It’s no surprise, given computer glitches, unexpected delays and guilt over our collective carbon footprint that train travel is back in style. And this season, more than most, it has inspired festive décor. Designer Christian Louboutin’s glittering red “Loubi Express” forms the focal point of Claridge’s, Christmas decorations. “The idea of travel has always been a key source of inspiration in my work and there is something nostalgic about travelling by train, it reminds me of grand adventures and journeys home.” Perhaps Mr Louboutin had already spied the nostalgic Brown Thomas windows, with their vignettes of first class travel, harking back to Brief Encounter. There’s also a replica art deco dining carriage in The Restaurant for a limited edition Festive Afternoon Tea. Was it a coincidence that the dining car is a shade of midnight blue, channelling Belmond Grand Hibernian carriages, built in Belfast, and decorated after the county they are named?
Fortuitously I was in Co Down, from whence I hail, when I hopped on board a two-night culinary adventure curated by chef Clodagh McKenna. This was the preview for a “Taste of Ireland” journey she will host in 2020. Should you be in need of a grand gesture gift may I recommend this – especially if the recipient is a foodie.
The journey begins at Heuston Station (with red carpet and champagne) our luggage whisked aboard and installed in one of the 16 twin or double cabins. Settling in, Bamford amenities, Foxford throws, Waterford Crystal and Dorothy Cross artwork immediately impress and that’s before we get to one of two dining cars. More sparkling crystal, napery and a warm welcome by McKenna who has carefully choreographed the trip around her favourite culinary hotspots. Working with onboard chef Mark Brodie, she adapted menus from her latest book, Clodagh’s Suppers. Cleverly, as we are passing Waterford we tuck into Waterford Fresh Lobster Salad and Apple & Thyme tart for lunch; later in the evening departing Cork, our Autumnal Southern Ireland supper features an entrée of Toonsbridge Farm Buffalo tart, while our West of Ireland finale dinner finishes with black sole followed by Carrigeen Moss Pudding and Wild Blackberries. I salute the ingenuity of matching menu to destination, and chef Brodie’s skills in such tight quarters.
While I am loath to leave the elegance of the observation car with its picture windows and well-stocked bar, our first stop in this “land cruise” is Ballyvolane House, where foraging and touring Bertha’s Revenge Gin Distillery, also on the premises is on the agenda. (I spy a discreet thank you note from the Prince of Wales – a regular guest). Our final stop is Galway, where a fun visit to the International Oyster Festival is preceded by lunch at the wondrous Ard Bia.
As for the evenings, it’s a mix of casual the first night and dressy the last. No one does gladrags like Clodagh whose inclusiveness ensures the party is a mix of music genres, local musicians and surprises (think traditional dancers, pop-ups and a guest list of A-listers such as model Jodie Kidd, party planner Fiona Leahy and personality Laura Whitmore). There are thoughtful extras on our pillow each evening – a book of Oscar Wilde maxims, some Bertha’s Revenge, an Avoca scarf and much else. This is Irish hospitality on carefully oiled wheels; the maitre d’ and his team of assistants are faultless. I’d go back in a heartbeat.
“A Taste of Ireland with Clodagh McKenna” starts from €3,300 per person including all meals, drinks, entertainment and excursions. www.belmond.com
BALLYFIN COMES TO THE MERRION
A five-day culinary and cultural event at The Merrion takes place from Wednesday, January 29 to Sunday, February 2, when Ballyfin’s executive head chef Sam Moody will join his counterpart at The Merrion, Ed Cooney, to create a specially-designed tasting menu preceded by a champagne reception. These elegant soirées are the backdrop to a series of informal conversations about two great Irish houses. Bridget Hourican will talk about Irish love letters from the past; William Laffan will explore the art collections of the two hotels; Gemma Tipton reveals how Ballyfin and The Merrion were once owned by a pair of brothers (one the Duke of Wellington); and Robert O’Byrne will discuss how women created the Irish country house as we know it today. To purchase a gift voucher, call The Merrion on 01 603 0600, or visit www.merrionhotel.com
OUT OF THE BLUE
Ireland’s Blue Book collection of manor houses, castles and historic hotels now has four Michelin-starred restaurants under its aegis: Campagne in Kilkenny, Chapter One, L’Ecrivain and RPG (that’s Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, of course) demonstrate the importance the Blue Book places on very special food experiences. While Blue Book is expanding, its commitment to the excellent, original and elegant property is as rigorous as ever, and you’ll only find the interesting and the authentic within its pages. Glin Castle in Limerick, now in the hands of Catherine FitzGerald and husband Dominic West, is its latest addition. A gift voucher for Ireland’s Blue Book comes with a copy of the guide, perfect for perusing over breakfast on Christmas Day. Call 01 676 9914; www.irelandsbluebook.com