My room was pitch-dark when I awoke, the heavy wooden shutters closed tightly against the recessed windows to keep out the light.
The illuminated dial on my travel clock read 6:40 as I turned off the alarm and felt my way across to open the shutters.
They folded back on a scene like something out of "Brigadoon" or "Finian's Rainbow." A fine mist shrouded green terraces and fields that stretched to a horizon lost in the haze. The world was still. Nothing moved. I stood, mesmerized, half expecting a leprechaun to come dancing from behind a tree. Instead, only a boy appeared, chasing his dog.
The spell was broken.
It was my first morning at Tinakilly House in County Wicklow, one of nearly 40 members of the Irish Country Houses and Restaurants Assn. that opens its doors to travelers in a plan to raise revenue to maintain the historic and beautiful old estates. It is an experience that provides the visitor with a taste of life in Ireland's countryside.
Tinakilly was built in the 1870s for Capt. Robert Halpin, commander of the Great Eastern, the ship that laid the first telegraph cable linking the United States and Europe. A quiet refuge for travelers, it appears suddenly along a tree-lined drive off the main road and within sight of the Irish Sea. At the foot of its broad terraces, a river is spanned by an old stone bridge along which children play and fishermen try their luck.
At Tinakilly, guests are welcomed by Bill and Bee Power, the gracious couple who restored the house and furnished it to complement its classical Victorian style.
Guests enter through two sets of double doors that open into a large living room with a fireplace that is constantly ablaze. The only concession to its function as a lobby is a desk hidden beside a staircase that leads to bedrooms on the upper floor.
Guests gather in the bar/lounge and dining areas. The kitchen is the domain of Christian Drouot, who whips up a delicious blend of country and French cuisine, including fresh fish, game and locally grown vegetables.
The home's 14 bedrooms feature modern baths, TV, phones, four-poster or canopied beds and antiques. Generally, guests arrive by car and, once settled, run off to discover the attractions of County Wicklow.
There are several rules, however, that one should remember before hitting the road in Ireland. First there's the well-known rule of driving on the left. Second, many roads in the countryside are narrow, frequently one lane wide. When two motorists meet, usually the courteous Irish back up or pull to the side to allow another driver to pass. One must also watch for herds of sheep and cattle that slow the traffic.
Finally, the most difficult rule involves keeping your eye on the road when the scenery has your head spinning. The Irish countryside spreads like a carpet over fields and distant hills. Sheep and herds of calico cattle are a contrast to its greenery as they munch their way to Irish tables.
Everywhere the ruins of ancient stone walls and unidentifiable structures slowly lose the battle of survival against time and the elements, and even the poorest of homes displays flowers.
Wicklow is called the Garden of Ireland, and if one enjoys flowers as the Irish do, then Wicklow offers two spectacular scenes. One is Mount Usher Gardens, which appears along the Vartry River in a natural park-like setting with paths meandering without plan through trees, shrubs and flowers from around the world; bridges cross a river where weirs control the flow and harbor trout, and in spring and summer rhododendrons--pink, red and white--appear with shocking beauty.
Some 20 miles down a country lane, near the charming town of Enniskerry with its inviting Tudor-style shops, is Powerscourt, one of Ireland's grandest gardens. A gated entrance along a sweeping avenue of beech trees leads to the 1,600 acres of farm and garden behind the Powerscourt mansion. Once one of the finest stately homes in Ireland, with more than 100 rooms filled with treasures, it was extensively damaged by fire in 1974. Though only the hewn granite shell remains, it still provides an impressive background for the spectacular gardens.
From a broad terrace of black-and-white mosaic stone, rimmed by wrought-iron railings from an old German castle, the view is magnificent. Stairs fall away to a lake and an impressive fountain; shrubs, trees, statuary and geometric flower beds provide other color, and an enchanting Japanese garden rises on reclaimed bog across foothills, with majestic Sugarloaf Mountain in the distance.
Elsewhere, the 400-foot Powerscourt Waterfall, one of the highest in the British Isles, spills into a delightful glen that's popular with picnickers.
If you haven't brought a lunch, pause at Roundwood Inn in the little village of Roundwood. Reasonably priced sandwiches and hot dishes are available in a typical Irish atmosphere.
Roundwood, south of Powerscourt, is near the juncture with the road that heads over the Wicklow Hills through Sally Gap and past Lake Tay to Blessington. Atop the hills, sprinkled with heather and gorse, you'll see city dwellers on their allotted plots cutting and drying peat for fuel. Here, too, is the source of the River Liffey that winds its way down through Dublin.
At Blessington, a jewel of a museum draws other visitors to the shore of a large lake-reservoir. Russborough is an 18th-Century Palladian home with an art collection that features paintings by Vermeer, Goya, Reubens and Velazquez along with an outstanding collection of Irish silver, antiques and fine examples of Francini plasterwork ceilings.
Another road takes motorists to Glendalough, the valley of two lakes with its wild beauty and historic and archeological sites. Here, in the 6th Century, St. Kevin established a monastery. Skeletal walls still stand, including those of the 11th-Century nave, and a small sacristy. Nearby, St. Kevin's Church is remarkably well-preserved, with its corbeled roof and small belfry tower that dates to the 11th Century.
The immense Round Tower, more than 100 feet high and 50 feet around the base, is in remarkably good condition after more than a thousand years.
If you have time for only one stop in County Wicklow, it should be at Glendalough. Walking the hallowed grounds of the ancient cemetery and forested trails along lake shores provides a sense of serenity that is difficult to find in today's troubled world.
Keeping in mind that Ireland is smaller than the state of Maine, it's possible to cover quite a bit of County Wicklow in a single day.
One should also take the drive to the old seafaring town of Arklow along some of Ireland's most beautiful coastline.
Another good base from which to travel the byroads of County Wicklow is Hunter's Hotel. One of Ireland's oldest coaching inns, it has been in the same family for five generations. The inn offers a warmth and the welcome of its proprietress, Maureen Gelletlie, so that one feels instantly at home. The gardens are a bonus, providing a popular haven for hotel guests and drop-ins to enjoy tea beside the Vartry River. It has long been a favorite stop on the road from Dublin to Wexford, not only for an overnight stay or tea break, but for a drink in the lounge--or an excellent Irish meal of fresh fish, meat and vegetables from the garden.
Other explorers discover the Old Rectory in the city of Wicklow, a guest house with five rooms that is set in a tranquil garden. Logs blaze in fireplaces and meals are served in a charming dining room. Paul and Linda Saunders have lovingly restored the house; Linda serves as chef and Paul as the host. The bedrooms are tastefully furnished, each with private bath.
Members of the Irish Country Houses and Restaurant Assn. are scattered throughout Ireland and owners are carefully screened, so that membership is by invitation only. Each is owner-managed and hospitality is the key word.
A guest is never just another room number.
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Tinakilly House, Rathnew, County Wicklow, Ireland: 30 (Irish) per person, double. Dinner 19.
Hunter's Hotel, Rathnew, County Wicklow, Ireland: 22 per person, double; 2 bathroom supplement; dinner 15.
The Old Rectory, Wicklow, County Wicklow, Ireland: 27 per person, double. Dinner 15 to 25.
Fees for the gardens are $2 to $3 (U.S.). Glendalough is free.
For the booklet "Irish Country Houses & Restaurants" and other information on County Wicklow and Ireland, write to the Irish Tourist Board, 757 3rd Ave., 3rd Floor, New York 10017.