Mad about Malahide: For culture, carousing and eating your heart out
"This is far too early to be drinking," barked the half-sozzled bar-fly perched on his stool in The Grand Hotel's lounge.
Delivered in that coarse north Dublin brogue, through a gravelly voicebox marinated in whiskey and scorched by too many smokes, it was in jest of course, but the sentiment was on the money, even if he was clearly not practising what he preached.
It was midday on a mild autumnal Friday at the start of October - only politicians and solicitors get away with it at this time - but liberated from the kids and the daily grind for a paltry 24 hours, we'd been let loose on Malahide and a herd of wild horses couldn't have dragged me and the missus away from a little afternoon carousing.
I've been to Malahide a few times before, and have always stayed in The Grand.
Last time out, I did the civilised family thing, availing of all the first class facilities on offer: taking the kids for a dip in the pool; a feed at The Coast restaurant overlooking the moonlit marina and estuary that evening, and then a bumper breakfast the next morning.
This time, however, it was a lot more rock 'n' roll - well, as rock 'n' roll as it gets for two 39-year-olds skidding disgracefully, arms a-flailing, into early middle age.
The Grand reminds the missus of the hotel in The Witches, but don't let that put you off, there were no scheming rats nor snaggle-toothed hags running riot around here, and the only black magic I could see was from the sorceress sitting next to me and her vanishing French Martinis trick in the Matt Ryan bar (€12 a pop).
The hotel effortlessly exudes sophistication and grandeur. Peering down over the village main street like some wise and watchful matriarch, it strikes just the right balance between old-fashioned elegance and modern refinement.
I've always found Malahide such a cool and cosmopolitan wee place, its well-heeled residents milling around casually in the mid-afternoon, unruffled and unflappable, sipping vanilla lattes and frappuccinos as the soft thrum of Finn and Jarlath's game at the local tennis club beats away in the background.
All a million miles from the horn-beeping, stressed-out, road rage of the school run where I come from.
Just nine miles from one of the world's great cities, The Grand offers you the best of both worlds. The frenetic bustle of Dublin is on your doorstep, but I've never been tempted, not when you have so many crackin' pubs and restaurants all sitting cheek-by-jowl right here.
It truly is a great foodie destination, with so many upmarket places to eat - from fine dining to traditional Irish, seafood to Pakistani and Thai, it's got it all.
On three trips to Malahide, I haven't even begun to scrape the surface of what's on offer, and part of the reason being I always lunch in the same place, the Fish Shack Cafe, where you can eat out on the terrace - depending on the weather, of course - or inside on its rustic wooden tables.
Like everywhere else, the vibe is chilled-out bohemian, and for me, there's only thing for it - the best chowder I've tasted anywhere. Served with some torn ciabatta, it's almost worth the drive from Belfast alone.
Caught up in the moment, I pledged to replicate the dish when I got home. Writing cheques there my kitchen skills can't cash.
In the brief interlude between lunch and the resumption of our pub crawl from Duffy's to Gibney's - purveyor, incidentally, of some great wines in the off-licence, including my all-time favourite, Esporao from the Alentejo region of Portugal - we took a stroll around Malahide and down along the seafront as the Enterprise from Belfast zipped along the shoreline bound for Connolly Station.
For the culturally inclined, Malahide Castle, set on 260 acres of parkland a few minutes by car from the village, is unmissable.
Dating back to the 12th century, its history is fascinating - and deliciously gory too. As the story goes, on the morning of the Battle of the Boyne, 14 members of the Talbots, the dynasty who lived in the castle for eight centuries right up until 1975, sat down for breakfast together in the Great Hall. By that afternoon, all but one of them would be dead.
By contrast, me and the missus were still very much full of life, and after a quick costume change, we made our way to Il Sorriso where by now, our number had swelled to six with another two couples joining us from Belfast.
A cosy Italian offering all the usual staples, for some garlic bread starters, three pizzas and three pasta dishes, plus two bottles of white wine, our bill came in at €90 a couple.
By now, however, I'd been on the water for an hour, and suitably restored to some level of sobriety, we repaired next door to Gilbert & Wright cocktail bar, sidling past the doorman and his furrowed eyebrows as he detected the arrival of the bedraggled blow-ins.
And once again, it was a vibrant and sassy little spot, with purple velvet sofas, ambient gold lighting and art deco wallpaper - though I'm not sure the hip and trendy locals, Cosmopolitans in hand, were overly impressed by some of the groovy moves playing out in front of them as we bopped it out till closing time.
"The Grand? Sure it's only a few minutes away, chief." At last, it was home time and the taxi driver was looking askance at me, bemused by the sheer laziness of my request, before kindly obliging as he spied the wife approaching unsteadily, like a newborn gazelle in her heels.
Back in The Grand, the residents' bar was still cock-a-hoop with revellers but we shuffled past awkwardly, like embarrassed guests who had showed at the wrong wedding.
It wasn't more drink we needed, but the deliverance of a deep sleep in our sprawling double room. Remember Sleepless In Seattle? Well this was its less critically-acclaimed sequel, Legless In Malahide.
So it turns out the aul bar-fly was right, we did start too early - but hey, that's rock 'n' roll.
Sorry, not sorry.
Current offers at The Grand Hotel, Malahide, include:
- Sunday Saver - €55 per person sharing, bed & breakfast
- Midweek Winter Special - two nights bed & breakfast with two-course early bird dinner on one evening from €146 per person sharing
- Fabulous Friday - €65 per person sharing, bed & breakfast
For further information, or to make a reservation, visit: thegrand.ie