Three of Ireland’s best hotels have just one thing in common: superb hospitality. Otherwise, they’re as different as chalk and cheese, as the saying goes. These are upscale lodgings with highly individual character. If you are looking for something truly special, also consider spending a night at one (or more) of Ireland’s best Castle Hotels.
Ireland’s Best Hotels
The Falls Hotel and Spa
The Falls Hotel and Spa just outside the village of Ennistymon in west Ireland’s County Clare, stands on 50 wooded acres above the River Inagh. This former 17th century manor house and its additions have been turned into a 150-room hotel on six levels, with the entry on the fourth; we think it is one of Ireland’s best hotels. When I arrived, I climbed wide stairs guarded by stone lions to a wood-paneled reception area and instantly felt a sense of quiet comfort and good taste—without a hint of stuffiness. This is Ireland, after all, where friendly attitudes and humor abound, and any sign of snobbery is greeted with a chuckle and a wink.
Off the lobby I wandered into the casual and inviting Dylan Thomas Bar, so named because the noted writer’s wife’s family once owned the manor house. The bar has some of the manor’s original stonework and a stone fireplace. For an enjoyable lunch, I recommend the bar’s light and flavorful seafood chowder, eaten at a table overlooking the lovely river and falls. The fillet of cod is good, too, served with salad and “mushy peas” (an Irish favorite). You can also get sandwiches, Irish beef, chicken curry, pastas and fish dishes, and of course beer and wines. As you’d expect, bar prices are lower than in the white linens-and-candles Cascades restaurant, one level down and closer to the Inagh’s rushing cascades. This menu features local meats and intriguing dishes such as crab claws in garlic and Pernod butter, duck confit with orange and plum sauce, and lamb with rosemary and shallot sauce and avocado fritters.
Room rates are reasonable and special packages are offered, or you can rent an apartment with a kitchen. On my next visit, I’ll try one of the hotel’s big draws, the River Spa, which has a glass-walled pool and all kinds of services—massage, facials, body wraps, mud treatments, and more. Four of the twelve treatment rooms are in an 18th-century stable which, needless to say, has been significantly remodeled into a modern facility.
From the hotel grounds you can walk five minutes along the road into Ennistymon, but I chose to take the steps from the garden down to the beguiling river and follow a pathway to town. There I strolled a delightfully typical Irish main street of shopfronts, pubs and art studios. The Falls is close to two of Ireland’s top attractions, the Cliffs of Moher and the Burren. Both are magnificent sights, not to be missed.
Adare Manor and Golf Resort
For a touch of life in Downton Abbey, only more so, Adare Manor Hotel & Golf Resort is the place to stay. I found the castle-like manor enchanting, and it was easy to imagine Maggie Smith across the room sipping tea. The hotel, in the heart of County Limerick and near the famous and ultra-quaint village of Adare, is surrounded by 840 acres of garden, woodland, and a golf course. The ivy-covered walls topped by steep roofs and towers began as the 19th century home of the Earl of Dunraven. The Earl was an outdoorsman who became laid up with gout and turned to creating a grand, somewhat eccentric estate. After he died, his son stepped in to finish the job, and it remained in the family until 1982, when a Florida family bought it and restored the place to its former grandeur.
