It was his bottle green vestments that I first spotted billowing in the wind like sails. And then the big mitre hat and his crosier. By the time he was in front of me I realised it was Saint Patrick… not someone I expected to see during my trip to Ireland, particularly accompanied by a man in a leprechaun hat.
The nation’s patron saint (who looked suspiciously youthful despite his long white beard) was leading a big parade, which included an assortment of Mrs Brown lookalikes, the cast of Frozen, someone dressed as an emu, can-can girls, marching bands, farmers in tractors, children dancing and a young man holding a placard declaring, “Noel Kavanagh thinks I’m at work. Ha ha ha”. Everyone, young and old, trailed behind. There was even a send up of the hit film Fifty Shades of Grey. The float “Fifty tastes of tae” was decked out in a 50s-style kitchen with rows of washing and pots of tea. It was hilarious.
We were in Donegal Town to cheer on staff from the Lough Eske Castle Hotel, the county’s only five-star hotel and spa and five-time winner of the World’s Best Luxury Country Hotel Award. Some of the managers had dressed up as Disney-type characters and were on a brightly-decorated float with the words “Fairytales come true at Lough Eske Castle” emblazoned on the side. Daisy Duck, Minnie Mouse, and I think it was Bambi, waved over when they spotted us among the huge crowd. They were having a great laugh, or craic, as they say here. The hotel was among many local companies also taking part in the annual St Patrick’s Day parade – the team went as Mrs Brown’s Boys last year.
As the floats went by, an elderly man leaned over to me and said: “It’s the humour I love and seeing people having fun. It’s what it’s all about.” Amen to that. I’m sure the great saint would agree, too. Humour is an intrinsic part of life in this magical country.
The hotel was clearly not going to be your usual stuffy five-star establishment. We had arrived the day before to a scene straight out of TV’s Downton Abbey but with added Gaelic charm. The taxi driver must have radioed ahead because at the end of the long, winding driveway to the hotel, staff in Donegal tweed uniforms had lined up outside the entrance to greet us. “We do that for all our groups,” said Paul Shortall, director of sales and marketing, aka Daisy Duck in the parade. “We like to offer a warm welcome and a fond farewell.”
Such Irish hospitality was to become a key part of our two-night stay. The staff were very courteous and friendly. Thankfully, it hadn’t rained while they waited for us out in the cold. We were later given a free poncho to use in the event of inclement weather: it does rain a lot here, not that it particularly mattered. This was the rugged north-west of Ireland where the breathtaking mountains, craggy coastline, lakes, valleys and beautiful beaches are fringed by the wild Atlantic Ocean.
The 96-room hotel, which is about three-miles from Donegal Town, is set in 43-acres of woodland on the shore of the lough, or “lake”, which gave the castle its name. The estate dates back to the 15th century but the current Elizabethan-style castle, made of sandstone, was built in 1859. After a fire in 1939 it lay in ruins for decades: trees sprung up inside. However, in 2004 local builder, Pat Doherty, took a risk and spent €40 million (£28m) on rebuilding the site. The gamble paid off. The hotel, like the restoration, has been a success ever since it opened in 2007.
The interiors of the public rooms are in the style of an elegant Irish country mansion, with large stone hearths, cosy drawing rooms and plump Chesterfield-style sofas, while the bedrooms, spa and conference and banqueting facilities are more contemporary. My large bedroom was very comfortable and came with the usual amenities (flatscreen TV, free Wi-Fi). There was even under floor heating in the spacious bathroom, which was great on a chilly day.
Like Mr Doherty, whose portrait painted by Lucian Freud hangs near the Lobby Lounge, local links are an important part of the hotel. Many of the guests are from the surrounding area. For years residents saw the castle in ruins then watched as it rose from the ashes. “We feel it’s ours,” someone remarked. There are, of course, many other guests and even a few celebrities. Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker stayed last year.
A massive 80 per cent of the staff are also local and the rest, mainly from overseas, usually end up talking with the distinctive Donegal accent – very similar to my late grandmother’s, who was from this beautiful county. It was great to hear some of the expressions I haven’t heard for a long time.
The food is also locally sourced. It was lunchtime when we arrived and we were in need of some hearty food. We headed to the elegant Gallery Bar. The menu offered local dishes, like traditional Irish stew, as well as vegetarian and international cuisine. I chose oak smoked Donegal salmon served on house made Guinness bread, which was delicious. The chefs later showed us how they smoked the fish in a little wooden hut at the back of the hotel.
