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Summer visitors can join a guided tour of one of Ireland's most elegant stately homes and peer behind the scenes of a previously closed off world. The Gothic Revival castle (built around an earlier 17th-century castle that was damaged by fire in 1823) is still the home of the earls of Rosse. Castle tours, usually given by family members, bring you through the spectacular Gothic music saloon from 1810 (said by many to be the most beautiful room in Ireland), the library, the yellow drawing room, and reception rooms. Held only in the mornings in May, July, and August, the tours last one hour. Bear in mind that the castle has more than 100 rooms and the tour takes in just a small number of them.
The present Earl and Countess of Rosse continue the family tradition of making botanical expeditions for specimens of rare trees, plants, and shrubs to fill the demesne's 150 acres. The formal gardens contain the tallest box hedges in the world (at 32 feet) and vine-sheltered hornbeam allées.
In spring, check out the wonderful display of flowering magnolias, cherries, crab apples, and naturalized narcissi; in autumn, the maples, chestnuts, and weeping beeches blaze red and gold. If you are joining a house tour, book in advance; allow at least three hours to see everything in the demesne—there are 3,400 plants and 3,860 varieties of trees from 40 countries (including the largest gray poplar in the world). Remember to build in time to enjoy the astonishing tree house designed in the shape of a fairy-tale castle with round turrets and Gothic-style windows. It features a huge slide, tree decks lined by a rope bridge, and secret tunnels, and along with the adventure playground with its giant bouncing pillow, hobbit houses, scramble nets, and climbing rocks, it has proved a smash hit with families. There's a crafts shop, picnic area, and the Castle Courtyard Café serves daily lunch specials from 10 to 4 between April and September. The grounds also contain Ireland's Historic Science Centre, an exhibition on astronomy, photography, and engineering housed in the stable block with the oldest surviving darkroom in the world. The giant (72-inch-long) reflecting telescope, built in 1845, was the largest in the world for 75 years. New interactive displays appeal to children by linking science with nature.
Rosse Row, Birr, Co. Offaly, Ireland
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