Review by Fiona Duncan, published 22nd June 2008.
The decade-long, though now declining, Celtic Tiger success story has created a Dublin building boom not seen since Georgian times, including a slew of new, design-conscious, celeb-friendly hotels. Existing ones, too, have been revamped, notably the landmark Shelbourne, reopened as a lacklustre Marriott hotel after a £55-million refit. As well as staying in the heart of the city, you might also consider basing yourself within easy reach, in the beautiful surrounding countryside, in Wicklow, Kildare or Meath counties, where there are hotels that cater for every preference, from sleepy time warp to glitzy splashout.
Prices are for a double room, per night, including breakfast.
Dublin hotels - in town
Upper Merrion Street (00353 1 603 0600; www.merrionhotel.com; from €250 in the Garden Wing, €595 in the Main House).
An effortlessly gracious grande dame that just happens to be 10 years old. Everything feels right, from its location opposite the Government Buildings and the twinkly Irish doorman to the polished service and the timelessly classic bedrooms. Four tall, sober Georgian town houses, one of which was the birthplace of Wellington, have been opened up to create a series of expansive, welcoming drawing rooms with elaborate stucco ceilings, peat fires, antique furniture and the owner’s outstanding collection of 19th- and 20th-century Irish art.
Just as impressive is the spacious formal garden, around which the hotel’s two wings, old and new, are wrapped. The feel here is of calm and order, as it is in the restaurant of two-Michelin-starred Patrick Guilbaud, and the small spa with its pillared infinity pool. No surprise to hear that the general manager, Peter McCann, has been in place since the start. If you feel confused by Dublin’s thrusting, cosmopolitan 21st‑century face and miss its faded, pre‑boom charm, take refuge at the Merrion.
La Stampa Hotel & Spa
35 Dawson Street (677 4444; www.lastampa.ie; from €180).
Ideally situated between Trinity College and St Stephen’s Green, La Stampa is fun, different and full of surprises behind its Georgian façade. The narrow, Eastern‑influenced reception hall morphs into the enormous Sam Sara Café Bar, with a reputation for the best cocktails in town and, below that, Tiger Becs for Thai food in stylish surroundings.
Changing the pace, Balzac, serving glamorous French food but using local produce, has the feel of a Parisian brasserie, with its airy high ceilings, vast mirrors and wood floor. The surprises continue. Proprietor Sarah Murray’s Mandala Spa is an oasis of Asian peace, while the principal Moroccan Suite is a stunning room by top designer Miguel Cancio Martins. Perfect for honeymooners, it comes with the use of a chauffeur-driven Bentley once owned by the King of Morocco. Standard bedrooms are bright and spacious, with exotic touches such as silks and velvet throws on crisp white Egyptian cotton linen.
31 Leeson Close (676 5011; www.number31.ie; from €220).
Part slick designer hotel, part intimate guesthouse, No 31 has a split personality that should suit all tastes. Two buildings – a Sixties mews house designed by the controversial Dublin architect Sam Stephenson, and a Georgian town house – together create one of the most visually pleasing, as well as unstuffy places to stay in the city. The tone is set in the open-plan living room of the mews house, where guests congregate in a sunken “conversation pit”.
A superb, home-based breakfast is served at long tables, with fresh flowers, sparkling silver and white linen napkins, in a light-filled upper room of the mews house, where there are also five stylish bedrooms, two with patios. The 15 rooms across the garden have recently been redesigned, using eclectic colours and Fifties styling, with new bathrooms. Staff ensure a welcoming, easy-going but professional atmosphere.
22 St Stephen’s Green (638 3939; www.bentleysdublin.com; from €198).
It’s all change at Brownes, a fine Georgian town house, with restaurant and 11 bedrooms, on a quiet stretch of St Stephen’s Green. It reopens next month as the Dublin branch of Bentley’s (there’s a Bentley’s in Swallow Street, London), whose current proprietor, the chef Richard Corrigan, is Irish-born.
The elegant, Paris brasserie-style restaurant, with brass-railed central stairs leading to an upper floor, makes the perfect setting for Bentley’s Oyster Bar and Grill, while the newly refurbished bedrooms combine period charm with modern touches. With views over St Stephen’s Green, this has always been a fine place to stay, but has been feeling its age of late; Corrigan’s arrival gives it a new lease of life without diminishing its character.
Dublin hotels - outside town
Enniskerry, Co Wicklow (1 274 8888; www.ritzcarlton.com; from €255).
