By Judy Enright
Special to the BIR
Nothing enhances an Irish experience like having a wonderful place to stay – and no one knows that better than the owners of assorted types of accommodation whether hotels or bed and breakfast homes.
Visitors and Irish travelers, too, are looking for comfort but also value, location, a warm welcome, and charm. Thankfully, there are still many places where you will find all of the above – and more.
There are many travel and accommodation specialists in Ireland who have been writing about the hospitality industry for many years. Supported by research from assistant editors, some experts write books and newspaper articles and others present awards to their chosen favorites. It’s generally viewed as a great honor to be chosen by the likes of John and Sally McKenna or Georgina Campbell.
The McKennas, who own Estragon Press in Durrus, Co. Cork, are among the best known authorities. Each year for many years, the McKennas published a book of their annual “100 Best” Irish places to stay, shop, and eat. The books were always on my “must buy” list when I was in Ireland because they were such fun to read. John is not short on opinions nor is he timid about sharing them, so it was always interesting to read his take on the various aspects of Irish tourism and accommodation. For those familiar with the McKennas, they were formerly published as Bridgestone Guides but are now McKenna’s Guides. They have an app for Apple and Android and are also on Facebook. I have not seen printed versions of their “100 Best” for the past few years, but that could mean my chosen bookstore just doesn’t have them.
The McKennas recently hopped on the Wild Atlantic Way bandwagon and published a book highlighting restaurants and accommodation along the route, promoted by the Tourist Board, that stretches along the West Coast from Donegal to Co. Cork. And Sally researched and wrote a highly acclaimed book, “Extreme Greens, Understanding Seaweeds” about the many uses of the ocean algae that are so common along Ireland’s many miles of shoreline. See guides.ie for more.
Another well-known authority on all things Irish is Georgina Campbell, author and presenter of Ireland’s longest-running and extremely prestigious hospitality awards. Award winners were chosen after anonymous inspectors visited and paid their own way.
Several of this year’s top places – Gregan’s Castle Hotel in Ballyvaughan, Co. Clare, and Lough Inagh Lodge Hotel in Recess, Co. Galway – are among my favorites, too. Both are privately owned and operated by the owners, who often greet you at the door and make you feel so welcome.
Campbell’s Ireland Guide named Lough Inagh as the “Pet Friendly Hotel of the Year” for 2016. And aren’t dogs such great conversation starters as well as a little reminder of home? Whether you own a dog or are just a dog lover, it’s hard to resist striking up a conversation with someone who’s sharing the holiday with a best friend or two.
Over more than a decade of staying at Lough Inagh, I have made friends and still stay in touch with a lovely lady named Orla from Dublin and her sweet, small dog named Polly, and with a couple, also from Dublin, and their handsome large dog, Zeus. And, of course, Lough Inagh’s owner Maire O’Connor’s pup, Sophie, is one of my favorites, too.
Campbell writes in her Lough Inagh award: “In Ireland we lag way behind our UK neighbors when it comes to pet friendliness; if you Google an area in Britain looking for somewhere to stay, chances are that pet friendly options will pop straight up. Water bowls are put out at doors and in bars wherever you go and dogs are genuinely welcome almost everywhere.
“Although it is far from the norm, many establishments here have quietly welcomed dogs for years, and our Pet Friendly Hotel of the Year [Lough Inagh] is one of them.”
Campbell adds, “It’s a pity that Ireland is not very well supplied with pet-friendly places to stay, as it’s a great place to travel with your dog - yet many pet owners decide to go somewhere else that’s more welcoming when deciding where to take a break. But there are some really lovely places that do welcome dogs and, while that includes a few pretty high-fallutin’ hotels offering doggy welcome packs and even pet pampering while you’re at the spa, plenty of dog owners really prefer the fuss-free places that [with a few necessary restrictions] treat your pet pretty much like one of the family.”
