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

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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

Related

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