Donegal Tweed and Blue Stack Mountains
For our adventure driving the emerald coast of Ireland’s legendary western shores we saw stunning cliffs, sandy coves, spectacular fjords, and dramatic landscapes. Unfolding along our route were timeless Gaelic villages, stone cottages, winding country lanes, mist shrouded hills, limestone plateaus and Neolithic tombs. We stopped for afternoon tea at a thatched cottage with the sweet smell of peat burning, tried a pint in a colorful lively pub overlooking a river and shopped for Donegal tweed and Aran hands knit sweaters. We also went to choose a Belleek teacup right where it’s made in Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. Such were the gentle pleasures of Irish life we indulged in for ten days. And of course, getting to know the twinkling eyes and the lilting accents of the friendly locals.
We traveled through Clare in route to the northern counties of Galway, Mayo and Sligo all the way to Donegal. Clare is perfect desolation, the indescribable Burren flings its jagged limestone rocks from the plunging Cliffs of Moher as far as the eye can see. Hidden amongst this craggy desert are a bundle of prehistoric monuments, blankets of wildflowers and delightful villages like Corofin, Ballyvaughan and the secret mecca of Irish traditional music – Doolin. Weathered mountains, sheep studded hills, bogs and remote villages; all jaggedly sewn together by stonewalls and pounded by the mighty Atlantic forms the spellbinding beauty of Galway. Carved out of this tremendous landscape is legendary Galway City itself. Bohemian, funky and laid-back – revelers drink, sing and dance themselves around the curved, cobblestone lanes of this city steeped in history.
Further north, dramatic Sligo is encircled by two mountain ranges, which rise suddenly from flat pastures. The village of Drumcliff minutes from Sligo, is best known for its round tower and as the final resting place of the poet William Butler Yeats, who is buried in the graveyard of St. Columba's church under Benbulbin, a jaw-shaped mountain. It was so spectacular that we had to stop before continuing on. The misty mountains in Donegal’s northwest is awash with constant Atlantic weather patterns - that means if you don’t like it at the moment, wait 30 minutes and you’ll have a change. You could certainly think you are in Scotland as the two share the very same parallel and topography.
Our arrival to Harvey’s Point was most welcome after a long day driving. Set on idyllic Lake Eske with Blue Stack Mountains behind, this background force you to sit back, slow down and admire the views in this exceptional part of Ireland. The hotel is a warm country house that has expanded over the years. Its lovely new wing offers extremely large rooms and even bigger bathrooms with sunken tubs. All the amenities are there, a separate foyer, a wet bar area, a well-stocked mini bar and Russell Hobb’s tea maker, 42 inch plasma TV, internet connections, large desk, and chaise, plus wonderful plump chairs that call out to you. Ann Marie acted as a gracious hostess and gave me a thorough inspection the next morning. She also said that the new indoor pool, that was just getting finishing touches and would be open for guests by the end of October. This will be a very nice addition to the hotel.
Harvey’s Point has built its reputation over the last 19 years, not just as a destination hotel, but as an event venue for weddings, and their Cabaret Nights, Sunday Carvery (that can draw up to 1200) and Sunday evening BBQ lakeside in summer. The bar and lounge in the original part of the house are warm and cozy, with real peat fires burning and photos of the evolution of the property. My only disappointment was after a long day, I wanted something light, but you are unable to eat in the lounge; you either have to go to the formal dining room, which has a set menu or have room service.
One of the special features of the hotel is the vast display of marvelous paintings by Jody and Marc Gysling’s mother, Isabel. Many are scenes from around the property. My one suggestion for Marc and Jody is to compile a book of all the prints, not just as a tribute to their mother’s contribution, but these paintings are excellent and I am sure guests would treasure it, as well.
Next door, a new hotel has opened as the first five-star hotel and spa in Donegal, called Solis; it blends a rich sense of history with more contemporary offerings. The original turreted castle was first built around 1474. A date stone of 1621 remains on the property to this day, but today they have enhanced both the gardens and the hotel with wonderful sculptures (which are for sale). Like a 45,ooo euro dragon nestled in an enchanting forest and a jumbo artichoke that caught my eye, but it does not have lake views like Harvey‘s. Accommodation range from the contemporary style of the Garden Suites to the country charm of the converted stables, to the more traditional elegance in the Castle Suites with their leaded windows, exquisite antiques and private access to the castle tower. The Cedars Restaurant combines easygoing elegance with a very contemporary sense of style and the food we experienced was outstanding. Their bar and lounge was very inviting with many enjoying a light meal that same evening. Opened at the beginning of the year, this hotel is going to be strong competition for Harvey’s Point.
