Five of the Best in Irish Hospitality and Cuisine
By Patricia Keegan
There are a variety ways to see and enjoy the Emerald Isle—from the luxury of five-star Dublin hotels, to the myriad of fine B&B’s dotting the countryside, to unique farmhouse vacations where you can enjoy milking cows, gathering eggs, salmon fishing and horseback riding. There is the Covered Wagon Holiday, where one rolls with the whims of the weather, as well as historic tours that traverse the poignant history of this small island.
However, if given only one chance to tour the countryside and experience the best of Ireland--while luxuriating in spectacular surroundings--the crème de la crème of places to stay can be found inIreland’s Blue Book, Irish Country Houses and Restaurants. Renowned for their expertise in hospitality, the Irish hosts of each “Great House” in the Blue Book portray the epitome of Cead Mile Failte (a hundred thousand welcomes.) Your host’s gracious hospitality, the peaceful setting, the individual décor, the superb cuisine, the selection of antiques, old books, and original paintings, and year-round gardens, mountains and endless green fields--all blend in perfect harmony to capture the eternal Irish appeal. Viewing Ireland through the windows of the Blue Book connects one with all the mystical, magical, mythical images of a land truly blessed by the gods!
Though it was still mid-February on the calendar, the weather was a great surprise; blooming daffodils and abundant sunshine accompanied us through our tour of five Blue Book country homes.
Longueville House, Mallow, County Cork
It was still dark at 6:30 a.m. as my husband and I landed at Shannon Airport on our Aer Lingus flight from Boston. We picked up our rental car from Dooley Car Rentals, tops on my list of rental agencies. Reminding ourselves to drive on the left, we headed for the first Blue Book property, historic Longueville House near the town of Mallow in County Cork. From Shannon we would drive south and west through the counties of Limerick, Cork, and Kerry before heading north again through Clare, Mayo and Sligo, stopping at Blue Book properties along the way.
Halfway to Cork, traveling through small towns and empty villages where people were still asleep, we watched the sun came up. It was still early as we drove up the long drive of the 500 acres of ancient trees and rolling pastures surrounding Longueville Country House, a Georgian Heritage Mansion.
The grand manor house is situated on an eminence overlooking the Blackwater Valley. Its history goes back to Cromwellian times when the center block of the house was built in 1720 by the Longfield family. The land was originally owned by the O’Callaghan family who fought with the Catholic Confederates and, after the collapse of the Rebellion of 1641, had to forfeit their land to Cromwell in 1650. Back then the area was known by its old Gaelic name Garamaconey, but when Richard Longfield, part of the British gentry, was promoted to become Baron Longueville in 1795, he changed the name of the estate to Longueville. The Baron spent a fortune on redecorating and extending the old house, adding two spacious wings, stone parapets and the columned front porch.
Walking up to that front porch, in the nippy morning air, we rang the bell on the massive oak door and heard it echo through the halls. William O’Callaghan, himself, opened the door and welcomed us into a splendid drawing room. We were soon sitting before a blazing fire, looking out over the valley through 20 ft. high casement windows. Historic portraits of the O’Callaghan family lined the walls. Amongst them I saw a small, nicely framed photo capturing a tender moment between current family patriarch and grandfather, Michael O’Callaghan, and his granddaughter. I wondered if we would meet them.
Soon we were being served a greatly appreciated pot of tea and a basket of thick Irish toast and homemade jams. Enlivened by this nurturing and nourishment, we stood at the drawing-room window and feasted our eyes on the panorama of green fields that spread across the Blackwater River valley to the foot of hazy, blue mountains. Ruins of an old castle alongside the river--Dromineen Castle, ancestral home of the O’Callaghan’s--completed the scene.
Passing through a world of family antiques and memorabilia, we were shown up the wide staircase to our room. It was spacious and airy with light spilling from four great windows as though we had walked into sunlight. Adorned with my favorite color combination of gold, cream and blue, the king-sized bed had a recessed canopy of cream and blue brocade and a gold threaded duvet. Beautifully carved, antique furnishings completed the picture of opulence. The huge, marble bathroom was surprisingly modern with a glass-enclosed shower, large bathtub and double sinks. The entire setting invited relaxation and quick recovery from jet lag.
Meals at Longueville are gracious occasions, bringing guests back to the days when fresh vegetables came from family gardens and fish from nearby streams. All food is organically grown in gardens and greenhouses surrounding the estate, and meats are range-fed on the property.
In this family run enterprise, William O’Callaghan is the chef, while his wife, Aisling, is house manager. After studying French cuisine in Auxerre, William returned home to create a kitchen emphasizing the best and freshest ingredients combined with an international presentation and a flair that is uniquely Irish.
