves some very acceptable traditional Irish dishes, particularly seafood. Wheelchair accessible. Doubles from about $130. 2-8 Northumberland Road. Tel: 353-1-667-5014. Fax: 353-1-667-5015. www.schoolhousehotel.com.
We keep returning to O'Connell's Restaurant on the lower level of Bewley's Hotel in Ballsbridge. Owner Tom O'Connell lists the provenance of his organic foods and offers distinctive cuisine at reasonable prices-an exception in this notoriously expensive city.
We've come for breakfast, (prodigious even by Irish standards), lunch (cafeteria style with a traditional roast always on the menu) and full-service dinner. Seafood, including monkfish, hake, halibut, sea bass, salmon and more, is always fresh and deliciously prepared in the simplest of ways. Irish lamb and chicken, also simply prepared, are exceptionally tasty.
Whatever you order, ask also for the pea-and-mint puree, the carrot-and-turnip combination and the gratineed dauphinois potatoes. And if you agree with us that no meal is complete without a sweet at the end, you will not be disappointed by the duet of warm apricot and almond pudding or the iced raspberries in hot white chocolate sauce. Dinner for two, before wine, about $75. Reservations necessary for dinner. Merrion Road. Tel: 353-1-647-3304.
To reach Dublin's best seafood restaurant, the King Sitric, ride the DART rapid transit system to the fishing village of Howth. The headland circling Dublin's north side was a Viking bailiwick at the turn of the first millennium, and the restaurant (in the old harbourmaster's house) is named for a Viking monarch. Owner Aidan MacManus and his chefs turn out remarkable food, starting with one of our favourites, Angels on Horseback (oysters wrapped in bacon) or a sweet crabmeat preparation presented on slivers of grapefruit and avocado. Black sole is a perennial favourite among at least six varieties of local fish.
Another wonderful dish is the butter-sweet scallops served on a bed of saffron rice. Desserts are another specialty. 'We don't do small,' we were told when we asked for a modest serving of their famous meringue. Smothered in silky Valrhona chocolate and flecked with toasted almonds, the helmet-shaped confection would have tamed a Viking. Also delicious was a plate of frozen lime nougat served with a melange of berries. In winter, game dominates the menu, and it's as special as the seafood. MacManus's wife Joan presides over an exceptional wine cellar that seems always to offer something unusual and fairly priced.
Dinner for two, before wine, about $100. Aidan and Joan also let eight bedrooms that look out onto panoramic seascapes. The accommodations are simple, as guests come primarily for the food and wine. Doubles from about $190, including breakfast, which almost always includes fish. East Pier, Howth. Tel: 353-1-832-5235. Fax: 353-1-839-2442. www.kingsitric.ie.
On Sundays, there's a colourful farmers' market on Howth's West Pier, with marvellous seafood, breads, cheeses, figs, olives, sun-dried tomatoes and other produce. Take a picnic and go hiking on the Hill of Howth, where you can survey all of Dublin Bay and the Wicklow Mountains beyond.
For the best cappuccino in Dublin, we like the Kilkenny Design Centre on Nassau Street. Its upstairs restaurant has received awards for the city's best breakfast. For lunch there's herb-crusted salmon, quiches and salads. On the main level, there's an impressive display of Irish fashions, pottery, glassware, jewellery and gift items. 5/6 Nassau Street. Tel: 353-1-677-7075.