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Ireland’s Leading Independent Food & Hospitality Guide
Left it a bit late to book that special short break…? Picking a destination that’s only an hour or so from home means less stress and more time chilling out, and the easy journey is a particular advantage off season or in the shoulder seasons, when days are relatively short - so why not try one of picks for a quick break this month
Ballyfin, Co Laois
Before opening this gorgeous Regency mansion in the foothills of the Slieve Bloom mountains as a luxurious hotel at the height of the recession, Chicago businessman Fred Krehbiel, his Irish wife Kay and managing director Jim Reynolds put in eight years of restoration. And it has proved a great success with Irish guests looking for somewhere exceptional for a special occasion, as well as international high flyers. While impressive, it’s surprisingly homely too - hospitable General Manager Damien Bastiat keeps the tone relaxed and it is emphatically not stuffy. Its many USPs include real privacy (thanks to its reservations-only, full-board policy, with only a few extra dinner reservations accepted for non-residents) and, although the daily rate seems high, it also offers value when you analyse everything that’s included. With so much on site, many guests never feel the need to leave the estate: prepare yourself to fall in love.
Carlingford, Co Louth
Just an hour’s drive from Dublin airport and about the same from Belfast, the Carroll family’s 18th century house is very attractively situated in its own walled grounds on the edge of one of Ireland’s most intriguing little places, medieval Carlingford village. Ghan House, which joined the Blue Book in 2015, is very much a family affair and run by Paul Carroll, together with his mother Joyce (who is officially ‘semi retired’) and offers accommodation in four rooms of character in the main house, each with sea or mountain views, and eight newer bedrooms in a separate building. As well as a relaxing sitting room with an open fire, there’s a proper little bar where you can enjoy an aperitif or an after dinner drink. Dinner is a high point at Ghan House, where the Carrolls also run bespoke cookery classes, and pride is taken in meals based on home-grown, home-made and mainly local produce, including seasonal meats and seafood; oysters are synonymous with Carlingford, of course, and there may also be mussels from the lough and Ballagan lobsters on the menu. It’s a lovely area to explore, with great walking in the hills and seashore.
Dunlavin, Co Wicklow
The O'Flynn family's large, rambling country house is just an hour from Dublin, but - famous as it is - it could be in a different world. While modern amenities have of course been added and it is very professionally run by Joe O’Flynn and a long serving staff, it still has that classic country house atmosphere with crackling log fires in elegant, comfortably furnished drawing rooms. The old kitchen bar is a favourite gathering place before dinner (with fireside seats at a premium) and you might get to have a chat with Joe Snr, if he pops in for a drink with his dog. Accommodation ranges from large rooms with great views in the old house to cottagey rooms in the stable yard, all of which are lovely in their own way, and rooms in a newer block, which are also traditionally furnished. Good food has always been central to Rathsallagh, starting with seasonal produce from the farm and the beautiful walled garden - and this lovely place has twice been the national winner of our Irish Breakfast Awards. There’s an18-hole golf course too, on site but operated under separate management.
The White Cottages
Skerries, Co Dublin
Jackie and Joe O’Connors’ beautifully located B&B is right on the sea on the northern edge of Skerries town, and it is truly unique – how often do you wake up to the sound of waves on the rocks outside your bedroom window? It’s literally on the water’s edge and the unbroken sea views of the working harbour and, to the north, the magnificent Cooley and Mourne Mountains are simply stunning - and all the better for enjoying them from such a warm and relaxing base. Joe and Jackie are natural hosts, the four bedrooms are charming and highly individual, and standards are very high all round. Everything is immaculate and excellent food includes The White Cottages Afternoon Tea, prepared by Joe and Jackie’s daughter, Jessica and available to both residents and non-resident groups by arrangement. Special occasion are anticipated too - you can arrange for fresh cut flowers, chocolates and bubbly to be in your room on arrival and, if the weather is promising, why not try The White Cottages Romantic Picnic? Nearby Dublin seems a world away – the White Cottages is a perfect hideaway to get away from it all for a few days or as a base to explore the pretty north Dublin countryside and coast.
Scholars Townhouse Hotel
Drogheda, Co Louth
Martin and Patricia McGowan’s small hotel is a listed 19th-century double-fronted redbrick building. With its fountains and broad stone steps leading up to the front door, bustling, friendly staff and a sense of individuality, it creates a good impression from the outset. Rooms are compact but uncluttered and very thoughtfully designed with a place for everything, while dining here is an attraction in its own right, with creative cooking from Chef Michael Hunter (formerly of L’Ecrivain) that focuses on using local produce, especially seafood, and attentive service in both the restaurant and bar. An oasis in Drogheda’s busy town centre, it makes an interesting destination for a short break and is very quickly reached from the capital - but this hidden gem is no longer the secret that it appears to be, so booking well in advance is essential, especially at weekends.
