Welcome to the Midlands of Ireland which for me, like many visitors, was a place to stop over en route to somewhere else. Until I discovered Wineport Lodge. This luxury cedar-clad boutique hotel is a heavenly port of pampering, where each of the 29 rooms, all named after a wine or spirit, look out onto the shores of Lough Ree. As I settled into my room, poured a glass of chilled and complimentary Chablis, I knew instantly that one night was not going to be enough.
Just over an hour by train from Dublin to Athlone, where Wineport staff will pick you up if you come by train, there was a storm the night of my stay, but in better weather, and if you are lucky enough to own or have rented one, you can come here by boat following the Shannon-Erne waterway system and mooring alongside the Taittinger Lounge. This is where I nestled for most of my stay, tucked up on a huge comfy sofa, forgetting about the unfortunate weather coming in over the lake, as a huge wood-burning designer stove kept me toasty warm.
Impressively responsible, vast eco-stove, extensive recycling and a wastewater wetland system are all very well, but it is romance which upstages the filtering reedbeds in this idyllic setting, with a roof terrace hot tub or, if you want more privacy, choose something ‘relaxing’ or ‘refreshing’ from the bath menu to be brought to your room. Verbena for waking you up and lavender for slowing things down. If this all sounds tacky, it is actually far from it. Wineport Lodge encapsulates fine Irish hospitality without any sense of elitism or commercialism.
And it is not only the bath menu which is impressive. Chef Cathal Moran’s restaurant has a wide variety of locally sourced food, such as the oven roasted lamb rump from the nearby Tormey family farm in Co. Westmeath. All suppliers are listed on the menu.
The breakfast (in bed) was supreme – buttermilk pancakes topped with layers of pancetta, maple syrup, top smoothie and great coffee. Imagine my devastation when another storm meant I had to cut short a morning walk across the local Glasson bog (details of available walks available at reception). A hot tub, hot stone massage and hot whisky became my own personal revival menu. Just as well they will drive you to the station when you are ready to hit the road. Not that you will want to.
For more details, see wineport.ie and Twitter @Wineport_Lodge
Getting there slowly: Train to Athlone and cycle to Wineport, or they will drive visitors to and from Glasson village to the station, only a couple of kilometres away
‘The Hundred Acre Wood’ is Winnie the Pooh’s home, my younger son reminds me as we start to explore the pathways leading through the 200,000 trees planted by the owners of this extraordinary 100 acre farm in Castletown Geoghegan, County Westmeath. Although Pooh, Tigger and Roo are nowhere to be seen, there are streams and bridges to throw Pooh sticks from, endless spots for Owl to hang out but, happily, nowhere for Eyeore to feel gloomy. In fact, he would be positively jumping for joy if he could take part in the yurt hunt here, with ten of these magnificent Mongolian tents carefully concealed around its 100 acres.
The landscaping here is about as perfect as the famous map of AA Milne’s fantasy world, except this is a reality and certainly not just to be enjoyed by children. Boutique Camping was opened just over a year ago, by owners Adrian and Deirdre Murphy, although they have been developing their dream landscape, called Mount Druid (and yes, it does have a mount with a druid) for the last five years, and the many broadleaf trees which thrive all around us providing evidence of this long term planning. With carefully thought out pathways which follow the natural undulations of their hills and the recently opened up streams and lakes which were concealed underground until the Murphys went a digging, this is definitely not a case of someone just making a quick dash to jump on board an eco bandwagon.
I am a fan of yurts anyway, but have never seen anything as extensive as this in Ireland, and with so much land to explore, everyone has space to themselves. And space was just what the doctor ordered after a week of Christmas cabin fever. ‘Why on earth would you go camping in December?’ one of the curious villagers asked me at the gorgeous local pub, Claffeys, two minutes’ walk away from the farm, and just one of three lovely pubs in this village. I explain that it has a large central, wood burning stove, warm beds raised off the floor, enough insulation to cope with a Mongolian snowstorm, and that it feels lovely waking up in the ‘fresh air’ with a toasty body and a chilly nose peeking out over the top of the winter tog duvets. The only problem, I add, is working out who gets up first to stick some wood or turf on the fire to warm us up in the morning. ‘But where do you make the breakfast?’ he asks, and I reassure him that there is a beautifully restored barn for the use of all guests, with giant stove, comfy sofas, a large communal dining table and cooking facilities.
The only thing missing in the yurt is a kettle, as it would be lovely to stick one on the stove to get your day off to an even cosier start, so bring a camping one with you if you are a ‘tea before you can move a muscle’ sort of a person, like me. And if you travel with a hot water jar, then you’d have something to fill it from, without having to embarrass yourself in the communal barn. Not speaking from experience of course. They also like you to bring towels, although all bed linen is provided.
