Travel

Sleep Next to a Castle Surrounded by Whiskey, a Music Festival, and Fairies

Glamping never felt so magical.

Slane Castle
Slane Castle
Slane Castle

When Alex Conyngham wanted to dig a well for his castle in Ireland, first he had to ask the fairies. As much as this might sound like the opening of a Brothers Grimm tale, it’s really just a somewhat normal construction procedure that took place in 2015. After all, there was a fairy fort right where they needed to dig.

“I said, ‘There’s a lovely group of trees over there. We’re never gonna build there. Would they consider going there?'” Conyngham asked the water diviner, who checked in with the fairies, and everyone seemed a-okay with that plan. The tiny magical creatures presumably got a tiny magical Uhaul, the well was drilled, and prosperity sprung. For this reason-along with a spectacular annual music festival, some homegrown whiskey, and a glamping and farmhouse rental-the over-200-year-old Slane Castle is still a lively place today, just 45 minutes from Dublin. Though the owner still has to remember where the fairy fort moved, for future generations.

“The Irish do believe in fairies,” says Conyngham. It only seems fitting in a countryside where the local River Boyne has mythical origins as the goddess Boann, an ancient Newgrange tomb sits nearby that predates the pyramids and aligns with the winter solstice, and Conyngham’s ancestors played a role in the witchy story of Macbeth, made famous by Shakespeare. The Conyngham family helped hide Malcolm, who (as predicted by three witches) would go on to defeat wicked Macbeth and become king of Scotland. The land here is just oozing with lore.

The Rock Farm, Slane
The Rock Farm, Slane
The Rock Farm, Slane

The magical feeling is poignant when walking around Slane Castle and the property just across the river, called Rock Farm Slane, where visitors can rent out rooms in the Conyngham farmhouse or yurts for glamping next to the castle. It’s quite the morning view.

The yurts are named after the seven noble trees of the woods, trees which were given the same protection as feudal lords. This fits the owner well since, as he says “I’ve always thought of buildings as living things.” Each yurt has individual wood-burning stoves, in addition to plush beds and couches inside. Guests can also enjoy the outdoor bonfire pit, wooden hot tub, modern kitchen and showers, swimming pond, and the expansive castle grounds with trails meandering against the river.

Of course, none of this would be possible if not for the help of U2, Madonna, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Queen, and many others. Because Slane Castle is also one of the most epic music venues in the world.

Slane Castle
Slane Castle
Slane Castle

Slane Castle has been hosting performances since 1981, beginning right in the middle of the Irish Troubles-possibly at a time when music felt like one of the few moments of peace. The idea started when Conyngham’s father needed to come up with finances in order to keep the property going, and it proved a smashing hit. Slane has now grown into a legendary venue that’s considered a bucket list for musicians and attendees alike.

Thanks to the music concerts, Conyngham was able to invest in new endeavours. When many in town lost their jobs from the coronavirus pandemic, Conyngham pivoted to a new industry that could employ more people and bring in some much-needed visitors to help keep the town’s economy afloat. And that pivot was Irish Whiskey.

Photo by Ben Hon
Photo by Ben Hon
Photo by Ben Hon

Slane Whiskey is made from the waters of the mythical river Boyne and grain grown in a sustainable, zero-waste manner. The owner tries to work with nature, and so uses wood casks to ferment the liquid (rather than customary metal). The resulting dark-gold liquid tastes like velvety oak and cherries.

Like all of his undertakings, the project always links back to the land, which Conyngham finds to be more important than heritage and titles. “The whiskey is about more than my family,” he says, “it’s about our community.”

The current resident has a deeper understanding of the land the castle sits on (and whatever fairies come with it). “We will never own Slane,” says Conyngham. “We are custodians.” To him, all of his investments must involve the community and help better people’s situations in some way.