Mountrath, County Laois
How could anyone fail to love this unspoilt early Georgian house? Lying secluded in mature woods of lime, beech and chestnut, at the foot of the Slieve Bloom mountains, a sense of history and an appreciation of genuine hospitality are all that is needed to make the most of a stay here. Frank and Rosemarie Kennan put over a quarter of a century of renovation work into this wonderful property, and clearly derived immense pleasure from it, before having the satisfaction of handing the reins over to their daughter Hannah and her husband Paddy - who “retain the philosophy of the old, with no introduction of wide screen televisions or trouser presses”, much to Frank and Rosemarie's relief and delight. While it is unconventional in some ways, the house is extremely comfortable and well heated, each bedroom has its particular charm, and the food (notably the locally reared beef and lamb) is good. And, within this gem of a place, there are further hidden treasures to discover. Don’t leave without visiting Frank’s Library (a stunning outhouse conversion housing “A History of the Evolution of Civilisation”, no less), or the beautiful arched barn at the back, where logs from the estate are stored like works of art. All this and a beautiful area to explore: what more could you want?
Lorum Old Rectory
Kilgraney, Bagenalstown, Co Carlow
Everybody loves Bobbie Smith's welcoming mid-Victorian cut stone granite rectory near Altamont gardens, which now makes an elegant and homely place to stay. Repeat guests travel specially for her easy hospitality and delicious home cooking using mainly organic and home-grown ingredients; rack of local lamb is a speciality, cooked with a honey, mustard & rosemary glaze, and - in the Hidden Ireland style - residents have dinner at a long mahogany table, where wonderful breakfasts are also served. Elegant and homely, there's a library as well as a lovely drawing room where guests can gather around the fire and relax. The rooms are beautifully furnished and very comfortable, with good bathrooms, big beds and lovely views - and one particularly impressive guest room has a four-poster bed. A lovely base to explore this lush area at any time, especially in spring when Altamont gardens are at their best.
Gleanealy, Ashford, Co Wicklow
Catherine Fulvio may now be famous as a TV chef and cookery book author with a cookery school here in the Wicklow Hills but, before all that, she had already taken over the B&B that her late mother had run at the family farm. Perfectly placed for walking holidays, playing golf, or simply touring the area, the charming Victorian farmhouse provides comfort and cosiness, along with good cooking and genuine hospitality. A gently Victorian theme prevails: bedrooms are charmingly done up, with antique furniture and very good beds - and pretty bathrooms, some with Victorian baths. Catherine cooks four course dinners for guests, with vegetables and herbs coming from the farm - and, thanks to her Italian husband, some specially imported wines on the drinks list. All this, plus extensive breakfasts, a relaxing atmosphere and the option of cookery classes, ensures guests keep coming back for more.
The BrookLodge Hotel & Macreddin Village
Macreddin Village, Co Wicklow
A favourite destination for food loving folk and now dubbed ‘Ireland’s only luxury BIO hotel’, the history of this extraordinary food, drink and leisure complex is romantic. Imagine having the vision to build this wonderful place on the site of a deserted village in a Wicklow valley - yet that’s exactly what brothers, Evan, Eoin and Bernard Doyle did, and we visited the site often when it was under construction in the late ‘90s, to see the dream emerging. Today, the offering of this spacious and welcoming hotel is diverse, including ‘green’ conferences and events and a luxurious spa. Thanks mainly to Evan, who is the hands-on visionary, the hotel and its destination restaurant, The Strawberry Tree, have earned national recognition for their pioneering position on organic and wild food. It’s an inspiring place to stay and, whether eating in The Strawberry Tree (don’t miss visiting the adjacent Store Rooms), La Taverna Armento (informal authentic Italian alternative for dinner) or popping into the atmospheric Actons Country Pub (just the spot to enjoy their organic craft brews) or The Orchard Cafe, with its abundant grapevine, the memorable meals served everywhere at BrookLodge are great value, especially given the outstanding quality of the ingredients and the consistently excellent standard of cooking. An organic food market is held here on the first Sunday of the month (first and third in summer) too, and always worth a journey.