You can find yourself inside the most luxurious hotel in Dublin and feel relaxed and right at home. The Irish don’t put on airs. There’s no pretense or any sense of class structure. The reasons for this dating back to Ireland’s secession from the UK that caused the north/south divide, could fill a shelf of books. But suffice to say, Ireland is about the Irish. The people are incredibly warm, welcoming and good natured, and they seem surprised that we’re so surprised how congenial they are. That is a big plus for planners because attendees will feel at home anywhere in the two main cities of Dublin, the capital of Ireland, and Belfast just two hours away in Northern Ireland.
Dublin is a compact city split by the River Liffey lined with Georgian buildings, many of which are private homes. For example, Number 10 is owned by John Lynch, an art collector of established repute who opens his extravagant home for private rental. Lynch escorted us through his townhouse, built in 1745, while describing the different rooms that guests can explore.
Lynch pointed out exquisite antiques like his 1770 Baccarat crystal chandelier, an 1820 Russian marble fireplace and an elaborate, late 19th century serving table he found in County Fermanagh.
He says the house remians much like it was when the original owner, banker David La Touche, lived here and hosted lavish parties. The dining room, grand salon and anterooms seat 72 max for dinner, and Lynch employs an exclusive caterer who once prepared meals for U2.
“I’m a firm believer that if you don’t have the proper cuisine and service, you’re wasting your time,” says Lynch.
THE WESTIN DUBLIN
The Temple Bar district is regarded as “Dublin’s Cultural Quarter” with dozens of traditional Irish pubs lining the crooked medieval cobblestone streets. The main avenue in Temple Bar ends across the street from The Westin Dublin, originally built as a bank in 1863. Just off the lobby, The Banking Hall stopped the entire group in their tracks. There are four Waterford chandeliers, each with 8,000 pieces of crystal hanging from the 40-foot barrel arch ceiling, illuminating ornate Italianate-style walls. Down the middle, one long table was prepared for lunch.
You know how when you’re running around a city doing site inspections, sometimes all you really want is some great comfort food without too much fuss, like fine dining fish ’n chips. The monkfish, plaice, oysters and prawns were fried in Irish ale beer batter, served with twice cooked handcut fries and homemade tartar sauce. Everyone in our group was so happy to enjoy such an incredible setting without a whole lot of hub bub.
“We’re the first Starwood in Ireland and we cater to a significant amount of U.S. groups,” says Steve Fenton, sales account manager. “Our ideal size is about 85 rooms, and all of the rooms and suites will be completely refurbished in January .”
The guest rooms look really smart with tall chocolate leather-tufted headboards and seating, all white linens, weathered wood furniture and a butter/cream palette. The most in-demand guest rooms have views of Trinity College next door, Ireland’s most important cultural landmark.
FOUR SEASONS HOTEL DUBLIN
The stately 197-room Four Seasons Hotel Dublin is located in the quiet Ballsbridge residential/embassy area, about two miles from the city center and nine miles from the airport. The lobby area and huge lounge were remodeled last year with sleek furniture from France, Italy, Spain and Thailand. While we were there, tall red amaryllis bloomed on every table. Off to the side, there’s a small anteroom with a fireplace, and the overall vibe feels a lot more like a private estate than a hotel.
The Four Seasons has great flow because everything group-related is located on the ground floor. The lounge area and 15,000 sf of meeting space open out to a large leafy terrace through tall French doors. That’s especially nice in the main/junior ballrooms with Irish crystal chandeliers, separated by a banquet kitchen. So it’s a bit of a planner’s dream to have events running simultaneously, both indoors and out, without having to walk far.
The new ICE Bar is effortlessly modern just off the port cochere. It’s open for private rental on Mon/Tues for 160 pax. There’s a great app menu serving bites like crisp buttermilk fried chicken with Schezuan powder and lime.
The residential environment exudes a welcome sense of uncompromised peace and tranquility. Guest rooms are a little more on the traditional side, but fresh and bright with large working windows and balconies in the suites.
When President Obama visits the government buildings in Dublin, he stays at The Merrion across the street. The 142-room hotel is tucked inside four Georgian row houses from the 1760s with only a little plaque alerting passerbys to its existence. The country’s largest private art collection graces the walls inside the many different public rooms, which feel a little like a maze with new surprises around every corner. It has a slight Irish county appeal in terms of furnishing and decor, except for the marble lobby with thick columns and a graceful staircase.
There are 32 rooms in the main historic wing starting at 430 sf, with Waterford crystal bedside lamps, and 110 rooms in the modern garden wing separated from the main house by a 3/4-acre garden. About half come with balconies. Eight junior suites come with 16-foot ceilings.
Ask about mini Oscar Wilde theater performances in the garden. The Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napolean, was born in this house. Hence the aptly named Waterloo Ballroom with tall windows and fireplace, hosting 100-pax receptions. There are also six breakout salons.
The Drawing Rooms are fun during afternoon tea. We sat with Matthew Rowlette, director of sales, for over an hour discussing Dublin’s uncanny wealth of writers. This is that kind of place. The food is exceptional from Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud—the only Michelin 2-star establishment in Dublin. Next to that, the Cellar Restaurant & Bar inside the 18th century vaulted wine cellar serves casual fare like a roast loin of Finnebrogue venison with horseradish mash. Lastly, there’s a 60-foot pool at the ESPA-managed spa.
