TRAVEL: Think you’ve ‘done Dublin’, think again!

Most visitors reckon that visiting Dublin means ticking the Book of Kells and the Guinness Storehouse off the ‘to do’ list ...but if you think you’ve ‘done Dublin’, then think again!

For Dublin has a surprising secret ready to greet you just 20 minutes DART ride away from the city centre - the Dun Laoghaire Rathdown area.

Where the city meets the sea, Dun Laoghaire Rathdown (DLR) has everything a visitor could possibly want from the mountains to the sea! The DLR County Council towns and villages have something to suit every taste - whether you’re in Blackrock, Killiney or Dundrum, Dalkey or Glencullen, Monkstown or Mount Merrion.

Stepping onto the train in Portrush, just five relaxing hours later, I was breathing in the sea air at the tranquil FitzPatrick Castle Hotel in Killiney. This 18th century, four star luxury castle hotel is located near the village of Dalkey and the town of Dun Laoghaire. The family-owned hotel exudes an air of tranquillity, grace and old world elegance while also being warm and welcoming.

Una Culkin (front left) enjoying a trip around the bay with the Irish National Sailing and Powerboat School

Tucking into a mouth-watering lunch of fresh sandwiches and wraps, followed by the most exquisite mini desserts (the lemon tart was the outright winner!), we chatted with CEO Eithne Fitzpatrick who is at the helm of this third generation business. She has now been joined in the running of the hotel by her two sons. Fifty years since Eithne’s father Paddy took a derelict building and transformed it into a fabulous hotel, FitzPatrick Castle Hotel is still one of the best known in Ireland and regularly welcomes a loyal clientele from Northern Ireland.

Stepping into my room, it’s not hard to see why - quite apart from the luxuriously decorated room, opening a patio door, I stepped out onto my balcony to a stunning vista of the Dalkey Bay coastline.

Then it was off out into Dun Laoghaire town to enjoy the attractions of its prime seafront position. We first visited Ireland’s National Maritime Museum which is situated in the decommissioned Church of Ireland Old Mariners’ Church. This fascinating building, which still houses many of the original religious features, is now home to a wide array of artefacts reflecting Irish maritime history. This social enterprise, staffed by volunteers ex-seamen who give their free tome to run the museum, is home to the magnificent optic lens which is mentioned by James Joyce in Ulysses. And stepping out of the museum, down the promenade I see the James Joyce Tower - one of a series of Martello towers build to withstand an invasion by Napoleon and now home to a museum devoted to the life and works of Joyce.

Then it’s on to the newest jewel in Dun Laoghaire’s crown -the DLR LexIcon which is a new central library and cultural centre. The DLR LexIcon includes a performance space with seating for 100 people, art gallery, education workshop space and cafe. Built to resemble the prow of a ship, the LexIcon is open and free to use for all and boasts a breath-taking view of the sea vista.

Enjoy a Sorrento Sorbeto in the Library Cocktail Bar at the FitzPatrick Castle Hotel

Completing the maritime section of our trip, we headed along the seafront to the Irish National Powerboating and Sailing School. The seafront is a mecca for folks who like the sea - being in it and on it, in whatever manner possible. Kayaking, canoeing, paddle-boarding, yachting, sailing, sea swimming - it ALL happens here. Dun Laoghaire is home to four different yacht clubs.

Welcomed by Lorcan, we were given instructions on safety and how to put on our sailing gear (kudos to lifeboat men and women who don that garb in seconds flat!). Once we were kitted out, we headed down onto the pontoon and into our high-speed RIB where I was delighted to be able to sit right at the front for our white-knuckle ride out into Dalkey Bay.

Bouncing along on the waves, it felt as though we were flying through the air. If you love speed and being on the sea, this is the trip for you. Pre-booking is essential as it’s such a popular attraction. Lorcan then slowed the pace to allow us to really take in the stunning coastline that stretched out in front of us. Passing Dalkey Island, first populated by the Vikings, we were able to take in the beauty of the landscape and the tiered sloping terraces which are reminiscent of the Italian Amalfi Coast. In fact, such is the similarity in the style and design of the houses that the area has become known as the Irish Sorrento.

Given the stunning situation, it’s no surprise that these sea-facing mansions attract the rich and famous. Keep an eye out for locals likes Bono and Enya doing their shopping, and film directors Neil Jordan or Jim Sheridan out for a stroll. After another whizz around the bay, looking out to Bray just around the coast and the majestic Dublin mountains as a backdrop, we were joined by a curious porpoise who popped his head up to see who was making all the commotion.

Mountain biking adventures at GAP

Back to the FitzPatrick for a freshen up and a pot of tea on that wonderful balcony, it was time then to head back into Dun Laoghaire for dinner at Casper and Giumbini’s - a modern Irish brasserie which was buzzing with life and atmosphere even on a mid-week night. The name Casper & Giumbini’s descends from the owners’ grandmother Maria Casper and great grandmother Florence Giumbini, both of whom instilled a great love and appreciation of mealtimes in their family.

With the scent of the sea air still in my nostrils, I was compelled towards the starter of Mussels Mariniere serves in a shallot, white wine and parsley cream with sour dough toast. I was rewarded with what can only be described as a bucket of mussels - so large that my fellow diners were forced to wait for me after finishing their own starters but the mussels were SO mouth-watering, I didn’t feel an ounce of guilt! My main course choice was roast rump of lamb with tomato fondue, artichoke fondue, picked peppers and roscoff onion. This delicious dinner was the perfect ending to our seaside section of the trip.

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The following day, refreshed by a morning swim in the FitzPatrick Hotel’s spa, not to mention a hearty hotel breakfast in a beautifully elegant breakfast room, I was ready to take on day two of discovering county Dublin’s best kept secret.

