Travel: Ire­land’s Best Ho­tels

Laid-back, com­fort­able, friendly, stylish – Ire­land’s old-world, ru­ral ho­tels of­fer some­thing that most of their English coun­ter­parts lost decades ago: charm. Fiona Dun­can chooses her top five

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Fiona Dun­can

Ikeep go­ing back to Ire­land. Yes, it rains most of the time, but the humour, from the mo­ment I ar­rive till the mo­ment I leave, is dry enough to make up for any amount of in­clement weather, while de­light­ful places to stay keep me en­tranced.

Ir­ish coun­try house ho­tels are like Eng­land’s best ho­tels used to be be­fore chains and brands got at them – pri­vately owned for gen­er­a­tions, slightly potty, un­pre­ten­tious, com­fort­able and kind. They are al­most al­ways set in lovely Ge­or­gian coun­try houses, the lo­cally sourced food is in­vari­ably sat­is­fy­ing, and the di­ver­sions on of­fer are win­ningly quirky.

I’ve been for­ag­ing and whale-watch­ing along a clifftop with a la­conic ex-rocker; gone sea-kayak­ing with a stag­ger­ingly good-look­ing out­door ad­ven­turer who I swear was Brad Pitt; and been dragged over the Bur­ren’s lime­stone ter­races in a gale by a mad­cap lo­cal nat­u­ral­ist.

There’s a sense of ac­cep­tance among the Ir­ish, born, they say, of the Famine – noth­ing by com­par­i­son could be worse. They are re­signed to down­turns: when the Celtic Tiger stalled, they ad­justed with res­ig­na­tion. It’s the same with the hote­liers, who tend to ride the waves of for­tune bet­ter than their more ten­der English coun­ter­parts.

Take Cur­rarevagh House in County Gal­way, Ire­land’s old­est guest­house (dou­bles from £132; 00 353 091 552312; cur­rarevagh.com). The Hodg­son fam­ily has been stay­ing afloat with phleg­matic wit here for five gen­er­a­tions, in a house

‘There’s an ancient telly but other­wise books, a pi­ano and Mo­nop­oly suf­fice’

that was orig­i­nally built for the fam­ily in the 17th cen­tury.

Al­most noth­ing has changed. On the 1848 silk wall­pa­per above the stair­case hangs a huge, al­most-as-old tiger skin. ‘A bit un-pc these days,’ I com­mented. ‘Cer­tainly not,’ replied cur­rent in­cum­bent Henry Hodg­son, whose wife, Lucy, is the ex­cel­lent cook, ‘It was shot in self-de­fence. We aren’t Amer­i­can den­tists.’

A gong her­alds din­ner. There are no TVS or even ra­dios in the old-fash­ioned bed­rooms with their 1970s bath­rooms, and no room keys.

‘We don’t have them,’ says Henry. ‘Things have stayed the same here for so long it would be rude to change. And any­way, your be­long­ings will be per­fectly safe.’ And you know, with­out a doubt, that he speaks the truth. In the li­brary, there’s an ancient telly but other­wise book­shelves, a pi­ano and bouts of Mo­nop­oly or cards suf­fice. A gen­er­ous ‘Ed­war­dian’ break­fast is laid out on the side­board in the din­ing room and cof­fee is served in 1950s glass ‘Cona’ re­cep­ta­cles, warmed by a spirit burner. As Henry strug­gled with a match, I sug­gested a lighter might be a good idea.

‘If we have a very good year,’ he an­swered, ‘I might in­vest in one.’

If you yearn for the pri­vate house ex­pe­ri­ence, but less old-fash­ioned, then con­sider heav­enly Bal­lyvolane House in County Cork (dou­bles from £176; 00 353 25 36349; bal­lyvolane­house.ie). The Ge­or­gian fam­ily home, later re­mod­elled in Ital­ianate style, of Justin Green, for­mer gen­eral man­ager of Babing­ton House, and his wife, Jenny, it’s filled with an­tiques and oozes at­mos­phere. Thanks to deft touches in­tro­duced by Justin and Jenny when they took over from his par­ents, it’s also cool and stylish.

Bal­lyvolane is that hard-to-achieve thing: a place where one can un­wind, yet which makes its guests feel glam­orous, stylish and special. There are Per­sian rugs, an­tiques, quirky retro ta­bles, new leather Ch­ester­fields, roar­ing fires and a lav­ishly stocked hon­esty bar, with Justin’s own de­li­cious, spice-in­fused gin, Bertha’s Re­venge, tak­ing pride of place. The bed­rooms are lovely, and the food, eaten com­mu­nally un­less you spec­ify other­wise (you won’t) de­li­cious. Break­fast is served when­ever you want.

