Ireland’s Powerscourt Estate: beauty, luxury, and a Ritz-Carlton just an hour from Dublin

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Myself, like many Americans, fantasize about visiting Ireland. We’ve all seen the calendars scattered throughout malls and bookstores — cover to cover spreads of lush, green flora, craggy hills and the occasional Leprechaun. We all think we know what Irish music is thanks to the soundtrack of Boondock Saints. And the seasoned travelers in attendance know that DUB is one of the, if not the, cheapest airport in Europe for Americans to fly into. It’s not like you needed any convincing to head to The Emerald Isle, but if you’re looking for a little direction on where to go once you soar through customs, here’s a word you should absolutely consider: Powerscourt.

The Powerscourt Estate lies but 45 minutes south of Dublin’s Airport — barely further than the east side of downtown when considering traffic. But it’s akin to another world entirely in terms of attitude, altitude and sheer beauty. It’s rare that a fantasized-over location actually lives up to the hype that surrounds it, but believe me when I say that Powerscourt is straight off of a postcard, from the gardens to the River Walk to the monolithic Ritz-Carlton, Powerscourt hotel that’s nestled in so succinctly. Read on to hear more about my visit to the south of Dublin, particularly if you’re interested in making your own Irish calendar for 2012.

%Gallery-117264%The Estate is located near the cozy town of Enniskerry, in County Wicklow. It doesn’t take long to feel as if you’ve escaped the hustle of Dublin and moved on to greener pastures — both figuratively and literally. The long, windy drive up to the Estate is soothing in its own right, and moments before reaching the famed House, you’ll spot something equally massive on the left. It’s The Ritz-Carlton, Powerscourt, a 200 room giant of a hotel that’s situated between Sugar Loaf mountain and miles upon miles of pristine countryside. This palace first opened its doors to guests in the fall of 2007, and it has been fitting in ever since. What struck me was just how well integrated the property is — it may be huge, but it’s the polar opposite of an eyesore. In fact, it’d be hard to imagine the Powerscourt Estate without a hotel like this. After visiting, I could see why people would want to settle down right in the valley to enjoy a few days here, and it’d be a shame to have to scuttle back and forth to Dublin when all you were really after was a getaway.



A look around (and inside) The Ritz-Carlton, Powerscourt


To paint the picture a bit better, the hotel is just a three minute walk from the Powerscourt House — a castle that was constructed in the 13th century, reshaped in the 1700s, torched, and revived in 1996. Today, it’s a beautiful work of art, and it’s home to an exhibit of its own as well as a few niche shops and eateries. For some, it’d be good enough to just spend a few hours unwinding within the house, but the real magic lies just outside of the backdoor. There, you’ll find the Gardens. One step outside and you’ll appreciate the handful of Euros it took to gain admittance — “manicured” doesn’t even begin to explain just how flawless the place is. I’ve been to to the gardens surrounding North Carolina’s Biltmore Estate, and while I adore my homeland, the gardens here in Ireland are simply a notch above.

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Opposite the gardens is one of the more peaceful golf courses the island nation has to offer, and just a few more minutes walk lands you at The River Walk. Right about here is where you realize that leaving this slice of heaven would probably be to one’s detriment, and it provides a good opportunity to mention that a free pass down is just one of the complimentary extras that The Ritz-Carlton, Powerscourt provides. Guests at the hotel are treated more like guests of the estate; when you check in, you aren’t really checking into a hotel — you’re checking into a region. You’ll also have access to complimentary cycles, which I can confess are ideal for zipping around the gorgeous River Walk. Certain scenes of Braveheart were shot down by the streams, and it’s pretty exciting to bike around and try to spot certain shots from memories of the film.



A walk through Powerscourt Gardens in County Wicklow, Ireland


If you’re sold so far on the idea of shaping your vacation around doing nothing more than hitting the links, browsing beautiful gardens and cycling through forests that have been around for longer than you could even fathom, there’s hardly a reason to overlook another staple of the Estate: the hotel. It’s not everyday that you find a place that truly emphasizes the area like this; I’m a documented fan of choosing lodging options that integrate well with the purpose of the trip, and this particular Ritz-Carlton does this impeccably.

I’m not one to gloat about hotels unnecessarily. In the vast majority of cases, even the most esteemed 5-star property feels somewhat like a money grab to the average Joe, but this case is different. Rooms can be booked here for under 200 Euros if you play your cards right, and that includes a multitude of freebies not typically associated with high-end properties: complimentary bicycles, River Walk admission, parking and Wi-Fi. Yeah, Wi-Fi! It’s actually one of the only high-end hotels that I’ve stayed at with this luxury, and it’s greatly appreciated. Frankly, it’s beyond time that every hotel began offering gratis access to the internet. But that’s another story for another day.

