5-Star Ireland: Luxury, Golf & Spas Await
By Margaret M. Johnson
It's been 25 years since my first visit to Ireland, a travel gift from my husband to celebrate a birthday that will remain numberless.
What was supposed to be a fanciful getaway for two (his idea) eventually turned into a family vacation for four (my idea), and off we went with our 8-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter in search of ancestors and all things Irish.
Our budget then hovered around Frommer's original "Ireland on $10 a Day," so accommodations were strictly bed and breakfast -- some nights all of us sharing one room -- with an "ensuite" bathroom available only at certain locations.
Thinking back, nearly everyone I knew who went to Ireland then stayed at B&B's, and lots of them were seasonal operations run by a family whose children gave up their bedrooms to paying guests and spent the summer in a tent or small caravan in the back yard. Bonus: my children had playmates!
Fifty visits later, I'm happy to report that B&B's are a thing of the past for hubby and me.
Like the Jefferson's, "we've moved on up" and recently had the pleasure -- make that distinct pleasure -- of visiting three five-star properties where the "ensuite" bathrooms are marble, the breakfasts are top-notch, the spas and golf courses world-class.
LOUGH ERNE, ENNISKILLEN
We arrived in Dublin and drove northwest to County Fermanagh, Ireland's "Lake District."
The most remarkable natural feature in County Fermanagh is the River Erne, which winds through the center of the county and expands into an extensive, island-studded lake split into two parts -- Upper and Lower Lough Erne -- by the town of Enniskillen.
This bustling regional center has a great range of interesting and architecturally significant buildings, but its small town feel retains a sense of traditional charm and character.
Since sightseeing wasn't the sole intention of our visit, we breezed through town past Enniskillen Castle, St. MacCartan's (Church of Ireland) Cathedral, neighboring St. Michael's (Roman Catholic) Church, and long, narrow Main Street, filled with shops and pubs, straight to Lough Erne Golf Resort.
The privately owned resort was built on a 600-acre peninsula between Castle Hume Lough and Lower Lough Erne with the specific intention of becoming a world-class golf resort.
When European Ryder Cup captain Nick Faldo first toured the course in 2002, he said, "This could potentially be a European Tour destination" and immediately compared it to Scotland's Loch Lomond. Construction of the 7,209-yard, par 72 course began in 2006, and its grand opening is set for July1. The older (1992) Castle Hume course is adjacent.
And what goes best with a championship golf destination? A country style castle, laidback bar with more than 70 Irish whiskeys, and a fantastic restaurant that relies on locally sourced ingredients like Fermanagh-reared beef, lamb from County Tyrone, and fish from the nearby lakes. Chef Noel McMeel is adamant about fostering relationships with nearby farmers and suppliers and says, "I always try to create inspiring and memorable cuisine that people enjoy eating."
The last amenity no resort can do without is a spa, and the one here is the only complete Thai spa experience in the U.K. or Ireland offering treatments by five native therapists using Erb, Thai products made with herbs, flowers, and roots. When you arrive at the spa, you're led to the Monea light relaxation room, offered water, juice, or a smoothie, and are encouraged to prepare yourself for the "spa journey." All treatments begin with a traditional Thai food massage, and services can include anything from a body or face massage to an herbal scrub or botanical wrap. Following the treatment, you return to the deep relaxation room for herbal tea and fruits.
The spa also has a fully equipped fitness center, indoor infinity pool, and three separate sauna/steam rooms, including Rasul, where steam and aromatic scents mingle. Treatments range from 45 to 95 pounds.
Next stop County Wicklow, "The Garden of Ireland," and the divine new Ritz-Carlton at Powerscourt Estate. The 1,000-acre property, with its main house built first in the 12th century by an Anglo-Norman family and redesigned in the 18th century in the then-popular Palladian style, now shares space with the thoroughly modern Ritz-Carlton hotel. The name alone suggests five-star elegance, indulgence, and opulence, and this newly opened (October 2007) property doesn't disappoint.
County Wicklow itself is one of Ireland's most popular areas for touring -- it's the site of the 6th-century monastic settlement of Glendalough; home to quaint villages like Enniskerry, Avoca, Greystones, and Roundwood; beautiful beaches at Brittas Bay and Wicklow Town; and endless natural environs, manicured gardens, and country estates that make hill-climbing, walking, biking, and golfing popular outdoor sports. The Sugar Loaf Mountain, set just behind Powerscourt, is a stunning addition to the landscape.
From a design standpoint, the seven-story, crescent-shaped hotel is an architectural gem. Floor-to-ceiling windows grace most of the rear-facing guest rooms, and massive pilaster-flanked windows extend over three levels of the lobby, lounge, and Gordon Ramsay restaurant. At check-in, we were given a brief tour of the resort and then settled in, ever so briefly, to our beautifully appointed room.
Hubby immediately headed to the 36-hole golf course complex at Powerscourt -- two championship courses offer a parkland layout with links characteristics -- while I was more inclined to indoor pursuits at the resort's 30,000-square foot, two-level ESPA spa. A destination in its own right, ESPA spas are well known for therapists who are tops in the industry and for products that are among the most luxurious and beneficial. Treatments, like the two-hour signature "Garden of Inspiration" body ritual or botanical facial ritual (my choice), are inspired by ancient Eastern philosophies combined with the latest rejuvenation techniques.
The ESPA spa here is one of the largest in Ireland, with 20 treatments rooms, requisite sauna, steam room, and fitness center, and must-see-to-believe 66-foot Swarovski crystal-lit pool. For refreshments and light dining before or after your treatment -- you can choose from more than 20 that range from stress-busting to energy-balancing -- a spa cafe menu offers salads, wraps, and smoothies. Treatments range from 65 to 245 pounds.
