By Judy Enright
Special to the BIR
Some people say that carefully choosing accommodation in Ireland isn’t all that important because, after all, you just sleep in those places.
For a lot of travelers, that seems to be all too true. They just slog from one place to another without experiencing the history or flavor of the places they have visited.
But, fortunately, there are a number of organizations in Ireland that have set out to change all that. There is Ireland’s Blue Book and Manor House Hotels, The Great Fishing Houses of Ireland, Green Book Hotels, and many more. Some of the recommended properties appear in more than one book, too.
There’s one accommodation group that I have experienced on more than one occasion and like a lot. It’s called Hidden Ireland and offers, as the literature says, “a road less traveled.” There isn’t one huge, faceless hotel in the lot.
The homes in this group are privately owned and are just that – homes where, as the brochure says, “your hosts are not employees… these houses are their homes where they still live with their families just as they have always done.”
This spring, we enjoyed a visit to magnificent Delphi Lodge, in Co. Galway near Killary Harbor, Ireland’s only fjord. We’ve enjoyed many activities around Killary Harbor over the years from an interesting visit to the Sheep and Wool Museum in Leenane to a cruise on the harbor itself.
And, driving through the Sheeffry Hills in that area is a breathtaking photographic adventure that shouldn’t be missed.
Mick Wade, of Delphi Lodge, explained that the house has 12 rooms, all of which are ensuite. “In particular,” he said, “Americans love this lodge. They love the Irish staff, the valley, the scenery, and they love the oldness of the house.” Delphi, he added, “really suits the single traveler. It’s comfortable here for those who are traveling alone, especially middle-aged travelers. American travelers don’t leave a lot to chance and I’ve noticed that the experience here means a lot to them.”
Hidden Ireland spokesman John O’Toole added that visitors love the oldness of Delphi, “but they also love the blend of the antiquity with all the modern conveniences. He said Hidden Ireland properties are not “commercial entities as such. They’re private houses where hospitality is offered. A majority are family-operated and in 90 percent of the homes, a member of the family does the cooking and it’s genuine country house cooking.” The houses are also large and guests are not shoulder-to-shoulder. “It’s more relaxed and more pleasant,” O’Toole said.
Evening dinner at the properties is an experience rather than just a meal, O’Toole said. “We recommend that visitors not use Hidden Ireland as just a B&B experience. The whole idea is to sample life in a house like Delphi and the others and dinner is central to the experience. Staying two nights is essential.”
Most of the houses in Hidden Ireland have only a few bedrooms and many offer a single-seating dinner with guests, often from many different countries, gathering around a large table and sharing their backgrounds and interests. It’s really great fun.
In addition to Delphi, I have visited the 14-room Quay House in Clifden, which is a wonderful place to stay and close enough to town so you can walk to a great dinner – especially at Mitchell’s Seafood, one of my longtime favorites – or to a night in the pubs.
I’ve also stayed at Ashley Park House in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, which was a real blast from the past. We were welcomed there by Sean Mounsey, who was so welcoming and entertaining and told us many stories about the antiques in the house and the history of the 76-acre property on a private lake.
The Mounseys bought the property at auction in 1983 and have since done extensive renovations.
O’Toole said Hidden Ireland members actually own the organization and that the general body meets twice a year, while an executive committee, selected from the membership, meets monthly. Membership in Hidden Ireland is not automatic, however, he said. In order to become a member, “the house, the person, and the setting have to be right.”
Hidden Ireland also offers a separate booklet with listings of distinctive self-catering properties at hiddenhr.com.
The houses in Hidden Ireland are located all over the Irish map from Northern Ireland (Drenagh in Limavady, Co. Derry) to the south in Co. Cork (Ballyvolane in Fermoy). Visit hiddenireland.com for more information and an entire listing of the properties.
THE BLUE BOOK
Another accommodation group is Ireland’s Blue Book of country houses, historic hotels, and restaurants.
We stayed at one of the Blue Book properties -- the Park Hotel in Kenmare -- several years ago and it was an exceptional experience. The rooms are elegant and the food sublime. The hotel operates a deluxe destination spa for those who want to unwind from travel. For more information, there’s a US telephone number (800-323-5463) or you can go to the Blue Book website (irelandsbluebook.com) and find more details.
We’ve also stayed at Aherne’s in Youghal, Co. Cork; Bushmills Inn in Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland; Cashel House Hotel in Co. Galway; The Merrion Hotel in Dublin; Echo Lodge in Ballingarry, Co. Limerick, and have eaten at Ballymaloe House in Shanagarry, Midleton, Co. Cork; The Wineport Lodge, in Athlone, Co. Westmeath; and at The Ice House in Ballina, Co. Mayo. All are highly recommended.
We love to try different places and experience different lifestyles and, although many of these accommodations are expensive, they have all proved to be worth the price and were interesting experiences.
MANOR HOUSE HOTELS
My favorite hotel – Lough Inagh Lodge Hotel in Recess, Connemara – is listed in Manor House Hotels and also in Ireland’s Great Fishing Houses.
Going back to Lough Inagh, as I do every spring, is like going home. Everyone there is wonderfully welcoming, the food is great, the rooms are large and well-maintained, and you couldn’t ask for a more beautiful bit of scenery than the Inagh Valley and Connemara in general.
We’ve also stayed at Manor House’s Sandhouse Hotel, which is located on the most incredible stretch of beach in Co. Donegal.
In addition to all the hotels and manor houses we’ve mentioned, you can also find many other wonderful accommodations all over Ireland.
John and Sally McKenna list their 100 favorites every year in the Bridgestone Guide, which they publish at Estragon Press in Durrus, Co. Cork. They also publish the Bridgestone Irish Food Guide.
It’s always interesting to compare their impressions and those of their editors to my experiences; sometimes they gel but other times they don’t. There’s a Clifden B&B they simply rave about where I stayed some years ago and would never return or recommend. The woman who owns it was incredibly rude and the room was on the top level and brutally hot. It was a most unpleasant stay.
In addition to hotels and manor houses in Ireland, there are also great B&Bs all over the country that are fun to stay at too.
FREE FIRST WEDNESDAYS
Here’s great news for travelers. Most heritage sites managed by the Office of Public Works (OPW) will be free on the first Wednesday of every month for the rest of 2011.
The Irish Times reported recently that this is designed to encourage more national and international visitors to sites such as the Rock of Cashel, Clonmacnoise, and the State Apartments in Dublin Castle.
All sites managed by the agency will be free on first Wednesdays with the exception of Muckross House and Gardens and Muckross Traditional Farms in Killarney and Glenveagh Castle in Co. Donegal.
The OPW is responsible for the maintenance and management of more than 750 national monuments across the country. The scheme will only last until the end of the year and applies only to sites managed by the OPW. More information can be obtained at heritageireland.ie
Enjoy your trip to Ireland whenever and wherever you go and don’t forget to check the internet for the latest travel specials.
When you’re in Ireland, be sure to stop by the Failte Ireland tourist board offices (marked with a big green shamrock) for details about festivals and other activities, to secure accommodation, and to learn about the area where you’re traveling.