As usual, we travelled to every county in Ireland in 2011, meeting many wonderful people, eating lots of great Irish produce and (for the most part) being totally blown away once again by the country’s beauty and the hospitality and high standards we encountered.

These are ten of the places where we had the very best experiences during the year, places we just can’t wait to return to – and we’re happy to share the lowdown so you can enjoy them too. And, being among the country’s cosiest and comfiest, they’re all just perfect for early season breaks.

Ballymaloe House
Shanagarry, Midleton, Co Cork

Ballymaloe House - Shanagarry, Co Cork, IrelandFirst time visitors to Ballymaloe are invariably charmed by the approach, through lush green fields with sheep grazing all around - the Allen family home may be Ireland’s most famous country house, but they have always described it as ‘a large family farmhouse’. And - although, with over thirty bedrooms, it is very large indeed - Ballymaloe remains true to that description nearly five decades after Myrtle and her husband, the late Ivan Allen, first welcomed guests to their home in 1964. The dining room - named The Yeats Room after their collection of Jack Yeats paintings - opened first, followed by rooms for accommodation in 1967. From the very beginning, the Ballymaloe ethos was to serve simple, carefully cooked meals using the good seasonal ingredients of their own farm and the surrounding area; to this day, the same principles apply and I defy anyone to find a better meal anywhere. Similarly, discerning guests will note with pleasure the low key comfort of the rooms – nothing flashy, simply furnished with exactly the right amount of furniture in exactly the right place for all your needs, well placed lighting, timeless bathroom fittings, everything immaculately clean and maintained. Ballymaloe is still most remarkable for its unspoilt charm, the setting is lovely and the family management exemplary – reasons for the success of our most-admired country house are not hard to find.

The Cliff House Hotel
Ardmore Co Waterford

The Cliff House Hotel - Ardmore County Waterford IrelandWith its fresh contemporary style, ambitious cooking and emphasis on professional and genuinely caring service, this unusual hotel (our 2009 Newcomer of the Year) brought a new focus to an area of outstanding hospitality and unspoilt natural beauty that has always somehow remained a well kept secret. On the edge of a pretty village with much to recommend it (sandy beaches to walk, excellent food and pubs, a charming local pottery and gift shop…), this striking hotel is in a beautiful cliffside location – many will fondly remember old-fashioned afternoon teas on the terrace in its former guise - and, despite its dramatic design, the sea is the star. And, with Head Chef Martijn Kajuiter’s exciting food and good old-fashioned hands-on management from General Manager Adriaan Bartels, it has attracted a lot of new fans, both to the hotel and the wider area. Although the cooking is exceptional, not just for Ireland but on an international scale, Martijn’s dedication to local food adds a down to earth dimension that is very appealing – and local, in this case, means grown in a nearby allotment and even on-site (yes, on a cliff top!), as well as coming from a network of valued suppliers around the region.

Dromoland Castle
Newmarket-on-Fergus Co Clare

Dromoland Castle Hotel - Newmarket-on-Fergus, Co Clare, IrelandAh, what an enchanting place this is. The ancestral home of the O’Briens, where wide corridors lined with oak panelling are hung with ancient portraits and scented with wood smoke, it has all the crystal chandeliers and massive antiques to be expected in a real Irish castle and the accommodation is, for the most part, pretty grand. Yet there is no sense of intimidating formality, instead it has the real charm and caring management that creates a true sense of relaxation and enjoyment – and dining here is always a treat. Executive Head Chef David McCann’s offering is predictably glamorous, with both wine list and service a match for the food. But there is also a sense of fun, thanks to the warmth of Restaurant Manager Tony Frisby’s direction and, although the style is basically classic French, the sourcing of ingredients is immaculate and some dishes highlight local ingredients and are more Irish in tone. The Fig Tree Restaurant at Dromoland Golf & Country Club is also excellent and there are lots of activities on the estate as well as many interesting places to visit during your stay.

Ballynahinch Castle Hotel
Recess Co Galway

Ballynahinch Castle Hotel - Recess County Galway irelandThere are many reasons to love our Hotel of the Year 2012 – its picturesque setting; its history, romance and beautiful gardens; its great fishing and other country pursuits; its comfort and character – and you will eat extremely well there too. But best of all is the natural environment and, appreciating their good fortune, the management have long regarded themselves as mere custodians of this beautiful place, which is renowned for its salmon fishery and a former winner of our Green Ireland Hospitality Award. Many energy-conserving and waste reduction measures have been introduced to safeguard it and the hotel, which is a partner in the Leave No Trace Programme (, is also committed to enhancing the surrounding ecosystems through a woodland regeneration programme (guests can even participate in a Plant a Tree break). It is a wonderful place and, under the deceptively relaxed management of GM Patrick O’Flaherty, it is the perfect Irish country hotel, a cosy and characterful haven set against a ruggedly handsome landscape. It’s the real Ireland that we’re all hoping for when we go for a break.

Harvey's Point Country Hotel
Lough Eske Donegal Co Donegal

Harveys Point Country Hotel - Lough Eske Donegal Co Donegal irelandThe Gysling family’s well-managed hotel on the shores of Lough Eske is in one of Ireland’s most beautiful inland locations and makes an extremely comfortable base for a break at any time of year – including a winter weekend of walking and other outdoor activities. The hotel has grown a lot in recent years and the luxurious new rooms, which are very large, have attracted a whole new clientele. Meanwhile, the older rooms - which are tucked away in front of the extension, along the ground floor corridor – remain popular with many regular guests, including ourselves; although less luxurious, they are very comfortable and will appeal if you would enjoy being closer to the countryside, with access to the lough (and if you would like to bring your dog). It has always been a good food destination too, and the main restaurant is currently serving some of the best classic cooking in the region, enjoyed - after a drink by the welcoming log fire in the bar – at a table with views across the lough, and entertained by the hotel’s pet geese coming in off the water at feeding time.

