Island-lovers looking to indulge in the Irish castle-turned-hotel fantasy have only one—remarkable—choice. Waterford Castle is situated on its own island: a spit of land in the River Suir, about 2 miles downstream from the crystal-famous southern Irish city of Waterford. Simply called The Island, its 300-acre spread is the castle hotel’s private dominion.
Amenities include bridal and bicycle paths, and an 18- hole golf course designed by Irish pro Des Smyth, encouraging guests to leave mainland reality behind if only for a few days of other-worldly relaxation. And with just nineteen seigniorial rooms and suites, guests share their lordly domain with only a handful of other castaways.
Built on Norman foundations that date back some 800 years, the 18th-century castle comes complete with authentic turrets, gargoyles, and battlements. Pass through massive studded oak doors to the grand hallway where an enormous coat-of-arms has been woven into a circular carpet. Baronial sitting rooms and antique-filled suites with soothing views over the grounds and water make guests feel very far indeed from the madding crowd.
What is the fairest castle hotel of them all? “Hotel” is something of an understatement when applied to Ashford Castle, an imposing flight of fancy reflected in the waters of Lough Corrib, a 68-square-mile lake that is Ireland’s second largest and its best for brown trout fishing. Think turrets, drawbridge, and battlements, then imagine this austere time capsule brimming with gracious service and appointed with canopied four-poster beds, cavernous armor-lined corridors, and crackling fireplaces in richly paneled drawing rooms.
This is Ashford Castle’s timeless magic. Dating from the 13th century, and serving as the private residence of the Guinness brewing family for nearly 100 years, world-famous Ashford Castle sits confidently on the short list of Ireland’s dream hostelries. Traditional dining takes place in the elegant George V Room and the Connaught Room, both replete with vast windows, Waterford crystal engraved with Ashford’s crest, and custom-made Wedgwood settings. Guests choosing to leave such plush trappings can stroll through some of the 350 wooded acres to reach Cong, a town that offers a cozy, intimate foil to Ashford’s polished, grandiose image.
The 1952 silver-screen classic The Quiet Man, directed by John Ford, was filmed in this sleepy hamlet and in the surrounding emerald countryside. Old-timers still talk about John Wayne (who plays an American boxer returning to his roots) and Maureen O’Hara (the local beauty he wroos and weds), both guests of Ashford for ten weeks while filming, as if they left but yesterday.
Westport, a half hour’s drive away and often cited as everyone’s favorite Irish town, is one of’ countless tempting excursions. It may someday grow up to be a proper city, but for centuries it has stayed small, picturesque, and friendly.
Adare Manor is an astonishing Gothic pile—with fifty-two chimneys, 365 leaded-glass windows, and turrets everywhere, it looks every bit the location for The Hound of the Baskervilles. Former home and seat of the Earls of Dunraven, it is a self-contained 840-acre baronial haven for guests who relish being cossetted like descendants of royalty.
Ushered into the present when it opened in 1988 as one of the country’s most impressive castle hotels, it fulfills storybook standards with colossal halls, ornate fireplaces (seventy-five of them), enormous oil paintings of family ancestors, Waterford-crystal chandeliers, and grounds embellished with groomed box hedges and formal French parterre gardens. With a riverside location for vacationing anglers and an 18-hole golf course (including three lakes) designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. in 1995, it is an outdoorsman’s dream. Then there’s the dining: stylish and sophisticated evenings in the oak-paneled dining room call for jacket and tie and gourmand palates.
Local produce, including many vegetables and herbs direct from the estate’s gardens, create a culinary experience to match the setting. In the morning you can enjoy the ten-minute stroll from the wrought-iron front gates of the manse to the charming medieval town just beyond. Often called Ireland’s prettiest village—certainly one of its most photographed—Adare’s main street is lined with thatched-roof and Tudor-style houses, good restaurants and pubs, and a smattering of gift and craft shops.
South of Dublin, counties Kildare and Kilkenny are home to many of Ireland’s 300 stud farms, offering a poetic landscape of endless rolling green pastures. Think County Kildare and think thoroughbred, in particular the Irish Stud Farm and the internationally famous Curragh Race Track (home of the Irish Derby the last week in June and often referred to as the Churchill Downs of Ireland).
Some of the country’s most famous horses have been born and raised on the impeccable grounds of the government-owned Irish Stud Farm, the standard for all other stud farms in the country, if not the world. Only in Ireland will you find such a passion for horses, a bond that can be traced back to ancient Celtic myths. On the farm’s almost 1,000 acres are the delightfully surprising Japanese Gardens, laid out in 1910. Ireland’s finest and arguably the most beautiful in Europe as well, they follow the soul’s journey from oblivion to eternity. The same feeling of well-being can be found in the Kildare Hotel and Country Club, the “K Club.”
