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Footloose in Wexford

Pretty Town on the Irish Sea Is Full of Charm

May 08, 1988|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers.

WEXFORD, Ireland — Folks in this proud little harbor town on the Irish Sea like to think of themselves as residents of the "rebel county of Wexford," thanks to the heroic but futile role it played in the short-lived 1798 rebellion--one of many in its turbulent history--against a British garrison.

Yet the incident pales in comparison to other catastrophies that have befallen the town: Celtic, Norse and Norman invasions and subjugation; Oliver Cromwell's armies laying waste to the town and slaughtering its inhabitants in 1649, and the dreadful Great Famine of 1847 that sent locals westward to the Americas.

Through it all, the people of Wexford continued their careful farming, just as they have since 2000 BC and just as former President John Fitzgerald Kennedy's great-grandfather had in County Wexford.

Wexford is a pretty and provincial little market town set in manicured farmland beside the harbor, its narrow and meandering main street lined with about 20 cozy pubs.

In 1951 it made a big splash with opera lovers, and the Wexford Festival has been holding forth with 12 evenings of superb performances every fall since. But there are enough old churches, abbeys and historic sites nearby to draw you to one of Ireland's prettiest counties any time of the year.

Here to there: Fly British Airways to London or KLM to Amsterdam, then back to Dublin with Aer Lingus. You may also connect with Aer Lingus in New York. From Dublin it's two hours by train to Wexford.

How long/how much? A day will do the town, another for nearby sights such as Tintern Abbey. Real opera buffs will settle for no fewer than three days during the festival. Hotel prices are high to moderate; dining is very reasonable.

A few fast facts: The Irish pound recently cost $1.61, our dollar being worth about 62 Irish cents. Summer through late fall is the best time for a visit, spring weather often iffy. While not a necessity, a rental car gets you around the beautiful countryside and along the coast.

Getting settled in: White's Hotel (George's Street; $85 U.S., B&B double) began life as a lodging house in 1779, survived the troubles of 1798 and became a coaching inn in the early 1800s. The interior manages to retain some of its historic past, with period furniture here and there, a marvelous old long wooden bar and deep red chairs before an open fire. Large bedrooms are freshly decorated in Laura Ashley style, and there is a fine restaurant (see moderate-cost dining).

Talbot's (Trinity Street; $63 double in spring and fall, $66 June through August) makes up in amenities what it lacks in color. Rooms are rather plain, but it has an indoor pool, sauna, squash court and bar. Lounge is a good place for late-evening hearty soups or smoked salmon sandwiches.

Regional food and drink: Wexford's mussels are the best in Ireland, surely the finest we've ever had. Almost always prepared simply with garlic and butter. You'll find them on every menu. Bannow Bay oysters are a treat, and the Irish coast is noted for its other great seafood and shellfish, served as entrees or in marvelous chowders.

Wexford's beef from the surrounding farm country is tender and tasty; good pork and lamb dishes. The county is also noted for Carrigbyrne, a farmhouse cheese made here since 1750. Plenty of good continental wines available, also lagers, ales and Guinness stout.

Moderate-cost dining: Our nod for the best table in town goes to Oak Tavern, which is really by the water in nearby Ferrycarrig. It looks like a modest little hangout, which it is, but the food brings folks from all over the county.

Formidable platters of sizzling Wexford mussels, pate of smoked salmon and thick seafood chowders keep them coming back. House special is the "hot shellfish garlic platter" of lobster, prawns, mussels, crab claws and shrimp, and it's huge. They also do bar lunches.

From Easter through October, have lunch or dinner aboard The Galley, a cruising restaurant sailing the Barrow River from New Ross. The menu is not your usual excursion-boat fare, being such as seafood vol au vent and beef Wellington with horseradish sauce. Capt. Dick Fletcher is an affable chap, the whole operation very low-key and high-class.

Simon's Place and Tim's Tavern are a couple of Main Street pubs we can recommend heartily for lunches or full meals. And if your idea of high tea is watercress and cucumber sandwiches followed by petit fours, you'll be in for a jolt at Raymond's on Main, where the set menu is minute steak, peas, chips, bread, butter and tea. That should hold you until supper.

White's Hotel has two very good restaurants, the Fireside Griddle and Captain White's. The first is more informal, with a huge fireplace, flagstone floor and a menu of Irish stew, steaks, chops and simple seafoods. White's leans toward chicken Kiev, steak Diane and salmon steak bearnaise.

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