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Our midnight blue and silver train, like a faerie chariot, carries us deep into Ireland, a land where myth and superstition inhabit a gorgeous, many-storied landscape.
Pampered, and charmed by superb food, music and tales of an ancient isle, we're on an inaugural journey of Belmond's sparkling new Grand Hibernian. The name references the classical Latin word for Ireland, reminding us that the intention of our journey is not just to make merry – though there will be a fair bit of that – but also to celebrate Ireland's romance and culture.
The country's first luxury touring train is the latest addition to Belmond's stable of rolling stock thoroughbreds, which includes the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE), Eastern & Oriental Express, Edinburgh's Royal Scotsman, Britain's Northern Belle and British Pullman.
But unlike those trains – mostly vintage dark wood and brass art deco beauties – the Grand Hibernian is of a contemporary, though not minimalist, design. It's as if we're entering an Irish country house in all its relaxed, sumptuous elegance.
There's a proud Irishness to the Grand Hibernian. Dublin's Georgian architecture and intricate designs of Irish folklore inspire the decor. The Celtic knot is a recurring symbol on the panelled walls, ceilings, glass, passenger keys, tableware, carpets, even staff badges worn on Donegal tweed waistcoats.
The 10 carriages are named for Irish counties, accommodating 40 passengers in 20 twin or double en suite cabins.
There are two dining cars – the light-filled, tweedy Wexford, with its tables of six, and Sligo, with its four-seaters, has an elegant Georgian finish perfect for evening meals. Both feature flowers tumbling from Waterford crystal. Kildare, the observation car, is the train's hub, where guests and staff meet, listen to music and storytelling and basically carouse.
Some may wonder about the usefulness of Irish train journeys given the country's size. At its widest and longest, it's only about 280 kilometres across and 486 kilometres long. This means there's no hurtling across vast distances as with African, Australian or Canadian luxury trains – our four-night Legends and Lochs journey covers about 900 kilometres. The longest, six-night, option covers 2217 kilometres, with some backtracking (Sydney to Perth is about 4000 kilometres).
"Tootle" might be the appropriate word, with the train rarely going for longer than four hours at a stretch. Like an expensive thoroughbred, it "stables" for the night so guests are not catapulted from their beds.
Archaeologist Vincent Butler, with his fine knowledge of Irish history and keen humour, is our story guide. He'll take us from peat bog bodies, fairy ring forts, Pagan belief systems and the Celtic "painted ones" of Roman times through the Anglo Norman invasion, the Irish Plantations with their magnificent landlorded estates and castles, the potato blight and the landless, "invisible Irish", the significance of the blanket bogs and rugged moorlands of Connemara that gave rise to the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and more.
Daytime train time is limited – we step off after breakfast to tour around, only returning in the evening, but I see it this way: this is Ireland's time and I'm the student – admittedly a somewhat indulged and overfed student.
DAY ONE Dublin to Cork, 220 kilometres
There's the warmest of Irish welcomes at Dublin's Heuston Station, made warmer by champagne, a red carpet and train manager, Wolfgang Eipe, VSOE veteran, ushering us along plush carpets to our cabin in Waterford carriage.
Having once been pinned into a claustrophobic American Pullman cabin by two suitcases, this cabin is a breath of fresh Irish air. Designers have kept a careful eye on stowage. Our twin beds, writing desk, large wardrobe, multiple drawers and en suite bathroom conceal veritable wormholes of space.
Generous windows display wall-to-wall golden bracken, green hills, drystone walls, Scots pine and birch trees framing black-faced, slightly affronted looking sheep.
Decor reflects Irish county traditional tartan colours – shades of purple for Kerry, cool blues for Waterford, Leitrim reds. Luxury touches come with the Galway crystal light fittings, elaborate fan, panelled and embossed walls. The duck down duvets, Egyptian cotton linen and Irish wool blankets inspire sweet dreams of mostly benign leprechauns, depending how much whiskey there's been the night before.