Adare Manor returned to Irish hands in 2015 when J.P. McManus, of Limerick, purchased the property. Although it’s scheduled for refurbishment in 2016, Mr. McManus promises that the atmosphere will remain the same, to the relief of its devoted clientele. They love the Irish oak cabinets, floor-to-ceiling draperies, carved ceilings, imposing crystal chandeliers, and ornate fireplaces, some with intricate designs and coats of arms. There’s no elevator in the historical part; guests climb wide, carpeted stairs. The 61 rooms and a Presidential Suite are luxuriously furnished and provided with up-to-date amenities. Wedding parties often book the Minstrels’ Gallery, a striking room that boasts 17th-centery Flemish choir stalls, colorful stained glass windows, and gorgeous chandeliers. The Manor is also a “Calendar House,” one of its many oddities. It has 365 stained glass windows, 52 chimneys, and various references to days of the week and months
In the award-winning Oak Room restaurant Chef Mark Donohue oversees a team serving classic cuisine with a contemporary touch. Doesn’t duck breast with foie gras, chicory tart and fig jam sound interesting? Or roast guinea fowl with purple potatoes? It wouldn’t be an Irish restaurant without lamb on the menu, and this is not the usual lamb shank; Oak Room’s version is tender, garlic-crusted lamb rack with bacon and onions. A step away, the Colonnade is as romantic a spot for a candlelight dinner as you’ll ever find. And the Drawing Room, Bar and Library rooms have their own charms.
The River Maigue runs behind the hotel, separating it from the championship golf course. About 50% of Adare Manor’s guests are American, and many come for the great golfing. Visitors can also fish in the river and have their catch cooked for dinner, or try target shooting, archery, and falconry.
Some (namely me) just go for strolls in the formal garden, awash in summer with roses and lavender, and admire the immense Cedar of Lebanon tree, the oldest of its kind in the British Isles. A modern addition to the hotel is the spa, which has an indoor swimming pool and treatment rooms. Have a swim, get a massage or body wrap, and repair to the tea room for a cup of Adare Manor’s finest, and you’ll feel like royalty.
The Shelborne Hotel
The city of Dublin is an inevitable stop on a trip through Ireland, and here, facing St. Stephen’s, the largest garden square in Europe, is the grand old Shelbourne Hotel. Steeped in history, the Shelbourne maintains a fine balance of tradition and modernity. It began in 1824 and over the years housed dozens of visiting dignitaries and celebrities, from Charlie Chaplin to Robert Redford, from Greta Garbo to Julia Roberts. Bill Clinton and JFK were guests, as were Prince Rainier of Monaco and Princess Grace. The green Givenchy dress she wore when she visited in 1961 is on display in a glass case, along with memorabilia. In the museum room you can see guest registers, menus, and photos from former years.
Recently refurbished (the brick and stucco exterior was still under wraps during my visit, though the hotel was as busy as ever), the Shelbourne has chosen the theme of “Elegance and Grace,” emphasizing Grace Kelly Rainier’s style. It’s a fitting theme. Gorgeous floral displays, made in-house, are placed throughout the hotel, the furnishings are comfortable and stylish, and I found the service impeccable. There are 265 rooms, with rates ranging from 190 euros to $2,300 for the spacious Princess Grace Suite.
The Saddle Room Restaurant offers steak and seafood in rooms with tufted leather banquettes, just beyond the Oyster Bar. In September, 2015, the Shelbourne held its first annual month-long Oyster Fest, with tastings, live jazz performances, and meals featuring oysters.
The Horseshoe Bar, dark and clubby, is part of Dublin’s social scene, while in the Lord Mayor’s Room, afternoon tea reaches a level you probably won’t find back home. To begin with, there’s a Tea Butler. The Shelbourne has four butler services: Traditional Butler (general guest assistance), Style Butler (for help with shopping and fashion), Genealogy Butler (for those in search of their Irish roots), and Tea Butler Niall Gilligan. Niall is a Silver Tea Master, having received extensive training, and he makes sure the Shelbourne’s gourmet teas are always top-quality. There’s even a Children’s Afternoon Tea to introduce kids to the finer points of good manners—no casual attire here. Delicate sandwiches, scones, and exquisite pastries are on the tea menu and most of the week a classical pianist plays. A treat it is, and it all comes at a price—from 19.95 euros for children to 53.95 euros for Classic Afternoon Tea with Champagne.
Slainte! (Irish for Cheers!, pronounced Slon-cha)
Written by and photos by Marilyn McFarlane for EuropeUpClose.com