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Ireland’s Leading Independent Food & Hospitality Guide
It’s mainly the closures that have been hitting the news in recent times, but a surprising thing about the recession is the number of openings there have been in 2011 – and their high calibre, which bodes well for the future of Irish hospitality.
Ballyfin, Co Laois
Beautifully located in the heart of Ireland, in the foothills of the tranquil and unspoilt Slieve Bloom Mountains, this lavish Regency mansion opened as a luxurious small country house hotel in May 2011, following lengthy restoration, and it is our Newcomer of the Year for 2012. When word started to circulate about the imminent opening, words like ‘mad’ and ‘doomed’ were bandied about. But, as the General Manager, Aileesh Carew, said when we visited, “There is always a place for excellence”. And how right she was. There’s nothing more uplifting in a time of endless cutbacks to find a place where money was not the primary motivator and - while it might not be strictly correct to say that money was no object – the point of the project was to bring a beautiful period property back to the way it was in its prime, and to do it right. Over an eight year period no effort was spared in order to achieve this, and the results are breathtaking. Although still a work in progress (outside, at least), it is simply exquisite and everyone who visits the place is bowled over. It offers discreet luxury, wonderful food – and, believe it or not, good value too. Just do the sums! [NB: A beautifully produced book "Ballyfin: The Restoration of an Irish House & Demesne", by architectural historian Kevin V. Mulligan (Churchill House Press, www.churchillhousepress.com, €40) provides a sumptuous introduction to the property. It is available from Ballyfin (from their boutique or online), and from good bookshops. All proceeds go to the Irish Georgian Society.]
St John’s House
Lecarrow, Co Roscommon
A short drive from the village of Lecarrow, in a beautiful rural waterside location overlooking Lough Ree, lies what may well be Roscommon’s best kept secret - a lovely understated late Georgian country house that owners Richard and Liz Collins modestly call St John’s B&B. (And the story of how they came to be here is a romantic one, so don’t forget to ask.) When arriving at this peaceful and welcoming place, with its kitchen garden, hen house, friendly donkeys and the garden bench inviting you to sit down and enjoy the view, it’s hard to credit that it’s only 90 minutes drive from Dublin or Knock airports – an hour and a half in ‘real’ time, perhaps, but a lifetime away once you start to get tuned in. Arriving guests soon slow down, over a cup of tea and a slice of home baked cake, and, as they say themselves, “it’s the perfect place to relax and re-charge the batteries”. It’s a magical place and you’ll soon be wishing you could stay longer – so perhaps you should return for one of their special weekend breaks, with dinner! Lecarrow may not be the first destination to come to mind for exploring the West, but it’s actually well situated for day trips to Galway, Sligo and the Burren – and there is just so much to do without leaving the area at all. What a find.
Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny
A recommendation from some very happy guests led us to Michael and Anna McDonald’s delightful property just outside the attractive town of Castlecomer – a place long admired for its elegantly wide tree-lined main street and, more recently, known for the Castlecomer Discovery Park (www.discoverypark.ie). The park is at the site of the 17th Century Castlecomer House, which was owned by the Prior Wandesforde family - a wonderful amenity that includes a design courtyard in the renovated Estate Farmyard and, among other activities, woodland walks in the surrounding demesne. Wandesforde House is a charming property, set in lovely gardens, and Michael and Anna are very hospitable people, who welcome their guests in the traditional manner on arrival, with tea or coffee and home-baked treats, and enjoy nothing better than sharing their local knowledge to ensure that everyone enjoys every minute of their time in the area. It would make a comfortable and relaxing base for visiting Kilkenny city and exploring the whole of the beautiful South-East – and, not surprisingly, many of those who have discovered it decide to return as soon as possible.
Lismore, Co Waterford
A re-entry to the Guide rather than a new recommendation, Joe and Noreen Willoughby's welcoming country house hotel in Lismore has long been a favourite of ours. Having threatened to ‘retire’ a couple of years ago, their dedicated followers – including many newly introduced to the charms of Lismore, as well as regular guests going back to way back when – made it clear that this could not be countenanced, and this unreconstructed Irish country house is now one of the most interesting success stories of post-Tiger Ireland. Today guests fall with relief on those old houses that have bypassed major refurbishment, and the great charm of Ballyrafter (aside from its owners) is that it has remained itself. Fishing is perhaps the biggest draw, but a relaxing laid-back atmosphere, log fires and good home cooking also add up to a very attractive package - as many new fans have discovered recently. The bar, where informal meals are served, is lined with photographs of happy fisherfolk - and, if you are dining in the restaurant, you can also enjoy a romantic view of Lismore Castle’s many turrets. A lovely place, with open fires, comfy chairs and friendly hosts – it’s the real rural Ireland, that we all love.
Kilkenny, Co Kilkenny
Conveniently located just across the road from the Newpark Hotel, Phil and Rhoda Nolan’s handsome guesthouse is easy to find and has the advantages of being away from the city centre (including a sunny back garden and plenty of parking), yet everything is within comfortable walking distance in fine weather. Having spent some years in America before opening Rosquil House, the Nolans are keenly aware of the importance of genuine hospitality, service and comfort, and their aim from the outset was to combine the best attributes of a small hotel – including plenty of space - with the personal care and good value that are associated with Ireland’s best guesthouses. Phil and Rhoda are keen cooks and passionate supporters of local producers - they have recently joined Good Food Ireland, and their commitment is reflected in the breakfast offering, which features their own home baked breads and scones, local fruits in season, granola and yogurts, and hot dishes including quiches and Irish smoked salmon omelettes as well as the traditional ‘full Irish’. All round this is an exceptionally comfortable and hospitable place to stay, and offers real value.