“We also work with Ashford Castle for groups who want a town and country package,” says Rowlette.
THE RITZ-CARLTON POWERSCOURT
Located 30 minutes outside Dublin in County Wicklow—“The Garden of Ireland”—the region is anchored by the Powerscourt Estate & Gardens dating back to 1741. Inside The Ritz-Carlton, Powerscourt starting with the Georgian grand lobby, the mix of classical elegance and woodsy environs invigorates the senses in anticipation for your program here. Of the 200 rooms, there are 93 suites starting at 700 sf with large balconies fronting the lawn and forest, tall floor-to-ceiling windows and large white-on-white baths. The updated period furnishings are residential in tone with a modern sensibility that’s elegant without being stuffy.
The 30,000-sf ESPA at The Ritz-Carlton, Powerscourt is the largest spa in Ireland with 20 treatment rooms and a fun variety of steam rooms, tepidariums, vitality pools, “thermal suites” and a 65-foot pool lit with Swarovski crystals. The gorgeous Powerscourt Golf Club in nestled among deep green undulating hills, making this is one of the most visually appealing layouts in the country, with three more courses within a 20-minute drive.
“For groups who want the iconic Irish countryside experience with full meeting and incentive facilities, along with world class golf and spa, this is it,” says Anne Marie Whelan, director of sales/marketing.
For dining, Gordon Ramsay at Powerscourt is located on the lobby level with a full glass wall facing Sugar Loaf Mountain. This is the only restaurant in Ireland operated by the Michelin star chef, serving dishes such as Castletownbere crab, wild sea trout and braised lamb shoulder with Boulanger potatoes.
Total meeting space is 10,200 sf, including a 600-pax ballroom divisible by three with direct vehicle access.
THE SHELBOURNE DUBLIN
Our final night dinner took place in The Constitution Room at The Shelbourne Dublin, A Renaissance Hotel. It was here where the Irish Constitution was signed in 1922—a huge deal for the fiercely independent Irish. This is the largest 5-star hotel in the country, which has hosted the bulk of celebrities who’ve ever passed through tow, from Princess Grace to The Rolling Stones. They come for the gorgeous interiors inside the 262-room grand dame, founded in 1824, and the busy lobby/bar scene that’s popular with local society.
“They say the front door of The Shelbourne is the back door into Dublin,” says Yvonne Donohue, director of sales/marketing, explaining the hotel’s insider vibe.
She says the No. 27 Bar & Lounge is the hippest spot in the city, as is in evidence this night with over 100 men in tuxedos and women in gowns for a wedding reception. The Lord Mayor Lounge is very elegant with a fireplace and silk wallcovering. Although the Horseshoe Bar has a notorious reputation for underhanded politicians. Bono likes it here. There is an utter sense of refinement throughout the rest of hotel, including the brand new spa decorated like a 19th century Yeats poem. Next door, the hotel offers ballet classes, which can be customized for private groups.
“We’re very keen at maintaining the hotel to what we’d call an “incentive standard,” says Donohue. She shows us the 11 premium suites with plaster friezes, 12-foot ceilings and beautiful views of St. Stephen’s Green. The standard rooms all look sharp and fresh with gold and amber tones, finished with reproduction period furniture.
Total meeting space is 10,000 sf. Ballrooms are on the ground floor; banqueting suites are inside drawing rooms from the 1800s on the second floor overlooking the park.
THE MERCHANT HOTEL, BELFAST
Belfast is evolving on the cultural travel scene due to the recent opening of the Titanic Belfast museum and amazing Black Taxi Tours, which explore “The Troubles” from the Protestant/Catholic conflict. Definitely consider for a pre/post program to explore this emerging destination.
In the city center, The Merchant Hotel has a groovy Victorian/Art Deco split personality inside what was once a bank built in 1860. The Great Room Restaurant just past the front doors will floor you with its towering Renaissance Revival arch ceiling and massive dome sunlight. This is the grand dame of Belfast and the hippest nightspot in town to enjoy good jazz with the city’s movers and shakers.
Adjacent, “The Bar” is a classic Old European watering hole with Baccarat chandeliers, updated pink velvet chairs and antique fireplace. It seemed terribly cool for such an unknown destination at first glance. Apparently it’s not that unknown. The Bar won “World’s Best Hotel Bar” at New Orleans’ Tales of the Cocktail festival in 2010.
There are two more bars to mention, which seems like a lot for a 62-room hotel, but then again, this is Ireland. Berts is a busy live jazz joint. More rustic in tone, The Cloth Ear is a pub-style bar with lots of wood and leather.
As for the rooms, you have two different hotels in one. There are 26 Victorian rooms in the original building and 36 Art Deco suites in the newer wing. The Deco theme is fun but the Victorian suites, some with 15-foot ceilings, are more aligned with the historic ambience here. They’re decorated with deep dark chocolate and rouge fabrics, huge windows and big Old World bed canopies.