Like a contemporary art gallery, the train is hung with watercolours, oils and lithographs, part of Belmond's exhibition that reflects a profound sense of place and continues the Grand Hibernian's narrative of Ireland.
We'll learn more about this Irish obsession with place, born from the fact the land has been occupied, confiscated and destroyed by war. There's a passion and gratitude that it's theirs again (most of it, anyway).
Green fields soon swallow us as the train rambles into County Cork, Ireland's largest and southernmost region. Having already noticed the kitchen bustle, it comes as no surprise that there will, naturally, be food.
It arrives in the form of an Irish afternoon tea, resembling an art exhibit – delicate scones, sandwiches and homemade cakes. This is our introduction to head chef Alan Woods' magical world of gourmandising.
Bellies full of fairy food, we disembark for an early evening visit to the Jameson distillery at Midleton, near Cork, home of the world's largest pot still. "Pot still" sounds vaguely medical but there will be nothing medical about the array of aged whiskies this train journey offers, turning this whiskey sceptic into a wee fan. Who knew barley could be so tasty?
A tour of the Old Midleton Distillery, where whiskey has been distilled since 1825, includes a tasting of premium whiskies.
Then it's back to the train for dinner in Sligo and our proper introduction to Alan Woods' exceptional Irish contemporary cuisine. Woods. previously head chef at Dublin's Michelin-starred Thornton's and his fine staff, uses seasonal ingredients prepared onboard.
Tonight it's pan-seared Beara Peninsula scallops, Jerusalem artichoke puree, truffle and madeira jus, followed by Skeaghanore duck and a roast apple tarte tatin with raisin ice-cream and Middleton whiskey sauce. Sounds a lot but the portions are carefully balanced so you can actually fit into your cabin afterwards.
The food story continues after dinner with the nightly tradition of drinks and traditional entertainment in the observation car that stretch into the small hours. Cork City singer/songwriter Roy Buckley, who has shared the stage with the likes of The Dubliners, gets any Irish blood simmering with his passionate folk music.
DAY TWO – Cork to Killarney, then Limerick Junction, 230 kilometres
Wexford, with its tables of six is where we breakfast on Irish free-range eggs, sausages and bacon, Portobello mushrooms, potato cake, black and white puddings, oatmeal porridge with berries and brown sugar, Donegal turf-smoked salmon, Hegarty's cheddar cheese omelette and the chef's grandma's homemade brown soda bread, not necessarily all at once.
For those who wish to distract themselves from the calories, Wexford's library has an array of Irish titles including James Joyce's Ulysses for the masochist.
The train moseys south into exceptionally scenic country, headed for the 15th-century Blarney Castle, built as a stronghold for the McCarthy clan and home to that most romantic of Irish relics, the Blarney Stone.
If you kiss it – no small feat as this involves being suspended from the battlements by the ankles – you will receive the gift of eloquence. And there I was thinking it was the whiskey.
Naturally the English put a spoke in the wheel. Elizabeth I impugned Lord Blarney, using the word as an expression of dubiousness. The Lakes of Killarney in County Kerry are next, nestling at the foot of Ireland's highest mountain range – the McGillycuddy's Reeks, which rise to more than 1000 metres. The three lakes – Leane, Muckross and Upper – lie in a mountain-ringed valley of exceptional grandeur.
Guests pile in for a spin in a Killarney jaunting car – Ireland's most traditional pony-and-trap mode of transport – then it's time to mess about in boats for a excursion onto the largest of the lakes, Lough Leane, with champagne.
All this blarney, boating and buggy riding has piqued the appetite, which is fortunate as Woods has been working his dinner magic, producing dishes such as roast Killarney venison loin with celeriac, fondant potato and confit blackberry jus.
After dinner, one of Ireland's famed storytellers, Pat Speight, awaits. Speight has clearly kissed that stone with his tall and spine tingling tales of kings and warriors, witches and ghosts, fairies and mermaids as the train canters towards Tralee and then back to its Limerick stable.