Gregans Castle Hotel
Ballyvaughan, County Clare

Gregans Castle Hotel - Ballyvaughan County Clare IrelandMany country houses have overdone the upgrading in recent years – losing their essential character and becoming too much like hotels. Not so this quietly luxurious place which, although it is actually categorised as an hotel, retains its essential country house character and a uniquely serene atmosphere. Run by second generation owners, Simon and Freddie Haden, this oasis of warmth, comfort and hospitality can be seen from miles around, set in solitary splendour in the lunar landscape of the Burren, and surrounded by trees and gardens. Spacious rooms, luxuriously furnished with understated contemporary style by Freddie, have lovely countryside views - and are deliberately left without the worldly interference of television. It was our Country House of the Year in 2010, and would be a gorgeous place to stay even if they served nothing but (an excellent) breakfast. Luckily however, that is far from the case and, in recent years, this quiet retreat has become a serious fine dining destination - gifted head chef, Mickael Viljanen, revels in the commitment to using local and organic produce which has always been a key feature of Gregans Castle, but he cooks in a modern European style, and offers exciting menus, which include a daily changing nine course Tasting Menu in addition to a tempting dinner menu and a Menu Surprise - ‘A 7 Course Chef’s Discretionary Adventure’. A joy to visit.

Echo Lodge
Ballingarry Co Limerick

What can be said about this wonderful place that has not been said before? Echo Lodge – actually an hotel but with a real country house feeling – is a place that envelops guests in its hospitable mantle, inducing a feeling of total relaxation in even the most frazzled traveller, and then charms and delights them through a magnificent dinner in its famous restaurant, The Mustard Seed. The proprietor, Dan Mullane, opened the restaurant in Adare in 1985, then later moved just ten minutes drive away to Echo Lodge, this spacious Victorian country residence which is set on seven acres of lovely gardens - and offers sumptuous accommodation. Food and hospitality are at the heart of Echo Lodge and, while many ingredients are carefully sourced from organic farms and artisan food producers in the area, their own organic kitchen gardens supply the kitchen with much of the fresh seasonal produce for the restaurant – if visiting in summer, especially, allow time to see them before dinner and, perhaps, hazard a guess as to what will be on the menu. Everything is absolutely delicious – and the hospitality you will find here is exceptional.

Kelly's Resort Hotel
Rosslare Strand, Co Wexford

Kellys Resort Hotel - Rosslare Strand County Wexford IrelandKnown, with good reason, as ‘the hotelier’s hotel’, Bill and Isabelle Kelly’s icon of the sunny South-East is a beachside haven offering a special brand of relaxed professionalism that is particularly appreciated by others in the hospitality industry when taking their well-earned breaks. And, if it is so highly regarded by those who would potentially be its harshest critics, it’s no wonder Kelly’s (GCGuides Hotel of the Year for 2011) also has a huge and dedicated fan base amongst the wider public. Three centuries of practice undoubtedly helps in this hands-on family business, and the offering has been finely tuned over the years, to please all ages and varying tastes. Many would visit simply to admire the renowned art collection, for example, while others especially enjoy the outstanding leisure facilities or the sandy beach – and everyone enjoys the contrasting dining experiences offered in Beaches (fine dining) and La Marine (bistro), and the music that rounds out the evening after dinner. And the hotel’s celebrated wine list is not only a wonderful partner to the good food offered, but also provides the starting point for some of the many (and varied) special interest breaks that are a highlight of the off-season. A great all-rounder – and environmentally responsible too

Ashford Castle
Cong Co Mayo

Ashford Castle - Cong County Mayo IrelandIreland’s grandest castle hotel is seriously romantic, at any time – and its location, overlooking Lough Corrib, is simply stunning. While the motto ‘Excellence since 1228’ may be stretching it a bit, it has been an hotel since 1939 and, in the hands-on care of current General Manager Niall Rochford and an excellent staff, it’s now better than ever. Grandeur, formality and tranquillity are timeless characteristics of this wonderful place, but its 350 acres of beautiful parkland and gardens, impressive public rooms (think panelled walls, oil paintings, suits of armour and magnificent fireplaces) and restaurants are much more accessible these days. Delicious local produce provides the inspiration for acclaimed Executive Chef Stefan Matz’s excellent cuisine, and to help you build up an appetite, there’s a great range of outdoor activities on the estate including falconry, lake cruising, fishing and golf; there’s also an equestrian centre – plus miles of wonderful walks, jogging trails and a bicycle safari.

Dunraven Arms Hotel
Adare Co Limerick

Dunraven Arms Hotel - Adare County Limerick IrelandOn the main street of Ireland’s prettiest village, the Murphy family’s hotel is an amazing place, and a great example of the uniquely Irish hospitality that family-run businesses can offer. Although now a large hotel with a special reputation for weddings, it dates from 1792 and has somehow – perhaps because the Murphys are also farmers and specialise in equestrian holidays - retained that comfortable ambience of a country inn. A very luxurious inn nevertheless: the furnishing standard is superb throughout, with antiques, private dressing rooms and well-planned bathrooms, an exceptional standard of housekeeping, and a leisure centre among the excellent amenities. The hotel has earned an unrivalled reputation for the quality and value of the short breaks they have offered for many years (long before the current trend emerged); 2-night breaks begin from as little as €99pps, yet there’s no sense of cutting corners to meet the price. Excellent food too, to match the surroundings, hospitality and service – don’t miss the beef trolley – and this cosy and hospitable place makes a lovely all-year destination.

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