Ireland doesn't have a long tradition of grand hotels outside of Dublin. Prior to the founding of the Irish Republic in 1922, about the only traveling most of the population could afford was emigration. The well-to-do stayed in the country homes of friends, or went abroad. For the most part, a ``country inn'' consisted of a room or two over the pub. While there are several new, large, luxury hotels today for those who prefer them, traveling around Ireland can still be like staying with friends in the country. The ``bed and breakfast'' (B&B) system -- the Irish answer to the motel -- is excellent, and puts the visitor at home with Irish families. But it's also possible to travel in the ``country gentleman'' style of former days, as many of the grand old houses have become small hotels with gourmet restaurants.
The best way to enjoy the full country-house experience is to stay more than one night and get to know the family that has opened its house to guests. But even if you are only budgeted for B&Bs, consider adding a special treat now and then of a dinner out in the best European style. (Prices run around $20-25 per person including tip and the 23 percent tax, but a comparable feast would be $30-40 in the United States.)
My favorites are small family-run hotels with an international clientele and an owner who is at home in the kitchen. If one of the family can pinch-hit as chef, the quality of the kitchen will be maintained, no matter which recent cooking school graduate is actually creaming the butter.
In Connemara, the wild and rugged western section of County Galway (which should be on everyone's Irish itinerary), there are a number of fine hotels, yet I keep coming back to Zetland Hotel and Fisheries in Cashel.
No matter how well I plan, I always manage to arrive after dark and in the rain. But walking in to the sweet scent and warmth of the turf fires is more welcoming on a soggy Connemara evening than a full week of sunshine. If the fishing has been good, the sounds of celebration -- laughter, singing, and a fish story or two -- also warm the atmosphere.
The rooms are spacious and handsomely decorated. Many have sea views. Zetland is an old sporting lodge, and salmon and trout fishing is still arranged by the hotel as well as golf, sailing, and pony trekking. A few miles away are beautiful beaches for swimming or strolling.
Owners John and Mona Prendergast are both fine cooks, but, as at many of the busy small hotels, they employ a talented graduate of the regional cooking school. In the winter months, Zetland is open for small conference groups, and John and Mona do the cooking, experimenting with new recipes.
John apprenticed in the kitchens of the (now defunct) Hibernian and Russell Hotels in Dublin. ``That set a standard for me,'' he says, ``although we're not doing the same type of food -- not nearly so heavy. We do a lot more fish. Twenty years ago you couldn't give fish away. Now, it's about 60 percent [of the menu].'' Despite the emphasis on fresh local fish, the beef at Zetland is the best I've had anywhere and my first choice when it's on the menu.
At Marlfield House, an hour and a half south of Dublin in Gorey, it's a glowing wood fire, rather than turf, that greets you. The Regency-period house is on 35 acres of woods and gardens. Every detail, including such nice touches as hair dryers and fresh fruit in the elegantly appointed rooms, has been carefully attended to by owner Mary Bowe. The dining room is a glassed-in, mirrored conservatory, decorated with tropical plants and pink roses.
Mary studied cooking in France, as did many of the finest Irish chefs. She agrees that Irish tastes have changed in the last decade. ``People here are adventurous. When they go to the best places, they're not just looking for prawn cocktail or steak.'' Asked why one doesn't see many traditional Irish dishes in the best restaurants, she says, ``We tried to do it, but you can't put Irish Stew on a menu that costs 17.50 [or roughly $22 in US dollars].''
My favorites on her menu include smoked haddock cooked in cream, then grilled with tomato concasser and Gruy`ere cheese, and for dessert, a sensational cr`eme br^ul'ee.
As an inland city, Mallow isn't high on the list of tourist destinations. Yet Longueville House could be an ideal base for exploring the southern counties of Cork and Kerry. With Shannon Airport only an hour and 20 minutes away, this is also a possible first or last night's lodging.
This 1720 Georgian mansion could be a ``Masterpiece Theatre'' setting for a show on the definitive Irish country gentleman. There's salmon fishing in the Blackwater River, free golf at a nearby club, horseback riding, and tranquil vistas of sheep meadows and woods on a 500-acre estate. The library even holds bound volumes of the Irish sheep registry.
Michael and Jane O'Callaghan began taking in guests 20 years ago, and the house still has the feel of a family home. Guest rooms are beautifully furnished with period antiques, and Jane has added thoughtful touches such as an iron and ironing board in the ladies' lounge.
Longueville is a working sheep farm, so it's not surprising that lamb is a specialty. In fact, Jane, who runs the kitchen, has the reputation of serving some of the best lamb in the country.
Admiring the view out the library window one day, I asked Mr. O'Callaghan how long the estate had been in his family. ``A few thousand years,'' he said, pointing to the castle ruins below. He explained that during Cromwell's invasion in the 17th century, the O'Callaghans were forced to flee to the then-wilds of County Clare while the estate was occupied by the English army. Three hundred years later, Michael's father was able to buy back the land and present house.
Whenever fine hotel restaurants are discussed in Ireland, one name always mentioned is Arbutus Lodge in Cork City -- with the added caveat that the hotel rooms aren't anything to write home about.
My recent visit lived up to the advance billing. The d'ecor was drab and my room shoebox-size, but the meal was superb. I opted for the ``taster meal,'' and every course was right on target, from the oysters with cucumber and herbs, to the grilled sea bass, passion fruit sorbet, noisettes of lamb, crisp fresh vegetables and salad, to the fruit, local cheese,chocolate cake, and petits fours for dessert.
After that dinner I was happy I didn't have any farther to go to my lodging than just upstairs, and I was in a much better frame of mind to appreciate some of the details, such as the Jean Patou soap, that were attempts to give what class they could to the tiny room.
Next morning, I noticed the fresh flowers and interesting paintings and prints by local artists exhibited downstairs, while talking with Michael Ryan. Michael's domain is the kitchen, while his brother, Declan, manages the hotel. He said the family would like to remodel and have fewer, larger rooms, but they must keep all 20 for their city licenses. He did show me a few nice rooms, however, which are available to those who book far in advance.
Michael trained in Paris under some of the finest chefs. ``A lot of my ideas,'' he said, ``are mainstream French, but my basis is local dishes and cheeses.'' Hence dishes such as drisheen (blood sausage) and organ meats are on the menu. He explained that in the Georgian period, Cork was a victualing center for the British army, and the best meats were sent out as salt beef and pork. The leftover offal was all that was available to the local population, so they learned to be creative with it.
With everything sent out in barrels -- salt meats, butter, guns -- the barrelmakers became some of the wealthiest men in town. Arbutus Lodge was originally the townhouse of a cooper.
It's now one of the few Irish restaurants to earn a Michelin star, and Michael claims that he runs ``the nearest thing to a French kitchen in Ireland.'' Practical information:
These hotels open their dining rooms to the public for dinner, but advance booking is advised, particularly in season.
Room prices are per person, single occupancy, high season, at an exhange rate of $1.10 to the Irish pound. Some have special packages available for off-season or lengthy stays. Rates for double rooms are usually less per person.
Arbutus Lodge Hotel, Montenotte, Cork; tel. 021-501237; telex 75079 ARBU. B&B $40.
Longueville House, Mallow, Co. Cork; tel. 022-27156. B&B $36.
Marlfield House, Gorey, Co. Wexford; tel. 055-21124. B&B $44. No children under 6.
Zetland Hotel and Fisheries, Cashel, Connemara, Co. Galway; tel. Cashel 8; Telex 28853. B&B $41.
Deborah Hand's trip was partially sponsored by Aer Lingus and the Irish Tourist Board.