We gazed down from our craggy outpost on Bray Head across the glistening waters of the Irish Sea below us.
To the north lay the village of Bray itself, the broad sweep of Dublin Bay, the Howth peninsula and Dalkey Island.
To the south was the village of Greystones and the distant wonders of Eire fading away into the haze.
But I couldn’t help glancing at the steep incline behind me; sheep either side flanking a rutted, fern-lined track twisting its serpentine way up the hillside. Had I cycled up that? I could barely believe it…
Well, maybe I should confess I had cheated slightly. This was Fatbike Adventures, on the Belmont Demesne estate in Co Wicklow.
This was not just my first taste of mountain biking, but also of e-biking, where a motor supplements pedal power and helps propel even the rustiest cyclist up to magnificent viewpoints.
The £2,200 bikes are called “fat” because they come with chunky, 4.5in tyres capable of tackling the toughest terrain.
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After a demo by instructor and Fatbikes co-founder Ian Boltt, I soon got to grips with the gears and motor controls, which cover every level up to Mach 5 (sorry, that should be “max 5”!).
The Fatbikes tour days are typical of the “try anything” entrepreneurship that’s remarkably prevalent in modern-day Ireland.
Yes, of course there are worries about a post-Brexit future, but the Celtic Tiger is still purring.
And Ireland is so convenient to visit, just a comfortable trip across the Irish Sea on one of the luxury Stena Line vessels sailing out of Holyhead, Anglesey, and with a great choice of hotels in Dublin Port.
We stayed at the striking four-star, £47million Marlin Hotel, a new arrival in the St Stephen’s Green area, which specialises in the “hotel-room-as-pod” concept.
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Rooms are comfortable but “functional” with a huge 2m x 2m bed dominating each one. The breakfast buffet is pretty much the same size, too.
Dublin’s thriving Grand Canal Dock and Custom House Quay dominate a docklands area that has been re-energised, with additions such as the 14,000-capacity 3Arena, the Convention Centre Dublin, the Bord Gais Energy Theatre, the Luas tram and light rail system, and the EPIC Irish Emigration Museum, awarded the top museum prize in Europe for 2019.
It tells the story of the millions who left Eire in troubled times in search of a better life, brought to life by incredible interactive technology.
The area is a mecca for food-lovers too as Ireland spreads its appeal to gastronomes and reinforces its reputation for locally produced “slow-food” cooking. We had lunch at the Ely Bar and Grill, housed in subterranean dockside wine vaults dating back to 1821, featuring a menu with the very best of Irish cuisine.
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And the enthralling story of Irish foods was brought vividly and tastily to life when we joined the Fab Food trail, covering everything from pungent Eire cheeses to ice cream prepared with liquid nitrogen.
We visited The Swan, one of the dozen or so traditional Victorian-era pubs still remaining in Dublin.
We also sampled the whiskey on a tour of the George Roe & Co distillery.
Irish producers take great pride in their output, pointing out that they nearly always triple-distil their spirit, as opposed to the double-distillation process that almost always applies to Scotch whisky.
In Co Wicklow, outside Dublin, we enjoyed another tour, at the Powerscourt Distillery, Enniskerry, which produces Fercullen
premium-brand whiskeys under master distiller Noel Sweeney. His expertise in the field is all but unrivalled.
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Alongside is Powerscourt House, a magnificent stately home and estate named by National Geographic as No3 in having the best ornamental gardens in the world.
The place is truly stunning, with features such as the Triton Lake with its 100ft fountain, the Italian and Japanese Gardens, and the Pets’ Cemetery – the final resting place of many much-loved former residents.
The estate’s history can be traced back to medieval times when a castle stood on the site. In 1730, the first Viscount Powerscourt wanted to make his mark by building the grandest of elegant mansions.
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In 1961 the Slazenger family, of sports kit fame, bought the estate from the ninth viscount and began a long-term project of restoration as a visitor attraction. But after completion in 1974, a devastating blaze reduced the main building to a roofless shell.
Today it is impossible to see the joins after a renewed building programme and the reopening of the estate in 1997 by then Irish President Mary Robinson.
At Ballyknocken House, 20 miles away in Ashford, TV chef and third generation B&B proprietor Catherine Fulvio runs a cookery school on site where she had us all developing our catering skills.
Catherine, who has appeared on Saturday Kitchen and in her own Irish cookery show, has made an art out of Italian cuisine with a Celtic edge to it.
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Her ingredients couldn’t be fresher – the kitchen garden at Ballyknocken, lovingly tended by gardener Mark Smyth, provides a comprehensive range of vegetables and salad leaves, and our self-prepared salad was garnished with edible borage, marigold and calendula flowers.
Food tastes so much better when you have done it yourself and acquired new skills in the process.
Much more of that, however, and I will definitely need my own “fatbike” on a full-time basis.
- STENA Line sails four times a day from Holyhead to Dublin, with crossings starting at £89 for a car plus driver one-way. See stenaline.co.uk or call 03447 707 070.
Rooms at the Marlin Hotel in Dublin cost from around £87 a night. Go to marlinhotel.ie.
More info at visitdublin.com and ireland.com.
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