And then there is the sauna, which would have shed a whole new light on Christopher Robin’s day if he’d have had one, I’m sure. Our kids, who are always banned from such luxuries in leisure centres, were in their element, going from their early morning cycle around the land, on kindly provided high quality mountain bikes, to the sauna. It also gave them a good excuse to use the shower in the barn, rather than running from the yurt to the shower in a ‘shed’ which are scattered in various locations convenient to each accommodation. Albeit fine quality, eco wooden sheds.
I spared my new pal in the pub the details of the compost loos, though, as I thought this might just finish him off altogether, and as he and a few of his welcoming friends, who had joined the chat by now, were full of admiration for what the Murphys had achieved, I didn’t want them to think that we were all just a bunch of hippies hiding up on the hill with the druids. The Murphys live on site, and so are always around to make sure we are warm and comfortable, Adrian popping over to the barn with a freshly made loaf and some of their farm eggs, their boys inviting ours for a game of football, and their daughter keen to show us the recently converted self-catering house. This is a clever addition to their accommodation portfolio, created with the same flair for contemporary design which the Murphys have applied to their own fine house, once a grey Presbytery, now a magnificent home to six kids, dogs, cats and a stream of visitors enquiring about this and that. The self-catering house, known as Kindalin, was the old school master’s home, and has been refurbished with a green oak frame, has an open plan design, mezzanine walkways and three bedrooms. And a telly, for those people who find it difficult to let the screens go completely. There is a yurt just nearby so if you have friends who want to do the indoors thing, while you do the out, then this is ideal. Or bring the grandparents, who won’t get the ‘yurk’ idea, as my mother in law insists on calling it. And if you have a very special birthday or anniversary coming up, rent out the whole place, putting families in yurts, and feed the gang in the barn or Kindalin. The Murphys are happy to help with catering if there is a crowd in.
We did not explore any further than the Hundred Acres or the village during our brief stay, but there is already pressure to return from our kids, and so I note that for a summer week there is plenty to do in the area, with Lough Ennell on the doorstep, where you can rent a boat and go fishing (www.lilliputboathire.com), the Mullingar Cycle Hub which consists of several looped cycles around the Lough and others nearby (www.irishtrails.ie), walking or cycling along the Royal Canal which goes through nearby Mullingar (www.iwai.ie), or day long summer camps with kayaking, orienteering and gorge walking at the nearby Lilliput Adventure Centre from as little as €30 per day. Oh, and because the Murphy’s don’t do things by halves, they also have a Green Village Music and Arts Festival on 29 September 2012, and they are still basking in the success of its 2011 inauguration. In fact, I think the Murphys, with their dynamic, life loving energy, combined with sustainable awareness must have gathered a little of Winnie the Pooh’s wisdom along their way in life. Among many famous quotes, he said, ‘A little Consideration, a little Thought for Others, makes all the difference.’ And this pretty much sums up Mount Druid. Thoughtful and making a difference. As my friend from the pub said just before he downed his last, ‘Adrian saved that land from being developed into a housing estate, you know. He just couldn’t stand back and let that happen here’. To which I raised my new Year’s pint, and toasted a year of Pooh-like positivity the likes of which lie on the top of a Westmeath hill.
For more information on the yurts and self-catering at Mount Druid, see www.boutiquecamping.ie. Yurts from
€80 per night for a midweek two night stay, otherwise €100 per night.
I never dared go on a horseriding holiday before. The reasons? Not good enough, not brave enough and not rich enough. However, all horsy hang-ups were dispelled on a recent family break in County Galway, at the Slieve Aughty Riding Centre . I met the owner, Esther Zyderlaan, at an ecotourism conference earlier in the year. She talked about her eco and family-friendly business which, on paper, was the perfect eco-case study. When I got there I could see that, in practice, this truly is a gold (and green) cup winner.
Esther greeted us in a floral apron and wellies, picking lettuce from her organic kitchen garden, while directing a beaming brigade of children, just back from a woodland hack, to the stables overlooking the fecund gardens. Slieve Aughty is organic in the real sense of the word. It has grown not only as a riding centre, but a place to eat fine home-cooked food, go hillwalking, discover cycling trails and stay at locally owned cottages.
Although we stayed at a self-catering cottage (a lovingly restored thatched one), Esther’s ethos is full board. The dining room is the Centre’s hub where at breakfast, for example, we have home-made scones, local cheeses, compotes, eggs, yoghurt, great coffee and hot chocolate. Suppers are smorgasbords of smoked salmon, stews and salads straight out of a Ballymaloe photo shoot. Over meals we chat about our plans for the day ahead, or adventures had at the close.