A 19th-century manor house is the hub of this 330-acre deluxe sporting resort that looks every bit as gorgeous as the Irish Stud Farm, with miles of bridal trails for its own stable of beauties. But golf is the magic word here, as the K Club’s 18-hole course is the only Arnold Palmer-designed golf course in Ireland and is consistently rated as one of the country’s top twenty courses. The club is close enough to Dublin to lure day-trippers, but why not unwind in God’s country for a few days and take up the club’s private beats rich in salmon and trout?
Another luxurious horse-country and golf retreat is Mount Juliet; once the largest private estate in the country, its handsome, ivy-walled stone manor house was built by the Earl of Garrick more than 200 years ago. Its 1,500 acres include unspoiled woodland, pasture, formal gardens, and—the landmark for which it is acclaimed—a manicured 18-hole championship golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus.
Dubbed the “Augusta of Europe,” its world-class par-72 course has hosted the Irish Open three times. Indoors, cozy, handsomely appointed bedrooms with fireplaces and large windows overlook the rolling grounds that lead to the hotel’s Ballyinch Stud Farm, where thoroughbreds graze idly in lush meadows. Riding stables provide mounts for forays on trails without end, private beats on the River Nore allow 4 miles of trout and salmon fishing, and spa facilities for the massage-inclined mean guests can indulge in everything or nothing at this premier sporting estate.
Perfectly situated as a base for the numerous drives, sites, and natural attractions this corner of County Kerry offers in spades, Killarney is as attractive for its village character as for the incredibly scenic hinterlands that await beyond. Head on the road south for a visit to “the jewel of Killarney,” Muckross House and its elegant lakeside gardens that burst with rhododendrons and azaleas in early summer.
An ivy-covered Victorian mansion, built as a private home in 1843, it is now a handsome museum of County Kerry folklore and history and serves as the entry point to the car-free 25,000-acre Killarney National Park, the county’s centerpiece. Lakes, rivers, waterfalls, heather-covered valleys, woodlands, and the large variety of wildlife they support promise wonderful cycling, nature walks, and rides in two-wheel horse-drawn “jaunting cars,” all of which can be arranged in Killarney. Large enough to let you escape sight of the other Homo sapiens who inundate the area in summer, the park possesses the grandeur of true wilderness, just minutes south of civilization.
Here is found one of Ireland’s most photographed panoramas, the Ladies’ View (the ladies being Queen Victoria and her ladies-in-waiting) of Macgillycuddy’s Reeks and across the lakes toward Killamey’s other natural gem, the Gap of Dunloe, 9 miles west of town. Horseback tours can be arranged to explore the rugged glacial pass of craggy cliffs and the rock-strewn gorge. The Gap’s unofficial gateway is Kate Kearney’s Cottage, a well- known former coach inn full of character and, on occasion, traditional Irish music.
For such a small, unassuming town, lovely Kenmare offers a very high standard of accommodations and eateries. One resort hotel that helped establish Kenmare’s reputation is the graciously staffed Sheen Falls Lodge, cocooned within semitropical gardens and woodland walks beneath giant pine trees.
Its breathtaking setting, at the head of Kenmare Bay, between the River Sheen and its cascading waterfalls, can be enjoyed from most of the spacious, beautifully appointed rooms— yet guests still spend most of their time out in nature’s midst. The Gulf Stream warms the bay, accounting for the temperate climate and the profusion of ferns, palm trees, camellias, and fuchsia—is this Ireland? It’s the kind of weather that encourages guests to take up the myriad amenities offered by the lodge, including a 15-mile stretch of private salmon fishing on the River Sheen.
For those who venture beyond the lodge’s 300 acres there are six championship golf courses within a 50-mile radius (including Waterville, regularly listed as one of Ireland’s top five), or the lazy appeal of a motoring meander along the famously beautiful Beara Peninsula and Macgillycuddy’s Reeks.
But the day’s climax is back at the lodge, seated at its wide-windowed La Cascade Restaurant overlooking the floodlit falls. The well-known chef Chris Farrell oversees the all-Irish cuisine that has been repeatedly recognized for its use of ingredients from the immediate area. The end result is always exceptional, much like everything else at the Sheen Falls Lodge.
If Ireland is one big scenic drive, then the famed Ring of Kerry is the portion most sought out for its singular beauty. Though a secret no longer, there are plenty of views to go around. Beginning and ending in Killamey, a breathtaking succession of gray-blue land- and seascapes unfolds along what is less glamourously known as N70 and N71, a 110-mile coastal- hugging road that follows the dips and bumps of the Iveragh Peninsula, providing some of Ireland’s most extravagant scenery. Make one little detour, and you are in unchartered terrain with nary a tour bus to be seen—only traffic jams of the four-legged kind. Offshore the craggy outlines of the mystic Skellig Islands are visible. The steep barren slopes of Skellig Michael are the site of monastic cells dating back to the 7th century; cruises will bring visitors in close, but landings are not permitted.
