Feels like abroad. But also a dream version of home

Julie Myerson doesn't normally have time for leisurely shopping. Or lunch. Or dinner. Then Dublin came to her rescue

There comes a point, on a weekend city break, when you suddenly remember why you got up at five in the morning and braved wind, drizzle and the Piccadilly Line to get on a plane. For me, that moment comes as we stagger through the heavy glass doors of the Fitzwilliam and into its snug, pine-scented lobby. Deep suede sofas, bowls of lilies, decent paintings on the walls and a log fire crackling in the grate. Forget checking in: all I want to do is sit down and read the newspapers.

At Heathrow, there were the usual queues and delays - and then the achingly slow Airlink bus grinding its piped music from the airport into rainy, central Dublin. And, actually, the first view is not promising - it seems tawdry, unprepossessing, the buildings stained, dark and run-down. The bus drops us outside Trinity and we try to decipher the map.

But now, standing here with my suitcase at my feet and a smartly greatcoated porter about to handle everything else, I'm perking up. And my mood improves still further when we're shown our room - modern, streamlined, chic and comfortable with its huge, mirrored bathroom with pedestal bath, shiny taps, chocolate brown armchairs, single orchid in a vase and leaded roof terrace where two chairs and a table look enticing if forlorn in the winter rain.

We're on a two-day break to escape kids (three), dog (one), cats (four, one with kittens on the way), work commitments (innumerable) and all the other things we should or shouldn't have done. We know what we want to do: walk, talk (about something other than pets, work or kids), sleep and eat and shop. Whenever we're out of London, my partner seems to get hyperwilling to devote hours to buying me clothes. It's a trait I've been exploiting for 17 years.

And why choose Dublin? Well, it's far enough away to feel like abroad, but close enough (an hour's flight) to seem as effortless as they come. And in spite of the lack of language barrier, isn't there also something indefinably romantic about the place? I have to admit my overriding sense of it stems from John Huston's film of The Dead, drawn from James Joyce's Dubliners. At a New Year's Eve dinner party in 1904, Greta Conroy (Angelica Huston) hears a sad ballad sung by a guest and is reminded of an old, dead love. The final, haunting image, of a lonely Dublin graveyard deep in wind and snow, has stayed with me all these years. I don't tell Jonathan this, though. If I'm morose, he won't take me anywhere near a clothes rail. And, anyway, the graveyard is a far cry from the view from our hotel window over St Stephen's Green, where a well-laid piece of Victorian park is criss-crossed with umbrellas, buggies and ducks paddling happily in the greyish mizzle.

The second best thing about arriving somewhere is if you're there in time for lunch. We're not only in time; we're also madly hungry. When my hairdresser heard I was going to Dublin, she paused, highlight foil in hand, and exclaimed with feeling, "Oh but you must go to La Stampa!" When I told Jonathan, he made a face. "Since when did we take travel advice from hairdressers? I think we'll get a guide." But now, leaving our hotel and crossing diagonally on to Dawson Street, what do we see before us but a lavish, fairy-lit Georgian townhouse with black iron railings, stained glass lanterns and steps up to the door. "La Stampa," I tell Jonathan. "It's the one Jackie recommended."

He would probably refuse to go in on principle were it not for the fact that it looks utterly fantastic. We're shown to a table for two for lunch - actually, the huge, glittering ballroom of tables is empty except for two lavender-haired old ladies tucking into what looks like an entire duck each. It doesn't matter - the place is surreal, more film set than restaurant, glamorous in the extreme with its belle époque mirrors, theatrical masks decking the walls, plush, red-velvet chairs and vases of lilies everywhere. Best of all, it's entirely candlelit - at lunchtime! Decadent and sexy. I order a glass of champagne and salmon with truffle mash. Jonathan looks around him and sighs: "All this elegance, but only dreary imported beer."

"That's what you always have."

He looks weary. "We're in Dublin. All I wanted was a glass of Guinness. It's like arriving in Lisbon and not being able to get a glass of port."

Still, I ply him with wine and we're off down Grafton Street where interesting-looking boutiques nestle among coffee shops and make-up shops. Soon I have a pink Paul & Joe spangly cardigan, some lavender body rinse, and a rather fetching black stole. Then it's off into some of the multiples - all of them to be found in Britain, admittedly, but we never get time to look in Jigsaw or Kookaï back home. But Jonathan does his sums and frowns. "If you convert back from euros, these prices are much more expensive than London." We agree it would be silly to buy anything at a Dublin chain or department store if you really can get it cheaper on the King's Road. But it's a bitter blow. Undeterred, I suggest we check out the small, one-off shops on Castle Market.