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You’ll notice that you’re treated like a king (or queen) at the Powerscourt House and Gardens, and that bleeds over at the hotel. Service and hospitality is clearly top priority here, second only beautifully appointed rooms and an impressive array of (delicious) food options. Although the hotel was completed in 2007, it feels as if it were originally constructed centuries ago — well, aside from the hotel-wide Wi-Fi and indoor plumbing. By and large, Ritz-Carlton properties are both a) located near city centers and b) viewed as out-of-reach for many from a financial perspective. To its credit, this one fits neither of those categories. It’s a luxurious escape to a luxurious place, and the two fit together like peas in a pod. It’s safe to say I’ve never had a hotel experience quite like the one offered at The Ritz-Carlton, Powerscourt, and a lot of that has to do with the warmth of the staff and the screensaver-worthy surroundings. I’ve always heard that it’s all about location when talking real estate, and now I get it.

Obviously, the nearby Gardens are most lively in the summer months, but there’s really no bad time to visit Ireland. Sure, it may rain a bit on you, but you’ll have even greener pastures to show for it. Better still, you can duck back into Dublin if the escapism just becomes too much for your pampered heart to bear, but I get the feeling that said scenario isn’t likely to play itself out.

[Images provided by Dana Jo Photography]

In need of a few day trip ideas when heading to Powerscourt? Gadling’s got you covered.

Divorced Dads: Five travel tools and ideas to make visitation more fun

Divorced dads visitation ideasWhether you travel for visitation or not, there are many travel resources you can use to make your experience with your children more enjoyable. Over the past year as a divorced dad, this is something I’ve learned, and the revelations, if obvious to some, have been powerful for me, especially in winter, when outdoor options simply aren’t available. You don’t have to sit in the house and try in vain to entertain your kids. Instead, think like a visitor, and see what your community (local or not) has to offer.

For me, this was eye-opening. I travel to see my son, and I wasn’t fully aware of what was available in his town. With some help, I thought like a traveler and found some interesting options. Here are my top five:

1. Contact the visitors bureau: these organizations don’t just exist in big cities and tourist destinations. Cities and towns of all sizes have them, and their mission is to help you find things to do when visiting. You’ll find attractions you didn’t know existed – and that the locals may not know about. Stop by their websites, and if you don’t see something that catches your eye, fire off an email or make a phone call.
2. Check out local staples: the local library never occurred to me, but it’s now on my list for the next time I visit my son. There are book readings and other planned activities for children. They’re usually free, and will also help your kids get into the habit of appreciating reading!

3. Plan a tour: take a handful of everyday stops in your child’s hometown and fashion them into a fun local tour! Bring excitement to the mundane by planning an underlying theme that connects the familiar in a new or interesting way. Then, you can have a blast navigating this experience, showing your child the local world from a new perspective.

4. Watch the seasons: there are hayrides in the fall and snowy hills for sledding in the winter. Parks are great in the summer, and nothing beats throwing a Frisbee around after you’ve munched on a picnic lunch. Keep an eye on seasonal alternatives where you live and plan accordingly. Have a good idea for summer when the snow is knee-deep? Write it down! That tip will be useful before you know it.

5. Think like a kid on vacation: you’re used to seeing the roads you use for your daily commute and the same boring restaurants whose menus you memorized a long time ago. Shake your head, clear your eyes and take a different look at everything around you. Think back 30 or 40 years. What would you have seen when you were a kid? I remember seeing a tangled comforter as a rough landscape for toy soldiers – even though I now see it as a chore to be finished. We see things differently as adults, and it helps to toss that perspective aside.

[photo by Mike_fleming via Flickr]

Top 5 Alternatives to the Dirtiest Hotel in America

When TripAdvisor recently announced Pigeon Forge, Tennessee’s Grand Hotel and Convention Center as “the dirtiest hotel in America,” the biggest surprise may not have been the reviewers’ reports of “makeup on the pillowcases,” “dogs urinating in the stairwells,” or “food underneath the bed.”

No, the biggest shocker to those familiar with the area in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains was that so many people opted to stay in an Orwellian concrete-facade building in the middle of a congested city strip while so close to one of the country’s loveliest national parks.

If you’re traveling in the Appalachians and plan to stay in or near Pigeon Forge, flee the fleas and choose one of these options instead:

Tent Camping

Pigeon Forge doesn’t really have anything to do with pigeons, but it does have a fair share of the Tennessee Valley’s nature and wildlife once you get away from the neon mini-golf and moccasin stand areas. Pitch your own tent at one of several parks, such as Twin Mountain, which charges a fee of about $25 for renting a pastoral spot by the river.

