Make Your Next Trip Extraordinary

Kitty Yancey on an Irish Cob at Sheen Falls Lodge outside Kenmare, Ireland.

Kitty Yancey on an Irish Cob horse at Sheen Falls Lodge, outside Kenmare.

My partner, Barry, and I are just back from a 10-day vacation in Dublin and Southwest Ireland (May 26-June 4) that exceeded our expectations. We never have experienced more warm, helpful, fun and friendly English-speaking locals and such magnificent countryside. The trip was tricky to plan, since hordes of Americans and other nationalities are descending on the Emerald Isle this year, and the summer tourist season started early. As a semi-retired travel writer, I know Ireland but was not familiar with County Kerry and decided we needed help to make the most of our stay, especially since hotels were booking up fast and we like the perks that Wendy’s WOW List agents provide. We consulted with a few travel specialists, including Jonathan Epstein and his efficient team, including Ireland-based Norma. They charge a fee to prepare an itinerary, but know every nook and cranny, have access to drivers and guides if needed and recommend a well-curated selection of lodgings. They mapped out a great stay, including hiking guides and drivers, since we didn’t want the stress of driving on the left on Ireland’s tricky country roads.

In the end, we opted for two of their hotel choices and decided to explore on our own. We stayed at the small and personable Dylan in Dublin, which is in an upscale residential neighborhood within an easy walk to the main tourist areas, and the amazing Sheen Falls Lodge outside the town of Kenmare, a country manor by a roaring waterfall that is a very special place to stay. I rode at their stables, and we did independent walks on hundreds of acres surrounding the property. The hotel shuttles you for free into nearby Kenmare, packed with pubs playing all kinds of music and very good eateries. I wound up singing along with a group of merrymakers playing American country music at a sidewalk cafe. That was a common experience. Interacting with pub-goers was easy and memorable.

Spectacular experiences and scenic views, wonderful guides and drivers, exceptional dining and accommodations. Fabulous planning and forethought, unparalleled logistics and advice, fantastic communication and attention to detail. We had a remarkable trip to Ireland.

From our initial conversation with Jonathan and throughout the planning process with Katie, we received exceptional care and guidance for our trip to Ireland. Katie listened, advised, researched, followed up and created an amazing itinerary for us. This was our first experience with someone on The WOW List and they were wonderful, outstanding, and world-class.

The food tour in Galway with Claire as our outstanding guide was delicious. From coffee to chocolates (including vegan options), it was a tasty way to begin our trip. Dromoland Castle was exquisite and every experience was incredible. Thank you Katie for encouraging us to participate in falconry, everyone agreed it was a unique experience and the highlight of the trip. We were hesitant to dine in the castle at the Earl of Thomond due to a food allergy. Katie encouraged us and confirmed that the restaurant could accommodate our restriction. The chef prepared the best meal of our trip and Raquel provided impeccable table-side service, double checking each course for the food allergy. Beautiful dining room, delicious meals for everyone, fabulous service, a real treat! Our horse-drawn carriage ride with a delightful guide completed a fantastic stay. On our way to Killarney we visited Limerick, bringing Frank McCourt’s book Angela’s Ashes to life. King John’s Castle provided magnificent views and allowed us to connect with our younger selves on the seesaw and playing other courtyard games. Rain did not deter us in Killarney, as we drove the Ring of Kerry and visited Ross Castle and the Muckross House. Dublin was our last stop and we had an informative and delightful tour with Ger. Our itinerary provided an array of activities and gave us a comprehensive view of Ireland.

A special note about our exceptional driver/guide, John Clancy. We spent 5 days together and felt very comfortable talking, dining and touring together. He went above and beyond to make sure we were taken care of, moving the car to pick us up, changing the itinerary when the drive had too many switchbacks etc. We thoroughly enjoyed getting to view Ireland through his eyes and learning about this wonderful country.