Each day started with a mini adventure, taking a forty minute walk from our cottage to the Centre through woodland, accompanied by a couple of Esther’s donkeys, which we tied up in the cottage’s field the night before. We cycled, we walked, we ate. However, I had to get the bit between my teeth and dare to ride a horse. There are no bits for many of the horses here, with bit-free bridles, part of their natural riding ethos. I was also nervous for the kids, as their previous riding experience was with a strict, cranky woman who made them (and me) feel stupid for not knowing how to hold the reins or tighten the saddles.
The Aughty team could not be more different. Esther gently introduces us to our horses, telling us to look them in the eyes, and just talk to them. She leads by example, talking as gently and lovingly to the animals as she does to us. Our hack leader, Gerry Daniels, is everything you could want in a teacher. He watches the children carefully, encourages them gently, and talks to us all humorously and warmly. He leads our younger son on a rein at the start, and judges perfectly when to let him ride independently, through luscious woodland, over streams and up over hills. Our children were converts, and I too had fallen back into my childhood dream of owning my own horse once again.
Esther makes ethical look easy. It felt like we were staying at a favourite aunt’s farm for the weekend, with stables full of beauties, and a larder full of goodies. She even has a workshop full of arts materials, boxes of beads, glittery things,
paints and rainy day stuff. The Centre’s buildings are all simple, low carbon eco-designs, many of them built out of timber from her original family house, which she knocked down when her children left home. She is waiting for funding to connect the heating system fuelled by dry horse manure, and wood from her 35 acres. The banks may not have their green light switched on yet, but Esther had hers switched on long before most of us knew what being green actually meant. She is a lesson to us all.
The recession has forced many of our golden gates of tourism to open to new ideas and new visitors, indirectly creating a more responsible and accessible form of tourism. I recently visited the five star hotels of Parknasilla in Kerry and Castlemartyr in Cork which have opened their doors to us mere mortals. This is not the work of Nama either, but a company called Natural Retreats (www.naturalretreats.com) which already owns sustainable (and sumptuous) houses in the UK and has, for the last year, been moving into self-catering lodges in the grounds of Ireland’s most exclusive hotels, making them just a little more inclusive.
I wrote about this company when it first entered the Irish market , impressed by their ethos of developing sustainable tourism in areas of important cultural and natural heritage. Recently, I checked out how they were doing. First stop, Parknasilla, where we thought we might have to go through a separate interlopers’ entrance so that ‘battered old Volvo’ alarms didn’t go off. But the integration of posh and pleb was done seamlessly and without judgement. We checked in at the same desk as golfers with their Golfs, and Foxrockers with their furs, as they headed to their suites, and we to our self-catering.
However, it was the outdoors which beckoned at Parknasilla, and is the reason why people have been coming since 1895. There are five hundred acres of woodland and coastal walks here, with tiny islands linked to the hotel by wooden bridges. On an early morning stroll to catch the mist coming up over the many inlets, there was an eerie silence with only the oyster catchers on dawn duty. The beauty here is truly mesmeric.
Guests staying at Natural Retreats’ lodges are given full access to hotel facilities, sharing hot tubs, croquet lawns and extraordinarily beautiful swimming pools with the great washed. The Victorian ‘children should be seen and not heard’ still hovers a little at Parknasilla, being asked to leave the pool at 5pm, only served dinner at certain times, and a general air of hushed tones around the lounges. The games room is in a separate building and equipment was on last legs. But when the pool shut we just ran down to the Victorian bathing huts on the shore and dived into the Atlantic, letting our screams echo around the bay, hushed tones long forgotten. The hotel restaurant was beyond our budget anyway, so we ate in from the nearby butchers or out at O’Shea’s pub, with its fab fish pie. Both in nearby Sneem.
At Castlemartyr, the ambience was very different. Although equally luxurious, it had a younger feel to it, with bikes for everyone’s use, the kids were allowed to walk the hotel’s dogs and blind eyes were turned when ‘adult time’ kicked in at the pool when it was quiet. The games room is ‘soooo cool’ with leather sofas, a Wii, snooker table with all the balls and board games with all the bits. We cycled into the village for supplies, picnicked on the lawns and noone blinked an eye.
One disappointment, however, was the welcome hampers which had impressed me so much at Natural Retreats in
Yorkshire, brimming with local produce. Here they were more white sliced loaf and instant coffee. Natural Retreats’ Director, Ewan Kearney reassured me, “We’re working through an ongoing list of improvements at each site, including implementing local produce in the welcome hampers, improving the guest information manuals with things to do and see in the local area, eco-friendly cleaning products and see this as a gradual process that is more likely to succeed if the business is financially stable”.
These are not cheap breaks by any means, but as George Bernard Shaw said of Parknasilla, “This place does not belong to any world that you or I have ever worked in or lived in. It is part of our dream world”. Natural Retreats has brought the dream a bit closer to reality for many and, with sustainability at its core, aims to make the same possible for future generations to come.
This article, by Catherine Mack, was first published in The Irish Times 28 August 2010