Cabin Rentals

Pigeon Forge‘s cabin rentals put you right on the mountaintop. Expect a drive up a steep incline past roads with names like “Boogertown,” then stay in roomy, pine cottages that rival Twin Peaks’ fictitious Great Northern Hotel for rustic appeal.

Bed and Breakfasts

Tennessee is in the heart of the Bible Belt, so a B&B isn’t the best option if blasting grindcore music helps you drop off to sleep, but for those who want to stay in small, quaint historic houses run by friendly country folk with Southern accents, Pigeon Forge has –to use the local venacular– a mess of ’em.

Themed Hotels

If you’re one of the thousands drawn to Pigeon Forge by Dollywood, Archie Campbell’s Hee-Haw Village and the Elvis Museum, you might as well make it a full-on kitschy tourist adventure. Take the fam to the Inn at Christmas Place , where ’tis the season, even in the blazing summer.

Out-of-Bounds

Do you really need to stay in Pigeon Forge? With the actual mountains a mere six miles away, spend the day if you must, then keep driving. It gets prettier.

Winter in Whitefish, Montana: where extreme snow sports and radical serenity meet

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Northwestern Montana just doesn’t get the credit it deserves. When most tourists ponder Big Sky Country, they think of big lakes, outback hunting and skiing at Big Sky Resort. Truth is, all of those things are most definitely found in the Treasure State, but there’s a slice of this place that manages to package a raft of winter sporting activities with a slice of natural beauty that’ll burn a collection of lasting memories into your brain.

The place is Whitefish, Montana, and the vibe is simply unforgettable. Sitting just an hour south of British Columbia and light years away from that nuisance known as “hustle and / or bustle,” this cozy town of 5,000 or so acts as a perfect base for your idyllic winter getaway. Most folks head to a ski town to hit a few good runs, a few decent bars and a few overpriced merchandise stores. But if you’re flying into FCA this winter, I’d recommend bringing an entirely different set of expectations. Read on to find out why.

%Gallery-114796%No question about it: the star of Whitefish is Big Mountain, home to Whitefish Mountain Resort (and this rediculous mansion situated near lift 3). Unlike the vast majority of ski towns in the U.S., this town was actually a thriving place prior to 1947, the year it was turned into a ski destination. That simple fact has led to locals being almost universally emphatic about its existence — during a quick jaunt to Moose’s Saloon in downtown Kalispell, I was greeted by three residents who could tell by my garb that I’d been on the hill earlier. “How were the conditions up there today? Good I hope!” That’s the kind of attitude that permeates through the greater Whitefish region, and it makes the entire place remarkably hospitable to outsiders like myself.

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I spent a couple of solid days at Whitefish Mountain Resort, and it’s definitely the gem of the northwest. Lift lines were practically nonexistent, conditions were stellar, powder was abundant, and even the amenities onsite were downright impressive. The 3.3-mile Hellride is just the tip of the iceberg; unlike many mountains, riders can soar down both sides of Big Mountain, giving you a nearly endless array of trails to choose from. Even advanced skiiers and snowboarders could spend a solid week here and barely have time to test out all of the routes.

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Whitefish has also done a commendable job in making sure there’s plenty to do all day; you’ll find top-notch eateries at both the Village and the Base Lodge (Ed & Mully’s had some of the best resort grub these chompers have ever sunk into), as well as numerous shops (with fair pricing!), a gaggle of lodging options and a view to die for. Oh, and did we mention that a single day lift ticket ($64) is 21 percent cheaper here than at Big Sky ($81)? It is.

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If you’ve managed to place an undue burden on your knees and twist your back in ways they should never be twisted, there’s a perfect midweek escape just a half-hour away. And it’s one that’ll require a shockingly small amount of physical exertion to enjoy. The destination is Glacier National Park, and a ride through in the winter is certainly an ideal way to find R&R during a otherwise revved-up week of vacation. Glacier just recently celebrated its 100th birthday, and she’s as gorgeous as ever at 101. Only ~12.5 miles of roadways are cleared during the winter season, but it’s enough.

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Crowds are unheard of when visiting this beaut in the off-season — in fact, I only spotted three other humans during an entire afternoon there last week. I’ve always been a huge proponent of visiting National Parks in the off-season, and the images below capture my explanation of ‘why’ perfectly. Guests can cruise the entire length of Lake McDonald (the largest in the park), and there are numerous opportunities to pull off and take a stroll down to the shoreline. If you catch it on a particularly foggy day, you’ll be hard pressed to believe you’re not somewhere in Iceland.