Avoid the high-season tour bus congestion of Killamey and use tiny, picturesque Kenmare as your base. This 19th-century market town is made all the more delightful by the presence of Packie’s, a cozy bistro-style place whose menu is known far and wide for both the simple (Irish stew, rack of lamb) and the imaginative (gratin of crab and prawns or the daily blackboard special).
Later you can check into the Park Hotel Kenmare, one of Ireland’s most exquisite country-house hotels. Built in 1897, the stem, gray stone house has become known for many things: its splendid eclectic collection of antiques, original paintings, and tapestries; a smiling no-task-is-too-small staff that perfects the irresistible combination of impeccable efficiency with Irish friendliness; a warm, welcoming atmosphere; a renowned restaurant serving Irish-Continental cuisine; and an adjoining 18-hole golf course with breathtaking views. The aforementioned gorgeous scenery has long made this corner of southwest Ireland one of the country’s most alluring.
The westernmost point in Europe juts out fiercely and dramatically into the Atlantic; “next parish, America” as the saying goes. The lilt of Irish Gaelic is still heard here, and Celtic monuments to ancient Christianity still litter the rugged and spectacularly scenic coastline. The windswept Dingle Peninsula is 30 miles long and from 5 to 12 miles across, providing hikers, cyclists, and motorists with a vast and visually complex expanse of water and shore. From here you can see the seven Blasket Islands—evacuated in 1953 and uninhabited since, they once gave rise to a unique body of literature and today make for a mysterious, near-mystical destination when the sea is not too rough.
Dingle is the prettiest town in all of County Kerry, still reliving its moment when, in 1969, Robert Mitchum (and a sizable Hollywood contingent) arrived to film Ryans Daughter. In the cheerily painted town is a collection of pottery shops, alternative bookstores, and the country’s highest pub-per-person ratio, plus the family-run Doyle’s Seafood Bar, famous the world over for its straightforward cooking based on lobster and fresh fish served with minimal ceremony.
When Doyle’s opened thirty years ago, John Doyle would go down to the small port every day to cull from the local fishermen’s daily catch; now the fishermen come to Doyle’s. New owners have changed little. Doyle’s signature mille-feuille of warm oysters with Guinness sauce is still the draw, as is the selection of deliberately understated seafood that relies upon quality and freshness for its success. This homey bar/restaurant with flagstone floors and eight simple guest rooms in the town house next door has helped attract attention to Dingle as a culinary outpost—the other reason to visit this remarkable corner of Ireland, last stop before Brooklyn.
From Dublin to Donegal, Ireland is blessed with more than 250 golf courses, a kind of North Carolina of the European golf scene. Possibly the most scenic and charming golf destination on earth (and host of the 2006 Ryder Cup Championship), Ireland allows idyllic castle hotels to serve as a base for a number of courses within an hour’s radius, and a drive through countryside that can be as enjoyable as the time spent on the fabled links.
If you want to start at the top of the greenest of the greens in the south, the celebrated Ballybunion Golf Club is most golfers’ vacation of choice. Stretched along the blustery gray coastline of County Kerry and facing the Atlantic, the Old Course opened in 1893 on superb terrain. Its closing stretch is still considered among the most difficult anywhere in the world, a “true test of golf,” to quote Tom Watson, five-time British Open champion.
Many flock to the challenging Portmarnock Golf Club, 6 miles north of Dublin, long considered Ireland’s premier golf club, but the tried-and-true links of the Southwest remain the busiest and most visited destinations for golfers coming for the first time to Ireland. In addition to Ballybunion’s Old Course, there are the scenic Waterville Links, the picturesque Killamey, outstanding Tralee, and the famed Lahinch—the St. Andrew’s of Ireland.
There are return guests who swear that the Delphi Lodge is the best salmon and sea trout fishery in the West—it certainly is its most gorgeously situated. Standing alone by a lake amid glorious mountain country, its isolated setting in the middle of an unspoiled valley backed by green velveteen hills is like few others in Ireland or Europe.
Built as the sporting playground of the Marquis of Sligo in the 19th century, Delphi is today owned by congenial Peter Mantle, himself a keen fly- fisherman. The ambience is that of a relaxed country estate, where dinners take place at a large table generally overseen by Peter, who has a knack for making the guest mix seem always perfect, as if at a country house party.
Although an angler’s heaven, Delphi is not for seasoned fishermen alone—complete novices can take advantage of weekend courses that run five or six times a year, and many non-anglers come for the solitude and the chance to unwind, taking long walks or leisurely drives along the little-trammeled Connemara coastline.