Life

Lough Eske Castle offers a taste of the good life

For Fergal Hallahan and his family, the weather was the only weak link in a five-star weekend break in the Bluestack Mountains, where the Lough Eske Castle hotel marries the best bits of Donegal hospitality with world-class service and attention to detail

A beautifully restored 19th century castle forms the core of the hotel, though the O'Donnells built the first castle on the site in the 1400s

THE only problem with staying at Donegal’s only five-star hotel is that you quickly develop a taste for the good life. I always thought the Bluestack Mountains were beautiful – but they are simply awesome when you’re admiring them from a heated pool as you swim a relaxing few lengths looking out at them.

Ditto for the rest of the scenery around the Lough Eske Castle hotel. It’s a fairytale setting under any circumstances – dense forest, the lough itself and snow-capped mountains all vying for attention – and when you crunch up the gravelled driveway to the front door it just feels right when someone insists on parking your car and taking all the luggage up to your room.

Not that the hotel is an ostentatious affair. I had concerns it would be dripping in opulence or, worse, bursting with B-list celebs and blingy attitude.

In fact, it was rather understated and very comfortable. For me, it didn’t feel that far from the homely hotels you remember from childhood holidays, though no-one ever offered to park my dad’s banger. But it was like all the best bits of Irish hospitality – the lovely, chatty, natural welcome from local staff with local accents – married with American-standard service and attention to detail.

You can certainly do the wine cellar and fine-whiskies thing if you’re that way inclined but if there were any billionaires booking in alongside us, we certainly didn’t notice.

The building itself relaxed us as soon as we entered. With a small, 19th century castle at its core (the first castle was built on the site in 1474 by the O’Donnell clan but has seen many reincarnations), it’s been masterfully restored and extended to retain heaps of genteel character and olde-worlde atmosphere.

Real fires burn in several reception rooms and the décor is gorgeous without being intimidating – classy and tasteful, just like the views. Our six-year-old daughter immediately loved the Library, a small area with books and board games, and made it her personal ‘office’ for the duration.

As we were visiting during a particularly horrific spell of wintry weather, the emphasis on heat and comfort was much appreciated – we noted with pleasure the hot apple juice on tap (literally) in the lobby, and plenty of golf umbrellas at the front door. It’s those extra little touches that don’t seem that important when taken individually, but that combine throughout your stay to make you feel pampered.

When we went upstairs to explore our bedroom, one of the first things we noted with approval was the frosted-glass door separating the WC cubicle from the rest of the impressively spacious bathroom – affording a modicum of privacy in a shared family area. Every little helps, as they say.

After we had ooh-ed and aah-ed at all of this, and worked our way through the very fancy petits fours, fresh berries and gingerbread man that greeted us, we descended for dinner in the hotel’s restaurant proper, Cedars Grill.

Cedars is very much the five-star experience. From the maitre-d’ to the sommelier, all staff give you the impression that your welfare is right up there in importance with the US presidential elections. While many people will love this level of attentiveness, personally I find it uncomfortable. But that’s no reflection on the Lough Eske hotel – I have that reaction in every high-end restaurant where you’re asked every five minutes for feedback on your experience (which makes me feel like I’m still at work, rather than supposedly relaxing).

The food, though, was fantastic, and brimming with freshness. Apparently, the fish is sourced every day from Killybegs while the microherbs are grown on site. I started off with the crispy hen egg with asparagus and watercress and went on to a monkfish with curry sauce for the mains, while my wife opted for a pork terrine followed by fillet of hake. It was all impeccably cooked and presented, with prices in line with what you would expect in a high-end eaterie.

Along with pulling off this flawless production, the staff also made very significant effort to accommodate our daughter. Alas, there’s only so much you can do to make a fine-dining experience fun for a kid and it’s probably fair to say we all enjoyed the following evening’s dinner more, when we opted for the much more casual Gallery Bar.

Here we shared fish and chips and steak and chips, and thoroughly enjoyed the banter with the friendly waitress – the one with a new dog, you know who you are! – and the general atmosphere of craic among the diners. No less eager to assist than in Cedars, the staff jumped to help when we rather cheekily requested to have dessert in a nearby room where a roaring fire was looking lonesome.

The Gallery Bar was also where we ate on the Saturday lunchtime – and it was one of the best bar lunches I’ve ever had. My chicken Caesar salad – as in, actually, like, a proper Caesar salad with the proper ingredients, rather than the madey-uppey version – was simply scrumptious. We all pilfered my wife’s generous portion of breadcrumbed squid and the daughter’s triple-cooked chips. This was gastro-pub, rather than regular-pub, standard, yet the prices were the latter. A gold star for whoever’s in charge of this part of the operation.

In fact, the only real weak link during our whole stay was the weather, which refused to play ball. Unfortunately, the last-gasp-of-winter squalls hampered our intentions to explore the Bluestacks and Lough Eske itself – tantalisingly within reach yet obscured in fog, hailstones and even sleet at times. We did venture into Donegal town but the icy gales blowing off Donegal Bay and up the River Eske sent us scurrying away again.

The best option in bad weather is to head for the spa, which is exactly what we did. My wife had what she declared was a lovely massage and afterwards explored the ‘thermal suite’, while my daughter and I enjoyed the beautiful and scrupulously clean pool, which is bathed in natural light.

But have I mentioned the breakfasts? They were definitely among the highlights. What I loved about the menu was not only the endless choice, and a high standard of food (why do so many good hotels think it’s acceptable to lower the standard for breakfast?), but the fact that there was just as much choice for folks following looking for a healthy option as for those who wanted to indulge.

Having such a hearty breakfast on our last morning meant we could easily keep going until we arrived at our late-lunch destination on the journey back to the wee north. Alas, our first choice – Restaurant Neven Maguire in Blacklion – was booked out. But, you know what? It was probably a good thing. We were getting far too used to the five-star treatment.

FACT FILE

:: Fergal Hallahan and his family were guests of Lough Eske Castle

:: The five-star hotel's Wild Atlantic Way package (from €629 per room) is available from April 1 to December 16 2016) and includes:

- Two nights accommodation for two guests sharing a Deluxe Guestroom

- Full Irish breakfast each morning

- Dinner in Cedars Restaurant one evening

- Packed lunch on two days and use of rucksack, maps, rain mac and walking sticks

- Complimentary Guinness or whiskey on return from your walk

- History tour of the castle

- 20 per cent off all spa treatments (60 minutes or more)

- Complimentary access to Spa Solís’ heated indoor pool and fitness centre

:: See http://www.solishotels.com/lougheskecastle

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