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Celtic class: Onboard Belmond’s Grand Hibernian

‘Riding the rails’ in Ireland, Lisa Smyth is surprised to find that there is no better way to discover her cherished homeland – all in five-star luxury, of course.

“The Irish are not good at formality,” laughs Michael McCarthy, Train Manager on board Belmond’s Grand Hibernian – Ireland’s first, and only, luxury train. We are chatting while seated in the wonderfully elegant Observation Car of the train Kildare, on our way to disembark in Dublin after a two-night Taste of Ireland tour.

“We provide five-star luxury, but with a relaxed approach and plenty of Irish charm. What is unique about Belmond is that each property is authentic to its location – and the
Grand Hibernian is Irish in every way, including the fact that all the staff have the gift of the gab,” jokes McCarthy with smiling eyes.

Full disclosure: I am Irish. Born in Dublin, I moved to Australia when I was a child, but I consider both countries my home. So, it was with some trepidation that I boarded the shiny, midnight blue train three days earlier. I was worried the formality that can often come with high-end experiences might make our time uncomfortable, and I was keen for my partner to experience the warm and irreverent Ireland I love so much.

Did you know…?
Hibernia is the classical Latin term for the island of Ireland.

A Hibernian welcome

I need not have worried. Within five minutes of our arrival on the first day, Johnny, the delightfully jaunty, waistcoat-clad Food and Beverage Manager, had made two playful jokes at my partner’s expense while pouring us our second glass of Champagne. Our first glass had been consumed on the platform where we were greeted by lively Irish music and trays of beverages carried by our sharply dressed attendants.

So, as we pulled out of Dublin’s Heuston station, I breathed a sigh of relief. I realised that Belmond, operators of the famous Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, had struck that rare balance between grand luxury and service that is relaxed, individual and full of personality – a move that some in the tourism sector are calling ‘new luxury’. Though, I am pretty sure my nana would call the service ‘just being Irish’.

All aboard the Emerald Isle

Seated in the Observation Car, the bar up one end stocked to the brim with Irish whiskies, gins and, of course, Guinness, we gab away with the two young musicians from County Clare (“There’s not many people in Clare, but most of us are musicians”), and watch Dublin roll by through the large picture windows.

Dublin’s Georgian mansions with their rich interiors have inspired the train’s decor, resulting in a beautifully restrained elegance. The Observation Car’s wood panelling, antique mirrors and brown and beige tartan with yellow accents come together to evoke a traditional Irish saloon.

While none of my relatives live in Georgian mansions, it immediately feels welcoming and comfortable, and we find ourselves spending many hours here. The panoramic windows allow us to watch the country’s famed ‘Forty Shades of Green’ glisten in the rolling fields and hills, the landscape dotted with quaint cottages and castle ruins; sometimes replaced with the blues and yellows of the coast.

This is the Old World way of travelling – slow, leisurely, and in cosy contentment – and I can’t imagine a better way to introduce my beloved country to my partner.

The train can accommodate 40 guests in four double and 16 twin cabins. Each carriage is named after an Irish county and reflects the colours of the tartan from that county. Ours is ‘Waterford’, and our small, sophisticated room with private en suite is decorated in a soothing green tartan, complemented by the tweed upholstery and soft woollen throws.

We don’t spend much time here, but we melt into the soft beds and under plush doonas in the evening and, as the train doesn’t move at night, we wake up well rested each morning.

Crossing the border

Over lunch, in one of the two dining cars where tables are formed into groups of six, we meet our fellow guests. Nearly all have been on the weeklong itinerary, and are quick to tell
us how much they love the staff, the train and Ireland, in that order. There is also high praise for the food – the Irish organic pork loin with barley, pearl onions and poitín sauce is delicious, and perfectly matched with an Argentinian Malbec. The wine is one of the few non-Iocal products onboard, with every effort made to source all food and beverages from the best regional producers.

But our Train Host and walking encyclopaedia of all things Ireland, Vincent, soon brings us to attention – we are about to cross the border with Northern Ireland. When we arrive in Belfast we take a black cab tour through the streets of the city with two guides, one Protestant and one Catholic. It’s a fascinating and emotional experience for me, and I gain
a greater understanding of the history of The Troubles and how much has been achieved.

Our next stop is the award-winning Titanic Belfast, an immersive and interactive museum situated on the site where the ill-fated ship was built before setting off for its Southampton launch, and where we are lucky enough to get a private, after-hours tour.

Irish blue
Despite the colour green being front of mind when people think of Ireland, the train is painted a deep St Patrick’s blue – the official colour of the 5th-century missionary saint is also the official colour of the country.

Lady of the house

The next day, we pass back through Dublin and arrive in Waterford, home of crystal and Curraghmore House – the slightly derelict, but exceptionally lovely home of the 9th Marquis of Waterford. This is my favourite stop on the journey. Basil, the former butler to the 8th marquis (who wouldn’t open the estate to visitors until he passed away three years ago), now conducts extremely fascinating, and alarmingly funny, tours of the house and surrounding gardens. “It’s a home, not a museum”, he says as he gestures for us to sit down on centuries-old furniture while he regales us with tales of the preceding 800 years of the family and estate.

We finish our visit with scones, brownies and tea in the main dining room – still used for large dinner parties during shooting season – and are delighted when Lady Waterford herself comes to say hello. She speaks to each one of us, and her effervescence entrances us all.

That night, after another sumptuous dinner, we gather aboard the Kildare to listen to local musicians play Irish jigs, ancient Celtic tunes and modern favourites. As I sing along to ‘Dirty Old Town’ and ‘Molly Malone’ I am 10 years old again and transported to my old hallway in Sydney, secretly listening to my parents and their friends sing together as they sip on Irish coffees. My surroundings might be luxury at its finest, but the Grand Hibernian makes me feel right at home.

The writer was a guest of Belmond Grand Hibernian. Prices start from A$4,720 per person for a two-night journey with two guests sharing a twin or double cabin.

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