Often overlooked on tours of Ireland, Wexford, in what is known as the ‘sunny south-east,’ is the nation’s oldest Viking town just two hours drive from Dublin, with Clayton Whites Hotel – formerly Whites of Wexford – being the most comfortable, central hotel to stay.
Situated in the heart of this cozy coastal town, the 157-room, 4-star property has enjoyed a colorful history dating back more than 300 years, in many ways reflective of the evolution of the town itself. It was a military lodging house in 1779, having survived a failed revolution against the English the previous year, then became a Coaching Inn in the 1800s when Charles Bianconi set up a stage-coach network. Owned by the McCarthy family for many years, it was bought by Michael Burke almost 20 years ago, closed for major renovations in 2004 and re-opened two years later.
Parking is convenient and easy, in a large underground area with elevators that bring guests straight to an open, spacious lobby arranged with plenty of seating. Rooms are spacious, some with fine views over downtown and the picturesque coastline.
Choose a higher floor one that offers both, directly over the Norman West Gate Tower and medieval Selskar Abbey and beyond to a broad inlet where boats move slowly back and forth to the open sea.
Buffet-style breakfasts are served just off the lobby beside a rectangular open terrace next to the hotel’s ‘Tranquillity Spa’ featuring nine treatment rooms, a pool, a sauna, tropical rain showers and a steam room.
With its labyrinth of narrow streets and alleyways, a legacy of the Viking era, Wexford is an enjoyable town to wander through, with over fifty cafes and restaurants, several bookstores and assorted retail stores. Lively South Main Street is particularly attractive and is usually bustling with people.
Best introduction to the town is a two-hour guided walk organized through the tourism office located on the seafront promenade. You should consider doing so as you’d learn much about the town’s history, specially the period under Viking and Norman domination. One of the first stops is an impressive statue of Wexford-born John Barry who gained fame as a naval leader during the American war of independence. The statute is a prominent feature of the town overlooking a crescent-shaped harbor. No far away, the ‘Bullring market’ has been a center of local commerce for hundreds of years and still makes for a pleasant stroll, with craft and food tables housed inside refurbished log cabins.
Interesting for music lovers, especially opera aficionados, is that Wexford is now home to Ireland’s National Opera House, an ornate, 750-seat, walnut-lined purpose-built theater, a five-minute walk from Whites hotel. During the busy October festival season, six different performances take place every three-day cycle. As the festival is so popular, best to reserve tickets well in advance. The theater also has a restaurant and café, with panoramic views over the town and coast beyond.
As many attractions lie outside Wexford as inside, all within an hour’s driving distance of Clayton Whites, including scenic coastal villages speckled with thatched cottages such as Kilmore Quay and the offshore Saltee Islands, with its bird sanctuary and grey seal population. The outdoor, 35-acre Irish National Heritage Park, a 10-minute drive from town, is well worth visiting, offering an easy walking trail with sixteen different stops, including full-scale reconstructions of ancient houses, forts, tombs, a Viking boatyard, a water mill and a medieval round tower.
Nestled in 50 acres of woods and lawns with a garden lake, Johnstown Castle houses the Irish Agricultural Museum, which grants glimpses into farming life over two centuries. Artefacts include old-style harvesting and ploughing machines, period countryside furniture and a special transport section featuring tractors, horse-drawn carts and pioneering cars.
In terms of nightlife, the quaint pub, ‘An Speir agus an Talamh’ (The Sky and the Ground), is particularly atmospheric, often with live music hosted on the first floor. With bare wood floor and tables, decorative ceiling lamps, framed photographs of a bygone age and – strangely – nude mannequins set amid assorted gilded mirrors, the pub offers an impressive selection of craft beers and ales. While there, we were fortunate to hear a concert by ‘Frankenstein Bolts,’ a local band led by Wexford songwriter, Justin Cullen, with breezy, dreamlike songs from his first solo album ‘Slow Season.’
For its sheer historical background, bustling downtown and coastal scenery, Wexford is a town worth a visit and there’s no more suitable place to stay than Clayton Whites.