But it’s not all cosy fa­mil­iar­ity. Ire­land can do sump­tu­ous, off-the-scale lux­ury. One of the most as­ton­ish­ing ho­tels in Europe, Bal­lyfin, is in County Laois, an easy drive from Dublin (dou­bles from £700, all in­clu­sive; 00 353 57 875 5866; bal­lyfin.com).

The lav­ish and im­por­tant, neo­clas­si­cal house, res­cued and re­stored by an Ir­ish-amer­i­can mag­nate, stands in its own 614-acre demesne, full of de­lights, in­clud­ing lake, cas­cade, Vic­to­rian fern­ery, Ed­war­dian rock­ery and walled gar­den, not to men­tion the tower: climb to the top for a panoramic view of the Slieve Bloom Moun­tains. A Down­tonesque knot of neatly uni­formed staff awaits each ar­riv­ing guest, set­ting the tone for ser­vice that is old-school, yet full of Ir­ish warmth. The re­cep­tion rooms are filled with su­perb an­tiques and paint­ings and there is a clas­si­cally styled in­door pool and two treat­ment rooms.

Ev­ery bed­room is gor­geous. The loveli­est is Lady Caro­line Coote, with its grace­ful, Em­pire-style ceil­ing. As for the food, it lives up to the sur­round­ings. Stan­dards are sky high; this is the sort of place where one jar­ring note would spoil the show – but it never does.

Gre­gans Cas­tle, in County Clare, par­tic­u­larly re­minds me of English coun­try-house ho­tels forty years ago, only gen­tly up­dated to the stan­dards of to­day (dou­bles from £198; 00 353 65 707 7005; gre­gans.ie). With sweep­ing win­dows and a sur­pris­ing spread of rooms both gra­cious and in­ti­mate, warmed by open peat fires, the house has an im­me­di­ately sooth­ing ef­fect, much aided by the en­gag­ing, gen­uine wel­come from the staff. The mod­ern, lo­cally sourced food, from chef David Hur­ley, is a real high­light. The ho­tel is a gem, but it’s not in fact a cas­tle. It’s another of Ire­land’s fine crop of Ge­or­gian houses, this one rel­a­tively mod­est com­pared with some, with a low-key en­trance. The cas­tle, a 15th-cen­tury tower house, now a pri­vate res­i­dence, stands across the road and both have views that take in the rocky lime­stone Bur­ren Hills and Gal­way Bay.

Ap­par­ently, the rea­son we English don’t of­ten come on ho­tel breaks to Ire­land is that we think it’s no dif­fer­ent from home. Af­ter ex­plor­ing the mag­i­cal Bur­ren, even in a gale, I beg to dif­fer.

Per­haps my favourite Ir­ish ho­tel is Bal­ly­maloe House, close to the Wild At­lantic Way in Coun­try Cork, not least for the ex­tra­or­di­nary, mul­ti­tal­ented Allen fam­ily who run it (dou­bles from £189; 00 353 21 465 2531; bal­ly­maloe.ie).

It was be­gun as a restau­rant in her Ge­or­gian home by farmer’s wife Myr­tle Allen in 1964; sadly, she died in June, aged 94, but Bal­ly­maloe re­mains in fam­ily hands. Over the years, it mor­phed into the best sort of twenty-bed­room coun­try house ho­tel with the best sort of restau­rant, where ev­ery­thing is home-made, home-grown and nat­u­rally re­cy­cled, and noth­ing is wasted.

In the early morn­ing, you can bake Ir­ish soda bread and scones in the kitchen with guinea-a-minute pas­try chef J R Ryall; and, in the even­ing, you can choose from his pud­dings dis­played on the trol­ley dur­ing the five-course din­ner. You can snooze in the yel­low draw­ing room in front of the huge fire. And you can take part in a demon­stra­tion or a day course at the Bal­ly­maloe Cook­ery School down the road, founded by Myr­tle’s son Tim and daugh­ter-in-law, Da­rina Allen.

There are at least another half-dozen sim­i­lar Ir­ish coun­try ho­tels that I covet… for now they must re­main my se­cret.

Op­po­site: retro-chic Bal­lyvolane House, Cork; right: the Slieve Bloom Moun­tains vis­i­ble from Bal­lyfin’s tower, Laois

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