TRAVELS IN THE TIME OF CORONA
... AND WAR
Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill guides us through his trip in Ireland and gives us his insight on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
I wake up in my massive four poster bed beneath a canopy of velvet swoops, and a goose down duvet. I’m snuggled in the softness of giant pillows. I’ve left the swag of drapes open, and the sun is shining on Lake Corrib. I reach for my phone, touch the screen, and there it is: “RUSSIA INVADES UKRAINE.” And even the intense opulence and luxury of Ashford Castle cannot assuage my horror. I click the television on and whoosh through 874 channels to find BBC World. The scenes are tragic, the enormity of what is happening is overwhelming and impossible to believe. Putin’s thuggish posture, his slouching in his office chair, his disdain and threats are reminiscent of something very old, and very scary. Until this moment, I had thought this horrible affair was going to be not much more than the crisis over the Sudetenland, full of intrigue and badinage; but, no, it feels like September 1, 1939. I’m sort of expecting to hear Neville Chamberlain crackling shortly on the radio.
I walk into the giant windowed bathroom with its heated floor and I realize again I am here in this heavenly place. And as flummoxed and appalled as I am by what is happening 3,000 kilometers to the east, there is very little I can do about it but gnash my teeth and post my outrage on Instagram. I’ve been in Ireland for two days; this was my second transatlantic flight from New York since September 2020 for which I didn’t need a Covid test. All that was required was my proof of triple vaccination. Just like going to a Broadway show. And any illusion that travel has collapsed since the start of the pandemic is swept aside by the crowds at Newark’s Terminal C. My check in for the United flight to Dublin required me to flourish the Irish government’s locator form I’d completed online. My bag was tagged with that electric orange priority label, and I was through Clear in a flash. United’s Polaris lounge has returned to its pre-Covid razzmatazz, and I am served three courses in the comparative refinement of the “Dining Room,” America’s next best thing to a Richard Branson airport club.
As is customary, I push the flat-bed button the minute we’re off the ground. Sadly, the flight is going to be disagreeably brief, because storms called Eunice and Frederick are helping propel the 767 from New York to Dublin in five hours. In my book, ten hours is the perfect eastbound transatlantic flight: time for a cocktail, dinner, a movie, and a long sleep. Not tonight, Josephine. Or is it, Erin?
Dublin Airport is super snazzy. Glass, chrome and acres of marble. I love the signs directing me to immigration and baggage reclaim – signs written first in impenetrable Gaelic, then in English. Gaelic comes first, like French in Calgary. I soon learn that barely anyone not aged and hidden in a hamlet in the remote west of Ireland actually speaks Gaelic, but its omnipresence adds a touch of the exotic. It’s 7AM, and a very smart chauffeur sent by the Merrion Hotel is waiting for me. He guides the Mercedes Minivan through the city’s quiet streets and we draw up at what has to be one of the world’s most elegant and spiffy hotels. The main building of the Merrion is four gracious Georgian mansions that have been seamlessly combined to become the closest thing to an Irish country house in the middle of a busy city. The houses have pedigree – the Duke of Wellington, victor of 1815’s Battle of Waterloo, was born in one of them.
The Merrion possesses the world’s largest collection of Irish art outside the nearby National Gallery of Ireland. It’s an eclectic group of paintings and sculpture, some so magnificent you have to pause and marvel. Over the reception desk, is a giant photo-realist oil of London’s Wellington Arch in a glorious gilt frame. In subsequent rooms and lounges hang old masters and new masters, so that afternoon tea or a morning read of the Irish Times is spent in the cushioned splendor of a patrician Georgian home. I am received royally, yet it’s a royal-ness without a hint of snootiness. It’s warm. Despite the masks, one is welcomed with a conviviality and embrace that is all natural, unforced, without a hint of artifice. I’ve been given room 280 (ask for it), a large sitting room with comfy couches, a coffee table piled with treats, and a king size bed made up with acres of crisp linen: the finest Irish linen, naturally. Everything looks and feels like it was painted and upholstered yesterday, yet at the same time it feels cozy, coddling, and lived-in.
