RATHNEW, Ireland — My room was pitch-dark when I awoke, the heavy wooden shutters closed tightly against the recessed windows to keep out the light.
The illuminated dial on my travel clock read 6:40 as I turned off the alarm and felt my way across to open the shutters.
They folded back on a scene like something out of "Brigadoon" or "Finian's Rainbow." A fine mist shrouded green terraces and fields that stretched to a horizon lost in the haze. The world was still. Nothing moved. I stood, mesmerized, half expecting a leprechaun to come dancing from behind a tree. Instead, only a boy appeared, chasing his dog.
The spell was broken.
It was my first morning at Tinakilly House in County Wicklow, one of nearly 40 members of the Irish Country Houses and Restaurants Assn. that opens its doors to travelers in a plan to raise revenue to maintain the historic and beautiful old estates. It is an experience that provides the visitor with a taste of life in Ireland's countryside.
Tinakilly was built in the 1870s for Capt. Robert Halpin, commander of the Great Eastern, the ship that laid the first telegraph cable linking the United States and Europe. A quiet refuge for travelers, it appears suddenly along a tree-lined drive off the main road and within sight of the Irish Sea. At the foot of its broad terraces, a river is spanned by an old stone bridge along which children play and fishermen try their luck.
At Tinakilly, guests are welcomed by Bill and Bee Power, the gracious couple who restored the house and furnished it to complement its classical Victorian style.
Guests enter through two sets of double doors that open into a large living room with a fireplace that is constantly ablaze. The only concession to its function as a lobby is a desk hidden beside a staircase that leads to bedrooms on the upper floor.
Guests gather in the bar/lounge and dining areas. The kitchen is the domain of Christian Drouot, who whips up a delicious blend of country and French cuisine, including fresh fish, game and locally grown vegetables.
The home's 14 bedrooms feature modern baths, TV, phones, four-poster or canopied beds and antiques. Generally, guests arrive by car and, once settled, run off to discover the attractions of County Wicklow.
There are several rules, however, that one should remember before hitting the road in Ireland. First there's the well-known rule of driving on the left. Second, many roads in the countryside are narrow, frequently one lane wide. When two motorists meet, usually the courteous Irish back up or pull to the side to allow another driver to pass. One must also watch for herds of sheep and cattle that slow the traffic.
Finally, the most difficult rule involves keeping your eye on the road when the scenery has your head spinning. The Irish countryside spreads like a carpet over fields and distant hills. Sheep and herds of calico cattle are a contrast to its greenery as they munch their way to Irish tables.
Everywhere the ruins of ancient stone walls and unidentifiable structures slowly lose the battle of survival against time and the elements, and even the poorest of homes displays flowers.
Wicklow is called the Garden of Ireland, and if one enjoys flowers as the Irish do, then Wicklow offers two spectacular scenes. One is Mount Usher Gardens, which appears along the Vartry River in a natural park-like setting with paths meandering without plan through trees, shrubs and flowers from around the world; bridges cross a river where weirs control the flow and harbor trout, and in spring and summer rhododendrons--pink, red and white--appear with shocking beauty.
Some 20 miles down a country lane, near the charming town of Enniskerry with its inviting Tudor-style shops, is Powerscourt, one of Ireland's grandest gardens. A gated entrance along a sweeping avenue of beech trees leads to the 1,600 acres of farm and garden behind the Powerscourt mansion. Once one of the finest stately homes in Ireland, with more than 100 rooms filled with treasures, it was extensively damaged by fire in 1974. Though only the hewn granite shell remains, it still provides an impressive background for the spectacular gardens.
From a broad terrace of black-and-white mosaic stone, rimmed by wrought-iron railings from an old German castle, the view is magnificent. Stairs fall away to a lake and an impressive fountain; shrubs, trees, statuary and geometric flower beds provide other color, and an enchanting Japanese garden rises on reclaimed bog across foothills, with majestic Sugarloaf Mountain in the distance.
Elsewhere, the 400-foot Powerscourt Waterfall, one of the highest in the British Isles, spills into a delightful glen that's popular with picnickers.
If you haven't brought a lunch, pause at Roundwood Inn in the little village of Roundwood. Reasonably priced sandwiches and hot dishes are available in a typical Irish atmosphere.