Times may be tough - but there are bargains to be had, even at the luxury end of the market. Here are my tips for top hotel breaks in Ireland that won't break the bank
Ireland has a wealth of beautiful and dramatic scenery, vibrant cities, unspoilt beaches, and some of the oldest and most wonderful heritage sites in Europe. As winter approaches, what better way to spend a weekend away than with a stroll through stunning scenery followed by a heart-warming meal and a well deserved drink by a roaring crackling fire.
However, there is the perception that Ireland is becoming an expensive holiday destination. Not true! High-end hotels are reducing their prices, fine-dining restaurants have cut prices – you just need to know where to look. Here are my favourite hotel experiences in my home country, all of which currently have special offers, so you can enjoy a bit of luxury this winter without breaking the bank...
King of the castles
If you'd like to experience living as lord (or lady) of the manor for a day, look no further than the prestigious Castle Leslie (Glaslough, Co. Monaghan Ph: +353-47-88100, www.castleleslie.com) Ideal for a relaxing or romantic weekend. While away the hours by the inviting log fire. Spacious suites in the main castle are individually decorated, and retain the names of their previous inhabitants. My favourites are Shane’s Room and the Eagle’s Nest. It is even rumoured that the castle is regularly haunted...
The aptly-named Victorian Spa uses only organic products, with a comprehensive list of treatments that offers everything from a good old-fashioned steam in a steam box to indulgent wraps. My personal favourite was the Straight from the Horse’s Mouth Facial! There are also plenty of other activities on site or in the locality; they even have a cookery school and an equestrian centre in the grounds of the castle.
Rooms start at about €160 for lodge rooms, and €215 for a castle room which is a bargain.
Glaslough, Co Monaghan (90 minutes from Dublin airport).
Emphasis is very much on the outdoors, with equestrian centres, good walking trails, and clay pigeon shooting nearby. Monaghan is also a good base for taking in the stunning lakelands of Fermanagh, Cavan and Down.
Avenue at the Four Seasons Hotel, Monaghan (Coolshanagh, Monaghan Ph: +353 47 81888, www.4seasonshotel.ie) is a relaxed, inviting restaurant offering Irish and European cuisine, and specialising in steak, lamb and seafood. Mains average €20-€25.
Golf and spa
Good for a family break, a romantic getaway for two or a golfing weekend, the Hodson Bay Hotel(Athlone, Co. Westmeath, Ph: + 353 90 6442000, www.hodsonbayhotel.com) is located about three miles outside Athlone, beside the Golf Club. The spa is the real draw, and a must, particularly for couples with a signature treatment for two in a specially designed room, finishing off with a glass of bubbly in the hot tub overlooking the lake. The hydro-spa area, with heated mosaic loungers, will have you relaxed in no time, and don't miss out on the unique relaxation suite with individual iPods and unobstructed views of the lake.
I was particularly impressed with the new wing, which is adults only and offers modern, chic rooms (with huge double showers) conveniently located beside the spa. Most of these rooms are designed to make the most of the spectacular lake views. Family rooms are located in the original hotel building. Family rooms start at €200 per night, and retreat rooms at €250 per night, but special offers are available.
Athlone, Co Westmeath (90 minutes from Dublin airport).
Athlone is a vibrant, friendly town located in the centre of Ireland. There is an abundance of tourist attractions and historical sites to visit, including Athlone Castle. The River Shannon flows through Athlone and is best seen from one of the boat-trips.
In my experience, it was hard to beat the hotel restaurant, L'Escale. Renowned for its tantalising cuisine, it serves unique rustic style dishes, using only the freshest food, with fish and lobster a speciality. Dinner was included in our deal, but would be about €40 per person. Fairly decent wine list.
Shop and flop
Located just outside Naas, in County Kildare, Killashee House Hotel(Killashee, Naas, Co. Kildare Ph: +353 45 879277, www.kilasheehousehotel.com) feels more like a large country house, run by a large welcoming family. Beautifully decorated in a classic style, the hotel is warm, welcoming and impressive, and welcomes families and couples alike. Not to be missed is the champagne afternoon tea, which only costs around €15 per person - it's delightfully sophisticated, and you can linger for ages over a glass of bubbly, finger sandwiches, pastries and cakes while taking in the view of the countryside.
Located nearly is the Kildare Outlet (Nurney Rd, Kildare, Co. Kildare, Ph: +353 45 520 501, www.kildarevillage.com) for designer shopping at a discount, with brands like Ralph Lauren, Coast, Thomas Pink and several other outlets offering high-street value on labelled items. Unwind after all that shopping in the luxurious Moroccan and Roman-themed Villa Spa. Float away in the thalassotherapy pool, chill in the tranquil relaxation room or indulge in one of the countless beauty treatments to calm mind and body.