James Joyce Tower

First up was Dalkey Castle which sits plum in the middle of the village and is brought to life by entertaining guides and living history actors such as Magnus the barber/surgeon, Rupert the archer and Saidbh the maid. Dalkey Castle combines a rare medieval townhouse castle with an contemporary visitor experience. With plenty of hands-on fun and banter a-plenty with the actors, children of all ages will thoroughly enjoy this history lesson. Make sure to find Rupert and ask him why archers used to give a two-fingered warning to prospective marauders!

Then it was on to Dundrum - home to the largest shopping centre in Ireland - but shopping wasn’t on our agenda. We were bound for Airfield Estate - Dublin’s only working farm and gardens.

Let’s clear one thing up right away - Airfield wasn’t given its name because it used to be an airfield. In fact, no one actually knows why the estate acquired the name. But that was probably the only thing our wonderful guide Leah didn’t know about the estate which is a charitable trust established by the former owners - two mightily impressive sisters called Letitia and Naomi Overend.

Not only did the sisters run the estate, grow fruit, vegetables and seeds, raise animals, nurse with the St John Ambulance and travel the world, they were huge fans of motor cars. In fact, they owned a 1927 Rolls Royce which had a specially attached tow bar to allow them to take cattle to the RDS sales and shows.

While I could easily have spent the day learning more about the splendid sisters, guide Leah also explained to us the raison d’etre for the estate - the 38-acre estate is a fitting tribute, pushing the boundaries of what agricultural land can achieve and finding innovative ways to use the original family home, gardens, and award-winning restaurant to surprise and delight people of all ages.

Our visit to the Airfield ended with a chance to taste the fruits of their labour. I opted for fish cakes with slaw made from cabbage, radish and cucumber with a harissa mayo which was absolutely delicious.

The LexIcon

Then it was off to the mountains to discover the second section of the DLR’s attractions “from the mountains to the sea”. Driving up into the Dublin mountains, just 15 minutes later we were at Tibradden Wood at ZipIt, where thrills await among the treetops. Discover your wild side in the treetop high ropes parks, with fun and excitement for all age groups in the family. The various courses are built in a natural forest setting. Safety advice, training and equipment is provided by staff who are trained to European instructors level. ZipIt really is a victim of its own success and is regularly fully booked so make sure you reservice your place in advance.

While ZipIt was high in the mountains, we still went higher and were soon at Glencullen Adventure Park (GAP) - Ireland’s only mountain bike circuit park with an uplift (a specially modified van to take riders and their bikes to the summit so they can have all of the fun without the hassle of tiring themselves out riding to the top!). GAP is just five years old but boasts 32 trails for skills from intermediate to triple black.

While mountain biking has mainly been a male dominated sport, GAP is bucking the trend and one of their main instructors Sinead said that more and more females are now trying it out. Initially working in the office at GAP, Sinead decided to give mountain biking a try and is now hooked: “It’s my life now. I cycle every Wednesday and I need it to rearrange my mind for the rest of the week.”

And it seems she is not alone in her love of the sport. GAP is hugely popular with cyclists from Northern Ireland with ‘Nordie’ number plates regularly seen in the car park each weekend. Leaving the actual down-the-mountain cycling to my brave colleague, I was content to take in the spectacular view from the summit before cadging a ‘down-lift’ in the van, stopping off to view the Giant’s Grave - a Bronze Age burial chamber which was uncovered on the GAP lands.

Back to Killiney, after a freshen up, it was time to relax in the intimate and cosy Library Cocktail Bar where we met Hotel Manager Mark Scott-Lennon (son of Eithne) and Sales and Marketing Manager Alicia Traynor who introduced us to the wonderfully refreshing cocktail Sorrento Sorbeto - a palate cleansing, delicious blend of vodka, limoncello and egg whites. With a nod to surrounding Sorrento theme of the area, this fabulous sorbet-based cocktail was just the pick-me-up to fuel us into the final part of our stay.

We were back up into the mountains to enjoy the experience that is the world-renowned Johnnie Fox’s pub, the self styled ‘highest pub in Ireland’ (other claimants are available!).

From the outside, it seems to be a quaint, rural, hanging-basket bedecked bar but step inside and the Tardis-proportioned-pub expands with rooms leading into rooms, nooks into crannies and every square inch of space decorated with all things Irish.

Sitting down to dinner, it took all my concentration to stop reading the walls and to read the menu but was I ever glad that I did? Starting with pickled herring served with vinegar and dill coleslaw, quail egg and Fox’s homemade Marie Rose Sauce, I also chose pan fried salmon fillet for main course. The huge fillet was served with green peas, radish and spring onion mash, creamy dill and caper sauce. It was all quite delicious and the portions were massively generous.

Just about able to move from the table after such a fabulous feed, we were able to catch the finale of the famous Johnnie Fox’s Hooley with the famous Fox’s troupe of Irish dancers, and lively band playing traditional Irish music. The party was in full swing when we arrived to catch the top class dancers bringing the house down with their Riverdance style performances.

Established in 1798, Johnnie Fox’s is a firm favourite with locals and visitors who flock from all over the world for this authentic taste of Ireland so make sure you book in advance for either dining or the Hooley Night.

Then it was time to head for home after our whistle-stop tour of the delights of DLR. Do yourself a favour and next time, take a look beyond Dublin city centre and discover the stunning scenery, dining delights, captivating coast and mountain marvels awaiting you in Dun Laoghaire Rathdown ‘from the mountains to the sea’.

Una Culkin (front left) enjoying a trip around the bay with the Irish National Sailing and Powerboat School
Powerboating around the bay
Treetop thrills at Zip-It
Archers at Dalkey Castle
The famous Hooley at Johnnie Fox's pub
The Giant's Grave at Glencullen