Scotland was absolutely fabulous. We are more than happy with our destination choice, timing, and with Jonathan’s office. The sunny weather we enjoyed was unprecedented, my sister-in-law learned how to appreciate Scotch from our driver/whisky expert/guide John McElwee, and I discovered I loved haggis and black pudding. Who knew?!

Here are some bits and bobs of feedback from our merry band; my husband and myself, and my brother-in-law and his wife…

Accommodations

Gleneagles
Wow. Quite possibly one of the BEST hotels in which we have ever stayed. Warm, genuine regard from the staff. A beautiful grand dame of a hotel which did not disappoint. Fabulous breakfast buffet, top-flight dining in all venues. Fun American Bar with a really chill jazzy vibe. Andrew Fairlie, the two-star Michelin restaurant, did not disappoint. Falconry was breathtaking and fabulous (as long as you did not mind watching the raptors eat formerly live chicks…). In retrospect staying here might have been better at the end of our journey, for some relaxing and elegant recharge prior to the trip home.

Ness Walk
Again, genuinely warm and welcoming staff. Great location and proximity to restaurants for walking, but the riverfront was all torn up with construction. Great breakfast and the dinner we had onsite was wonderful. The rooms we had were small and had minimal storage for clothes and such. It felt like a wee step down after the stunning stay at Gleneagles. Their bar was open 24/7, perhaps for those needing a wee dram in the wee small hours?! The TV oddly required two remotes and we needed to call the concierge to get it working; she noted that this was a fairly regular part of her job, as the TVs are near impossible to suss out on guests’ own! Probably our least favorite, but still a good experience.

Isle of Eriska Hotel
What a beautiful setting! Another grand dame of a hotel. Public areas are beautiful. Our room was spacious and well appointed. Would not be accessible for those with mobility problems as there are no elevators and rooms are either on second or third floors; luckily our new hips and knees were functioning fairly well! Scotland was unseasonably warm for this time of year, and there was no AC—the advice was to open windows, but there were no screens, so we got to share our lodgings with wee midges. Service was mostly gracious…but a bit inconsistent. The fairly new manager, Massimo, was warm and welcoming—especially after we told him we had met his mom at Johnstons of Elgin the day previous, who told him to call her! That night, however, our toilet stopped working, and housekeeping was not able to fix it, so the desk man on duty said it would need to wait till the morning (!). Later he called us with a new scheme—the room next to ours was being renovated, and they could give us a key to use the loo in case we needed it during the night (!). Still not optimal. At some point Massimo evidently called to see how things were going—heard about this—and came back to the hotel himself to see if this could be fixed—and when it could not even though it was now late at night, called in maintenance to fix things. Which they did. His behavior should be a model for the rest of the staff, many of whom were quite new/in training, it seemed.

We waited a day for the perk offered by Jonathan’s office, a cream tea, and when it did not appear we asked staff, who curtly remarked that we should have stepped up to get this at the beginning, and it required 24 hours advance notice (!). I suppose we could have gone to Massimo but opted to let this go. On check out he did credit our bills for a bottle of wine as an apology for any inconveniences during our stay.

Overall…. Staff needs work. Some were fabulous, others did not seem to know what they were doing and perhaps did not care. Quite the disconnect from the stunning surround.

Kimpton Charlotte Square
Nicely located in the thick of things. Our room looked out at another wing of the hotel and wasn’t optimal; our companions’ room had a lovely view of a town square. Staff were quite busy, understaffed most likely, but always helpful and kind. After so many wonderful Scotch tastings we enjoyed an entertaining gin tasting with Michael in the bar. Hotel was very busy with a number of meetings/conventions, so not as relaxing as our previous accommodations, but still a good vibe.

