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Destination: Ireland

Bray Watch

June 02, 1996|CATHERINE O'SULLIVAN | O'Sullivan is a freelance writer who lives in Paris, New York and Los Angeles

BRAY, Ireland — It is said that Irish winters start in August and end in June. And sure enough, in July summer came with a vengeance. A two-week heat wave had gifted the ethereal Gaelic complexion with a disconcerting tan. As a first generation Irish lass who has spent the past two decades assiduously avoiding the Los Angeles sun, I felt instantly transported back to Southern California. The face of the country had been transformed into Malibu, right down to wild brush fires.

No matter. By the time I arrived in Bray, one of Ireland's oldest seaside resorts, conditions had righted themselves. As the Irish say, "When you can see the mountain, it's going to rain. When you cannot, it's raining."

I could still see the mountains, but the rain clouds were rolling in behind. The effect was spectacular. Bray Head mountain to the south and the village of Killiney to the north flank the town of Bray and its waterfront--a graceful crescent of sea that has been compared to the Bay of Naples. Bray's famous boardwalk, which reminds me of a 1950s Coney Island, is part of its quirky charm. And much of the Victorian character of the original town is still evident in the promenade and in the houses facing the seafront.

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Little has changed here in 100 years. In the 19th century, Bray was an elegant seaside resort for the wealthy. Between World Wars I and II, the area's luster dimmed and its noble Victorian mansions were converted to boarding houses. The resort subsequently became a holiday destination for the working class.

Since the 1970s, the town of Bray has been enjoying a well-deserved rebirth and buildings are being restored along the boardwalk. By the electric commuter train that runs along the coast, it's a mere 40 minutes south of Dublin.

In years of haunting my ancestral habitat, I've barreled through Ballycotton, coached through counties Cork and Kerry with countless other tour buses, driven the Dingle. I didn't want to do it again . . . the driving, I mean.

But this is the land of cead mile failte (Gaelic for a thousand welcomes), and being Irish and by nature masochistic but forever optimistic, I found myself again, last summer, in the country of the Celts, this time with a firm resolve to travel only by public transportation, though my traveling companion balked right off the bat at hopping the commuter bus from the airport into Dublin.

From there we would wend our way to Wicklow County, renowned as the garden of Ireland and home to what has been hailed as one of the country's most beautiful and varied walking trails. It is called, appropriately enough, Wicklow Way, and wanders south from Dublin's Marley Park through the Wicklow Mountains to the village of Clonegal, about 80 miles south. We would try it later, we wisely decided, at least part way.

The train, called the Dart, did not live up to its name. Instead it chugged along and allowed us time to enjoy the lovely Irish Sea and its charming coastal towns. I wanted to stop at every one.

The advantage of public transportation is that you meet people. Nice people who want to make you feel at home. We were invited to no fewer than three barbecues, and reluctantly turned down generous offers to show us around. (The Irish are very proud of their landmarks and love nothing more than to proffer history lessons over a pint in a pub). But I was determined to follow my own way this time, and after initial misgivings, the misty Ireland of my dreams proved to be easily reached by public transportation.

After a short walk from the station, past a good variety of lodgings, we dropped our bags at a pretty B&B on the beach called the Strand House. (If it's booked, try the Brays Head Inn at the very end of the esplanade: a funky, musty white elephant of a place with a certain charm.) Our hosts, Michael and Maeve O'Laughlin, offered us a fresh pot of tea and brown soda bread biscuits with homemade jam, after which we were ready for any sightseeing suggestions they had to offer.

From Bray, a double-decker bus took us on a 15-minute ride northwest to the delightful village of Enniskerry and one of the loveliest settings in Ireland: Powerscourt House and gardens. In 1730s the Wingfield family, which was earlier granted the land by King James I, commissioned the house and gardens that are seen today.

Although the main block of this Palladian-style manor was gutted by fire in 1974, the gardens, among the finest in Europe, live on in grand style amid lakes and lawns and sparkling fountains. Italian, French, English and Japanese design styles are all represented, laid out like a banquet for the eyes. About a 30-minute walk away was the wondrous Powerscourt Waterfall, at 430 feet the highest in Ireland. From here one can pick up Wicklow Way and walk for 80 miles. We didn't.

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