Having traveled on Belmond’s trains the Royal Scotsman and the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, I was already a fan of the company’s products.
I’m also a fan of Ireland, having driven thousands of miles through both the Republic of Ireland and the North. Some visitors aren’t as comfortable driving, however, particularly on the left, but still want to explore the country. For them, particularly for first time visitors, Belmond’s Grand Hibernian train, in its first full season this year, could well be the way to go.
The dark blue train itself is handsome, with twenty en suite cabins furnished with light wood, local artwork and tartan fabrics of the county that gives each car its name (my car, Waterford, contained cabins in a pastiche of muted blues; others slant red, purple, etc.). They’re not huge, which requires strategic but possible luggage storage if two people are traveling together and the train has only four cabins with a double bed, an incentive to book early and get one or accept one of the 16 others with two twin beds. Booking early also helps in cabin placement: the earliest to reserve get cabins closer to the two dining cars and adjacent bar/observation car that are at one end of the train. That doesn’t sound like much but from the comments I heard from passengers in the last cabins at the other end who had to walk the length of the train to disembark for excursions and for meals, it apparently is.
The itineraries, all of which begin in Dublin, are split into two night journeys between Dublin, Belfast and Waterford, four night trips that go across the country through Cork and Killarney to Connemara, Galway and Westport in the West and a six night combination of the two. I tried the four night trip, “Legends and Loughs,” which hits some obvious, sometimes a bit touristy spots such as Blarney Castle near the city of Cork so visitors can be held upside down to kiss the Blarney stone for its reported gift of eloquence (fortunately, scheduled before 3000+ cruise ship passengers descend to do the same and with a special add on of a private tour and coffee at Blarney House, the owner’s Scottish Baronial mansion on the grounds.) Also near Cork, the Jameson Experience requires an intense interest in whiskey production to go through a two hour tour (the reward is a tasting at the end.) But other excursions were lovely: a private cruise on Lough Leane in Killarney, falconry at Ashford Castle, a stroll through the backstreets of Galway. Private golf excursions can also be arranged and other itinerary tweaks are in discussion for next year. But the train ride itself is a pleasure, passing scenery that ranges from rolling green hills dotted with farmhouses to the rugged mountains and lakes of Connemara.
What was a positive every day is the entertainment in the observation car—musicians and storytellers who though occasionally dipping into American pop culture (one opened with the Eagles song “Hotel California” before moving on to Irish folk songs) convey a sense of Irish culture. And with that, the charm of the staff and the extraordinary beauty of the countryside as the train rolls by, passengers do get a sense of the allure of Ireland.