By Judy Enright
Special to the BIR
What’s a holiday in Ireland without splurging now and again? Isn’t that how some of your best memories are made?
If you seek comfort, elegance, world-class service and hospitality, beautiful surroundings, and delicious meals, you simply can not do better than to check in at the four-star Gregan’s Castle Hotel, Ballyvaughan, Co. Clare, in the heart of the magnificent Burren.
Occasionally, a traveler will say accommodation is not all that important. “It’s just a place to spend the night,” they say. Well, that’s true enough for many places.
But Gregan’s is hardly “just a place to spend the night!” It’s a place to relax, savor every elegant touch, enjoy a drink or superb lunch in the comfortable Corkscrew Bar, make a reservation for afternoon tea (daily from 2:30 to 4:30), enjoy a sumptuous dinner in a dining room with floor-to-ceiling windows that frame views of beautifully-maintained gardens, two resident donkeys, and the rocky reaches of the Burren.
This is unparalleled graciousness and luxury but without the slightest trace of the pompous attitudes too often prevalent in some other high-end establishments. Owners Simon Haden and his wife, Frederieke McMurray (a Connemara lass), couldn’t be more welcoming or more gracious in making visitors feel at home. The older and younger Haden couples – Simon’s parents previously operated Gregan’s – have clearly worked very hard to create a glorious country house hotel and they have won many prestigious awards for their efforts.
The colors, fabrics, fascinating art and artifacts that grace the halls and rooms are thanks to the talented Frederieke who, according to Simon, has completely updated interiors since they took over the hotel from his parents 11 years ago. Each of the 21 bedrooms and suites has been individually decorated with extraordinary attention to detail. A few of those special rooms even open onto their own private gardens.
We stopped by Gregan’s this spring, enjoyed Chef David Hurley’s excellent fresh seafood luncheon entree (delicious and perfectly prepared) and toured the hotel with Simon, who pointed out its numerous attributes, including one we especially loved – the lack of television sets! A single one sat at the bottom of the West Wing stairs in an out-of-the-way alcove – no doubt for those suffering from withdrawal. There are no TVs in the bedrooms or elsewhere to ruin the ambience. Residents mingle, chat, walk the grounds, relish the peace and quiet, and appreciate their lovely surroundings – as they should.
Gregan’s is not a “castle” in the Ashford or Dromoland sense of the word, but more of a manor house. Simon explained that there really is a “Gregan’s Castle,” a 1500s tower house across the road that is only open to visitors in May and June.
There is much history associated with Gregan’s, which was built at the base of Corkscrew Hill in the 1750s as a country home by the O’Loughlins, who were known as “Princes of the Burren.” O’Loughlins married Martyns of Galway and the last family member, Frank Martyn, lived at Gregan’s until his death in 1957. He was a Justice of the Peace and also ran a large farm and orchard, growing enough apples to send to Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, for pressing into cider. (The popular Irish cider, Bulmer’s, is still made near Clonmel today.)
Frank also welcomed occasional visitors into his six or seven guest rooms. Over the years, according to Simon, Gregan’s guests included C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R Tolkien, who reportedly was inspired by the rocky Burren when writing “The Lord of the Rings.”
While we don’t totally believe every TripAdvisor posting on the internet, it is often interesting to read reviews of places to see how visitors, especially Americans, react to Irish experiences.
One visitor this past summer – from Vermont – wrote: “When I was at Gregan’s, the gardens were gorgeous and the view down to Galway Bay took my breath away. I love that they are environmentally conscious and that the food is mostly local and often organic. But best of all is what the chef does with that food. The only thing better than its exquisite presentation was the taste. Fabulous! The staff was extremely gracious and accommodating. I loved every minute.”
That review is really pretty typical of what reviewers say on TripAdvisor about Gregan’s and speaks well for the accomplishments of the Haden family and their staff. If you plan to visit Clare, do visit gregans.ie and learn more about this outstanding hotel. Non-residents are welcome for meals but be sure to call ahead for reservations.