Further, says Campbell about Lough Inagh, “A small owner-managed Irish hotel is a wonderful thing - add a wild West of Ireland setting and pet-friendliness to the mix and it becomes irresistible to a surprising number of people. And Maire O’Connor’s lovely, understated country house hotel, Lough Inagh Lodge, is that kind of place. It’s beautifully located in deepest Connemara and many guests bring their dogs because it’s in a brilliant area for walking and other country pursuits.
“But even if you do none of that, it’s just so relaxing that pets are welcome in some areas of the hotel [in the cozy bar, for example] and to come in at night, ” Campbell writes. “Well-behaved owners are equally welcome, it should be said.”
Gregan’s Castle Hotel is beautifully located at the bottom of Corkscrew Hill in Co. Clare’s Burren region, but it’s a manor house rather than a castle like Ashford or Dromoland. Campbell has chosen Gregan’s as the top 2016 Hotel of the Year and has also given Gregan’s kudos for best hotel breakfast of the year.
Campbell’s award says: “As we have great independent hoteliers [such as Gregan’s owners Simon Haden and his wife, Frederieke McMurray], an important aspect of this country’s unique appeal will be in safe hands.” Campbell said the editors “don’t look for perfection and we certainly don’t expect to find it, but occasionally something comes pretty darn close … and, if the Guide’s recent experience is anything to go by, this second-generation family-run hotel is certainly one of them.
“Thoughtfully looking out onto its unique surrounding landscape [the Burren], the hotel offers a quiet haven of discreet opulence, warm hospitality, and caring service. The exceptional food has drawn many new guests in recent years, and their long-established policy of showcasing local produce has given well-earned support to producers as well as highlighting the area’s unique foods.
“Yet Gregan’s Castle deserves to be seen more in the round, as the beautiful rooms - all refurbished with understated elegance in recent years, with constant reference to the surrounding landscape - the cozy bar with its welcoming open fire, the original artwork, and the well-tended environmentally friendly grounds are just a few of the many other equally appealing aspects of this lovely hotel. It is a relaxing and inspiring place to stay, and merits the highest praise.”
We could not agree more with every compliment. Even though Gregan’s is expensive, it’s well worth a splurge because it’s a fun, relaxing, and elegant place to stay with exceptional food. Simon credits Frederieke for the interior design of the hallways and rooms, which are beautifully done with original art, classic fabrics, and antiques.
And Frederieke’s sense of humor shines through in the full size papier-mâché ram proudly standing near the windows in one living room and the wild, bright green wallpaper with silly running cows that decks the walls of the ladies’ room off the front hall. Both make you laugh.
We were happy to see Café Rua in Castlebar – an outstanding eatery where we’ve dined many times – win as “Just Ask” Restaurant of the Year for 2016. (“Just Ask!” is a public awareness campaign to encourage diners to look for information on where food - especially meat - comes from, and encourages chefs to provide the information on their menus.)
Rua stands out from the crowd for many reasons, Campbell wrote, “not least the leadership that two generations of the McMahon family have shown in seeking out and supporting the very best of foods from the region.
Other Campbell award winners for 2016 include: James Street South in Belfast, Restaurant of the Year; Dylan McGrath, of Taste at Rustic in Dublin, Chef of the Year; MacCarthy’s Bar, Castletownbere, Co. Cork, Pub of the Year; Teach Nan Phaidai on Inis Mór, Aran Islands, Cafe of the Year.
Some of the other awards include: Taste of the Waterways Award to Larkin’s, GarryKennedy, Co. Tipperary; Seafood Restaurant of the Year, La Cote in Wexford; Wine Award of the Year, Stanley’s in Dublin; Family Friendly Restaurant, Stonecutters Kitchen in Doolin, Co. Clare; Country House of the Year, Greenmount House, Dingle, Co. Kerry; B&B of the Year, Strandeen, Portstewart, Co. Derry, and named Hideaway of the Year, Bervie on Achill Island in Co. Mayo. See ireland-guide.com for more information.
It’s nearly the end of 2015 but there are still many great reasons to visit Ireland and there is still much to see and do there. For information on activities and more, visit Ireland.com, the tourist board’s website. And, watch for great deals on airfare and ground travel in this shoulder season.