For dinner we tried the Cedars Grill and Restaurant. The menu was extensive, again offering local produce, organic selections and a collection of fine wines. The following morning, an excellent breakfast, both cooked and continental, was also served in the restaurant. Afternoon tea is available in the Gallery Bar.
Cedars overlooks a terrace with manicured lawns and woodland beyond. Guests can enjoy easy access to hiking, fishing, horseback riding, golf and strolls around the lake. We took a 10-minute walk along the drive to the shores of Lough Eske to see the sunset. It was stunning, peaceful and so quiet. In the distance were the Bluestack Mountains, while up close we were surrounded by the flora and fauna of the woods. Along the way to the lake we passed some of the extensive collection of sculptures in the grounds by Lloyd Le Blanc. I particularly liked the flying fish in the fountain at the entrance. There were also deer and a dinosaur and, inside the hotel, an exquisite sculpture of a child sitting.
It’s not surprising in this romantic setting there are lots of weddings at the hotel. Staff also cater for those wishing to propose to a sweetheart by lighting candles up to a cosy room in the castle’s tower. To relax their nerves many head for the spa first. There are eight treatment rooms, thermal suite, sauna, pool and fitness centre. Luckily it wasn’t raining or blowing a gale when I headed over there in my white robe and slippers. The spa is in a conservatory in the grounds. Trying to keep my slippers on as I walked over the cobbles was tricky. The massage, though, was brilliant, as was spending an hour or so afterwards resting in the relaxation room, sipping chamomile tea.
For something a little stronger, and to listen to traditional Irish music, we later went to the Oak Bar. It’s got an old wooden floor and deep leather chairs and large black and white images on the walls. Guests go there to play a game of billiards, get the sports results or just sit and sip a pint of Guinness or one of the many whiskies on offer. The only snag, there was no Irish music in the bar on Saint Patrick’s Day evening, which was a shame. The luck of the Irish wasn’t on our side, this time.
However, the parade earlier in Donegal Town more than made up for it. Before it started we had lunch at the Old Castle Bar (Irish Stew €11.50/£8.20). Lovely Celtic music played in the background before two men dressed as female Irish dancers came in and gave us their version of the hit show Riverdance. It was very amusing.
The small town, with its shops and pubs, is steeped in history. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to look at the 15th century castle near the river. We did, though, get a chance to see more of the region during our 75-mile drive north from Knock Airport in County Mayo to the hotel. About an hour from the airport we stopped at St Columba’s church in the village of Drumcliffe in County Sligo. On the ground, etched in stone, were the words: “I have spread my dreams under your feet/Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” They were from the beautiful poem He Wishes For The Cloths of Heaven by W.B. Yeats, whose grave was nearby. He was laid to rest here in 1948, age 73. The stunning backdrop to the tranquil setting was Benbulbin Mountain. It was a cold, misty morning but it was easy to see how the landscape had inspired the Irish poet, like so many other artists.
Our journey also took us along the windswept Wild Atlantic Way, which is Ireland’s spectacular 1,600-mile coastal route. We passed the imposing Classiebawn Castle, which overlooks the Mullaghmore peninsular. The castle can be seen for miles around and had been Lord Louis Mountbatten’s holiday home before he was killed by the IRA on a boat nearby in 1979. We stopped further along to admire the spectacular scenery and watched as the Atlantic Ocean crashed into the rocks in the bay below. I’m sure I saw a few seals dotted about in the surf.
There were many more hidden gems during our visit. From charming villages and natural wonders to Saint Patrick, there was a surprise at every turn, along with castles, fairytales and dreams… and a few laughs. What a magical way to spend three days.
Lough Eske Castle Hotel is offering three nights for the price of two with breakfast from E510 (£360) per couple. Go to m.solishotels.com/lougheskecastle
Ryanair flies from London Stansted Airport to Knock Airport. It takes 1hr 30 mins and costs from £14.99 one way. Go to www.ryanair.com
Radisson Blu Hotel is next to the terminal at London Stansted Airport, so is very convenient for an early morning flight. Despite the proximity to the airport, my room was very quiet. I was upgraded to business class. There are several restaurants, including the Angels Wine Tower Bar, where acrobats climb up and down a huge glass tower. There is also a health club, indoor pool and spa. Rooms from £97, incl VAT. Go to radissonblu.co.uk/hotel-stanstedairport
Stansted Express offers a fast daily train service – 47 minutes – from London Liverpool Street to London Stansted Airport. A standard adult single is £17 or £34.00 return. A child is £23.90 return or £11.95 single. Go to www.stanstedexpress.com
All in-feature photos copyright of Mary Barber (excluding top 3, lake and spa photos used with permission)