My just under five-hour airplane nap was insufficient and I’m starving. By the time I’m out of the shower and wrapped in a cushiony robe, eggs and sausages and coffee and toast are delivered on more acres of crisp Irish linen. I devour it all hungrily as I watch the BBC with its gloom and doom from Moscow, Kyiv, Washington and London. I take a giant nap and awaken resurrected. Lunch is in the splendor of the hotel’s new Garden Room, whose floor-to-ceiling windows slide open in summer, and provide a splendid view of fountains and calm and tulips in winter. My hosts are Peter and Dorothy MacCann who have together run and marketed the Merrion since it opened twenty-five years ago. They charm, they joke, they bemoan the pandemic and its effect on business. Overnight, in early 2020, American tourists stopped coming, and the Merrion was discovered by the Irish who have filled it almost without cease for two years. I choose the sea bass with potato puree, and it’s exquisite, and delicate, washed down with Champagne and the MacCann’s bonhomie. In addition to the Garden Room, the Merrion is home to one of Ireland’s gastronomic treasures, the two-Michelin-starred Patrick Guilbaud restaurant. Plus the Merrion’s afternoon “art tea,” where tiny cakes deftly recreate some of the hotel’s artistic treasures, is legendary.
I amble along Grafton Street (the Madison Avenue of Dublin) and note that, as Peter MacCann had told me with sadness, some 40% of the city’s shops and eateries have not survived the plague. But the sun is shining, the sky is blue, and despite some shuttered storefronts, Dublin somehow seems to revel in the prosperity wrought by its membership of the European Union. Long ago the Irish Pound was dumped in exchange for the Euro. Unlike the Brexiteers across the Irish Sea, Ireland embraces its European-ness with a passion. You’re as likely to hear Polish or French or Hungarian, as you wander through the city, or through the hushed corridors of the Merrion, as you hear Irish-brogued English.
By the evening, it’s pouring with rain. And, anyway, I’m too obsessed with what is happening in the news to go out, or even downstairs, for dinner. The feeling that war in Europe could be imminent – an unimaginable notion 77 years after Adolf and Eva ended it all in their Berlin bunker. So, as I’m glued to a combination of CNN and the BBC, I eat a scrumptious steak with all the trimmings from Room Service. In the morning, I part the heavy drapes. The rain has stopped, a war hasn’t begun, and soon I am back in the Garden Room, tucking into a giant Irish Breakfast. What is it about breakfast in the British Isles that turns me into a glutton? In Italy, in Morocco, in California, at home, I’m happy with granola and fruit. But you can take the boy out of Britain, yet you can’t take Britain out of the boy. So on it comes: fried eggs, sausages, bacon, black pudding, fried tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms. And toast, and bitter orange marmalade, and, of course, atop the buttered toast, a swipe of Marmite, the concoction that has 99% of Americans retching.
Checking out of the Merrion is as leisured, pleasured, and cordial as arriving. I’m sorry to leave its calm, its gentility, its cosseting. My luggage is piled into a BMW 7-Series, and my driver, Ray, who lives near Ashford Castle, glides me out of the city and onto the motorway. “Two hours and ten minutes to Ashford,” Ray tells me. I’ve heard about Ray, and he’s apparently heard about me to a point where he treats me with a level of deference one might normally reserve for Bill Gates or Prince Charles. He turns to tell me he’s triple vaccinated so we can remove our masks if I’m comfortable with it. I’ve been traveling the world since September 2020 and it wasn’t until two weeks ago that I tested positive for Omicron. Had I not known it was Covid, I would have assumed it was a mild winter cough. The masks come off.
Ray is tremendously interesting. He’s a historian, a social commentator, and he’s the one who tells me that yes, every child learns Gaelic at school, and promptly forgets every word they minute he/she/they leave. Ray’s right on the ball with the pronoun thing. He tells me proudly that Ireland was the first country on earth to sanction gay marriage; the first country in Europe to have an openly gay Taoiseach (prime minister). Ray is a devoted Catholic, he and his wife attend Mass regularly, but he’s also disgusted with the endless litany of clerical abuse revealed almost daily by the newspapers.
The meadows we pass are a blinding green. I tell him that if I were in the tourism promotion business (oh wait, I am) I would work up a campaign for Ireland linking Ireland’s greenness with its quest for sustainability: something along the lines of “the destination that’s always been green.” But what do I know? The weather is fascinating. To the right of the car as we whoosh westward, it’s raining. To the left, there are blue skies and sunshine. And in front of us, there’s a rainbow. It’s as if we’re riding through a Broadway musical and a soprano is about to ask “How are things in Glocca Morra this fine day?” It’s at moments like this that all the hackneyed guff you’ve heard about a destination is suddenly no longer hackneyed. It’s curiously authentic.
In exactly two hours and ten minutes, as promised, Ray steers the BMW through the giant grey stone arched portal to the Ashford Castle estate. The lawns are a carpet of manicured green. We weave through a pathway of ancient trees. We round a bend, and there beneath us, cuddled next to Lake Corrib, is Ashford Castle, all turrets and crenulations, like some giant grey Lego model. Dating from the 13th-century, Ashford Castle was home to the Guinness family from 1852 to 1939, when it was transformed into a hotel.