The town of Donegal has a small market area is known as The Diamond, where a tall obelisk is dedicated to the memory of The Four Masters. This was the name given to the four friars who compiled the Annals of the Four Masters, which is the earliest recorded history of Ireland. Also located here are the ruins of Donegal Castle, which was the 15th Century stronghold of the O'Donnell's. After a wonderful authentic pub lunch at the Castle Bar we walked the town before the hour was up. There is a small craft village with local artisans well worth the stop, before you enter into the town.
Since it wasn’t a day to go out on Donegal Bay, even though Captain Billy tried to entice us to see the oyster farms, seal colony, the area where the “coffin ships” left for America and Belle’s Isle and it’s ruins... we opted for howling 40 miles hour winds on the links course of Donegal, recreating the scenes from Royal Birkdale’s British Open.
The following day we went off through off-and-on sunshine to the small border town of Belleek, which happens to be in Northern Ireland. The center nestled on the banks of the River Erne is home to the world-famous Belleek Fine Parian China. We went for a very interesting tour and did our shopping before heading deeper along the Lough Erne, which is a scenic 50 miles stretch of lakefront paradise. The bustling town of Enniskillen, on the lake, offered us a visit to the old Buttermarket –, which is now a collection of local crafts people where they work and sell their products. The lunch recommendation from one of the artist was - spot on.- Cafe Merlot even got a “commended” in the Ulster Best Restaurant Awards.
After saying farewell to Harvey’s Point and their staff we went south to check out the ICE HOUSE located in a truly iconic building commanding a prime stretch of the tidal River Moy Estuary at the Quay, Ballina, Co Mayo. The Ice House comprises of 32 rooms that stands proudly on a spectacular site overlooking the River Moy. Panoramic river views and mature woodlands produce a truly unique setting. Across the river, Belleek woods is one of the largest urban forests comprising 200 acres of woodlands with trees up to 300 hundred years old. We were lucky to have GM Dana Cruise give us a site inspection of this unusual property. Each room in both the contemporary wings have full glass walls looking out to this idyllic setting.
Over 100 years ago, this historic building was a busy center of enterprise exporting 40,000 salmon to Scotland annually. Throughout those guaranteed freezing winter day’s farmers from all over the area would pack tons of snow onto their horses and carts and draw them down in convoy to the Ice House. The ice would then be pushed down through an opening in the ground floor to the basement at river level. The aperture has been maintained in the renovated building and now looks down into the atmospheric restaurant. The filling of the cellars was an annual event and involved every able-bodied person in town. During the winter, when the local lakes and ponds froze, farmers and quay workers would harvest the ice by breaking it into large chunks with pick axes and sledge hammers. The chunks were conveyed on carts to the ice house, where they were crushed with long handled wooden mallets and thrown into the cellars. The building was composed of the living quarters, an ice store, workshop and boathouse for the fishery boats.
The architects have safe guarded its history with two distinct interior design styles in the original house an eclectic mix of decoration and furnishing is used as would have been common over the period of the house, even saving the existing front door. This reflects the nature of the original building and its heritage. The contemporary interiors are more neutral with generally simple off-white walls, natural timber and dark neutrals. The emphasis is being directed toward the view from the picture windows.
With the same care that went into bringing this boutique hotel to life - the same precision is given to the food. The cuisine, the chef confides, is underpinned by an ethos of seasonality and freshness. Simple and wonderful lunch items were served with flair. Though Dana enticed us to stay we had to drive on to Cong. But the Ice House is now on my radar... as well as, the other boutique hotels managed by this group, I see the winning spark of savvy hospitality emerging! The Wine Lodge, The Westport and another that I got to experience Lisloughrey Lodge in Cong. With their fourth hotel is on the Island of Malta.