“You’ll find your car in berth number eight.” Bleary eyed from the overnight flight to Dublin, I made my way out to the lot, expecting to find a modest compact. So you can imagine my astonishment when instead I spotted this:
Wowser. If I had to drive on the wrong side of the road, a BMW 525 was certainly all right by me. Leaving the airport, I headed toward County Wicklow, known as the Garden of Ireland. Fortunately, the roads in the Irish Republic are in great shape (one of the legacies of the pre-2008 Celtic Tiger days, when the Irish economy was booming). In fact, in my week of travels, I put 800 kilometres on the odometer and discovered that even the “B” roads are well paved and, while often narrow and madly winding (are they paved ancient sheep tracks?), largely pothole-free.
The countryside is not only pretty, but also unspoiled and uncrowded as the entire Irish republic has a population of just 4.6 million. After dropping off my bags, I zoomed away to see the first of three gardens on my agenda that day. I managed to stagger through two and got up extra-early the next morning to see the third. But even so, these were whirlwind visits to gardens that could easily justify a pleasant, unhurried excursion on their own.
My first stop was one of the best-known grand gardens in the Irish republic, Powerscourt, where I was to find a lesson not only in beautiful garden design and impeccable maintenance, but savvy entrepreneurship, too.
Dating back to 1730, Powerscourt House was devastated by a fire in 1974 and stood derelict for more than 20 years. Rebuilt and reopened in the mid-1990s, it now houses attractions such as a miniature museum of childhood, and various shops, like this one.
Before you hold your nose, consider that all this commercial activity helps pay for the upkeep of the massive gardens, which include an Italian garden, walled garden, pets’ cemetery and Japanese garden, to name just several. I’ll show you a few photos here, but to get the overall picture, I encourage you to click on the fabulous virtual tour on their website at powerscourt.ie, where you will also find information on opening times and admission fees.
How massive are the grounds? In an excellent online article I read on great Irish gardens in The Independent (www.independent.ie/opinion/analysis/the-art-of-the-great-gardens-of-ireland), the writer, alas unnamed, states that “The idea of Wicklow as a garden is exemplified by Powerscourt, where the terraces, the parterre, the pond with its huge fountain and the plantings of trees and shrubs have ten thousand acres stretching away towards valley and mountain, all of it encompassed in the original design.” I knew I should have bought a pedometer.
The natural setting and its backdrop of mountains embellish the manicured formal gardens that surround the house.
As the gardens have evolved since the 18th century, elegant touches abound. Such as statuary and these gates and old stone mosaics.
There are a great many beautiful trees, including hundreds of ancient beeches.
And some not-so-ancient, such as this weeping purple beech planted in 1967 by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Elsewhere, the beds are much looser and more generous.
And include unexpected plants, such as thistle.
There are roses galore, and beds of dahlias neatly bordered by bidens.
And you can get a really good lunch! Midway through the afternoon, I had a delicious bowl of house-made tomato-carrot soup with crème frâiche, a doorstop of fabulous brown bread, and a large slice of lemon meringue tart—the meringue on top was hard, not squishy—washed down by numerous cups of tea. Thus fortified, it was time to head off to the next garden. However, I somehow did manage to miss Ireland’s tallest waterfall, located five kilometres from Powerscourt but part of the estate.
Welcome to Kilruddery (www.killruddery.com), which has a completely different vibe. There is tea room but no array of fancy shops, though in the small gift shop, I did buy a my granddaughter a lovely doll, hand-knitted by one of the gardeners.
And Kilruddery is much smaller and more manageable than Powerscourt. Since 1618, descendants of the Brabazon family have lived at and farmed the estate, which has been the setting for a number of films, such as My Left Foot, Angela’s Ashes and Far and Away.
The gardens, whose designs date back as far as the 17th century and one of Le Notre’s pupils, are the oldest in Ireland. Let me show you what the years can do.
Some things just take time. A lot of time. I give you: The Beech Hedge Pond. (I know, I know.)
Just beyond, this formal parterre dates back to the 19th century.
And I was in time to tour the house (no photos allowed) and this elegant orangery, built in 1852.
Where I was allowed to take a photo of the Cara marble statues. Shame you have to miss all the other interesting stuff in the house, though.
And then I headed for the decidedly less formal, charming, walled kitchen garden. That day, the pigs were not in evidence, but chickens were clucking about.
And happy children were playing in the giant sand pit right in the centre of an old apple orchard. Hmm…I hope there aren’t too many cats around…
And although it was late in the season, there were still veggies and herbs being harvested in the kitchen garden. And then I was done.
I did make a game effort to get to the third garden on my list, but Serena, my GPS, wouldn’t allow me to find it. “Recalculating,” she kept saying sternly, which was Serena-talk for “you’ve had enough, you old fool, now let me take you back to your hotel.” You can imagine how happy I was to feast my eyes on this:
Hunter’s Hotel, which was to be my home for the next three nights (more on that next time). With sobs of gratitude, I pulled into that teensy little space on the left, which leads to the parking area. And no, I didn’t ding the bimmer.
Next week, I’ll tell you about the Irish National Stud (stop that! It’s a what, not a who) and many other delights. Until then, have a happy Thanksgiving, and please read on if you’d like a few quick travel tips.
How I Avoid Jet Lag
When I was a young woman I was terrified of flying, which is strange for the daughter of an aeronautical engineer. But these days, after many years and so many flights, I’ve barely got my seatbelt on before I relax and start snoozing—there’s something delicious about knowing that I can just sit there without needing to do anything for the duration of the journey. And as long as I can manage to stretch out my legs, I’m an absolute champion at sleeping through overnight flights. I don’t tend to suffer from jetlag, having learned years ago how to turn my body clock around with melatonin from a column written by Jane E. Brody in The New York Times. It works for me, and it might interest you:
Driving Tips for Ireland
- Bring a GPS. It will be your absolute best friend (I call mine Serena because of its dulcet tones, and it has been with me on many adventures). And don’t forget to update your satellite maps.
- As you’ll be driving on the left-hand side of the road, pay the extra and opt for automatic transmission. I mean, do you really need the added stress of thinking about how to shift in a mirror-opposite movement with your left hand while negotiating a busy roundabout?
- It never hurts to have a good touring map with you, to help you double-check that you’re actually headed in the right direction. The GPS (or sat nav, as it’s known over there) is not infallible and road works and changes to signs aren’t always picked up.
- Be sure you have a cellphone, as you can’t rely on finding a public payphone anywhere, including motorway rest stops. To avoid racking up high long distance charges, consider buying a local one at the airport. Mine was 60 euros (around $75), and it will come in handy in Britain as well one day. (If that sounds expensive, a few years ago while in Italy, my cousin checked her emails on her Canadian phone and received a bill for $500.)