THE MERRION, DUBLIN
After stays at newly built country retreats, we headed 15 miles north to Dublin for a weekend in the Georgian capital.
We chose the elegant Merrion, not only for its close proximity to shopping, city center pubs, and "must see" places like Trinity College, Dublin Castle, and the National Gallery, but also for the chance to live like Lord Monck, the Earl of Mornington, or the Duke of Wellington, some of the original occupants of Nos. 21 through 24 Upper Merrion Street.
The main house of The Merrion, which opened as a hotel in October 1997, is made up of four 18th-century "listed" Georgian townhouses, and during conversion, builders were required to preserve the original features, such as doorways, window frames, floors, and plasterwork.
The front hall of No. 22 remains much as it would have been when it was built, and three interconnected drawing rooms with French windows -- perfect for drinks or formal afternoon tea -- replace a typical hotel lobby.
Michelin-starred Restaurant Patrick Guibaud occupies the townhouse at No. 21, and a newly built garden wing is arranged around two private period gardens at the rear of the property.
When it's time to jump back into the 21st century, guests can retreat to the hotel's Tethra Spa, named for a group of stories in early Irish literature where the chief motif is the "promised land," also known as the "land of the young" where there is neither sickness nor death, happiness lasts forever, and to wish for something is to possess it.
Irish legend aside, the Merrion's Tethra Spa, one of the first ESPA-branded spas in Ireland, is a terrific place to unwind, restore, and invigorate with treatments ranging from hot stone therapy to a seaweed soak. The focal point of the spa is its 60-foot Infinity pool set in French limestone. Treatments range from 50 to 125 pounds.
WHERE TO STAY AND DINE
Lough Erne Golf Resort, Belleek Road, Enniskillen, is the first hotel in the north of Ireland to be awarded AA five-star international status.
The year-old resort with 53 hotel rooms, four suites, and 25 two- and three-bedroom lakeside lodges will undoubtedly be "the" place to visit once the Nick Faldo championship golf course opens. Underpinning all dining at the resort is the innovative cooking style of chef Noel McMeel, who oversees the fine dining Catalina Restaurant, casual Blarney Bar with "grazing menu," Drawing Room for light fare, and Garden Hall, where his signature chocolate afternoon tea is served.
Dinner for two without wine at Catalina is 100 pounds; grazing menu for two 48 pounds; afternoon tea 12 pounds.
Double rooms, including full Irish breakfast, start at 205 pounds; lodges 380 pounds.
Phone 44-28-6632-3230 or visit www.loughernegolfresort.com.
The Ritz-Carlton Powerscourt, Enniskerry, blends a neo-classic Palladian exterior with a Georgian-inspired interior: the result, quintessential Ritz-Carlton style in the Irish countryside.
The seven-story resort has 200 guest rooms, including 124 suites that are among the largest in Ireland.
Rooms are beautifully appointed, service is impeccable, and as the Irish say, "you'll be spoiled for choice when it comes to dining."
Gordon Ramsay at Powerscourt offers signature dishes developed exclusively for the resort -- Wicklow venison, roast sea scallops, fillets of John Dory among them; the Sugar Loaf Lounge offers all-day dining and afternoon tea; and McGills serves traditional Irish dishes in a pub setting. Dinner for two without wine at Gordon Ramsay is 150 pounds; in McGills 60 pounds (with a pint); afternoon tea 36 pounds. Double rooms start at 365 pounds; phone 1-274-8888 or visit www.ritzcarlton.com.
The Merrion, Upper Merrion Street, Dublin, is located directly opposite the Dail, home of the Irish Government. The hotel's 123 bedrooms and 20 suites are decorated in the Georgian style, with period furnishings and fabrics complemented by high-tech amenities. The hotel houses one of Ireland's largest private collections of art and antiques, and turf fires warm the original drawing rooms where guests gather for cocktails or coffee.
Chef Ed Cooney, whose ethos is to promote and source local and artisan products in his cooking, is in charge of the Cellar Restaurant and Bar, so-called as it was the original cellar and wine vaults of the townhouses. He offers an eclectic Irish menu at lunch and dinner; lunch for two without wine 45 pounds; dinner 60 pounds; afternoon tea 35 pounds.
Double rooms start at 495 pounds; phone 1-603-0600 or visit www.merrionhotel.com.
BELLEEK, WORTH A DETOUR
Fifty visits to Ireland, many of them to northwest counties of Donegal and Sligo, and never a stop at Belleek, one of the country's top visitor attractions and home of the country's oldest pottery factory (founded in 1857)!
Only a half-hour's drive from Enniskillen, I decided a visit and tour of the Fermanagh factory was definitely worth a detour, so during my visit to Lough Erne I did just that.
Officially known as "parian china," Belleek is easily recognized for its pearl white glaze, shamrock embellishments, and basket weave design. Because each piece is handmade and decorated, the china is highly collectible.
The visitor center offers factory tours, an audiovisual presentation chronicling the history of the china, a museum, and showroom (www.belleek.ie).
For tourist information on Ireland, visit www.visitireland.com.
The currency in Northern Ireland is the United Kingdom pound; the currency in the Republic of Ireland is the Euro.
All phone numbers are for local calls; from the United States, dial 011+ 44+ local number for Northern Ireland; 011+353+local number for the Republic.
(c) 2009 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
About Margaret M. Johnson
Margaret M. Johnson has been writing about food and travel for more than 20 years.
She is also the author of many Irish cookbooks , including "Irish Puddings, Tarts, Crumbles, and Fools: 80 Glorious Desserts ," a desserts cookbook published by Chronicle Books, San Francisco.
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