Belmond Grand Hibernian – Ireland’s first luxury sleeper train – journeys in style through the Emerald Isle’s green and glorious land, writes Phil Hawkes
“May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind always be at your back…”
This old Irish proverb seems remarkably prescient right now as my wife and I are standing on Ireland’s wild and majestic Cliffs of Moher, although the wind is more a howling gale and the rain is falling almost horizontally.
And the path we’re travelling on through Ireland’s green and glorious heartland isn’t actually a long and winding road, rather a straight and narrow railway track on board Ireland’s first luxury sleeper train.
The term ‘luxury sleeper train’ really doesn’t do this remarkable country-house-on-wheels justice. Just as the legendary Venice Simplon-Orient-Express transports well-heeled passengers from London to Venice in supreme style and comfort, Belmond Grand Hibernian does the same around Ireland – only with much more contemporary Gaelic flair.
Launched in 2016 to great fanfare, the train offers leisurely sojourns of the Emerald Isle each year between April and October, scheduling journeys of two, four and six nights that stretch across both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – each departing and arriving back at Dublin’s Heuston Station.
We’re on board the four-night Legends and Loughs, a wonderful itinerary that meanders leisurely between Cork, Killarney, Galway and Westport, offering a slice of Ireland at is best with a thick pat of Kerrygold butter on the side.
The gleaming midnight-blue train sets a new benchmark for luxury train travel in Ireland. Steeped in history and heritage and polished to within an inch of its life, the train comprises 20 elegant carriages with room for just 40 fortunate passengers, a saloon-style Observation Car and two elegant restaurant cars.
Each carriage bears the title of a well-known Irish county – Kerry, Down, Leitrim, Waterford, and the like – their names rolling off the tongue like a plump Galway oyster washed down with a pint or two of charcoal-black Guinness.
The 16 twin and four double private compartments have a surprisingly fresh and modern ambience, each with an ensuite shower, wardrobe, desk, and picture window for gazing out at Ireland’s emerald green scenery rolling by.
Each carriage has a unique interior design. Kerry is decked in vibrant purple; Down is splashed with pops of orange; bold reds add warmth to Leitrim, and cool blues are a natural choice for coastal Waterford. (The double cabins can interconnect with twins, making them ideal for families or friends travelling together.)
The overall design aesthetic is Irish Georgian, a hard-and-soft blend of stone counters, wool carpets, and wonderful artworks by some of the country’s leading artists.
Soothing greys in a classic Irish tartan adorn many of the train’s soft furnishings, providing a seemingly simple yet calm backdrop to both the train and scenery outside.
Our journey starts on a chilly May morning at Dublin’s Westbury Hotel where we are greeted warmly by Anne-Marie, our tour director. “Maidin mhaith,” she says cheerily, giving “good morning” our first taste of the lilting Gaelic accent we’re about to hear so many times over the next five days.
Over coffee and canapés, we have a chance to meet our small group of fellow travellers by the fire, before being whisked by coach to Heuston Station for the train’s departure.
With our neatly pressed crew waiting on the platform with glasses of perfectly chilled Laurent-Perrier, we’re shown to the Observation Car for a comprehensive briefing and then escorted to our cabin.
It’s a triumph of intelligent design – after all, this is a train carriage and space is obviously limited – but the designers have managed to create a feeling of comfort and warmth with Egyptian cotton bed linen, Irish duck down bedding, and toiletries by Bamford.
Every day, there’s an excursion by coach to a number of interesting places, including a couple not open to the general public. At Blarney Castle, for example, we arrive before the gates officially open and so are given the opportunity to kiss the Blarney Stone before the tourist crowd arrives (more than a million would-be kissers climb the steep castle stairs every year). It’s a tad scary leaning out over the parapet on your back, being held only by your legs while you kiss the famous stone, so just remember to take some wet wipes.
All these daily optional activities (passengers are, of course, free to remain on the train and relax quietly should they so choose) naturally inspire a healthy appetite, and one of the train’s biggest surprises is the Grand Hibernian cuisine.
Master Chef Alan Woods explains why the food is so farm-fresh: “Every morning, very early, we pick up local produce from wherever the train is, and that determines the day’s menu. It’s a huge logistical exercise, but it’s also fun shopping at the local markets.”
The result is an Irish bounty of the most succulent seafood, meats, vegetables and cheeses served in the train’s two elegant restaurant cars named Sligo and Wexford.
Each dinner menu is a three-course feast. Tuesday, for example, brings a Dublin Bay prawn cocktail, roast Skeaghanore duck breast with dauphinoise potatoes, and a plump tarte tatin with banana ice cream and Middleton Whiskey sauce.
A head-spinning array of gourmet dishes featuring scallops, lamb, halibut, smoked salmon, crab, veal, rabbit, turbot, lobster, pork loin, tiny quails’ eggs and beef wellington fly out of the train’s compact kitchens throughout the trip, each one a triumph of culinary excellence.
All wines are complimentary as are all other bar offerings – and this is where the real fun begins. Each evening sees a different talent board the train to entertain the passengers, a mini United Nations from Texas, Canada, Singapore and the Netherlands.
Another morning is spent at the historic Ashford Castle which was owned by the famous Guinness family for many years. Here we’re introduced to a friendly Harris hawk called Wilde (which fittingly also answers to Oscar).
We discover the ancient art of falconry and how to land a hawk on a well-gloved arm, followed by a gourmet lunch – although none of us dares ask if the “free-range chicken” on the menu is exactly that. Failed falcon, anyone?
A fascinating visit to Jameson’s Whiskey Distillery is another highlight, complete with an educational Irish whiskey tasting. After this, you’ll speak fluent Gaelic and swear never to touch scotch again.
Every activity is professionally planned and thoroughly enjoyable – even our wet and wild walk along the legendary Cliffs of Moher.
Then there’s the horse-and-carriage ride through rolling countryside to the ancient ruins of Ross Castle, culminating in a boat trip on Lough Leane, serenaded by some talented local musicians.
A visit to a mountainside farm and a sheep dog demonstration round out another day, reminding us of our Border Collie we left at home, half a world away. She wouldn’t be able to cope with these steep hills; her Irish cousins behave more like mountain goats.
But it’s two Manhattan gals, straight out of Sex and the City, who really know how to party. One night they take over the bar duties and create some memorable cocktails. Needless to say the party outlasts the folk singers and storytellers and there are a few latecomers for breakfast the next morning.
Just like an Agatha Christie novel, there’s a certain air of mystery about some of our fellow travellers. For example, there’s the Dutch gentleman who wears a suit and tie to dinner (everyone else is smart casual). We call him William of Orange after the 17th century king who defeated James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
Then there’s our very own Singapore Girl who left her banking career behind, and who seemingly just travels the world in style. And from America’s Deep South, a mother and daughter channelling Gone with the Wind with those curvy southern accents.
And that’s the ultimate joy of the Belmond Grand Hibernian. It’s a window to Ireland’s green and wild beauty; cosy, clever cabins; top class food and wine; extraordinary daily activities, and the chance to meet like-minded fellow travellers who subscribe to the wise words of Irish playwright Oscar Wilde: “I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best.”