Activities

Falconry at both locations was wonderful. Had a fascinating walkabout in St Andrews. Stirling Castle was an absolute highlight. Thoroughly enjoyed the distilleries. Deanston was especially wonderful as we saw all parts of the working floor. Our stop at Pitlochry, House of Bruar, was great—we just stayed in the Sale Barn and made some great buys. Dunrobin Castle was a great comparator to Stirling Castle, leaving nothing to the imagination. The Balvenie Tour was also spectacular—and it enabled us to skip the Speyside Cooperage, as Balvenie had their own cooperage operation. Johnstons of Elgin did not disappoint, nor did their retail store! Culloden Battlefield was sobering; reminded us of our own history at Gettysburg. The Edinburgh food-and-drink walking tour was lovely and informative, as was the Old Town Walking Tour the next day. For the latter, we wound up taking a taxi up top to the Castle, then walking our way down. For exploring the city, best to use the on/off bus.

Dining

All the Gleneagles venues were top rate. The breakfast buffet was the best we have ever experienced!

The Tom Morris Bar and Grill at St Andrews was a great place to soak in golf history and have fabulous fish and chips.

In Inverness, The Mustard Seed was a disappointment. Crowded, hot, understaffed, and poor service as a result. Overcharged us on our bill. Would not recommend.

As disappointing as The Mustard Seed was, Rocpool was exquisite! Cool vibe, great music, outstanding food and drink, welcoming owner (who knew our driver quite well).

Torrish at Ness Walk was quite good.

Isle of Eriska Hotel dining was first rate. Ee-usk in Oban was a bit of a disappointment—again, seemed a bit understaffed, and the seafood was so-so. Beautiful setting on the waterfront, however.

BABA at the Kimpton was fabulous, though not for everyone if they did not like Eastern/Mediterranean food. We were so stuffed after our food walk we wound up cancelling Scran and Scallie and had bar food at BABA. We were quite tired after our Old City Walk in Edinburgh so cancelled Monteiths and walked across the street to Browns, recommended by our driver, which was wonderful.

The WOW Moment

Quite simply…WOW!! Our whisky tasting at The Malt Room was over the top. There was a marvelous charcuterie board to get us started, and we were treated to a selection of 5 rare Scotches to sample. It was a fabulous experience and we think it was one of our trip’s highlights. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this experience. 5 stars plus.

The Driver

John McElwee went above and beyond on this trip with us, and truly was the ingredient that made our journey so special. By the time we finished spending time together he felt like our “Da”! His knowledge of Scotch and Scottish history is encyclopedic. He is a skillful driver with a wonderfully comfortable vehicle. Everyone in Scotland seems to know, and love, John, so we were able to use his influence while gaining entry to activities, pubs, you name it! He packed all of our suitcases into his car after leaving each hotel with the ease of a Rubik’s Cube Master. He looked at our activity suggestions in the Itinerary and advised which we might skip in favor of others which might hold more and different interest. Simply stated, having John as our driver made this vacation. He was kind, gracious, funny, and the best ambassador Scotland could want.

Overall Experience
11!! on a scale of 1 to 10.

Thanks again for making this trip wonderful, and memorable. We have a number of countries still on our bucket list, so you can count on us being in touch soon to plan the next adventure!

Travelers Sheila Morse and husband Dick Smith at Killarney National Park's Torc Waterfall, Ireland.

Sheila Morse and husband Dick Smith at Killarney National Park’s Torc Waterfall.

From the initial planning stages to nearly the end of our time in Ireland everything was wonderful. Jonathan’s office not only created a thoughtful and thorough itinerary for us, they went out of their way a couple of times. The first was that we had a great preliminary conversation with Jonathan Epstein (just a few days after he’d suffered a concussion) and Katie Stewart. The last was assisting us to connect with one of our hotels who had double billed us in (unintended) error.

My initial approach was to downplay the importance of nice hotels, as we intended to spend so little time in our rooms. Thank goodness Jonathan convinced us otherwise. Each of the three hotels reserved for us were not just great places to sleep. The ambiance, breakfasts, locations, special welcomes in each room, staff — all were superb and much appreciated after a full day of exploring and learning.

• Windows in our room in the Great Southern Killarney hotel opened on to an inner garden. Despite being very near the downtown area, it was dead quiet at night. Hotel staff recommended and reserved excellent restaurants during our stay. We thoroughly enjoyed an Irish whisky tasting one evening after dinner.

