Cong, County Mayo
With a history going back to the early 13th century, Ashford Castle is widely regarded as our grandest hotel - and anyone who loves beautiful surroundings will be thrilled to stay here - or even simply call in to visit the gardens and grounds. Set in 350 acres of parkland, grandeur, formality and tranquillity are the essential characteristics - and the most luxurious accommodation at the top of the castle enjoys magnificent views of Lough Corrib, the River Cong and wooded parkland.
At this time of year the autumn colouring in the parkland and forests surrounding the castle can be stunning, and there are outdoor opportunities a-plenty for everyone from the seriously keen walker to the weekend visitor in search of a gentle stroll. The hotel's exceptional amenities and sports facilities are detailed in a very handy little pocket book; in it you'll find everything you need to know about the equestrian centre, falconry, hunting, clay target shooting, archery, cycling, pony & trap tours, golf (resident instructor & equipment hire), tennis, lake & river fishing, lake cruising, jogging, guided walking & cycling tours on the estate - and a guide to scenic routes and attractions in Mayo and Galway; for any visitor to the area, this little book is a gem.
The castle offers six guided walks around the estate (for as few as three people, so it doesn’t have to feel like a bus tour) and a bicycle tour, but you can just as easily take any of them at your leisure as each is clearly detailed in ‘the little black book’, together with the amount of time to allow (from about half an hour to two hours). And it will be worth working up an appetite with a good long walk, as the food here is outstanding. Acclaimed executive head chef, Stefan Matz, oversees the cooking for both the restaurant in the Castle, and also Cullen’s Cottage restaurant in the grounds, which offers less formal mid price dining and is open 11am-9pm at the time of writing, but you should phone to check – and it also worth inquiring about off-season offers at the castle, which can be very good value.
Sherwood Park House
Kilbride, Ballon, Co Carlow
Built around 1700 by a Mr Arthur Baillie, Patrick and Maureen Owens’ delightful Georgian farmhouse has sweeping views over the countryside and is an “accessible country retreat for anyone who enjoys candlelit dinners, brass and canopy beds, and the relaxing experience of eating out while staying in”. It's a good area for walking, and the beautiful Altamont Gardens are on the doorstep (just 5 minutes away on foot).
The Old Inn
Crawfordsburn Co Down BT19 1JH
Oak beams, antiques and gas lighting emphasise the natural character of this famous and hospitable 16th century inn – the oldest in continuous use in all Ireland. Although very handy to Belfast it’s in a pretty village setting, just a mile from the sea – and with plenty of scenic walking nearby at Crawfordsburn Country Park and the North Down Coastal Path. Good food too, in their “1614” restaurant.
Sheen Falls Lodge
Kenmare Co Kerry
The waterside location of this famously stylish hotel just across the river from Kenmare town is beautiful, and it is set in a 300-acre estate of woodland, riverside walks and gardens. The Queen's Walk, a beautiful 19th century plantation named after Queen Victoria in anticipation of her visit to Kerry in 1861, takes you through lush woodland; although renowned for exotic tree ferns and spring-flowering cultivars (rhododendron, azalea, camellia), it is lovely in autumn too. Accommodation is contemporary classic, offering traditional luxury with a modern lightness of touch – and dinner here is always a treat.
Thomastown, Co Kilkenny
The distinctivell lush beauty of County Kilkenny lies in its rivers and woodlands - and there’s no better time than autumn to visit Mount Juliet House, set on 1500 acres of unspoilt woodland, pasture and formal gardens beside the River Nore. Although now perhaps best known for golf, this is one of Europe's greatest country estates and offers many activities, including beautiful walks, fishing, horesriding, and a Spa & Health Club for pampering. Excellent food too: choose between fine dining in the Lady Helen Dining Room, or contemporary style in Kendals restaurant at Hunters Yard.
Mountrath, Co Laois
It is hard to see how anyone could fail to love the Kennans’ unspoilt early Georgian house, which lies 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 – forget about co-ordinated decor and immaculate maintenance, just relax and enjoy walking in the grounds, Rosemarie’s good home cooking and chatting to Frank at the fireside. Magic.
Ballymote, Co Sligo
Roderick and Helena Perceval are the latest in a very long line (Percevals have lived here since 1665), and their home overlooks the original lakeside castle which was built by the Knights Templar in 1200 A.D… The present Georgian mansion was redesigned and refurbished in 1864 and some of the furnishings date back to that major revamp. Today, guests return from bracing woodland walks on the 1,000 acre estate to enormous rooms cheered by big log fires – and after dinner, perhaps, an outing to the renowned traditional Irish music and dancing sessions nearby in Ballintubber.
Cappoquin, Co Waterford
For returning guests - knowing the genuine hospitality, comfort, caring service and excellent food awaiting in the Deevy family’s fine 18th century country house and restaurant just outside Cappoquin - there’s always a sense of pleasurable anticipation as you approach Richmond House through well-maintained parkland. And, with lovely woodland walks alongside a nearby river (and garden visits too in summer), it makes an excellent base for exploring this wonderfully beautiful and unspoilt area.
Ashford, Co Wicklow
Perfectly placed for enjoying the autumn splendour of Mount Usher gardens and the Wicklow Hills – including tranquil lakeside forest walks at Glendalough, only a short drive away - Catherine Fulvio's charming Victorian farmhouse has been in the Byrne family for three generations and they have welcomed guests for over thirty years. Catherine took over in 1999, and having refurbished the house in old country style (and opened a cookery school), it is now renowned for comfort, cosiness, home-cooked food and hospitality.
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