Josie and I went to Ireland in August for 12 days. It all felt strangely and wonderfully familiar, partly because of an all self-drive itinerary I created for one of my clients travelling there. I had the chance to enjoy two nights in Belfast before boarding the Belmond train and travelling west before staying three nights in Dublin. This is an ideal itinerary if a client does not want to do self-drive or be stuck on a big coach bus.
1. What cities did you visit in Ireland?
Dublin, Cork, Killarney, Galway, Belfast
2. What was your highlight and why?
Kiran: Belmond Grand Hibernian train was my highlight because it is luxury train service tailored to all your needs and want. The staff went above and beyond to cater to diet restrictions and always did so with a smile.
Josie: The luxury train experience all on its own was a major highlight for me. The pampering, the special daily activities such as the private tour of Blarney Castle and lunch at Ashford Castle had me leaving Ireland feeling like a VIP. The service on the Belmond train was outstanding.
3. What was your favourite 3 properties and why?
Josie: Grand Central Hotel (Belfast) 4* – A newly built hotel in a very central location. The room was spacious and the bathroom and shower were excellent. The highlight of my stay was definitely the most comfortable bedding I have ever slept in. The options at breakfast were great and the food was delicious. The staff were all very pleasant, helpful and friendly. I will definitely be recommending this hotel to all my clients.
Ashling Hotel (Dublin) 4* – The location is great and perfect for passengers travelling by train, as it is located close to Heuston station. It’s a bit of a walk to the city centre, however there is a tram stop right by the hotel for those who aren’t keen on walking. The rooms are a good size for Dublin and the security at the hotel is great. You need a room key to enter the floor your room is on, and there is a security guard by the door at night. The breakfast room is large and has a great selection.
The Alex Hotel (Dublin) 4* – Although I didn’t have the pleasure of staying at this hotel, I was able to do a hotel inspection during my trip. To me the location is perfect since it’s central yet located on a quieter street in Dublin. Newly renovated, the hotel is also very clean. The décor of The Alex is very trendy, modern with a retro twist. The rooms are spacious and the bathrooms are beautiful. Overall this is a great 4* boutique hotel.
Kiran: I have to say that I picked the exact same three properties.
4. You travelled on the Belmond Train. Name 2 things that surprised you about the experience?
Kiran: One thing surprised me was how the Train Manager was always present for all onboard meals and helped the dining staff with client meals and drinks. The observation cart is also open until last guest is gone. You can just sit there till 2am reading a book or having a cocktail. The train manager and a staff member will be there, but you never feel rushed.
Josie: The pampering. Going on the Belmond train I was anticipating great service, however I did not expect the staff to be as accommodating as they were. They were exceptional and went above and beyond to make sure their guests had the most pleasurable experience. Before we left the train for daily activities, the staff would come around with the dinner menus to make sure all guests were happy with the items on the menu. If an item on the menu wasn’t to your liking, they would offer some alternatives to make sure you were satisfied. One evening I asked for an Aperol Spritz but the train ran out of Aperol on the previous journey. The next morning when the train was stopped in Waterford, the train manager Michael Andrews, got one of his crew members to get me a bottle of Aperol. I was very appreciative of this kind gesture and did not expect it at all.
The food. I was surprised with how health conscious they were with the menu. The food was very fresh and the portion sizes were perfect. Not too much and not too little. The wine pairing they had with every course was also impressive. I can’t say that there was a meal I did not enjoy.
There was a nice mix of daily activities but some days they were exhausting. The experiences included were great however I wasn’t expecting to be off the train for full days. This was definitely surprising to me.
5. What are some interesting excursions, or itineraries that you would recommend (One on the train and one off the train)?
Kiran: The Black Cab Tour in Belfast covers the history of Belfast and how recent it is. It is a short 90 minute tour and it gives you great insight into the history. On the train, the Belmond group goes to Blarney Castle before it is open to the public. The guide is the head of marketing as there is no guide at Blarney Castle. We were able to go up to the Blarney Stone in a matter of minutes as there was no queue.
Josie: On the Train – Blarney Castle. This is a definitely a unique experience Belmond offers since Blarney Castle doesn’t normally do private tours. The visit to the castle is early in the morning, so you avoid the crowd and long cues to kiss the Blarney stone. The experience definitely makes you feel like a VIP… at least I did!
Off the Train – Guinness Storehouse in Dublin. Last year when I was in Ireland I didn’t have a chance to visit the Guinness Storehouse. I definitely recommend booking tickets in advance and going early in the morning when it first opens. Kiran and I were planning to go to the Guinness Storehouse early afternoon, but one of the crew members on the train suggested we go first thing in the morning when it opens. This was probably the best advice since we were able to enjoy our pint of Guinness with less of a crowd. It takes about two hours to visit the entire building, so by the time you make it to the top for your pint of Guinness, it’s closer to 12pm which is perfect.
6. Top tip for agents selling Ireland?
Kiran: – Top tip for agents will be rather than doing Belfast as a day tour from Dublin, I recommend staying minimum 2 night to see how beautiful of a city it is and to learn the history and see how much it is influence by the UK.
Josie: The weather in Ireland is always iffy and changes in seconds, so make sure clients bring the right clothes and are ready for the rain. Bring clothes to layer and a rain jacket.
Use the Hop on Hop off Bus tour for transportation around Dublin. I suggest going on one with commentary.
If clients aren’t keen on driving, try to include a combination of both Northern and Southern Ireland. Last time I was in Ireland I didn’t have a chance to visit Belfast and this time I’m happy I did. The difference between the two is ridiculous. Belfast is definitely worth a 2-night stay. Be sure to include a Black Cab tour in Belfast as well.
The Game of Thrones tour from Belfast also visits the Giants Causeway which I’m not sure many people realize. I’m going to start recommending this tour over the Giants Causeway tour, as it includes more highlights.
7. Top tip for selling Belmond Experiences
Kiran: I recommend clients doing two nights in Belfast, then joining the Train followed by two nights at the end in Dublin. The train is a great way to see the East to West itinerary and it covers a lot of the main sights in luxury.
Josie: Do you fancy travelling through a country without the hassle of packing and unpacking? Having everything taken care of from your meals, to daily activities, to alcoholic beverages and even nightly entertainment? Care to be pampered? If so then the Belmond train is for you. The Belmond experience is a worry-free travel experience with 5* service. The days are long and mostly spent off the train, so make sure clients are aware of this. The Belmond staff are there to ensure your experience is exceptional, so advise clients to speak up if they aren’t fully satisfied.
8. Did you learn anything new, or did anything surprise you about the destination?
Kiran: I know weather is unpredictable but in Ireland you really see it. I travelled in August and I got to experience all seasons in my 12 days of travelling there. You really want to pack for everything but definitely always need your rain coat handy.
Josie: Belfast. I didn’t realize that the troubles in Belfast were so recent and that there is still a major divide between Northern and Southern Ireland. When you are in Belfast it doesn’t feel like you’re in Ireland. You can definitely feel the UK influence. Definitely worth a short stopover.
8. If you can go back, what would you like to see/do?
Kiran: If I go back I will do a self-drive and travel to small towns.
Josie: More of the Northern part of Ireland. I haven’t had a chance to visit the Aran Islands so this is definitely on my list. I would also like to experience an overnight castle stay. The people, the energy, the food and the craic, make Ireland one of my favourite countries in Europe to visit. I can’t wait to go back!