These days we want everything instantly. Information, food, service – if something is not ready to go, at our fingertips and switched on in seconds, it’s enough to set our blood pressures racing. Some of the best travel experiences work because they are an escape from this – an antidote to the way we live now. For those yearning to switch it all off for a while, then Ballynahinch Castle is a real find – the perfect retreat away from the pressures of the modern world.
In a remote spot in the west of Ireland, it takes some time to get there – in fact, it’s a two-hour drive from Shannon, the nearest airport. To some this may seem like an inconvenience, given that we are in Ireland and not some far flung corner of the world, but it turns out that this meandering journey past heavenly scenery along the Wild Atlantic Way (think rolling hills and dramatic coastline) is the perfect prelude to what will become your chance to de-connect from the rat race.
When you finally reach, your first impressions may be that Ballynahinch is a brooding, moody sort of place. You’d be right – it is. The 48-room mansion dates back to the 1750s, but it is largely the Victorian architecture that remains – gothic, dark and regal – made more so as it is positioned in the shadow of the majestic Twelve Bens Mountain Range. Inside it’s a different story. The heavy, emerald green door (complete with brass fox knocker) swings open and you are engulfed into a warm blast of cosiness.
From the roaring fires to the boot room, stocked with Dubarry wellies and raincoats, the wood-pannelled pub to the chic riverside bedrooms, this country house is all about offering an authentic welcome to its guests. The team of staff is led by Patrick O’Flaherty, who has been at the helm for over 17 years and whose enthusiasm, amusing anecdotes and ‘nothing is too much trouble’ policy sets the scene for your stay here. He will hug you goodbye.
While the newly renovated bedrooms (48 in total) will no doubt attract a young, well-heeled sort of traveller, the appeal of Ballynahinch is far greater than the crisp linens, soft carpets and dreamy beds. Guests check in and continue to return year after year – not because it is fashionable – but because of the genuine welcome you receive, the focus on locally-sourced, seasonal food and the simply stunning landscape the castle boasts all around.
Elevating a stay here further still, is the stellar choice of interesting activities on offer. The recent Lens and Larder Retreat, for instance, brought together food, photographer and adventure. The two-day masterclass in visual storytelling through photography and food styling was devised by food bloggers Cliodhna Prendergast of Breaking Eggs (www.breakingeggs.com) and Imen McDonnell of Modern Farmette (www.modernfarmette.ie) and utilised the estate’s indigenous ingredients, with the historical surrounds and the Connemara landscape as a focus.
And, yes, the wild, unspoilt beauty of the surrounding countryside is undoubtedly a highlight. Set in 450 acres of woodland, meandering rivers and boggy hills mean that this is a perfect spot for outdoor pursuits. Try your hand at fly-fishing with gillie Cyril Biggins. He’ll teach you how to cast off on one of the 72 piers along the famous Ballynahinch Salmon River, which runs through the grounds. If you are lucky, your salmon can then be smoked for you at a nearby fishery for you to enjoy at home. Or there’s clay pigeon shooting with the deeply charming Shane Bisgood, who runs the Connemara Shooting School on the estate. Trained by Holland & Holland in London, he was hired by the American shooting team for the Olympic games and is a true expert in the sport.
From the hearty homemade Irish stew or oysters and Guinness– served in the downstairs Fisherman’s Pub – to the outstanding wild salmon gravadlax and rich venison on the menu in the more formal Owenmore Restauarant, culinary buffs will also be in their element here. There’s a focus on keeping the foodie offering natural, seasonal and local and guests are encouraged to be part of the gastro action by joining one of the guided foraging tours, where you’ll be taught how to search for mushrooms, edible flowers and plants. The Sea & Islands Experience is also eminently satisfying, during which you take a boat out to sea and catch lobster and shellfish, which can be cooked for your supper.
Back at the manor house, you’ll be seduced by the character it oozes, with many clues to its chequered history dotted about. Corridors are lined with old black and white photos of Indian princesses (the Indian Maharaja, Ranji, was a past owner, having bought the estate in 1922 and images of his family are still dotted about) and the bar boasts pictures of literary luminaries and works of art by well-known artists who have stayed here (Margaret Atwood, Edna O’Brien and Seamus Heaney are all devotees of the place). The link with the arts here is a strong one – there’s a traditional Irish band that play each Saturday (in the great Irish tradition, joining in is actively encouraged) and, in fact, Des Lally who presides over the Fisherman’s Pub (with its fabulous wood panelled walls and tables of vintage fishing equipment) is also chairman of the renowned Clifden Arts Festival. He know anyone who is anyone when it comes to the Irish arts world, so if this is your thing catch him on a quiet night when he can regale you with stories of famous literary and artistic greats who have stayed here.
While you can mooch about the house, take tea in one of the sitting rooms with a good book or shoot the breeze with Des, your bedroom will also be a most welcome retreat. Painted in a putty palette that makes Farrow & Ball so popular the world over, the rooms are spacious and uber cosy. Quirky wallpapers decorated with birds or dogs channel the natural surroundings while statement lights (bulbous copper side lamps and wood chandeliers) give a nod to modern design. Nothing is fussy, everything is tasteful – with your comfort in mind. It’s plush, it’s timeless and I want to go back.
Stay at Ballynahinch Castle Hotel & Estate from £158 per room, per night for a Classic Room (ballynahinch-castle.com).
Round trip transfers from Shannon Airport with Pat Keogh Chauffeur Service from £201 for a Mercedes E-Class (pat-keogh.com).
Fly from London Heathrow with Aer Lingus from £49.99 per person (aerlingus.com)