Sure, he says. After tea.

He's spotted a place called Bewley's Oriental, a gigantic, coloured-windows, ladies-in-mink emporium and there we settle to buns and cocoa amid the potted palms. This is fun. We both agree it feels like abroad.

We have dinner that night at Jacob's Ladder, a tiny, cosy restaurant on the first floor of a Georgian townhouse with views right over Trinity. The waiters are a little frosty - and every customer except us seems to be Italian and male - but the food is great and, just as in La Stampa, there's a sense of glamour - proper linen, sexy lighting, huge balloon wine glasses - that we can't recall getting the last time we went out in London.

The next day we work westward from Grafton Street - in fact, a relief to be off the hectic, living-statue, pedestrianised streets - and find a wealth of little boutiques. Old clothes, new clothes, old jewellery, sexy little dresses and, best of all, laid-back, hands-off shop assistants who are happy to carry on with their own chatter rather than tell you how good you look in everything you try on.

There are old Georgian mansions converted into little shopping warrens round central courts or straggling shopping lanes. And then you wander into the old covered markets and find grungy T-shirts (for daughter) and more second-hand CDs than you can imagine (son).

By comparison, as we move north towards the river and Temple Bar, the renovated tourist area, the shops become duller, far more obvious. This is truly the Covent Garden of Dublin - a tourist trap, ersatz Irishness, uninteresting. We work back southwards, along Dame Street, but - we're here for romance and relaxation - we cannot resist a sign offering relics of St Valentine. "Maybe it's a bone church?" I tell Jonathan, unable to forget the grim, skull- and femur-lined crypt we once discovered on a trip to Rome. But we work along St George's Street and find the Whitefriar Carmelite Church, where a gaggle of primary school kids is being ushered in. We squeeze past, find the altar and - in hope of bones, fingernails or who-knows-what belonging to the patron saint of lurve - it is merely a chaste altar, donated by Pope Gregory in 1835, allegedly containing some part of St Valentine.

After a relaxing lunch in Citron, the hotel's own snug restaurant overlooking the fire-lit foyer, we dump our shopping bags and Jonathan suggests we venture north of the river to see O'Connell Street. But, like George's Street, this only shows how Dublin is still struggling to slough off its old skin and move into the 21st century. Dublin features chic patches which will rival those in any European city. But move 20 paces out of these patches and you're somewhere in the British provinces in the mid-1950s: shabbiness, stylelessness, curly writing on the logos where it's still considered the height of sophistication to replace the letter C with a K.

Escaping the humdrumery of O'Connell Street, Jonathan sweeps me into the huge post office and starts giving me a lecture about the 1916 Easter Rising. "I always thought it sounded funny, that of all the places to choose to seize, they picked a post office. But I didn't realise it was so huge." He's right: it's truly a town-hall-sized post office. But paint-peeled and shabby, with people queuing for giros and air mail - and the commemorative paintings of the massacre which was the Post Office Siege remind me of the pages I always skipped in Look and Learn. We hail a taxi and head back to the safety of St Stephen's Green.

By six we're sitting in a chic bar and, while he slurps Guinness ("finally!"), I enjoy a non-specific vodka. We almost have an argument over where to have supper - there are really so many funky-looking restaurants to choose from - but we opt for Bleu, a modern Irish bistro opposite La Stampa. I tell Jonathan I'd have been just as happy to revisit La Stampa, but he puts his foot down. Hairdresser or no hairdresser, we don't do the same restaurant twice. Two nights and three days later we're back on the Piccadilly Line. We haven't been very far but it has been thoroughly refreshing.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Julie Myerson flew to Dublin with Aer Lingus (0845 0844 444; www.aerlingus.com), which is offering return fares from Heathrow to Dublin for £62 if booked online. Double rooms at the The Fitzwilliam Hotel, St Stephen's Green (00 353 1 478 7000; www.fitzwilliamhotel.com) start at €180 (£128) excluding breakfast.

Where to find out more

Call Ireland Tourism (0845 0844444; www.irelandholidays.co.uk).

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