On a recent return visit to the Radisson Blu St Helen’s, Niamh Mac Sweeney discovers a perennial presence that permeates throughout.
It’s a wet and windy evening. Frazzled, I fear Friday brain freeze is setting in for the night. Traffic from the city is at a standstill and I would despair if it wasn’t for my keenness to get to my place of refuge for the weekend. ‘Wherever I lay my hat that’s my home’ as Paul Young once sang and I for one am looking forward to laying my rain soaked hat and settling in for the night surrounded by beauty – of the indoor variety of course.
I am returning to the Radisson Blu St Helen’s in the Dublin suburb of Blackrock– some 10 years on from my last visit to this memorable hotel. I recall it being a grand place, steeped in history and intrigue and I’m eager to learn if this opulent house is still as impressive as it was all those years ago. Have my memories of grandeur stood the test of time? Does St Helen’s – with its unique Victorian style and perfectly manicured gardens still hold an atmosphere of allure and romance?
As if telepathically reading my fatigued state, reception checks me in, in a most pleasant and swift manner before a porter promptly comes to take my bags. “Will I light the fire in your room, he asks?” Now that would be nice!
Ambiance and elegance
Freed from my luggage I enter the very elegant Orangerie Bar & Ballroom Lounge. Welcoming guests to a Victorian-style conservatory setting is second nature to the exceptional staff at St Helen’s, but for unsuspecting visitors it’s a breathtaking moment as the enormity of the grand entrance and spectacular architecture unfolds.
History and beauty permeates throughout St Helen’s. Although the sweeping gardens beyond the lounge are cloaked in darkness – and so will remain a mystery until morning – there is plenty to admire right here in this lavish marvel. I’m immediately enveloped in comforting warmth – quite the achievement given the enormity of this period mansion.
Large marble pillars run the length of the room, and where the Carrara Marble floor ends, a magnificent and intricately carved wooden fireplace sits as the main centre-piece. There are many smaller fireplaces throughout the ballroom too, so no corner is without its ambiance and elegance.
As we settle into the classical surroundings, we contemplate the menu, which is a fine mix of light snacks, hearty sandwiches and healthy, yet wholesome, salads. Undecided on our tipple of choice for the evening, we take our lead from Neil Lane. As the general manager of the hotel’s Italian restaurant – Talavera – and an Italian himself, when he recommends a bottle of Perlage Col di Manza, Valdobbiadene Prosecco, we know we are in good hands. After all, what better way to start the weekend than with some bubbles?
After a relaxing evening in a magnificent setting, enjoying fine fare, we contently take the elevator to the top floor where our plush business class suite awaits. From the balcony, panoramic views of the pristine gardens, Dublin Bay and the Wicklow Mountains beckon, but we quickly realise the views will be more impressive in daylight. So until then, slumber calls.
History in the making
If walls could talk, this historical mansion would have plenty of interesting stories to tell. St Helen’s was built in 1750 as the home for Thomas Cooley, a local barrister and member of parliament. Originally named Seamount, the house was built on a gentle rise amid woodlands overlooking Dublin Bay, with Howth Hill visible on the skyline.
Interestingly, it was built before many of the architectural masterpieces of Dublin such as the Four Courts, Custom House and City Hall were constructed. The house has had many owners over its long history but it was under Lord Gough’s stewardship that the house was at its most vibrant. And it was Lord Gough who renamed it St Helen’s when he bought the property in 1851. St Helen’s is set in amongst extensive, terraced, formal gardens, which many believe were designed by Ninian Niven, who also designed the Iveagh Gardens. To the rear, the Webley gardens – named after a former head gardener and steward to Lord Gough – feature magnificent box hedging which surrounds the entire flower gardens.
It is interesting to see how traditional design is retained while the contemporary twist against this historic backdrop is seamless. Perched in the landscaped forecourt of the hotel is a commissioned water feature entitled ‘Continuum’, which is designed by sculptor, Linda Brunker and aptly inspired by three basic elements in life – nature, space and the passing of time. But the real testament to its history is not just whether St Helen’s can walk the walk. Can it also talk the talk? Just as I suspected nothing has changed in this regard. And it is the passionate and friendly staff that speak volumes about this wholly, inviting and homely hotel. Some of the staff have been here since the hotel opened some 15 years ago – and this really makes a difference.
The main event
After a day exploring the hotel, its beautiful gardens and some of the local attractions, we are extremely hungry by the time we take our seats for dinner in Talavera – the restaurant named after one of Gough’s epic battles.
Under the watchful eye of acclaimed head chef Giancarlo Anselmi, Talavera serves authentic Italian cuisine prepared with fresh, local ingredients and has numerous awards including ‘Best Italian Restaurant in Dublin’ by InDublin magazine.
Again the restaurant manager – Neil Lane – is on hand to answer questions and offer recommendations.To start, we decide to go for something light to save room for the main event; a simple artichoke salad and a goats’ cheese tartlet are perfect for getting the taste buds going.
It is the passionate and friendly staff that speak volumes about this wholly, inviting and homely hotel.”
For mains, I decide to go for the fish – pan fried Brill with asparagus confit, tomato and cappers; while my companion chooses the delectable Fagottini di Robiola e Pere – fresh pasta parcels filled with Robiola cheese and pears with saffron and chive sauce.
We could hardly believe we had room left for dessert but somehow found space for a warm rustic apple tartlet with double vanilla ice-cream and a white chocolate Panna Cotta with berries compote. Replete, we retire to the bar for a nightcap, knowing that a second night of relaxing in our suite will be the icing on the cake.
There’s more to St Helen’s than meets the eye and whether it’s a party in the Pembroke Suite, a special occasion in the Seamount Suite, private dining in Le Panto – with its private balcony overlooking the gardens – or a sizzling barbeque in the sun for that office party, family gathering or team building days away, St Helen’s has the most wonderful array of meeting and event spaces.
The hotel’s historical setting and gardens combine with its modern and well-equipped rooms to create an ideal venue for business conferences, seminars and presentations.
During the summer, barbeques are a regular feature on the lawn and a partnership with Dynamic Events ensures team-building activities and corporate events are well executed. Guests might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of world champion snooker player Ken Doherty, as he keeps a full-sized snooker table in the Will Pryce Snooker Room at the hotel which is adorned with trophies and snooker memorabilia, and is frequented by numerous snooker legends.
A lasting legacy
On Sunday when its time to leave St Helen’s, I take one last look at the splendid gardens and concede that this hotel is more than just a room with a view; it’s a homely hotel, with a team of dedicated, hospitable and long-standing staff who are a testiment to the legacy and dignity of this grand 17th century house.
When front of house manager Caitriona McGroary-Walsh – who has been a stalwart of professionalism since my arrival – bids me farewell, we both agree it won’t be so long until the next time I return for another truly memorable weekend.
Sweets for my suite
Radisson Blu St Helen’s meeting rooms capacity:
- Jacobean Boardroom: 8
- Robert Alexander Room: 8
- Thomas Cooley Room: 10
- Seamount Suite: 30
- Sir John Nutting Room: 30
- Lord Gough Room : 40
- Shrewsbury Suite: 60
- Belville Room: 70
- Pembroke 1: 80
- Pembroke 2: 80
- Pembroke 3: 80