• Mount Juliet near Kilkenny was beautiful! Our “windows” were doors opening into beautiful green spaces. It was lovely to have a delicious cake and local honey waiting for us in the room. We ate wonderful breakfasts there, enjoyed drinks at the bar, and also a delicious dinner during our stay. We don’t play golf but this is a golf lovers’ (and equestrian) paradise!

• The Dylan hotel in Dublin was extraordinary! Again, superb breakfasts and drinks on the house one evening. It was within walking distance of every place we wanted to see, and a good place from which to set out on our walking tour of the city.

We had naively thought that it was possible to drive far greater distances than the itinerary we finally settled on. Again, Jonathan’s gentle guidance proved wise. We travelled from Shannon to Killarney and ventured out from there for three days, then to Kilkenny for two days, and on to Dublin for three. That, in fact, was a lot to take in and we now are eager to plan more trips to Ireland through Jonathan.

Weather was the only thing that didn’t sync up with all these extraordinary arrangements.… During the beginning of April this year we experienced rainy, cold, blustery winds, and moments of sunshine. Nevertheless, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves!

We can’t think of anything to avoid, although our walking tour guide in Dublin could not hold a candle to our driver/guide the rest of the trip. I think it was because the weather was, still, cold and rainy — enough to put a damper on anyone and anything.

Brendan Glynn was our driver/guide for all but Dublin. He met us at Shannon and spent five full days with us. When we parted company, I felt that we were saying goodbye to a brother. Brendan is smart, gracious, well-prepared, discreet, funny, full of stories, and has a vast store of knowledge about everything we were seeing. He’s a fabulous driver. He provided valuable and entirely reliable recommendations throughout our stay. We had the great good fortune to be able to spend down time with him, too. There were days when we spent 12 or more hours together and we did not, for a moment, tire of his company. I lost my debit card and could not make satisfactory arrangements to get cash. Brendan allowed me to transfer funds from my bank to his and, in full faith that the transfer would be executed satisfactorily, advanced me Euros. I’m afraid any other guide would have a tough time meeting our expectations after having spent time with Brendan.

On our first afternoon of touring, we met a friend in Kildare. We had a bit of private time with her after which Brendan drove us all out to Helen’s Bar at the end of the pier in Ardea, Kilmackillogue and joined us for dinner. The pub was filled with locals only: a couple of men played dice, there was a women’s knitting group at a long table, and a book club met in an adjacent room. For all the fancy meals we had in Ireland, this simple meal of mussels and the like was exquisite! The fact that Brendan agreed to join us only added to the special nature of the evening. After that, we had several pints and/or meals together!

Brendan took us to Dingle Crystal, a small seemingly out-of-the-way artisan craft shop where we saw some of the most beautiful crystal designs we’ve ever seen. Despite the fact that this place seems to be on at least a few tour guides’ itineraries, we were made to feel uniquely welcome by Sean Daly, the owner, and his sons. We spent time in the glass cutting room getting a glimpse of how they ply their craft and my husband purchased two beautiful whisky tasting glasses. We are not shoppers, so this was our only purchase, other than a couple of books, the entire month we were away!

During our time in Kilkenny, Brendan was able to arrange with the owner of Jerpoint Park to open up weeks in advance of her scheduled opening date. Maeve gave us a private, guided tour of the Lost Town of Newtown Jerpoint, a 12th century settlement that she and her husband found was on land they bought to farm and which they excavated and reclaimed, inch by inch. We learned so much about the time, the confluence of events and landscape, and the special import of that particular location. This particular visit was a highpoint of our 8 days in Ireland!

The drives and views were incredible, all day every day!

Brendan recommended two restaurants in Dublin that were extraordinary: we enjoyed Matt the Thresher twice and Hugo’s. At Hugo’s we met the owner, courtesy of Brendan, and discovered that she and my husband had worked in the same Vermont ski resort area some decades ago!

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