DAY THREE – Limerick to Galway, then Westport, 180 kilometres
It's breakfast time – hold the black pudding, please – as we head north to the city of tribes, gorgeous Galway, established in 1124 by the Anglo Normans as an important medieval fort port. Galway is awash with students – 20,000 of the city's 70,000 residents are scholars, which might account for its lively bohemian air.
The Hibernian story continues as it began, with an excellent meal of the sweetest Galway oysters and champagne, line-caught West Cork plaice with organic kale and watercress pesto and fennel-crushed potatoes at a restaurant called Ard Bia at Nimmos. The Irish food renaissance is certainly in full flight.
The restaurant, near Galway's remaining Spanish Arches, where the rushing River Corrib empties into the Atlantic, marks the start of our walking tour. Galway, like every Irish city, offers a rich, potted history of Ireland.
This is the birthplace of Burke, of Burke and Wills, the home of Norah Barnacle, James Joyce's wife, of Aran jumpers and the Claddagh ring, and sayings like: "Lynch mob" and "They wouldn't give us the time of day". Every street, building and church has a tale.
It's enough to make you peckish, which is excellent, for a strawberry daiquiri/red carpet welcome awaits, followed by another dinner masterpiece – confit of saddleback pork belly, North Atlantic halibut and Valrhona Guanaja savarin, hazelnut praline and hazelnut ice-cream.
Tonight, it's the ethereal, traditional music of harpist, fiddler, pianist and vocalist, Floriane Blancke, who came to Ireland from Paris and fell in love with Celtic music. As we slide through a darkened landscape, Floriane, with her music, conjures up Ireland's otherworld.
DAY FOUR AND FIVE – Westport to Dublin, 283 kilometres
The next day, we're up early and heading through the beautiful Georgian town of Westport en route to a typical former landlorded estate, Ashford Castle, the former Guinness family estate that dates from 1228 on the shores of Lough Corrib in County Mayo. Its grandeur is down to the family's desire to impress Prince George V in 1905 and climb the greasy pole. It worked.
This is where the classic "love letter to Ireland" – The Quiet Man with John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara – was filmed in 1952. There's more amazing food, naturally – herb-crusted wild hake with risotto nero, Connemara mussels, clams, wild langoustine and bouillabaisse jus.
Finally a spot of falconry – a "hawk walk" through the grounds with my Harris's hawk, Beckett, who, being young, is a bit silly but earnest in dive-bombing scuttling leaves.
A drive through the deeply significant Connemara comes next, with Vincent telling his absorbing stories, then it's a welcome back to the train with Galway oysters and Guinness.
At the end of the day, after another fine meal, including Donegal turf-smoked salmon and crab cannon, herring roe, horseradish mayonnaise, followed by Clew Bay black-faced lamb (no wonder they look affronted) with spinach puree, girolle mushrooms, boulangaire potatoes with mild garlic sauce, we have a performance of pure, heartfelt Irish folk singing.
Michael Banahan on guitar and vocals, accompanied by mandolin and tenor banjo players carries us deep into the night, clapping and singing along, until a rendition of The Wild Rover catapults our young steward to his feet in an flurry of long legs and high kicks.
Not that you'd notice, with the array of aged Irish whiskies (like 21-year-old Redbreast, Writer's Tears, Green Spot and Yellow Spot pot) and gins (like Dingle, Bertha's Revenge, made with Irish cow's milk, Shortcross from Northern Ireland and the explosively delicious Gunpowder, distilled in County Leitrim) ready to soothe any small haematomas.
Bleary-eyed, satisfied and somewhat plumper, we wake on our fifth day and watch the sun stain the Irish sky red over breakfast. We arrive back at Dublin's Heuston Station to begin a period of fasting, which lasts only till lunch time.
Emirates and Qantas codeshare from Sydney and Melbourne to Dublin via Dubai. See qantas.com.au.
