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
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