Gentry does it: Helen McGurk is treated like a princess at Lough Eske Castle in Co Donegal, a striking amalgam of the old and new
Once an American guest staying at Lough Eske Castle in Co Donegal expressed dismay that having been in Ireland for a few days she had not yet seen a sheep - indeed, this particular lady had never, ever, seen one of the woolly wonders. Learning of her disappointment and mortified by Donegal’s perceived sheeplessness, the management decided to bring the mountain to Mohammed, or in this case a trailer-load of hardy Donegal ewes to the hotel so the American visitor could marvel first-hand at the fleecy assortment.
Like wool, this story has the makings of being a yarn, but it is in fact a true tale. The lady was, understandably, overwhelmed by the lengths to which the hotel went to fulfil her desires, and so were we when visited just after Christmas.
Set within 43 acres of forest at the foot of the Bluestack mountains, Lough Eske Castle, a Solis Hotel & Spa, is the very essence of luxury.
The original castle was built in 1861. During the 1930s, and as a sign of things to come, it operated as a hotel. However, one day in 1939 a curtain blowing in the wind in the ballroom caught fire from a candle that hadn’t been extinguished, the ballroom and billiards room were destroyed, and by the time the fire brigade was able to attend (it had to come from Londonderry) most of that wing of the castle had been destroyed.
The castle eventually fell in to a state of complete dereliction and lay in ruins until it was bought over and refurbished by Harcourt Developments, reopening in 2007 as a five-star hotel. And what a job they have done, creating a phoenix from the ashes and a tranquil haven for rest and relaxation.
The interiors of the public rooms have been faithfully recreated to give an elegant early 20th century Edwardian country mansion.
All the historically accurate decorative details are in evidence, like wood panelled walls and corning, but there are also plenty of 21st century touches to satisfy the needs of today’s visitors.
Nearing the hotel we pass the stunning Lough Eske; a strip of icy mist hovers over it like a thin gauze, creating a spectacular scene. Then at the end up of a swooping, twisting driveway, the castle and its imposing tower suddenly reveals itself from behind the trees - I felt like Elizabeth Bennet approaching Mr Darcy’s estate, in Pride And Prejudice.
Outside it is a bitterly cold day, but inside crackling log fires and an urn dispensing warm non-alcoholic apple cider, soon help to shuffle off the shivers, as does the warm welcome from the staff, who are resplendent in natty three-piece soft brown tweed suits.
We were staying in a luxurious deluxe bedroom, the focal point of which is a modern-style four poster bed, which with plump pillows and cumulus duvet, created a blissful night’s sleep.
Decorated in muted, neutral tones, the room is elegant and stylish. The palatial ensuite bathroom boasts two sinks, underfloor heating, and nice touches like dimmable lights and kids’ toiletries.
After settling in, it was time for a wander.
Christmas cheer was still very much in evidence and my two children were drawn like Hansel and Gretel to a life-sized gingerbread house in the foyer. My two-year-old was particularly mesmerised by this home, sweet home, completely covered in icing and all things sugary and wonderful.
If relaxation is your thing, then Lough Eske doesn’t disappoint. You have to hand it to those old families - they certainly made sure they never lacked for a room in which to sit, so that our only dilemma was to opt for the green or the red drawing room, or, indeed the library. Decisions, decisions.
Settled in front of the open fire on a slouchy sofas, I felt like the lady of the manor. Twinkling chandeliers, wooden floors, oil paintings and rugs, help to create a sense of opulence.
The Gallery Bar is the perfect spot for an apéritif. Classy and elegant, it serves a wonderful array of drinks accompanied by cute little jars of nuts. There’s a happy hubbub of patrons sipping covetable cocktails and live music at weekends.
Dinner, served in Cedars Restaurant, is a memorable feast. Cocooned in a cosy booth, the staff were once again, helpful and friendly, without being intrusive.
The children enjoyed warm mini baguettes, ‘‘made by little chefs’’, the waitress told us with a twinkle in her eye.
After an amuse bouche of tomato and carrot soup, we enjoyed stunning starters of buffalo mozzarella and a Caesar salad with tiger prawns.
Our mains, a fillet of Stone bass with potato and spinach cake, beetroot, Donegal rapeseed lemon oil; and gnocchi - butternut squash, spinach, truffle oil and goat’s cheese, were beautifully presented and absolutely delicious.
The kids menu was equally impressive - my little foodies opted for roast chicken breast, mash potatoes, gravy and veg, and mini fish fillets with French fries and pea puree.
Deserts were decadent and daring - a chocolate Creme Brulee, cherry and hazelnut financier and creme fraiche; and a lemon Possett, stem ginger shortbread, poached raspberries,
Next morning after a bountiful breakfast, we explored the grounds, stumbling upon a kids’ play area and a smoke house; if you catch a fish in Lough Eske the chef will smoke it for you in this wooden cabin.
The manicured gardens are dotted with sculptures by Lloyd Le Blanc and the late Judith Holmes Drewery, and include large water and landscape features to animals and birds.
Located within the old walled garden on the site of the original Victorian glasshouse is Spa Solís, a true haven of relaxation. After a glorious back massage, I nipped into the thermal suite which boasts an ice fountain, sauna, steam-room, samarium, tropical experience showers, heated bench and an infinity pool.
The hotel is a popular spot for weddings, but it’s also the perfect place to pop the question. One of the hotel’s packages is the Romantic Tower Proposal. Lead a loved one up candle-lit steps to the castle tower, and ask the big question with a breathtaking backdrop of the grounds and surrounding countryside as. A bottle of champagne will be on ice, ready and waiting – swoon!
Whatever your reason for visiting this hotel, business, pleasure, or good old-fashioned romance, you won’t be disappointed. Your castle awaits.
Lough Eske Castle, a Solís Hotel & Spa, Donegal town offers a range of packages and rates.
For more information tel: +353 74 974 3202, fax: +353 74 972 3762, or visit www.solislougheske.com