Belmond Grand Hibernian's season runs from April to October. There are three journeys: Legends and Loughs: Dublin-Cork-Killarney-Galway-Westport-Dublin (four nights); Realm of Giants: Dublin-Belfast-Portrush-Dublin (two nights); Grand Tour of Ireland (six nights) combines the two. Golf journeys also available. Prices start from €3160 ($4565) a person for a two-night journey with two guests sharing twin or double cabins and include meals, drinks, excursions and accommodation. See Belmond.com/grandhibernian.
Alison Stewart was a guest of Belmond and Tourism Ireland
FIVE MORE LUXURY TRAIN JOURNEYS
Golden Eagle's 15-day Trans-Siberian Express from Moscow to Vladivostok (or vice versa) is one of the world's greatest luxury railway journeys. Traversing two continents and seven time zones, this centenarian journey offers off-train highlights like hiking around Lake Baikal, Irkutsk cooking classes and Yekaterinburg walking tours. See goldeneagleluxurytrains.com.
Rovos Rail's 15-day Pride of Africa Dar es Salaam to Cape Town (or vice versa) is another spectacular luxury adventure across five countries, negotiating the mighty Zambezi, the huge Selous Game Reserve, then the spectacular tunnels, viaducts and switchbacks of the Great Rift Valley. See rovos.com.
Belmond's Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, made famous in Agatha Christie's novel Murder on the Orient Express, is most people's idea of the archetypal luxury train. Signature journeys are Paris to Istanbul and Istanbul to Venice (both five nights). See belmond.com.
Belmond's Eastern & Oriental Express's six-night south-east Asian odyssey from Singapore to Bangkok stops in Penang and Kuala Lumpur. Begin your journey as you mean to continue – at the Raffles Hotel with a Singapore Sling. See belmond.com.
Great Southern Rail's The Ghan is an opportunity to explore the heart of Australia in luxury. If you can, choose platinum service for cabins almost twice the size of gold cabins, the Platinum Club carriage – separate bar, lounge and dining area for platinum passengers – and excellent contemporary Australian food. Travel from Adelaide to Darwin (or vice versa). See greatsouthernrail.com.au.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO SEE ALONG TO THE WAY
The Little Museum of Dublin is an eclectic collection of more than 5000 artefacts donated by the people of Dublin, ranging from James Joyce's death mask to a Che Guevara poster. Museum guides deliver a potted political and social history of Ireland, complete with grand gestures, snippets of poetry and a sprinkling of good-humoured ritual crowd humiliation. See littlemuseum.ie.
The Cliffs of Moher are one of Ireland's tourist gems, stretching eight kilometres along the County Clare Atlantic west coast. Filmed as the "Cliffs of Insanity" in The Princess Bride, the shale and sandstone cliffs have 300 million-year-old river channels cutting through their bases. An optional off-train excursion. See cliffsofmoher.ie.
St Nicholas' Church in the middle of Galway city's medieval centre is where Christopher Columbus prayed in 1477. Burke of Burke & Wills was baptised at the 400-year-old font. A portrait of Galway's virtuous Jane Eyre is said to have inspired Charlotte Bronte. Cromwell's troops stabled their horses here after the siege of Galway in 1652 and chopped off most of the statues' hands and feet. A Knight Templar is buried here. There's no clock on the Irish-facing side of the church, giving rise to the saying, "They wouldn't give us the time of day". See stnicholas.ie.
Killary Harbour in wild Connemara is Ireland's only true fjord, extending 16 kilometres in from the Atlantic and forming a partial border between Galway and Mayo. Lennane, a picturesque village with a true Irish pub serving true Irish coffee is near the fjord's head. Lennane was featured in the film The Field. See connemara.ie.
Ballyfin House in County Laois, 90 minutes from Dublin, is Belmond's recommended post-train stopover. The 20-room grand neoclassical gem has just won Conde Nast Traveler's 2016 best hotel in the world award. See ballyfin.com.