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If faced with good visibility, and one more extreme itch to scratch, I’d recommend making a beeline to Olney, MT. 20 or so minutes up Highway 93 North puts you at Winter Wonderland Sports, otherwise known as The Time of Your Life. These folks have a vast network of snowmobile trails right in their backyard, and at just $135 for the day, there’s hardly a better way to get your adrenaline boosted to near-unhealthy levels. The trails here are well maintained and chock full of astounding views — it’s an argonaut’s paradise, doused in untouched powder and surrounded by peaks and lakes that have been immune to commercialization. Wondering what kind of universe exists atop a mountain in the backcoutry of northwestern Montana? Have a gander below.

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For snow-loving adventurists, you’ve got too many options to count. But if you’re looking for a delicate mix of serenity and insanity, Whitefish is one of the few places that really nails it. Toss in a community’s worth of friendly locals, too many stellar eateries to count (Piggyback Barbeque gets a special nod, though) and world-class skiing, and you’ve finally got a reason to embrace Old Man Winter. If you find yourself here in Whitefish or the surrounding area, check out a few recommended day trips that I’ve compiled below…

[Images provided by Dana Jo Photography]

“The Tourist”: Is it worth the trip?

the touristAt the beginning of the new movie “The Tourist,” a mild-mannered American schoolteacher is sitting alone on a train from Paris to Venice. A mysterious and beautiful English woman approaches him, sits in the open seat across from him, and engages him in conversation. Soon they’re drinking wine and flirting over an elegant dinner on the train.

When they arrive in Venice, they are briefly separated, but when the teacher is poring over a map near St Mark’s Square, the beauty pulls up in a sleek motorboat and whisks him off to the Doge’s Suite at the five-star Hotel Danieli, where they end up in a long kiss.

This so closely resembled my own first experience as a tourist in Europe that I thought the movie was a documentary. But then I realized that in this version there were no pigeons in St. Mark’s Square. Now that’s bending the truth a bit too far.

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I had been excited to see this movie. I’m a big fan of Johnny Depp, and Angelina Jolie is, well, Lara Croft incarnate, and the movie was shot on location in Paris and Venice – the geographical equivalents of Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. So how could this movie not be smoking hot?

I also thought that a movie with the title “The Tourist” might provide some interesting perspective on that old-as-Venice debate about the difference between a traveler and a tourist.

Well, movie-viewing is like traveling. Sometimes you look at the brochures and the postcards and you arrive thinking, “This place is going to be unbelievable.” And it turns out to be unbelievable – but in the wrong way. That’s how it was with me and this movie: I felt like a duped tourist at “The Tourist.”

The plot was contrived and implausible, and the actors just seemed to be going through the motions – there was none of the passion-spark that ignites a new infatuation, whether with a person or with a place.

But let me tell you what I did like about the film: Venice. (Paris, I should note, played just a cameo role in the first 15 minutes of the film.) Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmark presented Venice in the same way that he presented Angelina Jolie: with long, lingering, loving shots. After a while, this didn’t work so well for Ms. Jolie, but Venice handled this treatment superbly, the old pastel buildings reflected in lapping canals, the ceaseless water traffic of gondolas, taxi-boats and barges passing elegantly sculpted facades, the terra-cotta roof-tiles, shadowy side-streets, voluptuous bridges and romantic terraces. Venice at dawn and at dusk, at noon and midnight – we got to revel in a variety of Venetian moods, all of them glorious.

Of course, one could quibble. Like it or not, Venice smells, and the Venice in “The Tourist” looked antiseptic, deodorized. Similarly, the city was less littered and crumbling than the Venice I love, and certainly less pigeoned, and while there were a couple of promising chase scenes, the plot didn’t allow the film-makers to get lost in the intricate and beguiling back-alleys of the city, where its real magic blooms. (Come to think of it, the plot didn’t allow us to get lost in the characters’ back-alleys, either – a real shame.)

But still, in addition to the majestic Danieli and elegant St. Mark’s, the film offered a sumptuous selection of Venetian sights, including the incomparable Grand Canal itself, the Peggy Guggenheim Museum and its alluring canal-level terrace in the Dorsoduro district, the workaday Rialto Fish Market near the Campo de la Becarie, and the peaceful, mostly residential island of Giudecca – a particularly rewarding off-the-beaten-path stop for real tourists.

Which reminds me of one new ripple in that old tourist vs. traveler tempest: I was delighted to discover that STA Travel has a prominent advertisement on the movie’s official home page proclaiming, “Visit STA Travel to find trips to experience Italy like a true tourist!” I can’t recall any other time when experiencing somewhere “like a true tourist” has been touted as so exciting!

Is “The Tourist” worth the ticket? Well, as a cinematic traveler, I didn’t get to see the Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie I had been hoping to see, but I did get to savor La Serenissima in wide-screen splendor for an hour and a half, and that was a real trip.