Rooms vary from classic to deluxe. My particular favourites are the four-poster bedded rooms, all individually styled and located in a very quiet location. Prices range from about €145. Trust me you won't want to leave !
Naas, Co Kildare (60 minutes from Dublin airport).
Kildare, just south of Dublin, is home to Irish racing, and boasts three major racing venues: Punchestown, Naas, and the Curragh. The National Stud is open to visitors all year round; if you have an interest in all things equestrian, or just want to admire these beautiful creatures from a distance, a visit is a must.
A city classic
The Shelbourne Hotel (27 St Stephen's Green, Dublin, Ph: +353 1 6634500, www.theshelbourne.ie) a Dublin institution, has undergone a major refurbishment yet managed to retain all of its charm and sophistication, so it still draws the best of the Dublin social scene for afternoon tea or a late pint in the Horseshoe Bar. Frequented by state leaders in the early 20th century, these days you are more likely to rub shoulders with Brad Pitt or Bill Clinton. It's just a stone's throw away from Dublin’s premier shopping institution Brown Thomas, which boasts labels such as Chanel, Christian Dior, Gucci and more. Within walking distance there are many great bars to sample a pint in, or have a glass of wine after all that shopping. Some of my favourites include The Bailey, Café En Seine, and Doheny and Nesbitts.
Rooms vary in size and cater for all budgets - from a standard queen room to the opulent Princess Grace Suite. From about €160 per person.
St Stephen’s Green, Dublin (20 minutes from Dublin airport).
There is plenty to do and see in Dublin; here are some of the must-dos...
The Guinness Storehouse: (St James's Gate, Dublin, Ph: +353 1 4084800, www.guinness-storehouse.com) in the heart of the Guinness factory complex, this excellent visitor centre tells the dramatic 250-year history of Guinness. A complimentary drink in the highest bar in Ireland, the Gravity bar, is part of your visit here, and for some the highlight of the tour! Admission: about €14.
Trinity College:(www.tcd.ie) once the educator of the elite, Trinity College is now open to all. Don't miss the Old Library and the historic Book of Kells.
Maia: (158 Shelbourne Rd Dublin, Ph: +353 1 6670020) when I come to Dublin, I always eat at this little-known, up-and-coming restaurant in Ballsbridge. It has an excellent menu, reasonable prices, good quality food and a fine selection of wines. Mains cost about €17-€25.
Shanahans on the Green: (119 St. Stephen's Green, Dublin , Ph: +353 1 4070939, www.shanahans.ie) an American-style grill that's a must for steak-lovers. The creamed spinach and Oreo cheesecake is to die for!
Calm in the country
Sitting on Maryborough hill in Douglas village, just minutes from Cork city, Maryborough Hotel (Maryborough Hill, Douglas, Cork Ph: +353 21 436 5555, www.marborough.com) is truly an escape from it all. The is one of the finest luxury hotels in Cork, combining the luxury, charm and elegance of a country manor house with the high level of service and quality of a four-star hotel. The luxurious spa is truly an oasis – tranquil, relaxing and the ideal place to spend a bit of time if you want to get away from it all. A must is a visit to the vitality pool, rock sauna, and relaxation room.
Accommodation ranges from standard rooms to spacious spa suites, with opulent décor and a huge double Jacuzzi bath. Rooms start at just €65 per person.
Douglas, Co Cork (20 minutes from Cork airport).
Not to be missed is kissing the Blarney Stone (www.blarneycastle.ie) which is said to give you the 'gift of the gab'. Fota Animal Wildlife Park (www.fotawildlife.ie) is a zoo with a twist; and it's worth heading to Cobh to trace the infamous history of the Titanic.
Bodega:(46 Corn Market St., Cork, Ph: +353 21 4272878, www.bodega.ie) is an old converted warehouse building, great for a cosy casual dinner for two or with a large group of friends. Food is simple fare, well prepared and presented, and very tasty. Set dinner from about €20.
Orchids: (Perrott Ave., College Rd., Cork, Ph: +353 21 4845900, www.HayfieldManor.ie) is an elegant fine dining restaurant which overlooks a walled garden. Menus are based on local produce, and continue the tradition of fairly classical cuisine with an occasional contemporary twist for which this restaurant is well known. A meal here is always enhanced by professional and caring service. Set meals about €45-€55.