I first came here in 2007, and loved it. Not that it was perfect. It was magnificent, but it was also a bit creaky, a bit frayed at the edges. It was the first time I met Niall Rochford, Ashford’s cordial and jovial general manager, and the stylish Paula Carroll, its marketing director, a woman so proud of Ashford, so forthright in her opinions, that she makes the enthusiasm of all other purveyors of Irish hospitality pale in comparison. I came back several times, and each time it was as gorgeous, but just a bit creakier. But then along came the inimitable Stanley and Bea Tollman, who took one look at Ashford Castle and determined on the spot this was to become the crown jewel of their Red Carnation Hotels Collection. The Tollmans bought it, closed it, took it down almost to the rafters, and invested countless tens, hundreds, of million Euros into transforming it into a palace. Each of its 83 rooms and suites was individually decorated by Bea Tollman and her daughter, Toni, using magnificent fabrics and precious antiques. Bathrooms were ripped out and re-imagined. The lobby, the drawing room, the George V dining room, were transmuted from tired to opulent. A cinema was installed, all red velvet. A spa was built in a wrought-iron birdcage. A billiard room was carved out of the third floor. The one thing that didn’t change was the staff. The Tollmans were savvy enough to know that nobody could out-Niall-and-Paula in running Ashford Castle. Many of the staff count their history at Ashford in decades, not years. Like at the Merrion, they exude a warmth and genuine welcome that is all-encompassing. During the pandemic, when all hotels in Ireland were shuttered, two members of the staff – one of each gender - were delegated to live in the hotel, to flush the toilets and run the bathtubs daily, to make sure the 800-year-old building would survive months of disuse. It did. And so did they, progressing from collegiality to romance to a partnership covered by the BBC and CNN.
In the past, I’ve slept in the same bedroom as President Reagan, but this time, I was accommodated in 316, a barn of a room facing the lawns and the lake. The walls are striped red and maroon silk. The bathroom has a heated floor and a panoramic view of green meadows. There are couches and chairs and antique armoires, and, of course, the four-poster bed in which I would awake to learn that the Russia-Ukraine crisis had graduated from threats and accusations to the rumbling of tanks and the wail of sirens.
I devour scrumptious lunches in the drawing room. I drink Black Velvets (Guinness and Champagne) in the green leathered bar. I join Paula, and travel reporting legend, Mary Gostelow, for a multi-course dinner in the George V dining room. Gostelow has more character in her little finger than most people have in an entire body. She is widely knowledgeable, witty, imperious, fascinating. She could, in fact, be a latter-day Queen Mary, the one who married Prince George long before he visited Ashford Castle in 1905 (and for whom the restaurant is named). The only difference is that Mary Gostelow does not, as far as I know, seem to have Queen Mary’s notable habit of embarrassing her hosts into gifting her with precious knick-knacks or artifacts to which she was apt to take a shine.
One of my favorite activities at Ashford Castle is the estate’s Irish School of Falconry. I go for a long hawk-walk with bird-lover, Connor, and, wearing a giant leather glove, I “fly” roommates Joyce and Wilde, who ascended high into trees, and, at the stirring of my left arm, they swoop down to munch the tranche of mouse or chick slyly secreted in my glove by Connor. And then there comes the finale of my birding outing – “flying” Dingle the owl – 22-years-old and gorgeous, who also has a strong penchant for the munching of rodents.
I can think of no more magical combination of Irish town and country than Dublin’s Merrion and County Mayo’s Ashford Castle. One of the great legends attached to the latter, is that the cast and crew of the 1953 Academy Award winning movie for Best Picture, The Quiet Man, stayed at the castle while filming in the village of Cong just outside the estate’s gates. Directed by John Ford, the movie starred John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara and absolutely everybody in Ireland glows whenever it is mentioned. Loosely based on The Taming of The Shrew, it’s romantic and shows Ireland at its best. Yet, candidly, I have yet to meet an American under ninety years old who’s even heard of it. And as a long-term loather of John Wayne, the only time I watched it, I must admit to having several naps. But trust me, you don’t need to endure The Quiet Man to adore Ashford Castle. Or the Merrion. Or Ireland.
In the car back to Dublin Airport. Ray and I seem to talk little about Ireland. Our thoughts are on Russia and Ukraine and where this is all going to lead…for Europe, for the world…and for travel and tourism.