The Rock Farm, Slane
The Rock Farm, Slane
The Rock Farm, Slane

In addition to the glamping, farmhouse stay, and rooms available to rent in the castle around the end of summer, Conyngham has also started a weekly farmers market on the property, where locals can come sell their produce, handmade goods, and seriously delicious nosh, including vegan and Indian cuisine options. It’s as idyllic as the Irish countryside can get.

The town is tight-knit, and many have the castle-and annual concert-to thank. Most everyone on the street stops Conyngham and his wife, Carina, to try to guess who the headliner will be in 2023. But much like their family in the tale of Macbeth, the Conynghams are keeping mum. It seems we’ll all just have to wait to see in a few months what the secret is.

Photo by Ben Hon
Photo by Ben Hon
Photo by Ben Hon

Until then, there’s a lot to do in the Boyne Valley. Boyne Boats takes visitors down the mystic Boyne River while the owner regales guests with tales of Irish folklore and history. In addition to the national lore, you can also pry stories from the owner about his role in Game of Thrones, as he built these exact ancient-style boats for the show and taught the actors how to navigate them, in addition to being a regular extra in numerous scenes. For this reason, he offers a Game of Thrones-themed boat ride, though you can also come in autumn for the Halloween version, in the country where the holiday comes from.

Just down the road is The Cider Mill, which makes hard cider the same way it was done hundreds of years ago, with no sugar or anything added-just slowly pressed apple juice aged over months. There are a few styles of dry, not-too-sweet ciders, some of which taste as delicate and refreshing as champagne.

Or check out the 12th century ruins on the Hill of Slane; the over-5,000-year-old Newgrange and Knowth tombs, which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites; or the Hill of Tara, where ancient High Kings of Ireland were inaugurated on burial grounds.

Or you can hang out on Rock Slane Farm, take a dip in the wild swimming hole on the property, have a bonfire with a cocktail, hike the many trails, tour the distillery, and most importantly, sip the whiskey-maybe while gazing at the castle. It’s the stuff of magic, after all. Though many distillers say the percentage of whiskey lost to evaporation goes to the angels, as Conyngham explains, “We don’t give it to the angels, we give it to fairies.”

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Danielle Hallock is the Travel Editor at Thrillist, and she claps her hands ‘cause she believes.

Travel

Take a Submarine to the Bottom of the Great Lakes

You too can sink down to the watery grave-er, depths.

Gail Shotlander/Moment/Getty Images
Gail Shotlander/Moment/Getty Images
Gail Shotlander/Moment/Getty Images

When the waves of Lake Huron closed over my head as I sank down to the bottom of the Great Lake, I admit I was a little panicky. I definitely thought about drowning. After all, I’d nearly drowned three times in my life.

Though the first two times I was too young to now recall, the third time was in Wisconsin and the sensation has stuck with me. I remember how, as a middle schooler, I got pulled deeper and deeper into a wave pool until every wave sucked me underneath just long enough to choke on a gurgly mouthful of water. Despite kicking and fighting to swim back to safety, I could feel the water overtaking me, bubbling up over my head as I sank down. The pool was choking me, I was suffocating, and the fear of death was right in my face. As you can probably guess, I was eventually saved. Someone noticed and pulled me out of the pool, and that relief was enormous.

But here I was again, as an adult, watching sediment from the bottom of the lake swirl up around me. But this time I wasn’t drowning. This time I was perfectly safe. This time I was in a submarine.

My small group and I were passengers on one of Viking Cruises’ newest itineraries, the Great Lakes Explorer. The expedition allows guests on the Viking Octantis ship to see one of the great lakes from the other side of the surface. Though guests can participate in science-research activities like microplastics research, bird-watching, and weather balloon launches, it’s also just really cool to dive in a submarine. Whether you’re overcoming your own childhood experiences or you’re just an adventurer at heart, here’s what to know about going on a submarine expedition in the Great Lakes.

Photo courtesy of Viking Cruises
Photo courtesy of Viking Cruises
Photo courtesy of Viking Cruises

Boarding a submarine

These are-of course-yellow submarines. Can you guess their names? If you picked John, Paul, George, and Ringo… you’re absolutely right.

