What a pleasant surprise to find that the red carpet had been laid out for me as I walked up the welcoming greystone entrance stairway to the elegant early 20th century mansion that is Lough Eske Castle Hotel and Spa.
But it was not simply for me, as the deep pile was also awaiting the next happy couple who would be celebrating tying the knot in the fairytale setting of 2017 Ulster Wedding venue of the Year.
As marketing experts like to say, it was one of those ‘moments of truth’ about the quality of the place or service you are experiencing – in this case a five-star that has been named the ‘World’s Best Luxury Country Hotel’ several times at the prestigious World Luxury Hotel Awards.
There were plenty more such ‘moments’ as I experienced that almost imperceptible and seamless blend of understated and attentive service from the smiling efficiency of the reception desk staff, to the concierge and the room service waiter – all of whom had that ability to make you feel you were their new best friend.
But that is what you would expect from a Solis Hotel, a short drive from Donegal town set amid what is certainly the richest scenery in the whole of Ireland.
As I walked down the Lough Eske Castle steps the following day, I felt I had been in ‘a friend’s home’, where the live egg station breakfast cook seemed to know everyone’s names; where the restaurant maitre d’ seemed to have taken me into his complete confidence in advising on the wine and food he had recommended and where the reception staff also remembered my name.
Their ‘home’ is a building that traces its roots back to the 1400s when the O’Donnell clan reigned in the region and even had a prison on an island in Lough Eske itself. Many an owner – English and even American – have come and gone since then, as have several mansions, some suffering blaze and destruction.
It’s hard to believe that once such disastrous fire resulted in trees growing inside the ruin and threatening to knock the walls down altogether.
Along came the Irish property developers, Harcourt – well known for the huge Titanic Quarter redevelopment in Belfast – who spent 40 million euros creating the luxurious 96-room hotel and opened those Tudor-Baronial doors exactly 10 years ago.
Inside, there is that relaxing mix of the early 20th century decor and furnishings – very much Edwardian country mansion – alongside plenty of modern touches: my garden suite boasted a four-poster, a glorious spa-influenced bathroom with a rainforest shower, with the main room filled with natural light from oversized windows and French doors onto a tiled and lawned patio, perfect for an evening glass of wine and a plate of the Welcome chocolate strawberries.
The spa itself, together with its gym and pool, was proving popular when I visited and offered a vast range of restorative treatments, including jet bath, steam room and an exhilarating thermal suite where you can enjoy a pre-dinner sequence in the ice fountain, sauna, steam room, sanarium followed by a tropical shower.
Outside are plenty of walks – bicycles too – around the estate gardens and amid the enigmatic mysteries of the surrounding Blue Stack Mountains. Time was against me, but there are options galore, from championship golf to traditional music in nearby Donegal town’s welcoming pubs. Lough Eske itself translates to the “Lake of Fish” and these days it boasts the char, apparently a tasty nine-inch member of the salmon family.
For me and photographer Sue Mountjoy, dinner in the hotel’s piano twinkling, casual and relaxed Cedars Grill was a highlight, in which Peter, the enthusiastic Maitre D’ – originally from Dresden – gave a choice of a window view table or one of the four-seat intimate booths.
His firm recommendation for us to share the signature meal, the 2-pound Tomahawk Steak, which, with its long protruding bone, looked like something out of Jurassic Park, but was gloriously tasty and succulent with fat marbling that benefitted from perfect grilling and a rich red wine jus.
The Grill prides itself on its Irish sourcing, including West Coast fish, so we led up to that monster steak with starters of lobster and mango, and gin-cured Irish salmon with oyster emulsion and that curiously tasty local seaweed.
After a night of deep slumber amid the Egyptian cotton of the king-size bed, the Cedars restaurant saw us off next morning with a huge Irish Breakfast served at a buffet by those same friendly staff, including the jolly live egg station cook, Bill, who was telling jokes aplenty as he was turning out omelettes in seconds..
“Hey everyone, this surely is a lovely soft day,” drawled an American guest at a nearby table, as he stared out at the torrential rain.
Our waiter smiled at us, in that Lough Eske way, and confided quietly: “No surprise there, sir, he comes from a desert in Arizona. Any rain there is soft rain and very welcome.”
Tell me more about Lough Eske Castle Hotel and Spa
Lough Eske Castle Hotel and Spa
Lough Eske, Donegal Town
County Donegal, Ireland.
T: +353 7497 25100
Rooms start from 220 euros, bed and breakfast in a Courtyard Room.
Special packages include a November 2017 special decade celebration deal of 175 euros for bed and breakfast – the same as the opening price in 2007.