GALWAY, County Connacht, Ireland — As parades go, the St. Patrick's Day march in Galway isn't going to challenge Carnival in Rio or Mardi Gras in New Orleans, or even the St. Paddy's Day celebrations on our side of the Pond. But no one does it from the heart like they do in this city on Ireland's west coast.
I was in Galway to take part in the revelry, and as I wandered the perimeter of Eyre Square in the city center, I saw children with flaming red hair and alabaster skin lining up for the face painters, craggy-faced elderly men, and high-stepping paraders who held up signs proudly proclaiming themselves Irish-Romanian, Irish-Slovakian, Irish-Filipino and so forth.
Unlike in the United States, there weren't many sparkly green shamrocks bobbing atop marchers' heads or revelers swilling green beer. It was as if these celebrants didn't need the trappings, they had authenticity on their side. The parade's very theme, the history of Galway, seemed more scholarly than sportive.
And what a history Galway has had.
The king of Connacht built a fort here during the 12th century; it was captured by the Normans a century later. These Normans, having already conquered England, eventually became known as the Tribes of Galway.
During their rule, the tribes banned the Irish in other parts of the country from free access to Galway, and even remained loyal to the English crown in the 16th and 17th centuries. They fell to Cromwell's Parliamentarians in 1652.
Although it lacks the visible reminders that can be seen in other ancient cities, Galway has cobbled streets and winding lanes that hint at its colorful past. Likewise, the city's museum scene is not on a par with Dublin's on Ireland's east coast, but its lively pubs and music clubs are second to none, as is the beauty of its location on the River Corrib between Galway Bay and the lake called Lough Corrib.
A bird's-eye view
As much as I enjoyed the parade, my method of getting to it was the highlight. I had taken off that morning in a helicopter for the 30-minute flight, skimming the coast of County Clare and passing the magnificent Cliffs of Moher, which extend for five miles along the coast.
The cliffs, one of Ireland's most famous beauty spots, drop straight into the sea at heights ranging from 390 feet at Hag's Head to 700 feet near O'Brien's Tower. The round stone tower looks medieval, and it's easy to imagine it was built to repel invaders, but it actually has a much more benign origin.
The tower dates only to 1835 and was built by an Irish politician, Sir Cornelius O'Brien, who, being ahead of his time, thought it would be a good way to bring tourists to the area. He was proved right, as some 1 million visitors come every year to walk the cliffs and climb the tower to admire a view that on a clear day extends all the way to the Aran Islands in Galway Bay.
However, much like with the Na Pali Cliffs on the coast of Kauai, Hawaii, the most spectacular way of seeing the Cliffs of Moher is from the air. My hotel, the Lodge at Doonbeg, arranged for the helicopter.
I've been to hotels around the world that cause me to gape in wonderment upon arrival, but only a few have I actually considered to be destinations in and of themselves, places where I didn't care if I ever left the confines of my room or the hotel premises. The Lodge at Doonbeg is such a hotel.
Situated on the shores of crescent-shaped Doughmore Bay, it looks like a magnificent Victorian lodge — which makes it all the more surprising to discover it was opened as a golf club in 2002 and as a hotel in 2006. Golfers will find a challenge on the Greg Norman- designed championship course, while non-golfers can linger over a book and a cup of tea in the tastefully decorated public rooms.
The White Horse Spa, named for the foamy Atlantic breakers that sometimes crash to shore like galloping horses, incorporates the essence of Ireland into treatments such as the Burren Wilderness Massage, which uses local natural salts, seaweeds, algae and herbal extracts.
Local ingredients and traditions also abound in the cuisine of the Lodge's executive chef, Wade Murphy, who presides over the fine dining restaurant, The Long Room, and the more casual Darby's. Murphy, who says he puts a lot of gra, the Gaelic word for love, into his cooking, also started the Educated Irish Chef, a yearlong series of classes at the hotel that range from "Pouring the Perfect Guinness" to "Waking Up to an Irish Breakfast."
Beautiful setting? Check. Great amenities? Check. World-class cuisine? Check. Genuine hospitality? Double check.
One evening the staff arranged a night at the property's shebeen, a Celtic version of a speakeasy where, historically, home-distilled alcoholic beverages were sold without a license. The Lodge has converted an old farmhouse into a shebeen, and as I made my way up the darkened path and saw only a few candles in the window, I felt as if I was on the wrong side of the law.
Once inside, however, the atmosphere became welcoming and cheery. A fire blazed in the hearth; I was offered a glass of Guinness and a bowl of Irish stew; and the evening's festivities began. Tall tales, mournful ballads, lively dances and haunting music were accompanied by laughter and more Guinness, and in typical Irish fashion, everyone — entertainers and guests alike — moved back to Darby's Bar at the Lodge for the after-party.
A Gathering place
About the Burren, a vast area of rolling limestone hills reaching to the sea, one of Oliver Cromwell's officers was said to have remarked, "There is not water enough to drown a man, wood enough to hang one or soil enough to bury one."
All in all, it's a seemingly inhospitable place. Yet, a portion of the Burren makes up the smallest of Ireland's six national parks. It is frequented by geologists, fascinated by Europe's largest karst limestone shelf, and botanists, who marvel at the rare Alpine and Mediterranean plants that manage to thrive here.
Tourists come for the hiking and rock climbing, and the chance to see megalithic tombs, Celtic crosses and a ruined Cistercian abbey. My day trip had a culinary theme, with stops at St. Tola's Cheese for a tour and tasting and at Burren Smoke House, where salmon, mackerel and trout are smoked on site.
An added bonus was a visit to a fairy-tale cottage in a secluded valley that looked as if it could be home to Hansel and Gretel instead of being home to the Burren Perfumery. With roughly three-quarters of Ireland's native flora — about 700 flowering plants — found in the Burren, there is no lack of inspiration for the fragrances (the Lodge offers the perfumery's products as in-room amenities).
On my last night, as I sat in the Lodge's Long Room, nursing a Guinness and watching the sun set over the Atlantic, I remembered that 2013 is the year of The Gathering in Ireland — an invitation to those with Irish blood or just Irish sensibilities to come for a visit. I can't think of a better idea.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay: The Lodge at Doonbeg. This five-star property, in an isolated location overlooking the Atlantic, has 185 accommodations (one- to four-bedroom suites and one- to four-bedroom cottages), casual and fine dining restaurants, full-service spa, golf course and numerous other guest amenities. Doonbeglodge.com.
Learn more: Discoverireland.com