To appreciate fully this talked-up £100‑million project, next to the Powerscourt Gardens, you need to be drawn to the sort of American-style luxury that includes computerised bedrooms, a helipad, and just the merest hint of Ireland (a harpist and a recreation of a Victorian pub) to remind you where you actually are. Assuming that, you’ll be suitably impressed by the sweeping, Palladian-style curve on six floors, with 200 lavish rooms (124 are suites) in the two arms, plus a grand central lobby and, of course, a hushed spa with an infinity pool that glitters with Swarovski crystals.
But whether or not you warm to it (and who doesn’t enjoy being spoiled from time to time?) Powerscourt presents some flaws. For a place that aspires to be among the top five resort hotels in Europe, its approach feels peculiarly reminiscent of a high-end shopping mall, and the view, too, is marred. Yes, Sugar Loaf Mountain is in the background, but whereas the majestic 18th-century Powerscourt Gardens along the road melt into the Wicklow landscape, here a dense wood of gloomy pines distracts the eye. And the hotel’s grounds seem to consist of a circular fountain (not working on our visit) and an unlovely helipad. The hotel’s ESPA spa, on two floors, is faultless.
Bedrooms, too, are lovely: spacious, calm and classically styled, some with suntrap terraces. For me, it wasn’t the frameless television in the bathroom mirror (which leapt unbidden into life at 6am) nor the irritating screen-operated curtains, lights and temperature that impressed. It was the bed, on which I seemed to float, the pillow in the bath, and the soothing, powder-blue walls.
The hotel’s restaurant is Gordon Ramsay’s, and herein lies another problem. Apart from a bar area, and the naff “pub”, there’s no other restaurant if guests don’t want the full Ramsay experience, or find the tables fully booked. Though our panoply of main dishes, pre-dishes and amuses‑bouches were up to expected standards, I wouldn’t have wanted all that fuss two nights running. But nor would I have wanted to spend my second evening in the subterranean “pub”, or the bar. I wish someone could explain the point of signature restaurants in hotels.
Rathsallagh House Hotel and Golf Club
Dunlavin, Co Wicklow (45 403112; www.rathsallaghhousehotel.com; from €270).
Superficially similar to Powerscourt, in that it offers a fine golf course as well as beauty treatments, this family-run hotel could not be more different. Presided over by the delightful, larger-than-life O’Flynn family, Rathsallagh House offers genuine hospitality in its panelled drawing rooms, with family photographs, large, light-filled windows, squashy sofas, crackling fires and fresh flowers.
Much of the produce for the excellent dinners and award-winning breakfasts come from the lovely, walled garden. Bedrooms, either in the creeper‑smothered converted Queen Anne stables or low-key extensions, are all different, but full of luxurious touches such as power showers and bath menus. If you are looking for “craic”, you are much more likely to find it here rather than via the lonely harpist at Powerscourt.
Newrath Bridge, Rathnew, Co Wicklow (404 40106; www.hunters.ie; from €190).
Ireland’s oldest coaching inn, run by the fifth generation of the same family, is a time warp, as well as an institution for traditional Sunday lunches and teas on the terrace or in the pretty dining-room. The flowers that grace the white-clothed tables come straight from the garden that runs down to the river, and though the area has become almost part of Dublin commuterland, not much changes in this little island of constancy.
“We strongly recommend Mr Hunter’s inn, the most comfortable in the country,” reported travellers in 1840. Once installed in one of the fresh, homely bedrooms, you will find little reason to disagree: quirky, dowdy and more than a bit doddery it may be, but this is a proudly old-fashioned place, where you would not be surprised to hear the sound of trunks being carried into the beamed front hall, which still has the tiled floor laid in 1720. And frankly, if it’s good enough for the King and Queen of Sweden, who have stayed three times in the past 10 years, it’s certainly good enough for me.
Navan, Co Meath (46 903 0900; www.bellinterhouse.com; from €200).
Think Babington, but more expansive. Or Ireland’s Ballymaloe, but for young people. Or, if you don’t know those, just think of a hotel were you would be happy to spend every minute of the day, basing yourself in the elevated double drawing room with its delicate stucco ceilings, ever-lit peat fire, eclectic collection of armchairs and sofas, wacky art and full-height windows overlooking the Boyne, where wine, cocktails and food are served all day (and all night if you wish).
You can divert to the river for a spot of fishing, or to the rustic spa for an Irish seaweed bath or beauty treatment, or to the indoor infinity pool, or the outdoor one that curls beneath large boulders overlooking the river. Or to the snooker room. Or back to the bar for another cocktail.
There’s pretentious hip, and there’s that rare thing, unpretentious hip, and Bellinter House definitely falls into the latter category. Perhaps it’s the nuns who previously occupied the fine Georgian mansion that have given it such a genuinely soothing, lived-in feel. The house is allowed to speak for itself and the scuff marks and cracked paintwork that spell disaster for try-hard hip hotels just add to the charm of this one.