Travel Europe: Irish tea and exquisite sympathy

Dublin's labyrinthine Shelbourne Hotel is a sumptuous base for exploring the fair city - if you can find your way out.
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The Independent Culture
It seemed rather silly to use a porter. Our bags were light and we were only on the second floor but the man seemed resolute, so we followed him. Much later, we reached our room. Our journey had taken us into several lifts, up and down many stairs and along miles of corridor.

We had swept past various enormous, isolated pieces of furniture (of mystifying purpose) and innumerable paintings of small men on large horses but at last we were there. And very nice it was too; in the orderly air of the bedroom lingered the certain, comforting promise of mineral water and chocolates at bedtime.

But now it was time to dump our luggage and look for lunch. Boldly, we sallied forth, like Theseus venturing into the Cretan labyrinth. Quite soon, we met a cross man who was lost and he tagged on. We glimpsed a distant couple who disappeared, laughing, down a staircase unfamiliar to any of us. We met another man who said that he loved the hotel and we should follow him. I was beginning to understand Thackeray's enigmatic remarks about this respectable old edifice, wherein "the solitary traveller may find society": he was lost too.

Our new guide led us confidently into a boiler room before admitting defeat and leaving the navigation to us. It began to feel like an old French film. With reckless courage, we all pressed onwards and upwards and downwards and sideways and emerged, astonished, into the lobby as dusk was falling.

The Shelbourne Hotel is not well signposted. In this lofty and gracious house there are many mansions, suites and spas, ballrooms and basements, beauticians, barbers and bars - and I've seen them all. But if you're not in a rush and you can follow the pole star, it's a gorgeous place - so large that just finding the alarmingly well-equipped health club could work pounds off you. If even that thought is exhausting, head for the breakfast room, where you can fuel yourself for the whole day on eggs, bacon, sausages, tomatoes, potatoes, mushrooms and both black and white puddings - and then cheese and ham and smoked salmon and croissants.

However, should you begin to feel peckish again at tea time, you might try the more dignified ambience of the Lord Mayor's Lounge, where large, stately women in well-upholstered armchairs work steadily through pyramids of dainty sandwiches, scones and morsels of exquisite patisserie. During the Irish tea ceremony, a melancholy lady of a certain age, forever blonde, plays "Doing What Comes Naturally" on a pale boudoir grand.

In the spring of 1922, Michael Collins presided over a historic event in the hotel. In one of the huge first-floor rooms whose bay windows look out on to the north side of St Stephen's Green, the Constitution of the Irish Free State was signed. The Green itself had seen fierce fighting during the 1916 Easter Rising, when Countess Markiewicz held the imposing Royal College of Surgeons (on the west side) for the rebels: it is one of several Dublin buildings bearing bullet scars. The spirited countess, nee Constance Gore-Booth, survived a death sentence and became the first woman elected to the Westminster Parliament, though she never took her seat.

The Green was laid out as an enormous urban square in 1664 and is a beautiful place to walk, with its lakes and bridges, spinneys, statues and bandstands - there are free concerts there in the summer.

Around it, the smart houses of the Georgian city boast a variety of broad, imposing "Dublin doors". They open largely on to offices these days, with the notable exception, on the south side, of Newman House and, beside it, Newman's University Church, founded for Catholic students in the 1850s. It is a pretty example of Ruskinian Byzantinism, understandably popular for weddings.

Within five minutes' walk of the Shelbourne, you can spend a fortune in Grafton Street or in the Stephen's Green Shopping Centre, which resembles the Palm House at Kew. Better, though, to go down to Trinity, pore over the Book of Kells and marvel at the stupendous Long Room, or nip along to the National Gallery and admire the work of Willie Yeats's father John and his brother Jack. Or just turn into Dawson Street and totter down the steps of the minuscule Dawson Lounge for a pint of Guinness. If you find yourself drinking too much, you'd be unlikely to fall over as the place only holds a dozen vertical punters.

A hop and a skip from this pleasingly lugubrious bar is the side door of the Shelbourne. You could probably find your room through there, but I didn't manage it.

Sue Gaisford and her husband paid pounds 343 each for two nights at the Shelbourne Hotel (00 35 31 676 6471) through Brief Encounter (0181-987 6108). The price included flights on British Midland from Heathrow to Dublin, transfers by public car, and full Irish breakfasts. During October a standard double room at the hotel costs pounds 184 including breakfast; the price drops to pounds 174 in November. The main airline across the Irish Sea, Ryanair (0541 569569) is selling flights from numerous UK airports to Dublin for fares around pounds 50 return, providing you book by Tuesday.

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