Navan, Co Meath
Set among three hundred acres of rich pasture land in the heart of the Boyne Valley, Bertie and Renée Clarke’s lovely creeper-covered 17th century country house overlooking the River Blackwater is set in the Kells/Navan Gaeltacht area. Tara and Newgrange are nearby and it is on the site of the Tailteann Games, an ancient olympian style sporting event that was held here for many centuries until it died out in the 12th century, after the Norman invasion – and ancient rock art has also been found here recently, so the property itself is historically important. It is a beautiful old house, set in lovely gardens and with elegant well proportioned reception rooms - dining room, sitting-room and a cosy library – with open fires. The lovely big en-suite bedrooms have views over the farm and countryside and there’s a real country feeling, yet it’s only a short drive from the towns of Navan, Kells and Slane - and also several golf clubs including Killeen Castle.
Fermoy, Co Cork
Very handily located just off the M8 Dublin-Cork motorway and crossed by the main Rosslare-Killarney road, Fermoy is a fine market town on the fabled River Blackwater, famous for its salmon, trout and coarse fishing. And here, near the northern entrance to the town and set back from the road on a spacious corner site, you will find Sean and Mary Lomasney’s handsome 19th century cut stone house. Recently extensively refurbished in keeping with its history, it has a lovely atmosphere and now offers very comfortable accommodation in spacious, well proportioned and elegantly furnished rooms – and, with effective double glazing on front rooms, it is a quiet and restful place to stay. Downstairs, there’s an impressive drawing room and library with open fires, and a wide-ranging breakfast menu is offered in the handsome dining room, including home baked breads and local Araglen Valley trout, from nearby Kilworth. Sean and Mary are happy to guide guests to the many activities and attractions of the area– and it’s centrally located for exploring the Munster region. A place to note.
QC's Seafood Bar, Restaurant & Townhouse
Cahirciveen, Co Kerry
Kate and Andrew Cooke’s characterful bar and restaurant in the centre of Caherciveen has been recommended by the Guide since it opened, but there have been big changes recently with the opening of the QC Townhouse at the back of the building. Good food – especially seafood – continues to be the key attraction, but the five splendid rooms could now persuade you to make this your base for exploring this dramatically beautiful area. A large, comfortably furnished residents’ lounge is accessible from the bar through a delightful courtyard and, with sofas, coffee table books, a piano and a wood-burning stove, it’s a pleasant retreat even in chilly weather. Bedrooms are big, contemporary and themed by colour, with various matching accessories, including the headboard and woollen throws. En-suite bathrooms have good showers, and Valentia slate on the washbasin surrounds adds a touch of opulence. In two rooms - the Red and the Orange – a free-standing, cast-iron, roll-top bath takes pride of place and, while the in-room location may suit some guests better than others, they make a stylish talking point. Everything you need for a delicious and healthy breakfast is provided in each room and freshly baked muffins are hung outside the bedroom door during the evening, so you can enjoy it whenever it suits - perhaps lounging on the huge bed.
The Salty Dog Hotel & Bistro
Bangor, Co Down
Owned by brother and sister team Ashleigh and Hans Arthur, this small hotel is in a choice corner location overlooking Belfast Lough and Bangor Marina, and offers contemporary style - together with the hands-on hospitality that is not easy to find in larger establishments. It’s a pleasant place to stay too, and not only handy to the town but also within an easy waterside stroll of the attractive Ballyholme area of Bangor, where there’s a pleasant promenade and a beach leading on to the National Trust coastal walk at Ballymacormick Point. Although the ambience is contemporary, it’s an old building and the varying size and décor of the guest rooms reflect this – the range of rooms offered includes single, twin and family rooms, with the difference in size and outlook reflected in the price. A seriously good breakfast is served in the bar, overlooking the marina – a great start to the day.
Lisnaskea, Co Fermanagh
Tucked away in the heart of County Fermanagh and situated on the shores of Lough Erne, this impressive restaurant offers food that is ‘Irish with a French twist’ and lovely views, over both the lough and the lovely rolling countryside beyond. Genial French chef and fishing enthusiast Pascal Brissaud came to the county a number of years ago to fish, and the charm of rural life here enticed him to stay. This venture - a striking thatched building, completed to an exceptionally high standard - took four years for Pascal and his partner Valerie Smith to complete and, while it may initially seem a little Disney-esque, it is settling in nicely and its quirky design soon becomes part of the charm. Inside it’s full of French character, cosily decorated and furnished, with open fires and three old giant bellows brought from France adding to the atmosphere. In summer you can stroll through the water gardens or admire Pascal’s vegetable garden, which provides most of the vegetables and herbs for the restaurant - and, of course, the wonderful setting is a pleasure all year. The spacious en-suite rooms are right beside the lough and very comfortably furnished, with lovely views; self-catering cottages are also available.