The Beatles can go down to about 1,000 feet and stay underwater for eight hours. Each side of the submarine has three very comfortable seats for passengers, surrounded by glass domes that allow optimal viewing at the dive site. It’s a small space (you can’t stand up straight), but you can hardly tell once you’re in the water. The seat platforms swivel so you can look out over the lake floor instead of staring at the pilot and other passengers.

The submarines are equipped with lights, cameras, and some handy claws to pick up anything valuable the pilot sees on the lakebed. They’re typically used as research vessels to take information back to the Octantis’ science program, which works in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA eventually plans to tack instruments to the bottoms of the submarines to get more detailed information about the water, the lakes, and the lakebed.

If you’re like me (that is, both claustrophobic and afraid of drowning), you’ll be happy to know that the subs are awash with safety features. Onboard, you’ll find directions on what to do if the pilot goes unconscious, supplemental oxygen hoods, a big green button to push if the sub needs to surface immediately, and a program that tells the submarine to surface if it doesn’t detect any activity from the pilot. Up above you, the sub is followed by a safety boat with a team that ensures the surrounding waters stay clear and everyone is safe beneath the surface. (So even when the safety boat radioed our pilot, Peppe from Sweden, and said, “You’re a little close to the rocks, but that’s as good a dive site as any,” I decided to trust the marine scientist.)

Photo by Jennifer Billock
Photo by Jennifer Billock
Photo by Jennifer Billock

Sinking down to the depths

Here’s how the dive works. You take Viking-owned Zodiacs (military-grade rigid inflatable boats) to a predetermined dive site that the scientists onboard the ship picked out that morning. For now, the sites will always be in Canadian waters-because Viking is Norwegian, the Jones Act disallows them from deploying subs in the United States. To transfer from the Zodiac to the submarine, you have to hold onto a metal bar, climb out of the Zodiac, and sit down on the edge of the submarine hatch. You swing your legs into the hatch, then climb down a three-rung ladder into the middle of the sub to find your assigned seat.

Once everyone is in the sub, the pilot climbs in, closes the hatch, and then radios to the safety boat to make sure you’re clear to sink. With the all-clear, air is released from outside tanks on the submarine, and thrusters push the entire thing underwater.

For our dive, we went down about fifty feet to the floor of the lake. It had been raining all morning, which stirred up the sediment around us, making everything a mossy green colour that spotlights sparkled through to highlight the lakebed. I saw a few tiny fish and a ton of invasive zebra mussel shells. Depending on the weather and your dive site, you’re likely to see more. But even just exploring the floor of the Great Lakes, something almost no one in history has done before, is an amazing thing.

Sign me up!

If you want to take a submarine dive into the Great Lakes yourself, you have to be a passenger on the Viking Octantis or sister ship, Viking Polaris. As of this writing, no other companies offer passenger submarine trips down into the lakes-especially not in a military-grade exploration submarine that is worth $6 million each. The Great Lakes expedition itineraries start at about $6,500 and can be booked on the Viking website.

Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images
Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images
Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images

Hike, kayak, or get yourself a cinnamon roll afterwards

What you can see nearby depends on your dive site. On Octantis, the subs went down in Lake Huron and Lake Superior-my dive was in Lake Huron, surrounded by the stunning Georgian Bay UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Canada. Here, you can kayak in the bay, hike through the surrounding landscape, and enjoy a Zodiac nature cruise.

Or if you can, try to take your submarine dive at Silver Islet in Ontario’s slice of Lake Superior. The small community is historic and completely off the grid, and the general store has some of the best cinnamon rolls you can find around the Great Lakes.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Jennifer Billock is a freelance writer and author, usually focusing on some combination of culinary travel, culture, sex, and history. Check her out at JenniferBillock.com and follow her on Twitter.

Related

Our Best Stories, Delivered Daily
The best decision you'll make all day.