Guests may dine in either the President’s Room surrounded by portraits of all the Irish presidents, or in the glass-enclosed, spectacular Turner Conservatory which dates from 1865. One can only imagine the photogenic response of a wedding party to the conservatory’s magical light on a clear, June day.
After our “healthy” Irish breakfast of thick bacon, fresh eggs, sausages, black pudding, Irish bread, fresh fruit and coffee, we met Michael, the grandfather we had seen in the photo. Talking with him truly opened a chapter of Ireland’s history. His father, an Irish senator, had brought the estate back into the family in 1938. Michael has lived here since he was 11 and is dedicated to its success. He is the mastermind for the extensive selection of the world’s best wines and has even started to bottle his own calvados from some of the estate’s 50 acres of apple orchards. Beginning next year, after three years of being stored in oak, his Irish calvados, which he named Eden, will be available.
Facilities include 17 guestrooms and three suites as well as three meeting and conference rooms.
Bed and Breakfast, 90-147 euros pps, low season; 100-180 pps in high season. Dinner from 50-65 euros.
For more information visit www.longuevillehouse.ie
Park Hotel, Kenmare, County Kerry
Awakening in the Park Hotel in Kenmare on Valentine’s Day is a special treat. Our window overlooks a lake surrounded by the greenest of green grass, and flowering trees. There is a white boat moored at the dock, and beyond the lake are layers of blue packed mountains. It is only February, but in the foreground we see a “host of golden daffodils.” Overhead is a moody, Irish sky. The bay looks black with silver shadows; two elegant white swans adorn its surface. Music from the room’s compact CD player fills our suite—“I dreamt… I dwelt in marble halls.” We are surrounded by magnificent furnishings, plants and wonderful paintings of Ireland.
The Park Hotel Kenmare is one of the loveliest settings imaginable. This 19th century Victorian building was constructed in 1897 by the Great Southern and Western Railway Company to accommodate passengers coming to the south of Ireland. The location was chosen for its stunning views, proximity to the town and park-like setting. The gentry traveled from England to the south of Ireland and on to Kenmare in their private train carriages. In the late 1950’s the company added 36 bedrooms. In 1980 the hotel was sold, and refurbishment began under the direction of a Swiss consortium. It was reopened again in 1980 as the Park Hotel Kenmare under the direction of Mr. Francis Brennan, who, in striving for excellence, brought it up to superb standards. In 1986 he purchased the hotel and firmly established it as one of Ireland’s premier hotels. Since then it continues to receive numerous awards including the Egon Ronay “Hotel of the Year” award for both Great Britain and Ireland.
John Brennan, Francis’s brother, joined the young team as General Manager in 1994, to become a driving force behind today’s success.
The Park has recently surprised the world by bringing “Indulgence of the Senses” to their doorstep in the form ofSAMAS, a Swiss-style spa with a holistic approach to well-being. Maybe it’s a reflection of some of the hazards brought about by the advent of the “Irish Tiger” that inspired the Brennan brothers to create Samas. It was inevitable that Irish sensibilities would join the rest of the world in need of soothing, healing therapies.Samas offers Lifestyle Programs, which include body wraps, back, face and scalp treatments, complete with meditation and relaxation exercise. Outdoor exercise programs are held in a private, tranquil environment of gardens and vitality pool. Samaswas created not just for the calming effects of massage or sauna, but for a complete transformation, from fingernails to soul.
One of the most attractive villages in all of Ireland, Kenmare was awarded first place for the last two years in the annual “Tidy Towns” competition. Its appeal emanates from brightly colored doors, hanging plants and old-fashioned lamps lighting the streets at night. Here you can find some great little restaurants, shops and pubs with musical entertainment.
A stay at the Park Hotel is a memorable experience. We left carrying pleasant memories of walks in the garden, the fire always burning in the lobby fireplace, the sound of piano music and the warm, friendly and efficient staff.
Bed and Breakfast, double/twin, 149-348 euros pps incl. of tax, dinner is 64 euros.
For further details visit www.parkkenmare.com
The Mustard Seed at Echo Lodge, Balingarry, County Limerick
It was dark when we arrived at The Mustard Seed at Echo Lodge in Ballingarry, Co Limerick. We kept stopping along the way to get photos of the spectacular Ring of Kerry and the Beara Peninsula. Nothing happened in response to our first knock on the huge oak door. I knocked again, and the door was opened by a guest, glass in hand, with a big smile on his face. Beyond him was a remarkably serene tableaux; a large family was gathered around the fireside. At the center of the scene was a young mother, her face aglow, holding a tiny baby adorned in a long, lace Christening dress. We had stumbled upon a joyous family celebration and could feel the surrounding goodwill.