There is much to do in Co. Clare. Aillwee Cave is nearby and it’s a fun day out to visit the cave, birds of prey center, shows, and a gift shop that features its own cheeses. Also nearby are the Cliffs of Moher, the Burren Centre in Kilfenora ,and the Burren Perfumery near Carran (sometimes spelled Carron.)
There is lots of good food around the area, too. We enjoyed lunch at Cassidy’s Pub (cassidyspub.com) in Carran as well as dinners in Doolin (Roadford House, McDermott’s Pub, O’Connors Pub, and Cullinan’s). L’Arco Italian Restaurant in Ballyvaughan is reputed to be excellent (we haven’t been yet) but we’ve enjoyed very good crepes there at the Soda Parlour and lunches at The Tea Junction and Monks Pub.
Every Sunday from May to October, there’s a fun Burren Crafts fair in the village hall from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free and the hall is filled with local, handmade products. Be sure to look for Janis James’s Celtic Caprine Creation’s goat milk soap. It’s a great gift to take home and small enough to fit into your suitcase.
There are many locations around the Burren where you can sign up for guided walking/information tours or catch a ferry to the Aran Islands from Doolin, the seaside town noted for its traditional Irish music.
Head south and you can take a 20-minute ferry ride from Killimer across the Shannon River to Tarbert, Co. Kerry (see shannonferries.com for more and get a 10 percent discount for buying tickets online), or take a two-hour boat ride from Carrigaholt (Loop Head Peninsula) with eco-certified tour operators to learn about the 160 Bottlenose Dolphins that live in the Shannon Estuary, a European Union “Special Area of Conservation” (see dolphinwatch.ie for more). Be sure to check with Dolphinwatch (call 065-905-8156) before you go as times change according to sea conditions.
Dolphin watching is also available from Kilrush Creek Marina aboard the MV Dolphin Discovery or visit Scattery Island and its round tower, ruins, and a lighthouse and gun battery dating from the Napoleonic era (discoverdolphins.ie).
These are just a few opportunities available to visitors and there are so, so many more. Be sure to check the Bord Failte (Tourism Ireland) office in the area to find out what’s going on during your trip or visit discoverireland.com online. Another great website for activities is culturefox.ie
Co. Clare is close to Shannon Airport, so it’s especially handy for those who are arriving or about to leave.
From Aug. 30-Sept. 1, Electric Picnic will celebrate its 10th year at Stradbally, Co. Laois, with performers such as Sensational Space Shifters, Ellie Goulding, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Little Green Cars, Miles Kane, and many more. See electricpicnic.ie for information.
Many events are held during the year at the Glasnevin Museum in the Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. Until Sept. 15, the Glasnevin Trust will have a series of re-enactments and orations of famous Irish patriots. There are also tours, a museum store, café, genealogical research options, and more. Check out glasnevicemetery.ie for information.
Guided Heritage Cycling Tours run from Lismore to Kilkenny. More information from cyclingholidays.ie. The next Three-Coast Bicycle Tour is scheduled for Sept. 15. Visit the website for information. Day tours around the country are available from Paddywagon Tours, Lower Gardiner St., Dublin (paddywagontours.com).
Cruises from Lough Gill, Co. Sligo, on the Rose of Innisfree boat run through October. Food and beverages are available and the boat is wheelchair accessible. See roseofinisfree.com for more. The company also offers bus tours of Yeats Country.
For kids, there are lots of fun things to do all over Ireland. How about a day at the Moher Hill Open Farm and Leisure Park in Liscannor, Co. Clare (moherfarm.com) or at Rathbeggan Lakes Heritage and Adventure Park (rathbegganlakes.com), Dunshaughlin, Co. Meath. The Tayto Park (taytopark.ie), in Kilbrew, Ashbourne, Co. Meath, sounds like fun, too.
Enjoy Ireland and all the activities there wherever and whenever you choose to visit.