With five-star hotels to fulfill every kind of caviar dream and rates that have plummeted 35 per cent since 2007, there couldn't be a better time to visit Dublin. A few weeks ago, I set out to experience the luxe-for-less life and found myself in an opulent blur of fuzzy white robes, designer drinks and shiny-eyed employees who take already legendary Irish hospitality to new heights as foot soldiers in Ireland's battle for limited business.
The Grand Dame of Dublin
I began my adventure at the grand dame of Dublin five-stars, the Merrion Hotel, an amalgamation of four Georgian townhouses dating back to the 18th century. The period décor could easily pass for the set of Downtown Abbey, complete with a sprawling communal lobby and drawing room bar that feels like the kind of place Oscar Wilde might have stopped in for a nightcap. (The famous Dubliner was born down the street and his monument appears in Merrion Square park across the street.) The hotel is ideal for fans of the finer things: Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud (Dublin's only two-star Michelin dining destination) is on the premises, and an impressive collection of Irish artwork is scattered throughout.
Chic and cheerful
My next stop, the Dylan, is a chic and cheerful boutique hotel, you could call it the Kate Moss to the Merrion's Kate Middleton. It has a stylish and intimate feel (with 44 rooms, it is by far the smallest five-star in town). For the most part, this more modern luxury suits just fine, particularly with hipster-approved touches like pre-programmed iPods and monogrammed brownies in the rooms (although I did struggle to work an absurdly futuristic phone that resembled a robot banana). As is the standard for boutique hotels, the Dylan has few amenities, though a restaurant and bar full of beautiful people mean you can have a fantastic night on the town without stepping out of the hotel. Kick-start the festivities with a signature Summertime Spritzer, a drink so popular they were forced to keep it on the winter cocktail list. For further boozy amusement, the Dylan offers mix master classes and whisky tastings on most weekends, as well as special dining and lodging packages that bring down the cost of an overnight stay.
A perfect perch
Similar “stay here/eat here” bargains are available at the Westbury Hotel, a five-star that can easily claim the best location in town, perched between the top of Grafton Street and the foot of St. Stephen's Green park (sort of like staying at the Park Plaza in New York). Tourists and locals intermingle in the swanky salon atmosphere of the lobby bar that overlooks the city's best shopping and cafés, and provides an unparalleled people-watching post.
Should you want to venture out into the streets, the cost of painting the town red has come down considerably as well. In search of a strong drink and possibly a celeb sighting I stop in at the Octagon bar in the Clarence Hotel, currently owned by Bono and the Edge (everyone's friends with Bono, right?). A bartender tells me that my reasonably priced $9 (€7) Pink Cloud martini would have easily gone for three times as much five years ago. Just getting into most of the city's cooler nightclubs then was mission improbable with bouncers and lineups snaking up the street.
Restaurants, too, are adjusting to the frill-free times with newer hot spots offering a more relaxed sort of glamour. Hugo's (the site of a Bieber Fever outbreak when you-know-who stopped in for a meal last year) exudes timeless Euro charm with loosely French cuisine and more than 30 wines by the glass. A pre-theatre menu from 5 to 7 p.m. is a steal at only $32 (€25) for a starter, main and dessert. (My meal of crispy duck leg, hearty meat pie and vanilla crème brulée was flawless, if familiar.)
For a more innovative meal, head to Crackbird, a trendy destination that started as Dublin's first pop-up and moved to permanent digs on Dame Street last summer. The concept is simple – fried chicken done three different ways with a half dozen sauce options plus salads and sides – but this is no county picnic. The dark and decadent décor, indie rock playlists and staff who look like they're all on their way to band practice are just a few of the restaurant's cool kid credentials. As for the food, it lives up to its “addictive chicken” billing. Our feast, including a sweet potato noodle salad with coriander and crushed peanuts, plus ample beer and cider, came to less than $28 (€22) a head. We also had a fantastic time – a happy side-effect of sharing food served in buckets.
Spirit of a city
After dinner, pop over to Peader Kearney's pub, where live music will coax you out of your chicken-fried coma. Singing, dancing and knocking back compulsory shots of Jameson, you'll feel the irrepressible spirit of a city that has seen far worse and will eventually find its footing. In fact, the latest data from Hotels.com shows that tourism in Dublin is up from this time last year. Enjoy the luxury loophole while you can.
FIVE STAR IN THE COUNTRY: RITZ-CARLTON POWERSCOURT
If you plan to stay in Dublin longer than a few days, a trip to the Ritz-Carlton at Powerscourt is a great escape, less than an hour drive away. The $200-million palatial estate in Wicklow County, opened just as the economy was collapsing in late 2007, is teeming with five-star extravagance: an ESPA spa; two golf courses; a helicopter pad; a sauna/steam/hot tub room (sit in the steamy bubbles while you gaze out the window at the countryside); complimentary guest e-tablets and full WiFi; televisions built into the bathroom mirrors (perfectly positioned for a soak in the tub).
Originally conceived as a luxurious weekend retreat for flush city folk, it now offers suites for a relative steal. The Gordon Ramsay restaurant, which opened as a fine dining establishment, recently underwent a menu makeover. Such dishes as wild boar ravioli, pan fried hake with brown butter sauce and a classic steak frites prioritize fresh, local ingredients over formality. The neighbouring Powers Court Estate boasts lavish gardens and a golf course. Spend hours exploring 19 hectares of waterfalls, secret caves and views that launched a thousand post card companies.
Powerscourt Estate Enniskerry; 353-1-274-8888; ritzcarlton.com. Rooms from $246 (€190).
Special to The Globe and Mail