Soon, we were greeted by Daniel Mullane, owner and operator of this unique, country home and former convent. With a reputation as “master of hospitality,” we had heard of Dan long before this meeting. With a smile, a warm handshake and a sweep of his arm, he said, “I have your table ready!” Dan in not just a person, he is a whole experience. Like the conductor of a great orchestra he keeps everything running smoothly. That evening we watched him greet 70 guests for dinner with grace, warmth and good humor.
Specializing in homegrown organic products, plucked from the manor’s own extensive gardens, the cuisine at the Mustard Seed is extraordinary and attracts clientele from a wide area.
The breads are homemade, the Irish lettuce actually has a flavor, as do the Irish tomatoes and eggs. Meats are without hormones and the fish is always fresh. The menu is creative and enticing. For starters, I had stuffed York cabbage leaves with pork, tomato and cumin sauce and a potato, leek and field mushroom soup. My entrée was a John Dory fish with crisp noodle cakes, bok choi and a lemon grass, chili and coconut veloute.
Not a dessert eater under normal circumstances, I couldn’t resist the sound of an apple and rhubarb crumble pie, with fresh whipped cream. It was so good, I ate it in tiny spoonfuls relishing every bite. My husband equally enjoyed the Irish beef sirloin, with truffle and herb mash and ragout of forest mushrooms. For dessert he chose the dark chocolate mousse with an orange reduction and toffee ice cream. For the ambience, service and cuisine, this four-course dinner is quite reasonable at 50 euros.
Set on 10 acres, this celebrated country house has 14 guestrooms and three two-level, magnificent suites. Our room was filled with wonderful antiques left from the 19th century convent. Its windows overlook aquatic gardens, trees and orchards. At the top of the staircase leading to the rooms was a statue of a small Buddha with adjacent books on meditation. Just outside our door was a corner lamp, set on a round table, with a book on Mother Theresa. Books are everywhere, all worn hardbacks, making you wish for more time to stop and read. Spread throughout the Mustard Seed is an eclectic collection of artifacts from around the world. Many pieces come from Asia and Africa where Dan has traveled extensively.
Horseback riding, fishing and garden visits can be arranged nearby and there are four golf courses within 30 minutes of the House.
The Mustard Seed exudes a light hearted, caring touch, with a can-do attitude stemming from the loving dedication of its owner and maestro, Dan Mullane.
B&B from 86-140 euros pps, rates apply year round. Dinner is 50 euros. Special spring and winter break rates available.
For more information visit www.mustardseed.ie
The Cashel House Hotel, Cashel, County Galway
Arriving at the Cashel House Hotel after dusk, we had just parked our car and had a full view of the beautiful 19th century country home, alight with life, when we were surprised by Christophe. “Let me help with your luggage”, said a tall, handsome man with a French accent. This was truly Cead Mile Failte!
Entering Cashel House, formerly one of Connemara’s most gracious private homes, is like arriving at the coziest epicenter of Irish culture. Rooms are filled with art, books and firelight. The extensive art collection, antique furnishings, and glass fronted bookcases manifest a rare elegance which places Cashel House in a realm of its own. Owned and operated by the McEvilly family, this hotel offers guests the epitome of traditional Irish graciousness. After a warm meeting with owner Kay McEvilly, Christophe showed us to our room upstairs. It was a joy to behold!
From the doorway I could see across two rooms of the large suite to the broad, picture window overlooking the garden. Framed in the window was a gathering of trees, backlit in amber light, their branches criss-crossing in all directions. A startlingly beautiful form of accidental art, I was looking at an immense painting of light and shadow. No one would want to draw the curtains across this scene.
Antique furniture adorned the room. The bright and cheerful décor, with its soft, feminine touches all added to its aesthetic beauty. The rich fabric of the recessed canopy sweeping above the king sized bed held hues of pink and green, with a matching duvet. Adding to this sense of comfort and luxury was a compact CD player with a fine selection of classical music. I found Dance of the Hours from La Gioconda (Ponchebielli) and felt the entire picture synchronizing in perfect harmony.
Cashel House, secluded on 40 acres of gardens and woodland walks, has a unique design. Built in 1840 with asymmetrical gabled elevations, it was owned by Captain Thomas Hazell, and designed by Geoffrey Emerson, the great, great grandfather of the present owners. After years of neglect, it was purchased and restored by Dermott and Kay in 1967. Since then they have been joined by their children--Brian, Frank and Lucy—and together they have built a solid international reputation for excellence in cuisine and service.
In May, 1969, only two years after opening, Cashel House was host to French General Charles de Gaulle for two weeks of rest and relaxation. Kay McEvilly gave us a copy of the receipt and compliment he signed. Our own President Clinton selected it as a first choice on his visit to Ireland in 1995. However, due to all the complications of a Presidential visit, the advance team settled on the much larger, if less personal, Ashford Castle.
The Cashel House menu is extensive with a variety of fresh fish and Irish beef, home made breads, Irish cheese and international wines. What adds to the enjoyment of this dining experience is the spectacular conservatory wing, which curves around one wall of the dining room overlooking the garden. The small French lamps on each table are all reflected in the window glass, like oriental lamps decorating the trees outside. I wondered if this was one more piece of accidental art, or if it had been specifically designed to create a festive illusion.
While guests dine, Kay McEvilly visits tables, making sure everybody is happy and satisfied. French waiter Christophe adds his own charm, a rare blend of French accent, Irish humor and attentive service to each guest. After dinner, coffee is served by the fireside in one of several drawing rooms. This is an added luxury, encouraged by Christophe, who with a flourish says, “Madame, Monsieur, I want to make everything “purrfect” as he carries a tray with a silver teapot and sweets for guests to indulge in by the fireplace.
Beaches, golf, salmon and sea-fishing are available in the vicinity. The hotel has its own tennis courts and small private beach.
The relaxed atmosphere of Cashel House is the kind of environment from which you literally have to “drag” yourself away. It is located one hour from the excitement of busy Galway and 15 minutes from the peaceful, scenic, fishing village of Roundstone, one of the hidden treasures of Ireland.
This four star hotel has won the RAC Blue Ribbon Award for excellence from 1992 through 1998 and the Gold Ribbon from 1999 through 2002.
B&B from 80-110 euros pps in low season, 120-150 euros in high season. 12.5% service charge. Dinner 43-46 euros.
For more information see www.cashel-house-hotel.com
The Cromleach Lodge Country House, Boyle, County Sligo
Cromleach is a modern structure set in the hills of Lough Arrow, its atmosphere more typical of a lodge than of a country home. Its setting is spectacular. Standing at the window in our large, modern room, I realize this is a vision of Ireland I have seen before--one you would find on those picture perfect postcards of Ireland. People who have not visited the Emerald Isle might think a scene like that is impossible, but here it is. I look across a blue lake and lush valley to the pre-historic Carrowkeel Cairns Mountains. It is utterly peaceful, with sheep grazing along the green hills. Sligo is considered Yeats Country; this is the county where the great poet was born. Scenes like this must have been the inspiration for many of his renowned works.
Cromleach Lodge has a relaxed ambience and is famous for its outstanding restaurant. Dining at Cromleach means setting aside an entire evening to delight in every nibble. Proprietors Christy and Moira Tighe play distinct roles, Christy acts as manager and chef Moira won the award Irish Chef of the Year 2000 and Best Connacht Restaurant 2003. With her fame for creative gastronomic delights spreading, diners come from miles around to enjoy an evening of feasting.
My husband and I enjoyed the “Tasting Menu” which is a gourmet menu specially prepared each evening. It is described as “Intense Flavors with Light Portions.” The following is an example of this menu: Pan fried Turbot and Prawn Bisque; Earl Grey Smoked Duck, Sweet Potato Puree and Five Spice jus, Apple and Cinnamon Sorbet. Then comes the entrée, Fillet of Veal, and Wild mushroom Risotto and Moral cream, followed by tossed mixed leaves with pine nuts. Dessert is a variety of tempting delights all on one plate--fresh fruits, chocolate covered strawberries, fruit tarts, chocolate soufflé and whipped cream. This is just one example of how the exercise of some minor control somehow turns to decadence.
With just 10 guestrooms, Cromleach Lodge can provide personal attention in planning scenic drives and nature walks in the surrounding countryside. With such inviting surroundings, its worth taking the time to enjoy a walk across the field down to the lake. Salmon fishing, golf, and horseback riding are available in the area.
B&B from 120-150 euros pps in low season, 158-188 in high season. Special 2 and 3 day breaks. Dinner 55 euros.
For more information visit www.cromleach.com
Ireland's Blue Book is a unique association of Ireland's most charming Country Manor Houses, Castles and Restaurants. No two properties are the same, each has a different flavor, atmosphere, and sense of place. Known for high standards of traditional Irish hospitality, accommodation and cuisine, the properties are set amidst the quiet beauty of rural Ireland, yet convenient to golf, beaches, hiking, fishing, riding and pure relaxation.
See www.irelandsbluebook.com for all 41 Irish Country Houses and Restaurants included in the Blue Book or call (800) 323-5463.
For a free vacation planning kit, or to get more information on the Island of Ireland, contact Tourism Ireland at (800) 223-6470, or visit www.Tourismireland.com
Check rates at Dooley Car Rentals, a friendly, service-oriented company, with all-inclusive weekly rates, including tax and insurance, priced in dollars! They have 15 Irish locations, a wide selection and competitive rates. Tel: 800-331-9301.